When the Father comes home, my sister pulls me into the walls.
We burrow out of the wood rafters at night. First tiny fingers, then silhouettes of children, little porcelain dolls emerging from the pale, knotted, joints of the steeple. The wood stove in his study has long since burned out, and winter weather presses in from the ancient stained-glass windows.
My sister loves being pretty and soft like Mommy – occasionally stealing the shiniest coin from the Offering Box and rubbing it up and down her skin as hard as she can. That’s when she feels heaviest she says. Closer to the ground, harder to float, more alive than ever.
The Father keeps my sister and I separate as much as he can. Luring her to the office where the offering is counted and the candle sticks are polished, while encouraging me to sit in on the choir lessons. Their voices raised high to their God. It’s not good for us to stay together so much, he says. The closer we are, the harder it becomes to get better. To move on. We agree, fingers crossed behind our backs, then float off discussing our next race course through the church to see who’s faster.
The Father says my sister grows opaquer by the day, showing her sickness, while I become brighter, more transparent. Our original translucent forms now showing the direction we’re headed.
Can I help her?
You’ve tried. We’ve all tried. Now it’s up to her.
We meet in the kitchen, my sister and I, and drink the leftover communion wine at her suggestion, hoping that it might make us seem alive. Ignoring the growing burgundy puddle beneath us.
We scuttle past and near the dormitories of the Father and the Sisters, avoiding them tonight, but perhaps not tomorrow. When the Sisters complain their quarters are haunted by spirits, the Father scolds us. A squeak here, a settling there, and snores coming from the Father’s room. We float over old brown carpet, wood paneled walls, and chandeliered ceilings. Fast, because we are invincible. Tonight, I beat my sister in our race. It’s like that a lot lately. But she’s not upset. In fact, she starts crying with joy on our way back up the steeple when she gets stuck between two walls.
When the church begins to warm and the sun climbs the windows, we climb the rafters. Our iridescent feet slip, and we topple into one another. Mostly she flies right through me, but I want to play, so I roll bouncing off the steps. We land on our backs, giggling. Filling the air with a sound no one else can hear; ghost-laughter is light and cold.
Once we escape the Father’s watch, we sit in the Confessional. The cushiony seat bouncy beneath us, listening to sinners beg forgiveness knowing they’ll do it again: shoplifters, cheaters, speeders.
Sometimes the Father stumbles up the stairs after Confession. Worn down by the burden of secrets.
When he comes to visit us in our rafters, teaching us the Word, teaching us not to turn to poltergeists; else our souls will be lost, the Gateway will not respond to our call, and we will fall, down, down into agony like nails on a chalkboard, sea-urchin spikes beneath our toes on vacation, Mommy screaming through the fire, her yellow coat turned black; our newly iridescent hands that could not reach her body in time.
It starts with a prayer. A candle lit. Bowing of heads. One night, my sister is able to extinguish the candle with her finger. She smiles wide. The Father turns white.
Sometimes the Father goes to sit in the Confessional on the wrong side of the booth. He does not hear his congregation’s sins those times.
We climb the towers and gather spiders because they look like flowers, bits of sunlight on our shining faces, crumbling brick bits shaped like hearts and stars; things we forgot to collect when we were living little girls. Now that we’re ghosts, the only things we know are the windows, the steeple, the pews, and the deep breaths coming from the unanswered prayers. No wild flower fields for us.
The first time we tried to leave the church, we found we could not go through the front doors. Even the exterior walls were blocking us. Never to go outside. I heard the Gateway again that night, warm and soft like sunlight. My sister was not awakened by its presence that time. I couldn’t leave without her.
Tonight, I say.
Perhaps, she says. Her shimmering fingers fold over one another.
She describes it: the guttural, garbled, empty growl of the Gateway that echoes in her mind. The Father insists to her that it’s better there, or supposed to be, it has to be, for all repenting sinners. That it’s alright to be afraid of the unknown. We keep quiet as the doors open wide, light emanating, searching for lost souls of little girls. My sister continues to look away, playing contentedly with her shiny coins.
Do you see it?
The Father asked me one day what I see when the Gateway appears, sweat upon his brow. I pointed a glimmering faded finger as a family of four leaving Sunday service. Home.
When I am alone I miss my other half. My skin that isn’t really skin anymore feels clammy in the winter drafts sneaking through the steeple cracks. There is safety in numbers. When I am one, I am too easily swayed, she says. Always have been, like accepting her apology when she wasn’t really sorry about stealing my Birthday Barbie when I was five. Even when floating down the candle lit halls of the sanctuary, I wait for the Gateway to descend upon me like she says it will, like one of Moses’s plagues. Like a car crash carrying a family of four home after a driving lesson down a back-country road for children.
We never quite know when it will show up. But I find the more I think about it, about floating through its golden gates, the more it appears.
When the Father comes home, my sister sticks her head out from between the walls, to show him she’s getting stuck more often.
What sound would she make if I gave into the Gateway? The one she says is so terrible. Would it be too late to make a noise before the crushing, sinking feeling of my betrayal swallows her whole? Would she become the girl who turned to a ghost, who turns to a demon? She just wants to be alive again. More than anything. She wants our family again. She says so in her sleep. But why would she shy away from something so beautiful? I feel the Father catch these thoughts, and his gaze squeezes mine.
My sister says she can’t remember the last time she saw the Gateway, and smiles.
I dance on the organ keys after the Thursday night choir practice for Sunday’s service, my feet too light to make any noise. I am not as heavy as she is. She might manage to strike a key or two, be the haunting figure we grew up to stories of. I just pretend I am a girl. I turn to the Father and give him a smile.
When Daddy tries to teach my sister how to drive, we know to behave, though we are young, just eleven and nine, the road is empty and wide. Else the steering wheel will go free; the pedals will not respond to her weight. When Mommy scolds Daddy in her pretty yellow coat from the backseat with me by her side, but smiles at my sister, no one sees the black SUV barreling down the cross road.
Everyone can see poltergeists, the Father says. They’re feared, out of control, and beyond redemption. When my sister narrows her eyes at him, he looks away and continues. Only those of extreme importance can see ghosts, like pastors and priests, he explains. But when a visiting group of priests entered through the doors, we waved, and they did not wave back. They could not see us. Only the Father.
Sometimes even family members or the killers of said ghosts can see them, he says with hollow eyes, but only in extreme circumstances.
My sister is happy when the Father retreats to his study. He sleeps deepest after Confessional, deep enough to never feel her scream against his face. To not hear her tearing his office apart at night and smashing the hidden bottles in his desk. Her grip on material items growing stronger. But he always wakes in tears when she leaves. Forgive me.
Forgive me. I hear her cry for Mommy and Daddy as the Gateway finally appears. I feel her anger in the church bells that ring deep in the night.
Our panic filled the waiting room of the hospital. Nurses and Doctors whizzed in and out, shouting to whoever might listen. We’re here! We’re here! They never turn to us – they race down the hall, blood on their gowns. The girls are gone! The girls are gone! So, we waited, tangled into each other, shimmering bodies. A cloud of restless limbs unable to find purchase. The girls are gone! Where’s the other driver? Unknown! If we could have turned into girls once more, just for a little while longer, we might have been able to see Mommy and Daddy again. They were so red on the drive to the hospital. Mommy’s face almost black, Daddy’s neck wrapped up tight. My sister’s face was frozen in shock, stuck staring at the black SUV. I had to tug her into the ambulance with me so she didn’t get left behind.
We felt the first pull of the Gateway, sucking us out of the hospital. We screamed to stay, but our screams were heard by no one. It pulled us through the streets, and sent us flying through the large wooden doors, onto the church floor. It waited, bright, warm, and inviting. A bright door I couldn’t look away from, intoxicating. Why would I ever want to hide from this? I could hear them. Mommy. Daddy.
My sister grabbed my arm with vigor, and yanked me back. Her shimmering body trembling.
The Gateway closed.
Don’t go. Not yet, she said.
When? I asked.
The Father found us there that first night, sitting in an iridescent heap in the aisle. He stared long and hard, his hand coming, reaching, resting on my head. I could feel the warmth from his hand, like Daddy. I looked up at him, scrapes and bruises along his face, his second arm wrapped in a sling. Tears behind his glasses. The poor man. He reached for my sister. She gripped my torso, and flew upwards into the rafters, screaming as we climbed higher. I watched the ground grow smaller, and the Father mumble a prayer for forgiveness in the fading light.