My Sister is a Road Map.
My sister Anna is a road map of Indiana. On the day my parents brought her back from the hospital, she was folded up and swaddled in light blue blankets, and she smelled like talcum powder and ink. I held her for the first time on the living room couch. As she squirmed awkwardly in my arms I placed my ear on the city of Marion and could hear her heartbeats: soft, crinkling echoes in her paper chest. She began to cry, her surface warping with wetness, and our mother quickly took her from me and cradled her on the back porch, letting the sunlight slowly wick the moisture away, rocking her to sleep.
Growing up, we’d spend hours in the woods behind our house, lifting large rocks, gathering the salamanders and beetles from the damp soil underneath. Anna would fold up one of her corners into a little paper pocket, where we’d hide all the small creatures we could. We snuck them past our parents and kept them in old shoeboxes under our beds, carefully placing leaves and sticks inside and poking holes in the lids with a pair of safety scissors. In spite of our care, our small pets would always end up stiff and lifeless among the dirty clothes in the laundry basket.
I almost set her on fire once when she was about seven. Our neighbor bought a trunk full of fireworks across the state line and gave Anna and me a small bottle rocket. We waited until late at night, then snuck out to the yard, quietly shutting the screen door behind us. We stuck the rocket into the ground unceremoniously, and I lit the fuse with a Bic that I stole from our dad’s glove compartment. It spun screaming circles around the yard, shooting sparks that landed, sputtering, in the damp grass. One stray ember settled on her, and she began to scream in pain. I tackled her to the ground, snuffing the small flame before it got out of hand. We sat crying on the grass until our parents came running to see what was wrong. To this day, she still has a backwards “C”-shaped burn in her side just south of the town of Kentland.
She had several boyfriends throughout high school, usually guys from the football team (she was a cheerleader, the lightest on the squad, topping every pyramid and tower they formed). Since she never got her license, I would have to pick up her and her dates from time to time from the movie theater or at the end of a long night of drinking. In the back seat, her suitors would trace the roads and rivers running down her arms with their fingers as they both fell asleep. It was only a matter of time before they broke her heart. Some graduated, others cheated. She’d spend a few days after the breakups folded up on her bed, sobbing, until I came in and put my arm around her, making empty threats (“Want me to kick his ass? I’ll kick his ass.”) until she laughed.
In Indiana, as in every other state, the landscape occasionally gets adjusted. New towns are incorporated, county borders redrawn, rivers dammed into reservoirs, small state roads turned into routes and interstates. On her eighteenth birthday, Anna got her lifetime’s worth of these changes tattooed on her skin at a parlor downtown. Some black lines were colored red, new patches of blue and green put in their new, proper places. She checks the major Indiana newspapers once a week to keep herself updated, returning to the parlor when necessary.
The summer after her sophomore year of college, Anna convinced her roommate Sarah to go on a road trip to Indianapolis. She was having a worse time at school than she let on, she told me later, and was hoping that seeing Indiana would center her, give her a sense of self that lectures and tests couldn’t muster. The trip went well until Sarah’s old Toyota broke down in Rushville, about an hour outside of Indianapolis. They stayed the night in a Comfort Inn across the street from a small hospital. In the dark, ambulance lights danced across the ceiling of the hotel room, keeping Anna awake. As she lay there, she traced the path they had taken so far across her stomach, searching for some familiarity in the road numbers and mile markers, hoping for some crackable code to appear to her. The next day, they hitched a ride to Indianapolis International and flew home. Anna dropped out the following semester.
She works the graveyard shift at the Starlite Diner. My fiancée and I go down there a couple of nights a week to keep her company, since there are typically little to no customers for her to wait on. She usually looks worn and tired, her apron strings dangling loosely, her order pad wrinkled and stained with coffee. She’s begun to look a lot older, stress and smoking making her paper brown slightly, causing the green of state parks and blues of lakes and rivers to lose their once-sharp luster.
Anna’s recently been in a couple of productions at the local playhouse, the one that used to be an Episcopal Church. We were all surprised when she told us she’d taken up acting on a whim. She’d never done anything like it. She’s always been very soft-spoken, but under those stage lights it’s like she’s a different person, filling the room with voice and presence, the full living embodiment of her character. Her lines are crisp, her emotions laid bare. The audience sits silent in the old pews, transfixed, never checking their watches or rolling their programs into tubes. Tears form in the corners of their eyes when she speaks, and she receives the loudest, longest ovation at show’s end. She's gotten a couple good write-ups in the paper. You really should go and see her sometime. You’d be impressed.