(Content Warning: This story contains mentions of physical violence, child abuse, self harm and suicide.)
The croquet ball in my room didn’t belong to my family. It was an old wooden model with weathered, dirty-looking red paint, chipped and scratched all over its dimpled surface. I only learned about the game when I asked my parents what the ball was for, and dad bought me a mallet to play with it in the back garden. I only hit it a few times before I got bored, it wasn’t all that exciting really. Leaving it on the grass, I headed back into the house to draw dinosaurs instead.
Laying on top of my bed with my legs swinging to the ticks and tocks of my brontosaurus clock, I drew the outline of a triceratops. Now, the colouring. I wanted it to be pink, but I didn’t have a pink pencil, although a lot of things were pink. But boys weren’t supposed to touch any. Red would do; if I only pressed it lightly on the paper.
I reached down to my pencil case and my fingers bumped into something hard. Pulling my hand back I poked my head over the edge of my bed. On the floorboards next to my yellow pterodactyl pencil case was the red croquet ball.
Weird. That wasn’t where I left it. Wrinkling my brows, I sent it rolling straight back into the bottom of the built-in wardrobe I found it in and put my pencil case on the top of the bed.
I never asked mum why she didn’t get rid of the battered ball when we moved in, but it was possible that she simply couldn’t. I figured it had a tendency to come back to you, when I heard the approaching sound of wood rolling on wood. Picking it up, I went to the wardrobe and put it in the bottom again, this time closing the door on it. I was only halfway back to my bed when I heard the slow creak of the wardrobe door, followed by the familiar rattle. I paused in my step and in a second it touched my heel.
The red croquet ball.
I picked it up, turning towards the wardrobe with the door ajar. Darkness gaped inside, the shadow appearing blacker than it should have. Like it was nighttime during the day. I swallowed and turned away from it, back to my drawings. The misbehaving ball I placed onto the bed under the little arms of Patty, my plush parasaurolophus. Maybe my room just wasn’t level..?
‘Make sure it doesn’t roll anywhere, okay?’ I asked Patty — she could usually be trusted to do a job —, and went back to colouring. But I couldn’t take my mind off the croquet ball by my side.
Its presence weighed on me. The air grew heavy and hard to breathe, and the lights and the colours seemed to drain from the room. A chill ran drown my spine and the breath caught in my lungs. I jolted up and grabbed the ball, chucking it back into the wardrobe across the room, where it landed with a loud bang, probably gaining some new damage. My heart hammered inside my chest and I was trying to catch my breath like I just ran a mile.
The wardrobe’s door slowly closed with a lonely creak.
He threw it at me. It didn’t hurt, or, not like when my father did it. I didn’t feel pain like that anymore.
It was the day my mother asked him for a divorce, and I got stitches on my eyebrow and an ice cream after. Lemon sorbet; sweetness hiding a sour taste. Trying to fill up an empty space with a treat, when the aching void isn’t in the stomach, is a bandaid over a break: makes it look like you care, but doesn’t do much.
I was aware of that pain again when he threw back the ball, even though my heart was long gone and buried in the ground.
‘Micah! It’s dinner time!’ His mother called.
I heard the zip close on the pencil case and his socked feet thudding on the floorboards as he hurried outside from the room and down the steps. He had dinosaur socks. I opened the wardrobe again and went to look at his drawings. A red dino? I smiled. He seemed like a nice kid. In any case, we were roommates now. So we better get on, right? I was not going anywhere. I had tried.
I opened his pencil case — it was much harder than I anticipated, and at the end, I couldn’t hold a pencil. A few fell onto the floor and the tips broke, and when I tried putting them back they kept slipping through my fingers. I worried the continuous dropping would damage their core too much and gave up on fixing my mistake. I could turn the page in his sketchbook though, and flicking through, I left it open on a picture of two dinos smiling nose to nose. Maybe he’d get it.
I want to be friends.
The voices from the dining room floated upstairs to me. His parents were talking, their laughter was warm and happy, and they made silly jokes. Nicely. He was a lucky kid to have them.
I sat on his bed and closed my eyes — interesting, how I was still able to do that. A life’s habit that dies hard? A smile tugged at the corner of my lips. I could have become a comedian.
When Micah came back I opened my eyes too late, and didn't have the time to move before he flopped down onto the bed — through me. The feeling of his body through my being was the first physical sensation I experienced since death.
‘Aaaah!’ I shot to my feet with a scream.’ I felt everything. Even his bones and his organs. ‘Ew…’ The feeling stuck with me like an unpleasant aftertaste, the texture of flesh and skin and the layers beneath. I would have been sick if I still had an actual stomach. He shuddered with a grimace and rubbed his arms. He would have felt something too. Then, his eyes focused on the croquet ball in my hand and he paled.
Startled, I dropped the ball, in an unlucky coincidence right onto his foot.
‘Sorry,’ I muttered later, when he was sharpening the damaged pencils with an ice pack over his foot which he applied after the accident with the ball. Befriending him wasn’t going to plan.
When he was done and put the pencils away, he went to flip the page back to his project without sparing a thought for my message of peace and love.
‘Wait!’ I slapped my hand on the page without thinking. Half of it teared off as he turned it, the other half stuck underneath my hand.
I beheaded a dino.
His breath hitched and I froze where I was, unable to think, unable to move as his eyes filled with tears.
‘Can I get a new pencil case?’ I asked when we all sat down for dinner after my first day at the new school. Mum raised an eyebrow as she turned to me.
‘Is something wrong with your dino one? We only bought it last week.’
‘No, but… Everybody else has plain ones,’ I mumbled, pushing the peas around on my plate.
‘Well… you didn’t want a plain one in the shop. Did one of the kids say something mean?’
My face grew hot.
‘No. I just want one now.’
‘I said I just want one!’
‘Micah.’ Dad’s stern voice silenced me, and I sank low in my chair with an annoyed huff.
‘We can talk about it later. Your food is going to go cold if you leave it any longer.’
‘...not hungry,’ I muttered.
Later, Mum took the matter into her own hands, and I did not get a say in it. She wanted me to make friends, so she made sure I would hang out with my classmates, by bringing them into our house to play.
‘My brother has one of these!’ Liam picked up my pencil case. ‘He’s four.’
James and Ethan laughed, and the knot inside my belly twisted even tighter. I told mum this wasn’t a good idea. Why not invite some of the boys from school?
This was why.
‘It’s cool though, it can fly. James!’ He threw the pterodactyl case to his friend who threw it to Ethan.
‘Be free!’ he shouted, yeeting it out of the window.
‘Why did you do that?!’ I ran to see where it landed.
‘“Why did you do that?!” Oh no, he is going to cry!’
‘Oh you have plushies too?’
‘Like a baby!’
‘Don’t worry, the rescue team is coming!’ James laughed, with Patty scrunched in his hands.
‘No, stop. Don’t throw her.’
‘Her?’ They laughed.
‘See if you can catch it!’ James threw her towards me with full force, and I raised my hands in a panic, closing my eyes… but I wasn’t hit. Patty also didn’t fly out of the window.
‘What the hell?’ Ethan squeaked, and I slowly opened my eyes.
Patty floated in front of me, in mid-air.
Without thinking, I reached out and clutched her to my chest.
‘Oh right. I forgot to tell you there’s a ghost here.’ I said, forcing my voice to be calm.
‘Riiight, a ghost… Guys, he believes in ghosts!’
‘Didn’t you just see it? And…’ Glancing towards the wardrobe I noticed the croquet ball. I had nothing to lose by trying. ‘He likes to play this game… He rolls a ball and then takes the closest person to it to his grave… to kill them.’ The red croquet ball rolled exactly between the three boys.
It was satisfying to hear their screams as they ran outside my room. I let out a relieved sigh. Finally, they will leave me alone.
‘Thank you.’ I smiled. Picking up the croquet ball, I turned towards the wardrobe.
‘I don’t know who you are, but… do you want to be friends?’ I rolled the ball to him.
‘Dean, touch my hand.’ Micah lifted his palm. Though he couldn’t see nor hear me, he figured out a way for us to talk. I was clumsy, but not with the ball. So we used that. Move side to side for no, spin for a yes. He read me the alphabet to spell out my name.
I held my hand in front of his, close enough to feel the heat radiate from his body. He tilted his head as he looked through me.
‘I can’t feel it.’ He pushed his hand towards me, through mine. We both jumped backwards, and he hit his head on the wall behind. I wanted to reach out but stopped myself. One of these was enough — I didn’t know what he felt, but for me, getting up close and personal with the veins and ligaments of his body wasn’t a nice sensation. It made my skin crawl.
‘It was like… ice. But colder.’ He shook his head, his brown hair falling into his eyes. ‘It would be nice if you could hold things properly. We could play board games.’
I smiled and spun the ball. True. And I could hold his hand... But I liked it as it was too: we watched movies together, he invited me to share his bed, and though I didn’t sleep, I preferred it to the wardrobe. I laid next to him and watched the stars and the moon move across the night sky through the window, whilst listening to his steady breathing. It would've been nice to know him, back when I was alive.
‘Next week… I’m turning thirteen.’
I raised my eyes. It was difficult for me, when it was his birthday, because I couldn’t get a present. But we were even I suppose, as he struggled just the same when it came to me.
‘I’ll be the same age as you. It feels strange.’
I died when I was thirteen. It was a while ago.
‘Won’t it be strange, when next year I will technically be older? You are my only friend. I don’t want it to be weird…But you were older when we met… Or are you still older, even if you don’t age? Or do you age?’ He narrowed his eyes like he was trying to see me.
‘I wish I could see you!’
I read him right, and I laughed. I would've loved if he could, but there was an obstacle I didn't want him to clear.
‘You’d have to die for that!’ I shook my head with a grin. It was a tasteless joke and I was glad he couldn't hear it. I wished he didn't think of it by himself.
I tossed the ball at him when he first cut his arm with the piece of glass from the vase he broke during an argument with his mum — something stupid about not wanting to go on a field trip next month.
‘It’s fine,’ he said without looking up. I moved the ball side to side to say it wasn’t. It wasn’t fine, but he put his foot on it and continued. I watched helplessly, my eyes flickering between the shard of glass and his expressionless face. Why does it have to be like this, that I can't reach him when I need to?
‘Stop this,’ I pleaded, tugging on the ball, but he didn’t let go. Instead, he kicked towards me with his other foot.
‘Are you trying to hurt me now?! You don't need to kick for that!’ I stood and grabbed his wrist, my hand closing in on itself and again, I felt nauseous from touching his insides. But he dropped the glass, and I managed to throw it across the room.
‘What are you doing? I’m not about to take a lesson from you on life!’ He snapped. ‘You don’t know how it gets harder.’
I stood still for a moment and he sat still too, his words lingering between us.
For the first time in years, I slammed the wardrobe door behind me.
‘Dean..? Do you think I could see you if I died? Do you think I could touch your hand?’
I asked one evening as we lay on my bed and gazed at the stars. The ball stayed static next to me, silent with disapproval.
‘I’m not asking because I’m planning to. Just… hypothetically.’
Dean eventually signalled he didn’t know.
‘Right… I’m just wondering if it would feel nice.’ I whispered, not expecting a reply after the pause, but the ball moved, turning around slowly.
I smiled and closed my eyes.
‘I think it would be nice too.’ I pressed my teeth together and drew in a long breath. ‘In three months… we are moving out.’ It was hard to say it out loud, it made it real and all the more terrifying. The thought of going to yet another town, another school and starting again once more was bad enough. Doing it without him? Imagining it made my heart ache with a question.
How can I stay with you?
I rolled the ball, and its colour melted into a puddle of bright red on the floorboards. My soul sank as I followed it with my gaze. When did he do it?
I rushed to him, trying to press on his wrists but my hands slid through.
‘Is it not working..?’
‘What’s not working? You idiot!’
His lips formed a smile but it wasn’t a happy sight.
‘The first time I hear your voice you call me an idiot,’ he said softly.
‘Oh no. Oh no no no no.’ I was shaking my head. ‘Get up! Get help.’
I slapped him and it landed.
‘Oh crap!’ I pulled back and he grabbed my hand. His skin pressed on mine and I forgot to breathe. I forgot I hadn’t breathed for so long. It was ironic, for this moment to make me feel so alive.
‘Worrying doesn’t suit you.’ He smiled, his warm eyes meeting mine first time, shining with hope. One side of me didn't want to break the moment; that side of me was happy and I loathed it. I didn't want to let go. But that wouldn't be love.
‘Let go of me.’
His smile faded.
‘Because this is wrong. You can’t do this.’
‘We could haunt the wardrobe together.’
‘It will be nice. This is nice.’
I pulled my hand from his and ran to the wardrobe, banging the door shut as loudly as I could, over and over again, to alert his parents.
‘They will make me leave!’
‘Come back when you’re sixty! I will be here… Waiting.’ For however long it takes and however lonely I would feel, even if he never returned to me, I’d rather have that. I'd rather one of us gets to live, hurt and taste ice cream even when it's bitter.
‘Don’t hold my hand before you grow old.’