Stephanie got to know her sister at night. The two shared a bedroom, for the apartment was small and there was no chance of their mother and father ever earning enough to allow them to move. Cordelia complained to anyone who would listen, listing the ways a room of her own would benefit her, explaining how the pipsqueak of a sister who shared what used to be her sanctuary was disruptive to her everyday life.
Cordelia was twelve when Stephanie was born. She knew it was an accident; everyone knew it was. There was a lot of speculation among the neighbors as to whether or not the girls even shared the same father. Stephanie never heard those rumors herself, because Cordelia never told her anything. That was why she could only learn about her sister through her dreams.
Communication didn’t play an important role in their family. It wasn’t a silent house by any means; there was a television, a radio, a computer and a stereo, and they often made sounds all at once, causing a confusing sort of ruckus. Even at night, the urban streets outside streamed with traffic and sirens were heard at least once between dusk and dawn. Stephanie didn’t learn about silence until much later, and by then she wasn’t able to abide it.
The first time it happened, Stephanie was three. She awoke in the middle of the night, during a heavy rainstorm, and saw Cordelia sitting up in her bed across the room. “Coria?” she whispered into the dark room. She’d always had trouble with her sister’s name, and this butchering of it stuck with her for the rest of her life, although she never dared use it in public when she grew up. That night, her sister didn’t answer her; instead, Cordelia spoke to the wall in front of her: “No fair. Fancy dress with crocodiles. Nu-uh.” Then she lay back down, still fast asleep.
Stephanie was puzzled, and in the morning, she asked her sister what she’d been talking about. Cordelia pushed her over irritably and told her that she was making things up. “I don’t talk in my sleep, ugly-butt,” she said. But Stephanie knew that she did.
It didn’t happen every night, but once or twice a week Stephanie would wake up, quite by accident, and hear her sister mumble about tornadoes, boys, Mom and Daddy, motorcycles, and other obscurities. The nonsensical sentences began to take shape in Stephanie’s mind over time, and she watched her sister closely, yearning to understand her, thinking that if she knew things about her life, Cordelia might like her. When she had an abusive boyfriend, Stephanie was the first to know, because she heard “Bobby, don’t!” and “Makeup won’t cover the clover, it won’t work. Daddy, you try,” and other bizarre fragments that she pieced together.
Not that Stephanie did anything with the knowledge – she was too afraid of her sister’s temper to tell her parents anything, and more often than not she didn’t understand the reality of the situation in quite the way Cordelia was living it. But she felt like she got to know her sister, and that was what mattered.
When, many years later, Cordelia lay in a hospital bed, Stephanie told her about the things that her big sister had never told her and Cordelia raised her eyebrows in surprise. Her voice was almost nonexistent by this point, and it was hard for her to breathe, but she managed to utter “Smart ugly-butt. Who knew?” before a fit of coughing overcame her. Stephanie handed her a glass of water from the bedside table and helped her drink it, before laying her back down against the pillows.
I hate Brad. I’ve hated him ever since first grade when he grabbed me from behind and shoved my face into the sandbox. Let me tell you, that was not a fun experience. It was even worse when it became a daily thing, a sort of routine form of torture. It wasn’t until third grade that I hit him back. Boy, did I pay for that. Ever since then, Brad beat me up almost every day. Poor Mom, she kept thinking that Dad was doing something to me when I was at his house. But that’s Mom’s fault for only taking me one day a week. Dad knew what was going on, alright. He knew, and he tried to teach me how to fight back – he’s that kind of a guy – but it never really stuck. We used to have the biggest fights, since I never agreed to tell him who was beating me up. He called school to complain a few times, but they kept assuring him that “there’s no bullying problem at our school, sir” and “the nurses say that your son is simply very clumsy and that there’s no reason to assume he’s being hit. We have very good boys here, sir.”
See, that’s the other thing. I went to an all-boys school. Guess what? That wasn’t fun, either. I don’t think I spoke with a girl who wasn’t Mom or Auntie Rose until I was in high-school. That’s where the next fun part started. Brad went to the same high-school I did. Now, you may think that he’d grown up a little, and that if his parents were sending him to a co-ed school, that meant that he would be too busy hitting on girls and would stop picking on me. But, of course, as luck would have it, Brad found those girls who liked seeing that he was big and strong and could hit an obnoxious nerd with glasses like me.
I’m a senior now. We’re both seniors. I’ve still got the glasses, but I’ve got some muscle on me now. See, Dad finally had it with my split lips and black eyes. He started sending me to the gym twice a week when he saw that even in high-school I was coming home bruised a couple times a week – at least by then, Brad had less time for me. So even though nobody’s noticed, I’ve been building up muscle over the years, and my pimples have gone away, and you know what? Brad’s going to go bald early and I’m not. Still, that hasn’t stopped him from leering at me or threatening me or banging my locker as he passes by so that I squeak. I have this tendency to squeak. I know it’s not attractive, but what can you do?
Anyway, tonight’s Prom Night. I think it’s about time I proved to Brad, myself and everyone else that I’ve gotten stronger than him. I guess a decked out hotel lobby full of my fellow students and a bad hired band is a good place to do it. Plus, we’ll both be in suits, so my beating him to a pulp will at least look classy. You know, just in case someone films it and puts it online.
Martha was hiding in her closet. It was past midnight, and she’d woken up to the sound of Doug smashing his beer bottle in the kitchen. She was only five years old, but she already knew that Doug drank too much beer, that it made him nasty, and that every few nights he felt the need to throw his last bottle down hard and hear it crash. The mornings after he did that, Martha’s mother would clean the shards up quickly, quietly, telling Martha to stay in the tiny hall so she wouldn’t get glass shards in her feet.
Martha knew why her mother cleaned up in the morning. It was because one time, when she hadn’t, Doug woke up and saw the glass all over the kitchen floor. That just put him into a new rage. Martha had hidden in the closet then, too. She’d heard her mother whimper, but just barely, because she herself had been crying so hard.
Tonight, though, she was hiding in the closet for a new reason. Her mother was safely in bed, and Doug never did anything to her at night. He used to come home and fall asleep on the couch, sometimes leaving puke on the floor next to him. But lately, Doug had been coming into Martha’s room. She was so scared of him that even though she tried to sound like she was still asleep, her breathing quickened involuntarily, and Doug would then laugh quietly and move closer.
He’d been coming into her room for a few months, but Martha never told her mother what he did. She didn’t really understand it herself, only that it made Doug happy that she was hurting and frightened. She was only five years old, but she knew that if she fought him, he’d turn dangerous. She’d tried fighting, but he’d smacked her. So she knew to stop. To preserve herself.
This was the first night that she’d awoken before Doug got home. She couldn’t tell time yet, but she knew it was late because her mother was asleep and all the lights were off. So she hid in the closet, waiting for Doug to get back. She thought that maybe, if he didn’t find her in bed, he’d just go away.
She wanted him to go away so badly.
She wanted to tell her mother, but she was scared to. She knew instinctively that there was something wrong about what Doug was doing, and felt it was her fault.
She wanted, with all of her five-year old heart and body, for something very bad to happen to Doug. And that want, that intense need for him to be hurt, frightened her almost as much as Doug himself did.