By Kait Leonard
“She ate another spider,” my mother said. “It took two nurses to get her to open her mouth. The legs were still moving.”
“She’s so drugged she didn’t even know me,” I said, setting my vending machine coffee down, fighting the temptation to fling it across the room.
My big sister, Jodi, had always eaten spiders. And caterpillars. And sometimes after a rain, even the earthworms that writhed onto the pavement. My beautiful sister, who played the cello like an angel and carried a full load of advanced placement classes in high school, was quirky that way.
When I was in fourth grade, and Jodi in fifth, I punched Roy Griffin in the face because he called her crazy when he saw her hunting a jumping spider. I got sent to the principal’s office. Roy got an icepack from the nurse. And Jodi went back to class because Roy knew better than to tell. I’d been defending my sister for a while at that point, and I was good at it.
“Oh my God, Jess, it’s for her own good. Will you ever admit that Jodi isn’t well?”
“That’s just Jodi,” I shot back. “And don’t you mean to say she isn’t normal? Your kind of normal. The one and only normal.” I paused in the middle of our well-worn script. “Let her be!”
“Let her be what? What is it you think your sister is?” My mother said, fists on hips, eyes only slits.
“She’s truly Jodi, and she’d be okay if everyone just gave her a little space,” I said.
In middle school, I found my sister at the lunch tables, cheeks puffed out like she was ready to blow a bubble.
“What’re you doing?” I asked.
She opened her mouth. A shiny beetle limped toward the tip of her tongue. She closed her mouth and swallowed.
“Ready?” she asked, her crystalline eyes meeting mine. She may as well have just eaten the last bite of a chocolate donut.
“If you are,” I said.
She picked up her books, and we walked to class.
The real problems started later. It seemed that Jodi quit even trying to hide the bugs. It looked like she took risks on purpose, her version of teenage rebellion. I smoked cigarettes. My best friend snuck vodka from her parents’ stash. And Jodi ate creepier bugs right out in the open. I secretly admired her insistence on being exactly and only herself. I dreamed of being more like Jodi, someone different from everyone else, someone fearless and defiant. But I sprayed clouds of dimestore cologne around myself after every smoke, too cowardly to face my mother’s glare.
“Jess, you need to face the fact that Jodi needs help,” my mother said, signing the endless forms on the hospital’s clipboard.
Sipping my tepid coffee, I remembered Jodi walking onto the platform in our high school gymnasium to receive her diploma. She beamed into the audience, where our mother smiled tightly and made silent clapping motions. I cheered and clapped and stomped my feet. My big sister had graduated with honors.She proved that she could succeed without sacrificing anything essential. I believed she’d go on to college. And after that? Who could predict?
I prayed the monster grasshopper in the pocket of her graduation gown would stay put. She’d snatched it from a bush in our front yard just before we loaded into the car. I watched her stuff it away, a celebratory treat for later. I forced the picture of it hopping into the face of the principal out of my mind.
The sun blazed that summer. I sat on our patio under the umbrella near the plastic bird bath that had dried up a long time ago. Jodi sat, legs splayed in the grass, intent.
“You’re gonna get caught,” I warned again.
She shrugged and dug into the dry sod.
“Jodi, for real. Mom’s at the kitchen window.”
She looked toward the house, then turned back to the hunt.
I shot a look toward the kitchen window and smiled our defiance.
We sped through town, my mother barely stopping at red lights. Jodi lay in the back seat of our car making raspy, sucking sounds, her face red and blotchy.
I kneeled in the front seat, turned toward my sister, narrating her condition for our mother.
“She’s turning kind of purple,” I said, keeping my eyes on Jodi, clutching the back of the seat, as the car lurched forward.
We jerked to a stop at the emergency entrance. Three nurses wheeled a gurney out and then back in with my sister strapped tightly onboard.
My mother and I waited, me sitting on the floor in the corner, hugging my knees, my mother pacing and checking the wall clock. A nurse came in to report that the wasp had stung three times before making it down Jodi’s throat and to usher my mother to meet with the doctor.
I sat staring at the doorway, willing my sister to walk through it. Jodi and I were going shopping the next day to buy stuff for her dorm room. She’d be moving in after Labor Day, and though I felt dizzying excitement for her, I dreaded how my life would flatline when she left.
I couldn’t have known that Jodi would never leave.
Alone in the waiting room as my mother finalized the involuntary commitment, the image of Jodi strapped to yet another hospital bed ran through my mind like an image from a horror movie. As always, she’d return to our mother’s house after they pumped her full of normalcy.
Outside, a tree branch swished softly against the windowpane. I quieted my breathing and listened. I could hear the cicadas singing in the bushes. A lullaby and a dirge.