Grandma Gladys lay still and cold in the casket.
She was pale and silent. The old woman would never sing again. Sierra would miss the singing more than anything else. There wasn’t a song in her anymore, now that Grandma Gladys was gone.
Sierra was just twelve years old—old enough to except death and know loss, but too young for it to make any sense. Standing there in that dimly lit parlor, staring down at the very face of kindness, mourning the loss of harmony and joy, the young girl in the black mourner’s dress doubted death would ever make sense to her. She doubted she’d ever smile again, in this moment. The sadness was too much for her, too overwhelming. She knew, with certainty, that she would never sing again; for the song in her had died when Grandma Gladys had slipped away, taking her sweet old voice into the beyond.
Beside Sierra stood her older sister, Erika, wearing a similar dress, displaying an identical forlorn expression. Without words, for words were unnecessary between the sisters now, Sierra knew Erika was feeling the same loss; not the loss of a grandmother or the loss of death so much and deep, heavy loss of the song they would never sing again. It was Sierra’s song, composed for the younger sister by the elder with the aid of the grandmother. A song that was meant to be silly and fun, but which had found its way into Sierra’s repertoire, springing to her lips whenever mournfulness or fear needed to be chased away.
Many times, Sierra had sung this song with her sister and with her grandmother, sometimes with only one of them, many times in harmony as a trio. She never imagined such an empty, silent coda as this. Grandmas Gladys deserved better.
She’d been the first to approach the casket. The first to say goodbye. Now, as all the others were passing by and the lid was being closed for the pallbearers to take Gladys away, it was Sierra who stood still at the coffin’s side, that last to leave, longest to linger. The song was in her heart, foremost in her mind, yet it caught in clenched throat, refused to move to her trembling lips.
A hand, big and warm, settled upon her small shoulder. “Come away now, Sierra,” her mother’s voice was soft, gentle, near. “One last stop, then we’ll head home.”
Home. Not home at all. Not really. Home was the house in Rockford where she’d spent her childhood, where she’d had the same bedroom all her life, the same kitchen, the familiar walls and carpet. Home was far from the little ratty trailer her mother had moved them into after the divorce. Home was where mom and dad had loved each and lived together and where they had all been together and happy. She didn’t want to go to the trailer for so many reasons. Foremost being the fear it instilled in her. A fear she couldn’t describe or name, but a subtle sense of fright coupled with constant anxiety.
Something was wrong in that place. Very wrong. They all knew it. There was no way she’d been the only one to feel the cold oppression when they first moved in. As a young girl, she had enough sense to know that the padlocks on the outside of the bedroom doors were a sign that something was out of place.
Her mother was desperate. Sierra knew that, even if she were too young to know desperation of despair. These concepts were as abstract as death, though death was suddenly more real, more permanent. But in her eagerness to find a home for herself and her daughters, Sierra’s mother had purchased the little grey trailer in the far corner of the shady park sight unseen, and they had begun moving in the day she’d acquired the keys.
Sierra would never forget that first day.
The place smelled of must and dust, as if no one had been there for a long, long time. There was a linger scent of old beer and sweat trapped in the shadows and dingy carpet. She had been hesitant to step inside. Something pushed against her there in the threshold and she had been afraid to go into the dimly lit family room. Her heart had started beating faintly against her ribs, like an echo of itself, pulsing strangely in her ear.
“Go on,” her mother had said. “Check it out. Get comfortable. It’s going to be home for a while.”
“I don’t like it,” Sierra had said, and it was true, she hadn’t.
“Give it a chance,” her mother said. “It’s what we’ve got for now.”
So, Sierra had pushed onward, for her mother’s sake and for Erika, who had gone in ahead of her and was seeming to have less trepidation about the whole affair. When she stepped inside, though, Sierra felt suddenly nervous, anxious in a way she could not explain, and so she’d conjured up the song, her song, and had sung it aloud there in the heart of her new home, pushing away the dimness and the eerie feeling that accompanied it.
She’d felt much better until she made her way down the narrow hall toward the bedroom that would be hers. There, at the door, her soft blue eyes upon the brass hasps the steel lock set into the outside of the door. Someone had been locked into this bedroom. From the outside. Someone had been held captive here. This wasn’t right.
Standing there, staring at the locks, the song fell from Sierra’s mouth. It was the last time she’d sung it before the funeral. She hadn’t been able to summon it again in the house or anywhere else since that day.
“Mom,” Sierra said. “Why are there locks on the doors?”
“Lots of doors have locks,” mom answer from the living room.
“Not like this,” said Erika. She was six years Sierra’s senior, eighteen, an adult. Erika was a grownup and she was scared, too. Sierra could hear it in her voice. “Can we get the landlord to remove them?”
“It can’t be that bad,” mom was saying. Her voice was growing louder, nearer, as she made her way down the hall. “Oh, my. Yeah. That’s not right. I’ll call him right now.”
And so she had called the landlord who came straight away and took the locks off the doors and filled the little screw holes with putty and made the whole look as if it had never happened. But it had happened, whatever it was, and they all knew it. Something terrible had occurred here, and not one of them could say it out loud. The landlord, a tall man with greying brown hair and square glasses, had no explanation for the locks on the outside of the doors (for both Sierra’s and Erika’s bedroom had been so padlocked), and he made no more mention of as he left.
That had been six months ago. Half a year before Grandma Gladys had dead. It was the last time Sierra had sung any song, the last time she’d even thought of the tune called Sierra’s song, that Grandma Gladys perfected, and which Erika had composed.
Two days after Grandma Gladys had been lain in the ground, Sierra found herself home alone.
It was not uncommon for her to be home be herself. Mom worked two jobs and was seldom found in the trailer. Erika was a senior in high school and worked a part-time job most night. That left Sierra to fend for herself after school, making her own dinner, washing her own laundry, and becoming well-acquainted with herself.
As often as this happened, and as much as Sierra enjoyed spending time alone—watching what she wanted on TV, eating what she liked, listening to music that pleased her—she found the eerie silence of the house and the strange feeling that she wasn’t quite as alone as she thought she was most unsettling.
Her favorite movies were scary movies. This did nothing for her sense of dread in the mobile home when she spent evenings alone. But no film, no imagination, could explain the noises she heard that day.
It began with music, she thought, though it could’ve started any number of ways. As far as Sierra knew, it was because she was in Erika’s bedroom, snooping where she ought not. Of course, it may have none of these things that triggered it. It could simply have been that fact that she was alone, and being isolated makes people more afraid, more susceptible to fear.
She’d been home nearly two hours. It was nearing six o’clock. Boredom had set in, as it so often does when one falls into a rut and does the same thing, in the same way, day after day. And so, it wasn’t long before Sierra found herself poking around Erika’s bedroom, snooping the way younger sister’s do. Of course, Sierra didn’t think of it as snooping—it’s not like was really invading Erika’s space—she just wanted to be like her big sister. Pretty, smart, confident. Erika was nearly an adult and was everything Sierra wanted to be. Sierra wished her sister could see that, could understand that she wasn’t trying to be a nuisance or a pain, she was simply trying to get close to Erika, to learn from her, to grow into the same kind of woman.
And so it was, with her time alone, Sierra found herself before Erika’s vanity, dabbling in Erika’s makeup, lining her eyes and patting her cheeks, and running lipstick around her mouth. She didn’t have the same grownup features yet, but the makeup made her look more like Erika; and it certainly made her feel a whole lot prettier.
Once she had finished with the initial application, Sierra went into the bathroom, washed everything off her face and returned to Erika’s bedroom to try a new combination. But would a new application of makeup match the same clothes she was wearing? Certainly not. If she wanted to be like Erika, she would have to try on some of Erika’s clothes, wouldn’t she? Of course, she would. Smiling to herself, feeling a little mischievous, Sierra went to the radio, popped in Erika’s favorite CD, cranked up the volume, and began singing along to the upbeat pop music as she danced her way into the closet.
As she pushed clothes from one side of the bar to the other, flipping through shirt and skirts, pants and dresses, sweaters and accessories, the first song ended and the second began. It was a fast-paced song with searing lyrics and Sierra lost herself in the rhythm of the moment, hips swaying, knees bent, feet shuffling, brunette ponytail bouncing in sync with the bass and her sweet, high voice pitched to match (so she believed) the lovely sound coming from the speakers.
She selected a light brown low-cut, V-neck shirt with a crisscrossing pattern designed to be revealing without being revealing, the type of thing that made her sister look great and would surely make Sierra looked grownup and maybe even beautiful. She didn’t think she was beautiful, but her sister was (of this, Sierra had no doubt and would hold fiercely to that view) and so many people said they looked alike that Sierra was holding out hope for herself. The was a matching hair tie on top of Erika’s dresser. Sierra threw the sweater on hoping to fill it out more than she could at eleven years old and swapped out her green hair tie for the brown one, dancing all the while, singing her heart out.
Her feet carried her around the little room, her heart fluttering lighted as she was caught in the moment of being young and free and having more fun than she’d had in some time.
As the music swelled to a crescendo, travelling into the bridge of the album’s third song, the enormous, thundering sound of a hundred hands beating furiously on the walls of the little trailer erupted all around her. Someone was knocking, no, pounding on the outside of the trailer. Was it the outside? Or had the fervent, rhythmic pounding come from somewhere indoors? From Sierra’s own bedroom just next to this room, perhaps?
Her first instinct was embarrassment. Who had heard her singing? Who had heard her and wanted her to stop? Was she really that bad?
Her second thought was that were so many sounds, so many hands striking the walls around her, that the trailer must be surrounded. The noise had to come from without, for it was too frightening to imagine it coming from within the house. But who would beat on the side of the house? And why? And how could there be so many?
Finally, the real terror crept upon her when she thought it must be Erika, come home early. She’d come back far sooner than Sierra had anticipated and caught Sierra in her room, wearing her clothes, going through her things, helping herself to Erika’s expensive makeup. The pounding was a warning, a precursor to the beating Sierra would receive once Erika was in the house.
Swiftly, Sierra pulled the brown shirt off and stuffed in back into the closet. She hit stop on the CD player and stepped out of Erika’s bedroom, trying to compose herself, to catch her breath. Thankfully, she’d already washed the makeup off and left (she hoped) no evidence that she been in her sister’s room at all. It would all be speculation, with no proof. What could Erika even be upset about?
“Erika?” Sierra called.
No answer. Sierra walked down the hall toward the living room, saw the book she’d been reading earlier sitting on the couch where she’d left it. The room was otherwise empty.
The only response was the wind outside whistling past the windows. Now she was scared. Someone had been here. Someone was outside, smacking the sides of the trailer and, for all she knew, they were still out there.
As if reading her thoughts, whoever had been banging before began again. The wall nearest to her rattled beneath a series of powerful blows, a dull pattern of thud…thud…thud… from the outside laid over the undercurrent of a dozen tiny hands pitter-patting along the interior walls with open palms. Interior. The light smacking of the childlike blows was most definitely coming from inside the house, some were coming from down the hall, from her bedroom, from Erika’s bedroom which Sierra had occupied just moments before.
“Stop it,” she shrieked, summoning that high-pitch screeching sound that is the special domain of adolescent girls. “Stop. Now.”
The world went silent. All the thumping and tapping halted instantly. Sierra’s heart felt like melting snow inside her narrow chest. It was hard to draw a deep breath. The tiny hairs on her arms were standing on end and she had the distinct impression that someone was in the living room with her.
She stood in silence, staring blankly at the Christmas tree standing in the far corner, wrapped in tinsel, the small, spherical ornaments reflecting herself, the room, the window behind her in a weirdly warped way so that the whole of reality appeared to her young, terrified mind as a series of Escher paintings. Distorted, curved. Surreal.
In the shadows of the curved reflections, something moved. Something, or someone, that was not Sierra (for she was standing very still, so still her breath seemed to disturb the calm air around her) shifted in the dark corners of the unnaturally garbled image of the room. It may have been one thing mirrored many times, or a multitude of shadowed things in the room with her; she could not know. But what her fearful mind comprehended perfectly was this: something was there, where there should have nothing.
Slowly, she drew in a shallow, shaky breath. She shifted her eyes gradually, afraid even to move her gaze too quickly, and looked directed into a single swaying silver orb. In the arched image, a central shadow faded from stark darkness to a vague impression, blending with the dark edges of the room.
Moving with deliberate slowness, Sierra turned her body, gradually bringing her head around to face whatever was behind her.
There was nothing. Only an empty room, sunlight slanting through the open blinds, and the low, mournful whistle of winter’s wind sneaking by outside.
“Nothing,” she said. Her voice was quavering in her own ears. “Nothing here but my own fear. That’s what Grandma Gladys always said. Our minds are scarier than what could really be there.”
And it was then, in that moment, that the song came back to her; came flooding in with the memories of her grandmother and the remembered peace and calmness with which that song had always filled her. The lyrics came to her easily, gliding from her soul to lips and coming into the world at first in a hesitant whisper and rising to comforting con affetto. Within moments, Sierra was singing herself bravery, hope, confidence. Her strength was renewed and for the first time since the funeral she could almost feel Grandma Gladys there, comforting her, stroking her hair gently, telling her once more that everything would be alright.
Close to her, a sound filled her ears. A noise behind the soft soprano of her own voice. Somewhere in the room the lighthearted giggling of a small child stopped Sierra’s song cold in the middle of a bar.
Something touched her hair. Unseen fingers, small, cool, trembling took her hand, squeezing the ring finger and little finger together, as if that was all they could hold, and all the needed.
Sierra shrieked and sprinted for the door. With no thought for her coat or her shoes, the young girl pulled open the door and darted out into the gentle snow, warmed by her terror.
She ran to the end of the street, to where the road ended at stop sign and a crossroad. There she stood, barefoot and shivering, for nearly an hour, waiting for Erika to come home from work, never once looking back at yawning door she’d left open, or the gentle waving Christmas tree caught in the breeze blowing in from outdoors.
“You’re not serious,” Erika said, looking down at Sierra who was trembling uncontrollably in the passenger seat. “You got so scared you stood out here for an hour, dressed like that?”
“Something was there,” Sierra said. “There is something in the trailer, Erika.”
“Like what? A ghost?”
“Don’t say that.” Sierra shivered again, a creeping chill running up her spine to settle at the base of her neck. It felt so much like those icy fingers gripping hers. “I don’t like it here.”
“Neither do I,” Erika admitted. “But I don’t think it’s haunted.” She pulled the car to stop in front of the little grey trailer. “You left the door open? Really?”
“I was scared.”
“You should be. Mom’s going to lose it when she she’s the heat bill.” Erika stepped out into the snow, pulling her little black purse behind her. “Come on. I’m here now. There’s nothing to be scared of.”
To her chagrin, Sierra was actually comforted by that fact. In her naiveite, she had complete faith in her sister to ward off any evil or fear that might threaten her tranquility. She knew, in the deep recesses of her mind, that there was no way Erika could stand against something supernatural—she was, after all, just a person. But she was more than that. She was a hero to Sierra, a role model; Erika was all the things a big sister should be.
In the house, Erika went into big sister mode immediately, switching on every light in the living room and kitchen, illuminating every corner and diligently pointing out that there was nothing here. Of course, this made Sierra feel like a foolish little girl, scared of her own shadow. Instead of letting on that Erika’s disbelief was hurting her feelings, Sierra said, “Yeah. I guess you’re right.” She shrugged her little shoulders, half in nonchalance, half in sarcasm.
“Just hang out a minute,” Erika said. “I’ll check our bedrooms.”
This brightened Sierra’s mood a bit, for it seemed in that instant that her sister was taking her seriously, at least seriously enough to go on ahead and check for danger. She heard one door open, then a moment later the other. Then, from the furthest room—Erika’s bedroom—came her sister’s voice set in a totally different tone.
“What the frick, Sierra? What is this mess?”
“What?” Sierra said from the living room. She was only half paying attention to her sister. Her mind and eyes where set on the red and silver orbs dangling from the spruce branches in the corner of the room. The Christmas lights twinkling alternatingly, red, white, green, and the other ornaments—blue and green, some with images and layered paint upon them—bounced gently as the trailer shook beneath the heavy steps of Erika’s infuriated, yet petite, form. It shouldn’t be possible for a such a small body to carry such force, such ferocity, but somehow Erika could shake the foundations of Sierra’s world when her wrath was kindled.
“You were in my room again.” Erika emerged from the narrow, shadowed hall into which Sierra had seen the mysterious form had subsided earlier. “We’ve talked about you respecting my space.”
“I was only in there for a minute.”
Sierra looked away, unable—or perhaps simply unwilling—to meet her sister’s eyes. “I just wanted to try on some of your clothes.”
“You have your own clothes.”
“You have better clothes.”
“Please just stay out,” Erika said. “And why did you make such a mess in there? Are you going to clean it up?”
“I didn’t make a mess.”
“My stuff is thrown all over.”
“I didn’t do that. Let me see.”
Fear of her sister’s anger overtaking her fear of the unknown force in their home, Sierra moved around Erika and moved down the hall. She stopped at the door to Erika’s bedroom and surveyed the mess. Dresser drawers were open, clothing tossed in every direction, hanging out, littering the floor. The covers had been stripped from the bed; the closet was in total disarray. The makeup and hair products were scattered upon the floor, on the bare bed. Blinds were bent from things being thrown against them.
Instantly, Sierra began quaking all over again. Her knees were literally wobbling, and she thought she might fall down right there in the doorway. She most certainly had not done this. Someone else had done this. Someone else had been in the house.
“You better start cleaning this up.” Erika materialized too closed to Sierra and, startled, she let out another yelp.
She jerked away from the fierceness in her sister’s voice and smacked her head against the doorjamb. She began to swoon. Dizzy not from the impact, but from something deep inside her, some form of primitive terror. Her body was trembling all over. She was having trouble standing.
Erika was staring at her with mingled indignation and pity. She looked like she might say something, standing there, eyes narrowed and set upon Sierra, lips parted slightly as if there were words ready to leap forth and attack; but in that moment, as two sister locked eyes, one incensed, one terrified, there came a clattering from above as if tiny feet was scampering upon the roof of the trailer.
“What is that?” Erika said.
“I don’t know.” It came out for whinier than she’d intended, but she didn’t care.
The small pitter-patter of racing footfalls faded to the far end of the mobile home, trailing off over the master bedroom, mom’s bedroom. What followed them was a much heavier set of footsteps, as if a single large person were following in slow pursuit.
Erika looked down at Sierra, wide-eyed, her face drawn and pale in the shadows of that wood-paneled hall. “Come on,” she said. “We’ll get a look at whoever this is and call the police.”
“What can the police do?” asked Sierra, believing fully that what they were hearing were ghosts. There was a strange relief that invaded her fear just then, a feeling of justification and alleviation that Erika also heard the noises. Sierra had feared, for the briefest of moments, that it had all been in her head.
Oh, how she wished it had been.
“They can arrest these creeps,” Erika said. “Hurry. You go to the front and I’ll go to the back. See if you recognize them.”
Sierra felt herself pulled by the wrist in a rush, as if caught in a rapidly stream, her head spinning, her thin legs still unsteady beneath her. They moved past the Christmas tree, past the small piano that occupied the wall opposite the tree—the piano that had remained untouched since they’d moved here, unthought of since Grandma Gladys had died—and Erika whipped open the door to the outer world, letting the cold of winter twilight blast in once more.
Erika was still wearing her boots and sprinted out onto the narrow deck, down the stairs and into the small strip of snow-covered lawn beyond the parking slab that served for a driveway.
Sierra long enough to slip her bare feet into a warm pair of insulated boots. Down the steps and around the front of the little trailer she ran. If they’d still been in the big house on the lake, where they’d lived before the divorce, it would have taken much longer to run around to the front, but here it took only moments. She raced through the blanket of snow falling, bringing darkness a little sooner than night, and she looked up at the top of the trailer, straining to see the moving figures of people racing by; listening for the tiny pattering clatter of light feet upon the rooftop.
There was nothing, only the empty silence of snow and descending gloom of daylight savings nightfall.
“Anything?” Erika called from around the side of the mobile home.
“Nothing,” Sierra called back. If she were honest with herself, she couldn’t say if she was afraid or relieved just then. Part of her had wanted to see someone, a person, to make this whole thing make sense. But she didn’t want to see a ghost. That would be too much for one day.
“Me either,” Erika said, coming around the corner. “Probably just animals. Squirrels or something.”
“What about the big one? What do you think that was?”
Erika shrugged, her straight black hair shimmering about her shoulders like the dark side of a sphere as she stood below the pale glow of the mercury lamps. “A raccoon? I don’t know. But I didn’t see anything. No people. No ghosts.”
“I really saw something earlier,” Sierra said. “Don’t make fun of me.”
Erika’s petite chest expanded dramatically as she pulled in a deep, patient breath. “I’m not,” she said at length. “I can tell you’re scared. But I’m telling you there’s nothing to be scared of. Now come one inside. It’s cold out here and I need a shower.” She turned and walked away.
Sierra scampered after her sister, back into the house. “You’re going to leave me alone after what I told you?”
Erika scoffed. “I’m just going to hop in the shower. Five minutes.”
“Fifteen,” Sierra corrected.
“Fine. Whatever. I just worked four hours in a grease pit restaurant. I need a shower.” She kicked her boots off and removed her coat. Beneath was a maroon shirt that smelled of burgers and fries, but not in that appealing way that made Sierra crave a snack. “You’ll be preoccupied anyway,” Erika amended, “cleaning up my bedroom.”
“I thought you didn’t want me in there.”
Erika rolled her eyes, threw up her hands, and stormed away. “Just pick it up.”
Then she was gone behind the bathroom door and the Sierra heard the sound of running water.
There was nothing for it and she knew it. She was alone in this. Slipping her boots off at the door, not wanting to track snow and mud through the house, Sierra made her way, slump-shouldered, slowly toward Erika’s bedroom, trying to ease her mind and put away from her the thoughts of the past hour.
As she stepped into the disaster that was her sister’s bedroom, Sierra once again began to sing softly to herself, the words of the old song coming easy to her, filling her with a trembling sort of courage. Nothing had actually happened to her. Not really. She’d seem something her imagination could have easily cooked up, that’s all. She did love her horror movies. And she had heard something she thought was a giggling child, but it had been so brief, so fleeting. That sound could have been anything. She rationalized her fear, sang her special song softly, and knelt there in the center of the room, slowly folding one article of clothing at a time.
The house was silent except the sound of the shower in the next room and the mournful call of the wind moving through the evening air.
And the single discordant not played by a single key pressed and held on the old, untouched piano in the living room.
Erika didn’t tell their mother about the mess in her bedroom. She didn’t say anything about Sierra’s episode or the fact that Sierra had been outside without a coat of shoes on and had left the door hanging wide open. Never mentioned the sounds on the roof. She’d simply gone on as if nothing had happened, and Sierra, for her part, tried to play along.
Sierra never mentioned the piano note to anyone. Not to Erika. Not to their mother. She had cleaned up the mess in Erika’s bedroom that night and had not gone into that room again since. She tried to block the events of that day from her mind and focused on counting the days till Christmas, but each time she walked by the tree in the living, she was anxious and too fearful to look directly at it, fearing that she’d catch a glimpse once more of a shifting shadow somewhere beyond her own warped reflection.
She avoided the piano, though she’d once loved to play. She couldn’t bring herself to enjoy the idea of playing now that Grandma Gladys was gone and there was no one left for her to play for, no one remaining to shower her with praise and accolades.
The song did return to her though. Sierra found herself singing the song of her childhood quietly under her breath constantly whenever she was home alone. Softly she sang, as if not to draw the attention of whatever might be there, in the recesses of the old mobile home with its history that was dark and secret, with the oppressive feeling of watching eyes and the damp smell that lingered everywhere. She tried to think of none of it in those hours between school and the arrival of her mother or sister, but focused on her homework, her chores, and the sweet melody of the tune her grandmother had called Sierra’s Song.
That seemed to be enough. Singing to herself in that low voice, repeating the chorus and verses continuously, mastering the rhythm and melody, making that song her own, seemed to keep away whatever it was she’d been so afraid of.
It was rare for Sierra to keep things from her sister. She envied her sister. Loved her. More than anything Sierra wanted to share every moment, every experience with Erika, to mold her own behavior and personality after that of her big sister. Sierra was caught in that awkward phase of life when one does not yet know herself. She was in development of her personality, her own desires and interests, but for the time being she would have contented herself with mimicking Erika for, as far as Sierra could tell, Erika was the type of person Sierra would like to grow into.
Still, for all that, Sierra kept the song secret. As far as she knew, Erika had forgotten the lyrics and tune of the silly song she’d written for Sierra so many years ago, the song that Grandma Gladys had put into piano music and named for Sierra. It was something wonderful they had shared as children, but now that Erika had moved on beyond the realm of childhood, it seemed she’d left the song behind. So, Sierra kept it hidden in her heart and sang it only when she was alone, when there was no one to hear her but herself, and when she needed to comfort and courage that only that song could bring her.
The weekend before Christmas Sierra went to visit her father. It had been nearly six months since the divorce, and in that time she had seen him, but had not gone to stay overnight, for he had been between homes and sleeping in his brother’s basement (Sierra’s uncle Bret, whom she liked) and there had not been room for her to stay, no bed in which she could sleep.
But now dad had managed to get himself a small house in the country and had room for the girls to come visit, though on this occasion Erika was unable to go because she was scheduled for work. This was fine with Sierra. It had been so long since she’d been able to spend time alone with her father, and she had relished each moment.
He brought her home in his big green truck on Sunday afternoon, after taking her for lunch and promising to stop by on Christmas to deliver gifts. In the short drive before the dark-windowed trailer, they sat together, father and daughter, in a rare moment of silence. She felt completely happy here with him, but the dawning realization that he was dropping her off and not staying was sitting heavy on her heart. Like all children caught between divorced parents, Sierra wanted him to stay, wanted her mother and father to come back together and love each other again, if only for her sake. She would have given anything to keep him there. But she knew it wasn’t going to happen. She knew that the moment she stepped out into winter he would drive away, and she would be alone and there was no guarantee when she would see him again, if ever.
She sat there, staring without expression at nothing, fantasizing that he would get out and walk her to the door. That he wouldn’t leave her here alone. She hated being alone. She was afraid to be alone. If only she could say it aloud, he would understand, and he would stay, and she would feel safe. She would be safe.
He pushed her bony shoulder gently, nudging her from her thoughts. “Hey, kiddo. It’s all right. Christmas is in like four days. I’ll be by then. And you come visit next weekend again, if you want.”
She turned to him and was warmed by his smile. It wasn’t easy but she forced herself to smile back.
“You want help with your bag?” he asked.
Yes, she thought. Oh, yes. Just tell him you want him to carry your bag in and then you can make him stay until someone else gets home. “No,” she said, still smiling up at him. “I can get it.”
“Okay,” he said. “Have fun with your winter break. I’ll see you soon.”
She stepped out into the cold and he waited just long enough for her to reach the door before backing out and driving off. Winter break. She’d forgotten. There was no school this week. Erika would be working or out with Freddie, her new boyfriend. Sierra would be home alone for hours upon hours.
She put her key in and turned. There was a sound inside. More than a sound. A voice. Sierra pushed the door open.
Every light in the house was on. Someone was home. From the depths of the trailer came the soft melodic sounds of Sierra’s song being sung be another for the first time in a long, long time. The voice was sweet and high. Beautiful. It was the way she remembered Erika singing when they were much younger, standing in the living room at Grandma Gladys’s big farmhouse, the piano playing beneath the chorus of voices. Sierra was surprised to hear the song now. Astounded that Erika remembered it. But she was so glad to hear those words rising through the void between the front door and the back of the house.
“Erika?” Sierra called. “I’m home.” She shrugged off her coat and gloves, set down her backpack and pulled off her boots. “Erika? I thought you had to work today. Where’s your car?”
There was no response, but the song went on, rising and falling in all the right places, warming Sierra in way she hadn’t know it could.
She was halfway done the hallway before it dawned on her that something was out of place. There voice could have been Erika’s. Erika was a wonderful singer, though she was shy, and it was seldom that she would allow anyone to hear her. If she knew now that Sierra was listening, Erika would have stopped. That was the first indication that this voice might belong to someone else. The second red flag rose up slowly in the back of Sierra’s mind. This voice was young, too young. It could have been Erika singing when she was ten or twelve, but it was distinctly different from eighteen-year-old Erika.
Still, the melody pulled Sierra onward. Sierra moved toward the hallway, toward her bedroom and Erika’s that lay just beyond. The voice was louder here, nearer, and Sierra wanted badly for it to be Erika’s voice coming from the furthest bedroom.
“Erika?” she said again, louder. “Is that you?” Her voice faltered and once again the hairs on her arms stood rigid on the little mounds of gooseflesh that had risen on her skin.
The song went on. Sierra’s song. And the sweet, childlike voice was coming from the wrong place. It was coming from Sierra’s bedroom, from behind the closed door.
With a weak, trembling hand, she twisted the knob and pushed the door open.
The song ended, coming to its natural end.
The light from the hall cut into the darkness of the room. Sierra slipped in a hand quickly, flicking on the overhead light, hoping to chase away whatever phantasm was occupying the dark. The room illuminated, but the phantom remained.
A redhaired girl, Sierra’s age, scrawny and pale, sat upon the bed. She wore torn and stained pink sweatpants and an unflattering purple sweatshirt that was two sizes to large for her. Her eyes were huge and sunken, a deeper blue than Sierra’s. There was a sadness behind those eyes, but on the surface was delight, elation. The kind of joy that comes from being seen, really seen, for the first time.
“Who are you?” Sierra asked.
“I’m Julie,” said the girl.
“Why are in my room?”
“I’ve always been here.” The girl smiled sadly.
“Are you a—”
“Yes,” said Julie, rising to her feet. The bed did not move. It was as if it had supported no weight while the girl sat on it. “But you don’t need to say it. I remember how scary it was to say it out loud.”
“What do you want?”
Julie smiled, her dark eyes brightening. “To be friends. I like your song. Did I sing it well?”
“Yes,” said Sierra. “Very well. I thought you were my sister.”
“We could be sisters,” said the ghost. “I’d like that.”
“I don’t know you,” Sierra said.
“I know you. I’ve been watching you since you moved in.”
“Why didn’t you show yourself until now?”
“I tried,” Julie responded. “When you were near the Christmas tree, I tried to speak to you, to show myself, but there was nothing connecting us. There wasn’t a reason for you to see me.”
“What’s different now?”
“I’ve learned your song, Sierra. Learned the whole thing by listening to you. It’s the thing that can bridge our worlds, let us speak to each other.”
Julie laughed. “No. I don’t think so. Just dead.”
“How did you die?”
Julie frowned. “You don’t want to hear about that.”
“What were the other sounds I heard. On the roof? The bigger footsteps.”
“Just my memories chasing me,” said the ghost. They can’t hurt you. They’re not real for you.”
“But they are for you?”
“Sometimes. They way I was killed was…” the eyes of the ghost girl looked away, into the corner of the room. It was as if shame filled her then and she simply wasn’t able to look Sierra in the eye. “It was bad. Sometimes I think of it, and when I remember, he comes for me again.”
Julie shook her head. Her red hair did not reflect the light but grew darker as if absorbing it. “I won’t say his name.”
There was a sound from the living room. Staggering steps as if a lumbering hulk of a person was lurching unstably.
“No,” Julie said. “He’s coming. Close the door.”
Sierra stepped into her bedroom and slammed the door shut. On the other side, there came that deep oppressive sensation that she’d felt that day she’d first heard Julie giggle beside her.
“Your song keeps him away,” Julie said. “Sing with me.”
“My song? But how?”
“I don’t know.” The voice of the ghost was terrified, as if the monster behind the door could kill her all over again.
Sierra didn’t know what it might be able to do to her.
“When I sing, I’m distracted,” said Julie. “It makes me not think of him. If I’m not thinking of him, he goes away. He’s not real.”
Fists pounded the door. A loud drumming rat-a-tat pulsating dull and hollow.
“Sing with me, Sierra. He can’t stand it when I sing.”
“Why?” Sierra said again. None of this made sense, but she was scared and somehow, she could the hands of the ghost as they slipped into her own and the two young girl stood trembling together, terrified.
“He hates it when I’m happy.”
Then Julie began to sing Sierra’s song, loud and clear and strong. Sierra joined her and together their alto voices rose into harmonious allegro. All she could hear was her voice and Julie’s and something happened inside her. Sierra was filled with fervency and life, strength and fearlessness. Together the girls, the living and the dead, sang their terror into submission.
The pounded on the door ceased.
The song did not.
It went on and on, the two singing in concert, holding to one another for comfort and confidence, knowing that together they could stand against the horrors of the world as long as they had the song to bind them. They were in the second refrain of the song when Sierra knew that she had the friend she’d always needed, a new sister to cling to as Erika grew up and fluttered away on the winds of life. Julie would be here with here, never leaving, never abandoning her.
Sierra was contented to stay in this moment forever, standing in this spot with Julie, singing a cappella at the top of her lungs.
They were nearing the end of the song for the third time when Sierra’s bedroom door whipped open and Erika stepped in, staring hard at her, the tall form of Freddie hovering just behind her. Erika’s face was a mask of embarrassment and annoyance.
“Could you keep it down in here, please? We’re home now. You’re not the only one who lives here, you know.”
Erika retreated to the hallway, taking her indignation with her. Sierra pushed the door shut and turned to Julie, who had fallen silent in sync with Sierra. The two girls stared at each other and began giggling the way young girls do, hearty and uncontrollably.
Sierra fell back on her bed and Julie toppled with her. They lay there, side by side, feet flat on the floor, staring at the ceiling and laughing loudly.
Erika pounded on the door. The door opened. “What is wrong with you?” she said.
“Nothing,” Sierra said, composing herself for a moment, then looking at Julie, falling into a fit of giggles once more.
“Whatever,” said Erika. “Just quiet down, would you?”
The door closed again, and Sierra was left alone with her new friend. Before long they had laughed themselves out and lay in silence for a time. Then Julie picked up the song from the beginning and Sierra joined in, softly and quietly, her voice little more than hum and eventually she drifted off listening to the sweetest song of her childhood being sung by her newest friend.