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.