Coal hissed and rolled his eyes. “You can’t be serious,” he breathed. “Not again.”
Star was frozen in shock but Coal looked more annoyed than scared.
“We’re not playing,” he said, shaking his head and waving his arms. “No, no, nope. Just give us the crown and we’ll be gone.”
“But,” the woman said, her head still in that weird angle, “you have to play.”
“No,” Coal said. “We don’t.”
“What’s going on?” Star said, still behind Coal’s back. The woman’s eyes unnerved her, the stilted way she talked and moved.
“Ghost,” Coal replied in the same tone one might say “ants,” or “rats”.
The woman moved her hand to the top of her head in the same jerky half movements and gripped it. Coal grunted as the woman held the crown, a jagged metal thing, in her hands. “If you want my crown,” the woman said, baring her teeth, “you will play.” And then, she suddenly smiled.
Coal looked at the crown in her hands. “You shouldn’t be able to hold that. Or anything, for that matter.” Coal took a step further as Star willed him not to. “That’s what the crown does, isn’t it? It makes things tangible. And the thing here would be you.”
“You must play,” the woman repeated. “You must.”
Coal looked behind him to Star, “You don’t have to be scared,” he said. “She won’t hurt you.”
Star glared at him, “Did she tell you that?”
“No,” Coal admitted. “But I think…I think she just wants us to play.”
Coal shrugged and turned around. “Play what?” He asked.
The woman’s expression brightened as she spread her arms and more mist collected into the room. It came through the doors, through the walls, through the glass cases that housed the artefacts. It flooded in from the ceiling as it collected and swirled all around them, forming a centre table and two chairs with a large screen, and it kept on building, forming until they were in a misty auditorium with Coal, Star and the ghost woman at the centre.
The woman smiled at them. “Today we’re playing WHO WANTS TO BE A CROWN-OWNER!”
Coal sighed and Star clapped her hands.
The seats beneath them, though made of ghastly mist, were strangely solid and comfortable to sit on with reclining abilities and that little feature that allows you to press down to go lower or higher.
“Now,” the ghost woman said, looking at an imaginary camera, “we have our two contestants who are…”
A spotlight from nowhere hit Star and she waved a little. “I’m Star.”
When the light hit Coal, all he did was grunt.
“There we have it, people, our two contestants: Star and Ugh! Today we will be asking three questions and if our contestants get them right, they will both go home with the,” a crowd from nowhere chorused, “CROWN OF HWALIJIE.”
The ghost woman spun, white cards suddenly in her hands. “First question,” she said, and the lights dimmed with a dun dun sound, turning to Coal, “and this is for Ugh. Why do you enjoy being on your own?”
Coal’s face was frozen. “What?” he asked.
“Let me ask it again,” the woman said, talking slowly this time. “Why do you enjoy being on your own?”
“Wait,” Coal said. “That’s the question?”
The ghost woman smiled and nodded. “Yes, that’s the question.”
“I don’t understand this…”
“Oh, and one more thing,” the woman said, tapping her forehead like she just remembered something she really shouldn’t have forgotten. “If you say the wrong answer, you’ll be killed.”
“Oh,” Coal said.
“On the spot.”
“So, just don’t lie,” the woman said, still smiling. “Okay?”
Coal nodded slowly and thought hard for a moment. He looked beside him at Star who gave him two thumbs up. He took a deep breath as he looked around but his eyes were down when he answered, his voice dropped to a whisper.
“It’s a trick question,” he said, his eyes down. “I don’t.”
Bells rang through the museum as the woman smiled and shouted, “Corrrrect!” Coal clenched his fists as the spotlight moved away and fell on Star. “And this question is for the young lady, are you ready?”
Star glanced at Coal, then she looked at the woman. And she nodded, slowly.
“So, girl,” the woman said, leaning forward. “Do you hate your father?”
Star almost laughed. “He’s the worst thing that ever happened to us. He hurt me and…my mommy.”
“You haven’t answered the question, dear.”
Star threw her hands up. “What do you expect me to say!” she screamed. She buried her face in her hands.
“He’s the most horrible person alive and I wish he would die. But…” she brought her head up, cleaning her eyes, “I don’t hate him. I know I should but…I don’t.”
The woman nodded. “Corrrect!” she shouted and there was an applause this time. “And now,” the woman said, “for the last question. Are you ready?”
Coal glared and Star nodded.
“I said,” the woman shouted, “are, you, readyyyy?”
“Yes,” Star nodded.
“Well, the last question,” the woman said as she looked at her cards, “it’s a toughie, but I know you both can handle it,” she winked at them.
“The question is simple: are you both willing to do anything to get your goals?”
“Yes,” Coal said without hesitation, standing up and straightening his shirt. “Anything.”
Star looked at him, and shook her head. “No,” she said, “not ‘anything’. I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
Coal looked at her and his eyes were cold. “Sometimes,” he said, “you don’t have a choice, and sometimes you do…but all the choices you have are bad ones.”
“I don’t want to hurt anyone,” Star said, standing too. “There are better ways to solve things than hitting people and making them bruise and hurt.” Her voice caught.
Coal groaned and was about to say something when the woman came between them holding the crown in her hands, “You both answered correctly, according to the truths of your own hearts.” She handed Star the crown, “Be safe. Be well.” As Star took it, she said, “Thank you.”
The woman only winked. “Thank you.” And she disappeared into the air.
Coal was standing there looking at the crown in her hands. “We should go.”
Star nodded. “We should.”
And they walked out of the museum having gained the crown knowing that its cost was knowing a part of the other that wasn’t meant to be known. They left the darkness of the museum into the darkness of the night and into the darkness of Coal’s Corolla and drove off into the night, to their next item.
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