“Can you keep a secret?” She asked, and my first thoughts were, of course I can keep a secret, I’m dead. Who could I even tell?

Her breath stank of half rotten food, and her decades old clothes barely fit her fragile body. Dirt raced up and down her body, some of it getting in her mouth as she talked, causing her every word to begin and end in coughing. As such, most of our games involved little talking. The only exception was this one, the one her brother and her used to play.

“Only for a price of a ball and a bag.” I replied with my demands, as was required, and slowly, she hobbled over to the items before sliding them to me.

“Alright, now for my secret.” She grinned between coughs. “Today in class, it was me who gave the love note to Noah.”

“That’s a good secret I’ll have to keep for the price of a ball and the bag.” Now it was my turn. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Only for the price of a crayon and paper.” The paper was lying next to me, but the crayon took a while to find, hiding in the crawlspace from one of our earlier games of Rat Wall Run. When I returned, I rolled them across the floor to her, causing her to giggle.

“Alright, now for my secret. Today at dinner, it was me who slammed the cabinet.”

“Why’d you do that?” She laughed.

“Your parents were getting a little too loud, and I thought you could use a little bit of levity.”

“It was pretty funny to watch them jump. That’s a good secret I’ll have to keep for the price of a crayon and a paper.” She stroked her chin, pretending to be in deep thought. “Can you keep a secret.”

“Only for the price of an airplane.” I answered as she folded the paper inward and outward until it resembled a paper airplane.

“Do you remember the action figure you had when you were little? I was the one who broke his arm off.” She said, and silence flooded the room as I pretended to share a memory that was not mine.

“Oh, that was you.” I eventually replied. “That’s so mean.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. I forgive you. That’s a good secret I’ll have to keep for the price of an airplane.” For a moment, I wanted to pat her on the head, but the thought left my head as soon as it appeared. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Only for the price of a bed and a blanket.” She yawned, and I noticed a shadow creeping over us. My eyes raced to the source, and spiraling upward, a bull of a man lingered.

“Elisabeth. Who are you talking to?” His voice was stern and unflinching.

“No one.” She turned away from her, likely recalling what had happened last time she had answered.

“It’s late. You need to get to bed.” He pointed at his watch. “I’ll be back up in ten.”

“Okay.” She coughed, and slowly, her body found its place between a rotting mattress and a blanket with more holes than fabric. For a minute, her body lay still, but then, she spoke. “Hey Jed.”

“Yes.” I answered.

“Will you still play with me tomorrow.”

“Only if you let me choose the game.”

“Thank you.”

“Don’t thank me yet.” I brushed my hand over her body, and for a second, she shuddered as the blanket coiled further around her body

No one should be forced to live like this. I thought as I pulled my hand back and wandered away from her bed. Outside, a hallway of six doors lay, four of which being bedrooms, one of which being a closet, and the final of which being a bathroom. The first bedroom belonged to the elder sisters, Lucy and Becky. The second belonged to the brothers, Berk and Trey. The third belonged to the youngest and perhaps my only friend, and the fourth belonged to no one. With the door nailed shut, no living soul had been inside since the incident one year ago.

Downstairs, the parents sat huddled around the table, praying together. I made sure to make my movements as silent as possible so that I didn’t interrupt them, although their conversation thereafter greatly changed my stance.

“Was she talking to him again?” the mother asked.

“She’s just processing her grief as all children do, by playing make-believe.” The father answered, although it was clear he was growing less confident of that by the day. “We just need to let her grow up and get her out of the house. Once she starts hanging out with friends, she’ll…”

“Forget about him? How can she do that when we can barely go a dinner without someone mentioning him?”

“She’s young. It won’t be easy, but the best thing we can do at this point is stop enabling her and force her to spend time away from the house.”

Good luck with that, old man. I thought as I walked over to Elisabeth’s backpack and fished out her homework. Her grades were good, well above her class, but I knew that it took a lot more than that to truly make something of oneself, especially for people like her. Erasing her answers, I replaced them with my own as I’d done the past thirty nights.

“But what if it is him?” The mother’s voice brought me back to their conversation. “Have you heard the teachers. They say she’s a certifiable genius.”

“So what? Our little girl can’t be smart?”

“No, but they’re saying she’s grades above the curve sometimes. Look at this drawing. It’s almost like that painting, the Mona Lisa. When would Elisabeth have even seen the painting much less done anything of the sort?”

“Maybe one of the other kids has one of them computers.”

“I talked to the Father.” Shivers shot through my spine. “He said that this might be a sign…”

“Enough, our daughter is fine. She has to be. We did not go through all this trouble to…” He clenched his fist around the bottle to his right, and before I could process him drinking, he’d already gone to the kitchen to grab a second one. Meanwhile, the mother’s head just sank to the table, tears forming at the base of her eyes. The sight almost made me wish I did know her, so I’d know what to do to cheer her up. However, that was not the case. I was here long before her and would remain long after.

The moon had reached its peak in the sky by the time I decided to retire. My dreams almost manifested this time, but once again, they fell short. Truly, the living didn’t know how lucky they were to have dreams, and I thought back to the hands that had snatched my dreams from me.

Over the years, my memory of them had become disoriented. At one point, they were long and white with feminine fingernails, but at other times they were dark and hard like rocks. However, no matter which arms gripped me, the words always remained the same.

I am sorry. You didn’t deserve to be born like this, into such a cruel existence. I’ll take away the pain now. The words haunted me, the mere memory of them causing the marks on my neck to turn red. I was just a child when I first heard them, but as the decades and centuries passed by, I began to understand their actions more and more. They wanted to save me from a loveless life. After all, even my own family couldn’t care for a burden like me. It was a mercy what they did, and as more and more families left this house, the more I realized it.

I couldn’t even couldn’t the faces that passed through here, some knowing of my existence and others unaware. Regardless, it always ended the same with them leaving and forgetting about me, and why wouldn’t they. There was no love in their eyes for me. I was nothing, some shrill voice in a crumbling house.

After a while, I began to realize the futility of reaching out myself and began taking the form of others. Once I was a distant father, twice I was an unborn child, four times I was a close friend, and five times I was their brother. I meant nothing to them, but the people they thought I was did. I was nothing more than a shadow hiding inside a costume, and to this day, I still couldn’t tell if this decision made me happier or more miserable. On one hand, they actually spoke kind words to me, but on the other hand, hearing words that weren’t for me only served to remind me what I could never possess.

I didn’t recall resting my hand against the closet door, but before I could react a slamming sound echoed throughout the house causing the parents to spin in my direction.

“I suppose that was the wind too?” The mother shot a glare at the father.

“It’s not him.” The old man shook his weary eyes. “This house is playing tricks on us.”

If only he was correct, then I wouldn’t be here. Why was I even here? I wasn’t bound by any forces or rules. The people that passed through rarely stayed for more than a few years, just until they got back on their feet, and even when they passed through, only a few could hear me, little lone see or feel me. I’d have much better luck if I moved to another house or a city, but maybe, that was why. Maybe, a part of me wanted to use this crumbling house as an excuse. Since I couldn’t be loved here, I could say that it was due to my upbringing, but if I left, I’d have to face the fact once and for all that I was alone in this world. This house haunted me with the past, but at the same time, it shielded me from the future.

Was that why I wanted Elisabeth to leave and get far away from here and posed as her brother? Did I believe that if she never got a chance to know me, then I could have an excuse for why she wouldn’t love me? Or was I just trying to save her from getting to know me so she could spend her time on something worthwhile?

The questions echoed around in my head like war drums amidst an endless void, but no matter my answer, did it really matter? I wasn’t someone whose voice anyone wanted to hear, not even myself. Thus, if my opinion meant nothing, did it matter what was going through my head? Perhaps, that answer didn’t matter either, or I found myself marching back up the stair into Elisabeth’s room.

For an untold time, I stood over her unsure what I should do or even what I was considering. Eventually, my lips began to move, and for the first time, I knew the words were mine. “I wish I was brother; I really do.”

The words hung in the air, clawing at my soul, and darkness devoured my inner thoughts. If only I could be someone, anyone’s time else. If only for a second, if someone would love me for me, without thinking me someone who I wasn’t. However, the darkness parted as another voice entered the room.

“That’s a good secret I’ll have to keep for a bed and a blanket.”

“What?” I turned down to her twitching figure.

“It was your turn. Can you keep a secret?” She coughed, and not knowing what else to do, I responded.

“Only for the price of… of a smile.”

“Jed hates action figures.” She whispered through a weak, shivering smile.

“Oh.” I stared at her in confusion for a minute before I began to understand. “So, you…”

“Yeah.” She pulled the blanket up to her tiny chin. “I’m going to bed, but when I wake up, it’s your turn to think of a secret.”

“Oh, okay.” I muttered as she turned and drifted into sleep, leaving me once again standing over her for an untold time. However, this time, something was different, and slowly, I leaned forward to whisper into her ear. “That’s a good secret.”

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