"Look! Some people are coming!" He pointed at the forest ground.
The children flung themselves near the window in anticipation. Seconds ticked by, but there was no flash of bright clothing, any telltale hint of giggling, or even a rustle in the leaves.
"You're such a liar, Joey!" Gabby exclaimed, her pigtails swinging like vipers. The others shot him pointed glares—annoyed at his disturbance. Joey sat scowling at the ground.
"I'm not lying," he mumbled. "They were right there." But no one was listening anymore. They bustled away, returning to their mini-projects.
With nothing left to do, he stared glumly at the red, yellow, and blue pieces scattered on the wooden floor. A square mound of blocks lay before him, almost complete. Joey carefully crawled around the small train station, ignoring the crunch of stray legos underneath his feet.
Where is the gate? The station just needs an entrance, and then it’s finished. Joey crouched over a gap in the floor, gazing through the burned wooden edges and spotted the black piece lying in the grass below. I lost another one! Scowling, he slammed down a white gate instead, knowing it looked awful compared to the black one. He glowered accusingly at the wooden panels surrounding him, feeling increasingly irritated. Several fragments lay broken or charred, others had fallen away entirely. Clumps of green moss spotted the inside of the treehouse and would eventually overtake the wooden room.
"Hey, can you help me with the train track?" He jerked up, disoriented from his dark musings. Lee stood waiting, his blue shirt littered with candy stains and looking highly harassed—like always. Joey almost said no, his foul mood still hung over him like a dark cloud, but he wanted to start that train track. They'd been planning it forever… and he had a town finish.
With a nod, Joey went over to Lee's corner of the room, his earlier distraction forgotten. They both sounded like proper adults—discussing how the train must be green no matter how much Gabby wanted blue and devising the many stations it would stop at throughout the city. He couldn’t say how long they’d been doing this, but it didn't matter.
Joey’s mind flashed to the mornings spent waiting in the old station with his mother. The days were hot and sticky, but the coldness inside the train acted as a shield. His face glued to the window, watching the scenery pass by, as his mother laughed and told him stories about each tattered building they passed.
“I wish someone would change these mouldy seats,” he said. “And fix the screechy rails. A paint job would be nice too.”
“Oh?” his mother smiled. “What colour would you prefer, Joey?”
“Anything other than grey. I don’t get why people like boring stuff.”
Her eyes twinkled. “Me neither.”
Joey stared down at the half-built lego track, thinking this train would be more beautiful than the old one, and much less drab. His mother would grin when she saw it, ruffling his hair proudly. Birds tweeted and wind fluttered through the elm trees nearby. He fell into the familiar lull of separating all the coloured pieces, gazing distractedly around the room. Gabby was huddled beside another girl, working furiously on a red and grey tiled street. His friend Mikey stood near a charred corner, his eyes thoughtfully focused on the town’s center.
He grinned, thinking of the time he’d been building a skyscraper during class—trying to make the tallest one possible when Lee joined in. Then, while gathering all the blue blocks, they recruited Mikey, who he’d already been friendly with. Mikey brought Gabby and Joanne, and soon the skyscraper reached the teacher’s nose.
None of them had much in common—at least outwardly. Lee and Joey typically stayed away from girls (they had cooties); Gabby and Joanne had their ring of cooler friends, and Mikey was one of those artistic kids who played in bands. Yet, like a bunch of weird puzzle pieces, they somehow fit together. After some time, he even got used to Gabby's demanding voice, and discovered she’s pretty nice when not barking orders at everyone.
Like reading his mind, she sauntered over to their corner while Lee was showing him a drawing of the train's design.
"I'm sorry for yelling at you," she muttered, staring at his feet. "You sure you saw them coming here?"
"You guys just missed it," he said.
Gabby nodded. "I'll keep a lookout then." She smiled hesitantly, "Joanna and I changed our minds. Green would be much better than blue." She left before he could open his mouth.
Lee shoved a drawing in Joey's face, his brows twitching in agitation. He bounced back to work, not wanting to test his friend's patience further.
Sunlight shone through the window, and the legos glittered like tiny jewels. The smell of burned wood became more pronounced as the sun rose in the sky.
After a while, Joey stood up groggily, grinning at Lee, who smiled triumphantly back. They stared at their creation—the beginnings of the track laid sprawling on the floor.
The others gathered around, noticing their accomplishment. Mikey clapped them both on the back, his teeth shining in the sunlight, "Alright! We should all work on the train tomorr—"
The sound of laughter echoed beneath them.
I knew it, he thought as Joanna ran to the window.
"They're coming down the path!" she said.
"How long?" demanded Gabby.
Everyone hushed up immediately. Gabby beckoned them to the back of the wooden room, near the more burnt area. The scent of ash clogged his nostrils.
He listened closely for voices, knowing they would be emerging from the lush green foliage and then trekking upon the rough twisty path. Sure enough, the sound of footsteps echoed faintly in his ears. Joanna's mouth trembled, but Mikey seemed downright excited. Joey couldn't blame him—they rarely saw other people.
"—urry up! We're not supposed to be here!" said an anxious voice, carried by the wind.
He heard an arrogant, childish laugh. "Don't be so stupid, there's nothing here but trees and dirt."
Their footsteps grew louder. The elm trees creaked and swayed, hiding the treehouse from view.
“Well, I heard there’s more than dirt around here.” This voice was more feminine than the others.
Joey heard a high whining sound, like a whimper.
“Don’t freak him out, you know how wimpy he is. The whittle baby can’t handle a mouse—much less some shack of wood.”
The girl kept going, her voice rising dramatically, “My brother told me about it—there’s some creepy treehouse nearby. They haven’t torn it down yet, probably because they're scared of going crazy! Oooh, we should search for it!”
“N-no!” said the anxious one. But the other two ignored his warning. Their stomping became more pronounced every second.
He knew what was coming and tried not to wince. None of them bothered to run away, they didn't need to.
Gabby was making unnecessary shushing motions, when someone below yelled, “There! It’s behind the giant trees!”
Joanna’s eyes grew wider, and he heard them stumbling up the wooden ladder. The sound of grating lumber creaked heavily, and he knew that they were shoving away the fallen branches blocking the opening.
“W-we shouldn’t do this! Our parents—”
“Oh, shut up, Jeremy. We’re already here, let’s just go!” said the girl.
“I know,” mocked the other boy. “Whittle Jeremy should go first! It’ll make him less of a baby.” There was a crunch of leaves, some more laughter mixed with low whimpers. Then, a small boy stumbled into the room, his arms flailing wildly. Moments later, the other two emerged. The girl resembled a rat with her small beady eyes. A blonde boy stood behind her, his face shining with arrogance—just as he imagined.
The blonde immediately wandered around, while the girl shook off Jeremy, who tried to cling to her arm.
Joanna sobbed quietly behind him, “They won’t come here, right?” Gabby made some reassurance expressions.
He wasn’t worried, most outsiders stayed away from their shadowy corner—too repulsed by the violently burned wood pressed against his back. More importantly, he knew the town was safe, despite the newcomers currently fumbling around with the grace of elephants.
Abruptly, the girl fixed her beady eyes upon their shadowed corner, and he watched as understanding lit in her gaze.
“Look,” she whispered, pointing at him. “That’s where it happened.”
The small boy trembled as he spoke, “S-stop making s-stuff up! Nothing happened here!” He saw the blonde shoot her a skeptical look. Glancing behind him worriedly, Joey glimpsed Joanna trembling while Gabby held her soothingly.
The rat girl smiled condescendingly. “I’m not making it up, my brother told me.” That seemed to be enough for the two boys—their faces suddenly alight with fascination and fear. “That’s where the fire started! It happened a long time ago, when my brother was still in school.” she paused for dramatic effect. “It was storming hard in the middle of the day, and everybody in town stayed huddled up indoors. But… the rain didn’t stop everyone. A small group of friends snuck out of their homes and rushed to this side of the forest. They climbed up into their secret treehouse, playing throughout the day. Then... the storm got worse. A lightning strike sparked a fire near the forest, and it quickly spread throughout the trees. The children remained trapped, and no one guessed their whereabouts. Before anyone could save them, the flames burned their bodies alive—skin charred to the bone. Folks say they were so distracted by their toys… none of them even noticed anything amiss: the children played right through their deaths. My brother came here once—and he swore he could still hear them laughing together...”
Joanna broke out into sobs. He could hear Gabby’s frantic attempts to quiet her, but it was too late. The strangers gaped in frozen shock as Joanna’s pitiful cries engulfed the entire room.
Then, it was pure pandemonium.
Joey watched as the three of them squealed like pigs, scrambling away from the source of the sobs.
“The ghosts! They’re still here! THEY’LL BURN US ALIVE!!” someone screamed. His ears rang from all the noise.
The blonde boy was screaming, and in his haste to get away, he shoved aside the girl. She yelped loudly and stumbled backwards—right through Joey. He winced, disliking the burning sensation of human warmth passing through his corporeal body.
He saw one last glimpse of the girl’s ratty, shivering form hastily running away, before he whipped to Joanna. The poor girl was curled up like a kitten, rocking against the wall.
“They’re gone now,” whispered Lee, who was staring out the window. “I saw them running down the trail and disappearing into the forest. They scream like banshees.”
“I-I’m sorry,” Joanna hiccuped. “W-when they mentioned our p-p-parents—Oh, I’m such a terrible daughter! Why did we have to sneak out? I hate being dead!” Her words echoed in the air, choking him. His mother’s face flashed before his eyes—laughing and proud. She wouldn’t be proud now. I died before I could accomplish anything, and there’s no one to blame but myself. I left the house, knowing the weather was bad, knowing Mom wouldn’t approve. His eyes wandered helplessly and saw Mikey staring at the ground, hands clenched. Gabby’s face streaked with silent tears, hugging her friend. Lee suspiciously wiped his face, staring stubbornly out the window.
Did his mother know he was still here, unable to communicate—no matter how painfully he wanted to? Was she still alive? Or did she die of grief, leaving him to wander this invisible plane forever? The thought made his throat tighten, and tears unwillingly formed in his eyes. He stumbled forward, gasping, like a puppet whose strings got cut.
Legos. They stuck stubbornly to his soles.
The grey plastic cube lay innocently on the floor.
Why do grown-ups like that colour? He kicked it away. The toy whistled through a crack in the wood and flew into the forest beyond.
He stared in space for a long time. The legos glinted beneath him, like eager subjects waiting for their King's decree.
“Come on,” Joey said hoarsely. “Let’s keep working. The town needs to be finished.”
They looked at him with blank faces, as though he was unrecognizable: a stray piece wandering in from another, better world. Then, Gabby nodded, eyes flashing with steely determination, and pigtails swaying like the trees.
As Joanna’s mournful cries slowly died with the sun, everyone retreated to their own little blue and red worlds.