“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.”
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.”