Fiction Fiction 2011

Little Sister

Marla had felt she’d never really had a sister, that she’d been visited by some strange goblin or ghost. But then she went into Daddy’s bank vault after he died.

Whatever Marla did, she did so well. The golden spoon she’d been born with had never failed her, but her little sister had gagged on the same spoon. Little Sister wasn’t so little. She was a twelve-pound baby who inherited most of Marla’s toys. When she couldn’t solve their intricate engines, Marla would have to be called in. Little Sister had a name, but no one seemed to recollect it. She’d turn glum or fall into terrible fits. She struck Marla with a shoe when she was three and Marla was four.

She was banished to a back bedroom in the family’s palatial apartment on Central Park West. Soon she had her own guardian, and Marla seldom saw her. When Marla was five, Little Sister disappeared from the apartment. Soon Marla began to feel as if she’d never really had a sister, but had been visited by some strange goblin or ghost.

Little Sister was never mentioned at the dinner table. There were no pictures of her in the apartment. The back bedroom was turned into a storage bin, but a lock was on the door, and Marla couldn’t get in. Her father, Mortimer Silk, was the arbitrage king of Wall Street. He made fortunes on the rise and fall of currencies, and was the commander of his own “frigate,” as he liked to call his firm. Her mother, Lollie, had been the homecoming queen at college. And whenever Marla had a jolt in her mind and mentioned Little Sister, Lollie would ruffle her nose.

“Dearest, I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about. You have no sister.”

Marla wouldn’t pester Daddy, because he was so sensitive and might have started to cry. So she interrogated the doormen at her father’s Art Deco apartment-palace. And they looked at her as if she had seen her own goblin in the elevator.

“We can’t help you, Miss Marla.”

She lived with that goblin, grew up with it, and when she graduated from Columbia Law, she volunteered for duty aboard her father’s frigate. Within a year she was chief counsel at Silk & Silk. She married her high-school sweetheart, had two children, and lived in the same apartment-palace on Central Park West.

Mortimer died before he was sixty. Marla cleaned up all the mess. She couldn’t rescue Silk & Silk, but she could sell off most of its assets. And while going through her father’s safety-deposit boxes, she found the first hard evidence of Little Sister. Daddy hadn’t abandoned her. Sister’s real name was Irene. Mortimer had put her in a home for alcoholic movie stars and mental patients on an isolated block near the Bronx Botanical Garden. Mortimer had kept a record of every transaction with Rhineland Manor, like a ship captain’s log. He’d visited Little Sister every second week, set up an account for her in perpetuity. Marla wouldn’t have uncovered a single clue if she hadn’t gone into the vault at Daddy’s bank. Irene wasn’t even mentioned in Mortimer’s will.

She ran home with all the records, confronted Lollie. Marla ranted for an hour, but Lollie didn’t blink once, didn’t falter under Marla’s attack.

“We did what was best,” Lollie insisted. “She tried to smother you with a pillow while you were asleep. Little Sister was an aberrant child.”

“Mummy, Little Sister has a name—Irene.”

“You mustn’t shout,” Lollie said. “No one ever called her Irene.”

Marla decided not to tell her children until she had gone up to see Little Sister for herself. She’d become chief counsel at another arbitrage firm, and she had the company chauffeur drive her into the wildland of the Bronx. What she saw wasn’t so wild. Rhineland Manor was in a neighborhood of Tudor-style apartment houses. The mansion itself had once been a cloister for decrepit nuns, and was surrounded by a sculpted garden.

Marla had a hard time getting through the mansion’s gates. It meant nothing that she was her father’s executor and one of his heirs. Little Sister wasn’t insane and could decide for herself whom she wanted to see.

Marla could have gone to court, but she wasn’t going to sue the mansion and Little Sister. And there was another problem about Irene. She would answer to no name but Bunny.

“I’m sorry, Mrs. Silk,” the chief nurse said. “Bunny says she has no sister.”

Marla had discarded her husband’s name. After her divorce, she was known as Mrs. Silk. And she was just as stubborn as Little Sister.

“Then I guess I’ll have a very long wait. And even if my father has paid Bunny’s upkeep for the rest of her natural life, I’ll dig right into his estate, and ask to have that money returned. So you may have a pauper on your hands.”

The nurses whispered among themselves, and then Bunny appeared. She had broad shoulders, looked like a man. Marla could sense the rage in her. Perhaps Lollie hadn’t made up that tale about Little Sister trying to smother her with a pillow.

Something was wrong with Bunny’s eyes. They seemed to wander even as they took Marla in. There was a pulse between her eyebrows, like some strange target.

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Jerome Charyn is the author of The Secret Life of Emily Dickinson and other novels. His most recent book is Joe DiMaggio: The Long Vigil.

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