It’s a beautiful Virginia Saturday and I’m banished to the bedroom upstairs at Chestnut Street when a rock hits the window. “Psst! Emma!” I lift it open and look down at Sadie. We’re not supposed to be talking. “Throw something down for me to climb up,” she begs. Earlier in the day, Sadie and I were sent outside to get out of our mother’s hair. We climbed up to the unfinished tree fort my stepfather Henry has been building for us and swung our legs over the side of the sturdy platform overlooking the neighborhood rooftops, planning the secret knock for entry once the walls go up. An opposite branch of the tall oak holds a tire swing, the entertainment value of which lasted only until Sadie started swinging me directly into the tree and then I quit. Then we straddled the large metal tank next to the house facing each other, screwed off the little cap to smell the propane, and rolled our heads around pretending to faint.

Eventually not being able to leave the yard gets boring, so Sadie stood beneath the open window of the room where my mother was resting and jumped up sporadically, making the roadrunner bebeep sound each time before ducking back down. When Henry finally figured out what it was, he came out and grabbed each of us by one ear. Separation is always the first line of action. I was sent upstairs, and Sadie was ordered to run around the house one hundred times and make the same bebeep sound each time she passed the front door. My parents are famous for letting the punishment fit the crime, once commanding me to run up and down the stairs a hundred times for doing that very thing after being asked regularly to stop. (I am not conscious of it, just like I can’t help ballet-dancing through the house and sometimes bump into one of them coming through a doorway, which also drives them nuts.)

Henry has been with my mother long enough to become the dominate disciplinarian and should know how futile it is to make Sadie do anything. As her subordinate I know that not following her orders usually results in a worse punishment than my parents will inflict, so I pull the sheet off the bed and throw one end down for her to hold onto. She jumps up to grab it and uses her feet to climb up the side of the house. Two and a half years older but made of skin and bones, she is only slightly taller and heavier, but I am not strong enough to pull her up, so I fall back onto my bottom and press both feet against the low window sill. As the sheet slips from my grasp, I lean my head out to assess the progress on her ascent. Sadie has reached a point of exhaustion and is holding on for dear life. Henry appears as if by magic directly underneath her, and in a knee-jerk reaction I let go. She screams and falls like a baby into his arms. We are so busted.

Sadie is my best friend and worst enemy. As my fearless leader, there is no question about who is in charge. Because of the dynamic, I usually receive a lesser sentence as her accomplice, especially since I am often the victim of her crimes. My parents are of the belief that I will have to learn to fend for myself, stand up to her, and make my own decisions. They are blind to the fear of God she has instilled in me.

Only on occasion will they intervene as they did recently when Henry cooked my favorite meal – breakfast for dinner including his famous egg-in-a-nest. I ate very slowly as usual, popped the yolk from the fried egg inside the bread and swirled it around the plate; then picked the curly fat pieces off the bacon and arranged them along the outer edges away from the rest of my food, engaged in countless other thoughts that had nothing to do with the conversation around me. Sadie finished very quickly, practically inhaled her food, and got up from the table first. (She has the most atrocious table manners, always slurping the milk from the bottom of the cereal bowl, and once lifted her leg to stick her big toe in my macaroni and cheese when the parents weren’t looking.)

“Sit back down with the rest of us until the meal is over,” my mother told her. We are expected to act like a family now that she and Henry are married.

Sadie grumbled and sat back down, on her mark to bolt as soon as possible. “Hurry up,” she said and kicked me under the table, so I moved my fork to my mouth in slow motion. Once she was cleared for departure, Sadie dropped her egg-covered fork in my glass of milk before walking away.

“Butthead!” was the only thing I could get out before she was out of earshot. Her insults are much more degrading. However, this prompted one of those rare incidents when my parents retaliated on my behalf. The next morning at breakfast, Sadie was served a raw egg in her drink glass. I knew I would pay the price, but I rolled in a fit of laughter.

For someone who takes such great pleasure in tormenting me, Sadie is always the first person to protect me if anyone poses a threat. I got into a fight with my friend on the way home from school once over a quarter I had found. Becky swore it was hers and snatched it from me. As she took off in the other direction I grabbed hold of her dress, which ripped completely off in my hand. Sadie was walking a few steps ahead with Becky’s twin sister who turned around to see Becky standing there in underwear and yelled, “That was my dress!” The twins started wailing on me, but Sadie grabbed them both and threw them off in a sort of Steven Seagal move. She took my hand, lifting me off the ground as she pulled me running all the way home.

When it comes to spankings I rarely warrant one on my own, but helping Sadie climb up to the window is the equivalent of aiding and abetting an exile. And Henry spanks with the belt. I pick at the skin on my neck when I’m nervous, causing little red welts, as I back away from my belt-wielding stepfather in tears. Sadie jumps between us and puffs up her chest threatening, “Don’t you hit my sister.” She is spanked harder on my account, but her attitude indicates she would do it again. When it’s over and we are sent away she turns around, looks him square in the eye and says, “That didn’t hurt,” before pushing me out of the room in front of her.

She is my hero.