A story about mental health. A sensitive portrayal of two siblings struggling to find common ground without crossing the dangerous, invisible borders of one sibling’s OCD.
Looking for more short stories? Check out the Short Story page
A Story About Mental Health
By Amber Fernie
Daisy thought that four was the right amount of times to knock, but when there was no answer, she pulled the small notepad out of her purse and double-checked the list she always kept on hand. Five, she read, seeing that four was the right amount of times to hit a boiled egg on the counter before peeling away the shell, it was the right amount of times to shake a pillow when putting it into a new case, and it was the right amount of celery stick halves to serve with peanut butter, but it was not the right amount of times to knock. She tucked the notepad away, cleared her throat, and tried again. This would be the first time she’d seen Hamish since going on vacation two weeks before, and she had no idea what to expect.
“Who is it?”
His nervous voice warbled from the other side of the door. Picturing him there, rocking on his heels, she softly responded, “It’s Daisy…” hoping that this would be one of the times he simply let her in. Those visits always seemed to go more smoothly.
No such luck.
“Daisy who?” he asked suspiciously.
“Hamish, it’s me…your sister, Daisy.”
There was silence for a moment, and she could hear one of his locks being turned, then locked again. He cried out, “That’s impossible! My sister Daisy is on vacation!”
She sighed and rolled her eyes. These visits were exhausting. “I’m back, Hamish. Today’s the 29th. My plane got in this afternoon. I called you, remember?”
She heard the floor creaking as he no doubt fell into his nervous habit of pacing and scratching his head, and then all at once, all three dead-bolts were undone and she could see his right eye peering at her through the still-locked chain. He slammed the door once more and then opened it wide, giving her a strained smile as she walked in.
“Hello, Daisy. Welcome back from vacation,” he said. “I’m running out of food.”
Of course it wasn’t true. Hamish kept at least three of everything stocked in his overflowing pantry. When he said he was “running out of food”, it meant that he had been forced to use some of his back-up supply. But arguing the point would be a waste of time.
“Well, I brought some staples with me, but I’ll check your supplies and get you more tomorrow,” she answered, setting a bag on the counter, the contents of which he immediately began to put away. “How did things go with Mrs. Altman?”
Mrs. Altman was the lady who lived above Hamish in apartment 213, and she had agreed to check in on him a few times. Daisy had left very specific instructions, but she’d apparently disregarded them, as her brother stopped what he was doing and became suddenly agitated and began pacing and scratching his head again.
“She can’t come in here anymore, Daisy,” he said. “She makes me nervous and she doesn’t follow the rules. I told her not to touch ANYTHING, but she threw away my fruit stickers!”
The fruit stickers…oh no! Daisy could have kicked herself for forgetting about those. Hamish had an odd compulsion to peel the stickers off of fruit and place them on the edges of the cabinet above his kitchen sink. Once full, he would transfer them to a composition book which was in a neat stack with several others just like it. He’d done this since he was a teenager, and although his sister didn’t understand the behavior, she knew it was important to him. Mrs. Altman must have thought she was helping when she discarded them.
“I’m sorry she did that, Hamish.”
“I had twenty-seven up there!”
“I know you had a lot. I’m sorry. I’ll help you get more.”
“It’s not the same! I had twenty-seven!”
Daisy knew he’d probably already had a melt-down over this, and she wanted him to calm down before it came to that point again, but she also knew that he didn’t like being touched. Stepping in the path of his pacing, she held her hands up and said to him very quietly, “Hamish, it’s time to calm down. We’ll get more stickers, I promise. Right now, I’d like to give you a present.”
He stopped pacing.
“What is it?” he asked, the worry lines on his face smoothing into guarded interest.
“It’s something from the beach,” she said, retrieving a small plastic bag from her purse. “It’s actually five things. Shells, see?”
He’s so thorough, she thought, watching him inspect her humble offering. She’d tried to find the most perfect shells she could, but found herself holding her breath as he turned them over and over in his hands, holding them up to the light, looking to see if there were any flaws. Finally he smiled, and carried them over to the bookshelf, carefully arranging and rearranging them with his other trinkets until they looked perfect. He walked back over to her, and placed two back into her hands.
“I don’t want these,” he said unceremoniously.
She tucked them back into her purse, not knowing if there was something wrong with them or if three was just the right amount of shells to have. She didn’t have time to ask, though, because Hamish was now opening his apartment door.
“Well, it’s four o’clock, Daisy. Goodbye.”
Four o’clock was the agreed-upon time to end their visits each evening. It was originally a boundary put in place by Daisy, but Hamish was rigid about schedules, and he stuck to it doggedly.
“Oh, but Hamish, I just got here. I was hoping we could have din…”
“It’s four o’clock. I’ll see you tomorrow.” he repeated, holding the door expectantly. Daisy reminded herself that he couldn’t help it, and gathered her things together.
“Okay, tomorrow then,” she said, heading toward the door.
But as she approached the doorway, something happened that she never would have expected. Hamish reached an awkward arm out and encircled her shoulder, giving it a slight squeeze and saying, “I’m glad you’re back from vacation, Daisy.”
Somehow, she managed to stifle her sobs until she reached the car. No one could know how much it had cost him to make that gesture, and she had wanted so badly to throw her arms around his neck and celebrate the sheer achievement of it. Of course, doing that would send him hurtling head first back behind the wall of safety he had so carefully constructed against the world. Instead, she’d stood perfectly still and then nodded her approval before walking out. This was the response that was acceptable to him.
Driving home, Daisy thought about how much she took for granted. She had the ability to drive and work and live independently…to talk to people and look them in the eye without fear or repulsion…to touch and be touched. Her brother’s world was confined within his apartment, and while hers was the only face he really trusted, Hamish stayed on guard, always keeping a chasm of neurosis between them.
But not today, she beamed triumphantly. Today, he hugged his sister.