This story is by Maddie Lama and was part of our 2022 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
SHE hadn’t expected her knees to buckle like butter beneath her. For her breath to catch like a murderous lasso around her throat.
Her eyes clenched tight but her mouth opened, frantically gasping in cold spring air, as she attempted to balance on the stilettos heels she could normally run a marathon in. She forced her breathless gaze up from the pale gravel driveway she was barely standing on, to the old large Maison de maitre standing at its end.
The house where she had been born.
The house she left when she was eight.
The pink and red roses her Pappa had planted all those years ago, were beginning to bloom and entwine around the imposing oak front door. Just how she remembered. But the once crumbling crimson bricks and peeling window frames appeared refreshed and new. She wondered if the loose rattling roof slates of her childhood nightmares, had also been replaced.
Up there, her room. Her eyes closed again as she recalled the last time she had stood in front of the house with her parents.
That day she had held tightly onto her mothers while gloved hand. It had been hard to breathe then too.
Her mother looked one last time behind her at the house, and fell to her knees sobbing, letting go of her daughter’s hand. But then she kneeled and grabbed Amelia’s shoulders fiercely, staring at her, her once sparkling eyes puffed and watered with grief.
“You look just like her. Talk Amelia talk. Why do you not speak to us? Where is your sister? Where is Sabine? Why do you not talk? Why do you not cry for her? Where is Sabine? Where is she?” Her voice was choking. Fearful.
“WHERE is she?”
Her father bent down, carefully removed Amelia from her mothers clutches, and helped Maman up from the drive, kissing her forehead.
“She has lost her twin,” he whispered in Maman’s ear. His features were gaunt and crumpled and his voice was tight, but kind.
“She has lost a part of herself. Half of herself. The doctor has said this is normal. She will talk when she is ready.”
He patted Amelia’s head and smiled at her weakly.
“Your Maman will be okay ma cherie. Don’t worry. Everything will be okay.”
But her mother never was okay again. Nothing ever was.
Her chest constricted, the pain rousing herself to the present. A neighbouring boy and girl chased each other in the long grass to the right of the driveway. She stared at them trying to regulate her breathing once again.
Amelia had loved to chase her sister.
“You can’t catch me!” Sabine shrilled, the wind blowing the silk ribbons plaited through her long hair.
“Yes I can and I’ll tear your braids out!”
Sabine’s sweet laugh trailed away on the wind. Always laughing.
“No you won’t. I can run faster.”
And she did. And laughed harder. And drew better. And sang sweeter. And embraced her mother more fiercely. And kissed her father more softly.
Her mother never spoke of Sabine again. No one did.
Amelia remained mute for two years. Then Maman followed. Her father consulted many doctors. They all said time would heal them.
But Amelia knew her mother would never have closure, because every time Maman looked at her, she was reminded of the daughter she had lost. Sabine was always in front of Maman. But it wasn’t Sabine. It was a fake. It was a replica.
Maman could have loved Amelia twice as much, but instead she grew to resent her.
And then she stopped looking at her altogether.
Pappa stayed later and later in the office, coming home to their little Parisian flat when it was dead and silent, drowning the remaining hours of the night in whiskey oblivion.
When she finally began to talk again, her parents didn’t notice. They sent her away to school where she never told a single person about Sabine. About anything. The other girls ignored her.
When she went home to the 13th arrondissement in the school holidays, her mother kept to her bed. Her grief had spread cancerous tumours around her heart.
It was not long before Pappa became infected too.
Amelia shakily lit a cigarette and walked slowly towards the front door.
She blew out a thick curl of smoke. She followed the swirls with her eyes, watching them pass around the doorframe, and imagined them drifting into the hallway, unfurling up the spiral staircase.
She was climbing up behind Sabine, up the grand winding staircase, their stockinged feet sliding on the smooth polished wood.
“Amelia!” Sabine had been impatient.
“Quickly! A secret! I have to show you!” Sabine’s lilac eyes widened, bright. Always bright.
Sabine raced ahead to their bedroom on the third floor, where the eaves came down over their wrought iron bed which their mother had bargained for in Avingnon. Maman placed fresh daisies from the garden every day on their pine dresser, and scattered them on their pillows.
A deep cupboard was built into a sloping wall. The twins could stand inside it at its tallest end. It was lined with shelves, filled with lovingly folded matching pairs of dresses, skirts and chemise.
Sabine suddenly got onto her tummy and pulled out a key from under the shelf at the lowest end of the wall.
“My ball went rolling under here this morning,” she squealed.
“I found this key..look!” Sabine fiddled the key back into the wall under the shelf of ruffle necked blouses. Amelia watched in surprise as the whole shelf wall swung outwards like a door, exposing a small room behind, big enough for them to crawl into and sit cross-legged together.
They told no one about their discovery. Once Sabine hinted to their father at dinner, but he merely said that this old house must have been once full of trap doors and hidden cupboards, that were probably sealed off now. They smiled at each other, and the secret room inside the cupboard grew full of their treasures. Stones from the garden, feathers from the ducks on the nearby stream, and scraps of silks and cottons from their mother’s sewing room.
They sat there in the evenings with a candle, braiding each others hair and counting their pebbles. Sabine’s were always smoother and more glittery.
They looked everywhere for Sabine. Neighbours came. The Police. The Gendarmerie. Shopkeepers from the village. They hunted around the fields, the forests, men threw off their shirts and waded into the stream. The maid was questioned, the lady who helped with cooking, the man who tended the garden. They wailed threw up their hands, shook their heads, and wondered what had become of poor little Sabine. Her parents were inconsolable.
They asked Amelia question after question. Where had they been playing? What were they doing? When did she last see Sabine?
The cook said she had seen them through the kitchen window, playing under the apple tree, but when she had peered out later, only one was there. She didn’t know which one. They had both been wearing the same checked smock dresses Maman had made for them. But she had thought nothing of it. Then she had become distraught and blamed herself.
They questioned the old man who used to walk past their house every day, who chatted with them and gave them sweets, and sometimes received a cup of coffee and a croissant from cook. He was arrested and released with no charge, but was shunned from the village after that. A few weeks later, he hanged himself.
She stubbed out her cigarette with the point of her shoe, and walked up to the front door, pushing it open. The real estate agent had told her he would leave it unlocked so she could go inside and look around a bit first. She didn’t need to look around. She would make a cash offer straight away.
The staircase was unchanged. Kicking off her shoes, she slowly ascended each step, stopping every few seconds to grip the bannister tightly. At the attic floor she walked along to the passage to her old bedroom. The room was empty but for a small writing bureau.
There was the cupboard. She yanked the handle fast. Bare shelves. She crumpled to the floor as her sobs broke her chest, and a key fell out of her pocket sliding across the familiar shiny floor.
Amelia had always meant to let her out. It was just supposed to be a game. Just to teach Sabine a lesson after they had argued. But then it had been too late. It had been too long. And then she was too terrified to say anything. They would have been so angry with her.
So she said nothing.
She had said nothing for the last 20 years.
But now she was here.
Now she would release her.
And she would never leave Sabine again.