by Melinda Mayor

Dorothy placed her hands over her ears and hummed. There was no particular melody to the sound, just a low vibration that slowly grew louder. Dorothy knew that as soon as the sirens passed by, the awful piercing wail filling her head would retreat. She saw the flashing car approach on the other side of the road, then disappear. After counting in her head “one, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand” all the way to fifteen, she stopped humming and removed her hands from her ears.

“Dottie, are you all right?” her mother asked from the front passenger seat. Dorothy didn’t register her mother’s question, as she was focused on identifying the leaves on the trees lining the street, but her father was driving too quickly. Acuminate leaves and acute leaves were very similar to each other, she remembered, as were both elliptical and lanceolate leaves. She’d gone through the whole glossary of her book on plant identification, sounding out the names she liked best: Oblong. Petiole. And her favorite: Whorl. Dorothy blew air out now, enjoying her breath pushing past her lips: “Whh, whh, whh.”

“Dottie?” her mother asked again.

“Deedee!” Gigi called out, and clapped her hands. Dorothy noticed the clapping but didn’t respond. Gigi was a squishy mass of blonde curls, often with something wet smeared across her face, and enjoyed trying to grab her older sister’s long brown braids. Dorothy ran her hands up and down the plaits now, feeling the bumps where one section of hair appeared before sliding back between the others, and continued to peer out the window.

“Dorothy,” her mother sighed. Dorothy blinked, annoyed at being unable to see the leaves clearly. Gigi kicked in her car seat and squealed. Dorothy instinctively covered her ears and began her low humming again, alternating this with the “whh, whh, whh” sound. A whorl described when three or more leaves originated from the same node. And a node was defined as the place on the stem where the leaf originates. This didn’t sound like the poems they were made to learn at school, but to Dorothy, this was pure poetry.

“Doe-woe-tee!” Gigi called out, clapping and kicking. Dorothy closed her eyes. She didn’t see or hear her mother turn around in surprise, ask the girls’ father if he’d heard what Gigi had said, and her father answer, Gretchen it’s all I can do to drive in a straight line and remember which one’s the gas and which one’s the brake with all the racket in this car.

Once she’d counted to thirty, Dorothy thought her last “one thousand” and opened her eyes, warily taking her hands off her ears. Gigi laughed.

“Doe-woe-tee!”

Gigi looked like a doll in a store, the ones Dorothy’s classmates constantly talked about and sometimes brought to school for show and tell. The dolls were as big as real babies, soft and plump and with masses of yarn for hair. Dorothy didn’t like their heads, though: Smooth and rock hard, and if you knocked on them it wasn’t much different than knocking on your own head. The girls in her class had laughed when she’d tried this.

“Knock knock, who’s there?”

“Weird!”

“Weird who?”

“Weird-DO!” And they all screeched with laughter, pointing at Dorothy and giving her the nickname that would follow her for years. Weird-do Do-rothy. It was around this time, after she’d come home and repeated the name while sitting in the kitchen as her mother made dinner, that Gretchen had begun calling her daughter “Dottie.” She’d hoped to distance Dorothy from that awful nickname, those awful girls. Unfortunately, it didn’t take.

“Doe-woe-tee?”

Dorothy looked to her right, where Gigi was sitting beside the opposite window. Gigi smiled and extended her hand. Gretchen was getting carsick due to spending so long twisted around looking behind her as the car was moving, but she didn’t dare turn back. Gigi had never said her sister’s full name before. Gretchen’s eyes flicked to Dorothy, careful not to stare or scare her off with too much attention.

“Gigi Doe-woe-tee!” Gigi kicked but a little less so this time. The sticky hand stayed outstretched, reaching toward Dorothy over a sea of cracker crumbs, bits of plastic toys, and a very worn copy of The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

“Let me help you, Gigi-pie,” Gretchen said softly, digging out a wet wipe to clean the ever-present stickiness off her daughter’s hand. For once, Gigi let her. Then she stubbornly stuck her hand out again.

“Gigi Doe-woe-tee?” she asked.

Without even looking at her sister, Dorothy was able to identify a tree’s serrated leaves passing by the car window as she lifted her arm up and caught Gigi’s hand. She mouthed the definition of serrated from her book, “saw-toothed,” to herself and wrote each letter on the back of her teeth with her tongue as Gigi kicked and smiled.

Gretchen tried to sneak a few photos of the girls but couldn’t tell if the pictures were blurry because of the moving car or because of the tears that had sprung to her eyes. The nickname had failed, the attempts to do anything to Dorothy’s hair that wasn’t two long braids had also failed, and some days it felt like everything she tried in hope of bringing a little variety to her older daughter’s life ended the same way: Not even with screaming and crying, just a dull, blank nothing. There were long stretches of time where she wondered if Dorothy noticed her at all.

Later, Gretchen printed the one photo out of the five she had quickly taken. In the end they were all blurry, but this one was the clearest. A quarter of the photo was filled with her headrest, but thankfully Gigi was visible, and so was her hand. And there was Dorothy, gazing out the window at something Gretchen couldn’t see, looking away from Gigi, away from all of them, with her arm stuck straight out beside her, holding her sister’s hand.

Image by Andre William via Pexels