Loud, squeaky barks preceded the clattering of clawed feet across the floorboards, noise that roused Hattie Palmer from her slumber. A sliver of light peeked into the basement from under the heavy oak door at the top of the stairs, making the ever present dust sparkle. As Hattie drew close the sounds grew louder, closer. She crept up the rickety staircase, each step creaking in her wake. Once at the top, she tugged on the handle and eased the door open ever so slightly and gazed into the kitchen.
At first, nothing. Without warning, a blur of poofy gray fur bolted past and slid across the linoleum. Hattie jumped back and pushed the door shut. The invader bounded down the hallway, his running silenced by the thick carpet. However, another stranger dashed through the kitchen, hot on the heels of the tiny dog. The second newcomer made a strange sound, gentle and almost musical. It had been so long since Hattie last heard it that she almost failed to recognize it.
“Maya, sweetie, stop running around like the Tasmanian Devil,” a voice called from the distance. “Your father hasn’t fixed everything yet. We don’t want to celebrate our new home with a trip to the ER!”
“Okay Mama,” answered a younger voice, a girl judging from the pitch. Something blotted out the light that streamed in under the door, and the quick pounding of feet against the floor, failing to heed those instructions..Then came a brief silence, only for the dog to zoom past once more, with the girl(Maya, Hattie assumed) close behind..
Minutes later they made another pass, or at least started to. This time, however, the dog skidded to a stop in the kitchen. It pressed closer to the doorway, blocking most of the light. In any other circumstance, she might have giggled at the puppy’s high pitched growl, but now it made her retreat further. She glanced over her shoulder, to the bottom of the stairs and safety place behind the furnace.
“What’s wrong with you, Gizmo?”
The dog started yapping at the doorway.
Hattie’s foot touched the step behind her.
The step groaned.
The old oak door flew open.
In the entrance stood a young girl almost the same age she’d been stuck at for years, with the gray fluffball of a dog by her side. The bright red dress she wore would’ve looked lovely, were it not for the handful of mud splotches and fresh grass stains that marred it. Her long black hair had been pulled into two pigtails, with a few strands of loose grass clinging to them.
Her eyes were large as tea saucers, and staring right at Hattie.
Neither one of them said anything. The puppy tilted his head to one side.
The girl spoke first or, to be more accurate, yelled.
“Mama, there’s a girl in the basement!”
Mr. and Mrs. Townsend, as Hattie later learned they were named, searched the basements with flashlights soon after the cry. The casual way they waved the flashlights and spent most of the time talking to one another suggested they weren’t serious about it. Maya made the story up, said Mr. Townsend, a tall man with thinning hair and a kind smile. According to him, it was only natural for her to invent a tale after they’d moved from the big city(Boston, she’d later heard). It didn’t help that the house had remained vacant for five years, which led people in Sheridanville, the small town nearby, to make up stories.
Mrs. Townsend shook her head and said Maya always had an imagination. She wore an expression equal parts kind and stern, the kind Hattie remembered from Miss Davenport, so she wasn’t surprised to learn Maya’s mother had once been a teacher as well. Over time, she learned Mr. Townsend made a lot of money from selling something called a “tech start up” and they decided to move away from the city and into the country. They got a good deal on the farmhouse from the Andersons, who Mr. Townsend once described as “motivated sellers.”
Hattie remembered the Andersons. She ventured out from behind the furnace the day they moved in as well, and the steps groaned in her wake then too. They never even looked in her direction. Instead they yelled at each other about how the steps needed repair, lest they make more noise as the weather changed. As it turned out, they yelled at each other a lot, usually about small things. Hattie heard them stomp across the floor and slam doors. On one scary occasion, she even heard glass shatter against the wall. A few hours later they cried and apologized to each other.. By the next day, they be yelling again.
Then one day Mr. Anderson didn’t apologize, slammed the front door and never returned. Mrs. Anderson followed his lead a few months later, and once more the house was empty. Hattie was alone again.
It reminded her of the day Jebediah left for the last time. He stayed longer than the rest of their brothers, determined to hang on to the home Mother and Father cherished. But poor Jebediah’s body was too weak for the fields, and his heart yearned for the excitement of the big city. After a particularly bad winter wiped out most of the crops, he sold everything and packed up the last of his belongings.
On that last day, he lingered by the front door of the house. Hattie remembered how Mother leaned out the door and shouted as they played in the front yard, summoning them for dinner. The children helped set the table and carry the food from the kitchen, then they’d stand by their chairs. Father entered, sat at the head of the old oak dining room table, and only then could the rest of the family take their seats. She remembered the delicious aroma of the potatoes and vegetables, seasoned to perfection, along with chicken or turkey, and how her stomach growled as they waited for Father to give the blessing before they dug in. Sometimes the smell of a fresh pie wafted into the dining room, promising a reward for clearing their plates.
She liked to think Jebediah thought about those memories as well in that moment, as he looked over the now bare dining room. Just before he walked out, he glanced across the room and Hattie swore he looked right at her. But he said nothing, shook his head and left the farmhouse. She never saw him or any of her brothers again.
Five families, including the Townsends, lived in the farmhouse since, but not one of them saw her. Until Maya, that is. The Wattersons took up residence first, with two children the same age Hattie had been before she slipped away. The youngest even lived in her bedroom and slept in the same bed.. For the first few months he tried desperately to get their attention, slamming doors and knocking books off shelves and then screaming at the top of her lungs, but Mr. Watterson always came up with a some other explanation.
The children, on the other hand, believed in ghosts. Just not in Hattie. They gathered in the living room by candlelight and told cruel stories about how parents murdered her and buried her somewhere outside. The stories grew more gruesome over time, casting the ghost child as a sadistic presence that tormented everyone who set foot in the house. They called her ugly and said one look at her face would turn a person to stone.
It wasn’t mature, but Hattie woke them up late one night by slamming a vase to the floor just outside their rooms.
Hattie wandered all over the house back then, even into the tiny crow’s nest atop the house where Father liked to paint. It had been off limits from the moment she learned to walk, but she loved the spectacular view it afforded her. She could see the nearby forest, the other buildings on the property, the growing community of Sheridanville and even the small graveyard not far from the property. That let her watch the day her brothers laid Mother and Father to rest, next to one another, and across from her own final resting place.
Even before the Wattersons moved away, Hattie took to hiding in the basement. Year flew past. One family left. The house sat idle for a time. A new family moved in. For three months, that remained true with the Townsends as well. Sometimes she crept to the stop of the steps and watched them eating dinner. She could no longer smell the food, the mere sight of familiar dishes reminded her of the incredible aroma of Mother’s kitchen. They ate familiar dishes often, but Maya was partial to a strange pie covered in round slices of meat and the gooiest cheese Hattie had ever seen.
Gizmo often sniffed at the door, and eventually ventured down the steps to the basement. Dogs and cats had always been able to see her, so she welcomed her new visitor and how he loved to run around her and try to lick her hands. The puppy had grown up quickly, though it looked like his legs got a head start. It looked like he walked on stilts, less like a dog and more like a clumsy little horse. He never stayed too long, but he never once barked at her after that first day. Then he’d run up the stairs and look down at her with his big tail wagging, like he expected her to give chase.
She never did.
But everything changed one dreary afternoon, when a sound caught Hattie’s attention and drew her from behind the boiler. At first she thought Gizmo might be making the sound under the stairs. Perhaps he’d fallen asleep and started dreaming, Hattie thought. But as she drew closer, she realized she’d been wrong. Someone else was under the stairs, crying.
Few things made Hattie hurt anymore, but every time she heard those mournful sounds, it caused a dull ache through her entire body. She saw Mother crying after she’d passed, almost every night in the first few weeks after her funeral. Hattie sat by her bedside and rested her hand atop Mother’s, even though she could never see her.
She crept closer and closer, until she could finally look into the little alcove under the stairs.
Maya huddled in the corner, knees hugged tight to her chest with tears screaming down her cheeks. The tattered remains of a notebook lay in front of her, pages ripped out and shredded. Gizmo sat beside her, his fuzzy head resting on her lap. He only moved when she caught sight of Hattie, jumping to his feet and letting out a quick bark. The sound startled Maya and made her look up.
Once again, right at Hattie.
Silence hung between them for several agonizing seconds. Hattie feared Maya might scream again, but this time in terror. She crouched down, face scrunched in concern, and reached out a hand toward her. Maya pulled away, trying desperately to push herself further into the corner.
Thankfully, Gizmo played peacekeeper. The pup walked over to Hattie and wagged his tail happily and tried once again to lick her hand. His tongue passed right through her. It was enough to drain some of the panic from Maya’s face.
“Are you okay?” Hattie asked.
At first, though Maya’s mouth moved, no sound came out.
“You can talk?” she finally managed.
Hattie nodded. “You’re the first one who can hear me, though.” At first she reached out her hand to offer to shake Maya’s, but then pulled it back with a sheepish grin and just curtsied to her. “My name is Hattie Palmer.”
“I’m Maya,” she replied, though of course Hattie already knew. The living girl blinked away a few more tears.“Mama said I made you up.”
Hattie shook her head. “My family lived here many years ago. I… never left.”
“That sounds lonely.”
“”It was, until I knew you could see me.” Hattie smiled. “You’re not scared of me?”
“No!” Maya’s cheeks puffed as she let out a sigh. “Well… maybe a little. But you’re nice. Nicer than the kids at school.”
“Did they make you cry?”
“Yeah.” She looked away from Hattie. “Mama and Daddy said some people don’t like me because I’m different.”
“That’s not very nice.”
“They’re not very nice.”
Hattie thought about this a moment. She was different too, after all, but that felt like a terrible reason to treat someone poorly. “Do children today still play tag?”
Maya wiped away her tears on her shirt sleeve and gave Hattie a confused look “Of course. Why?”
An impish grin appeared on the other girl’s face, and she giggled. She reached out and swiped at Maya’s shoulder. “Because you’re it!”
She ran up the stairs, and Maya gave chase. The game lasted the rest of the afternoon, and by the end Maya had her first friend in her new home.
And, for the first time in so long, Hattie wasn’t alone.
“Explain to me again,” Mr. Townsend said as he knelt in front of his daughter and clasped his 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 anything. But she said they never looked here, neither!”
Maya’s father sighed, though a smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Hattie, is this true?”
Hattie giggled as Mr. Townsend looked for her on the wrong side yet again. He couldn’t see her, but he always pretended to, for Maya’s sake. She once walked past the living room and stopped when she heard Maya’s parents mention her name, calling her the “imaginary friend.” A psychologist(whatever that was) said there was no harm in playing along.
Hattie didn’t care what they thought or what they called her, so long as she could keep playng with Maya.
“I told you we should have blamed Gizmo,” Hattie said.
The loyal dog let out a slight whimper and cocked his head at her. He’d finally grown into those legs, now a powerfully built dog with spectacular black markings around his face. His thick tail wagged constantly, always a threat to knock things off shelves and coffee tables. Wherever Maya and Hattie went, Gizmo was never far behind.
“You’re both lucky your mother hasn’t started planting her vegetables yet. We’ll just tell her you tried to help out. Your mini gold rush will be our little secret.” Mr. Townsend stood back up, and looked to the empty space where he imagined Hattie stood. “Just don’t go giving her anymore bad ideas, okay Hattie?”
“Yes sir.” Even if he couldn’t see or hear her, she couldn’t be rude. She liked the Townsends too much to even think about making them angry.
They’d been playing together for a year. Maya still hadn’t quite fit in at school, but she didn’t mind so long as she could come home and play with Hattie. If they weren’t chasing each other or Gizmo around the house, Maya could be found drawing in the bedroom that once belonged to her best friend. Every so often Hattie tried to pick up a crayon and color with her, but she couldn’t manage to control it well enough.
“Tell me what colors you like,” Maya said as she sketched out a cartoonish version of Hattie, “And I’ll color it for you.”
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. Hattie, in turn, asked Maya about the huge buildings she saw in Boston, or the latest video games and movies, or pizza. Maya really liked to talk about pizza!
Only one question made Hattie uncomfortable. A few days after they first met, Maya asked how she died. When she didn’t answer, Maya apologized immediately. Hattie finally told her one day that she’d gotten very sick, and neither her mother nor the local doctor could do anything for her. Maya nodded.
The next day, she came into the house and told Hattie she’d put flowers on her grave, as well as those of Mother and Father. They never spoke about her last days, nor the cemetery, again.
More than anything else, they loved adventures fueled by Maya’s 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 attacked by a rampaging monster named Gizilla(a slightly disgruntled Gizmo in his lizard Halloween costume). One of her father’s bobblehead dolls became an idol at the center of an ancient temple, while an empty pill bottle became an important microfilm they needed to steal.
“What’s microfilm?” Hattie asked.
Maya shrugged. “A thing spies use,” Maya replied. No other explanation was necessary.
There was only one limit to their adventures, which they discovered the day Maya planned a hike through the forest. They needed to find a mystic sword in order to to slay an evil dragon(Gizmo’s Halloween costume had many uses). But the moment the pair reached the treeline, Hattie could move no further. It felt as though someone hooked a chain to her waist and attached it to the farmhouse.
They walked further to the side, but Hattie still stopped short. They looped to the other side of the yard, but they reached the same distance and the same invisible force held Hattie back. Next came a running start, but Hattie only tripped and fell to the ground. They even let Gizmo run a few circles around them, as though he could break the bonds through sheer hyperactivity.
“We’ll just stay in the yard,” Hattie said.
“Okay,” Maya agreed, but she’d already started to formulate a plan.
A few days later Maya and her parents went into town. Hattie kept herself busy at first by throwing Gizmo’s ball down the hallway. When he tired of the game, she tried to pick up a feather duster to help with the housework. A few shelves and a fallen candlestick later, she abandoned the idea and climbed to the crow’s nest. Mr. Townsend’s camera equipment sat to one side, along with a huge telescope. Hattie sat and watched the sun disappear over the horizon.
When the Townsends returned 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, then looked to Hattie with a grin before she stood up and went outside. A few minutes later, she returned with a second load.
“I’m going to figure out how to let you lave the house! This is everything the library has on ghosts,” she proclaimed, then sighed. “Well, a few books were checked out, and there were a few books in other sections, but Mama and Daddy didn’t like the looks of them. Said they didn’t want me getting into… the old cola, I think Mama said? But that’s silly, we throw soda out when it goes flat.”
Hattie responded with a sage nod. “Soda probably wouldn’t help anyway.”
They flipped through every book, most of them with covers showing decrepit old mansions and terrifying looking specters stretching their bony hands outward. It turned out, however, most of the books just told stories about ghosts. Most of them were about terrifying ghouls who only wanted to hurt people or scare them out of their houses. Hattie remembered the Wattersons. She still hated those stories.
They only saw a few stories about nice ghosts, but none of them had happy endings(at least not for the ghosts). A few stories were funny and made the two of them giggle, but not a single one offered any practical advice at all, let alone useful information on helping your best friend leave the bonds of the house.
“It’s okay,” Hattie said after several hours, “The house and the yard are still really big!”
But a few months later, another idea presented itself to Maya, one night when she sat on the floor and sketched with Hattie nearby. Mr. Townsend flipped through the channels on the television one night when something caught his attention. Two men with tattoos and long hair stood in front of a creepy looking hotel. Rock music blared in the background as images of the inside flashed by quickly.
“We’re staying here the whole night with only our recording gear. If there’s paranormal activity in this house, you can bet we’ll find it!.”
“Going to some old hotel,” Mr. Townsend said, and glanced over Maya’s shoulder as she sketched her best friend once again.“You should tell them to come here and see Hattie.”
He meant it as a joke, but when a telephone number flashed at commercial, Maya stopped drawing and wrote it down.
It took her a few hours to get through the next day, but she finally got through to someone. The man on the other end of the phone had never even heard of Sheridanville, but once she mentioned a farmhouse that predated the Civil War, he started listening.
Were there old soldiers wandering the grounds?
No, Maya replied, just a little girl.
A creepy little girl?
No, she was really sweet and funny.
But he kept asking questions, certain that Hattie was causing some kind of trouble.
“Look,” Maya said, her patience running thin, “My best friend is a ghost, and she can’t leave the house. You guys said you help people, so I want you to help Hattie leave the house so she can go on adventures with me.” She slammed a hand on the table. “There’s still a dragon terrorizing the countryside, you know!”
He didn’t say anything for a few seconds, then Maya heard a click and then a dial tone.
“Are they going to help?”
“I don’t think so.”
Maya set the receiver down and sighed, then straightened up and scowled.
“So what if Nick Bilbo doesn’t want to help us? I bet he’s never even seen a real ghost before.” She huffed and folder her arms over her chest. “And his tattoos look stupid!”
Hattie didn’t mind. They’d keep going on adventures together, and remain best friends forever.
Over the next few years, Hattie waited patiently in the basement each for day Maya to come home. Almost every day Gizmo ran down the steps and played with her, or at least curled up in a corner slept. At one point they made enough noise to prompt Mrs. Townsend to call an exterminator, thinking the dog was hunting mice. They looked around and found no evidence of mice nor the basement’s oldest resident.
“Feels a little cold down there, like there’s a draft coming in from somewhere,” he said as he left. “You should have that looked into.”
“It’s probably just Hattie,” Mrs. Townsend said with a chuckle.
Their adventures slowed over time, as Maya found herself with both more homework and additional chores and responsibilities around the house. Bit by bit, she grew taller than Hattie and she started caring more about her appearance. Gone were the grass stained shirts and torn jeans, replaced with more fashionable choices she picked out of magazines. First she stopped wearing her hair in pigtails, then she cut it short, just below her shoulders. She boxed up old toys and either put them in the attic or donated them to kids in need.
Maya still told her stories, though they grew in complexity. She created a princess who grew tired of waiting of waiting for a knight to save her and learned to use a sword herself to escape her evil stepmother’s tower, or about twins who met aliens that came to Earth not to conquer the planet, but to sample the local cuisine. They didn’t act these stories out like the old ones, but Maya wrote them into her notebooks or sketched them out on her computer(she could draw without paper!) then printed them out.
When Maya moved up to middle school, nothing changed at first. Sure, she brought home more homework and thrilled at the prospect of picking her own classes, but they still spent time together every day once she came home.
At first, nothing changed when Maya started middle school, though it meant a lot more work. But two weeks into that first year, Hattie scrambled up the steps like always and dashed to the front door, Gizmo right behind her. She’d been so excited to see Maya that she failed to notice a second voice coming from outside. But when the door opened, Maya wasn’t alone. A second girl stood next to her, a bit shorter and paler, with long red hair and freckles. As soon as Maya caught sight of Hattie and Gizmo, she beamed. Gizmo bounded over and raced around the newcomer in excitement.
“That’s Gizmo right there,“ Maya said, then pointed to her best friend. “And that’s Hattie. Hattie, this is my new friend from school, Brianna!”
But Brianna looked right through Hattie. “Who are you talking to?”
Maya wasn’t discouraged, and the three went upstairs to her room, where they played on Maya’s computer and talked about how mean their English teacher was and speculated what was in the meatloaf the cafeteria served that afternoon. Every so often, Maya tried to bring Hattie into the conversation, but Brianna couldn’t hear a word she said. Before long, the red haired girl started rolling her eyes.
Finally, just after Maya asked Hattie what she thought about a sketch she was working on, Brianna sat her notebook down and gave Maya a serious look.
“See, this is why people at school think you’re weird. You’re always sitting by yourself, writing and drawing. And you still talking to your imaginary friend.”
“She’s not imaginary. She’s right there!” Maya waved her hand in Hattie’s direction.
Gizmo looked at Hattie and gestured with his paw in an attempt to strengthen the case.
Brianna looked over her shoulder, to the walls covered with drawings of Hattie, usually dressed with a pith helmet or a construction hat, based on their various adventures. “She’s a neat character, but it’s obvious you made her up. You’re too old for this, Maya.”
“I said she’s not imaginary. She’s a ghost.”
“Ghosts aren’t real either. Duh.”
“I’ll prove it!” Maya sat her sketchbook on the edge of her desk. “Hattie, can you knock this off?”
Hattie concentrated on her hand and slapped the book. It fell to the floor and looked over at Brianna. She just responded with the eye roll that was started to annoy Hattie.
“You put it on the edge, so of course it fell off. It doesn’t prove anything.”
“But–” Maya bit her lower lip, but before she could say anything else, Hattie sat a hand on her shoulder and shook her head.
“It’s okay. I’ll take Gizmo outside real quick, and you too can keep talking,” Hattie said, and walked to the door, then whistled. Gizmo bowed his head and let out a soft whimper, then padded out the door and down the steps after her. He perked up when he found an excellent fetch stick, and let Hattie throw it to him for a few hours. He finally wore out and fell onto the patio, and Hattie took a seat next to him and ran a hand over his fur, noticing for the first time a handful of white hairs that crept into his muzzle. Before she knew it, the yard turned golden in the setting sun’s light.
The stars had peeked out by the time Maya opened the back door and sat down next to Hattie on the patio. At first they said nothing. Both hung their legs over the ledge of the patio deck and listened to the serenade of the crickets around them.
“Sorry,” Maya finally said. “I lost track of time.”
“I like her,” Hattie lied. “She’s… nice.”
“Yeah. She’s the first person who’s really talked to me at school. But give her time. I’m sure she’ll eventually be able to see you too!”
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 came with that annoying eye roll. Before long, any time Hattie wandered into the room while Brianna visited, she saw an anxious look on her best friend’s face. As much as Hattie missed spending time together, she didn’t want to prevent Maya from meeting other friends, friends who could go beyond the confines of the farmhouse and yard(even if that friend was Brianna).
“Brianna still can’t see me,” Hattie finally said one day.
“No,” Maya said and fidgeted.
“Maybe,” Hattie suggested, “I could just play with Gizmo outside when she comes over. That way I’m not distracting you.
Part of Hattie wanted to hear Maya say no, that she’d find a way to make Brianna believe in her best friend. Or, even better, that she’d tell Brianna she couldn’t come to the house because she’d been so mean to her friend. But Maya just nodded and agreed with her. And though Hattie smiled as she walked away, she felt the same dull ache that came over her the day she found her only friend crying under the stairs.
In time, Brianna wasn’t the only friend who came to visit. Every so often Maya told one of the other girls about Hattie. A few swore they saw something out of the corner of their eye, but more often than not they looked in the wrong direction. Eventually, though she might stop in to see what they were doing, Hattie stopped trying to join in. Thankfully she had Gizmo, always willing to fetch a ball or chase her around the yard, or even just lie next to her and try to lick her hand again(he hadn’t given up yet, the poor thing).
She noticed more changes in Maya, and not just her appearance, either. With each new friend she carried herself with increased confidence, and often asked Hattie how she looked before school. She took down the older drawings of Hattie in her room and replaced them with posters of a boy band she and Brianna liked to giggle about.
Her attitude started to change as well. Rather than complain about her chores, she volunteered for extra ones. One day Hattie stared through the back window as Maya dug up the dirt where they’d once searched for gold, but this time to plant a few new vegetables. Every so often she’d giggle nervously about a boy she talked to at school, and one day she shooed Hattie away while she studied for a major test, saying she needed to focus more on her future.
Hattie never felt jealous… okay, not that jealous. Except for the slumber party, of course.
Mr. and Mrs. Townsend agreed to let Maya invite a few friends over for her birthday party, and she could talk about nothing else for the next few weeks. She couldn’t invite both Jill and Stephanie, because they didn’t like each other. Stephanie snored a lot, so they needed to take that into consideration. Would they watch movies or play Mario Party? Hattie listened and nodded, relieved that she didn’t have to keep all of this straight herself.
Eventually the big night arrived, and Brianna along with several other girls from school came over and took over the living room. Mr. Townsend ordered several pizzas and a big birthday cake. They settled on Mario Party and a collection of old board games Mrs. Townsend kept, and Maya pulled out a blank notebook and they played a game called MASH, which she heard somehow helped to determine their futures. She liked listening in, and couldn’t help but snicker when Brianna ended up with a shack.
Hattie even got to join in singing happy birthday along with the other girls, even if only Maya knew.
Finally Mrs. Townsend came in and turned off the lights and told them it was time for bed. As everyone settled into their sleeping bags, Hattie started to move back toward the basement, but stopped as someone turned on a flashlight. It was Brianna.
“We can’t go to sleep yet,” she said. “We haven’t told ghost stories yet!”
Didn’t Brianna say ghosts weren’t real?”
“Do we have to?” one of the other girls asked.
“It’s tradition. Besides, we’re in the old Watterson Farmhouse…”
“Palmer,” Hattie corrected, which made Maya giggle.
“You’ve all heard the stories.”
“Yeah, but they’re silly.”
“No. They’re true.” Brianna pointed the flashlight at Maya. “I know you have some stories about the ghost that lives here.”
Maya looked nervously at Hattie. “Well…” She trailed off.
“A little girl named Hattie, right? The one you’re always drawing?” She didn’t like the look on Brianna’s face. “The one they buried in that creepy graveyard not far from here?”
Wait… Maya showed 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.”
“That’s boring, Maya! Come on, Ms. Steen says you’re a great writer. Give us a better story.”
Maya looked nervously to Hattie.
Hattie shook her head. “It’s not a story, Maya. It’s the truth.”
The other girls looked expectantly at her.
“C’mon,” one of them said. “Tell us a good story. A scary one.”
“I don’t want to be mean–”
“It’s not like you’re going to hurt her feeling, Maya.” Brianna said. “She’s dead, after all.”
Hattie lowered her head, then peered to Maya again.
Maya looked between her best friend and the girls from her school.
“She, um…” Maya closed her eyes, then looked right at Brianna. Hattie felt a jolt of excitement. She was finally going to tell the rude girl off!
“She was murdered. By an old Confederate soldier who hated her parents for supporting the Union, and he buried her in the basement, but her parents never found her–”
Hattie never heard the rest of the story. She ran out of the living room and passed through the basement door silently, wishing for the first time that she could cry. She hid behind the boiler once again. When the door opened a few minute later, she looked up, hoping to see Maya. Instead, Gizmo hopped down the stairs and curled up next to her.
The next morning, Hattie emerged to see Maya sitting next to the boiler, a hand on Gizmo’s head. At first she looked in the ghost’s direction, but then darted her gaze away, unable to meet her eyes.
“I… I’m really sorry, Hattie.” Maya leaned in closer to Gizmo. “I… I was just scared they’d make fun of me, and stop talking to me at school.”
“Do you really think they wouldn’t be your friends anymore?”
“Maybe some of them.” Maya finally looked over at her. “And… I’m sorry I never told you about taking Brianna to the cemetery, either. I thought, maybe it s he saw it, she might finally be able to see you” Her shoulders slumped. “She just thought I got the idea from there.”
“I don’t think she ever will.”
Hattie sat down next to her and looked over. “Did they like the story?”
“The one you told last night. Did they like it?”
“They did.” Maya shook her head. “I didn’t, though. I don’t like scary stories.”
“Me either.” Hattie said. “Our adventures were never that scary. I think you’re better at telling happy stories.
“Maybe you’re right..” Maya sniffled softly. “Still friends forever?”
Maya became a full fledged teenager before Hattie knew it. She spent a lot of time at school, splitting her time between social functions and intense studying, and her circle of friends swelled in size. If they weren’t visiting the house, she’d call them on the phone or send them text messages(teenagers, Hattie learned, didn’t like talking if they could avoid it). While she still wrote and drew constantly, she never told Hattie about them. Her art continued to improve, and after she colored her work on the computer it rivaled even the cartoons they used to watch together. Even though movie posters and photos of her friends crowded the walls of her bedroom, a few pictures of Hattie remained above her work desk. It probably didn’t hurt that, a year earlier, Maya ripped down every picture of Brianna and said she never wanted to hear her name again. Hattie didn’t have a problem with that.
She couldn’t play with Gizmo as much anymore, either. The white furs she noticed years earlier now almost completely covered his muzzle, and he’d lost a few of his teeth. That hadn’t affected his appetite, and he’d gained a few more pounds over the years as well. 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 arthritis, expected when a big dog got older. He couldn’t hear when she called him unless she was close, but he still wagged his big tail when he saw her and still tried in vain to lick her hands.
Getting older came with a lot of consequences, it seemed. For the first time, Hattie felt grateful she’d never have to deal with them.
Mr. and Mrs. Townsend were getting older too. Mr. Townsend’s thin hair turned gray, and Mrs. Townsend needed glasses to read. They still tended to the vegetable garden and kept the house in order. The biggest change came in the amount of stress they dealt with. It started when Maya got her driver’s license. It only grew when she went on school field trips and school dances. Then came the boyfriends. From Maya’s first date, Mr. and Mrs. Townsend couldn’t stop talking about the boys Maya brought home. They didn’t like most of them. From the little bit Hattie saw of them, she agreed.
The biggest problem, however, were the letters that had started to pour into the mailbox. They all had the names of different colleges in the corner, with return addresses all across the country. From what Hattie gathered, Maya aced a special test, and now those schools wanted to pay for her to attend. They told Maya how proud they they felt, but he also once saw Mr. Townsend crying as he looked at the pile of letters.
“She wasn’t going to stay here forever,” Mrs. Townsend said as she put a hand on his shoulder.
She felt happy for her best friend. At least one of them could leave the old farmhouse.
They talked less now, thanks to Maya’s busy schedule. She still said hello and talked a little about her day, but she kept the conversations short. They were usually interrupted by a chime on her phone, alerting her to a new text message. Some days she would hear Maya sobbing in her bedroom and she’d float through the door. She curled on the bed with her arms wrapped around Gizmo’s neck, sobbing into his side. But when Hattie asked what upset her, Maya yelled at her and told her she wouldn’t understand her problems.
Hattie had never been a teenager, after all, and never would be.
She stopped going into Maya’s room when the door was closed. She even stopped venturing from the basement as often.
So it surprised her one day when she heard Maya crying, not in her bedroom but from under the stairs. Hattie crept closer, scared that she might yell at her again. Her best friend had curled into the corner, knees hugged to her chest and tears streaming down her face, just the same as when they’d first met. Hattie said nothing, but instead sat next to her and placed a hand atop hers.
Maya looked up, eyes red and swollen from crying. “Thank you.”
She said nothing else at first, but finally choked back a few sobs. “Hattie, when you… when you… left, did it hurt?”
It took her time to answer, for she’d not really thought about her last moments of life before. “I hurt a lot because of the fever. I remember Mother and Father held my hand. Mother pressed a cold washcloth against my forehead. My brothers were around the bottom of the bed. Everyone was crying, and that hurt worst of all.”
“I just… fell asleep.” Hattie said, her voice quiet. “And then I woke up again, but I didn’t hurt anymore. Father said I was finally free.”
Maya cried harder and tried to grasp Hattie’s hand. She tried her hardest to let her feel something. She could almost feel Maya’s hand squeezing, warm and alive. Her best friend stared, the tears starting to slow.
“They couldn’t see me or hear me,” Hattie said, her voice barely a whisper. “But I told them I’d always be there if they needed me. Just like I’m always here for you.”
“And… how did they feel?”
“They were sad, but Father said I’d never really be gone, so long as someone remembered me. Maybe that’s why I’m still here.”
“Thank you, Hattie.” She felt Maya squeezing her hand again. “I’m… not so scared anymore.”
They remained together in silence a few minutes longer, until the basement door creaked open.
“Maya? Doc Patterson’s here.” He paused, and Hattie could hear the sadness in his voice as well. “It… it’s time.”
Maya stood up and looked back at Hattie once more and forced a smile before she made her way back up the stairs. At first, Hattie was tempted to follow. But she heard all of the Townsends crying now and she couldn’t bear to spy on such a private moment. She only made her way up the stairs a few hours later, but everyone stood together in the backyard. Mr. Townsend was digging a hole, not far from where Maya and Hattie once looked for gold.
Later that night, Gizmo bounded through the door, even though it was closed. He flew down the stairs and ran excitedly to a surprised Hattie. He finally managed 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 new puppy scampered around their feet, yelped the same way Gizmo had when Hattie first saw him, all those years ago. Maya ruffled the fur on the puppy’s head.
“Take care of Mom and Dad, Baxter.”
She’d been accepted to Stanford, a school on the other side of the country. It felt like only yesterday the family had put together the graduation invitations and prepared for the massive graduation party that all of Maya’s friends attended. Despite his incessant whining, Gizmo remained in the basement with Hattie. He still didn’t quite understand that his beloved family could no longer see him. She remembered that struggle, and always stayed close to him. She understood, however. Until today, Hattie remained in the basement. But she couldn’t miss seeing Maya one more time, and bidding her a final farewell.
But, even though a framed drawing of Hattie went into one of the suitcases, Maya walked out the front door without even casting a glance at the basement door or the friends she left behind.
Hattie still ventured back up the steps to check on the Townsends from time to time, Gizmo always close behind. She felt the weight of Maya’s absence on them, though the new puppy Baxter always brought a smile to their faces. Every so often, the tiny dog caught sight of Gizmo and the two dogs would tear around the house, chasing each other up and down the halls.
“Why do you think Bax does that?” Mr. Townsend asked.
“No idea.” Mrs. Townsend shrugged. “Maybe he’s playing with Hattie.”
She loved that someone still remembered her.
School kept Maya busy, and she rarely came home to visit. When she did, everything felt like a blur. Friends came to visit, Mr. Townsend cooked elaborate meals and if Maya wasn’t working on school projects she kept busy with her writing and art. She never visited the basement, but one day her parents opened a package with a gorgeous painting of Hattie in full color with a youthful Gizmo by her side, standing in front of the farm house. She hadn’t forgotten her, not entirely.
And over time, letters and phone calls came in with updates on her life, and Hattie listened to them intently, proud of Maya’s accomplishments.
She joined the Honor Society.
She became editor of the school’s literary journal.
She met a nice boy named Derrick(unlike the others Maya had dated, Hattie liked him).
She graduated magna cum laude(which was apparently Latin, and meant something really good).
She and Derrick got engaged.
She sold her first book.
She and Derrick got married.
Then one day, Mr. Townsend sounded very excited on the phone, and ran over and hugged Mrs. Townsend.
“They’re coming home. To stay, this time.”
She’d seen Maya and Derrick a few times over the years, but she still excitedly joined Gizmo at the top of the stairs on the day they came back home.. She’d never seen the Townsends as happy or as proud as when they opened the door. Maya and Derrick stepped into what was now their home. Their smiles were beautiful and joyous, so much so that she almost felt the warmth radiating from them.
And then, something in Maya’s arms, swathed in a blanket, began to sob.
Hattie and Gizmo walked down the hallway and stepped into her old bedroom, which now served as Maya’s office. She worked at the same desk she’d owned as a child,, though the other walls now boasted shelves full of awards and certificates marking her many accomplishments. A few showed 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 costume themed to the adventure. A big gray dog stood by her side with a silly canine smile on his face. The backgrounds showed exotic locales around the world and even beyond, each one promising untold adventures.
A computer monitor flickered nearby, with the latest cover sent for her approval. 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, with a fearsome ship with a skull on its mast just off shore.
Madeline McCormick, Ghost Adventurer and the Curse of the Skullduggerous Scallywags. Below was the byline, Written and Illustrated by Maya Townsend-Fields.
“Pirates this time, Giz! Isn’t that neat?”
The dog let out a bark only Hattie could hear.
The sound of crying from a room down the hall caught their attention, and they walked to Jasmine’s room. The door was open and they looked inside to see the little girl pressed against the headboard of her bed, blankets pulled 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 gently at the child. It didn’t allay her fears, however.
“No, really Mama. There are monsters in the closet!”
“I see. And what did these monsters look like?”
“They were ugly, purple with green spots and teeth like old needles.”
“They sound scary!” Maya ruffled the hair on her head. “But they’re not going to hurt you, trust me.”
“You don’t think they’re real,” Jasmine said. “Grandpa said the same thing.”
Hattie remembered that, and Mr. Townsend lamenting why his granddaughter invented monsters instead of a friend.
“If they’re real to you, then that’s the most important thing. But even if there are ugly pink monsters–”
“Purple!” Jasmine insisted.
“Right, purple monsters, they won’t hurt you.”
“How do you know?
Suddenly, Baxter’s head jerked up and he let out a single sharp bark at the doorway. The little girl looked over, and her eyes went wide as tea saucers.
And for the first time in years, Maya turned, looked at the pair and smiled smiled.
“Because Hattie and Gizmo will keep you safe.”
Author’s Note – I don’t usually do these on my fiction here, but I’d really love to hear what you think of this story. I really enjoyed writing Maya and Hattie, to the point I wonder if this story might be worth expanding into a novel eventually. If you have any comments or critiques, please pass them my way!