It was harder to find than he’d anticipated, now some twenty years on. Two decades ago, he would’ve just followed the screams.
The roof had held up nicely, but the pink face was as scarred and pockmarked as his. He sidestepped the plastic tea cup shards, taking only three strides to cross the wet warped floor. It had seemed so much larger back then, perhaps because she had been so small.
A lone, rusting bolt held the iron ring in the corner. The brown-black stain bore testament, refusing to abandon its commemorative vigil. The tingle played at the back of his ribs, urging him to crawl to the spot, to breathe it in, to search for any lingering remnants of her. He swallowed it down. He was better than that. He was changed.
It had taken him a month to build it; had taken them nearly a half-day to walk there through the flowering springtime. They’d picnicked by the stream. He’d taught her how to skip stones once they’d finished their sandwiches. Peanut butter and banana—her favorite, he still remembered.
He’d packed enough for the week.
She laughed and twirled when she first saw it, insisting they call it Magic House, because surely no other name would suffice. They’d slain dragons and wrangled unicorns and baked mud pies all that first day and she only asked to go home once before falling asleep in the corner.
The next day, when the games changed, she asked much more frequently.
Sadly for him, it had only lasted three days. But he had carried the memories. Every time his cellmates punished him, cracking and tearing pieces before sparing him to endure it all again—every time—he clung to the shadows of April, swaddling himself in their warmth. They had overpowered the cold left in the needle’s wake, stretching the withering layers of skin into a terminal smile.
He felt her.
She held the doorway, tiny as ever in her scars, but newly erstwhile; nearly defiant. They were alike now, both papery and wispy; the moonlight piercing her translucence and splattering the rotting plywood.
He shuddered when he saw her, near-giddy with the anticipation of their reunion. But he couldn’t find the same spark in her eyes. That light had died long ago.
“Hello. I’ve missed you so,” he said, stepping toward her. Gently, he reached for her face, just before he caught the spectral glint out of the corner of his once-retina.
The luminous chain bit into his arms and wrists as he suddenly realized that he could still feel pain, even now. He writhed—bewildered and betrayed—as she wrenched the phantom links into a near-death/after-death bind.
“Welcome back to Magic House,” she told him, clutching the sharp things he’d once been so fond of. “Let’s play a game.”
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