A series of high pitched yaps roused Hattie Palmer from her slumber, so shrill she scarcely recognized them as barks. They preceded a clattering across the floorboards of the kitchen, the unmistakable patter of the clawed feet a dog, albeit smaller than any she was used to. The kitchen remained hidden behind the massive oak door at the top of the stairs, though a tiny sliver of light peeked through the gap at the bottom. It illuminated the dust wafting through the basement, making it twinkle like starlight. Hattie mounted the stairs, drifting upward while every step creaked and groaned in her wake despite her best efforts. With some effort, she tugged on the door handle and eased it open to peek into the kitchen.
At first, nothing. Just the stove, oven and sink, all different than she remembered but still in the same places. No, wait. The boxes weren’t there before, she was sure of it. Five or six, each carefully labeled “KITCHEN/DINING ROOM.” What could possibly be inside–
A blur of poofy gray fur bolted past and slid across the linoleum as it tried to turn. Hattie jumped back and slammed the door shut as the invader bounded down the hallway, his pawfalls muffled by the thick carpet. But this time, a second set of feet dashed by, hot on the heels of the tiny dog. Two legs, not four. This stranger made a sound as well, not quite as high pitched as the dog’s. Something gentle, with an almost musical quality. It had been so long since Hattie last heard a sound like that, it took her even longer to place than the sounds from the puppy.
“Slow up there, Maya!” a voice called from the distance. “Your father ain’t fixed everything yet! We don’t want to add you or Gizmo to the list!”
“Okay Mama!” The voice that answered was closer, higher pitched. A girl, most likely. Something blotted out the light in front of the oak door before feet pounded past again. Clearly this Maya wasn’t very good at following directions. The room fell silent as she left, but only for a moment. First the dog zoomed past, then the girl. Unless they’d changed the house around again, they were making a good circuit of the kitchen, den and family room. They came around for another pass, but this time the dog’s steps slowed, turned direction.
They were getting closer!
The tiny dog blotted out more of the light under the door. The growl it made wouldn’t have scared a grasshopper, just as high pitched as its bark. But it made Hattie take a step back onto the top step. She spun to peer over her shoulder, to the floor below and her safe place behind the furnace.
“What’s wrong, Gizmo?”
The dog rattled several barks at the door.
Hattie put her foot on the next step down.
The step groaned.
Then the old oak door flew open, flooding the basement with light.
In the entrance stood a young girl, perhaps a year older than Hattie had been. She wore a red dress that, at one time, had been very pretty. But the frayed edges, the grass stains and splotches of mud ruined any chance of that happening ever again. She wore her long black hair in two pigtails, and a few sprigs of grass stuck out from them as well. The little gray poof of a dog stood by her side, trying and failing to look intimidating.
And the girl herself? She didn’t look intimidating at all. Instead, she just stared at Hattie with eyes as wide as tea saucers.
Hattie said nothing. Nor did the other girl. The dog cocked his head to the side, confused at how the pair of them were behaving.
It was the girl who shattered the silence with a shout.
“Mama, there’s a dead girl in the basement!”
As it turned out, Hattie Palmer didn’t look like a dead girl to Maya’s parents. Like most people, they couldn’t see her at all.
The pair, or Mr. and Mrs. Townsend as she learned they were called, scoured the basement with flashlights, but their beams went right through Hattie without so much as a second of hesitation. Then again, they didn’t seem to be taking it too seriously. Mr. Townsend, a tall man with thinning hair and a kind smile, decided that Maya made up the story. It was her way of coping with a move from the big city to a little town like Sheridanville. His wife, a shorter woman who walked with a pronounced limp, had hair just like Maya’s, though it had started to turn gray. She remarked that Maya always had a big imagination, and it hadn’t helped that the cashier at the grocery store called their new home “the old haunted Watterson farm house.”
Over the next few days, Hattie lurked in the corners and learned more about the new family that lived in her old home. They came from Boston, where Mrs. Townsend had taught fourth grade and Mr. Townsend worked as something called an entrepreneur. She wasn’t sure what a tech start up was or who wanted to buy it, but doing so had apparently given the Townsends a large windfall. Mrs. Townsend had grown up in a small town in the South, and wanted to return home. They eventually found the farmhouse and bought it from the previous owners, the Andersons, who Mr. Townsend described as “motivated sellers.”
Hattie remembered the Andersons all too well, though it had been two years since either of them lived in the farmhouse. Though she’d ventured out from behind the furnace on their first day as well, and the steps groaned as she walked up them, neither of them ever even looked in her direction. They were too busy yelling for that. They shouted about what needed to be repaired, or how much they paid for certain bills, or how there were no good stores in Sheridanville, and they needed to drive all the way to Charleston to do any real shopping. They yelled about small things, big things, and all the things in between, so Hattie spent most of her time behind the furnace. She could still hear their loud voices, the way the stomped across the floor and slammed doors. One time, she even heard glass shatter against the old oak door. A few hours later they cried and apologized, and a few hours after that they yelled again.
Then one day Mr. Anderson didn’t apologize, slammed the front door and never returned. Mrs. Anderson lingered a few months after that, then eventually left. Hattie was alone, but maybe this once she didn’t mind so much.
After all, she’d been alone since the day Jebediah left. Of all her brothers he stayed the longest, determined to cling to the farmhouse Mother and Father cherished. But poor Jebediah hadn’t been as strong as the others, not as skilled in the fields. Deep down, Hattie knew he longed for the excitement of the big city. He just needed an excuse. After a bad winter wiped out most of the crops, he finally gave in and sold most of the family’s remaining possessions and left the house behind.
On that last day, he lingered by the front door. When they were both still children, Mother would lean out the front door as they played or worked and summoned them for dinner. The children set the table and carried in food from the kitchen. Preparations complete, they would all stand by their chairs until Father entered and took his seat at the head of the dining room table. Then, and only then, could the rest of them sit. She remembered the aroma of the potatoes and vegetables seasoned to perfection, the steam rising off the chicken or turkey as Father carved each of them off a piece, and how her stomach growled as the smell of dinner taunted her until Father finished the blessing and they could all dig in. Sometimes, the smell of a fresh pie also wafted through the house, promising a reward if they cleared their plates.
She liked to think Jebediah remembered those same things in that moment as he took once last look over the now empty house. Just before he walked out, he glanced to the basement door where she stood. For a split second, she could have sworn he looked right at her. But after a few seconds, he just shook his head and walked out of the farmhouse. It was the last time she saw any member of her family.
Five families took up residence in the farmhouse before the Townsends, but not a single person saw Hattie until Maya. The Wattersons moved in first, with a pair of children close to Hattie’s age. The youngest even lived in her bedroom, slept with her bed by the same window, but they never saw her. For the first few months she tried desperately to get their attention, first shouting to no avail. With some effort, she slammed doors and knocked books off of shelves, but Mr. Watterson always came up with a rational explanation.
The children believed in ghosts, but not in Hattie. They gathered in the living room by candlelight and told cruel stories about how Hattie’s parents murdered her and buried her in the basement. The stories grew more gruesome over time, and told stories of the Lonely Girl. In their eyes, Hattie became a sadistic specter who tormented anyone who set foot in the house. They called her ugly too, and that one look at her would make a person turn white with fright.
Hattie wasn’t sure how she looked, as she couldn’t see herself in the mirror, but surely she wasn’t that ugly! Maybe it wasn’t mature, but one last night she broke vases just outside their doors in the dead of night, waking them up. Mr. Watterson blamed it on the house settling.
In those early days, Hattie wandered all over the house, even in the tin crow’s nest atop the house where Father liked to paint. It had been off limits since the moment she learned to walk, but she loved the spectacular views it afforded her. She could see the tiny city of Sheridanville on one side, the small forest on the other, just beyond the other buildings on property. She could even see the small graveyard not far from the property. That allowed her to watch when her brothers laid first Mother, then Father to rest, next to one another. Just across from her own final resting place.
Even before the Wattersons moved away, Hattie took to hiding in the basement. Years flew past, the house set idle as one family left. Then another arrived and the cycle started over again, Hattie spending less and less time visiting the other parts of the house. Even if they couldn’t see her, it felt rude to pry into their lives without permission. And so it went with the Townsends for the first three months they lived in the house. Sometimes she crept to the top of the stairs and watched them eating dinner or watching television, which Hattie decided was the greatest invention in history. She could no longer smell the food, but even the sight of the meals Mr. Townsend made reminded Hattie of the aroma of her mother’s cooking. She noticed that Maya was partial to a strange pie covered in round slices of a bright red sausage and smothered in the gooiest cheese Hattie had ever seen.
She was always careful to hide whenever she thought Maya might be looking at her, of course.
Gizmo had been another issue entirely. Dogs and cats had always been able to see her, and the little dog sometimes ventured down the steps to see her. He’d run around and yap at her and try to lick her hands, always to no success. The puppy was growing quickly, though his legs had gotten a head start. He looked like he was walking on stilts, less a dog and more a clumsy little horse. He never stayed long, and always went running when Maya called, but he never growled at her since that first day. Sometimes he even stopped at the top of the stairs and looked back, as though he expected Hattie to give chase, though she never would.
At least not until the day everything changed.
A sound caught Hattie’s attention and she ventured out from the narrow space behind the furnace. The sound came from the small space under the stairs, and she carefully moved toward it. At first, she thought it might be Gizmo, perhaps fallen asleep and dreaming, or maybe he’d tripped down the stairs and hurt himself. But she saw only his tail, hanging low to the floor as he looked at someone else under the stairs. When she realized that someone was crying, she stopped, an odd aching feeling coursing through her entire body. Hattie couldn’t feel much, but sadness always hurt. In spite of that, she moved closer.
Maya huddled in the corner of the alcove, knees hugged tightly to her chest as tears streamed down her cheek. The tattered remains of a notebook lay just in front of her, what pages remained full of writing and drawings of various kinds. Other pages lay around it, crumpled into little balls or ripped in half. Gizmo sat beside her, his fuzzy head resting on her leg. He moved only when he saw Hattie, which made him sit up and bark. Maya, startled by the sound, looked up.
And, once again, directly at Hattie Palmer.
Silence hung between the two girls for agonizing seconds, and Hattie feared Maya might scream again. She crouched down and scrunched her face in concern. Slowly, she reached out a hand. It looked translucent, taking on a faint blue glow in the dim basement. Maya pulled away, desperately trying to wedge herself further into the corner.
Thankfully Gizmo played peacekeeper. He walked over to Hattie, wagging his tail as he tried to lick her hand, once again in vain. It was enough to drain some of the fear from Maya’s face, and gave Hattie the courage to speak for the first time in decades.
“Are you okay?” There was a strange echo to her words, but otherwise she sounded just the same as she had a century ago.
At first, though Maya’s mouth moved, no sound came out. After a few seconds, she managed a few words. “You can talk?”
“Yes, though you’re the first one who can hear me.” She started to offer a hand for Maya to shake, but then grinned sheepishly and curtsied instead. “My name is Hattie Palmer.”
“I’m Maya,” the other girl said. She blinked away a few more tears. “Mama said I made you up.”
Hattie shook her head. “No, I’ve been here ever since my family lived here. I just… never left.”
“That sounds lonely.”
“It was, at least until I found out you could see me.” Hattie ducked her head. “You’re not scared of me?”
“No!” Maya’s cheeks puffed out, then she sighed. “Well, maybe a little. But you’re nice. Nicer than the kids at school.”
“Are they the one who made you cry?”
“Yeah.” She looked away from Hattie. “Mama and Daddy say some people here don’t like us because we look different, and it doesn’t help that I like to write and draw more than talk.”
“That’s not very nice.”
“They’re not very nice,” Maya huffed.
Hattie thought about this a moment. It was true that Maya and her parents looked different from anyone she’d known while she was still alive, she was different now too. It was a terrible reason to treat someone poorly. Maybe Maya needed a friend just as much as she did. She smiled and tilted her head to the side. “Do children today still play tag?”
Maya wiped her tears on her shirt sleeve and gave Hattie a confused look. “Of course. Why?”
Hattie’s smile turned impish and, with a giggle, she reached out and swiped her hand across Maya’s arm. “Because you’re it!”
The ghost child bolted up the stairs, scrambling out the door as Maya gave chase. The game went through the first floor of the house and out the front door and all around the farmhouse’s property. The game lasted the rest of the afternoon, by which time Maya Townsend had her first new friend in Sheridanville.
And for the first time since she left her family, Hattie Palmer wasn’t alone.
“Explain to me again,” Mr. Townsend said as he knelt in front of his daughter and clasped her hands together, “Why you decided to dig these holes in the garden.”
Maya smiled sweetly back at him. “Hattie said this town got built during the gold rush, but nobody never found nothing. But they never looked here!”
Maya’s father sighed, though a smile played at the corners of his mouth, and he turned to the side of his daughter. “Hattie, is this true?”
Hattie giggled, since she was on the opposite side.
He couldn’t see her, but he always pretended to, and never chided Maya for talking to her new friend. She’d once walked downstairs after a night of playing board games in Maya’s room, and heard Mrs. Townsend refer to her as Maya’s imaginary friend. She wasn’t sure she liked being called that, but the Townsends had accepted it and would play along with her. In the end, as long as they could keep playing together, she didn’t care what name the Townsends gave her.
“I told you we should’ve blamed Gizmo.”
The loyal dog let out a whimper of protest, his ears pinning back at the accusation. He’d finally grown into those legs, now a powerfully built but still fluffy dog with spectacular black markings around his face. His thick tail wagged constantly, always a threat to knock things off shelves and coffee tables. He followed Maya and Hattie everywhere, so she felt a little guilty at trying to foist the blame off on him.
“You’re both lucky your mother hasn’t started planting her vegetables yet. We’ll just tell her you were trying to help out, okay? Your mini gold rush will be our little secret, okay?” He turned back to the empty space where he mistakenly thought Hattie stood. “Just don’t go giving her any more bad ideas, okay?”
“I won’t.” Hattie couldn’t be rude and ignore him, even if he couldn’t see her. She liked the Townsends a lot and didn’t want to make them upset. She also felt a little guilty that she probably lied, because there would be many more bad ideas to come between the two friends.
They’d been playing together for a year now. Maya hadn’t quite fit in at school, but she didn’t mind so much, as long as she could draw or write during recess, then come home and play with Hattie. If they weren’t chasing each other and Gizmo around the house, Maya could be found drawing in the same bed room that once belonged to her best friend. Even so often Hattie would try to pick up a crayon but, as with most things, her control was limited at best, and she ended up just scribbling on the page. Every time, Maya would take the crayon from her hand with a smile.
“Tell me what colors you like, and I’ll fill it in for you.”
Not long after they met, Maya decided to draw a picture of Hattie. The little ghost girl had been a little nervous about the idea. After all, Maya had called her a “dead girl” the first time they met, and neither mirror nor camera could capture an image of her. But when Maya finished the cartoonish version of her, Hattie felt relieved. She looked just like she had in life, with a face full of freckles and long red curls. She wore her favorite dress, bright pink with lacy ruffles at the sleeves. The only difference Maya noted was that she could see through her, and that faint blue glow around her body.
“I think you look cute and neat!” Maya declared when she finished. It would be the first of many pictures she’d draw of her best friend.
Often they’d tell each other stories, since Maya had a vivid imagination. Sometimes she asked Hattie about growing up in the country before cars and electricity. The stories Hattie told her became particularly useful during history reports. Maya amazed her teachers with vivid details of life on the farm, and her special report on Sheridanville and its role in the Georgia Gold Rush earned a perfect grade. In turn, Hattie asked Maya about the huge buildings she saw in Boston or to recount the story from movies she saw in town. Maya also loved to talk about pizza, that amazing pie Hattie had admired from afar.
Only one thing made the girls uncomfortable, and Maya only brought it up once, a few days after they met. She’d heard some horrible stories from people in town, so she wanted to know how Hattie died. When her best friend didn’t answer, Maya apologized immediately. Later that day, Hattie simply said she got really sick, and neither her mother or the local doctor could do anything for her.
The next day, Maya told Hattie she’d put flowers on her grave, as well as those of her mother and father. They never spoke of her last days, nor the cemetery, again.
More than anything else, the two girls loved adventures fueled by Maya’s seemingly limitless imagination. The empty boxes from their move became a castle, then a rocket ship to Enceladus, Maya’s favorite moon of Saturn. Once they landed back on Earth, the boxes transformed into a city ready to be ravaged by the terrible Gizilla, a monster born from the fiendish combination of Gizmo and the dinosaur Halloween costume Maya insisted on buying for him one year. One of her father’s sports bobbleheads became an idol at the center of an ancient temple, while an old pill bottle became an important microfilm the world’s most daring spies needed to steal.
“What’s a microfilm?” Hattie asked.
“I dunno, but spies are always stealing it, so it must be important.”
No other explanation was needed.
While Maya’s imagination was boundless, there was a single limit to their adventures, which they discovered the day Maya planed a hike through the forest to find the legendary sword Excalibur in order to slay an evil dragon, as Gizmo’s costume had many uses. But the moment the girls reached the treeline, Hattie could move no further. It was though someone tied a rope around her waist and tethered her to the farmhouse. Nothing they did could free Hattie from its grip. They went to the other side of the house, but Hattie was stuck just the same. Hattie even tried a running start, but she only tripped and felt to the ground. They even let Gizmo run a few laps around Hattie, as though he could break the invisible bond through sheer force of hyperactivity.
“It’s okay,” Hattie said, though her voice was less enthusiastic than usual. “We’ll just play in the yard.”
“Okay,” Maya agreed. Little did Hattie know, her best friend was already formulating a plan.
A few days later, Maya and her parents went into town, and Hattie kept herself busy by throwing Gizmo’s ball down the hallway. The dog grew tired of the game before her, and she thought to help cleaning around the house, starting with dusting. A few shelves and a fallen candlestick later, she abandoned the idea and instead climbed ot the crow’s nest. Instead of her father’s paints, Mrs. Townsend’s camera equipment lined one wall, while a huge telescope stood by one window. Hattie sat and watched the sun disappear over the horizon.
When the Townsends finally returned later that evening, Maya staggered through the doorway, her arms overloaded with books. She carried them into the family room and spread them out across the floor. Hattie gave her a curious look, but Maya only smiled in return before running out the front door again. Minutes later, she returned with a second, equally massive load of books. Finally, with the entire haul spread out around them, Maya stood triumphant in a sea of text.
“Books are always the answer!” she announced triumphantly. “This is everything the Sheridanville Library has on ghosts.” Her shoulders slumped. “Well, a few books were checked out, and there were a couple of sections Mama and Daddy didn’t want me looking in. They said something about not wanting me to get into the… I think they called it the old cola? But that’s silly, we throw out soda when it goes flat.”
Hattie responded with a sage nod. “I don’t think soda would help anyway.”
They flipped through every book, even though Maya was disappointed that most of them boasted covers with decrepit old manions and terrifying specters who stretched their bony hands out toward the reader. It turned out most of them just told stories about ghosts. Most were written to be scary, the ghosts in them horrible ghouls who wanted to hurt people and scare them out of their houses. Even though it didn’t keep the sound out, Hattie put her hands over her ears when Maya read those stories. She hated them ever since the Wattersons lived in the house.
There were only a few stories about nice ghosts, but none had happy endings. Well, at least not for the ghosts, anyway. A few were funny and even made the two of them giggle, but not a single one offered any practical advice at all. One story told of a priest who came into the house to perform an exorcism, but the whole thing sounded scarier than anything Hattie could have done. Besides, Maya’s parents didn’t go to church and probably wouldn’t like the idea of having a preacher in their house for any reason. Not a single one told Maya how to help Hattie leave the confines of the yard.
“It’s okay,” Hattie finally said. “It’s a really big yard!”
But Maya didn’t plan to give up helping her friend that easily.
Her next ploy came from, of all places, television. Maya sat on the floor sketching in the family room sketching with Hattie and Gizmo beside her. Mr. Townsend was flipping through channels on the large TV when something caught his attention. Loud rock music blared as a pair of men with long hair and tattoos stood in front of a run down old hotel. Images of the inside flashed on screen, some bathed in a strange green glow.
“We’re staying in the Windermayer Hotel all night, with only our recording equipment! If there’s anything supernatural in this house, I guarantee you… we’ll find it. Tonight, on Ghost Quest!”
“Staying in some old hotel, you gotta be kidding me.” Mr. Townsend looked down at his daughter and smiled. “We should just tell them to come here and see Hattie.”
He meant it as a joke, but when a commercial asked anyone with a real ghost story to call their team, she jotted down the number.
It took Maya a few hours to get through the next day, and she was disappointed she wasn’t talking with Nick Bilbo. Maya put the assistant on speaker phone so Hattie could hear as well. The lady on the phone had never even heard of Sheridanville, but once she learned the farm house predated the Civil War, he started listening closely.
“So what is the haunting? Are there old soldiers wandering the grounds?”
“No. Just a little girl.”
“Oh, that’s great! A creepy little girl, people eat that up.”
“She’s not creepy. She’s funny and really sweet.”
That didn’t seem appealing to her, and she kept asking questions. Did Hattie throw books off the shelf in the middle of the night? Did she cause weird orbs of energy to float down the hallway? Did her mournful cries echo through the hallway? Each time Maya said no, and each time the assistant wanted to hear some problem that the little ghost caused.
“Look,” Maya said finally, her patience running thin, “Hattie is my best friend, and she can’t leave the yard. Your commercial said you help people, and she needs your help so she can go on adventures with me. Do you know long that dragon has been terrorizing the countryside?”
A brief pause, followed by a click and then a dial tone.
“So they’re not going to help?” Hattie asked.
“I guess not.” Maya hung up the phone and folded her arms over her chest. “So what if Nick Bilbo doesn’t want to help us? I bet he’s never seen a real ghost before.” Then, with a huff, she added, “And his tattoos look really stupid!”
Hattie laughed at that, but she really didn’t mind. So what if she couldn’t leave the yard? They’d keep going on adventures and spending time together, and they’d be best friends forever. She couldn’t ask for anything more.
Over the next few years, Hattie waited patiently in the basement each day for Maya to come home. Gizmo would often scamper down the steps to play with her, or at least to curl up by her feet and sleep. Once they made such a racket that Mrs. Townsend called in an exterminator, fearing Gizmo was chasing mice. The man arrived promptly the next day and scoured every corner of the lower level, finding no evidence of mice… nor the house’s oldest resident.
“Feels a little cold in weird spots down there, though,” he remarked as he left. “You should have that looked into.
“It’s probably just Hattie,” Mrs. Townsend said with a chuckle, leaving him thoroughly confused.
Hattie’s adventures with Maya continued, though they became less frequent, as her best friend started to return from school with more homework. Her parents expected her to do more around the farmhouse as well as she grew older. Bit by bit, she grew taller than Hattie, but that was the least of the changes. She started caring more about her appearance, trading in the grass stained dresses and torn jeans for the latest styles she learned about in magazines. Her hair changed too, with the pigtails disappeared a few months before she cut it short, just below her shoulders. She boxed up her old toys and put them in the basement or donated them to kids in need. Even Gizmo’s venerable dinosaur costume was retired.
Maya still told stories, though they grew in complexity. She created a princess trapped in a tall tower who, tired of waiting for a knight to save her, learned to wield a sword and escaped on her own. One of Hattie’s favorites was about a pair of alien twins who came to Earth not to conquer the planet, but to sample its local cuisine. They rarely acted these stories out, but Maya would often write them in her growing collection of notebooks and read them aloud to Hattie when they were just right. She could even draw the characters on her computer, without a single piece of paper!
Even when Maya enrolled in middle school, Hattie expected things to remain the same. She brought home even more homework and delighted in the novelty of being able to pick her own classes, but she still found time for Hattie. A clock Maya put in the basement told Hattie when classes ended, and when she could expect her home. At the appropriate time, Hattie scrambled up the stairs, Gizmo hot on her heels. The friends would tell one another how their days went, though Maya’s was consistently more interesting than Hattie’s, which usually involved something silly their canine friend had done.
Then, two weeks into that first year, Hattie and Gizmo ran up the stairs at the usual time, but Maya wasn’t there. They waited a full twenty minutes before Maya’s voice could be heard outside. Gizmo made such an excited racket that Hattie failed to notice a second voice. When the door finally opened, she was shocked to see that her best friend wasn’t alone. There was another girl there with her, a bit shorter with lighter skin and long blond hair. As soon as Maya caught sight of them, she beamed and waved excitedly. Gizmo wasted no time in bounding over, licking his owner’s hands before sniffing curiously at the new arrival.
“That’s Gizmo,” Maya said, then pointed across the room. “And that’s Hattie over there! Hattie, this is my new friend from school, Brianna!”
Brianna didn’t look at Hattie, however. She just grimaced and shook her head. “There’s no one there, Maya.”
“Give it time, you’ll see.”
And the three of them went upstairs together, though Brianna kept walking right through Hattie as though she wasn’t there. Once in Maya’s room, they played games on her computer and talked about how mean their English teacher Mr. Markert was, who the cutest boy was in history class, and argued over what was in the cafeteria’s meatloaf. Every so often, Maya tried to bring Hattie into the conversations. Each time, without fail, the blond girl would roll her eyes.
It all came to a head when Maya pulled out one of her sketchbooks and started to show off her latest drawing. When Brianna said she didn’t like it, Maya turned to Hattie for her opinion.
“It looks really–”
“See, this is why people at school thing you’re a weirdo,” Brianna interrupted, as though she hadn’t even heard Hattie speak. “You’re always sitting by yourself, writing and drawing instead of talking like a normal person. And you’re still talking to an imaginary friend.”
“She’s not imaginary, she’s a ghost and she’s right there.”
Maya pointed but, yet again, Brianna didn’t look in her direction. She didn’t even try. Instead, she looked over her shoulder, to the walls covered with art of Hattie, most dressed with some random accessory like a pith helmet or a construction hat based on their various adventures.
“She’s a neat character, but it’s okay to say you just made her up. Everybody knows ghosts aren’t real.”
“They are so, and I’ll prove it!” Maya put her sketchbook on the edge of her desk. “Hattie, can you knock this off?”
It took some doing, but Hattie focused and pushed the sketchbook onto the floor. Once again, Brianna responded with the eye roll that Hattie was already starting to hate.
“You put it on the edge. That’s just gravity, not a ghost.”
“But–” Maya began, but stopped as Hattie put a hand on her shoulder.
“It’s okay. I’ll take Gizmo outside, and you two can keep talking.” With a quick whistle, Gizmo walked over to where she stood and let out a soft whimper, then fell in step behind Hattie. She couldn’t be sure, but Hattie wanted to believe Gizmo didn’t approve of this new friend any more than she did. Once they were outside, Gizmo’s mood was improved by finding the perfect fetching stick. That was easier to hold and throw, so the pair played for at least a good half an hour, until Gizmo had finally worn himself out, which happened faster than Hattie expected. Instead of going up to the room, they instead sat on the patio, Gizmo curled up beside Hattie. As she looked down at the dog, she noticed for the first time a handful of white hairs that had crept into his muzzle.
Maya, it seemed, wasn’t the only one who was changing with age.
By the time Maya finally opened the back door and sat down next to Hattie on the porch, stars had started to peek out from the dusk sky. At first they said nothing, their legs dangling over the edge while they took turns petting Gizmo and listened to the serenade of the crickets in the yard.
“Sorry,” Maya finally said. “I lost track of time.”
“It’s okay. Did you have fun?”
“You won’t be mad if I say yes, will you?”
“Of course not. I like Brianna,” Hattie lied. “She’s… nice.”
“She’s the first person who’s ever really talked to me at school. It’s nice to have friends there too.” Maya smiled. “But I bet if we give her time, she’ll be able to see you just like I am!”
However, the more Brianna came to visit, the less Maya tried to convince her to pay attention to the other girl who lived in the house. Even the slightest mention of Hattie provoked that dreadful eye roll, sometimes accompanied by some snide remark about how Maya needed to grow up. Eventually, when Hattie wandered into the room when the two of them were together, she saw an anxious look on her best friend’s face. Hattie would never linger long, and never tried to break into the conversation. After one particularly long visit, Hattie finally addressed the problem.
“I’m not sure she’ll ever be able to see me.”
“No.” Maya fidgeted with her hands as she answered.
“It’s okay,” Hattie said. “Maybe I could just play with Gizmo whenever she comes over, that way I’m not distracting you.” Gizmo had taken to Brianna the same way the new girl had taken to Hattie, which convinced her the dog was a very good judge of character.
Part of Hattie longed for Maya to say no, that she’d find a way to make Brianna believe in her best friend. Or even better, she’d tell Brianna she couldn’t come to the house at all any more because she’d been so rude. But in the end, she still smiled when Maya agreed. It wasn’t fair of Hattie to keep Maya from making new friends, friends who she went to school with and who could travel beyond the boundary of the farmhouse… even if that friend was Brianna.
Still, as they parted ways that night, Hattie felt that same dull ache that she’d last felt the day she found Maya crying in the basement.
And in time, Brianna wasn’t the only friend that came to visit the old farm house. Every so often one Maya told one of them about Hattie, and a few even swore they saw something out of the corner of their eye. But they always looked in the wrong direction, and most didn’t bother to look at all. And though Hattie stopped by her old room at times to see what they were doing, she never tried to join in. It made things easier for Maya and at least Hattie still had Gizmo. The dog was always up for a long game of fetch or to chase her around the yard. He’d always end the day by lying next to her and trying to lick her hand, for he’d still not given up on the idea.
With each new friend, Hattie noticed an increased confidence from Maya as well. She looked forward to school each day, and had even shooed Hattie out of her room even without friends around, to study for a big test. The books she brought home to read for fun grew larger and more complex, simple ghost stories replaced by massive tomes about boy wizards and computer hackers, and each one influenced the stories she wrote. Though, to Hattie’s chagrin, Maya also took down more and more of the drawings of her, replacing them with posters from movies and anime series she loved, and even a boy band she giggled about with her friends. Still, she never felt jealous or sad about any of it.
Well… except for the slumber party.
Mr. And Mrs. Townsend agreed to let Maya invite several of her friends to stay overnight at the farm house, and for the next few weeks she could speak of nothing else. Hattie was amazed at the complexity of the planning, which felt more bewildering than a game of chess. Maya couldn’t invite both Jill and Stephanie, since they hated each other. Ximena was sweet but infamously snored loud enough to rattle the windows, Cassie couldn’t eat gluten, Kamala was allergic to dogs and Brianna would want her friend Eleanor there. And would they play Mario Party, watch movies or binge television shows? What flavor would the cake be, and what would they get for Cassie? Hattie listened as Maya obsessed over all the details, for once glad she didn’t have to worry about all of this.
Eventually the big night arrived, and Brianna and a small troop of girls from school invaded the farmhouse and took over the living room and den. Poor Gizmo was confined to the basement for the night, on account of Kamala’s allergies. Mr. Townsend ordered several pizza(one gluten free crust for Cassie) and a big birthday cake along with gluten free peanut butter cookies. They played a collection of old board games and yelled over Mario Party, because Jill stole stars from everyone at the end of the game. Hattie wondered if that was how Stephanie came to hate the other girl, because they sounded very upset over it.
From there, Maya pulled out a blank notebook and played a game called MASH, which supposedly gave everyone a one hundred percent guaranteed future. She didn’t understand it, but Hattie still smiled when Brianna ended up living in a shack. Then they sang happy birthday, the one thing Hattie got to join in on, even if only Maya heard her. Finally Mrs. Townsend came in and turned off the lights, telling them it was time for bed. Hattie started back to the basement for the night, but stopped as a flashlight clicked on. It was Brianna.
“We can’t go to sleep yet,” she whispered. “We have to tell ghost stories!”
Hattie was confused. Didn’t Brianna always say ghosts weren’t real?
“Do we have to?” Cassie asked.
“It’s tradition. Besides, we’re in the old Watterson Farmhouse…”
“Palmer!” Hattie corrected, and Maya stifled a giggle.
“You’ve all heard the stories.”
“They’re so dumb,” Ximena replied. “No one believes in that stuff anymore.”
Brianna pointed the flashlight at Maya. “She does. She’s told me some stories about the ghost who lives here.”
Maya turned to look nervously at Hattie. “Um, well…” She trailed off.
“A little girl named Hattie, wasn’t it? The one you’re always drawing?” She didn’t look the smug grin on Brianna’s face. “The one who’s buried in that creepy graveyard just a little ways from your house?”
Wait. Maya had shown Brianna her grave? She shouldn’t have been able to, but Hattie suddenly felt very cold.
“Hattie was just a sweet little girl who got sick. There’s nothing–”
“Bo-ring! Come on, Ms. Steen always talks about how you write great stories. Give us a better one than a sick girl.”
Maya looked at Hattie, her lower lip trembling. “But that’s the truth.”
“Oh come on,” Brianna said. “It’s not as if she real, so what does it matter? Give us something good. Something creepy!”
The other girls all looked expectantly at Maya. Hattie shook her head. “I don’t want to be mean.”
“You’re not going to hurt her feelings! She’s dead, after all.”
Maya cast one more sad look at her best friend, then all the other girls from her class, before settling to look at Brianna. Taking in a deep breath, she spoke once more, a sinister tone in her voice.
“She was murdered, by an old Confederate csolider who hated her parents for siding with the Union. He buried her in the basement–”
Hattie never heard the rest, for she ran out of the living room and through the basement door silently, down the steps and behind the boiler where she curled up. A few minutes later, Gizmo had ambled over to curl up next to her. The rest of the night passed slowly, and the ache was worse than Hattie could ever remember it.
It wasn’t until the next afternoon that Maya walked down into the basement, and found Gizmo still standing watch by Hattie’s side. Maya petted the dog’s head and tried to look her best friend in the eyes, but her gaze kept turning away at the last second.
“I… I’m really sorry, Hattie.” Maya leaned in closer to Gizmo. “I was scared they’d make fun of me, and stop talking to me at school. But I know that’s no excuse for what I did.”
“Do you really think they would’ve stopped being your friend?”
“Some of them, maybe.”
Hattie wanted to say that meant they weren’t really her friends at all, but she couldn’t say that. After all, Maya needed friends who could leave the house.
“And I’m really sorry I never told you about taking Brianna to the cemetery. I thought maybe if she saw it, she might be able to see you.” Her shoulders slumped. “She just thought that’s where I came up with the story. I don’t think she’s ever going to be able to see you.”
“Probably not,” Hattie replied, and decided that was a good thing. But she finally moved out from behind the boiler and sat down next to her. “Did they like the story?”
“They did.” Maya shook her head. “I didn’t, though. I don’t like scary stories.”
“Me either. Our adventures were never like that, so maybe you’re meant to tell happy stories.”
“Maybe you’re right.” Maya sniffed softly, and only now did Hattie see the tears running down her cheeks. “Still friends forever?”
Hattie smiled. “Friends forever.”
Before Hattie knew it, Maya became a full fledged teenager and high school student. She spent even more time than ever at school, her time split between studying, extracurricular activities and social functions like dances. Her circle of friends continued to swell in size, and if they weren’t visiting the house they’d talk on the phone or send text messages to each other. She still read, though she rarely shared the stories with Hattie now, finishing massive books in only a week or two. Her art continued to improve, images rivaling the cartoons they used to watch together. But even though movie posters and photos of her friends started to crowd the walls, a few pictures of Hattie remained, and she’d create new ones every so often as well. She also noted, with some satisfaction, that no picture of Brianna remained after Maya came home one day and ripped them down, saying she never wanted to hear her now former friend’s name again.
As Maya had less and less time to spend with Hattie, so too did her ability to play with Gizmo decrease as well. The white hairs she noticed years earlier now almost completely covered his muzzle, and he’d lost a few teeth. This hadn’t affected his appetite, and he’d gained a few pounds. He moved slower now, sometimes not even able to climb the stairs to flop onto his favorite blanket, stretched out over the floor in Maya’s room. Mr Townsend blamed something called arthritis, one of several maladies the older dog suffered from. He couldn’t hear Hattie call him unless she got close, but he still wagged his tail when he saw her, still tried to lick her hands in vain.
Getting older, it seemed, came with consequence and for the first time Hattie felt glad she’d never have to deal with them.
Mr. and Mrs. Townsend were getting older too, with Mr. Townsend’s thin hair turning gray and his wife needing glasses to read now. They still tended the vegetable garden and kept the house in order, though they relied on Maya more and more to help with these things. But the biggest change was in how much they now talked about Maya with a creeping sense of concern. It began when she got her driver’ license, and only grew when she brought home her first date. They talked endless about the boys Maya dated, and didn’t approve of most of them. From the little Hattie saw of them, she tended to agree.
But the biggest source of stress came in Maya’s junior year, after she’d taken an important test and done extremely well. Shortly thereafter, mail started to appear at the farmhouse with regularity, envelopes and thick packets with return addresses of colleges around the country. From what Hattie gathered, that test and her grades meant that all of these schools not only wanted Maya to attend them, but were willing to pay her! And while the Townsends told Maya how proud they were, she also once saw Mr. Townsend staring at the pile of letters and crying.
Mrs. Townsend hand a hand on his shoulder. “We knew this was coming, Freddy. No child can stay home forever.”
Hattie knew that wasn’t true, but felt happy that Maya would be able to choose where to go to school.
They talked less and less due to her busy schedule, but Maya always said hello and talked a little about her day. They were often interrupted by the chime of a message on her cell phone or the need to work on homework, and Hattie would find other ways to preoccupy herself. Some days she heard Maya sobbing and she’d float through the door to see Maya curled up on the bed, her arms wrapped around Gizmo as she sobbed into his side. Only once did Hattie ever ask what was wrong, but Maya yelled at her and told her she wouldn’t understand. After all, Hattie wasn’t a teenager, and never would be.
She stopped going into her room as much after that, especially when the door was closed. Eventually, she even stopped leaving the basement as often.
So it surprised her when one day she heard Maya crying, not in her bedroom but once again from under the stairs. Hattie crept closely slowly, hesitantly, the fear that Maya might yell at her again lingering over her. But her best friend didn’t even notice her at first, curled up into the corner, knees hugged to her chest and tears streaming down her face, just like on the day they’d first met.
Hattie said nothing, but simply placed her hand atop Maya’s, focusing all her effort into letting her feel the sensation. The crying slowly and, after a moment, she looked at her with red and swollen eyes.
“Thank you,” she whispered. For a few minutes, neither of them said anything, content to just be in one another’s presence.
Finally, Maya choked back a few sobs and spoke once more. “Hattie, when you… when you left, did it hurt?”
It took Hattie time to answer, for she’d tried so hard not to think about those last moments of her mortal life in the intervening years. “I hurt a lot because of the fever, it got so bad I couldn’t even move from my bed. I felt hot, and even though Mother put a cold washcloth on my forehead I could never cool down. When it got the worst, Mother and Father sat next to me and held my hand, with my brothers at the foot of my bed. Everyone was crying, and that was what hurt worst of all.”
“It was just like I fell asleep, everything went dark for a little while. And then I woke up again, and left my body behind. I didn’t hurt anymore. Father said I was finally free. They cried a lot more over the next few days, and sometimes they’d cry a long time after that, but…”
Maya cried harder and tried to grasp Hattie’s hand. For a brief instant, she even imagined she could feel her best friend’s hand, warm and alive and trembled. At the same time, Maya stared at her, perhaps for the first time truly able to feel her hand as well.
“They couldn’t see me or hear me,” Hattie said, her voice barely a whisper, “But I told them I’d always be there for them if they needed me. Just like I’ll always be here for you.”
“And how did they feel?”
“They were sad, but Father liked to say I’d never really be gone as long as someone remembered me. He was right. Maybe that’s why I’m still here, too.”
Maya wiped away tears on her shirt sleeves. “Thank you, Hattie.” Once more, she could feel Maya squeezing her hand. “I’m… not so scared now.”
They remained beside one another in silence for a few minutes, until the basement door creaked open.
“Maya? Doc Patterson’s here.” Mr. Townsend’s voice wavered as he spoke. “It… it’s time.”
Maya stood up and looked back at Hattie, a weak smile on her face before she walked up the stairs. And only then did Hattie realize that, for the first time, Maya had come to the basement alone.
Hattie was tempted to walk up the stairs, but she could hear all of the Townsends crying from behind the door and she wasn’t willing to interrupt the family’s private moment. She ventured upstairs only a few hours later, but all three were outside. They stood side by side in the backyard, not far from where Maya and Hattie once looked for gold. This time, Mr. Townsend was digging the hole, and Hattie finally realized they were burying a treasure far more valuable than any precious metal.
Later that night, Gizmo bounded through the basement door, despite the fact it was closed and ran directly toward a startled Hattie. There was no longer any white in his fur and, as he ran to her side, for the first time he was able to lick her hands.
He wasn’t hurting anymore.
Hattie and Gizmo watched from the stairs as Maya wiped away tears, a pair of suitcases by her feet. She hugged her mother and father in turn, while a tiny puppy scampered around their feet and barked for attention. After holding the hands of her parents for a few seconds longer, she leaned down to ruffled the fur on the puppy’s head.
“Take care of Mom and Dad, Baxter.”
She’d been accepted to Stanford, a prestigious school on the other side of the country. It felt like only yesterday the family put together the graduation invitations and prepared for the massive party afterward that all of Maya’s friends attended. Despite his incessant whining, Hattie convinced Gizmo to stay with her in the basement. At first he’d loved to dart up the stairs and try to get Maya’s attention. Perhaps it hurt too much, but Maya never looked at him.
Truth be told, she looked less and less in Hattie’s direction in her last year of school as well. Life weighed down on Maya more than ever, though she still remembered her friends. She’d produced two spectacular pieces of art, one of Hattie standing in front of the farmhouse and one of Gizmo in his infamous dinosaur costume, terrorizing a city. Those two pieces had been framed and were going with her to Stanford.
“In a way,” Maya said, “You’ll be going with me on this adventure.”
Hattie couldn’t resist coming up to the top of stairs, Gizmo in town, to see her best friend off. But, though she stopped by Gizmo’s grave on her way to the airport shuttle, she never looked back at the basement door to see her two friends one last time.
Every so often, Hattie ventured up the steps to check on the Townsends, Gizmo always close behind. She felt the weight of Maya’s absence on them, though the new puppy Baxter gave them something to focus their attention on. He was a bit of a terror, shredding important papers and making messes in the house that made Gizmo regard him with a look that could only be the canine equivalent of deep disappointment. Sometimes Baxter would catch sight of Gizmo and the two would tear around the house, and Hattie would follow gleefully after that. To the Townsends, of course, it just looked like Baxter was running laps around the first floor for no reason.
“Why do you think he does that?” Mr. Townsend once asked.
“No idea,” Mrs. Townsend replied, but then added with a wry smile, “Maybe he’s playing with Hattie.”
She loved that they still remembered her.
School kept Maya busy, and she rarely came home to visit. When she did, everything happened in a blur. Mr. Townsend cooked elaborate meals that would more accurately be called feasts, and the family ran across the tiny town, letting Maya catch up with old friends. If she wasn’t in the middle of a school project she worked on her art and writing. She was so busy that she never seemed to see Hattie when she’d venture upstairs to check on her, and never went down into the basement.
Still, she knew Maya hadn’t forgotten about her completely. One Christmas, her parents opened a gorgeous painting of Hattie and a youthful Gizmo standing in front of the farmhouse, looking to the horizon as though ready for a new adventure. And at the same time, letters and phone calls came frequently with updates on Maya’s life, and Hattie always eavesdropped when her parents talked about all of her accomplishments, and felt almost as proud as they about them.
She joined the Honor Society and made the Honor Roll her first year.
She became editor of the school literary journal.
She met a nice boy named Derrick, and her parents actually liked him.
She graduated magna cum laude, which was apparently Latin for really really good in school.
She and Derrick got engaged.
She sold her first book.
She got married at a place called Disneyland.
She sold more books.
And then one day, she called home and Mr. and Mrs. Townsend hugged one another as soon as they hung up, crying.
“They’re coming home, to stay this time.”
She’d seen Maya and Derrick a few times over the years, even though she’d never actually met him. She liked Derrick as much as the Townsends, and so she and Gizmo stood at the the top of the stairs the day they returned to the farmhouse. She’d never seen the Townsends as happy as they were that day, and they prepared the house for their daughter’s arrival. To Hattie’s confusion, however, Maya and Derrick were given a different room, but they still moved new things into hers as well. Maya and Derrick stepped through the doorway with beautiful, joyous smiles. The joy felt the closest to warmth Hattie had experienced in years.
And as they walked into the living room, she noticed something in Maya’s arms, small and swathed in a blanket. After a moment, the bundle began to cry.
Hattie and Gizmo walked down the hallway and stepped into her old bedroom. Though it had once been the baby’s room, it now served as Maya’s office. Her old desk now held a computer with two monitors and an expensive tablet for her to draw with. The walls of the room were lined with awards and certificates marking her many accomplishments. Some included the covers of her books, and on each one Hattie recognized things from their adventures. The castle. The forest. The rocket ship.
And on each one, there stood a familiar girl with light colored curls in a fancy dress, but always wielding a sword or wearing an astronaut’s helmet or some other accessory themed to that book’s adventure. A big gray dog with distinctive black markings around her eyes stood beside her, always with a silly canine grin on his face. The backgrounds showed exotic locales around the world and even beyond, promising incredible adventures.
A computer monitor flickered nearby, a mock-up of the latest cover on the screen. The little girl wore a pirate hat and an eye patch, while a set of keys dangled from the dog’s mouth. A beautiful island stretched out behind them, a fearsome ship with a skull on the mast just off shore. At the bottom, she saw the title: Madeline McCormick, Ghost Adventurer and the Curse of the Skullduggerous Scallywags! Below was the usual byline, Written and Illustrated by Maya Townsend-Fields.
“Pirates this time, Giz! Isn’t that neat?”
The dog let out a bark only she could hear.
They were about to return downstairs when the sound of crying echoed down the hallway, and the two walked down the hallway to Jasmine’s room. The door was open and they peered inside. The little girl was pressed against the headboard of her bed, blankets pulled all the way up to her eyes. Sweet Baxter sat by her side, resting his head on her lap. At the foot of the bed sat Maya, her hair tied into a loose pony tail. She smiled at her daughter, though it didn’t seem to help with her fears at all.
“No, really Mama! There are monsters in the closet!”
“I see. And just what did these monsters look like?”
“They were ugly, purple with green spots and teeth like rusty old needles!”
“They sounds scary!” Maya ruffled her daughter’s hair. “But they’re not going to hurt you.”
“You don’t think they’re real. Grandpa said the same thing.”
Hattie remembered that discussion, lamenting that their granddaughter had to invent cruel monsters instead of friendly ghosts.
“If they’re real to you, then they’re real enough. But you don’t need to be scared of those ugly pink–”
“Purple!” Jasmine corrected.
“Right, purple monsters. It doesn’t matter what color they are, they won’t hurt you. I promise!”
“What makes you so sure?”
Suddenly, Baxter lifted his head and let out a single bark, looking at the doorway. The little girl looked over, and her eyes went as wide as tea saucers.
And for the first time in years, Maya turned and looked back at her old friends and smiled.
“Because I know Hattie and Gizmo will always be here for you, and will keep you safe.”