“I found something,” Helena says on the walk home.
It still feels new. Everything. They’ve been here two months; Sarah thinks about how long it takes for a place to feel worn in, like shoes or the big armchair they bring with them every time they move, always strapped to the back of Mrs. S’s truck.
She doesn’t know these streets yet. She doesn’t know the scent of the air, crisp when she expects humidity, soft when she expects grit. Helena goes out and explores and commits places to memory like her whole mind is one giant map, everything dotted and lined and filed away for some other time when they finally settle down. She’ll be able to look back and see everything. Sarah will still only have the moment in front of her.
Sarah never finds anything.
“I can show you if you promise not to tell,” Helena says. The wind startles her curls. She has a glint in her eye, like if Sarah says no it will be yet another thing to haunt her.
So she gives in.
They go the next day after school.
Helena leads, a step ahead because Sarah likes to watch where her feet fall and then follow suit. It’s in the woods not too far from their small house; Sarah doesn’t know if it’s public property, but that isn’t something Helena cares about, and she can’t see any posted signs. Besides, it wouldn’t be the first time they’ve trespassed. Sarah’s whole life has been living in other people’s space.
“Just up ahead,” Helena says when they pass a thick, gnarled tree, deep enough in the forest for the light to take on a soft green hue. It makes Helena glow.
Sarah’s never been a nature girl, always leaving the exploring to Helena. But she doesn’t fail to notice the gentle warmth of being surrounded by trees - of at first only hearing the crunch of leaves and their own breathing, and then layered under that birds, and under that bugs, and under everything a sort of awareness. The rustle of wind through the branches. Everything moving slightly.
She sees the shape of a structure just as Helena proudly gestures, something rising up dark through a thicket of trees. A small building. As they approach Sarah sees it’s punctured by light in some places, like it’s crumbled. And then:
“It’s a church,” Helena says giddily.
A small one. Not much bigger than one of the school portables. This close to it Sarah sees how the years have pulled it down, swallowing windows and pieces of roof, leaving just enough to still call it a building.
“Strange thing to leave in the woods,” Sarah says, as Helena goes up to the door.
“Or it’s a gift,” Helena says, her sneaky smile growing with Sarah’s intake of air. “Left here just for us.”
“Don’t go in,” Sarah warns.
All she can think about is Mrs. S, their foster mother, and how mad she’d be to find them here. The floor could collapse, she’d say. The whole thing could fall down around you. But Helena’s already pushing the heavy door open, disappearing with a don’t worry, I was here yesterday that goes quiet as she’s fully inside.
Sarah shifts on her feet, alone in the forest in the shadow of the little church.
Something scampers by behind her.
She curses and follows Helena.
It’s less of a ruin than she expected, the pews still mostly in their places and a handful of remaining stained glass windows letting in filtered light. There’s a fine layer of debris on the ground and some books have been scattered, but where Helena stands at the altar Sarah can still see the stumps of old candles amongst evidence of animals having, at one point, found their way in.
“You came!” Helena says as Sarah steps on a stick and cracks it, cautiously moving forward.
Sarah makes a face. “Only ‘cause S would kill me if I let you go in alone.”
“Isn’t it beautiful?” Helena says, ignoring what Sarah said. She sweeps a hand around at the sanctuary, moving dust motes in the beam of pink light in front of her.
It’s cobwebs, mostly. Nests and dirt and dust. Sarah picks up a dirt-covered book from the nearest pew and flips through it, revealing crumbling pages and the bodies of dead bugs. But. She glances up, catches Helena mesmerized by a forgotten bronze cup at the pulpit.
Every so often she forgets about Helena’s past. Just enough for remembering to sting.
“Yeah,” she says, setting the book back in its place. “It is kinda beautiful.”
Helena trots off to something else, always wanting to run her hands along everything. It’s how she takes it all in. The first time they met, the first time since they were separated as infants, Sarah sat in a chair and Helena ran her fingers all over Sarah’s face. Sarah thought she was blind, for a second. But she was just trying to know her. To get her back.
“We can play school here,” Helena says, her back to Sarah. “Or pioneers.”
They’re fourteen, Sarah doesn’t say.
She’s long since given up on trying to force normalcy on her sister. Traumas don’t heal in straight lines, S likes to say, of pasts and broken bones. So Sarah gives in. Plays Helena’s childish games.
“Whatever you want,” she says.
She’s tired, burrs sticking to her pants from god only knows which plant in the forest. Suddenly the dusty pew doesn’t look so bad. Helena’s ducked down to examine some small cabinet, always wanting to know everything’s secrets, and Sarah gives in and sits down in the dust.
It’s a place of their own, at least. The only graffiti here looks old, a few small things spray-painted on walls that have since begun to crumble. In a town that feels so much like someone else’s life it’s nice to think they might have found somewhere that doesn’t belong to anyone but them. It’s the clubhouse she always dreamt about having as a kid, when she didn’t even have a bed to call her own.
She hums a little as she picks off the burrs, making a nice tiny pile in the debris underfoot.
“Sarah,” Helena says, calling for her attention. Sarah looks up to see Helena standing at an open door by the altar, revealing a small, rickety staircase. “Shall we go up?”
Sarah’s on her feet before she can drop the burr in her fingers. “Jesus, no, S would actually kill us. Is that thing- I mean, look at this place. Do you think you could take a step without falling through? I’d be pulling your body from a hole in the ground.”
Helena droops, her hand slowly falling off the doorknob.
“We should go back, anyway,” Sarah says. “It’s nearly five. S’ll be wondering where we are.”
“But there are rooms up there,” Helena says, leaning into the staircase to look up again.
Sarah shoots her a sharp look and Helena rolls her eyes before shutting the door. The frame rattles and a layer of dust rains down. For a second it looks like Helena’s standing in the snow - Sarah smiles, a little, and Helena smiles back, brushing dust off her nose before heading back to where Sarah’s standing.
“Tomorrow?” she asks hopefully.
Sarah runs her fingers along the back of a pew, leaving a mark in the dirt.
“Maybe,” she says, as Helena laps around another pew in slightly better condition.
The sun pokes out from behind a cloud, illuminating the room through one of the remaining windows. It’s the first time Sarah’s been able to see it clearly, through the cracks and the dirt and the heavy strings of cobweb. There’s a picture in the stained glass. A woman. Religious imagery has always been more Helena’s thing, but Sarah still expects to see the Virgin Mary.
It isn’t. It isn’t anyone she recognizes; just a woman.
The sun disappears again and Sarah shivers. “Let’s go, Helena.”
Helena trots over from whatever she was examining, bumping into Sarah’s side as they head for the door.
“See you tomorrow,” Helena says to the church as they depart.
Sarah shuts the wooden door behind them, just in case. On the other side of it, back in the forest, she realizes her heart’s racing.
They don’t mean to talk about it in school the next day, but then they’re in science class labeling parts of a diagram and Helena’s practically bouncing in her seat with the unspoken fullness of it inside her.
“I want to bring Mrs. S’s camera,” she says, mostly in a whisper.
It’s a free work period. It’s science class, where even the teacher doesn’t care. But Sarah’s been to enough schools and lived in enough homes to expect someone, anyone, to admonish them. She shrinks in her seat. Feels more pairs of eyes on her than she can count. No one’s looking, but she feels it anyway.
“I want to take pictures, all the pretty broken pieces,” Helena continues.
Sarah pencils something into a little box. Probably wrong. She turns her head in time to catch a blonde girl looking away, casual enough to maybe not have been looking at Sarah at all. But Sarah’s jaw is clenched.
“We’re not going back, Helena,” she says, not sure she means it until it comes out.
And then she feels it settling into a solid shape inside her: they aren’t going back. They’re making good choices this time. She won’t let down Mrs. S, she won’t get suspended, she won’t ruin things for everyone yet again.
“Says you,” Helena mutters.
Sarah scratches a wiggly little shape into the margin of her paper. “It’s gonna fall down any day now. Wouldn’t want to be inside when it does, especially not when no one would notice us missing.”
Helena gasps, and this time a few people are definitely looking. As it always goes, Helena doesn’t notice. It’s just Sarah; just Sarah fielding the stares, trying to pretend it’s all normal. They have two different accents, but they’re still twins. Helena’s hair is a curly peroxide mess. She has those stupid scars on her back. Sarah’s-
Every so often she thinks of them as dark and light, Helena always the one wearing the bright happy colours. It only seems to make them fit in even less.
“Mrs. S would so notice us missing,” Helena whispers harshly, snatching back the snack bag she’d positioned between the two of them. “You only say that because you want to hurt everyone.”
That’s not true, Sarah should say. But.
It’s quiet, they sit there. The room returns to its business.
“I’m going back, with or without you,” Helena says a minute later. Firm.
“Just- don’t bring the camera.”
She doesn’t, which is maybe the only good thing that comes of it.
It’s chilly for October. Maybe. Sarah still doesn’t know what’s normal here, what makes a cold day or a warm one, just that they’re striding through the forest and she has goosebumps under her leather jacket that seem to pinch with every step. Or maybe Helena’s walking them too fast. Maybe they’re nearly running, and Sarah’s out of breath because of that and not that she’s trying to undo the knots that have formed in her stomach.
“We can always go back,” she says when she feels the place approaching.
But Helena doesn’t hear her. Or pretends.
And then they’re at the church, somehow standing steadier and smaller than it was yesterday. The paint on the outside looks like it might have been white, instead of the grey Sarah thought it was when she first saw it. It still peels down the walls in curlicues. Gone completely in some spots, and then other spots that open right up into the church itself.
She finds herself glancing around for something, realizing as she takes in the way the forest closes up on the church almost entirely that there wouldn’t be enough room anyway. For a graveyard. Churches have graveyards. But this one seems to only have a slim perimeter of grass smothered by pine needles and then walls of trees around it, and Sarah paces all the way around the back to confirm that that’s all there is.
The steeple’s empty, she notices. It’s tiny anyway, not even big enough for a person to climb in. But where there should be a bell is just air. Remnants of a squirrel’s nest.
“Are you coming?” Helena asks from the front.
Sarah returns to her, following her up the one small step into the church. Inside, it looks more or less the same as yesterday. Dusty, abandoned, their own footprints the only sign that something cares. Helena immediately goes back to the altar as if something about the small wooden cross on the wall calls her over. Sarah takes a few steps and then picks up another book.
It’s a bible this time. Yellowed pages. The cover feels soft under the dirt, and she thinks of someone else’s hands holding this years and years ago and can’t decide if she’s stricken or unsettled.
Helena’s gone from the altar when she looks up, now a few metres over by a stand of melted-down candles. From here they look like mushrooms; Helena looks like she’s picking them, turning them over in her hands as she plucks them from the wood. Sarah wonders how long it’s been since someone lit a candle here. Helena examines another.
It’s quiet; the kind of quiet Sarah’s come to associate with car rides, with staring out rain-streaked windows when everyone’s too tired to bicker and they’re all just listening to the tires on the wet road. A quiet kind of movement. She drifts over to the back wall as Helena carries on with the candles, finding her own shelf of things to rifle through: dead leaves, twigs, a pencil, papers that are almost dust. Part of her thinks she should find a guest book here. She doesn’t.
She has a small torn bit of paper in her hand when the sound comes from the doorway - it said something, she thought, the paper, a word she might be able to make out, but it’s forgotten in her grasp as she catches sight of a person’s outline at the door.
“Helena,” she calls out, wanting to both warn her and hear that this figure is somehow Helena who slipped outside.
But Helena doesn’t reply.
The figure steps forward and the small shroud of shadow from existing on a threshold falls off of it, revealing the blonde girl from their science class. Rachel-something. Rachel Duncan.
Helena’s friend from lunch, Gracie, told them a bit about her, about her parents practically taking over the institute at the edge of town and how it’s been two years but Rachel seems content in her isolation. Sarah runs through the few facts she knows as Rachel just stands there - Rachel in her little skirt, burrs stuck to her knee-high socks.
She’s staring. Apologetic, almost.
“What the hell,” Sarah finally says, digging up enough meanness to shake Rachel from her stupor.
Rachel hardens. Takes a step closer. “I heard you talking in science class,” she says. “I wanted to know what all the fuss was about.”
“You creep,” Sarah mutters, and Rachel says am not, and Sarah says go home, Rachel, leave us alone, but Rachel just- just stands there.
“I don’t know the way,” she admits, arms crossed over her chest. Sarah rolls her eyes. “Besides. Now I know your secret. If you make me leave I’ll tell everyone, and then you won’t have it anymore.”
“You’re such a cunt,” Sarah says, liking the way it feels on her tongue and the reaction it sparks in Rachel. Shock. As if she didn’t think Sarah would say it.
Sarah remembers the paper in her hand and then that she didn’t come here alone, that Helena should be right behind her defending their place but for some reason isn’t, and then she crams the paper in her jacket pocket and calls out Helena’s name once more.
No answer. Rachel looks smug, smug until her eyes widen.
Sarah frowns and goes to say something when she hears the thud of feet skittering down an old staircase, and Helena appears at the bottom looking even more stricken than Rachel. Because something comes down after her. And then the three of them are frozen to their spots, Helena only a few feet from the doorway to the staircase, Sarah with Rachel practically breathing down her neck, as a form materializes into a person. Right behind Helena.
“Hallucinating,” Sarah hears Rachel murmur to herself. It’s almost as loud as Sarah’s heartbeat, up there between her ears.
She wants to grab her sister, wants to scream, but Helena turns until she’s facing this… thing, and all Sarah can see are Helena’s beautiful, gold-spun curls. Her hair in the face of a monster.
It’s a girl. It shouldn’t be, Sarah thinks, with how much of it is just gaps, holes where they can see right through like the church they’re all standing in. She wants to whip around to make sure Rachel’s witnessing this same half-visible figure. The dark hair and the mouth that twists like it wants to laugh and cry.
Helena laughs for it. So soft. So sad.
“I thought I was alone,” the girl says.
It’s a cold hand of claws down the back of Sarah’s neck. A voice that shouldn’t. Be heard. Be- be speaking.
The girl’s flickering like a flame, Sarah realizes, parts of her darker than others, almost a photograph ruined by light flares or someone’s blurred finger over half the lens. She can see the face. She can see the hands. And then her brain makes up the missing parts, until she’s sure she’s seeing someone just like them. Standing. Her feet planted in the debris on the floorboards.
They should run. That’s what Sarah thinks. She should call out and get Helena and then Rachel and run.
“So did I,” Helena says. To the girl. The shape.
It flickers a softer colour, only parts of it reacting to the light through the remnants of stained glass. It’s like a memory, or when someone you used to know shows up in your dream. Not quite… right. Off just enough to terrify.
The girl smiles wistfully. Helena’s hand comes up, cutting through the scattered yellow light between them as if she might touch her. It. But before she gets the chance the girl fades away - all that’s left is a smudge where she’d been standing on the ground, and Sarah’s pretty sure Helena made that when she came running down.
“We need to go, now,” Rachel says, hand suddenly grabbing Sarah’s arm.
Sarah lets herself be tugged backwards as Helena shoots towards them, and the three of them tumble out into the sunlight of the teeny break in the trees as if they’d been in darkness for hours. Blinking. Straining to see.
Sarah glances at Helena, who can only stare right through her.
“Come on,” Rachel says, and then she has both of them and tugs them through the forest.
Sarah doesn’t look back. Not once.
If they don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen. If they don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen. If they don’t talk about it, it didn’t happen.
Sarah’s not stupid. She knows how this goes. She’s had years to learn this lesson.
At dinner Helena kicks her foot under the table, kick, kick, kick, on repeat even after Sarah stabs her thigh with the end of a spoon, and the two of them bicker silently while their little brother tries to fill the gap with Mrs. S. A back and forth of unspoken words. Kick. Felix says he started learning about the nervous system. Kick. Mrs. S frowns over the rim of her cup of tea.
But they don’t say anything. They don’t say a word.
Helena kicks the wall beside the other twin bed when they’re supposed to be asleep, long into the night. Sarah pulls the pillow over her head. Every time she shuts her eyes she sees the flickering image of the girl in that doorway so she keeps her eyes open and lets them make spotty shapes of the dark but soon enough that turns into fragments of the girl as well and she starts counting Helena’s kicks just to distract herself.
“Helena,” she says around two a.m., her head aching.
Helena stops kicking. The room goes silent.
In school they pass Rachel in the hall and she has her head down and says nothing and it’s like yesterday didn’t happen at all. Helena sits with Gracie at lunch, leaving Sarah to sit alone. Rachel sits alone as well. In another world they’d eat together, but it would be one where Rachel never followed them to the church. Where Helena didn’t go upstairs. Sarah eats her sandwich in silence.
She half expects Helena to ask to go back, when they’re walking home in the crisp October air. Sarah kicks up leaves. Helena hops on the crunchy ones.
I think we should check it out, Sarah wills Helena to say. Just so she can say no. So she can tell her it’s over.
But Helena doesn’t ask, because Helena knows the answer without even glancing at her. Or Helena doesn’t want to return. Helena was closest, after all. Helena’s the one who spoke to it.
“Wanna watch Mulan when we get home?” Sarah asks, when the silence becomes too much.
Helena pounces on a crunchy red maple leaf. The little satisfied smile uncurls from her lips as she looks to Sarah. “Maybe, yes,” she says.
They don’t. They do their homework, shocking everyone.
“I promised we’d try, didn’t I?” Sarah says to Mrs. S, who can only nod and take the kettle off the burner as its whistle grows shrill.
A week goes by; Sarah almost forgets, she tells herself, as if she still doesn’t see it every night as she tries to sleep. But then they’re in the library at lunch for a project of Helena’s and their table near the back shakes as someone sits down too hard beside them.
“I’ve made a list of possibilities,” Rachel says, whipping a paper out in front of them.
Helena’s face grows grim and she shuts her book.
“For what?” Sarah says, knowing full well.
Rachel rolls her eyes. She gives the paper a little jostle, words swimming over its lines. “Depending on how old that place is, the fumes from the peeling paint could have caused a group hallucination,” she begins, not even needing to read from her list.
Sarah gives it a brief glance and then covers it with her hand.
“Rachel, stop, nothing happened,” she says, and Helena slouches in her chair, trapped in the middle.
“It did, though,” Helena mumbles.
She looks, quite starkly, like the younger twin in this moment. And she is; by a few seconds. But their childhood spent apart meant it never mattered. Sarah’s surprised to find it so visible now, as Helena slumps over and rests her chin in her fists. She isn’t even eating candy or filling her cheeks with air to make Felix laugh. It’s just the sullen expression, like despite being right she knows no one will believe her.
But Rachel seems to.
Sarah looks at the list again. Prank by some immature manchild from school. A projection meant to ward off trespassers. Something the twins did to punish me for following them. Her handwriting curls at the end of every word, giving it the appearance of trying to ensure nothing steps out of place.
“Fine,” Sarah relents. “Doesn’t mean we have to talk about it.”
“No,” Rachel says, and for a second Sarah thinks she’s on the same page. But then she continues. “We have to go back.”