Talking to my mom didn’t solve anything, but it felt good to talk. I felt like I was a soda bottle that had been shaken, and I was about to burst, and talking had relieved some pressure. I slept in her room that night. The woman never came. But I had to return to my own room after that. After a few more nights of not sleeping and not talking about it, the overwhelming pressure returned. I would twitch in short fits and cry without warning.
I called Emma.
I had prepared myself all afternoon for how I would explain everything, along with all the possible responses I’d get from her, from flat-out rejection all the way to apologetic disbelief. But I had to do it. And it couldn’t be just vague hints, like so, there’s been this woman in my window, and yeah, it’s terrible – so, how about Thanksgiving break coming up?
I had to do it while I still had the nerve. I called her on the phone. While pacing around my room, I told Emma about the haunting of my life, beginning with the hairball that had been in my throat and backtracking to the first night just before Halloween.
Emma didn’t say much. But when she did, she said the absolute perfect thing. “Want to stay at my house tonight, or nah?”
It was wonderful. “Are you sure? Your mom won’t mind? Last time I spent the night she got super angry because we kept her up talking and giggling.”
“Believe me, my mom won’t even care in the least. Besides, she’s got like a new boyfriend or whatever.”
“Are you sure?” I was almost floating.
When I asked my mom if I could go, she answered with an immediate, “yes.” I think she was happy to see me doing things I used to do, which included being excited about something, probably thinking that if I got out of the house, I’d feel better, like getting fresh air when you’re sick. My mom drove me over to Emma’s, even though it was a Thursday. I wasn’t normally allowed to go out on weekdays.
Emma and I began the night by watching Pitch Perfect while wearing our pajamas. Before long, I was laughing through the scenes like it was the first time I’d seen the movie. Every laugh made me feel better. Laughing with someone, with Emma, was the best feeling ever. After the movie, we sat cross-legged on her mattress gossiping through the current high school drama and chatting about boys. It got to the point where I felt so good, so safe, I didn’t want to bring the woman up at all. But after a while, Emma gave a light slap to my thigh. “So, do you, like, want to talk about her at all?” She didn’t know how to bring it up, like I’d gotten pregnant or something. But being a good friend, she knew she had to.
I didn’t know how to begin. I started with a sort of interlude, “I was thinking about Curtis the other day.”
Emma stopped me with a shake of her head, which tossed around the seasonal streak in her hair, now colored red and green for Christmas. “Wait, what about that woman?”
“I’m getting to it.”
“Oh, okay. So who’s this Curtis or whatever? You mean that Junior who drives that old rusted green car? It’s like the ugliest thing ever.”
“No, no. A different Curtis, back from middle school. He used to wear a yellow wolverine shirt like three days a week and his jeans were always too short.”
Emma thought a second, smirking. “You mean that boy with the bowl cut?”
“Yeah, but don’t be mean,” I scolded, even as I chuckled with her.
“I’m not being mean. He had a bowl cut, and you know, he owned a total of like two t-shirts.”
“Stop laughing, Emma. It’s mean.”
“Then you stop laughing.”
But I couldn’t stop. “You’re making me laugh by laughing.”
“Okay, I’ll stop.”
“You’re not doing a very good job.”
“Neither are you! This is your fault anyway.”
I threw up a hand. “Okay, let’s both try and stop.”
We held our breath, cheeks puffed out. But Emma chuckled, then I chuckled, then Emma snorted, and I laughed harder, pointing at the angry expression on her face as she told me I better not tell anyone that she snorted.
After the laughter fizzled, Emma said, “Okay, well, why’d you want to talk about Curtis anyway? You want to ask him to prom or something?”
“Curtis? Not at all.”
“Okay, so what about him?”
I was regretting my interlude. “Remember our eighth-grade camping trip? It was in the woods for whatever reason and we had to do team building obstacles and we slept in those cabins?”
“Those cabins were disgusting. My mattress was all soggy. Anyway, sure, I remember. It rained the whole time. I got poison ivy and Jared broke his arm trying to jump some obstacle but was stoked anyway because he won.”
“Remember the campfire that first night? There was a big group of us telling ghost stories?”
“Sure. It was the only night it didn’t rain. What about it?”
“Do you remember Curtis?”
“We’re still talking about Curtis?”
“Yeah, it’s why I brought him up.”
“Okay. What about him?”
“Do you remember what he did when we started telling ghost stories?”
“I’m not the one who had a crush on him.”
“Oh my gosh! I didn’t have a crush on him!”
“You seem pretty obsessed about him.” Emma laughed at how angry I was getting.
“I’ll tell everyone you snorted.”
Her eyes went wide. “Don’t you dare. Okay, okay, so Curtis and whatever. What did he do?”
“He went to sit near the trees by himself. Then he pressed his hands over his ears to keep from hearing the stories.”
“Yeah, yeah. I remember now. We kept yelling at him to come back and join us.”
“No we didn’t. Remember. That’s when we all laughed at him because he started crying.”
“You feel bad about laughing at him?”
“I guess. Yeah. I mean, he was scared. But we just kept teasing him and telling the ghost stories anyway.”
“That was Jeremy’s idea.”
“Yeah, and he told the ghost stories even louder.”
“And this has to do with that woman?”
“Yes. Curtis was scared and I didn’t understand back then what that would feel like. But now, I’m the one who’s scared. I was thinking about how we treated him. It makes me feel bad.”
“We were in middle school,” Emma offered, seeing how guilty I felt. “Why are you crying?” she asked, touching my hand.
I laughed between the tears. “Well, if you haven’t noticed already, I’ve become a complete mess. I’m seventeen. I’m not supposed to be afraid of the dark anymore. And if people find out about the woman, they’ll think I’m crazy or acting like a baby.”
“So what if they do? I won’t think those things.”
It felt good to hear that. “I know.”
“What’s happening? Tell me about her.”
Even though I’d told her everything on the phone, I told her again, partly to get it off my chest, partly to try and find some clue that was hidden between the dreams, the visits.
When I finished, Emma stretched over the mattress to pull me into a hug. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“It’s okay. I just hope it ends soon. And thanks. For letting me come over.”
“Are you kidding me? We should do this more often, like, all the time. Like we used to. And I used to go to your house too, remember?”
“I miss that,” I admitted.
“What happened anyway?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it’s because of what happened to our parents. Our houses got pretty serious for a while.”
“Way serious,” she agreed. “I hope we’re not like that when we get old.”
“Me too. This makes me so happy. Being here.”
“Well, now that you’re here, hopefully you can sleep. You look ready to crash out right now. You can barely keep your eyes open.”
“I know. Guess I’m not much fun anymore.”
“You will be,” she said. “Go to sleep. I don’t mind at all. You’ll get through this and then we can have late nights talking about boys and gossip like we used to.”
“We did that tonight,” I said.
“Yeah, but you were only pretending.”
“Only a little. I still liked it though. Maybe next time, we can even talk bad about Sam.”
“That we can definitely do! He’s so stupid. I love that Destiny flat out rejected him to his face. Did you know she’s going with Adam?” Emma burst out laughing.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Sam is such an idiot.”
“You’re being mean again.”
“Yeah, well, Sam made a mistake. And he always thinks he’s so smart.”
“Has he always been like that?” I asked, wanting to know. “I feel like I just noticed or something.”
She rolled her eyes. “Absolutely. But he’s so much worse lately. Now he puts too much gel in his hair and sprays on about a gallon of cologne.”
I laughed. “I know. I think he was trying to impress Destiny.”
“He’s trying to impress everyone or whatever. Like, he thinks his brain is twice the size of everyone else’s. When I found out he asked Destiny, I was glad he didn’t ask you.”
“Then why did you sing that song or whatever with Valeska and the other girls?”
“You’ve liked him for years and I knew you wanted to go with him. Besides, forget Sam, there were a few other boys who were talking about asking you, boys way cuter than Sam.”
“Then why didn’t you tell me?”
Emma shrugged. “I don’t know. You were so happy about going with Sam or whatever.” Emma then prodded my shoulder, edging me towards the mattress. “Go to bed. No more talking.”
“Don’t even.” She reached for the light. The room went dark. “Goodnight.”
I couldn’t have kept my eyes open if I wanted to. The softness of the bed ushered me towards sweeter thoughts. In that feeling of safety, I wondered dreamily if I could just move in with Emma. I fell asleep.
A scream split the night. I sprang up in terror. Emma jumped out of bed and flicked the light on, almost knocking the bedside table over. Then she shuffled to the wall, looking over the corners of her room as she fidgeted in panic. Her eyes were wide with fear. Her arms were crossed over her chest, legs tucked together. I knew that pose.
Uncurling a finger from her chest, Emma pointed to the end of the bed. “She was here. She was there. A woman. That woman. The window was open. Even though it’s closed now. But it was open. It was cold. I wanted to close it because the wind was so loud. The blankets were blowing from the bed. And it was freezing. You were in bed, sleeping. But I was sleeping too. Even though I was standing, standing here. There were two of me. I didn’t understand. I was standing right here. Looking at me. I wanted the light on. It wouldn’t work. That’s when I saw her standing at the end of the bed. She was tall. So tall. Her black hair was blowing in the wind, hiding her face. She was staring down at our sleeping bodies. She just kept staring. Then she reached down to grab my feet and pulled my body out of the bed. But you kept sleeping anyway. I wanted to scream at you from the corner to wake up, but I couldn’t, I was too scared she would see me, the real me. The other me kept sleeping, even as she lifted me into her arms. She carried my body to the window. That’s when she turned to look at me. She smiled. At me. It was horrible. She left through the window with my body. I didn’t want her to take me. I started screaming.” Emma’s eyes finally turned to me. “Sarah,” she said. So many emotions and unsaid things could be heard in my name.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ll go home.” I got up and began grabbing my things.
Emma was still shaking, glancing around the room with her back to the wall as though making sure nothing could ever get behind her again. Emma said almost distractedly, “No. You can’t go. It’s still night.”
“It’s okay. I’ll go downstairs.”
Emma said, “Wait. I mean. It was just a nightmare, right?”
I answered with honest despair, “I don’t know.”
“But. But it was her. That woman. Right?”
My bag was in my hand, filled with my things. “Yes.”
I was at her door. “Wait,” Emma called. “I’ll go down with you.”
I didn’t know if she wanted to be a good friend or if she didn’t want to be by herself. Maybe it was a mixture of both.
We sat side by side on the couch, waiting out the night. We didn’t say anything to each other. When the sun finally rose, we ate breakfast in silence. Then we went back to her room to brush our teeth and do our hair, masking our fear in silent routine.
Emma’s mother met us in the kitchen in a rush after we came back downstairs. “We’re behind schedule! Good morning, Sarah!”
“Get in the car, girls.”
She scooped up her keys and drove us to school. As I watched Emma’s neighborhood pass by, I knew there’d be no invitation to her house again, not until the woman in the window was gone. And maybe for the first time, I doubted whether that would ever happen.
“Are you two ready for the competition?” Emma’s mother asked, sounding excited for us.
“Yeah, Mom,” Emma said.
“Sarah, how about you? You’ve got the lead part. Are you ready? We’re so proud of you, you know.”
I tilted my face from the window to meet her eyes in the rearview mirror. “I’m ready.”
Emma flipped around in the front seat to look at me. “Sarah is going to kill it!” I could tell she was already trying to forget what happened in her room.
“We all are,” I corrected with a smile I conjured up for her. But I felt sick, like my stomach could only take so much of all the faking.
“Have you been practicing?” her mother asked.
“I can’t believe it’s in two days!” Emma said, throwing her hands onto the dashboard in front of her. I could tell Emma was forgetting the woman, passing it off as a nightmare to be forgotten, just as I had done. Even though I had told Emma everything, for her, it was still too supernatural to believe. Coincidence is easy to trust – so I’m sure Emma passed it off as a nightmare she’d had simply because she’d heard about mine. A part of me wondered if the woman in the window would go after Emma now. But I didn’t think so. The woman had an attachment to me. She’d gone after Emma to isolate me, to punish me for thinking I could get away. I was getting to know the woman.
“It’s only in two days,” Emma said.
I looked at her, letting her know I was still thinking about other things.
Emma turned back around, sobered by my expression.
Emma’s Mom tried to bring up the competition again, but Emma said, “Mom, we’re like so done talking about it. Quit stressing us.”
“Oh, sorry,” her mother said. Then, “Sorry, Sarah.”
When we got to school, there was this momentary pause between Emma and I, as the students bustled around us. Emma gave me a hug. She said, “Just focus on the competition. It’ll help.”
Pretending to be comforted, I said, “You’re right, I will.”
“And, you know, if I can help at all, with that, I will, okay?”
Emma went to her class. I went to mine.