My twin sister says a ghost comes into our room every night. She says it’s a black lady with a sunken face. Every time she sees the woman, my sister says her terror mirrors her own. The ghost gasps and then shrinks back into the wall. “It’s like she’s saying sorry,” my sister says every morning.
I’ve never seen a ghost. The ghost in our room, I haven’t seen it. Some nights I stay up past bedtime eying the walls and see nothing. In the mornings, my sister walks beside me on the way to school, telling me how she saw the ghost again. Even though I’ve never seen the ghost, I believe my sister. My sister is pure. She never lies about anything.
Compared to everything we’ve seen, this ghost is nothing. She is an annoyance. As my sister and I stumble into our 4th grade classroom in the mornings, she recounts the haunting; I always finish her sentences. “And then she shrank back into the wall,” I recite along with her, rolling my eyes.
It has been eight months since we were evicted and moved into this apartment with our mother. Eight months since my sister first saw the ghost-lady. She has woken my sister up every single night. In the mornings, my sister’s eyes are desolate with fatigue. She is too delicate for this.
I want the ghost-lady to leave my sister alone. I wish she would just haunt me instead. I can take it. My sister can’t. She is softer than me. When she hears Mom crying through the walls, she cries. When I hear Mom cry, I stick my fingers in my ears.
“We’ll sleep with the lights on,” I announced that night as we bathed together in grey water. We did. Nothing changed. She’s still terrified.
My sister finally told Mom about the ghost. It took her eight months to gain the courage, and Mom acted like she didn’t even hear. We have to tiptoe around Mom. Any sound of ours sends her flying. “Did you hear her?” I asked Mom. Mom acted like she didn’t hear me. I think Mom could get rid of the ghost if she really wanted to.
“Why don’t you ask the ghost what’s wrong?” I offered to my sister before bed that night. I had crawled into her top-bunk. We thought that bundling up together would ward the thing off.
“Tried that,” my sister yawned. “She won’t say.”
“Well,” I smoothed our blanket over my sister’s frigid toes. She laughed and said it tickled. I told her to hush before Mom got mad. “Ask the thing another question. Then maybe she’ll leave you alone.”
“I don’t see why anyone would ever want to come into this house,” my sister sighed, pulling the blanket over her head. “If they didn’t have to.” Then we turned on our sides. She curled up behind me and burrowed her head into my neck.
Mom isn’t talking to us again. We don’t know if it’s because we told her about the ghost, or if she’s just sad. When she is sad we become invisible. We wave our hands in her face and her eyes are cavities. We shout her name down the hallway. Our voices wind through the rotting hardwood floors and cigarette smoke, and pierce her skin like sagging arrows. We ask her what’s for dinner and she shrugs. Her shoulders slope out of their sockets into new chambers of grief.
So we talk to each other. My sister and I do. And not about the ghost. We talk about other things. We laugh. We don’t talk too loud.
That night, my sister falls asleep before me. From under our bedroom door, I hear a stifled sob. Mom is crying, weeping in little loops. The loops descend onto the floor, tiptoe through the wood-rot, then slide under our door. They reach their crescendo in my ears, exploding in a great disgrace. My sister snores. It doesn’t matter. I plunge my fingers into her ears.
“I’m sorry girls,” Mom croaks one freezing morning, several silent days later. Her voice is hollow. Her lips barely move. The words seem to come from somewhere else. Another world. We walk to school empty all over, her confession haunting us. “I’m just so sad.”
When we get home, Mom is still in bed. We watch TV on mute with subtitles. When we bathe, we don’t slosh around in the water.
One night, some weeks later, the searing fullness of my bladder overrides my fear of my mother. I slip from the top bunk, careful not to wake my sleeping sister, and straddle eggshells down the hall to the bathroom. The slit under the door is a sickly yellow. I hear sniffles and clanking metal, and I know Mom is in there trying to feel better. I lean against the sticky wall opposite the bathroom door and just wait for her to be finished.
The knob clicks. My heart beats wearily. When the door swings open I see Mom’s sunken face. She gasps and palms her mouth. Then she shrinks down the hall, backing quickly into her pitch-black room.
I don’t know if I believe my sister anymore.
The moment my sister opens her eyes the next morning, I reveal what I’ve learned. “She has to be here,” I tell her. I am talking over her, straddling her leaden body like a paramedic. “The ghost, the lady, whatever.” Our sour morning breaths collide. Her foggy eyes wobble into focus. I had waited eagerly the whole night to tell her what I’d realized. “Listen, she’s only here because she has to be,” I am careful to whisper. “Not because she wants to.” My sister’s black pupils are engorged with outrage. I bend and touch my forehead to hers: “You have to be stronger, sis. You have to get stronger like me and then you won’t see it anymore.” My sister wraps her arms around my body.
Leila Green is a 25-year-old writer from Milwaukee. Her work has appeared in Electric Literature, The Offing, Columbia Journal, and other places. She reviews books on Instagram as @black.book.quotes.