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Secret Game

By Mark Aragona


Secret Game

Secret Game

I've got something to tell you.

I know what happened to Timothy Bale.

He went missing last year, remember? No one's ever found out what happened?

I know what happened. I can't forget. Nearly every night for a year, I hear him crying, Neville, Neville! as he went down. I can't stand it anymore.

So I'm breaking my promise, even though I'm scared witless. I've got to tell you. You're my friend. You'll help me, won't you?

It happened last year. Halloween.

I was at Hogsmeade with some friends. You were there too, remember? Professor Snape had given us an assignment. We were to get some centipede shells for our next potion project. But he must've given it earlier to the Slytherins, because there was a long line of them at Corrian's Components when we arrived. I was last in line, so they had to search the cellar for a long time to get a batch.

I felt so relieved when they gave it I noticed the sun had gone only when I'd stepped outside. I was hurrying to the main road when I ran into Timothy Bale.

He'd opted to stay late in the Three Broomsticks, and by the looks of it had too much butterbeer. He wasn't tottering yet, but he was belching and had this silly grin on his face. His breath smelled awful.

He knew me even though he's Hufflepuff, because we'd once teamed up for a Herbology project. So he suggested we walk together. I agreed, because I didn't want to walk in the dark alone.

We started for home. Even from town, we could easily see Hogwarts's well-lit windows. I'd forgotten my watch so I couldn't tell what o'clock it was, but I figured if we hurried we could still catch the feast. Timothy was in a good mood. He was walking ahead of me, whistling, positive we'd make it in time and none would be the wiser. Me, all I wanted was to sit somewhere safe and bright.

There's a part of the road around the lake that bends close the Forbidden Forest. You remember? Where there's a rock and a yew tree? We were passing there, when Timothy stopped walking and whistling. I nearly ran into him.

"Did you hear that?" he asked.

I heard it too. It sounded like a girl, crying. And it was coming from the direction of the Forest. Something about it made my hair stand on end, but Timothy got curious.

"Come on," he said.

"We-we shouldn't go into the Forest!" I protested.

"Oh, come on! You're Gryffindor aren't you? Someone might need our help." He moved in, pushing the bushes aside. I stood there for a moment, afraid, but what he said made me feel ashamed. I followed him into the bushes.

"Over here!" came his voice. "Found her!"

I pushed on, and soon found myself in a clearing. Timothy was crouched beside a girl on her knees. She was pale, and wore blue, tattered robes. Her hair was jet black and tangled. It covered her face, tumbling past her shoulder and spilling onto the grass.

Timothy was comforting her, asking for her name and if she were lost. She wouldn't answer.

"Why are you here alone?" he pressed on. "Do you come from town?" But she just kept crying and wringing her hands. I tried going to them, but my trousers got caught by a branch and I had to work myself free.

Finally, Timothy reached over and parted her hair to gaze at her face.

Then he screamed.

I looked up and saw.

She...she didn't have a face. No eyes, nose, mouth; it was...clean. Smooth. Like a pebble you find on the lake shore.

She stopped crying. She grabbed Timothy's head and slammed his face against her own. And their heads stuck. Like gum. That was when I screamed. Timothy's cries became muffled. He started struggling, but she had him by the shoulders. He couldn't pull away more than a few inches. When he tried, the gum between them would stretch and he'd be yanked back.

I couldn't see his face anymorehe was yelling for me to helpbut I ran. As fast as I could. Scratched and hurt myself in the bushes, but didn't stop. Couldn't make myself stop. I never ever felt so terrified in my life.

I made it to the roadside and collapsed. I hurt all over. My robes were torn and I'd cuts on my hands. But I couldn't stay. I had to get help. I needed to help Timothy.

When I looked up, Timothy was already there. Sitting on the rock beside the yew tree, waiting for me.

But when he saw me, he smiled and said, "I'm well-fed."

I froze. He was wearing blue, tattered robes.

"I don't need you now, it went on, so why don't we play a game instead."

It got up and stepped closer. It smelled like sap freshly cut from a tree.

"Promise you'll tell no one what you saw. If you can keep your promise to your grave, you win the game and I'll let you be.

If you can't keep it, then you lose, and I collect."

What could I do? Tell me now if I could've made a difference one way or the other! Tell me if I didn't do the best I could!

I slowly nodded.

"Good," it said, smiling. Then it walked past me into the forest. I must've been weeping. Everything looked so blurry.

"Remember," it called from behind. "You live only because I don't want you. Keep your promise. Don't make me change my mind."

I ran. Ran all the way to Hogwarts. I must've fainted somewhere; next thing I knew it was morning, and I was lying in bed in the hospital wing.

They asked me questions, but I told them I couldn't remember anything.

And that's all. That's all.

Neville finished, and his head fell onto his folded knees. "I'm sorry, he sobbed, I'm so sorry."

"Good Merlin," breathed Seamus, and put his hand on his cold forehead. "Good Merlin."

They sat still for many moments, Neville weeping, Seamus staring at the water. Sounds from the Halloween feast drifted down from the castle to where they sat by the lake. The sun on the lake was no longer as bright. The October breeze had risen again, strong and cold. Neither of them noticed

"You didn't tell anyone?" asked Seamus, touching Neville's shoulder.

"I couldn't. I tried to, many times but he looked up with terrified eyes. But if it knew I toldit would come. And who'd believe me, anyway?!" He laughed bitterly. "No one even saw us leaving together!

"For a long time afterwards, I couldn't sleep. I couldn't. I'd see Timothy, being..." He buried his face in his hands.

"And it comes out on Halloween, you say?" asked Seamus.

"Yes," Neville sniffed, "so I have to end this today. I'd looked up as much as I could in the library. I couldn't risk getting help. But I found out enough—it's a mujina. And there are ways to fight it."

"What'll you do now? How can I help?"

Neville stopped shuddering. "You'll help me? I mean, you believe me?"

"Of course I believe you! Neville, why didn't you tell anyone sooner? We could've hunted the thing down even before it got to you!" Seamus jumped up, pulling Neville along with him.

"Thank you, oh thank you Seamus!" Neville wiped his face, suddenly filling with hope. "We've got to tell Dumbledore. We can stop it tonight!"

Seamus grinned. "Fine, but first let's bring in these pumpkins we picked or McGonagall'll use us for decorations!"

For the first time that whole Halloween day, Neville smiled. He turned and bent over to pick up his pumpkin.

"Let this be a lesson to you, Neville," said Seamus from behind him.

I know. I'll remember to—

—Always keep my promises.

Neville froze. The breeze blew even stronger now, but he couldn't quite believe it caused the chill that now seeped into his bones.

He turned and looked at Seamus. Except now he saw it really wasn't Seamus at all. It was already changing. Its eyes were shrinking, growing smaller, smaller, until the whites swallowed the pupils and the lids swallowed the whites. Its eyebrows were vanishing, its nose was folding down and melting into the flesh below it. Its lips were turning inwards, covering the teeth, becoming a bloodless gash that somehow still looked like a smile, until it consumed itself and was also gone. It went on, smoothing all the edges, obliterating all traces of the humanity it had fed on. And Neville watched, horror filling his mind like a cold white light, obscuring thought and memory, until all were as smooth and as empty as the face of the creature before him.

Its voice rustled in his mind like dead leaves. You shouldn't have told.

Neville screamed.

But the wind carried the sound away.

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