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I opened my eyes at the sound of a creaking floor board, yet all I could see was darkness. I stayed perfectly still, but my heart was pounding so hard from the adrenaline that I was sure he could hear it. The sickly gray-yellow sunlight began to lazily show its self through the cracked, filthy window. It vaguely eliminated Reese's face and the cruel grin set in it. "It's morning, Anika," Reese crooned. "Did you sleep well?"
"As well as I ever do," I groaned. "What's the occasion?"
"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," he replied mockingly.
"I think you do. It’s been four weeks since you’ve shown me your face."
"There's nothing new today. I was just thinking you might be getting lonely. Did you dream of me in the night?” he asked.
“No. I dreamed of home.”
His face fell almost imperceptibly, then it was back to normal. “Did you? I thought you’d long ago given up hope of ever seeing it again?”
“Yes, I have given up hope. But that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it. You haven’t broken me, and you’re far from it.”
He took a step toward the window, and stared into the sunrise. “Home,” he murmured. “That is one word that I have yet to understand.”
“Didn’t you have a home, Reese?” I found myself unable to stop the genuine curiosity from infecting the question.
“No.” he replied acidly. “I never had a home or a family.”
“Is that why I’m here?”
“We’ve been over this before. I tire of being alone, and you are here to humor me.” I’d never known his voice to hold such caution in all the three years I’d been held captive in this ghostly stronghold. I rarely caught him off guard.
“That’s exactly my point.”
“I fail to understand what you’re implying.”
I shook my head. “Never mind.”
“Are you calling me arrogant and incompetent?” he asked incredulously, his eyes dilated and full of fire. He stared at me for a moment, then he took a deep breath and his expression calmed. “I apologize, Anika. My behavior was unacceptable.” He walked away.
I was puzzled; he’d never apologized to me for anything, and it startled me more to think that he sounded sincere. He was far less mocking than he’d ever been, and it made me wonder.
I crawled to the corner, and sat with my legs tucked to my chest. In this state, I felt neither hunger, thirst, pain or the sensation of aging, and on more than one occasion I’d wondered if I were a ghost like Reese. The thought was too painful to dwell on, so I gave it up. I tried to escape the present by searching for a memory of my past to think about. I’d relived them all hundreds of times, but I never tired of it because it was the most happiness I ever felt.
Instead of a happy memory, however, the one that surfaced was that of the day I arrived in this prison. I was walking home on a hot summers evening. It was getting late, so I was taking a different route, which I’d hoped would prove to be shorter than the alternative. I was walking past a deserted house when I heard a cry for help from inside. I knew how all the teens my age liked to dare each other to go in, and reasoned that something must have gone wrong.
I went to help, and found the front door ajar. I stepped over the threshold and said, “Hello?”
A few more cautious steps foreword, and the door slammed shut and locked behind me. When I couldn’t get it to open, I started to panic, trying to break a window, a wall, anything to get out. Feeble though they appeared, even the mostly shattered windows were unbreakable.
It was more than a week later when Reese showed himself to me for the first time and introduced himself as a ghost, doomed to haunt his current residence for the rest of eternity.
He would disappear for months at a time, though he claimed he couldn’t leave the house. His visits were brief and seldom, and I didn’t look foreword to them. He always seemed to do everything in his power to get me to scream.
But he was different suddenly. Almost polite. I wasn’t sure what to think.
To distract myself, I stood and walked out of the empty room into the hallway - colliding with Reese on my way. I gasped, petrified, sure he wasn’t going to be happy about my rude intrusion. He stared at me for a moment, long enough for me to decide that my life was as good as over. “I didn’t mean to startle you, Anika,” Reese said.
I sighed. “All right, Reese, what do you want?”
Now he looked confused. “What do you mean?”
“Why aren’t you trying to make me cower and scream in fear? You’re being nice, and there must be a reason for it. Why?”
A pause. Then he replied, “I’ve decided that fear isn’t what I want from you. I don’t want you to despise me for being a cruel, heartless monster. You of all people can understand that, can’t you?”
“Not coming from you,” I stated apprehensively.
He looked away. “I knew it was too much to hope that you’d believe me.”
“You said you didn’t have a family,” I said. “Why is that?”
He searched my expression for a moment. “My parents were constantly drunk. I didn’t consider them family. I was eight years old when I ran away. I’d lived alone for nine years when I found this place.
“It was rainy and I didn’t want to sleep on the street that night. So I went inside. But when morning came, the door wouldn’t open. I couldn’t find any way out. I heard voices from upstairs. There was a man threatening a boy my age with a dagger. On instinct, I ran at him and grabbed the knife. I aimed it at the man and tried to stab him with it.” He paused to shudder. “When the dagger reached him, the boy next to me put a hand on his gut. The man smiled and vanished. I pulled the knife free, and saw the blood gushing from the stomach of the boy. He fell to the floor and died. It took me several minutes to realize that I’d killed him, if not directly or intentionally. The man reappeared and told me that hundreds of people had died the same way as that boy; killed by others who were attempting to harm a ghost.
“Suddenly there were hundreds of dead bodies - just like he’d said - lying everywhere; stabbed strangled, burned, anything you can imagine. It was sickening. He told me that once you killed someone with a ghost weapon (a weapon conjured by the mind of a ghost) you become the undead yourself. And now he was set free because I’d attempted to harm him, and now I was taking his place. He vanished.
“I’d been trapped here for fifty-four years. Then you came along. But it wasn’t until recently that I’ve started caring about time again. Because I know it’s important to you, and I’ve been trying to fathom why.”
“Because every moment I spend here is a moment wasted back home.” I answered.
“I’m not letting you go back home,” he said softly. “I need you here. I’ll go insane if you leave.”
“What if I . . . set you free?” I asked. “Give me something to ‘harm’ you with, and you’d be free to go.”
He shook his head. “It’s not as simple as that. I don’t know how to create weapons. Trust me, I’ve tried it countless times, with no results.”
I was stumped. Then a thought hit me hard. “Reese, what if-” I held my hand out. “Let me see your arm.”
Hesitantly, he put his arm in my hand. I put two fingers where his pulse should be, and felt a steady thump, thump, thump. I felt his neck to make sure I wasn’t imagining things. Thump, thump, thump.
“Reese, have you ever considered the possibility that you’re not actually a ghost?"
"What other explanation could there be?" he asked, though I could tell the thought had never crossed his mind.
"You can't vanish or walk through walls, you can't make weapons with your mind, and you still have a beating heart."
"But I don't age," he countered.
"Neither do I."
He stared at me for a moment, thinking hard. Then I had another thought. "What was the date when you first stepped in this building?"
"Um. . . April . . . seventeenth, two-thousand-ten, I believe,"
I stared at him, mouth agape. "You're sure it was two-thousand-ten?"
"It was June ninth, twenty-ten when I got here." I did the math. "That's . . . fifty-four days after you. How long did you say you've lived here?"
“About fifty-four years." I waited for this to sink in. "So every year we're here is a day out there." he concluded. Then he smiled. "You haven't lost as much time as you thought, Anika,"
I couldn't believe it. But all evidence pointed only in one direction. "You're not a ghost, you're just cursed. Have you ever tried leaving?"
He shook his head. "The ghost I tried to kill told me that if I did try, I would lose all mobility and never recover. That would be worse than not existing."
"Then how do you know you can't? Come with me, Reese. Come home."
There was a moment of hesitation. "And what if we're wrong?" he asked. "I might not be able to leave, and something horrible could happen to us both if I tried. I might disappear and you would be the new ghost."
"But you'd be free." I concluded. "Isn't that what you want? I'm willing to take the risk. I honestly think we're right about this. Taking a leap of faith is part of life, Reese. And being alive is something worth living for. Come home with me, you won't have to sleep on the streets another day of your life."
"You'd do that for me? After the way I've treated you?"
"Learning to forgive is part of being human, weather people want to accept that or not. So yes, I'll gladly forgive you."
He took a deep breath. "All right. Let's do it."
A moment later, we were standing by the front door. Reese looked at me; I could tell he was worried, so I smiled confidently. Reese unlocked the door with an ancient key. I hesitated only for a moment before stepping outside. Dramatically, the environment around me changed from the dim, mid morning light to a black sky speckled with billions of glittering stars and a bright full moon. I looked back and watched Reese come into existence, completely invisible until he crossed the threshold. He looked bewildered for a moment, then I watched as a smile - a real, genuine smile - spread across his face.
"What do we do with this haunted house?" I asked. "If we leave it, someone else could become cursed."
"Burn it." he replied.
We were soon walking away from the burning rubble. Someone would notice and call the fire department. I hoped there was nothing left standing.
We were silent as we slowly made our way home. When we reached my house, Reese stopped me before we entered. “Anika,” he said. “I know how you always hated the sun when you were my prisoner, because it was always dull, never the right color. So will you come watch the sunrise with me before we go?”
I smiled. When we watched the first rays of light greet the morning, and I caught my breath at the beauty that so many people took for granted. I was so relieved to finally be home, where I belonged. And to no longer be the cursed.