But there really was nothing to it. Because I was the Secret. And there really was nothing much to me. Sure, I screamed sometimes, and threw things around. But in that quiet little alley, no one could really hear me. Right? Unless maybe I wanted to be heard.
I was tired of being ignored for so many years. It was worse now that the building had been abandoned. It used to be a school, so it never got too lonely. But after the fire, the city authorities decided the building was too ramshackle to serve any function. They were thinking of demolishing it – they probably would have, if not for some of the older residents who claimed that the building had historical value and would fight tooth and nail to stop the council from getting their paws on it.
You’d think there’d be more of us around, after the fire. Instead, the hallways became emptier. Dust settled, thickened, over the years, and I was trapped in this miserable draughty place as always. It was the worst during the colder months. Loneliness sucked even more warmth out of you, and that always put me in a foul mood.
This year, the council finally succeeded in obtaining the permit to demolish the building. The building’s troop of protectors had significantly decreased over the years, and because of my bad behavior, some of them had even decided it was best for the building to be torn down.
Where would I go if the building no longer existed? Maybe someone would come to collect me. Maybe that mightn’t even be so bad.
They sent only one man to observe the building before proceeding with the demolishment. He arrived without much fanfare, though people crowded to watch him enter the building. I observed from behind the second floor windows. (I’d learnt throughout the ages that sunlight cast an illuminating glow upon us. Some keener-eyed humans had spotted me before, and it was prudent to keep to the shadows.) I couldn’t see his face, only his mess of brown curls that appeared slightly golden in the sunlight.
Downstairs, Edna, the old lady who sold apples at five for a dollar down the street, had stepped forward to address the man from the town council.
“Those walls hide a secret, young man. I wouldn’t disturb it, if I were you.”
He shrugged. “Someone’s got to do the job.”
He ignored further finger-pointing and murmurings, and unlocked the wooden doors with a huge brass key. I remembered the headmistress used to keep it around her waist. Good old Headmistress Coy.
I decided to head downstairs to welcome the visitor.
It felt odd to have a stranger enter the building after so many years. If anyone should come through those doors, it ought to be the children of the old school, not some random man from the town council. And he didn’t seem put off by the stench of mildew and rot, or the layers dust that swirled in the slim shafts of sunlight that peeked through. That made me mad, for some reason. People had feared the Secret behind these walls, and he was ambling through as though he were house-hunting.
I let loose a keening wail, and banged on the old piano (which had survived, since the fire was put out before it spread from the second floor) for good measure. Most of the stuff here had been wrecked by now, thanks to me and my fits of anger.
The man whirled. “Someone ought to tune that piano.” He shook his head like it was a real tragedy. And then he turned to face me. “I don’t suppose you know how to, or you would have done it already.”
It took me a while to realize he was addressing me. “You … you can see me?”
He cocked his head. “Why wouldn’t I be able to?”
“Because you’re human. You’re – you’re alive.” I said that with no small amount of jealousy.
“And you’re … not?”
“That sounded vaguely patronizing. Do I look human to you?”
He nodded, like I had confirmed a notion of his. “So you must be that poltergeist.”
“Am I.” People had terms for everything these days. “And what exactly is the job of a … what was that?”
“A poltergeist? Basically to be a general nuisance to everyone. They scream, they wail, they throw things, damage them – they do all that when they’re not even supposed to be around anymore.” He shrugged.
That didn’t sound too nice.
“But I can’t help being around. And this is the only place I can be.” I pointed an accusatory finger at him. “And aren’t you supposed to be afraid of me? I am a ghost, after all. People call me the Secret.”
“Only because they’ve never dared to enter this place. They’ll find that all they’ve feared is a pestilential ghost who’s got a horrible voice and can’t tune a piano.”
I banged on the piano. The notes jarred and reverberated around the room. Even I winced.
“I can’t leave this place.” It surprised me how forlorn my voice sounded, so I banged on the piano again, though not quite as hard this time. “So you can’t tear this place down. I wouldn’t know where else to go.”
“You could come in here.”
He jabbed his thumb at his chest.
I laughed. “That’s a rather pitiful way to woo a girl.”
He rolled his eyes. “You flatter yourself. I’m making you an honest offer. I’ve got three souls in this body now. They came pretty willingly.” Shrugging, he added, “It’s your choice,” before going over to scrutinize the old grandfather clock. He stared at the grimy glass case with his back facing me. I knew he was waiting.
I narrowed my eyes at him. “What’s the catch?”
“It might get a little cramped, being in a body with three other people – sorry, I mean souls. But you’d be able to do things again. Human things.”
“And you are in there somewhere?” I gestured to the body.
I didn’t see what was so natural about that. But think about it – another shot at being human again! Not technically alive, but as alive as I could probably ever get. No more being stuck in a cold, empty building, wishing for some noise and warmth and laughter. I could even taste one of Edna’s apples.
“How do we go about doing it?”
The man turned. “It’s a simple procedure.” Nodding at the clock, he said, “We wait for the clock to strike twelve. On the twelfth note, you place your fingertips on mine, and think of the most delightful memory you’d take with you to the end of the world.”
We were minutes – no, seconds – away from twelve noon. I bid a hasty goodbye to the people crowding outside the windows, and took a step towards the man. My eagerness must have made me seem desperate, but I didn’t care anymore. When I became almost human, nothing else would matter but the taste of an apple, the kiss of the sun, and feel of my feet on the ground. I stared at the clock. The pendulum couldn’t swing fast enough for me.
Finally, at the eleventh note, he closed the gap between us. He smiled, lips stretched across his face, as he held out his hand. My fingers shook and I pressed them, like vapor, against his.
I oozed into his body, starting from my fingertips. It felt like a long ride through a narrow, stuffy tube. There was hardly any air, but I began to feel the throb of warm blood around me. It was the headiest sensation I had experienced in a long, long while.
But I soon realized he was lying. Those souls hadn’t entered willingly. They wouldn’t have if they’d known what it was really like.
Because there weren’t just three other souls in here. In here, it was a mass of noise and wails, clawing fingers and helpless gazes. And I couldn’t tear out of these walls, anymore than I could the walls of the old building.
It was a new hell I had stepped into.
“Haven’t you wondered why none of the children who’d died in the fire showed up eventually?” The voice was a deep rumble that boomed all around me.
I peered behind his eyes, the only windows to this flesh tower. He was grinning at his reflection through the dust-caked mirror on the mantle.
I should have known. I should have known better than to believe what those people said about the Secret. They knew nothing.
They thought I was the Secret, when the real Secret was him all along.