We made our way to the auditorium, using the lights from our phones to guide us since the flashlight was useless. I wondered if I should tell him that I’d already met a ghost—a small calico ghost-cat with a yellow heart on her breast and a mischievous personality. I hadn’t gone loony or confused Mustard with another cat this time, the proof being that she led me straight to Markus. But it would’ve taken too much time to explain it to him, and he probably wouldn’t believe me anyway, so I decided it would be my little secret for now. Mine and Mustard’s.
Besides, Markus seemed touchingly determined to follow my list to the letter and give me a full-blown ghost-hunting experience. It felt strange to be the one whose wants and needs were being taken care of. Ever since our last yaya left, it seemed as if it had mostly been me taking care of other people’s wants and needs. Now here was Markus, of all people, doing his best to make my own petty, selfish wishes come true. He even bought me caramel pudding cups. I gazed at him, smiling softly to myself. Honestly, I can’t believe he noticed that.
The auditorium was ominous enough by the light of day, with its outer walls carved to look like several huge blocks of roughly hewn, dark gray stone piled on top of one another. At night, it loomed over us like some shapeless monster. The main doors were chained and padlocked to keep high schoolers like us from breaking into the place to hunt for ghosts and/or to make out, but Markus winked at me as he produced a key from his pocket—stolen from his uncle’s office, no doubt—and unlocked the doors with a flourish.
The sound of heavy chain swinging against the metal outer doors, and the thick creaking of the inner doors as Markus pushed them open sounded to my ears like a warning. Step inside if you dare. The inside of the auditorium was pitch-dark. There were no shadows here, creeping or otherwise—just unrelenting darkness that threatened to suffocate the fragile beams of light from our phones, thick with the smell of dust and wood and, to me at least, of a long, not necessarily pleasant history. A trickle of cold air brushed the back of my neck—coming from where, I didn’t care to know. Gasping a little, I rubbed the goose bumps on my arms and stepped closer to Markus, any sense of propriety momentarily overwhelmed by sheer nerves.
“Are you cold?”
Before I could reply, he pulled his hoodie off, albeit extra-carefully, and wrapped it around my shoulders. Underneath, he wore a gray, V-neck T-shirt that now sported several splatters of blood across the front and on his left shoulder. When he noticed me staring at the bloodstains, he pointed to the few drops on his shoulder. “Mine.” Then at the larger, elongated streak on the front. “Not mine.”
He met my eyes and grinned. “Let’s go up the stage. The view is better from there,” he said, moving off among the rows of seats toward the middle aisle, forcing me to follow.
“Um, maybe we shouldn’t do this after all.” When he glanced back at me over his shoulder, I bristled. “I’m not scared, okay? I just think this might not be such a good idea. The guards might catch us—”
“No, they won’t,” he replied, sounding supremely confident.
“Or we could bump into something and break it.”
“They put everything away in the storage room in the back, so there’s nothing to break here.”
“W-well then, we might stub our toe or fall down the stairs or something. And we won’t find any ghosts either, because there’re no such things as ghosts,” I babbled on, aware that I was lying through my teeth. A faint sound that could have either been a moan or the wind slipping in from somewhere drifted toward us, and I glanced around wildly. “What was that? Did you hear that? Give me my pipe, quick!”
Then a far more welcome sound reached my ears—Markus’ belly laugh. “Ow, ow, don’t do that. My ribs seriously hurt,” he chortled, his hands clutching his sides, muting the light from his phone. “And no, I’m not giving this back to you,” he added, indicating my tote bag containing all our weaponry now hanging from his shoulder. “You’re so jumpy right now that if a ghost does show up, you’ll probably just end up hitting me with that thing.”
“I’m not jumpy,” I muttered, although I couldn’t argue against his point about me possibly clobbering him with the pipe. When he lifted one skeptical eyebrow and waited, I squeezed my eyes shut and burst out: “Ugh, fine! I’m scared of the dark, okay? Happy now?”
I braced myself for his laughter and the barrage of jokes at my expense; this was par for course with living with brothers, after all. Instead, he reached out and took my hand. “Stay close to me.”
I nodded, mute with surprise and filled with the awareness of his hand around mine. For a moment, my fear of the dark was shunted aside by an unfamiliar, incredible feeling—the feeling of being protected. It just about took my breath away.
Together we made our way down the aisle, the lights from our phones cutting through the darkness. “You know about my great-grandpa, right?” he said conversationally. “Not a lot of people know this, but this high school was the first school he put up, even before he and Lelang founded the university in Manila. This high school is almost a century old, so it’s no surprise it’s crammed full of ghosts, and this auditorium is the most haunted building in campus.”
“I-is it? That’s great,” I said faintly as my fear sidled back in. “Um, listen, Markus, I think I’ve had enough ghost-hunting for—”
“During World War II, the Japanese used this high school as an internment camp for American and Filipino soldiers and suspected guerrillas,” he continued like some relentless tour guide, half-dragging me up the steps leading to the stage. “They used to torture their prisoners here in the auditorium. Then when they learned that the Americans were coming to retake the town, they massacred the prisoners and razed the campus to the ground. Do you get it? We’re standing on the place where hundreds, maybe thousands of people died horrible deaths.”
“By the way, about what you said earlier, what did you mean about me ‘looking like that’?” I interrupted, my voice sounding high-pitched and squeaky.
“Hmm?” We stopped in the middle of the stage, the wooden floorboards creaking underneath our shifting weight. “W-what exactly did I say?”
His sudden nervousness caught my attention, distracting me from my current job of using my imagination to populate the empty seats with the mutilated corpses of the prisoners. “You said something like, and now I’m standing here looking like that. What do you mean by ‘like that?’” I held my phone up so that the light fell upon his face and he quickly turned away, his other hand coming up to cover his mouth. “Wait, are you blushing?” I asked, thoroughly delighted. “You are! I can’t believe it, you’re as red as tomato. Wow.”
“Shut up,” he muttered behind his hand. “I just meant that you—well, that you look pretty right now.”
“You think I look pretty?” I angled the light away from my face to hide my own blush.
He shook his head and exhaled gustily. “No, not pretty. Pretty is for shallow girls. What I really wanted to say was…you’re beautiful, Sienna,” he said in a low voice I’d never heard before. “You’ve always been beautiful but tonight, with your hair down like this—” he ran his hand through my hair, letting the strands slide between his fingers almost reverently “—I just had this thought that tonight, you looked beautiful for me. Only for me.”
“Oh,” I breathed. Careful. This is just an experiment, remember? my sensible mind spoke up. He probably says that to every girl he meets. Just be grateful he’s being conscientious about giving you the total package, with all the bells and whistles.
He dropped his hand and turned away again before I could say anything more. “There. I’ve answered your question. Now stop interrupting my ghost-hunting spiel.”
He rattled off historical facts about the auditorium as we explored the back stage, shining our lights into the musty nooks and crevices. He shared how his grandfather had scraped the remains of the family fortune together after the war, and grew it into an even more formidable empire, complete with a university, a few hotels, several malls scattered across the country, and vast tracts of residential and commercial properties. But in honor of his father’s legacy, the first of their properties that Markus’ grandfather had rebuilt was this high school in their ancestral town, including a new auditorium. After the second auditorium burned down in a fire, a third auditorium—the same one we were standing in now—was constructed.
“You know, if you talk to the janitors and the guards, they’ll tell you that this auditorium is haunted by two ghosts in particular,” he went on as we completed the tour and returned to center-stage. “The story is, when this new auditorium was being built, one of the construction workers fell in love with a student here, and when she rejected him, he took it really badly. So one day, when this auditorium was just about finished, he kidnapped her and locked her up in here in the auditorium. Then later that night, he raped and killed her. She died right…there.”
He aimed his phone up and to the right so that the light fell glimmered weakly on the cage of darkness that was the sound booth. “The sound technicians say that sometimes, when they’re working, they can feel another presence in the booth with them, messing with their equipment. And sometimes, when they’re recording or listening to the microphones, they can hear a girl crying in the background, even though there’s nobody anywhere in the auditorium who could possibly be doing that.”
I swallowed and stared up at the window, half-expecting to see the pale outline of the dead girl watching us. “S-so what happened to the guy who killed her?”
Markus lowered his phone until the light cast sinister shadows on his face. “He killed himself. He’d set up a rope beforehand, and after he killed her, he hung himself. In fact, you can see him now right…there.”
He looked straight up at the rail from which the stage lights hung. I looked up myself, heart in my throat. Just as my brain was absorbing the blessed lack of a dead body dangling directly above our heads, something brushed up against the back of my legs. I screamed and made a flying leap straight into Markus’ arms, knocking his hoodie off my shoulders and causing him to grunt in pain.
“What? What’s the matter?”
“I f-f-felt something—my leg—” Gathering up the tattered bits of my courage, I loosened my death-grip around his waist enough so I could twist around to flash my light behind me.
Mustard’s wide green eyes blinked up at me, gleaming when the light hit them. In the gloom of the auditorium, she seemed to glow like a fluffy, friendly, feline-shaped lantern.
“Oh my God, it’s just you,” I gasped, teary-eyed with relief. She gave a curling meow, turned, brushed up against my leg one more time, then darted away and melted into the darkness. “Honestly, you stupid cat,” I muttered to myself, going back to hugging Markus until I was fairly sure I wasn’t about to go into cardiac arrest.
“Sienna?” I looked up into Markus’ face. He looked utterly baffled. “Who’re you talking to?”
I blinked several times. “You mean, you didn’t see her? Or hear her? She was right here. Mus—” I stopped. If anything, he only looked even more bewildered. “N-nothing. I was just talking to, uh, nothing. My nerves are obviously fried.”
“You sensed a ghost?”
I hesitated, then nodded slowly.
“Was it a happy ghost?”
I considered how to answer that odd question. Come to think of it, Mustard was the only ghost I’d actually encountered during our entire ghost-hunting exploration, but I wasn’t scared of her at all. Then again, as ghosts went, a calico cat with a yellow heart was distinctly unimpressive, but still… “I think so,” I said slowly. “Yes, yes she is. Although she is a little annoying,” I muttered the last part to myself.
At that, Markus seemed to relax, as if the issue of the ghost’s level of personal satisfaction was an important one to him. “Cool. We’ve officially accomplished the first item in your list,” he said, beaming.
Oh. So it was my list he was thinking of all this time. I frowned as his unshakable composure and good cheer began to grate on my nerves, but when I tried to pull away, his arms only tightened around me. “How can you be so calm?” I grumbled. “You’re the one who knows all those gruesome stories about this place. And I just saw an actual ghost. Shouldn’t you be a little more shaken up by that?”
He shrugged. “Not really. You said the ghost you saw was a happy one. And I’m not surprised I couldn’t see it. I don’t think I’ll be able to sense any ghost, even if I stay in here all night.”
“Oh really? And why is that?”
He gave me a smile that warmed me all over. “Because I’m happy right now.”
I stared at him as another childhood memory came to me. One of our yayas had been telling us about ghosts and monsters who came after naughty children who refused to settle down for their afternoon naps. By the time she left, little Ziggy was too distraught to nap. So I told the Demolition Crew—consisting then of my brothers and Markus—that our yaya had gotten it all wrong. Ghosts and monsters only attacked children who were unhappy, because ghosts and monsters were unhappy too and misery loved company. It made Zig feel better, or at least more willing to take a nap, and it seemed to have worked on the older boys, too. In fact, it was Markus who fell asleep last, but not before he gave me the sweetest, gap-toothed smile.
“Oh. You remember,” I murmured in wonder.
“Yeah, I do.” He smiled again, then leaned closer and whispered in my ear: “And also, that story about the guy who killed a girl? I made that up.”
As my face snapped up in outrage, his lips brushed my cheek. “A kiss on any part of the face,” he said as he drew back. “Another check on the list.”
“Yo, so this is where you’ve—whoa, what’s going on here? What’re you two doing?”
We jumped apart as Dante and Daniel came striding into the auditorium, the light from their phones fixed on us like miniature searchlights. My brain scrambled for a likely explanation about why Markus and I were hugging each other in the dark, but Markus was already way ahead of me.
“We were ghost-hunting,” Markus informed them. “Ate Sienna thought she saw a ghost, and got scared. Screamed and nearly knocked me down flat.” He strolled off the stage to meet the twins in the aisle. I trailed behind him, scooping up his hoodie in my arms, confused and still dazed from the kiss. He sounded so convincing. Of course, he wasn’t exactly lying, but honestly, did he have to be so—so unaffected by this?
Fortunately, my brothers seemed to accept this explanation, and Dante even gave a hoot of disbelieving laughter. “Seriously? Ate screamed?”
“You mean you didn’t you hear her?”
“We did, but we thought that was you getting the stuffing beaten out of you by Ate. You know she brought a pipe, right?”
“What happened to you anyway? You okay?”
The conversation quickly shifted to Markus’ near-brawl in the supermarket parking lot. The three of them spent the entire trip home rehashing the fight—the twins had a love of fights that had given me headaches for years—then Markus had to tell the whole story again for Arianne, Shelly and Ziggy, who’d already eaten about half of one of the pizzas. Dad, of course, hadn’t even noticed we were gone.
I packed my stuff away, then made Markus take his shirt off and applied frozen towels and ice bags on the bruises on his torso. I tried to act as clinical as I could, but my emotions were all jumbled up, and after touching his skin, I had to retreat into the kitchen until my hands stopped shaking and my heated flush receded. I felt lightheaded and disoriented, confronting feelings I’d never had to deal with before. And when Arianne picked up Markus’ shirt and hoodie, which I’d set aside to be washed, and surreptitiously sniffed them, I found myself fighting off the urge to snatch his clothes away and growl at her for good measure.
I leaned against the kitchen counter and sighed, exhausted by the mental and emotional rollercoaster ride I’d just been on. When I looked up again, I found Markus watching me, his gray eyes warm and knowing.
The one thing I was sure of, though: I couldn’t wait to get to the next item on my list.