Emily Dunn and the other students in Mrs. Metter’s third grade class at Oakwood Elementary sat a little straighter in their seats — as if that could help them listen better. They didn’t want to miss a thing. It was early October and school was finally settling into routine.
“Announcements!” the principal’s voice repeated over the PA system. “Tomorrow morning, children in Grades 3 and 4 will have gym class and computer workshops. They are to remain in their lines after the second bell and walk together to the old school by way of Post Lane.”
Emily’s good friends, Alyssa Benson and Rachel Kerns — who sat toward the front of the classroom — glanced in her direction. During lunch, Emily had shown them the newspaper article she had cut out for the current-events bulletin board. Each child in Mrs. Metter’s class took a turn bringing in a story from the newspaper. Emily’s article was all about Post Lane.
“Are you going to talk to the class about it?” Alyssa had asked.
“Sure, if Mrs. Metter wants me to,” Emily had replied.
Alyssa had turned red. Emily knew that shy Alyssa would rather hug a beehive than speak in front of an audience.
“What’s that?” Rachel had asked, pointing to a folded, blue piece of paper sticking out of Alyssa’s lunch bag.
“What’s what?” Alyssa had said, before looking to where Rachel had been pointing. Her eyebrows had risen in surprise.
“Another love note, I’ll bet,” Emily had said. Alyssa always got them. All the boys in third grade had crushes on her. Probably her shyness had something to do with it — that, and her blond hair. Lately, however, the shyness seemed more like stillness. Alyssa’s grandfather had died not too long ago and Emily knew that Alyssa missed “Pop-Pop” terribly.
“Can we see?” Rachel had asked. “You never got a note in color before.”
“Whoever this boy is must really, really like you,” Emily had added.
“I’ll open it when I get home,” Alyssa had said, as she stuffed the note back inside and zipped up her lunch box.
Under normal circumstances, Rachel would have done everything she could to get Alyssa to change her mind — make faces, put her glasses on upside down, anything. Just the sky-blueness of the paper alone would have been an irresistible temptation.
However, Emily knew that circumstances weren’t normal for Rachel these days either. Her mother worked at Dreamworld Tree and Flower Nursery as a h-o-r-t-i-c-u-l-t-u-r-a-l-i-s-t — horticulturalist — a word that Emily only recently learned how to spell.
Dreamworld was going out of business. Rachel and her mother, who lived alone, would have to move, probably far away and definitely out of the neighborhood.
“She needs to find work somewhere,” Rachel had explained. “There aren’t that many tree and flower nurseries around.”
“We’ll never win another game,” Emily had complained. Rachel was a very good athlete; the best goalie in the under-10 girls soccer league. The three 8-year-olds played on the Orange Team.
“No way they get me to be goalie,” Alyssa had warned. “They might put my name in the newspaper.”
“The newspaper?” Rachel had asked.
“In the sports pages,” Emily had started to explain, but then stopped. She hadn’t wanted to sound like a know-it-all.
When she’d been in first and second grade, Emily had always been proud of her intelligence. Lately, though, she’d begun to wonder if being the smartest kid in class was worth it. She never got love notes from boys and even Alyssa and Rachel would tease and call her “teacher’s pet.”
When Alyssa had said quietly “I’ve got to start reading the newspaper,” Emily added, just as quietly, “You’d be amazed at what you can find.”
Why, just last night, she and her mother had been looking through the Bucks County Tribune for a good current-events story. They had seen articles about far-away countries whose names Emily had had a hard time pronouncing.
There had been stories about the president of the United States, sports stars, criminals. Emily had discovered words like “economy,” “diplomacy,” and “negotiation.” Still, she hadn’t liked any of the stories until she saw the headline: “Construction On Post Lane Set To Begin Next Spring.”
“Construction?” Emily had asked.
Mom had told her all about it. Post Lane was the quiet little street between Oakwood School, on Hulmeville Avenue, and the gym and resource center, located on Belleview Road. A long time ago, Mom had said, Oakwood’s school rested on the same property where only the gym and resource center now sit.
“In time, more people came to Oakwood,” Mom had said. “That meant more houses, more families, and more children who needed to be educated. A new, much bigger school had had to be built a few blocks away. That helped for awhile. But, more people came and even more school space was needed. Finally, the old school was turned into the gym and resource center.”
As Mom had been speaking, Emily could just make out the faint sound of a piano. She wondered who in her neighborhood — with its modest single houses surrounded by trees whose branches touched overhead in the middle of the street — had begun taking lessons.
“So that’s why we have to walk those blocks to get to gym class?” Emily had asked.
“That’s why,” Mom had answered. “The road is named after Marshall Post, the guy who owned most of the town hundreds of years ago. It was just a huge farm back then.”
Emily had recalled seeing an old picture of a man dressed the way George Washington dressed on a dollar bill. The portrait hung at the entrance to the town’s library.
About five years ago, town leaders had decided to turn Post Lane into a minimall, Mom had explained. As people who lived on the road died or moved away, the town had bought the houses and rented them out. The plan was that when Oakwood finally owned the entire block, construction would begin.
The last owner on Post Lane, 93-year-old Niles Bedloe, had moved in the summer to live with his daughter in another part of the state. Now the renters were going one by one — as their leases expired — and left behind the empty old structures.
“This is a big current-events story, Em, and it’s local,” Mom had said. “I think Alyssa’s family originally lived on Post Lane.”
“Her dad’s parents or grandparents or something.”
“That’s why it’s such a great story?” Emily had asked.
“Well, what really makes it a great story is that not everybody in town thinks it’s a good idea to knock down all those homes and put up a minimall,” Mom had explained. “A lot of people think it’s important to remember the past, remember history. Other people think the mall would be a good thing because it will be full of quaint-looking shops that kind of remind people of olden days.”
“So they want to tear down real old buildings to put up fake old buildings,” Emily had said. Then she winced. “Do you hear that?”
Whoever was taking the piano lessons seemed to be wearing a baseball glove while hitting the keys. What noise!
Mom didn’t hear Emily’s question and didn’t seem to hear the piano music. She had been too involved in explaining the Post Lane story.
“It will mean a lot more money being spent in the town,” Mom had continued. “That means more money for building playgrounds or holding soccer tournaments. There are two sides to every argument.”
“Which side are you on, Mom?”
“I think I’d like to see them keep those old homes, though what to do with them, I don’t know. Still, they’ve got such character. But Dad wants the minimall. He says that Oakwood could use the do-re-mi.”
This had not surprised Emily. Even though she hardly ever heard Mom and Dad argue, she knew that her parents did not think the same way about everything. For instance, in the last big election, Mom and Dad had voted for different people.
“It’s OK to disagree — so long as it’s done with respect,” Mom had said. “I think this is a great current-events story, Em. It’s happening right near your school.”
That day, during social studies, Mrs. Metter agreed.
“I just love this article,” she said. “A beautiful example of a current-events story. Can anybody tell me why? Alyssa?”
“Because it’s nearby?” Alyssa almost whispered.
“Because it’s nearby,” Mrs. Metter repeated so the class could hear. “Excellent! Any other reason. Yes, Rachel?”
“Because people are arguing about it?”
“Super,” said Mrs. Metter, smiling so broadly that Emily couldn’t help but smile herself. “Children, we are talking about current events. Events. An event is something that excites us. Something that holds our interest.”
“Not like math,” Maurice called out and the class had to giggle at that — including Emily, Alyssa, and Rachel — even though Mrs. Metter had looked sternly at the boy.
“Sometimes news articles about far away places can excite us,” Mrs. Metter continued. “But news articles about something happening right near us can really, really excite us. And that is why,” Mrs. Metter said, ending with a flourish by stapling the newspaper clip to the bulletin board, “Emily Dunn’s article is such a great current-events story.”
Emily looked down at her folded hands. She wished her teacher would stop praising her so much.
That night, after soccer practice, Emily, Rachel, and Alyssa whispered as they walked from the field toward their parents’ cars that were parked on the street next to the playground.
Their teammates strolled ahead, laughing and talking about how much their muscles ached from all the running they’d just done. Alyssa, Rachel, and Emily were tired also. However, they were discussing something other than soccer.
“So, it’s set,” said Emily. “After the game Saturday, you guys are stopping by to help me make some decorations for the Fall Festival.”
Every year around Halloween, Emily hosted the festival in her backyard. Her cousins and friends would come over dressed in costumes. They carved pumpkins, played games, and ate candy. They had fun.
“We’re there,” promised Rachel, and gave her friends the double high-five.
“We ought to draw a picture of one of the houses on Post Lane as a decoration,” Alyssa said. “Some of those places give me the creeps.”
“Yeah,” Rachel agreed, “they look like something from a monster movie. My mom says that people who lived on Post Lane long ago were rich. That’s why the houses are so big.”
“Not everyone was rich,” Alyssa said. “My dad always says that our family bought the land cheap, then sold it cheap.”
“What makes you bring up Post Lane?” Emily asked.
“Just something…,” Alyssa said.
“Out with it!” Rachel said.
Instead of telling her, Alyssa leaned down and pulled out a folded piece of paper that she’d stuck inside her soccer sock. Emily and Rachel recognized it immediately.
“A boy’s love note makes you think of Post Lane?” Rachel asked, snatching the sheet.
As she and Rachel looked at the note, Emily noticed that in the twilight, the paper seemed more purplish, than sky-blue. The writing on it said: “125 Post Lane. Remember.”
“Strange,” Emily said.
“Tell me about it,” agreed Alyssa.
“Who wrote it?” Rachel asked.
“Who knows?” Alyssa said. “But 125 Post Lane is the house that my family owned a long time ago.”
“A long time ago,” Emily echoed. The sound of that phrase sort of blended with the hour of the day.
For the past few weeks or so, Emily had been noticing that it had been getting darker and darker at the end of practice. Soon, the longer nights would close out their soccer season. Now, as the girls spoke, the first stars began peeking through the dusk and Emily felt a chill in the air. Before they knew it, fall would be settling in for real and the girls would be trying on last year’s sweaters to see if they still fit.
“Post Lane,” Emily said thoughtfully. “More like ‘Ghost Lane.’”
Alyssa and Rachel laughed.
“That’s what we should call it,” said Alyssa. “Ghost Lane.”
Rachel added in a witch’s voice: “Be sure to look both ways.”
Then the girls began making ghost noises.
“Ohooooooooo!” teased Alyssa.
“Boo!” yelled Emily.
Speedy Rachel started running and the other two followed. They laughed as they scooted to their parents’ cars, but when they were asked what was so funny, each of them changed the subject. There were some jokes that adults just wouldn’t understand.
The next morning, when the first bell rang, all the children froze in their places. The second bell rang, and they walked quietly to their lines. Instead of going into school, however, the third and fourth graders began walking down Post Lane toward the gym.
The day was sunny and so bright that Emily thought of those afternoons on the beach when she’d had to wear dark glasses. Perhaps it was the news article that she had cut out, or the note Alyssa had shown them the night before. Perhaps she was just in a noticing mood.
But this morning, Emily really looked at the houses on Post Lane as she walked along. They were big and set back from the street. Dead branches reaching through the leaves of leaning trees kept everything in shadows. The roots of those oaks had lifted the pavement in some places. Windows were knocked out. At No. 125, a black cat darted across a yard and disappeared into high grass.
“Ghost Lane,” Rachel whispered behind her, and then made a quiet “ohhhh” ghost sound. Emily tried not to laugh.
Cars were parked in the driveways of some of the homes. They must belong to the last of the renters, Emily thought. She searched for other signs of life. Near the end of the walk, right before they were to cross over Belleview Road, she noticed a woman digging in the flowerbed at the second house from the corner, No. 140.
The lady was on her knees and wore a big straw hat. She did not turn, even though she must have known that children were shuffling by. She just kept right on digging. The sun slid behind a cloud and in the suddenly overcast day Emily distinctly heard piano music. It sounded like the same labored lesson that she’d noticed when talking to Mom. That was impossible, though, wasn’t it?
“And what was she digging?” Alyssa asked that night.
She and Rachel were staying at Emily’s house for a sleepover. The three sat on the floor in the TV room around a big bowl of popcorn. On the couch, watching closely, sat three well-worn stuffed animals: a pig, a teddy bear, and a skinny frog. Sleeping bags, still rolled up, had been stuffed behind a chair.
“Yeah, who plants flowers in the fall?” Rachel asked. “I’ll have to talk to my mom about that one.”
“Maybe she wasn’t planting flowers,” Emily said. “Maybe she was just weeding, getting the flowerbed ready for next spring.”
“She won’t be here next spring, remember?” Alyssa said. “My Pop-Pop once told me that all the renters have to move out.”
“True,” Emily agreed. It always surprised her how outgoing Alyssa could be around her friends — not shy at all.
“I won’t be here next spring, either,” Rachel said.
Emily felt uneasy. She was used to cheering up Alyssa. Rachel usually didn’t need cheering up. She was thinking of what to say when Rachel broke the silence.
“You know what else?” Rachel asked.
“I was talking to some of the other kids about that lady. They’re like: ‘What lady?’”
The three girls looked at each other.
“Ghost Lane!” they said together and, to Emily’s relief, started laughing. They were still a little nervous, though.
“This is starting to creep me out,” Alyssa admitted.
“Maybe we should leave it alone,” Rachel said.
“Yeah,” Emily agreed. “Let’s not even think about it.”
They really tried. Emily started making a list of what games they should play at the Fall Festival. She asked how they were doing on their science projects. She even tried to start a discussion about the latest funny — and fresh — thing Maurice had said in class. The girls didn’t seem all that interested, however. Later — when Emily’s Dad took them out to rent some videos — they asked him if he would drive down Post Lane.
“No problemo,” Dad said. “It’s good you girls are taking an interest in what’s going on in your town.”
It was dark by they time they rounded the corner. Emily and her friends had never seen the street at night. It looked especially spooky. Lights blinked weakly in the windows of only a few of the houses.
“Could you drive slow, Dad?”
Emily remembered that once she and her parents had visited someone down the shore during the winter. Everything in Ocean City, New Jersey, had seemed so quiet, still. Now, Post Lane reminded her of that.
Emily cracked her window. Wind whistled through. They could hear the sound of a gate tapping against a latch. When they drove toward the end of the block, Emily nudged Alyssa who passed it down to Rachel.
“What?” Emily’s friends asked.
“Just something,” Emily said in her too-innocent voice.
“Everything OK back there?” Dad asked.
“Fine,” Emily said, but she was pointing. When Rachel and Alyssa looked, their eyes grew wide. Outside of 140 Post Lane, the same woman, wearing the same straw hat, was digging in the flowerbed under the light of the stars.
In the window, which had a hole in it the size of a softball, a candle flickered like a finger motioning the children inside. A discordant sound rattled the night, as if a cat had jumped on a piano somewhere.
“Let’s not even talk about it,” Alyssa whispered.
They didn’t — at least for the rest of the ride. By the time they got back to Emily’s house, however, their curiosity had overcome their fear. They had questions.
“Hey Mom,” Emily asked, as her mother began unrolling the sleeping bags, “who owns the second to the last house on Post Lane?”
“The town, now. Probably. Why?”
“We think that’s the spookiest house,” Rachel said.
“Well,” Mom said, “old houses sometimes have a way of looking spooky.”
“We’ll never know who lives there,” Alyssa said.
“Perhaps,” said Dad, “but you can at least find out who owned the property before the town bought it.”
“How?” the girls asked.
“Tax records,” Dad said.
“They keep copies at the library,” Mom added. “That’s where I looked up the history of this house before we moved here.”
“How can that help us?” Emily asked.
“You never know where research can lead,” Mom said. “For instance, I know that for some of those houses, the town bought them, and then turned around and rented to the people it bought from.”
The girls glanced at each other. This was getting more and more interesting.
Dad added: “Find the last owner and you might find the present renters.”
“Can we find out who the owner before that was?” Alyssa asked.
“You can go back to when they first started keeping records,” Dad said. “Back to when the Native Americans owned the land, although, of course, they didn’t have a concept of property ownership.”
Mom rolled her eyes at him. “I think we’re on the verge of information overload here.”
“Can we look all this up sometime?” Emily asked.
“Sometime,” Mom sang out as she and Dad started walking back upstairs to the living room. Emily knew that Mom figured that this was one of those things that they talked about, but never attempted.
She turned to her friends.
“Tomorrow,” she promised.
They watched a good, unscary movie — probably too unscary because Rachel and Alyssa fell asleep before the ending. Not Emily, however. She could only close her eyes after everything in the story that the movie told fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
The next morning, after cooking (with Mom’s help, of course) and eating home-made waffles, Rachel, Alyssa, and Emily made a big show of saying good-bye when their parents came to pick them up.
“We’ll never see each other again,” the girls joked, throwing their arms about each other.
They saw each other again in about an hour and a half on the soccer field. What a game! Rachel made five great saves; Alyssa played defense like a cougar; and Emily slid as she executed one of the best passes her coach had ever seen to set up the winning goal.
“You girls have nothing but soccer on your minds today,” their coach said proudly.
Actually, however, they did have something else on their minds. When the game was finished, Emily’s parents drove them to the library. To the girls’ surprise, Mom only had to be asked once.
“I was a history major in college,” Mom said on the ride. “What we’ll be looking at today is what they call ‘primary documents.’”
“Huh?” the girls said.
“It’s really something you learn in higher grades,” said Mom. “There may be books about the Declaration of Independence. However, in Washington, they actually have the original in a museum. If you look at the original, then you’re looking at the primary document, you’re not looking at a copy or a book about the original.”
The girls thought they understood.
“According to township tax records,” Mom said, looking closely at a big binder that the librarian had pulled out from one of the back rooms, “the last owner of 140 Post Lane was a woman named Myrtle Springs. She owned it up until a few years ago when the township bought the house.”
“What happened to Myrtle?” Emily asked.
“I’m guessing that she passed away,” Mom said. “In fact, I’ll bet we can find her obituary.”
“Obitu-what-ee?” Emily asked.
“Obituary or obit, for short,” Mom explained. “What they put in the newspaper when you die. It’s a small story of a person’s life.”
“This is freaking me out,” Rachel said.
“You know that when you die you go to heaven,” Mom comforted. “Death isn’t the end. It’s the beginning.”
“I’m still scared,” Emily said.
“Me too,” Alyssa and Rachel agreed.
“Well, it’s OK to be scared. That’s normal. How about if we forget the obituary?”
But the girls were too curious. The librarian brought out copies of the Bucks County Tribune from the week Myrtle Springs had died.
Sure enough, they found the obituary. Mom showed them the headline:
Myrtle Springs, 98,
Friend to Nature
Myrtle Springs was the last direct descendant of Marshall Post. She had been his great-great-great-great granddaughter.
“Whew!” said the girls.
“Marshall Post,” said Dad, who happened to be breezing by holding a bunch of books on tape that he listened to during his long drive to work. “I seem to remember that he was an antidisestablishmentarian.”
Mom and the girls all looked at Dad and blinked. “Maybe I’ll see if I can find some CDs,” Dad said meekly, as he sauntered off again.
The girls and Mom went on reading the obituary as if nothing had been said.
Myrtle Springs’s husband, Andrew, had died in 1981. No children. Myrtle had founded the town’s Garden Club. She also had donated the property for the Bucks County Park and started the Home for Handicapped Children.
“I didn’t know she did all this,” Mom said. “I’ve got to read the obits more. This Myrtle Springs sounds like a good person. Says here that her first and greatest love was flowers. Just like me.”
Mom put her finger on the obituary and whispered to the girls, remembering that they were in a library. “Even up until the day she died, Mrs. Springs could be found working in her beloved flowerbed on Post Lane, wearing a wide straw hat and tending to the roses, tulips, and daisies that bloomed colorfully under her kindly care.”
As Mom turned a page in the newspaper, Emily, Rachel, and Alyssa looked at one another with wide eyes. Alyssa’s lips quivered at the corners as she tried not to cry. Rachel held her stomach as if she were sick. And Emily shuddered as if she were standing outside and cold, cold winter had suddenly dropped from the sky.
“Dad,” Emily said a few minutes later as they walked toward the car, “when Rachel and Alyssa come over today, can we ride our bikes before we do stuff for the Fall Festival?”
“Sounds like a plan,” Dad said.
It was later — after Rachel and Alyssa had arrived, and when Dad was pulling Emily’s bike out of the shed — that she asked him if they could draw straws.
“Where did you learn about that?” Dad asked.
“TV,” the girls said.
“Of course,” Dad said. “Well, it just so happens that I bought four bales of hay for the Fall Festival today so you can use three stems of that to do the drawing.”
Leaves from the biggest tree in the backyard seemed to be drifting toward the ground in single file as Dad turned his back, moved his arms as if he were cuddling a parakeet, then turned facing them again and holding out what looked like three even stems of hay.
First Rachel drew. She pulled the one in the middle and it seemed to keep going.
“That has to be the longest one,” she said.
Then Alyssa. A little smaller.
“Please, please, please…” Emily said when it was her turn. “Oh, no!”
“Sorry, Em,” Dad said. “You drew the short one. What were you guys drawing for anyway?”
The girls didn’t seem to hear. They were already on their bikes and pedaling out of the yard calling behind them “thanks Dad!” and “thanks Mr. Dunn!”
The sky, which that morning for the soccer game had been blue and far off, had sunk close and gray by the time three helmet-clad adventurers turned off Hulmeville Avenue onto Post Lane. Without the noise coming from the school, the street seemed even quieter than usual. Weekend traffic trickled through from nearby highways: a car here, a delivery truck there. As the girls rode closer to the house where the woman had been digging, even these distractions had ceased — though Emily wished that they hadn’t.
“OK,” Alyssa said, “we agree. We’ll take one look, Em will try to talk to her, and then we’ll ride out of here, right?”
“Right,” Rachel said.
Emily said nothing.
“Look,” Alyssa said.
The same woman dug at the same flowerbed, but she seemed to be more in a hurry, leaning further into her work. The wind, snaking through the large, dark trees, sounded as if someone tickled the high end of a piano keyboard.
“Go ahead,” Rachel said. “Do it!”
“No. You,” said Emily.
“You drew the short straw!” Alyssa reminded.
As much as Emily wanted to just ride as fast as she could right by the house, she stopped instead.
“Hello,” she said. Her voice sounded so wavy that the other girls, who had also stopped, started to giggle.
“So she can hear you!” Alyssa hissed.
“Hello,” Emily called in a voice so clear that it shocked her. “Myrtle?”
The woman continued to dig, and that made the hammering in Emily’s chest subside somewhat. Whoever, or whatever, this was, did not know she existed.
As soon as Emily thought that, however, the situation changed. The woman stopped digging and struggled to her feet, brushing off her clothes as she did. Emily could feel the blood rush to her face. It was hard to breathe, as if she’d just played double-overtime soccer. She gripped her bike’s handlebars tightly. Slowly, the woman turned toward her….
First, Emily screamed. Then her friends. Then they began peddling so fast that they almost spun out onto Belleview Road. They just barely made the turn and didn’t stop until they were in Oakwood Elementary’s schoolyard.
By that point, the three of them were crying for it was too obvious that the ghost of Myrtle Springs — or whatever that creature was — did not have a face. Not only that, but the creature had begun to gesture toward the girls. Warning them. Or threatening them. They couldn’t tell which, but they certainly hadn’t wanted to wait around to find out.
The friends were still shaken up even after they’d returned to Emily’s house to help prepare for the Fall Festival.
“We can’t do everything today,” Mom cautioned, “because the festival is still some weeks away. Still, it’s better not to wait until the last minute. Plus, it’s fun.”
Mom’s smile, when she looked at the girls, quickly faded.
“Goodness,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“You three look as if you’ve seen a ….”
“Road kill, Mom,” Emily finished for her. “Yuck! Someone hit a groundhog down the street.”
This was true but, as the girls well knew, seeing road kill wasn’t the reason for their anxiety.
“Well,” Mom said, “shake it off. Get in fun-mode.”
This, as it turned out, was a very good idea. Fun was eventually what helped the girls forget, even for a little while, the vision of the faceless woman.
They each took turns lying on big poster paper, while the others outlined their bodies in marker. Then they colored, creating a werewolf, vampire, and witch.
“Cool,” Mom said, when the girls showed her the drawings.
Then, Dad cut open one of the bales of hay and Emily, Alyssa, and Rachel had fun spreading it out in a corner of the yard.
At one point, Rachel yelled: “Hay fight! Hay fight!” and threw fistfuls of the stuff at her friends. This quickly became a game that they called “hay tag,” which was the same as regular tag except that the person who was “it” had to hit one of the others with hay. What made this especially tricky was that Emily’s dog, Cheyenne — a little Australian terrier — ran about barking and getting in the way. Several times the girls had to leap over him
“You’re not ‘it’, Cheyenne,” Emily tried to explain, but the dog only barked louder. The three friends laughed so hard that Emily’s next-door neighbors came out of their house to stand by the fence and grin.
“Whenever you girls are done goofing off,” Dad said, finally, “I’ve got a real project for you.”
He laid out three other bales of hay that the girls began placing pumpkins upon.
“Put them on the ground, too,” Dad said, as he tied cornstalks to the clothesline posts.
By the time they were finished, the corner of Emily’s backyard looked like a pumpkin patch.
“Day of the festival, each kid is going to pick out her own pumpkin to carve,” Mom said. “Just like last year.”
“I already know which one I’m claiming, Mrs. Dunn,” Rachel said.
Emily could see that Alyssa also knew which pumpkin she wanted, but couldn’t bring herself to say.
“The one on the ground right next to the middle bale has your name on it, Alyssa,” Emily said.
“Thanks,” Alyssa said quietly.
When everything looked just right (“for now” as Mom put it) the girls crumpled onto the bed of hay and watched the tall October clouds drift by. Soon, they saw shapes in the sky.
“A crocodile,” Alyssa said.
Emily squinted. “Looks more like a alligator,” she said. “The snout’s too blunt.”
“Emily, really,” Rachel said.
“Well, it’s true,” Emily said.
“No it isn’t, Miss Know-It-All,” Alyssa said, and sure enough the cloud changed shape just a bit so that the blunt snout became pointed.
“A crocodile, old buddy,” Alyssa said.
“Now, it’s a crocodile,” Emily insisted, but she wanted to drop the subject before her friends became more irritated. She added quickly: “Over there. See? A horse.”
“There’s a boat,” Alyssa said.
“Soccer ball,” Rachel said, pointing to the corner of the sky.
Emily peered at one other cloud that had inched into their view. What did it remind her of? Something that she’d seen just recently. It could be a person’s head except that there was no….
“Time to go inside,” Emily said, and she realized that she sounded nervous.
Rachel and Alyssa didn’t ask her why.
In the next few weeks, the three friends really tried their best to forget about the faceless woman. It was hard. When Grade 3 went on a field trip to Dreamworld Flower and Tree Nursery (“You are the last class to visit before they close that lovely place down” Mrs. Metter had told them) the bus went right down Post Lane.
“Do you see her?” Emily asked a group of classmates in the back. “See? Right there!”
There was old Myrtle, digging, digging, digging in her flowerbed.
“Nice try, Emily!” Maurice said. “Now, I’ve got a much better ghost story than that. It’s called ‘Halloween, Here We Come!’”
As Maurice began his tale, Emily, Rachel, and Alyssa glanced at each other and shrugged. How could they prove that they’d seen Myrtle Springs?
That question faded in importance however, when the girls didn’t spot the ghost the next two times Grade 3 walked to the resource center. The question became: How could they prove to themselves that they had really seen an old woman at 140 Post Lane?
“Could the three of us imagine the same thing, at the same time?” Emily asked once when they huddled during recess.
“I don’t think so,” Rachel said. “We definitely saw something.”
“And what if that something was a ghost?” Alyssa asked.
“If she wanted to get us, she could have gotten us that day,” Emily said.
“That makes me feel a lot better,” Rachel said. “Not!”
“Look,” Emily said, “if it’s a ghost, it will go away eventually.”
“How do you know?” Alyssa asked.
“When they tear those houses down in the spring, the ghost will have to go.”
“Just like my mom and me will have to go after Dreamworld closes,” Rachel said.
“You promise to phone me?” Emily asked, putting a hand on Rachel’s shoulder.
“Sure,” Rachel said. “You’ll need my advice, if you’re going to be a great goalie! You go, girl!”
Emily and Rachel laughed as they high-fived, but Alyssa stood staring in the direction of Post Lane.
“What do you think ghosts are, anyway?” Alyssa asked. Emily could tell that she was thinking about her Pop-Pop.
Emily swallowed. “I think they’re people who want to hang around a little bit, here on earth, before they go to heaven.”
“Hear that?” Rachel asked.
All Emily could hear were children laughing, balls being bounced, swings going back and forth — the usual sounds of recess. She knew what Rachel was talking about, however.
“Piano music, right?”
“It’s definitely a piano,” Rachel said, “and it’s definitely not music.”
The girls all tried to tell their parents that they had seen a ghost. They didn’t believe them. However, the parents were careful to say that they didn’t not believe them either.
It was “everybody imagines things” or “you’re too old for ghost stories” or “no more pepperoni pizza before bed.” Emily’s Dad once even drove her down the block. But the lady hadn’t been out.
“Forget it, Em,” Dad had said. “Mom and I are always around to protect you.”
Another time, Emily asked Mom if she believed in ghosts.
“No,” Mom said. “When people die, they go to heaven and they’re way too happy there to even care about what’s going on with us back here.”
Emily wasn’t so sure.
A week before Halloween — when soccer season had ended and clocks had been turned back and sweaters and coats had been brought out of closets — the girls were playing in the schoolyard at lunchtime when they heard a strange, far-off voice.
“Help!” It sounded like an old man.
Emily had been playing soccer at one end of the schoolyard; Rachel had been tagging someone somewhere else; and Alyssa was in yet another location, doing patty-cake. They all stopped and started walking toward the middle of the lot.
“Help me, please!” the voice called again. “I’m trapped here!”
The girls had been eyeing one another as they walked to their meeting place. When they gathered, they looked at the other children in the schoolyard. It was obvious that Emily, Alyssa, and Rachel were the only ones who’d heard the cries. It was also obvious that the call for help came from Post Lane, not from Myrtle’s end of the street, but from the middle of the block.
“From 125 Post Lane,” Rachel said.
“How do you know?” Alyssa asked.
“Because when I just tagged Margaret over there, this fell off her shoulder.”
It was another note, the color of the sky.
Rachel read: “Help! Come to 125 Post Lane!”
It was strictly forbidden for them to leave school property. Under normal circumstances, they’d go to Mrs. Metter and tell her that someone was in trouble. These weren’t normal circumstances, however.
“I’m going to Ghost Lane,” Emily said.
“Are you crazy?” Rachel said. “We’ll get in so much trouble!”
“Someone may be dying!” said Alyssa. “We’ve got to do something!”
So they went. Even though it was against all the rules, they decided that if they just ignored the call for help and someone died, they could never forgive themselves.
They managed to sneak across Hulmeville Avenue right in plain sight of anyone who might have happened to glance their way. Luckily, no one did.
When the girls reached Post Lane, they followed the cries to No. 125. On the lawn was a big piano on its side. Sticking out from underneath the instrument, were legs and arms. Human legs and arms.
“Help me! Please!” the voice, which they now realized came from under the piano, cried.
“We’ll never be able to move it,” Emily said. “It’s too big.”
Still, they tried and to their amazement, they were able to push the piano over.
A little man lay very still on the ground.
“Is he…? Is he…?” stammered Rachel.
But before she could get the question out, he began unplugging himself from the small crater in the ground that his squished body had made.
“Wow, does that feel good!” Piano Man said, when he stood and began stretching just like someone might when he’s getting out of bed in the morning. He was a little fellow, only slightly taller than the third graders. He had a mustache and wore a string sort of tie around his neck. It was only now that the girls saw that there were ropes knotted to various parts of the piano. They led up to what should have been the second-floor window of the house, except that the window had itself been removed, leaving a big square gap large enough to fit the instrument.
“Are you OK?” Alyssa asked.
“Just a bit stiff,” Piano Man said. “I’ve been there for I guess about 85 years. Didn’t think that anybody would ever hear me.”
The girls look at one another.
“Ghost Lane!” they said.
Emily asked: “So, that means that you’re….”
“That’s right,” the man finished for her, “I’m dead. But I’m whole lot more comfortable, thanks to you kids.”
“Can we do anything for you?” Emily asked.
“You already have. I’ll just mosey on down to the Springs and get me one of their homemade root beers.”
“So it is Myrtle Springs!” said Rachel.
“Myrtle and Andrew are old friends,” Piano Man said, as he began untying the ropes from the instrument.
“But why…” Alyssa began to ask, then stopped.
“Why what?” Piano Man asked.
“We don’t want to seem rude,” Emily said.
“Oh, I see,” Piano Man said. “Her face. When people forget the past, it’s as if all those people who lived in the past had never existed. It’s almost as if their lives have been erased. That’s what I think it is. Myrtle’s face has disappeared because her life is being erased. No one listens to her, so why have a mouth? No one wants to remember her, so why have a face? I guess she never counted on you kids, though. But it might be too late. Now that she has someone who can listen, she has no lips to speak with.”
It was Alyssa.
“You have a face. Somebody must be remembering you.”
“Memory is like a chain. You remember someone who dies. The someone who died, when he was living, had remembered someone else who died.”
“My last name is Benson,” Piano Man said.
The girls gasped.
“My last name is Benson,” Alyssa said.
“My grandson is your grandfather,” the man said. “I have a face because you remember. In fact, your love for your Pop-Pop was so strong, I was able to create material things — things a living person could actually hold.”
“The notes!” Emily said.
“Now, I have another message, Alyssa,” said Piano Man. “Your Pop-Pop says he’s doing just fine. Don’t worry about him anymore. Live your life. Be good.”
As Piano Man had been talking, Alyssa looked up at the sky as if straining to hear Pop-Pop’s voice. Then she bowed her head and Rachel patted her shoulder.
“Can you tell us how to help Myrtle?” Emily asked.
Piano Man smiled sadly.
“I wish I could, but you girls have to figure that one out by yourselves,” he said. “You see, the influence we ghosts have on the living is very light to begin with, and my influence just got lighter. The answer to your question is on the tip of my tongue, and that’s where it will stay.”
Just then, the schoolyard bell rang. Lunch was over.
“You kids better scoot,” Piano Man said.
And they did. As she hurried along, Emily glanced back. Piano Man was gone. So was the piano. No gap in the second floor, either. Everything was as it had been.
You would think that Emily, Alyssa, and Rachel would sleep easier after they found out that the ghosts on Ghost Lane were friendly. (Especially Alyssa, who had discovered that her love for her Pop-Pop had helped keep his memory alive — and not only his memory, but the memory of all those along the “chain.”) But they didn’t. Now, they wanted to know how they could help Myrtle Springs.
“But what can we do?” Rachel asked.
The girls thought about it. They thought about it the entire week leading up to Halloween. They wondered about it as they made more decorations for the Fall Festival. They discussed it every day at recess and lunch. Sometimes, after they’d finished their homework at night, they called one another to go over everything one more time. Maybe they had missed a clue. Nothing, however, came to mind.
This particular year — the year when they saw the ghosts — the Fall Festival happened to occur on Halloween itself, and Halloween happened to fall on a Saturday. The children arrived in the afternoon and would be gone by around dusk, making it back to their homes just in time to go trick-or-treating.
Mom’s prayers were answered. It was a gorgeous day. The children played pin the heart on the vampire and hide and ghost seek. They danced to the “Monster Mash.” They bobbed for apples, but just for a few minutes because Dad was the only one whose mouth was big enough to actually snare one.
When they made scarecrows out of Dad’s old jeans and shirts, Alyssa, Rachel, and Emily stuck a pair of glasses on theirs and called it Mrs. Metter.
Emily did have fun. There was no mistaken. Yet, even when she laughed her hardest, she couldn’t help but feel a little sad about Myrtle. She kept remembering Rachel’s question: “But what can we do?”
Toward the end of the festival, the sun sank into the trees, shimmering through the orange branches. The day seemed to be pouring its sweetness into the children’s cups of cider. Witches and warlocks, goblins and monsters, cops and robbers played tag among bales of hay and cornstalks while Emily the ballerina, Alyssa the princess, and Rachel the Southern belle carved up the remaining pumpkins. They had cut the tops off and were now using big spoons to scoop out the gooey insides.
“It’s like digging for treasure,” Emily said and, having spoken, realized that she hit upon more than just pumpkin goo. She had figured out what they needed to do to solve the mystery of Myrtle Springs. Emily hesitated. Would her friends be impatient with her for being smart? It didn’t matter, she decided. She had to act.
“Let’s go!” Emily said.
“Where?” Alyssa asked.
“Why?” Rachel asked.
“I’ll explain on the way,” Emily said. “Grab those spoons!”
Everywhere in town, twilight descends. Except Post Lane, with its big oak trees, dark houses, quiet driveways. Here, it is night. Into this darkness creep a ballerina, princess, and Southern belle. They are here to meet a ghost.
They walk in silence. The wind makes a gate go “tap, tap, tap.” A cat darts across their path.
“I don’t like the looks of this,” Alyssa says.
“We’ve got to try,” Rachel encourages.
They get to the Springs’s house. She is there. They can barely make out her form. She rises, turns her faceless head in their direction. Gestures to her flowerbed. The ballerina, princess, and Southern belle bravely push open the gate and approach. They are saying their prayers.
“Mrs. Springs!” To Rachel and Emily’s amazement, it is shy Alyssa who breaks the silence — in a voice that’s not shy at all. “We’re going to dig a bit.”
Oh, how they dig! The spoons could easily be shovels.
“Time’s running out!” Emily says.
“Why?” Alyssa asks.
“I just have this strong feeling that if we can’t help Myrtle now — on Halloween night — we won’t ever be able to help her.”
“Here’s something!” Rachel yells.
“What?” Emily asks.
“It’s… it’s… a rock.”
They groan and continue digging by the light of the candle that Myrtle Springs holds above them.
“Here!” Emily yells.
“Another rock?” Alyssa asks.
“Not this time.”
It’s a box of some sort, about the size of a milk crate. The girls can just make out the faint imprint of a design that had long ago faded.
“Dig down to the handles,” Emily instructs.
This takes only a few minutes because the excitement of discovery makes their arms move twice as fast. However, while they are strong, they are not powerful enough to lift the box out of the ground — no matter how much they pull the handles.
“Maybe we can open it anyway,” Rachel says.
“Not if it’s locked,” Alyssa says.
Emily grabs the tip of the lid and swings it up. She is about to say “open sesame” as a joke, but what she sees stops her.
There, glittering in the candlelight, are hundreds — perhaps thousands — of coins.
“They’re not quarters,” Rachel says, picking up a handful and then dropping them — “Clink! Clink! Clink!” — back into the box.
“I think it’s gold!” Emily whispers, as she grabs a rolled up piece of paper that had been lying on top. “This might tell us for sure!”
“What’s it say? What’s it say?” Rachel asks, before Emily has even had a chance to unroll the paper.
“I can tell you,” a voice behind them murmurs.
The girls swing about. Myrtle Springs! Now, though, she has a face and that face is smiling down on them. When Emily looks into her eyes, she feels the kindness and concern that radiates from the old woman. Myrtle looks a little like Oakwood Elementary’s crossing guard.
“I wasn’t aware of anything in the living world until you looked up my obituary at the library,” she says. “When you began to remember me, I was able to see you. I was able to send you signals. Or, at least, I tried.”
Emily reads from the unfolded scroll. “The party of the first part, the Springs Family and its estate, do hearby bequeath….”
Myrtle Springs interrupts. “It’s a will,” she says, “which my father signed years ago. It states that the town would get the money if it set aside half of it to build a horticultural center that would be the envy of every other town in the county.”
“But why bury it?” Emily asks.
“My father buried it during the Great Depression of the 1930s,” Myrtle Springs says. “It was the day his bank had closed. He lost a lot of money. If you can’t trust a bank, who can you trust? ‘The land’, was my father’s answer. He wanted to give something back to the land. He wanted that horticultural center in his name. He buried this treasure that same day.”
“And the will, too,” Emily points out.
“This will speaks only about what my father wanted to do with these coins,” Myrtle Springs says. “The will my family opened after my father died, makes no mention of the gold. We had no idea it even existed. I only found out about it after I died.”
“But why did your father keep the gold and this will a secret?” Rachel asks.
“He hadn’t meant to,” Myrtle says. “After he’d finished digging that night, he was walking back into the house to tell my mother about what he’d done when he died. Heart attack caused by all the digging — he wasn’t used to physical labor — and by stress because he’d lost so much fortune in so short a time.”
“It is night,” a voice says from behind them.
“Piano Man!” the girls say.
“Emily, your father is on his way here,” Piano Man continues. “He’ll be mad that you went off without telling him where you were going. When he sees the trunk and the contract, he’ll forget all about his anger.”
“Thank you,” says Alyssa.
“You’re welcome,” says Myrtle Springs.
Emily doesn’t understand. “Thanks for what?” she asks.
“I forgot about being shy,” Alyssa explains. “I know now that if I really get interested in something, being shy is not part of the program.”
“Emily learned something too,” Myrtle Springs says.
“You learned to never be ashamed of being smart.”
“Yeah,” chimes in Piano Man. “It was your quick thinking that brought you here!”
“I wish something could help with my problem,” Rachel says. “But I’m going to move away, no matter what.
“You never know, honey,” Myrtle Springs says. “You never know.”
Just then, Dad’s car swings around the corner, the headlight beams bouncing off the blank windows on Post Lane. As the girls skip out to the pavement to tell about their adventure, they glance back toward Myrtle and Piano Man. They are waving goodbye.
The Bucks County Tribune in the next few days called it a most bizarre story. The mayor described it as a “miracle of intervention.” Emily, Alyssa, and Rachel were on TV.
“How did you happen to know that you’d find what you in fact found?” the reporter asked, pushing the microphone to their faces.
“We didn’t really know,” Emily said.
“We did some research,” Alyssa added.
“We read about how Myrtle Springs loved nature,” Rachel said.
Oddly enough, these answers satisfied the curious. People were just too excited by what the girls had found to really investigate exactly how they found it.
The girls had decided to forget about trying to explain what really happened. They had tried that with Emily’s parents and all that did was to make them angry. So they just called it an accident. One of the best accidents to ever happen to Oakwood.
“What a win-win,” Dad said. “We’ll have trees and flowers andmoney for playgrounds and soccer tournaments.”
“You girls saved the day,” Mom said.
In the spring, when the bulldozers and dump trucks finally arrived, the sounds that rumbled away on Post Lane were as welcomed as piano music — good piano music — to the ears of Emily, Rachel, and Alyssa. But big, loud work was not the only thing going on. Special repair people, called restorationists, came to fix the houses, replacing rotted old wood with unrotted old wood, matching 18th century doorknobs with 18th century mail slots.
All the big yards were joined, and flowers and trees were planted by the walkways that wound through the now-sprawling property. The old houses were made into museums. As the contract stated, the Springs’s house was razed to make room for the new building — a huge greenhouse.
The next fall, when Springs Garden opened, Oakwood Elementary students were the first people allowed inside. And leading those students were the three children who made the discovery that had brought all the trees and flowers to Post Lane: Rachel, Alyssa, and Emily.
They were welcomed by Rachel’s mom, who had been hired to manage the nursery.
“Over here,” she told the children, “we have a very rare species of….”
Emily went in a different direction. As she walked about the paths looking at all the combinations of colors and breathing in the smells of decay and growth, she thought that she could hear the laughter of children from long, long ago. They had gone to another place, but they were safe — safer, in fact, then they had ever been on earth. Myrtle watched over the children as lovingly as she, in life, had watched over her flowers.
“Penny for your thoughts,” Alyssa said.
“Let’s see the coin, first,” Emily said, holding out her palm as Alyssa reached into her pocket.
The three girls exclaimed when, instead of a penny, Alyssa pulled out a familiar looking, sky-blue piece of paper.
“Another one!” Emily said.
“Where’d it come from?” Rachel asked.
“I don’t know,” Alyssa said as she unfolded the paper. “It was just there.”
As the three friends gathered around the note, Emily said: “Oh, please! No more ghost adventures.”
The note read: “Don’t worry, Emily. The adventure is over. Just wanted to thank you girls and remind you to have fun.”
The three looked at each other as they became aware of the sound of their classmates drawing near.
“Well, Mrs. Springs,” Emily finally whispered, “we will certainly try our best.”