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My Older Sister

A winter break with my sister.

By ElizaPublished 2 months ago 15 min read
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We drove up the snowy, winding road towards the cozy A-frame cabin. It was just the two of us and we had barely spoken for the previous two hours. In my case, I didn’t have much to say. I was wearing my earphones to politely excuse myself from making any conversation, but my phone battery had died a while ago. I’d spent the last 45 minutes staring out the window, watching the French countryside running away from us. My sister wasn’t speaking much either. Her phone was connected to the stereo of the rented car, and Christmas classics were filling the silence between us. She hummed along with most of the songs, but other than that she kept her focus on the snowy road ahead.

She parked the car, jerking the handbrake up violently. She had a bad habit of doing that; mum was always correcting her for it. My sister was a good driver though, despite her bad habits. She’d barely blinked an eyelid while driving in the icy weather. As a teenager, she was like me. Constantly overthinking things to the point of inaction. She’d calmed down a lot since she’d left for university. She was a hurricane of motion now. The car was barely still—I hadn’t even put my earphones away—and she had jumped out of the car, slamming the door behind her. She didn’t intentionally slam it; she was just like that. Another bad habit. I slid my earphones into my pocket and stepped outside into the cold. It was shockingly cold, more severe than the cold at home in Ireland. I was wearing my coat, but my scarf, hat and gloves were in my suitcase. Which was no longer in the boot; my sister had already taken both suitcases into the cabin. I followed her up the slippery wooden steps, promising myself that I would admire the landscape later. It was too cold now. It had begun softly snowing again.

The front door led into a sitting area. She’d discarded the suitcases near the door, with her coat draped over one of them. The kettle was boiling. She’d found the coffee then. I shrugged my coat off and plugged my phone in and flopped down on the coach. My sister shouted from the kitchen, even though it was approximately four meters away from where I was sitting:

“Rua, do you want coffee or hot chocolate?”

“Hot chocolate, please”.

I wasn’t technically allowed caffeine, but my sister didn’t care. She drank a lot of coffee and energy drinks, and I could drink either of these in her presence. I didn’t like the taste of coffee though. My sister said she didn’t like the taste either, but she didn’t drink it for the taste. After a few minutes, she strode into the sitting area and handed me a yellow mug piled high with mini marshmallows. She’d managed to get these out of her suitcase in record time, apparently. She took a sip from her red mug, settling into a cross legged position on the couch. I didn’t have my phone to scroll through, so we sat in awkward silence. I tried to think of something—anything—to ask.

“How come Caoimhe couldn’t come?”

“Something came up”.

“After you organized the whole trip?”

“Yeah.” Another sip of her coffee.

“Couldn’t she have rescheduled it?”.

“Probably. She didn’t get the chance to”.

I roll my eyes. My sister knows nothing about manners or diplomacy. If you annoy her, she won’t give you another chance to annoy her. I’m not like that. I believe in second and third chances, and it makes everything so much easier. My sister used to be more like me, but she’s changed a lot since leaving home.

“Could you have invited someone else?”

“Obviously, it's a free trip. Didn’t you want to come?”

Not really. I’d much prefer to be on this trip with someone else, if I’m honest. Alannah, my best friend, for instance. But when you’re fourteen, there are limitations on your holiday plans. You’re stuck with your family. But like she said, it's a free trip. All the girls at my school were going on winter trips with their families, and I’d never been skiing before. It was better than sitting at home while everyone else was posting their fabulous holidays online. I suddenly realize my sister is staring at me, still waiting for an answer.

“I did want to come!”

“Then stop asking nothing questions”.

“I’m just curious”.

“Find the eighth wonder of the world then. Don’t bother me”.

A few moments of silence.

“Caoimhe had become very controlling. That’s all you need to know. By the time I realized this, everybody else already had plans. The trip was paid for, and I’ve never been skiing. I’m not going to sit at home feeling sorry for myself. So, I brought you along, out of sheer goodwill”.

See? Absolute lack of diplomacy. She should have talked things over with Caoimhe. Hugged it out. They were friends for seven years. What a waste.

Silence again. My sister pipes up:

“Will we watch a movie?”

“Go on then. What’ll we watch?”

We flick through Elf, Love Actually, and The Polar Express before settling on The Exorcist. I’ve seen that movie so many times, I can speak the words alongside the actors. I first watched it with my sister when she was seventeen and I was ten. It terrified me and caused endless sleepless nights. At some point, I stopped being terrified and the fear morphed into an infatuation with anything possessed, cursed, or even mildly spooky. The film begins and I’m enthralled. My sister waits two minutes until she picks up a book and starts reading. Why do that? Why suggest putting on a film and then read a book during said film? But she’s just like that, so I ignore her.

We change into our pyjamas for dinner, which is pizza and cookie dough ice-cream and more hot chocolate and jelly sweets. My sister reads late into the night and I trudge up the ladder into the small bedroom. There is a small narrow bed and a small double bed. I consider how polite I need to be. She did, after all, pay for the trip. But it's only my sister. I claim the bigger bed. I read a few pages of my fantasy book, while simultaneously scrolling through my phone. I end up just on my phone after a few minutes. My friends have already posted amazing photographs from their holidays, so I’m going to have to take more pictures tomorrow. As much as I liked our quiet evening, it's not instagram worthy. We’ll have to start properly holidaying tomorrow, or it’ll look like there’s no point going on holiday. Between traveling and copious amounts of food, I’m sleepier than I realize. I doze off quickly and sleep soundly through the night.

I wake because light is seeping through the skylight directly onto my face. My fault. I forgot to close the blind. I check my phone. It’s 7:15. I normally wake up this early for school, but I don’t feel like going back to sleep. I sit up, scrolling through my phone. I’m sure this habit is unique to me, but I need to scroll through my phone for a few minutes before I find the will to face the day. I sit up and see my sister sleeping in the smaller bed. She looks like a different person when she’s sleeping. Younger, without her make-up. More relaxed, maybe even peaceful. The hurricane has briefly subsided. I leave her to sleep. She probably went to sleep late last night. I’ll give her another hour, but I want to start our day.

I wander downstairs and make myself a hot chocolate. I settle on the couch and drink it while scrolling through my phone. My sister’s book is crumpled between the cushions. I flick through the first few pages but it's dull. It's about some American college student doing an internship at a magazine in New York. Why does she read books about people like her? She’s literally a college student trying to build a writing career. Mum says it won’t happen. Mum wanted my sister to study law or medicine, but she refused to do so. I agree with mum. My sister’s a good writer, sure. But there’s no money in writing. Or whatever money there is, she can make it on the side while being a lawyer or doctor or whatever. It is such a waste of her potential. She was a great student, mostly. She says she’s happier now, but– maybe it’s my anxiety– I couldn’t handle the stress of an unsteady income. I may be young, but I quite understand the current economy. Housing and cost of living expenses are sky high. I’m going to play it smart. Study hard and work hard and get a great job, and then I’ll be sorted. I’ll have lots of money, so I’ll be able to afford a nice house and fancy holidays and children. I’ll have control. If other people can’t afford to stay in Ireland, that’s a pity. But it won’t be me. I’ll avoid all that by working hard. I flick to the end of the chapter. All the characters seem to have food poisoning now. Who wants to read about that? The protagonist dramatically throws her old clothes away. Who hasn’t?

I go on tiktok until my sister appears at the bottom of the ladder.

“Can we actually do stuff today?”

To my surprise, she doesn’t argue. She has no qualms at all about letting me set the itinerary. Over the next few days, I pick our activities. My sister only intervenes when she can’t afford something, which is more than fair. She works three days a week at her minimum wage job, and I know she’s dipping into her savings. We have brunch, go skiing, Christmas shopping, ice-skating, and dine in restaurants. Every night we wind up back in the cozy cabin. She reads late into the night, and I post our pictures on Instagram. On day three, I have a raging fight over text with Alannah. These fights happen now and again, but we always forgive even though we say horrible things. That’s maturity. I made the mistake of telling my sister about the latest fight. She had little pity:

“Be her friend or don’t. If you’re both saying things like that, you’re not friends.”

My sister has very little empathy. I don’t talk to her for the rest of the evening, but I don’t think she notices. She’s busy reading. It's a different book now.

On the fourth day, I wake early. I’m determined to make the most of our final day. I still haven’t admired the scenery yet, despite intending to do that from the moment I first stepped out of the car into the bitter cold. I put on my hiking boots, coat, hat, scarf, and gloves. I slip my phone into my pocket so I can take pictures. My phone is full of nature pictures, but I’ve never been in real snow before. It snowed heavily last night. I bet it photographs beautifully. I step out into the whiteness and suddenly realize how eerily encompassing it is. You could get lost in this whiteness. There are no landmarks because the snow has covered it all. Snow covers the trees, the walls, the bushes, the paths. Everything. Why didn’t I notice this before? It seems starkly obvious now. There’s nothing to photograph. It's a blank canvas of snow. My footprints are crisp in the fresh snow, but the falling snow covers my footprints too. The snow is covering my presence too. There’s snow on my eyelashes, on my hat, and my coat. There’s something else. Something odd. I can’t quite put my finger on it for a few minutes. Then I realize. It's the silence. The snow seems to be absorbing sound. It’s determined to wipe everything away, sucking the sound away and covering everything visible.

It is so cold. This is a wasted walk. There is nothing to see and nothing to hear. I want to turn back and make toast and drink hot chocolate. I’ll wait for my sister to wake up, and then we’ll go do something fun. Which direction? How far have I come? I try to get my phone out of my pocket to check the time, but my fingers are too cold. Even with the gloves. I steady myself. The smartest thing to do, I think, is to turn directly around and walk back where I came from. There are no footprints, but I kept mostly a straight path. I walk along the blank canvas. The snow becomes heavier, threatening to blend me into the landscape too. My plan doesn’t work. I have no idea where I’m going and I am so cold. My face is going numb and I could cry from the pain. I do not want to say it, even if I think it. I’m not a child. I’m not a dog who needs a leash. But I think I’m lost. I’ll have to ring my sister. Admit that I got lost. The humiliation!

Then I hear a voice. My sister, calling my name. How does she know I’m lost? I begin moving in the direction of her voice. She doesn’t sound worried. She doesn’t sound angry. She just sounds, and I know she’s there. Waiting for me. When I get there, she’ll probably say nothing about my adventure. Suddenly, my sister’s habitual silence suits me very well. Her voice rings out across the nothingness of the snowy soundscape. It's too loud for the snow to absorb completely, and I follow her sound all the way back to the cabin. When I get there, she’s leaning against the front door. Her long brown hair is uncombed, and she’s wearing her charity shop parka and her old blue jeans. The jeans she always wore as a teenager. Mum wants her to throw them away, but she won’t. She rolls her eyes but doesn’t question my absence. My heart swells with love as I dash up the wooden stairs. She says just one word:

“Breakfast?”

“Absolutely”.

That’s one thing I like about my sister. Even if you mess up– if you get lost in the snow and trek back with tears streaming down your face, covered in snow and wet– she’ll keep her own council. She’s just like that. As I warm up and eat, I feel inspired by newfound love for my sister. Love that is tempered by a little bit of lingering embarrassment. I’ll return the favor and we’ll call it quits.

“You can tell me about the situation with Caoimhe. I won’t tell anyone”.

She thinks for a few moments, sipping her coffee.

“Nothing worth telling really.”

“But you’re no longer friends. You were best friends for seven years! Something must be worth telling!”.

“I don’t think we were friends for seven years. Maybe I was her friend, but she wasn’t mine”.

I’m dying with curiosity.

“Tell me what happened”.

“No. The main thing is that she told me what to do, but never followed her own instructions. Then she decided to betray me. She didn’t think she’d get caught. But she did. The moment she betrayed me, she ended the friendship. I didn’t end it, even if it looks that way. When I called her out, I ended the lie of friendship. That’s all”.

“Could you make it up?”

“Yeah”

“Why don’t you?”

“It would be easier to make it up. But she wouldn’t change. I’ll just forget her instead. Eventually”.

I don’t understand this. Why not choose the diplomatic option? The one that encourages friendship. Forgiveness. But I don’t ask my sister because I know she won’t answer. She’ll raise an eyebrow and go on sipping her coffee. She’s just like that.

Actually, no she’s not. This is not the sister I recognise. As a teenager, my sister was desperate to please. An older and tearier version of me. She was desperate to get the best grades, be the most helpful, be the best daughter, be the best sister, be the best student. Be the best friend. Caoimhe had always been like that; selfish, controlling, judgmental. Caoimhe hadn’t changed. My sister had. But when? I ponder the question throughout our final day. Her new self-assurance is unsettling. I don’t know if I like how it makes me feel. But I also don’t know why I’m conflicted. I observe her throughout the day. She is a different woman, and yet the same girl. She stands up tall. She doesn’t stutter anymore. She laughs easily and smiles a lot. The silence within her is not awkward. I think it's maybe peaceful. How strange. If I were her, I wouldn’t feel peaceful. She scrimped and saved for this dream trip as a gift to her best friend, and then refused to bring that friend. She isn’t on track for a high paying job, nice house, fancy lifestyle. She has rejected the path that I must follow. Yet she’s in control. And, I think, maybe quite happy. Why do I find that unsettling? It's almost funny. I traveled 1000 miles to France to see breathtaking snowy mountains, and yet I am most taken aback by my sister. And the way I see her now. She’s not a hurricane; she’s self-assured. She’s in control. I think I’d maybe like to be like that someday. But I’m probably too much of a worrier. I’m just like that.

familyShort StoryYoung Adult
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Eliza

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