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.