I.

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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.

Laughter.

"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."

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