Mrs. S, when she was little, she used to tell them, wanted to be an explorer. The kind that had statues made of them, and was put into history books, all for unearthing new little corners of the universe.
What happened? Sarah would ask. I grew up, Mrs. S would say. Stopped thinking the world owed me anything.
Sarah’s in the forest about ten feet behind Rachel, who’s a foot behind Helena, and all she can think is that Mrs. S would love this. A part of her, at least. The part that wouldn’t be on Sarah’s side, sure they’ve lost their bloody minds heading right back to whatever demon they encountered last time.
Helena starts giggling as soon as the church emerges from the woods - a sign of nerves - and Sarah does her best to swallow back the rising threat of vomit. Rachel, keeping an impeccable pace in heeled boots, hasn’t flinched. Sarah isn’t about to lose it in front of someone who might as well be carved out of stone with how coolly she’s handling this. The whole walk she hasn’t said a word. And neither has Sarah, but for different reasons.
Finally, Helena breaks their silence. “Maybe we should knock,” she says, as they all sort of come to a stop between the trees.
The clearing is just up ahead, a ring of light around the church that, today, wears its peeling paint like an apology. A few birds sit on a piece of roof. Not crows - sparrows, maybe. Little things that are singing.
“Knock,” Rachel repeats. Dully, as if Helena’s offered her an empty crisp packet.
“In case she’s there,” Helena says, shifting her feet. “Or- wants to be.”
“This is ridiculous,” Sarah mutters.
They both turn to look at her. Somehow they’ve twisted this whole expedition to make it seem like she’s the crazy one, that returning is the only logical next step, and their expressions only appear to remind her that her opinion carries no relevance.
“We’ll just go in,” Rachel says as if Sarah hasn’t spoken. Helena nods.
Still, none of them budge from their safe spot in the forest.
For a second Sarah can picture an outcome in which they don’t go in, turn back, lock their doors tight behind them and pretend nothing ever happened. They’d walk quickly through the trees with an increasing sense of lightness the farther they got from the church ruins. And then Sarah would hold her sister’s hand at the dinner table and this would soon become another forgotten secret between them. But.
Rachel tilts her head in Sarah’s direction. Come on, you chicken. A thin trickle of sympathy amidst the deliberate apathy.
At Sarah’s exhale, the three of them move into the clearing and Helena opens the heavy wooden door. It’s only as they tentatively step inside that Sarah tries to recall if they shut the door behind them, last time, when Rachel dragged them out running, and then decides it’s best that she doesn’t know for sure.
The dust comes up in a cloud at their disturbance, caught in beams of light through the broken windows. It’s beautiful, still. Haunting. Sarah hates herself for thinking that word and none of them have looked at the door to the staircase yet. They all just stand there, bunched up in the entrance, Rachel so close to Sarah that she swears she can feel her heart pounding.
“What did we expect?” Rachel whispers when none of them move, her head turning and the proximity causing her hair to brush Sarah’s cheek.
It sends shivers down Sarah’s spine that she’s glad to attribute to anything other than being in the church again. If Mrs. S was here - Sarah actually wishes she was, because at least being yelled at would feel safe. But maybe Mrs. S would know what they’re looking for. How to find an answer to a question they don’t know how to ask.
If we saw what we did… If it was real…
They want to be proven wrong, of course. They want the explanation to be logical, and they’ll go back to school and feel silly for even considering the alternative. Sarah’s sure of this for approximately ten seconds, and then Helena heads for the altar and Rachel breaks off to go examine some melted-down candles and Sarah’s left alone in the settling dust with the truth.
They’re only afraid they’ll find nothing.
Sarah stalls for as long as she can stand the rustling silence but then it screeches in her ears and she pulls herself out of the doorway if just to hear her own heavy footsteps. Rachel glances over, briefly, at the movement, clearly not finding anything interesting as she goes back to her candles and the holes they left in the dust. I’m not a ghost, Sarah says in her mind. It’s the first time she’s been able to think the word. And it’s flimsy.
Her eye catches the little shelf she didn’t finish examining last time they were here, not because of- not because of the ghost, but because of Rachel’s intrusion. She’d been looking for something. A guest book. And she didn’t find it, but she did find…
Her hand goes to her jacket, to the pocket where she shoved that scrap of paper.
At the altar, Helena has her hands spread open in a beam of light, fingers outstretched like the dust motes have settled into a book in her palms. Sarah’s own fingers find the scrap of paper as Helena shuts her eyes.
It’s thin, at the edge of decay. Sarah holds it up for examination and the ink today is barely visible. She swallows. Among other things belonging to this church, it’s faded.
She tries not to think about accidentally bringing it home, and Helena’s stories about fairies, and all the rules you really shouldn’t break.
“Do you think…” Rachel starts to say from somewhere behind a pew, and Sarah doesn’t know when she moved there, but Rachel cuts herself off, maybe for the shaky way her voice came out.
Helena’s eyes are open now. She’s smiling, perched as if about to start her sermon, maybe imagining these pews full of people, maybe picturing a congregation of the dead. In the games they’d play Helena would always be the leader. The one who started the story, who always seemed to know the ending.
Sarah looks at the torn bit of paper: this time at the word. The looped handwriting. Ab - in the light, the word could be lace with how much of it has sunk into the pulp. Absol-t- .
“What is it?” Rachel asks, all of a sudden right behind Sarah without so much as having made a sound. Sarah doesn’t jump, but she’s fairly sure she knows what a heart attack feels like based on her chest alone.
“Jesus,” she curses.
“Sorry,” Rachel says, as if now realizing what a dick move it is to sneak up on someone in this particular setting. There’s a careful glance to the doorway that Sarah echoes, both of them returning to each other’s gaze before they can take anything in. Rachel exhales and her shoulders drop with a tiny, nervous laugh. “I keep…”
Sarah nods, because she’s not sure she could say it out loud either.
Rachel’s dust-stained fingers go to rub her temple before she remembers what’s on them, and then her hand trails down to where Sarah’s holding the paper. She doesn’t take it, but she also doesn’t let Sarah hold it alone.
“Absolution,” she declares. Sarah blanches.
Rachel’s finger touches the last barely-there letters, as if trying to prove a point. Her eyebrow goes up in a challenge and Sarah gets the feeling it’s used to the position.
“Yeah, but hell if I know what that means,” Sarah says, shrugging her way out of Rachel’s personal space. The paper comes with her; Rachel lets go with a surprising amount of ease.
It isn’t that chilly in here, and Sarah can’t remember if it was in the forest either, but she pulls her jacket around her a little tighter nonetheless if just to tighten her barricade between herself and whatever weird shit’s happening on the other side of it. She doesn’t look at the doorway again, but she can feel it. That Rachel and Helena are waiting.
“Forgiveness,” Rachel says, her voice both clipped and softer. “Absolution.”
Sarah drops the paper. It takes a minute to flutter to the debris-littered ground, but then it settles on some pine needles and both she and Rachel watch it like it might dissolve right in front of her eyes. Forgiveness her ass.
Rachel takes in one more pointed breath and then strides past Sarah with a noticeable click to her footfall, heading right to a broken window as if this was the plan all along.
There’s not much here, Sarah wants to say. They’ve seen it all. They can go home.
But then someone might point out what she’s trying to avoid: the staircase, and what lies beyond it. Who lies beyond it.
There were rooms, Helena said.
Part of Sarah is the tiniest bit curious - Mrs. S, not the mother side of her, but the young Mrs. S, would be proud. What kind of rooms would they have above a church? Sarah’s brain says an office, or a little bed, and can just picture what trinkets might have been left behind. Broken glass in a photo frame.
The rational part of her says there probably isn’t even a floor to these rooms, and going up there would only lead to injury. She feels her stomach drop at the idea of Helena insisting on leading the way and having to watch her sister… no. They won’t, so she doesn’t have to think about it.
(And then the terrified part: she keeps swallowing it down, but it remembers. It can’t forget.)
Somehow Helena hears her, even with her brain on its quietest setting; Sarah glances over at the sight of movement, and Helena’s hand is on the doorframe, the rest of her body on the staircase.
“Helena!” Sarah cries.
Rachel’s head snaps up, deer in the headlights.
“It’s okay,” Helena’s voice says, muffled by… God, Sarah doesn’t even want to know.
“Helena, you shouldn’t go up alone,” Rachel says, and Sarah’s mouth is bitter at the way Rachel’s last word falters.
Because they can feel it.
Goosebumps marring their skin.
Helena says, “I’m not alone.”
Sarah doesn’t sleep for three nights straight. It’s dark in their room and her eyes are always shut but she can still see , even with Helena’s soft snores trying to ground her. She presses her tongue to the front of her teeth and counts every throb of blood through her veins and the dark is so speckled with figures that none of it makes a difference.
Figures. One figure, going on forever.
It’s only when she falls asleep in science class (waking to a particularly hard kick from Rachel’s boot behind her) that she has to acknowledge why, to the look in Helena’s sharp eyes, and the teacher could be launching a rocket at the front of the room but all Sarah can see is Helena’s dark expression and the glance she gives to Rachel sitting behind them.
So say it, then, she wants to tell them.
Helena has her hair back with a furry blue scrunchie this time but it’s the look on her face. The knowing. The look from the church when the figure finally spoke.
And, somehow, Sarah’s the only one who can’t sleep at night.
“Sarah,” Helena says at lunch, a rare occasion where Gracie’s left to find other friends. It’s concern, it’s fear, that has Helena at the corner table where Sarah does her best to hide. But not the fear that Sarah has.
They have their sandwiches on their spread-out tinfoil, crumbs in the creases despite neither having taken a bite. It’s drafty today. They’re under a window, old glass, peeling paint, and Sarah wishes she’d taken any other seat - anything that wouldn’t have her staring at the decay.
She knows she’s in for it when Rachel sits down.
Rachel lays her lunchbag on its side, unzips the bottom, takes out a sandwich in wax paper that won’t be eaten until the matter is dealt with. She peels back the wax paper without a word to either of them but they’re still all hanging on that one word of Helena’s, like it came from lips they could almost see through in a doorway that should never have been opened.
Sarah pulls the orange from her bag and sticks a nail into the flesh, just to interrupt the ceremony.
Helena exhales. There’s a chill as she does so, and Sarah wonders- but it’s impossible. Death isn’t something you can catch.
“So,” Rachel prods.
It’s soft. Sarah can’t remember ever finding kindness there, but this feels close enough and she wants to crawl inside her orange between the skin and the pulp and just live there, squashed flat, citrus in her eyes to keep everything else out.
They didn’t talk about in on the walk home. They didn’t say a word as they crunched back through the forest, sky darkening with every step. Rachel split from them wordlessly at the main road and even when it was just the two of them, Helena’s quiet quest for brittle leaves and Sarah’s heavy breath in her chest, it was still just silent.
Like the ghost took it from them.
“She’s not sleeping,” Helena admits, like Rachel’s a doctor and the table is a clipboard under her tapping nails.
Because she can’t stop seeing, Sarah wants to say.
“Hmm,” Rachel says. Her nails pause. They’re grey, a shade off of her skirt today.
The thing is they all heard it. They all heard the words, the voice in the doorway, the face that appeared as they stared right through it. There were nails in the wall behind it, and Sarah watched them pierce the dark holes of someone staring back.
“I’m not scared, ” Sarah finds it in herself to emphasize, but it only receives frowns in return.
It’s different. The way Helena says it it’s like Sarah’s up all night waiting for it to return, in their tiny secondhand house with the curtains all left open. She’s not stupid. Nothing followed them. Nothing can.
“But you’re not sleeping,” Helena says, and her frown has more concern this time.
“Except in class,” Rachel adds.
She has a pen pulled out of nowhere, likely just to have something to hold. It’s a darker grey than her nails. Almost black.
Neither of them seem to get it and she doesn’t know how to put it into words, this fear, this… anticipation, a wave she only knows is coming because the tide pulled away.
They can’t unhear it. They can’t unsee it. Fine, but that’s not it.
That’s not it.
You came back, it said. I thought...
And Helena made a promise.
“You don’t know what we started,” Sarah finally mutters. “What we…”
Rachel lets the pen tap the table, followed by her nails. The bread on their sandwiches is hardening and Sarah has an orange in her hand with one crescent-shaped wound, begging to be opened.
“I know,” Rachel says.
It’s quiet enough Sarah can barely hear it, with every other conversation in the cafeteria trying to overtake it. But Rachel says it with her eyes, too. And with Helena’s slow nod.
Both of them.
“You don’t,” Sarah says.
They both promised.
They both drew closer.
And the figure grew more visible with each careful word they gave.
You came back. I thought...
We’re here, I promise. We’re back.
You came back. I thought...
Of course we did.
You came back. I thought...
Helena’s hand almost didn’t go through. Almost didn’t miss the fingertips she was aiming for. Sarah held back a sob as the figure- as the girl reached out to meet her, and then Rachel had joined them and the three were…
Who are you?
Sarah backed up to the door. Pleading. Silent.
I can’t tell you that.
Sarah stepped out alone.
For dinner Mrs. S makes spaghetti, the good kind, with store-bought meatballs, and it fills their plates with the reminder that this is a good home now. It has heat and thick walls and S’s job comes with insurance, which means they can all see the dentist. They can see their mum after school. They can see each other across a dinner table, warm.
Sarah doesn’t like to remember who in particular would put so much energy into making it cold; the homes where every look from each of them was disappointment. She can’t say sorry. But she can eat her spaghetti without complaints, hold her tongue about S’s tired eyes, will her sister to take her elbows off the table. Little things. Little ways to promise she’s trying to be better.
Mrs. S gives her shoulder a squeeze as they’re doing the dishes, Helena and Felix squabbling over dish towels while Sarah runs the water. And it’s just a quick squeeze - but there’s a look that accompanies it when Sarah turns her head that sends the squeeze surging through her chest.
Good job, chicken. I’m seeing it.
Maybe it would be different if she knew the truth.
Helena holds a dripping plate over Felix’s head as she pretends to dry it, dancing away from the towel he tries to whip her with in return. She’s laughing. Shining. But Sarah sees through it; it’s always this role she goes right back to the second she’s threatened with instability like this time it might save her. No matter how many times it’s failed in the past.
(See how much they love me? Need me? See how you can’t take me now?)
There isn’t a shoulder squeeze for Helena. She and Felix rush through the drying and fight for the remote in the living room, leaving Sarah with a wet counter and a lump of guilt in her throat.
“I can finish up,” Mrs. S says, kettle already on the stove.
The kitchen’s warm from dinner and the sinkful of hot water, warmer now with the burner glowing orange, but Sarah doesn’t mean to step away from S. It’s just that she’s wearing a sweatshirt. From a high school she never went to. Secondhand everything, this life.
Her cheeks are hot.
Mrs. S puts a hand to her forehead, knuckles soft despite their calluses, and makes a click of disapproval with her tongue. “You’re not sick already, are you? It’s only October.”
Helena wins the remote battle.
She sits on Felix’s legs, trapping him on the couch, the two of them framed by the doorway and the dark of the window behind them. Must be watching Animal Planet then. Something with dogs, or manatees. The gentle animals.
The ones who don’t blackmail their sisters.
“No,” Sarah says, and shrugs off S’s concern and hand that’s come to rest on her back. “Just not used to the radiators working this well.”
She wants to walk away, wants to join her siblings, wants to leave her mum’s curious gaze and not have anything to apologize for. She’s doing it for Helena. But it feels like the opposite; like she’s back to her old tricks and everyone’s a shoe-drop from figuring her out and reeling in any faith they were ever foolish enough to place in her.
Helena glances to the kitchen now, half-smile freezing on her face as they make eye contact.
(I’ll tell her everything, Sarah threatened. Her sister’s shirt in her fist all twisted like the shame in her gut. If you even try to go back…)
The kettle’s nearly at its whistling point, where Mrs. S will pluck it off the coil and set it on a cooler one for just a second to let it breathe before she pours the tea. Always that one moment of rest. The pause.
Sarah takes a breath.
“Are you gonna watch with us, Mum?” she asks, turning her body so it’s close enough to feel S’s guard come down.
S has her hand outstretched, ready for the kettle the instant it wails. Like a baby to be coddled. She would’ve been a good mum to babies, Sarah thinks, but she got three traumatized kids instead. Too late to teach them how good it feels to only know love.
“If you want me to,” S says. Almost soft. (The almost reminding them both of Sarah’s talons.) “If that’s what you all want.”
Sarah’s never been a good daughter, a good sister.
In her best moments she’s been sizing them up, tallying the soft spots, tucking them away for later when she’ll need them to wound the worst. She knows this. She knows she doesn’t know how to unbecome this. But, sometimes, very rarely, maybe not even more than this once, it’s for their own good.
She would never tell their mother everything, even if Helena did go back. But Helena needs to believe it. That Sarah would do something to have her sent away, that Mrs. S would send her away, that a ghost would be the catalyst.
And that Sarah would ever, ever let Helena take the blame.
“We do,” Sarah says, as the kettle screams to be taken to rest. “It’s what we all want.”