The familiar tap-tap-tap comes from the wardrobe, followed by the light tinkle of giggles.
“Psst. Leena, come play with me.”
I groan and roll over in bed to face the voice. “Maisy, you’re going to get me into trouble.” A yawn muffles my words, but behind it is a smile as I wonder at my sister’s perpetual giddiness. I shuffle to the wardrobe, my socks slipping on the slick wooden floor.
It’s a monstrous thing, the wardrobe. English oak, seven feet tall with a carved crest, mirrored doors and brass handles. A perfect play place handed down from our grandmother and her grandmother before her and who knows how many grandmothers before. And little Maisy has practically claimed it as her new home. Our new home.
When I swing open the doors, Maisy is sitting cross-legged among Mommy’s gowns and shawls, a fuzzy scarf wrapped around her neck, and her pet corn snake threaded gently through her fingers like a string of pearls. I swish a dress aside, releasing a puff of Mommy’s scent, rosy like her cheeks, and my mind flashes back to the accident — Mommy’s scarf in the snow, Maisy’s sparkly marker on the asphalt, the broken terrarium, blood, smoke snaking in the beams of the headlights. I blink away the memories and pull the doors closed, and we are enveloped in a moment of darkness before the circle of my flashlight illuminates our faces.
“I have a new story!” Maisy announces. “A ghost story.”
“I don’t want to hear a ghost story,” I groan. “I want to hear a happy story.”
“But this is a happy ghost story. With a happy ending. I promise.” And she launches into a “once upon a time” tale of two sisters escaping a horrible monster. I drift into my own thoughts and let her soothing voice sing me back to sleep.
Shouting startles us. I turn off the flashlight and we cower together, hidden securely among the clothes, having never reached the happy ending to Maisy’s ghost story.
After school, I take my homework into the wardrobe. Maisy is already there waiting for me. “Did you get in trouble?” she asks.
“I’m always in trouble; you know that.” I wink at her and settle my notebook in my lap under the ring of the flashlight. Maisy takes her sparkly marker and doodles a snake in the corner of my paper.
“Hey!” I protest.
“It’s Bella, my snake.” She smiles, proud of herself.
“Leena!” The shout from downstairs is the unmistakable sound of Daddy when he’s been at the bar all day, a common occurrence since the accident, his loneliness masked by angry eyes. I hear his boots pounding up the steps and scramble out of the wardrobe before he makes it into the room.
“What are you doing, girl?” he slurs.
“Nothing, Daddy. Just homework.”
He squints at the wardrobe, then at the notebook in my hand. Snatches it from me. I expect him to punish me for the drawing, but he doesn’t. He sinks back, then tosses the notebook on the bed and stumbles out of the room.
The bruises on my arms are easy to hide, but the ones on my heart spill out for all to see. Yet no one understands, or wants to. My silence at school is met by laughter and teasing from the other children. You’re so strange. Why won’t you talk? I can’t look at them. I’m afraid of what their eyes would say, considering their mouths are so cruel.
I sit in the wardrobe with Maisy often, trying to remember Mommy.
“I see her sometimes,” Maisy says. “She misses us, our family.”
“I see her sometimes too.” I lean my head against hers and conjure Mommy’s face in my imagination. But I can’t keep the image. Daddy’s enraged face always replaces it. I know he’s grieving, but it hurts me how much he’s changed. I tried to tell him that once, that I feel his pain too, and that I need him. Remember when we used to have picnics in the park? How happy we were? We can do that again sometime. He just glared at me, and what I read in his expression was that we wouldn’t have gone out in the snow that night if it hadn’t been for me. It was my idea, the dinner at Coney Island, the spur-of-the-moment visit to the pet store, the corn snake for Maisy. The accident was my fault.
Tears slip down and dampen our clasped hands, and Maisy whispers, “It’s okay. You’re safe here.”
In the wardrobe with Maisy is the only place I laugh, I think. Everywhere else, there is fear and loneliness. “You’re the best sister in the world, Maisy,” I tell her.
“I’ll always be here for you.” And she is. Even now. Especially now.
“I think I’ll stay in here forever,” I sigh.
“Good! I’ll finish telling you my ghost story, then.”
I feign exasperation and roll my eyes, but I’m happy to get back to Maisy’s story.
But just like before, we don’t get to the end. Daddy is looking for me, and I am in trouble.
When he finds me in the wardrobe one Saturday, he swings the doors open so hard that the mirror breaks, shards of glass crashing to the floor. He grabs my arm and yanks me out, then throws Maisy’s and Mommy’s clothes, handfuls at a time, across the room. His face is red and spittle flies from his mouth. I cower behind the bed, crushed, violated.
Then he has a furniture dolly, crow bar and hammer, and he’s taking the wardrobe apart and carting it in pieces down the steps and out the door, the stomping of his boots reverberating in my head. And I can’t breathe.
I’m doubled over on the hill outside, watching as a truck pulls away with the wardrobe in its bed. And I sob.
I turn to look at my sister’s headstone, next to Mommy’s.
“What’s the happy ending, Maisy?” But I can no longer hear her.