I turned back to look at my friends. The four of them jeered at me, then one of them yelled, "Come on, we don't have all night!" I faced forward and flicked the flashlight on. As the night filled with crisp air and the wind rustled the forest trees, we chose to play truth or dare for the night. And so, I was dared to enter the town's infamous abandoned house alone. My hand slipped against the flashlight from sweat and my breath shook slightly as I stepped closer to the dark structure. Built decades ago by a once-rich family who lost all their fortunes in the 2008 recession, the gothic home was foreclosed upon and left to rot in the forest. Five years after the eviction, a young boy from town decided to explore the abandoned building on his own. Once the parents realized their son never returned from his nighttime adventure, a search party scoured the town for any signs of him. He was never found, and so legend says he is who haunts the old home.
My teeth chattered as I stepped on the house grounds. The wind blew some hair into my face and I shoved it back behind my ear to keep a full view of the house. It was deathly still, the curtains still pulled against the windows and the doors still bolted shut. A front window was smashed years ago by some visitors. The handrail surface was covered in moss and I made my way up the rickety porch without assistance. Turning to the left, I stopped in front of the smashed window. I let out a puff of breath and placed my one free hand on the windowsill and moved my legs through the opening one at a time.
I shone the flashlight around the foyer. The fallen chandelier laid smashed in the center of the room. Moving my flashlight toward the walls, picture frames once full of family portraits, I presumed, were left with empty space inside the ornate borders. The rug that climbed up the stairs was faded, the design barely visible through the layers of dust atop the fabric. Rather than fear, I felt pity while taking in my surroundings. The house was built out of love and hope, a dream come true, but now only a memory of what could have been.
As I stood observing the decorations, a cold air fell against my back. I whipped around toward the front door. I saw nothing. I turned back toward the center of the room when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a glimpse of a figure. I sharply turned toward the movement and, like headlights in fog, my flashlight partially lit up the figure but shone through to the wall behind. I stepped backwards in shock, unsure of what stood before me. In a voice with shaky intonation, I demanded, "Who are you? What are you?"
The figure looked bored. The response was, "Take a wild guess."
It took me only seconds to reply. "You're the missing boy from years ago," I said with a matter-of-factness. He nodded. "But, you're not human anymore?"
"No matter to that right now. What's important is that you safely exit the house."
"Why? Am I in danger?" I interrogated.
The boy briskly said, "Turn around and exit the way you came. But, I ask you to return in three nights. I will need your help. I will explain more once you return, but now you need to leave."
Dumbfounded, I nodded my head, turned and exited through the window, and sprinted to my friends who stood just a short way down the street. I spent the next three days trying to convince my friends I saw the ghost of the missing boy. Unbelieving, they all said I saw tricks of the moonlight or hallucinations from fear. In exasperation, I asked them to return to the house with me on the third night and, if they don't believe me after that, I would never bring up the topic of the missing boy ever again. Quite reluctantly, they agreed. Three nights later and each geared up with our own flashlights, we lit up the face of the house as we walked up the driveway toward the porch. In turn, we scurried through the broken window into the foyer. As the final friend stepped into the house, a fog moved into the entryway from the room to the left. I let out a "Hey!" to get the attention of the group. I pointed my flashlight at the fog and my friends followed suit. My face scrunched in concentration as my friends looked mystified at the forming figure. As the boy materialized, my friends all shuffled closer together. One of them murmured, "Oh my God," and another said, "We're gonna die, aren't we?"
I took a small step forward, just enough to be distinguished from my friends. I said, "Hi there. You asked me to come back and, well, here I am."
The boy looked at me and at my friends behind me. He said, "I asked only for you."
In a rush of words, I responded, "No, I know. But, they didn't believe me when I told them what happened and I thought maybe the more the merrier since you said you needed help."
His mouth pressed into a straight line. He replied, "Alright." I let out a breath.
The boy then said, "I asked you back because, on the night I disappeared, I behaved poorly and this existence is my penance. As I walked through the house, I came upon what I thought to be an innocent toy: a bouncy ball that glittered like gold. I picked it up from behind a couch, inspected it for a few moments, and pocketed it. I thought nothing of it until I walked back home and realized no one could see me. I stood in front of my parents, waved my arms, screamed in their faces, and nothing. I watched as the town searched for me, helpless. I returned to the abandoned house to replace the toy to its rightful place. Once returned, I became visible but only in the form of mist. I've been trapped in the house, waiting for the next visitor of a good-heart to help me. Then, you showed up and held a sense of careful attention to your surroundings which led me to speak to you. All I ask of you now is to help me as I helped you and restore the interior to a homely state."
With determination, I faced my friends and said, "Alright, time to get cleaning."
We spent the rest of the evening cleaning until the moonlight faded and the sunlight streamed through the holes in the moth-eaten curtains. As dawn turned into day, we all exhaustedly collapsed back in the foyer. The layer of dust that blanketed the home was swept away. The broken furniture was thrown into a pile of wood splinters behind the house in the forest. The unbroken furniture was neatly rearranged to return a cozy sense to the space. The boy smiled as he looked around the house. I asked him, "So, do you think that'll fix your curse?"
He turned toward me, "I'm not sure, but what I now have is a clear conscience and I thank you, all of you, for your help in providing that." I smiled. I stood up, extended my hand to my friends to pull their exhausted bodies off the floor, and then turned to say bye to the boy except his figure was nowhere to be found. Disappointed, I followed my friends through the repaired front door.
Three nights after, a rumor spread like forest fire around town that the missing boy returned. When I heard such a thing, I sprinted to my friends after school who stood gossiping in a huddle. Breathless, I sputtered, "Did you guys hear what people have been saying?" Silently, they all nodded. None of us knew what to say. And then, we saw him. He looked older than how his ghost looked to us just nights before. As we all gaped at him as he walked along the sidewalk across the street, he turned his head and locked eyes with me. I gave a small wave. He took a hand out of his pocket, waved back, and walked on, unbothered by the hoards of people watching him.