Amelia

by Linda Bindner

Chapter 1

Alison glanced down the dimly lit basement stairs. A growing number of boxes lay scattered on the wooden steps, spilling into a haphazard pile on the dirty concrete floor far below. She sighed, half in annoyance and half in anxiety. Was she actually expected to go down the stairs into that creepy basement and stack the boxes into a neat pile? She didn't think she wanted to do that; bugs lived in the basement. She was sure of it.

“Mom!” she yelled instead. “Dad's doing it again! There's boxes all over the place.” She paused, waiting for an answer. When she didn't hear any response, she yelled again. Then she peeked around the edge of the basement door into the kitchen, expecting to see her mother seated on the worn linoleum, carefully unwrapping yet another box of kitchen supplies. But the room was empty.

“Mom?” Alison crept slowly up the top two uneven steps, hindered by the box in her hands. She impatiently dropped the flattened cardboard, and it slid down five steps and bumped into another box. She didn't reach down to retrieve it. Even standing at the top of the steps leading into that dark hole of a basement made her uncomfortable. Then she felt the silken stickiness of an ancient spider web clinging to the doorjamb beneath her fingers. Her spine tingled in revulsion. With a jerk of her hand, she hurried into the kitchen.

The emptiness of the kitchen didn't do much to dispel her uneasiness. Her mom had been there only a few minutes ago, when Alison had recklessly volunteered to take that empty box to the pile in the basement. She had only wanted to help with the unpacking, but now she realized she had been overconfident in the amount of bravery she possessed. The move to Iowa had apparently used up the last of her reserves.

Now the afternoon sun spread strange shadows across the messy, unfamiliar room. Dishes lay piled against glasses and silverware on the counters, and the dining room table was cluttered with groups of napkins and pots and pans. She hardly recognized it as the elegant cherry table that had filled their dining room back in St. Louis. Now it just looked tired and out of place.

Alison could sympathize with it; she had felt out of place ever since she first stepped out of the car at the farm. A lump lodged in her throat. She clenched her teeth against the sensation. She would not cry. Crying had made her nose red and eyes puffy for weeks, ever since her parents had informed her and her older sister Sara about the move. Even if she felt like crying, Alison wasn't prepared to go through another night of a sore, stuffy nose. Crying didn't help, anyway.

Alison took a deep breath, willing the lump to go away. Suddenly a noise shattered her concentration; something was moving in the basement stairway. She could hear it as it skittered and slithered. She didn't wait to find out what it was. Instead, she yelled, “Mom!” and ran through the kitchen, tripped over one box, leaped over another in the hall near the front stairs, and finally slid to a stop at the door to the living room. “Mom!”

“Alison!” came the startled response. Her mom rocked back on her heels and looked at her. Alison stood in the doorway, panting, her eyes wide. A startled expression crossed her mother's face, quickly replaced by suspicion. “Why are you so out of breath? Were you playing outside when we have so much work to do yet in here?”

“No, Mom, honest,” Alison protested, still gasping after her vault through the hallway. “I was putting the box... I mean, the basement... there's something down there!” she blurted at last.

“Sure there is,” Sara said peevishly from across the room. She rested her elbows on top of the coffee table, pushing aside the various knickknacks she had just unpacked.

“But I heard something!” Alison said, then instantly wished she hadn't. She had left a perfect opening for her sister to tease.

Sara didn't disappoint her. With narrowed eyes, she said, “It's rats, Alison, thousands of them, scraping along right under this room, rats by the millions, rats galore, rats...!”

“Sara!” their mother warned, more in exasperation than anger.

Sara leaned into the couch, laughing. “Oh, Alison, you should see your face! Your eyes are as big as the fence posts outside.”

Alison glared at her sister. “They are not!” But she wondered if they were. It was possible. The image of rats running up and down the basement stairway was pretty powerful.

Their mom sighed again and turned her attention back to the books she was moving from the box at her knee to the big bookshelf built into the living room wall. “Come on, Alison, stop with the dramatics and get moving. We have a lot to do.”

Sara snorted a final few giggles at Alison's expense before she started unpacking again. She pulled several more things from boxes and plunked them on the coffee table, still smiling. There was nothing Sara liked better than to annoy her little sister.

Alison sighed, successfully annoyed. It figured her mom would take Sara's side. Or not exactly take sides, Alison decided, but she could have listened a little better. However, Alison knew from experience that arguing about it would only make matters worse. So she crossed her arms in a display of irritation and leaned against the doorjamb to stare gloomily at the boxes crowded together near the living room walls. Each box was packed full of books and little china knickknacks and shoes and dishes and stuffed animals and bed sheets.... The list went on and on. They had to unpack all those boxes and move everything to drawers and closets and shelves before the house would even begin to look like a home.

But it wasn't home, not to Alison. The farm would never be home to her, even if she was stuck there for the rest of her life. Her sense of gloom deepened into something closer to doom. Suddenly she wanted nothing more than to get away from all those boxes.

Alison turned to glance at her mother seated on the floor. “Mom, I'm tired,” she complained, making a face at the general mess in the room and pouting.

“Mom, I'm tired,” mimicked Sara immediately. She straightened up and glared at her sister. “Mom, she's hardly worked at all today. If you let her quit now, I'll....”

“Stop, Sara, please,” their mom said, now completely unhappy with both daughters. “I can't stand it when you talk like that.”

Sara's mouth flew open and she stared incredulously at her mother. “Me?” she screeched. “What about her? She's the one who's always whining and complaining.” One stern look from her mother made her grow suddenly silent. Lowering her voice, she said, “I just don't think it's fair, that's all.” Sara wiped sweat from her nose, then fluffed her bangs on her forehead. It was a useless gesture in the intense August heat. Her blonde hair fell right back to hang in damp tendrils around her face.

Their mom smoothed back her own blonde hair before she stood up and brushed off her worn jeans. “I think you both complain too much. And the more time you waste complaining, the longer it will take to get all this stuff unpacked.” She gestured pointedly at the boxes.

Sara sighed deeply. “I didn't know moving would be so much work,” she grumbled.

Their mother smiled. “We moved our entire house in St. Louis over two-hundred miles to Iowa. We have an excuse to be tired.”

Alison said, “If Iowa's always gonna be this much work, can we move back to St. Louis?”

Sara snorted. “Boy, are you dreaming. Dad's been wanting to move out here forever.” She leaned back and nonchalantly twirled a piece of packing string around her fingers. “You'll never get him back to the city.” She gave a sharp laugh. “I can't believe that he's giving up being a doctor to work on a farm!”

Her mother said, “He's not giving up his medicine, and neither am I. You know we plan to practice in Wyngate just like we did in St. Louis.”

Sara wrinkled her nose. “But this town's so much smaller.” She slid to the floor in a dramatic puddle, as if to illustrate the town's smallness by her own smallness. Alison just thought she looked ridiculous.

Their mom shrugged and took another look at her tired daughters. She suddenly laughed. “We look like we need some serious rehabilitation.” She glanced at her watch. “Well, it's time to start dinner anyway. Let's quit for now.” She walked through the archway that led to the front hall and the stairs, then proceeded on into the kitchen.

“Thank god!” Sara exclaimed, then stepped over the books spread over the stained, worn carpet, heading for the stairs. “Move, squirt.” She pushed Alison out of the way and ran up the creaky, narrow staircase.

Alison scratched the mosquito bite on her arm and waited to hear the door to Sara's room slam shut. A moment later Sara's typically loud music seeped through the living room ceiling. The booming of the bass made the walls shake. Alison sighed at the awful noise. She was tired. Tired of packing, unpacking, moving, rearranging. She felt completely worn out from all the activity of moving to Iowa. She was sure she had never felt so tired in all her twelve years.

Dad was so excited about moving back to his grandparents' farm, but she simply didn't understand him. “It's great fun,” he had assured her at least fifty times; she could play in the barn, wade in the creek, yell as loud as she wanted to.... But it didn't matter how loud she could be if there was nobody to yell and have fun with. Her friends, her home, everything familiar, was in another state. She was stuck in this little farming town in eastern Iowa, living in an old farmhouse that didn't even have air conditioning, and she hated it. Worst of all, worse even than the possibility of rats in the basement, she was all alone.

The familiar lump was forming in her throat again. Alison took a deep breath to calm the teary feeling in her eyes; she would not cry. She dug her fingernails into her thigh, concentrating on the sharp pain until the feelings of dull despair had passed. She took a deep breath, did her best not to gag on the stale smell of mildew that assailed her, and forced her lips into a smile. Smiles sometimes made her feel better.

Her forced cheerfulness had just stretched the corners of her mouth to the point of discomfort when she suddenly noticed the scraping sound. Her smile froze on her face. She had been so absorbed in her private misery that she had almost missed it. It wasn't loud at all. Sara's music almost covered it up. Alison thought maybe her mother had come back from the kitchen to look for something, but just then she caught the sound of pans rattling and water running from the kitchen. Maybe it was her dad....

Alison lifted her head and looked behind her. She saw nothing except boxes, boxes, and more boxes. There was nobody in the room. Her smile slipped a fraction.

The noise came again, this time from the other side of the room. Rats, she thought to herself, and the smile completely disappeared. Alison turned to stare wildly at the empty room. She stumbled over a box, then caught her balance again. She could have sworn the noises came from right behind her. Afternoon shadows clung to the papered walls and high ceiling, but the room remained empty.

Maybe she was dreaming. She'd heard stories of people having daydreams that were so intense they thought they were real. Or maybe she was just going crazy. Her mouth turned up in another smile at that thought. Maybe she just needed to get a new life, she decided in sour amusement. Here she was, crying like a little kid, and hearing things that weren't there. She was being as dumb as Sara.

The first thing she needed to do was get away from all those boxes. She scratched her mosquito bites thoughtfully, then, after looking suspiciously in all the murky corners, she slowly navigated the boxes and climbed the stairs to the second floor. Her blue loafers made soft thuds on the hallway's hardwood floor as she walked to her bedroom at the end of the hall.

The spacious room was another mess of boxes, clothes, and books scattered around. Alison arranged her music collection and thought about listening to something, but all the noise from Sara's room made it hard to concentrate.

Restless, she opened all three of the room's big windows, hoping to drown out Sara's obnoxious music. Leaning on the sill of the third window, she gazed in distraction at the countryside surrounding their new house. All she could see were fields, roads, and trees. This empty country was so different from the city she was used to. No cars honked their horns here and no people crowded the sidewalks and streets. In fact, there were no sidewalks at all except the skinny slabs of cement that led from the back porch off the kitchen. Everything else was covered in tall green grass.

The afternoon air was still and hot, and dust from a nearby dirt road billowed in a thick cloud as a car moved slowly to the highway leading to town. Leaves on the cottonwood trees hung in lifeless clumps from their branches. Sunlight slanted off them to create shadowy, oblong fingers that reached towards the barnyard. A cow mooed from somewhere. A dog barked. Alison's stomach growled in hunger.

She sighed and turned to survey her new bedroom. It was yellow, and though the sun was in the west and her room faced south and east, the color of the walls made it look bright and cheery. She even had her very own window seat covered in soft colored cushions on the south window. But Alison didn't feel cheery or pleasant like her room. She wanted to get away from all this open space and move back to St. Louis. She missed her best friend Diane, the other girls at school, and the safety of those familiar things. And Monday she would have to start a new school where everyone was a stranger. It was only two days away.

Suddenly a rustling noise from the corner opposite the doorway yanked her out of her daydreams. She turned quickly to face it, and found nothing but a pile of photo albums and scrapbooks she hadn't bothered to throw in the closet yet. A strange tingling sensation traveled down her left arm, and the skin across her scalp tightened. She stood completely still, holding her breath, straining to hear more noises, hoping it was just her imagination.

The door flew open, thwack, against the wall.

“Alison, dinner's ready.”

Alison jumped and drew in a sharp breath before she realized it was only her mother standing in the doorway. She blinked twice then swallowed and said, “Mom! What did you say?”

Her mom moved into the room to smooth a strand of hair off her sweaty forehead. “Honey, are you all right? You're awful jumpy.”

Alison pushed her mom's hand away but managed to smile. “Oh, I'm fine. It's just hot up here. And you know I'm too old to have my head patted like that.”

Her mom grimaced. “Well, old woman, it's time for dinner. Hurry and wash up before your dad gets in from the barn.” She moved into the dusky hallway, Alison close behind her.

Remembering the funny noises she'd been hearing all afternoon, she asked, “Mom, did anybody ever...well...hear noises and things in this house?”

“What kind of noises?” They were were clattering down the stairs now and her mother's tone was distracted.

Alison shrugged. “I don't know. Like shuffling and scraping sounds, I guess.”

Her mom's voice took on a teasing tone as they moved into the kitchen. “Ah, you mean ghostly sounds, things that go bump in the night.” She placed the pan of spaghetti noodles on the wooden table.

“Mom, I'm serious!” Alison wailed from the center of the large old kitchen. Her face was red from the heat the stove emitted. She stubbornly placed her hands on her hips.

But her mom only laughed. “Oh, Al, come on. I was only kidding.” Alison didn't change her posture, so she tried again. “Look, Alison, this is an old house. Old houses make all kinds of creaks and noises. It's just settling. You'll get used to it.” She retrieved the spaghetti sauce from the stove just as Alison's father came banging through the back porch and into the kitchen.

“Hey! I hope dinner's ready. I'm starved!” His smile lit up the room. “My, but it's good to be back in this kitchen again.” He looked around at the faded paper on the walls and the worn linoleum floor. “Hey, Al, isn't this better than that awful, stuffy house we had?” He picked her up and gave her a quick whirl. “Just look at all this space! We can even do dances in here!”

“Dad! I'm too big for this!” Alison yelled, but couldn't stop herself from laughing in delight at the unexpected romp with her usually serious dad.

“Good grief, David, put her down!” her mom scolded, though she laughed as much as Alison. “She'll get sick!”

That possibility was becoming increasingly plausible as the whirling continued. But Alison only smiled encouragingly. A few whirls later, her dad slowed to set her down.

Sara ran in from the living room, catching the last of Alison's surprise flight. “Look out! Geez, Dad, you almost killed me there. Is dinner ready?”

Mom pointed at the food on the table. “I've been trying to tell everybody to sit down. Dave, wash your hands first. And Sara, where were you?'

“Just out front. Some guys were driving by, and they stopped to talk.” She pulled out a chair and sat down at the table.

Alison fell dizzily into the seat opposite Sara. It was weird to see the familiar table and chairs in this strange kitchen, but it didn't bother her as much as it had before. Having her father in the house made her feel a little safer somehow.

“Dad, does this house settle a lot?” she asked when they had all been served their spaghetti.

He smiled at her. “Yeah, I suppose so. Have you been hearing funny noises today?”

Alison nodded and passed the garlic bread to her mother. “In the living room and then in my bedroom.”

“Well, you do have the most popular bedroom in this house, Alison,” he went on to explain. “At lest ten different people that I know of have slept in it over the years.”

Sara interrupted. “Yeah, all those uncles and aunts that hung around here. How many kids did Great-grandpa have anyway?”

“Too many,” said their father. “My dad grew up here too. There's been a lot of Martins running through this kitchen in the past. I'm glad we can keep the tradition going.” He looked at them all with that same happy smile he always used when he talked about the farm. “You'll see. Living on a farm is great fun.”

There he went again, being optimistic about the farm's fun factor. Alison quietly groaned her skepticism.

“But I thought you were going to stay a doctor,” said Sara.

“Oh, I am,” he assured them all. “Your mom and I plan to take over the clinic in Wyngate next month. Randy's going to be taking care of the farm.”

“Who's Randy?” Alison asked.

He took a long drink of iced-tea before answering. “Randy Wilson. We grew up together. He lives just up the hill. Nobody knows more about farming than Randy.”

“Did he go to school with you, Dad?” Sara asked. She quickly slurped up a spaghetti noodle before it fell off her fork.

“Yeah. We had a lot of good times together.” He sat still for a minute, remembering. Then he said, “You girls will be going to the same school we did. You'll love it.”

Sara was excited about starting her sophomore year at Wyngate High School. But Alison wasn't so sure about junior high. Starting in seventh grade was bad enough in St. Louis, but at least she had friends there. Here in Iowa it was completely different.

“Mom, what if I don't make any friends at school?” she asked, worried.

Sara answered her. “You'll never make any friends if you don't quit reading your stupid books.”

“They're not stupid!” Alison insisted loudly.

Their father stopped them from continuing the argument any further by saying, “I wouldn't worry if I were you, Al. Just be yourself and things will work out. You'll see.”

Sara grinned, then turned away from Alison and said, “Mom, did I tell you about the guys who stopped to talk to me? One said his name is Chad Hazler and he's lived here all his life. He said he'd show me around. I think he was real nice.”

Alison gave her sister a disgusted glance. “That's just because he's a boy. I think boys are dumb.”

“That's because you're too ignorant to appreciate them,” Sara retorted. “Unless they're in one of your books.”

Their dad expertly interrupted this familiar discussion too. “I don't think I know any Hazlers. Are you sure that was his name?”

Sara rolled her eyes. “I do pay attention to some things, Dad. Hazler was his last name and he wasn't bad-looking, either.” She smiled and helped herself to more spaghetti.

He laughed at Sara and then turned to Mom. “Oh, by the way, Lee, I saw Randy for a bit today and asked what he thought about buying a new tractor. He thinks it's a risk right now with the economy so bad.”

“That's what I told you he'd say,” she responded teasingly.

Alison was silent as her parents discussed more plans for the farm and the clinic. Sara finished slurping up her spaghetti noodles and cheerfully asked for seconds. If her appetite was any indication, Sara seemed to be taking the move to Iowa in stride.

I'm not like her at all, Alison thought gloomily. Her face was a worried contrast to her sister's as she absently pushed her food around her plate, eating only a little. She thought about Diane and wondered what she was doing. Maybe Diane's mom had taken her shopping that day. Alison still wasn't too crazy about going shopping every weekend, but all her friends went and she hadn't wanted to be left out of the fun. Still, it was better than living in a haunted house.

She suddenly dropped her fork and it made a clink as it hit the plate. What had made her think that? This house wasn't haunted. Or at least she didn't think it was. She glanced quickly into the dark hall that led to the living room, remembering the strange sounds she'd heard. Maybe they really did have rats. Or mice. Mice were perfectly common in old houses like this one. Alison had never actually seen a mouse before, and was sure she would prefer not to see one now. Maybe the noises were caused by something else, like the wind.

But there had been no wind this hot Saturday afternoon.

Her thoughts returned to the haunted house possibility. She was even less thrilled with this than she was with the mice. What caused a house to be haunted anyway? Dead people? Maybe it was a wayward spirit bent on making trouble. Alison tried hard to remember all that she had read about spirits for a report she'd done just last year. What were they called? Poultry something? No, it was polter...poltergesen? No.... Poltergeist! That was it! A poltergeist. A little chill went up Alison's spine. From all the reading she had done she knew poltergeists were not always nice additions to anybody's life. She could feel a tiny knot starting in her stomach.

These thoughts wandered around her mind while she and Sara helped clear the table. They did the dishes, and Alison put them away after Sara dried them. Then they all returned to the boxes in the living room, much to Alison's annoyance. She really wanted to read a little tonight. Actually, she'd rather do anything than unpack her parent's things. So when her mom wasn't looking, she quietly ran through the kitchen and out the porch door into the backyard.

The sun was just beginning to set in the west. The house made a shadow that stretched long and odd-shaped across the grass. The view was a little different on the ground than it had been from her bedroom before dinner. Power lines arced deftly through tree branches between the house and the old barn. The leaves stirred slightly in a soft evening breeze. Funny-looking bugs jumped around the flowers and grass under her worn shoes. A skinny, yellow cat pranced purposefully across a corner of the yard, crawled through a square of wire fence, and headed across an empty field to a section of wooded land off to her left. Rectangular bales of grass lay spread helter-skelter on the empty field, and the yellow cat jumped on top of one to clean its front paws before continuing on its journey. Alison felt sure she was looking at hay bales, but she had never seen them before. They looked small, like cars on the street used to look from her father's tenth floor office.

A cow mooed from near the barn, capturing her attention. She wandered towards the sound, crossing a gravel road to reach the leaning building, but the overpowering smell of dust and dirt and cows soon drove her back out to the fresh air. A car whizzed by on the road out front, accompanied by the faint sound of music. Just for the fun of it, Alison looked at her watch and counted the minutes until the next car went by. Six minutes and seventeen seconds later a tractor puttered past on its way from town, but she saw no cars for another three minutes when finally a blue hatchback raced by, a rock song blaring out its open windows. It was a good song, one Alison had always liked. Now, however, it just gave her a headache. When the huge red sun finally settled behind a bank of clouds for the night, Alison sauntered back to the house and climbed the staircase to her room.

An hour later Alison was sitting on her bed writing a letter to Diane. She paused for a quick look around her room while she thought of something else she could write about. She stared at her chest of drawers and saw how tiny it looked standing next to the closet door. She'd never thought it was small before, but her new bedroom was big, much bigger than her old one. A bookcase stood across from the dresser, and Great-grandma's antique mirror hung on the wall near the paint-chipped door. Her flowery comforter and pretty white brass bed frame looked out of place next to the yellow paper on the wall and the stained off-white piece of carpet that covered the wood floor. She sighed, then reread what she had written.

Dear Diane,

It's really weird out here in the country. There's absolutely no cars on the road. There's a big field right next to the house and there's hay bales in it. At least, I think they're hay bales. They're green. Anyway, I don't know what it's there for, except for hay. We're not moved in yet. Mom's making me unpack everything. My room is a mess too, but I put my books on the shelves tonight. The carpet in here is awful, but Mom said I might get a new one. Hopefully it won't be like this one.

Alison glanced up again when she heard the rumble of distant thunder. Maybe a storm was coming. She stared at the squares of black her windows had become before writing a few more lines.

Sara was her usual pain on the way up here. I tried my best to bug her to death, but I'm not as creative as you are. Maybe you can visit and we can plan more war raids on her, like we did last year. She already met some boy named Chad. That's all she ever talks about, you know - boys, boys, boys! Gross! I don't think I'll ever...

Thunder cracked suddenly, startling her. Alison yelled a short “Oh!” Her notebook flopped to the floor as she scrambled to her knees. The bang of thunder became a rumble and slid off beyond the house. Her head jerked to the window, still a black curtain of night, until a flash of lightning sliced it into sections as neatly as a knife. The momentary light was gone and an instant later thunder smashed against the house again, shaking doors and rattling the window panes. Lightning came once more, but Alison didn't wait for the following thunder to drive her across the room to the door. She yanked on the ancient doorknob, forgetting to turn it, and the knob almost came off in her hands. Fortunately, the catch wasn't very secure and the thick door swung open. She ran into the dark hallway.

More thunder chased her as she ran down the stairs in a panic. “Mom! Dad!” she yelled frantically over the thunder roaring in her ears. Suddenly her stockinged feet slid on the worn wooden stairs; she lost her balance just as she reached the braided rag rug laid across the entryway at the bottom. Alison landed in a heap of dirty shorts, brown hair, and rug at her father's feet.

“Al! What is going on?” he asked, surprised.

“Dad! What is it? It's a storm! Should we go to the basement? What if we have a tornado? Where's Mom? I have to get Mom, don't I? Dad....”

“Wait a minute! Slow down there,” her father interrupted. “There's no tornado. Don't worry now. Here, stand up and catch your breath.” He untangled the rug from her legs and pulled her to her feet.

“But Dad, how do you know? Are you sure?” Alison pulled a lock of hair out of her wide eyes and forced herself to take deep breaths.

“Honey, listen, tornadoes happen mainly in the spring, not August, and your mom and I have been watching the news and this is just a storm. There's nothing to worry about.”

His quiet voice helped her calm down in time to see her mom hurry in from the back of the house. “I heard a crash. What happened?”

“Nothing, Mom,” Alison said quickly. “I fell down the stairs. I thought there was a tornado.”

She looked at her and shook her head. “You've been watching The Wizard of Oz again, haven't you? You're lucky you haven't had any nightmares.” She smoothed her daughter's hair and Alison ducked away from her hand. “Did you close your windows before falling down the stairs?” she teased.

Alison shook her head no.

“Well, I better close them before you end up with a waterbed for a mattress.” She climbed the stairs and disappeared into the upper hallway.

Alison turned to her father. “Dad, will the house be hit by lightning and catch fire?”

He laughed. “I doubt it. Hey, come out here. I want to show you something.” He beckoned her to the front door and pulled it open. Gusts of hot wind washed over her cheeks and the sound of blowing leaves crashed against her ears. No rain fell from the rushing black clouds yet. Alison and her dad stepped onto the front porch and lifted their eyes to the sky.

“Look at that lightning, Alison.”

She watched white forks of electricity arc across the clouds, lighting one section, then another with hardly time to blink in between.

“You know, Al, storms aren't any worse here than they are in the city.”

“They sure seem worse to me,” grumbled Alison.

Just then rain started to drip from the clouds, turning quickly into a downpour. Alison yelped and jumped backwards up the front steps, her father close on her heels. They laughed and brushed the water from their shoulders and arms. Alison discovered two new mosquito bites on her left arm, but was so excited from the roaring wind and thunder that she didn't care. As she stood beside her dad and watched the storm, she wondered if living in Iowa was always going to be so wet and wild. She blinked at the bright lightning, thinking of her safe St. Louis house surrounded by supporting concrete and other houses, and sighed. Iowa was so open and empty. She wrapped her arm securely around her dad's waist and sighed again, settling against her father to watch the rain.

Chapter 2

Alison hesitated at the classroom door.

“Out of the way! Comin' through!”

Alison turned aside to let a boy shorter than her pass into the room. The boy behind him crossed his eyes at her before throwing his notebook on a desk top.

“Hey, Rick, check it out! Who's the new kid?” The second boy with the crossed eyes hit the first boy's arm and pointed at Alison.

Alison sighed. Well, here goes, she thought, then smiled and concentrated on looking friendly. “Hi. I'm Alison,” she said, trying not to sound nervous. Her voice sounded squeaky and nervous anyway.

“Alison, huh?” one said with a scowl. “I'm Rick and that's Brad.” Then he laughed loudly and shoved his friend right into her. She dropped the notebooks she was holding, and the paper with her locker combination and schedule written on it slid across the floor. Rick promptly scooped it up. “Hey, Brad, look at this!”

Alison reached for the paper. “Give it back, please,” she said and glared at his red face topped with blond, crew cut hair.

Rick jumped on a chair out of Alison's reach. “Locker number ninety-six. Remember that Brad. And she has Peterson for her first class.”

Alison jumped up and her arm was just long enough to grab the paper out of a surprised Rick's hand. “Why else would I be in Mr. Peterson's room if I didn't have him first hour?” she asked.

Brad said, “This ain't Peterson's room. That's way down at the end of the hall. You'd better hurry if you want to make it before the bell.” He pointed down the hall full of rushing, laughing seventh graders and smiled at Alison.

Alison felt her face get hot. “Oh,” she said, embarrassed. She'd been so certain the secretary in the office had sent her to this room. She grabbed her books anyway and slipped into the crowd just as the warning bell sounded. Brother, she thought. What a day this is starting out to be.

Boys and girls scrambled at their lockers and hurried into classrooms. Alison walked swiftly down the hall, only to find herself completely lost in the maze of corridors and rooms. Which way did Brad say it was? Left? Right? Confused and frustrated, she stood still and ground her teeth. “Just ask someone how to get there,” she quietly mumbled to herself. “That's what Dad does when he gets lost.” She decided to ask for help in the library just as the final bell rang loudly in the now deserted hallway.

Miss Cornelius, the librarian, patiently listened to Alison's story and with a smile pointed her in the right direction for Mr. Peterson's room. “Go down the hall, and it's the third door on the right.”

“Thank you,” Alison said and headed right back to the room she had started from. Mr. Peterson's door was closed. Alison carefully eased it open and slipped in. But any chance of entering unobtrusively vanished when the tall man standing by the teacher's desk said, “And who do we have here?” His voice was so loud it nearly blew Alison back into the hall.

Alison felt smaller than she ever had before as she said her name. “Alison Martin.”

“Ah, the new student. Welcome, Alison,” boomed the voice. He must have noticed her discomfort, and he gestured to the far side of the room. “Take a seat over there, by the windows.”

Alison saw the empty desk in the corner farthest from the door. In order to get there she would have to walk in front of every student in the room, and every pair of eyes was trained on her. She took a breath and walked as calmly as she could to her desk. Her right loafer squeaked every time she took a step, and several boys laughed, but Mr. Peterson ordered them to be quiet. Alison thunked into her seat and leaned back in relief. Then she glared at her brown shoes beneath the desk. Hadn't these new shoes been Mom's idea?

While Mr. Peterson began an introductory speech about the wonders of mathematics, she let her eyes scan over the thirty students in the room. She quickly found Rick and Brad sitting next to each other, both grinning and whispering back and forth. Alison felt angry just looking at them. They had sent her to the wrong room deliberately. Well, at least she'd found the library. Maybe she would have time to look at some books during lunch period.

Mr. Peterson began calling out names for each student to come up to his desk to receive a textbook. Alison let her attention wander to the window she sat next to. A bird sang on the school lawn. Alison looked out across a wide meadow that led to the road. She could see the high school where Sara was right now. Sara was probably having a great time. Alison groaned at the thought of her sister. At least Sara didn't have squeaky new shoes.

“Alison!”

All thoughts of Sara and shoes fled as she jerked her head around to look at Mr. Peterson.

“Are you dreaming already?” he asked in his friendly, loud voice. “Please come up and get your textbook.”

Alison rose and walked passed the five other desks in her row with her shoe squeaking the entire time. She would just take the top book from the right pile and hurry back to her seat. Her fingers wrapped around the used book, but Mr. Peterson's voice stopped her.

“May I ask why you were late on this first morning?”

“I got lost,” she explained, and her voice shook only a little. She was proud of that and felt a little more confident. Maybe the worst was over.

“I see. Well, try to be on time tomorrow.”

Rick jumped in to the conversation and said, “I'll show her where to go if she gets lost tomorrow.” He grinned, and his braces gleamed in the classroom's fluorescent lighting.

Brad's face almost turned blue from holding his breath to keep from laughing.

Was he serious? Angry, Alison turned around to face him, a retort on the tip of her tongue. But in her quick turn, she lost her grip on her new math book. The book flew a few feet, then smashed against a desk before falling to the floor. Brad led the laughter that broke out in the classroom.

Her face red once again with anger and embarrassment, Alison picked up her book from the floor and hastily retreated to her desk. She let her hair fall forward to hide her face from the eyes of all those people. If they hadn't been staring at her before, they certainly were now.

Mr. Peterson stopped the laughing with a bellow in Rick's direction. “Mr. Simmons, please see me after class.”

That was the end of it. Mr. Peterson went on calling out names and handing out text books. Students passed back and forth from their desks to his. But Alison sat still. She didn't dare take her eyes from the desk top. She might find somebody staring at her. She didn't think she could stand it if they stared at her anymore.

The same panicky feeling she'd had in the hallway only a few minutes earlier rumbled through her chest. Tears pricked her eyes, and she considered letting them fall. What did it matter if they saw her cry? She had already made a complete fool out of herself.

But no, it didn't do any good to cry. She took a breath and shook her head to clear away the teary feeling. It did dissipate after a moment of deep breathing. Still, she wished this horrible day would just go away.

Somehow she lived through the rest of first hour. Surprisingly, she made it to Miss Sheffield's history room without any trouble. Rick and Brad must have found somebody else to pick on, she decided. She liked history better than math anyway, and even found herself getting a little interested in the local history project the tall young teacher had planned for her students.

Two more hours passed. She'd made it through English unscathed, and then there was only gym class before lunch. She'd been a little confused when she kept hearing the kids talk about a class called P.E., but found out that P.E. only meant physical education and was the same as gym class in St. Louis. Her class was small and, fortunately, there weren't many boys in it. She'd had enough of boys for one day. Then, while getting her locker room assignment, she finally met Jessica and Marie.

“I didn't think anyone would talk to me today,” she confided to Jessica as they sat in a row against the gym's painted brick wall, waiting for the bell to ring for lunch.

Jessica nodded and pushed her bangs out of her eyes. “Well, people are pretty nice here, but it takes awhile to get used to new kids.”

“Oh. Did you move here from somewhere too?”

“No, I've lived here all my life. But Marie moved in from Tennessee last year.”

Marie leaned around Jessica to see Alison. “It was hard. I hated it here for a long time.” She pointed at Jessica. “But then I got to know Jess and things weren't so bad.”

Alison asked, “Why did it take so long to make friends?”

Marie shrugged. “I don't know. There's a lot of little groups in this school. My mom calls them clicks or cliches or something like that. They don't like new people, I guess.”

“It's dumb,” Jessica muttered. “Marie and I think we managed to figure it out over the summer: it all depends where you live.”

“What?” Alison asked, not sure she understood what Jessica was saying.

“Who you're friends with,” she explained. “Who will be your friends depends on where you live.”

Marie continued. “If you live on a dirt road, you can forget about being popular. You're doomed right from the start.”

Alison wasn't certain they were being serious. “Are you sure?” she asked. They both nodded solemnly. “But that's silly!” she said.

Jessica rolled her eyes. “Tell me about it. And then of course it matters what your parents do. Where do yours work, Alison?”

“Well.” Alison wasn't sure if she should say they were doctors or farmers or both. She didn't know any more. “We live on a farm --”

“Oh, you're definitely doomed then,” Marie predicted, though a small smile was beginning to overtake her serious expression.

Alison couldn't quite repress a slight grin of her own at their ridiculous suppositions. “Oh?” she asked curiously. “Why? Where do you live?” She gazed at both girls at once.

Marie glanced at Jessica, and Jessica glanced back. They suddenly burst into simultaneous laughter. Marie said, “You've got us, Alison. I live on a farm too. But Jessica does live in Wyngate,” she pointed out.

Jessica added, “Yeah, sure I live in town. But my house is on the last road just past the grain elevator, and you know what that means.”

Alison was lost again. “What? What does it mean?”

“It isn't paved either!” Jessica laughed loudly again.

“We all live on dirt roads: we're all doomed!” Marie giggled while Jessica leaned back against the gym wall, gasping for breath.

“I don't know why this is so funny!” Jessica exclaimed. “I just can't help it... it's all so stupid!”

Marie sent an apologetic glance in Alison's direction while gesturing at Jessica. “Sorry. Sometimes she gets this way....”

Just then the bell rang and everybody stood up to file out of the gym. Jessica was still laughing, but she had turned it into short bursts of giggles as they waited for everybody to get out of their way. Jessica towered over Alison by several inches, and she pushed her way forward, seeing easily over the shorter students in the hallway. Suddenly, she turned to Alison and with a grin and a shrug, asked, “Hey, um... you wanna eat with us?” she asked.

Overjoyed, Alison paused with her at the gym door. “Yeah!” she managed to say, then stuttered, “I'd... I'd like to. Yeah!”

Jessica gave a small smile in Marie's direction. “We can see you're relieved, Alison,” she joked. But the crowd was beginning to push their way out of the gym, so they had to separate. “We'll see you in the cafeteria!” she called over her shoulder and disappeared with Marie down the hall.

Relieved barely described the way Alison felt after Jessica's invitation, but it was true. She hadn't realized how much she was dreading sitting alone during the lunch break until now. But Jessica had solved everything with those simple words. Alison didn't feel dread any longer, but she did feel hungry!

Alison grinned. Her nervousness seemed to have used up all the energy she'd acquired from breakfast. But where was the cafeteria? She frowned, then immediately realized all she had to do was follow any student in the hall. A huge crowd was surging in the same direction. She found the cafeteria by following a group of students wearing faded jeans and dirty tennis shoes. If she walked just right, her loafer didn't squeak, so they didn't even notice she was tagging along behind them. The day was definitely beginning to improve.

Alison mentally patted herself on the back when she reached the lunchroom. She looked around for Jessica and Marie, but couldn't find them anywhere. Finally she chose an empty table a little removed from the other noisy, laughing students and sat down to eat her sandwich and wait for the two girls.

She looked around while she waited, watching the other students settle down with friends to eat lunch. Many of them wore old jeans and t-shirts. Alison noticed that only a few of the girls wore any jewelry. She glanced self-consciously at her matching light blue striped shirt and pants, and fingered the blue necklace that lay against her throat. Nobody except her was dressed nice, she realized, looking with even more interest as she took a bite of her chopped ham sandwich.

“Hey, you're new here, aren't you?”

Alison looked over her shoulder at a girl with pretty auburn hair and bright blue eyes. “Wyess,” she answered around the bite of chopped ham in her mouth. She swallowed without chewing. “Yes,” she said again, more clearly this time.

“I thought so. I saw you talking to Jessica in the hall.”

Alison wondered what that was supposed to mean. Did talking to Jessica somehow single her out as a new student, making Jess a sort of welcoming committee? And did that mean that Jessica and Marie really didn't want to eat lunch with her, but had only asked because they felt they had to? Or was she just being paranoid? Puzzled by a crowd of thoughts barraging her all at once, Alison said the first coherent sentence that came to mind. “I have gym... I mean P.E. with her and Marie. Do you know them?”

A quizzical smile ghosted across the girl's face, replaced by an amused glance at the ceiling. “Uh, yeah, I know everybody. There's only two hundred students in the whole junior high.”

“Oh,” Alison said dumbly. Two hundred students? There had been more than that in just her class in St. Louis. “I didn't know...” she began awkwardly.

The girl casually shrugged one shoulder. “Don't worry about it. The school looks bigger than it actually is. I just didn't remember seeing you here last year.”

“Oh. Are you in eighth grade?” Alison asked politely.

She shook her head, her perfectly placed waves bouncing elegantly. “No. This school has its sixth grade in with the junior high.”

It was one of those moments of deep understanding that hit Alison like a rock in the head. “That's why everybody knows where they're going. You were all here last year too. I've never heard of sixth grade in the junior high before,” she admitted.

“Yeah,” the girl answered. “It's weird that way, but the grade school got too crowded when we consolidated last year.”

While Alison wondered what consolidated meant, a voice suddenly yelled across the room crowded with colorful tables and benches, “C.J.! Are you coming?”

The girl looked up and waved at a group of girls a few tables away. “In a minute,” she called back.

“Your name's C.J.?” Alison asked in surprise. “That's a neat name.”

C.J. rolled her eyes. “Well, it stands for Caterina Josephine. Isn't that simply awful? My mom says our ancestors named their daughter that and the name had to be carried down. My older sister's named Rosetta Deanne. I don't know which is worse.”

“C.J.!” the girls called again. They pointed at an empty spot they were saving for her.

C.J. waved her hand again, then said, “Look, I just wanted to say hi. I'll talk to you later.” She started to move away, then stopped and said, “Hey, what's your name?”

“Alison.”

“Where are you from?”

“St. Louis.”

“Missouri?”

She nodded. “My parents are doctors.”

“That's right, I knew that. My dad told us there were going to be new doctors at the clinic in town. He always knows what's going on in town, since he owns the law firm on Main street. He thought he needed to be the town lawyer since great-great-grandpa built Wyngate and named it after himself. My last name's Wyngate.”

“Oh,” was all Alison could think to say. Before she could stop herself, she blurted, “I'm meeting Marie and Jessica for lunch.”

“You mean the Siamese twins?” C.J. asked with raised eyebrows. Her tone held just a hint of disdain.

“What does that mean?”

“Nothing. That's just what some people call Jessica and Marie. They're pretty close, if you know what I mean. They do everything together.”

“They're friends,” Alison stated, not quite able to keep the hint of envy out of her voice. “I guess that's what friends do, isn't it?”

C.J. considered for a moment. “I guess. But those two are practically glued together. That's why we call them Siamese twins. Get it?” She gave a laugh that sounded more like a snort. But she must have seen that Alison was a little lost, because she added, “It was a just a joke.”

Alison nodded, unable to think of anything more to say.

Just then a room monitor, a strict looking, gray-haired lady with a large set of keys clanging at her waist, tapped C.J. on the shoulder. “You find a seat, Miss Wyngate, or I'll have to write you up.” The monitor moved on.

C.J. rolled her eyes again, then said, “Mrs. Magruder is getting an early start on being mean this year. At least some things don't ever change around here.” She gave a closed lipped grin, then shrugged again. “Well, I gotta go. See ya, Alison,” she said before she bounced over to her friends and the empty seat they had saved just for her. Alison saw them all bend together, whispering and giggling, probably talking about “the new girl.”

They must be one of the groups Marie talked about, she thought, and looked around for either of her two new acquaintances. The lunch room was so crowded by then that at first she couldn't find them. She finally saw them sitting with two other girls, eating, talking and laughing together. They must have forgotten about their promise to eat with her. For a moment she considered joining them, but then realized there was no room for her at their table. She sighed and looked away. A sad feeling of loneliness washed over her in the noisy cafeteria.

If only she had someone to talk to. Alison wondered what Diane was doing and wished she was back in familiar St. Louis. She glanced at the table where C.J. and her friends were talking and giggling together. She sighed, still watching. Maybe, just maybe, she could become friends with the girls in that group. Then Alison caught C.J.'s eye, and quickly glanced away. She ate the rest of her lunch in lonely solitude. But she could faintly make out C.J.'s laughter from across the room when the bell for fifth hour rang. Alison hurried out before C.J.'s group or Jessica and Marie could catch up to her, glad that they couldn't see the redness of rejection she felt flooding her face.

Alison joined the throng that rushed out the door and down the hall. Just as she realized she couldn't remember the way back to her locker, Rick and Brad managed to fall in behind her. One of them took a handful of her brown hair and gave it a strong yank, saying, “Gittee-up there, mule. Yaw mule!”

“Ouch! Cut it out!” she yelled, pulling her hair out of their hands. Before she could turn and confront them, they ran away, laughing at their joke. Students streamed past, but Alison only massaged her head in silence, wanting nothing more than for this horrible day to be over.

Chapter 3

The heat was nearly overwhelming by the time Alison followed Sara off the dusty yellow school bus at the end of the day. Heat waves danced over the hood as the old engine groaned into first gear. The bus slid away, leaving the two girls standing by the tin mailbox and coughing on the diesel fumes.

Sara flipped her hair off her hot neck before reaching into the mailbox for the mail. “Hey look, I got a letter from Susan already!” She threw the rest of the mail back into the mailbox, then tore open her letter, reading as she stumbled up the gravel driveway.

Alison sent a sour look at Sara's back, then retrieved the rest if the mail from the box. Maybe she had a letter from Diane by now. A quick glance through the mail showed there was nothing for her. She swallowed her disappointment and trailed her sister to the house.

The sound of a tractor made her pause and look up just as she reached the front porch. A man she didn't recognize sat astride a rusty, worn-out orange machine that belched smoke out a blackened stack and made the ground shake when it passed. Some sort of long wooden rack was hitched to the back of the tractor. Many of the rectangular grass bales that she had seen laying in the field Saturday were stacked tightly together on the wood. Two long boards horizontally connected to two pieces of metal kept the stack from toppling off the back end as the tractor jerked the rack up the drive. The man stopped the tractor alongside Alison and called to her.

“Hey, you want a ride?”

Alison looked around to make sure he was talking to her before she yelled back. “A ride to where?”

He shrugged and scratched his tan-browned arm. “Just to the barn, I guess.” The wind ruffled through his thick curly hair, showing the gray in his short sideburns.

Alison hesitated. She'd already had several encounters with strange people that day; she really didn't want another one. She was on the verge of telling the man no, but he grinned at her and said, “Come on!”

She watched him for half a second as his grin grew to a genuine smile. In an instant she felt she could trust him. He wasn't some dumb kid out to embarrass the new girl, after all. He was just a man driving a tractor and pulling... something.

Strong curiosity about what he was doing overwhelmed any further hesitation, so she dropped her school bag on the porch and loped over to the tractor. It looked much bigger now that she was closer, and she had no idea how she was going to climb up to the seat. But before she could change her mind, the man reached down to grab her hand, telling her to put her foot on the step and hold onto the handle on the tire guard. Grasping at metal and clutching tightly to his hand, she managed to climb up and take a precarious seat next to a bunch of levers and gear knobs. A rusty green toolbox stuck out from under the main seat, and the entire contraption rattled in time with the chugging engine.

“You on?” he asked. Alison nodded solemnly. Her heart pounded as the tractor started forward again with a lurch, then continued steadily up the slight hill and around the corner to the barn. She was hanging onto the handles so tightly she almost had to peel her fingers off the orange metal when they stopped at the barn's big sliding door. The curly-haired man shut the machine off and they both jumped down. Alison was glad to be off the shaky tractor, but she wasn't going to let him know that she'd been a little scared. She walked slowly around to steady her legs before heading back to the house.

The man came around the tractor to stand beside Alison as she peered into the dark barn. “Which one are you, Sara or Alison?” he asked in a friendly manner.

“Alison,” she answered, squinting to look at him. “Who are you?”

“I'm Randy Wilson. I'm working the farm for your parents.” He had pulled a pair of worn yellow leather gloves out of his jeans pockets, but laid them on the tractor tire to shake her hand. His skin felt hard and scaly to Alison, but his smile was as friendly as his manner.

“What's this called?” she asked, pointing at the wooden structure hitched behind the tractor.

“That? Why, that's a hayrack.”

“Is that hay that's piled on it then?”

“Sure is.” Randy climbed onto the hayrack and started to throw down a few of the bales one at a time. “How was your first day of school?” he asked between bales.

Alison groaned. The memories almost ruined the sense of adventure the tractor ride had given her. “Awful.” She watched him grab some heavy string wrapped around another bale, pull the bale off the pile, then gently drop it to the ground. “What are you doing?”

Randy paused a minute to wipe the sweat already gathering on his forehead with the back of his glove. “I'm unloading. I have to stack the hay in the barn or else it might get wet.”

Alison was still squinting against the sun to look at him. “Oh. Is it ruined if it gets wet?”

“Yep, pretty much.” Randy jumped to the ground and began moving the bales into the barn.

“But it got rained on Saturday night. I saw the bales laying in the field,” she protested. Alison followed him back and forth, from daylight to gloom to daylight again as he restacked the bales in a corner of the dusty barn.

Randy grabbed another bale from the ground beside the hayrack. “You're right.” Then he gave her a sheepish look. “It doesn't hurt to get it a little wet. And it was so hot yesterday that the bales pretty much dried out.”

“Oh,” she said, not really understanding.

Her lost voice must have caught his attention because he dropped the bale he'd picked up and said, “So tell me, what happened today that was so awful?”

Alison grimaced. She didn't feel like talking about her day, but Randy looked so friendly that she found herself telling him everything before she realized it.

When she finished, Randy leaned against the tractor and played with a snag on one of his gloves while Alison dejectedly kicked rocks laying in the drive. “I had to eat lunch by myself. And then nobody would talk to me,” she said, a threatening quiver in her voice.

“Now, that's not entirely true,” Randy slowly drawled in a country accent Alison was unfamiliar with. “Those two boys talked to you.”

“But they made me get lost!” she interrupted indignantly before she realized he was teasing her. She put her hands on her hips and sent him a look of irritation.

Randy grinned and bit his lip. “Well,” he said, “I guess now you know better than to listen to them.”

His joke released the tension tightening inside her. “I'll be happy if I never have to see them again!” she exclaimed with a little laugh. Then her brow furrowed. “Of course, there's only a couple hundred students in the whole school. It might be hard to avoid them forever.”

“You could hide in the bathroom,” Randy suggested, and Alison laughed. He went on, “The two girls liked you in P.E. And I know the Wyngates. Their daughter talked to you at lunch.”

Alison took a deep breath. “Yeah. She was nice. Well, pretty nice,” she amended, remembering C.J.'s comment about Jessica and Marie being Siamese twins. She couldn't quite decide if that really had been a bad joke, or if maybe C.J. had meant it, then pretended it was a joke when it sounded more mean than funny. She didn't know C.J. Wyngate well enough yet to be sure.

“Maybe you can be friends with her.”

Alison looked at him doubtfully. “I don't know. She looked pretty popular.”

“The cheerleader type?”

“Sort of.”

“Don't give up right away, Alison. You'll make friends before you know it. Even if it's with the cheerleader type.” He grinned widely at her, then pushed himself away from the tractor to pick up the bale he'd dropped. “Now I need to put this hay up before it gets old and turns gray.”

Alison gave a start; hay turned gray, like people did when they got old? Or was this another joke? Before she could question him further, he turned and carried the hay into the barn, leaving Alison standing in the sun-dappled barnyard. She sighed again, puzzling over the day's events and the surprising qualities of the common hay bale.

She was still standing there, staring at the hay stacked on the rack when Randy came back out. She watched as he hefted another bale and staggered into the barn with it. A moment later he came back for more. Suddenly she was tired of watching others doing everything. She wanted to join in. “Can I help?” she asked.

Randy gave her a surprised glance. Then he brightened. “Sure!” he agreed enthusiastically. “Never thought you might like to help. You surprised me.”

Alison grinned up at him, then looked at the two bales lying on their sides on the ground. They looked heavy. She cautiously approached the nearest one. “What do I do?”

“First,” Randy began, as serious now as her teachers had been at school, “you blink three times, real quick like, then wink your left eye. When you've got the bale right in the center of your sights, you spit on your right palm....”

She laughed. “Randy, stop teasing me!”

He laughed with her, a deep chuckle, then he grinned again. “Can't put anything over on you, can I, Alison?”

“It's my big city background,” she teased back.

“That must be it. I'll know better next time. Okay, first you need to go in and change into jeans and an old shirt. Oh, you do wear jeans in the big city, right?”

She laughed yet again. “Randy!” she warned. “I'll be right back out. Don't go anywhere, okay?”

“We'll be here,” he promised. “Just me and the hay bales, and the cows.” He looked up. “And the tractor. And a few hundred birds. Oh, and the neighbor's dog.” He pointed to a small black and white dog jogging around the corner of another outbuilding. “She probably came over for a visit. Then there's the goats from up the hill....”

Alison had to turn and run back towards the house then. She

had the distinct impression that she would never get her clothes changed if she didn't just go, leaving him to talk to his hay bales. Running with intermingled hops and skips, she headed back to the front porch to retrieve her backpack. But her headlong dash up the stairs to her room was interrupted when she almost ran right into Sara.

“Watch out, will you?” Sara glared. “Don't touch me. You're all sweaty!”

“Sorry,” Alison mumbled.

“Where are you running off to in such a hurry?” Sarcasm crept into her voice as well when she continued, “Is the ghost chasing you?”

Alison was so startled she dropped her backpack. In all the excitement of helping Randy, she had forgotten her qualms about the house being haunted. She had run right through the front hall without taking her customary glance into the shadowy living room to make sure it was empty. “Why do you say that?” she croaked.

Sara stared at her in puzzlement. “I was just kidding. But you look like you really believed me there for a minute. You don't, do you?”

“No!” Alison exclaimed too forcefully. She lowered her voice and laughed a tiny laugh. “I don't think there's a ghost. That's dumb.”

“Maybe,” Sara said enigmatically. Then she grinned. “But I think you've just been affected by the heat. Your brain is melting!”

Alison rolled her eyes. “You're the one who's melting, Sara. Now can I please go upstairs? I have to change clothes.”

Sara didn't move. She belligerently crossed her arms and wheedled, “What's the rush?”

“I'm going to help Randy unload the hay from the hayrack, that's what.”

To Alison's surprise, Sara laughed. “In this heat? Boy, you're the one who's dumb.” She moved around Alison and clunked down the stairs. “Have fun, squint.”

Alison ran up the stairs to her room. She dropped her pack next to her bed and grabbed a pair of jeans off the floor at the same time. It was hard to wiggle into the jeans when she was all sweaty, but at last she was dressed appropriately for farm work. Her t-shirt had a hole in the left sleeve, and her old tennis shoes were ragged and dirty already, so there was no need to worry about where she stepped in the barn. She'd noticed several unsavory piles on the barn's dirty floor when she followed Randy earlier. She didn't want to ruin her new shoes by stepping in any of those piles.

She was just about to run out the door when she thought of gloves. Randy used thick work gloves to protect his hands from the strings that held the hay together. She didn't have anything like that, and her parent's gardening gloves would be too big for her hands. Suddenly she remembered her winter gloves. They weren't exactly meant for farm work, but they were padded and covered in leather. She guessed they would protect her hands well enough.

But where had she put them when she'd unpacked her winter clothes yesterday? In her closet? She pulled open the door and stared at the top shelf. She could make out the fringe of her blue scarf dangling over the edge of the shelf, and stepped into the closet so she could reach up to feel around for her gloves.

She didn't notice the closet door begin to swing slowly towards her. It creaked suddenly, and Alison turned just in time to hear the latch clicking quietly as it closed completely, shutting her in the closet.

Darkness engulfed her. For a terrifying moment she couldn't think. Her breath caught in her throat. Sara's words about ghosts jumped through her mind, and every image she'd ever seen of a ghost or spirit leaped from her memory. She wanted to scream and pound on the door. Instead she took a deep, calming breath. With trembling hands, she curled her fingers around the doorknob and turned.

The closet door swung open easily. Shafts of sunlight poured across her, immediately dispelling the fear she'd experienced in the enclosed space. But she was still so relieved that she dodged out of the closet, barely keeping herself from falling, and snorted a nervous laugh that scratched her throat. When she turned around, she watched in fascination as the closet door slowly swung shut again, stopping as it gently touched the doorjamb.

Suddenly Alison laughed out loud, and this time her laughter was genuine. She had completely forgotten that doors in old houses often closed or opened seemingly by themselves due to warped wood or a leaning foundation. She'd heard her father say just the night before that her parents' bedroom door did the same thing. It was no surprise that her closet door behaved that way too.

Her laughter died as she ran out of breath. Alison wiped sweat from her forehead, then opened her closet door again. After firmly pushing a book in front of the door to prop it open, she was able to reach up to the shelf and pull down her scarf. Her gloves followed quickly, falling to the floor with a soft plop. She'd been right; they had been on the top shelf all along.

At least I'm not going totally crazy, she thought. She scooped up the gloves and quickly headed out of her room. Just as she reached her bedroom door, she thought she heard a soft rustle behind her, almost as if somebody wearing a long skirt or coat had walked up to stand beside her. This time she didn't pause to investigate. Telling herself it was the curtains blowing in the afternoon breeze, she ran out of the room and down the stairs. She didn't even want to contemplate the fact that the first time her closet door had closed, it had latched, but the second time, when she was safely outside, it had only swung shut, not closed. She simply willed herself to ignore it as she ran through the house and out the back door.

Randy was waiting for her by the hayrack, a big grin on his face. “I've saved the perfect hay bale for your induction into farm work. Come on over here.”

Alison smiled back, forcing herself to forget the fear she'd felt in the house. It seemed ridiculous to her now as she stood in the hot sunny barnyard. She stood close to the rectangular bale lying innocently on the ground. “What do I do first?” she asked, then added, “Besides winking my eye and spitting on my hands.”

Randy was already leaning over to demonstrate how to lift the bale, but he paused to look at her and grin again. “Just curl your fingers around the twine here, one hand for each piece of twine, and lift.”

Alison noticed for the first time that there were not one but two pieces of brown string circling each hay bale. Twine Randy had called it. “Okay.” She squatted down, bending her legs and leaning into the bale a bit as she'd seen Randy do. The fingers inside her winter gloves clutched at the twine, unfamiliar with its rough feel or the sharp hay that poked her skin despite the leather protection.

“Now lift,” Randy instructed.

Alison stood up and lifted the bale. “Oh my gosh!” she exclaimed in shock when she realized how heavy the bale was. Then she tottered backwards, regained her balance, rammed her knee into the length of hay, and the bale promptly exploded out of its twine encasing and cascaded across her shoes. The sudden loss of her heavy load made her lose her balance again. Alison toppled over and landed on her backside in the dust. “That's heavy!” she yelled up at Randy.

Randy guffawed loudly, the noise ringing across the empty barnyard. Finally he offered his hand to help her to her feet. “Welcome to the farm, Alison!” he warmly hollered.

She grinned back at him. “Thanks!” she hollered back. Then she threw hay in his hair.

Alison knew she'd been an accepted addition to the Martin grain and livestock farm.

* * *

The newfound sense of acceptance lasted only until school the next day. Alison was at her locker, collecting her books for Mr. Peterson's math class when Marie appeared beside her. Alison smiled. “Hi, Marie!” She hoped that Marie would explain why she and Jessica had missed her at lunch the day before. She also hoped that Marie would offer plans to try to meet again today.

Marie stood silently for a moment and stared at Alison. She clutched her history book to her chest and glanced once down the hall in either direction before leaning in close to Alison.

Alison was perplexed by Marie's actions. This looked less and less like a lunch invitation the longer Marie stood there. “Marie, is something wrong?”

“I saw you talking to C.J. Wyngate yesterday at lunch.” The statement was blunt and hardly friendly.

“Yeah,” Alison persisted, “I was saving a table for us when she came up and introduced herself. I guess I missed you and Jessica totally, huh?”

Marie drew in a deep breath, then suddenly blurted, “Look, Alison, you can be friends with whoever you want, but.... I'm not like Jessica. She says we shouldn't say anything, that it's up to you to pick your own friends. But I can't let you just come in here without knowing anything, like I did last year.”

Growing more puzzled by the minute, Alison asked, “What are you talking about?”

“C.J.” Marie said as if that explained everything. Alison could only stare at her blankly. Suddenly she changed her strategy. “Did she say anything about me and Jessica yesterday?”

The blankness began penetrating Alison's mind and she only managed to say, “What do you mean? She seemed nice to me.”

Marie plunged ahead. “She's not so nice, you know. She pretends she is, but... I mean, she'll be real sweety nice to you, like she's your friend, and maybe she'll even say she might invite you over to her house once or twice. But she'll never do it.” Marie shifted her books to her side, then put them back up again, as if they were a shield between her and some unpleasant memory. She continued, her words pouring out faster the more she spoke. “Anytime she saw me talking to somebody else, back when I first came here, she came along right away with some stupid story about how they were really weird or something. Then she would say 'I'll save you a seat at the game Friday night,' or get all nice about what I was wearing. She's just a phony, Alison.”

“She said you and Jessica are the Siamese twins,” Alison informed her before she could think better of it. An unmistakable expression of hurt settled on Marie's face, and she wished she'd learn to think before she spoke. What did it matter what C.J. said about Marie anyway? But the warning bell rang for first hour and Marie was speaking again before she could fix her mistake.

“I guess it's up to you to listen to her or not,” Marie was saying as she began to sidle away from the lockers. “Sorry....” Then she turned and disappeared down the crowded hallway.

What did that mean? Alison puzzled over Marie's words, but didn't understand anything that had just happened. And what was she supposed to do now? Had she jeopardized any friendship she might have had with Jessica and Marie just because she'd talked to C.J. for a few minutes? None of it made any sense.

Alison stood numbly beside her locker, thinking, trying to figure it all out. A minute later when the bell rang for first hour, it still didn't make any more sense than it had before. The only thing she did understand was that she was standing in the empty hall, and once again she was all alone.

Chapter 4

The conversation with Marie set the tone for the rest of that first week of school. Marie and Jessica still spoke to Alison, but only if she spoke to them first. After that moment by her locker, she wasn't inclined to say very much. She said hello to them during P.E., but the games of five-base kickball they were playing didn't give time for much conversation between the two teams they were on. Alison watched them secretly, but the friendly comradery they had shared on Monday was gone. She discovered that C.J. was in her history class, but she didn't say anything to her, either. C.J. was busy talking to her friends anyway and didn't have time for the “new kid.”

Without quite understanding how it happened, on the fourth day of school Alison suddenly found herself branded as the stuck-up girl from St. Louis and thereafter was completely left out of everything going on at the junior high. But by then she was too miserable to care.

The nights she spent alone in her room were almost as bad as school. All night long, through the sleep hazing her mind, she was conscious of strange noises in her room. Bumping and scraping sounds were the most common. They wormed their way into her dreams, leaving her more tired when she woke up in the morning than she had been when she'd gone to bed. At least once every night she jerked awake to stare fearfully at each corner of her big bedroom, certain she'd heard a person breathing loudly in the otherwise quiet late summer nights. Perhaps it was the wind, she told herself, a breeze sighing through all the trees surrounding the house. Or maybe these noises were perfectly normal for old houses that needed to settle a lot. Whatever the cause, Alison never did get very much sleep.

By Friday she was sick from unhappiness and exhaustion. Her stomach ached and did turns and swirls as she slowly made her way down the staircase before breakfast. The smell of baking pancakes made her nauseous. She lethargically stared at her glass of milk after she sat down in her chair.

“Alison, you look downright green,” her mom commented as she placed Sara's pancakes on the table.

“I'm just tired,” Alison said and tried to perk up. She knew her parents would start poking and prodding her if she acted sick. School almost seemed better than staying at home with two doctors. They made being sick a serious business.

Sara said, “You're just faking it so you don't have to go to school today.”

“I am not,” Alison immediately argued.

“I don't know why you don't like school. I'm already used to it here,” Sara gloated.

Alison glared at her sister. “That's because people talk to you.” She gloomily took a bite of pancake, then washed it down her dry throat with a large gulp of milk.

“I'm just a nicer person than you are,” Sara explained.

Their dad looked at Alison in concern. “Haven't you made any friends yet?”

“It's only been a week,” her mom admonished him. “Give her some time.”

Alison took a deep breath to still her turning stomach. “No one will talk to me,” she complained quietly, still staring at her milk.

“You don't talk to any of them either, do you?” Sara demanded.

Alison hesitated. “Well...no.”

“Why not?” her mom gently asked.

Alison sighed, suddenly angry. “I don't know, Mom. They just don't seem nice to me. C.J. Wyngate won't talk to me now and neither will Marie and Jessica. Everybody thinks I'm too stuck-up.” Tears started to drip down her nose and it was getting harder to talk through her tightening throat. “I don't like that school. And I don't like this house. It's too noisy in my room and I never get any sleep because this house does too much settling every night. I don't want to live on a farm anymore. I just want to go home.” She stared at the stunned faces of her family through teary eyes.

Sara broke the silence. “Al, only you could make a simple thing like moving so difficult.”

“You're the one who's difficult, Sara!” Alison yelled.

Their father interrupted calmly. “All right, all right, don't yell, Alison. Sara, keep your comments to yourself.” Then he looked squarely at Alison. “Are you still hearing noises?”

Alison grabbed a napkin from the blue wooden holder sitting in the middle of the table. She blew her nose and wiped her cheeks while nodding in the direction of her father. “Shufflings and bumps in my room.”

Her mom said, “I should think you would be glad to get away from that noisy street we used to live on.”

“I'd rather be there than here,” she said softly into her napkin.

“Are you sure you're not dreaming the noises?” Sara asked in fake concern.

Alison's answer was drowned out by a knocking on the back door. Her dad jumped up to let Randy into the bright sunny kitchen and everybody immediately forgot Alison's problems as they greeted the farm manager. His warm nut-brown eyes smiled at them all, but not even Randy's smiles could make Alison feel better this morning. The minute the greetings were over, her parents began talking about farm matters with him, so Alison quietly slipped from the kitchen and climbed the stairs to her room to get her homework.

“Nobody listens to me,” she complained to her empty room. “My own family ignores me just like everybody in school.” A strange, bitter taste clung to the roof of her mouth as she pulled her math and history books off her bookshelf. She didn't feel like going back downstairs where she knew her dad and Randy would be talking about the barn, hay, cows, and a lot of other things she just didn't understand. She was tired of feeling lost all of the time.

Alison sank to the floor next to her bookshelf. The breeze coming through her wide-open window felt good on her hot face. The pale curtain fluttered playfully against her arm and Alison grabbed at it listlessly, gazing out the window at the trees. Why did it have to be so sunny and cheerful outside? And why did the wind keep blowing all the time? She didn't remember ever having so much wind in St. Louis.

A small noise by the door made her jerk her head around. All the sounds she'd been hearing at night made her jumpy, but it was only one of the barn cats peeking into the room. It must have snuck in when Randy came through the back door. The cat, a full-grown tabby, cautiously poked one colorful paw into the room, then another, before it carefully began sniffing the carpet and the doorframe. Alison almost wanted to smile when the cat scuttled sideways through the door to the center of the room. There she stood, eying everything as Alison watched her. She experimentally stretched in a spot of sunlight and gave a little meow in Alison's general direction.

Alison glanced at her clock near the bed and realized she had to hurry to catch the bus. She was about to collect her books and stand up when a tuft of warm air brushed past her cheek and the curtain twisted crazily. Just as suddenly the cat arched her back and jumped up, her ears layed flat against her head. It stared at the curtain and spat in Alison's direction, then leaped out the door in one quick movement. Alison could hear its feet thudding in fright all the way down the stairs.

A pucker settled on her forehead. Alison didn't know much about cats, so she wasn't sure if that was typical behavior or not. The only cats she'd ever been acquainted with were Diane's two house cats. But those were pets, and had been declawed and never went outside. The barn cat was wild. It didn't behave at all like Alison thought cats should.

Alison didn't have the energy to puzzle over it for too long. She stood sadly in the center of the room, her gaze locked on the door where the cat had disappeared. She wished she could just run out of the room like that cat. She would run down the stairs, out the door, and across the fields to the woods she could see from her window. Because of school she hadn't even had a chance to explore the farm at all. But she wasn't as free as that cat and knew if she didn't hurry she'd miss the bus.

She quickly glanced at her reflection in the antique mirror before going downstairs. Her eyes were red from crying and her nose looked twice as big under her puffy eyes. Her hair was limp from the heat, hanging in strings down her back, and her pants were sticking to her legs. She wished she could wear shorts to school, but it was against school rules. Maybe she would be cooler if she put her hair into a ponytail....

Alison blinked. Did the door just swing shut by itself or was she dreaming? She expected her closet door to frequently shut by itself now, but not the bedroom door. Goosebumps rose on her arms. They felt clammy in the hot air.

Alison blinked again. A quiet click told her the door was completely shut now, and a quick, furtive look confirmed her suspicions.

A chill settled over the room. Alison had to force herself to stay calm and not give in to the feeling of terror that suddenly washed over her. It would look pretty silly to everybody downstairs if she said she was scared on a bright sunny morning. She took a shivery breath and tried to put her attention back onto her image in the mirror, but all she saw was her wide eyes that grew wider when she realized what was standing behind her.

The sky blue eyes of a young girl stared calmly back at her through the mirror.

Alison whirled around and took a step back at the same time. She dropped her books, then tripped over her old tennis shoes lying on the floor and almost fell. She caught herself on the edge of the gold and white bedpost. The iron felt cold and solid under her hand, and she clung to it.

“Be careful! Don't fall! Are you all right? Please don't run away! I won't hurt you!” the girl said in a rush. Her voice sounded funny, all tinkling, as if it came from far away. She put her hand out in a gesture to help Alison, but she didn't quite touch her.

Alison stared at the girl. The girl stared back. She wore a red, flowered dress that fell below her knees and was covered by a heavy white apron. Tight, black shoes buttoned up past her ankles. Her long hair was pulled back into a single braid. She was short too, shorter than Alison, and had a little pug nose. A fringe of black bangs lay on her forehead, giving her face a quaint china doll look. Her skin was pale even in the strong morning sunlight.

Alison's scalp prickled in fear. The silence stretched out to engulf the room, filling the space between her and the strange looking girl. Finally Alison couldn't stand it anymore and asked, “Who are you? How did you get in here?” Her voice cracked on each accusing word.

“Well, I came through the door,” the girl began, hesitantly gesturing at the door. “My name is Amelia. My mama always said it was a nice grown-up name.” She smiled, then let the smile fade. “But I don't feel very grown up.” She looked around the room at the bed and the dresser before turning back to Alison. “You're Alison, yes?”

Alison's eyes narrowed as her heart continued to race. She had to take three quick gulping breaths before she could ask, “How do you know that?”

“I know all sorts of things,” the girl said with a nod of her head, the braid swishing back and forth across her shoulders. “I know that you have a sister named Sara who's not very nice at all. And I know your daddy's a doctor and your mama is making coffee in the kitchen downstairs.”

Alison swallowed hard. “How do you know all this?” she demanded, still clinging to the bedpost.

Amelia sighed. “I don't think I'm supposed to tell, but I've been watching you since you came to live here. It's easy to hide when nobody knows to look for me. And I'm so glad somebody's finally living here again. I was getting so lonely.”

“Me too,” Alison whispered to herself, surprised that others were as lonely as she was. Oddly, she hadn't considered that anybody was unhappy except her. It made her feel less alone somehow.

Yet this didn't explain this girl's unexpected appearance in her bedroom. “Are you Randy's daughter?” she asked, suddenly seized by the notion, though Randy had never said a word about having any children of his own. Then, remembering a movie she had seen last Christmas about an angel helping people who were unhappy, she blurted, “Are you an angel or something?” A feeling of stupidity washed over her next; how could this girl possibly be an angel if she wasn't dead....

Her eyes grew wide and she sucked air through a throat that had gone suddenly dry. She was unable to move for several heartbeats. It was as if her feet had grown into the floor, and her mouth hung open in a soundless oh. She blinked twice, feeling as if everything was in slow motion. A powerful urge to get out of her bedroom assaulted her, leaving her shaking. Her hand went up protectively. “I don't know who... I'm not... you should go ....” Alison babbled incoherently. She forced herself to let go of the bed post and moved one step closer to the bedroom door.

“No, please don't go!” Amelia reached her hand out to stop Alison.

Alison stopped, but not because Amelia grabbed her. Amelia's hand passed right through her arm. A strange, cold sensation traveled up Alison's arm to her shoulder, then disappeared. Alison could only stare dumbly at her arm.

“Oh, no,” Amelia said and quickly withdrew her hand. Her face grew paler than it already was. She jumped forward. “Please don't tell anybody that I'm here!” she wailed suddenly. “I'll be sent away and I have to stay here! I have to! I need your help. I'm Amelia Aldin and I need your help! Please, Alison!”

Amelia took a step forward. Alison tried to take a step back. She felt lightheaded and almost numb from the terror building inside her. She had to get away, she couldn't let that hand touch her again. Her heart thudded and her breath was loud in her ears. Amelia took another desperate step forward. Alison felt the wall at her back; she couldn't move. She pressed herself into the wall, scrabbling at it as if she might break through if only she tried hard enough. She pushed, but the wall held her, stopping her escape. When Amelia reached out again, Alison pressed her entire body tight against the flat surface. She turned into the wall, closed her eyes against the girl, and screamed.

The bedroom door flew open. Alison screamed again. Then she felt reassuring hands on her shoulders and a familiar voice saying, “Alison! Al, stop screaming. What's wrong?”

Alison bit her lip to stop the next scream from escaping her mouth, and she opened her eyes. She was crouched on the floor, her knees up to her chin, sobbing. “Mom! she yelled. She grabbed a handful of her mom's white blouse and pointed towards Amelia.

Her mom looked over her shoulder to where Alison pointed. “Alison, what are you doing?”

Slowly her arm lowered again to her side. Alison drew in a deep breath, then blinked, letting the air hiss slowly back out through her clenched teeth.

The girl was gone.

Chapter 5

Alison blinked slowly. She felt dizzy and her legs still shook. She clung to her mom for support and stared at the place Amelia had been standing only a few seconds earlier. She was right there, she thought to herself, but already the thought lacked conviction.

Her mother stooped over her, shutting out the rest of the room. “Alison, are you all right? Are you sick or anything?”

Alison couldn't help but hear the concern in her voice, and she felt a little better. But her eyes wouldn't focus on her mom's face, so she closed them, suddenly too tired to care about anything. “No, Mom. I'm not sick,” she whispered.

Her mom's hand rested on her forehead for a moment. “Well, you're awfully hot. I don't think you should go to school today.” She stood up and smoothed Alison's bangs off her sweaty forehead. “Why don't you lie down for awhile, okay?”

Alison managed to make it to her bed with help and fell onto the flowered bedspread. She should have felt happy about not going to school, but all she felt was a horrible emptiness inside. She watched her mother moving around the room, picking up the books she'd dropped and setting them on her dresser, throwing the tennis shoes into the closet. She kept seeing worried looks cross her mom's usually smiling face and she felt compelled to say, “I'm okay, Mom. Really. I'm okay.”

Suddenly Sara appeared at the door. “The bus is down the road! Hurry up, Alison!” Then she caught sight of Alison lying on the bed and asked, “What's up? Is she sick?”

Alison was too tired to even glare at Sara, but their mom said, “Al's not feeling well. You go on, Sara, but tell your father to bring my medical bag up before you leave. And have a good day at school.”

Sara shrugged, then ran down the stairs. Alison heard the screen door slam dully against its frame. She knew she should tell Mom about seeing the girl, but something held her back. Maybe she was afraid that nobody would believe her. Now, she wasn't even sure she believed herself. She lay for several minutes, her tongue practically stuck to the roof of her mouth, and she didn't say a word.

Then she yawned. She felt so tired. Her legs had finally stopped shaking and her heart rate had returned to normal. All she wanted to do now was fall asleep, but she fought the pleasant sensation for a few more minutes. She heard her dad come in, the portable medical kit in hand.

Alison groaned, knowing that she was in for a complete checkup.

She wasn't disappointed. They took her temperature, felt for any swelling in her glands, looked down her throat and in her ears, listened to her heart through her chest and her back, and finished by tapping on her stomach with two fingers, asking where it hurt.

“It doesn't hurt anywhere. Honest.”

Her dad looked at her skeptically. “Well, beyond having a slight temperature, I can't find anything obviously wrong.”

“I can't either,” her mom said with a puzzled sigh.

Dad paused thoughtfully. “You're sure your head doesn't hurt?” Alison shook her head. “Your throat?”

Alison groaned again. “Nothing hurts, Dad.” She sleepily closed her eyes against the warm sunlight streaming over her bed. She felt her mom's cool hand on her forehead again, then she heard her parents cross the room and go out the door. The door was pulled almost shut, but Alison could hear them talking just outside her room.

Mom spoke first. “I don't know. It was like she collapsed in my arms.”

Her dad must have shrugged, then said, “The only thing wrong with her is a small temperature. But what was the screaming about? We heard it clear out to the barn.”

Mom sighed. “She didn't say. She just pointed at the far wall of her room.”

“Did she see something out the window?”

“I don't know.”

“I'm going to take another look at her.”

“No,” came her mom's quick reply, “let her sleep for awhile. I think she's just tired.”

“Tired? From what?”

They moved down the hall, and Alison lost the last few words of the conversation. She couldn't hold off the sleepiness any longer. She drifted off as the sunlight and leaf shadows blended with the patterns on her spread. Her parents' words echoed in her empty mind as she finally fell asleep.

She woke slowly, feeling wonderfully lazy and relaxed. The sunshine barely slanted through her windows now; she figured it was past lunch. Though she'd had very little food for breakfast, she didn't feel at all hungry. Instead she stared at the tiny sliver of sun still flashing across the high papered ceiling, watching shadows from outside interrupt the sliver's lethargic movement around the room. She was curiously aware of her breathing, which melted quietly into the sound of bird song and other outdoor noises that filtered through the big windows. Breath in, breath out, breath in, breath out. Her heartbeat was slow and even, and she wriggled her toes experimentally against the sun-warmed comforter. Carefully she stretched until every muscle was luxuriously unbent and all the knots were out of her legs and arms. She sighed, feeling better than she had all week, and rolled onto her left side.

Amelia sat on the floor next to her gold and white bed, watching her out of those sky blue eyes. Her arms wrapped around her legs and her chin rested lightly on one knee. Long sleeves, unnoticed before, ended in neat little button cuffs at each wrist. The same white apron covered the dress, and Alison noticed a tiny hole in one black stocking.

Alison took all this in with a quick, terrified glance. The fear flooded over her again. “Stay away from me,” she croaked through her dry throat. It was all she could do to force air into her tight lungs. She sat up and cowered in the farthest corner of the bed. The iron railings bit into her back, but she hardly noticed the pain. She was so paralyzed by her fear that she couldn't even make her mouth work to yell for her mother to come from downstairs.

But nothing happened. Amelia only stared calmly up at Alison. She blinked twice, her long lashes brushing her pale cheeks. She didn't smile, frown, or do anything more than sit and stare. Alison remembered how Amelia's hand had passed through her arm. Her arm suddenly tingled a bit, like it had just fallen asleep. She rubbed it in distraction, not daring to take her eyes off the other girl. She started back, knocking her head on the old papered wall, when Amelia spoke.

“Hello. Are you feeling better?” As before, just a hint of the tinkling sound accompanied her voice.

Alison tried to stay calm. Slowly she forced away the lump of fear that had lodged in her throat. With an effort she managed to get her mind in control again. Once she regained her composure, she was able to think clearly. Thoughts crowded around her mind then, clamoring against each other for attention.

First she answered Amelia's question. “No, I'm not feeling very good,” she said, priding herself on her honesty though her words still broke with uncertainty. “I wish you would leave me alone.” Amelia sat up to squat on her knees, and Alison involuntarily recoiled against the bedframe. She saw something like panic pass across Amelia's blue eyes, and the girl promptly sat back down again. The fact that Amelia appeared to be as scared of her as she was of Amelia helped more of her fear to melt away. She forced herself to relax.

Several quiet moments passed. Neither girl moved or made a sound until finally Amelia said, “I'm very sorry I frightened you. I never meant to do that.” She tentatively sat up again.

Alison considered Amelia's apology. The other girl looked and sounded sincere. After another moment passed and nothing happened, Alison began to feel foolish for cowering against the wall. It was obvious that Amelia wasn't going away, but she no longer appeared so threatening, either. Alison gathered her courage and jerkily disengaged herself from her bedframe. She sat cross-legged on the cool bedspread, then looked at the empty space beside her on the bed. She hesitantly asked, “Um, can you...sit? On the bed?”

Amelia glanced at the bed and a genuine smile played with the corners of her mouth. “Of course I can sit. I'm sitting now, aren't I?” She stood up and moved to the bed, arranging her skirts neatly over her stockinged legs after she'd seated herself.

Alison found herself staring not at Amelia, but at the spot she occupied on the bed. There was no dent in the mattress, and the comforter wasn't the least bit wrinkled, even directly under her. She was so unnerved she had to fight the urge to shrink into the corner again.

“You've been asleep for a long time,” Amelia pointed out.

Alison looked out the window at the sun's late-afternoon slant on the barnyard and sighed, relaxing even more, “I guess I was. I haven't been sleeping very well at night,” she explained.

“Oh,” Amelia said. A pause followed as the two girls studied each other. There was no sound in the room. Amelia broke the silence again. “I guess it's my fault that you were awake at night,” she admitted. “You see, I had to meet you.”

Alison blinked. “What do you mean?”

“Well, I had to meet you,” Amelia repeated. “You're the only one who can help me. I waited for so long that I thought nobody would ever see me again, and when you came I just knew you were the right person to....”

“Wait a minute,” Alison interrupted, unconsciously tucking her hair behind her ear in a nervous gesture. A vague sense of confusion was settling over her once more. “You're going too fast again. Slow down.”

Amelia sighed and bit her lip, a furrow wrinkling her white forehead.

Suddenly Alison asked, “How old are you?”

The abrupt question surprised Amelia out of her thoughtfulness. “I'm twelve years old.”

“I was twelve in August,” Alison blurted.

Another uncomfortable pause broke the conversation.

“I'm glad I finally met you,” Amelia said politely. “I'd much rather talk to you than your sister.”

A warm feeling started in Alison's stomach and the rest of her taut, nervous muscles relaxed. “Really?” she said, a little disbelieving, but still pleased. “Nobody ever wants to talk to me. Thank you.”

Amelia smiled happily. “You're welcome, Alison.” She grinned and played with her hair, chewing contentedly on the unbraided ends.

A bird sang from the old pear tree that stood outside the bedroom window. A light breeze moved the leaves slowly back and forth. The cooler air felt good in the warm room.

The cool breeze prompted Alison to ask, “Aren't you hot in that apron and those long stockings?”

Amelia shook her head. “No, I'm not hot at all, though it's nice of you to ask. But aren't your trousers uncomfortable?”

“My what?” asked Alison, surprised. Amelia pointed at the pants Alison wore. “Oh, my pants. No, I like them.”

“I've never seen a girl in trousers before,” she explained. “My brothers wear them. They look hotter than my dress could ever get.”

“But girls wear pants and jeans all the time,” Alison said, her voice faint in her ears. She suddenly had a burning desire to move beyond all the politeness and get right to the point of figuring out who this girl really was. Although Alison suspected she wasn't going to like what Amelia might say, her desire for the truth was stronger. She took a deep breath to calm her nerves and asked cautiously, “Where are you from, Amelia?” and at the girl's puzzled look, said, “I mean, where is your home?”

Amelia smiled, understanding. “Right here. It's such a nice house now, too. Papa built the second floor right before Grace was born. It's a good thing, too, because there wasn't enough room for all of us and a new baby.”

Alison looked at the ceiling, thinking before she said anything more. “No, I mean where do you live now?”

“I live here,” Amelia answered, puzzled yet calm.

Still cautious, Alison insisted, “But this is where I live now.”

A hint of that panicky fear again crossed Amelia's eyes and Alison hurried to say something comforting. “Well, we won't kick you out yet.” This, of course, did nothing to make Amelia feel better. Her face creased in worry and fear. Alison imagined that Amelia probably looked as scared as she had that morning. She mentally kicked herself for being so clumsy and crude. But all she could do to fix her mistake was exclaim, “That's not what I meant!”

A knock at the door caused both girls to jerk simultaneously in that direction, and Alison jumped off the bed just as the door opened to admit her mom.

“For someone who's sick you're sure making enough noise,” she said in a light, joking voice. Her short blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she wore an old yellowed t-shirt and ratty shorts.

“Mom,” Alison sputtered clumsily. She glanced at Amelia still sitting on the bed.

Her mom moved forward to place a hand on Alison's forehead. “Are you feeling better? You slept for a long time.”

“She can't see me,” Amelia observed while looking in amazement at her mom's shorts.

Alison did not feel amazed, nor did she dare risk another glance at the other girl. She forced herself to focus on her mother. She pulled the hand down and pressed the warm fingers. “I feel much better now,” was all she could think of to say.

“Sara will be home from school pretty soon with your homework. I wanted to warn you before she started making her usual racket. Are you hungry?” She had pulled away from Alison after an affectionate pat on her cooled cheek and was now smoothing the covers on her bed. Amelia still made no impression to indicate where she was sitting, and Alison heard her give a soft giggle.

Should she tell her mom about Amelia, Alison wondered? But what good would it do if her mom couldn't see her? She shot a confused look at Amelia, who only said, “Are you going to tell her? Do you think she'll believe you? She doesn't have to.”

“Huh?” Alison asked, completely confused.

“I said are you hungry?” her mom repeated, smiling as she straightened up from bending over the bed.

Alison considered. “A little, I guess.” She knew it would make her mom happy to do something for her.

“I'll bring you up a sandwich. You slept right through lunch and I didn't want to wake you up just to eat.” She started for the door.

“Are you going to tell her?” Amelia asked again.

Alison hissed, “I don't know yet,” through her teeth.

Her mom stopped at the door, catching Alison muttering to what obviously appeared to be an empty bed. “Are you sure you're feeling all right?”

“Yeah,” Alison quickly assured her. “I'm fine, Mom. You don't have to bring me anything, honest. I can get it myself.”

Her mom smiled fondly at her. “Alison, that's what I'm a mom for. Just don't tell Sara. She might take advantage of me.” She laughed and Alison managed a smile. “I'll be up in a minute.” She left the room, her ponytail swinging.

Alison quietly shut the door behind her mom.

“Why didn't you tell her about me? I'm sitting right here,” Amelia commented immediately.

Alison turned slowly to face Amelia. “What did you mean when you said Mom can't see you because she doesn't have to?” She felt her face become flushed, and some of the earlier apprehension returned as she remembered she still didn't understand anything about this girl.

Amelia shrugged her thin shoulders. “She just doesn't need to meet me.”

Alison cocked her head, ordering her rushing thoughts to calm themselves. “She can't see you because she doesn't need to see you,” she repeated.

“Yes.”

“Or hear you?”

Amelia nodded.

“Or feel you?”

She nodded again.

“But I can see you and hear you.” Alison left off the touching part; her arm felt unpleasant when the thought crossed her mind. “Then I do need to see you?” she asked reluctantly.

Amelia smiled and nodded. Her face lit up with her bright smile, almost like the sun was centered in her blue eyes.

The sunny look about Amelia didn't transfer to Alison. “Why?” Alison asked, and her voice sounded flat, cold, and untrusting even to her ears.

Amelia's smile vanished quickly. The sunniness had disappeared and only a girl sat on the bed again. “Because you needed to,” she answered lamely.

“Why?” Alison asked again, angry this time.

Amelia looked guiltily out the window. “I can't tell you.”

“Tell me anyway,” Alison demanded.

“I can't,” Amelia said stubbornly`.

Alison shrugged, coldhearted. “Then I just won't need you anymore and you can go away.”

The panic Alison expected to see erupted in Amelia's eyes, clouding them to a near hazel color. The emotion spilled out to her cheeks and her skin went so white it became almost blue. A breathy sound tore through the clean summer air as Amelia finally whispered an answer. “You were lonely. And so was I.”

The defiance Alison felt suddenly left as she realized the truth in what Amelia was saying. She was lonely. It wasn't that she just missed seeing Diane and her other friends. She wanted so badly to see something familiar, the school, the old style buildings on the waterfront, the park at the end of the street they had lived on. She could even handle seeing a White Castle hamburger place, though she hated the taste of the small, highly seasoned hamburgers. All the feelings of being misplaced that her nap had dispelled came roaring back in a flood. She had to bite her lip to keep from crying.

Amelia noticed the tears misting Alison's eyes. She said, “I'm sorry, but you made me tell you.” She paused for a breath, almost fighting off her own tears. “But you can look at the bright side,” she suggested.

“What bright side?” Alison mumbled.

“Well, you haven't been by yourself for as long as I have.”

The comment distracted Alison from her own gloomy thoughts to consider the other girl's misfortunes. “How long have you been by yourself, Amelia?”

Amelia ran her tongue against the inside of her cheek as she thought, then finally resorted to ticking events off with her fingers. “Well, after Mama and Papa left our house, the mean people came, then that family with the eight kids... no, they came after that man and his wife named Hill - she was awful young, if you ask me - so then came the big family with all the kids, then the old couple whose name was Martin or something like that. They were hard to understand because they spoke funny words. Their family stayed here for a long time until the old man and his wife left. Now you're here.” She paused to look at Alison out of sad eyes. “They kept leaving. I almost got to meet some of them, especially the last old lady - she listened pretty good - but they always left without me. I decided I better start to work on you right away or you might leave too.”

This long explanation gave Alison plenty of time to swallow her tears and resume her place on the bed. “What work did you start on me?” she asked quietly.

Amelia smiled like sunshine again, surprising Alison at how fast her moods changed. “I moved things or dropped things. Whatever I could think of, I did,” she said brightly.

Suddenly Alison understood as well. It was so obvious that she wondered why she hadn't thought of it before. “You made the noises in the living room that first day!” she exclaimed. Amelia nodded happily. “And you must have made all that noise at night too.” Alison gave Amelia a sharp glance, the kind of look her mother gave when she'd done something wrong. “You should have let me get some sleep, you know. School is bad enough without trying to stay awake in class.”

Amelia hung her head. “I know, but I had to be sure you wouldn't miss me. I had to keep trying, and nighttime is the only time you're sure to be alone. I didn't want to scare you when other people were around. I....”

The sound of footsteps pounding on the stairs told both girls that Sara had come home from school. They had been so intent on their talk that they had completely missed the roar of the school bus and the banging of the front door. They looked at each other, startled. The footsteps now came quickly down the hallway: Sara was heading for Alison's room.

“Quick, vanish!” Alison jumped off the bed.

Amelia jumped up too. “Why? She can't see me.”

“You never know with Sara. Do whatever it is you do, just go!”

The door flew open at Alison's last words and Sara walked in. She dumped some books on Alison's bed, saying, “Here's your homework. Who were you talking to? Yourself?” Her voice was mean and sarcastic. Amelia's face instantly flushed in anger at Sara's tone, surprising Alison so much she forgot to get angry herself. No one, not even Diane, had stood up for her against Sara.

“What do you want, Sara?” Alison asked tiredly. She was too used to being picked on by her sister to get upset about it anymore.

“Just checking up on the faker,” Sara said. “And it was no picnic getting your homework, twerp. Don't expect me to do it again.” Sara's hard voice trailed off and she wandered around Alison's bedroom, maliciously going through the pink and white china doll collection spread out on the dresser, the books on the bookshelf, and even fingering some money Alison kept in a tiny wooden chest beneath one window.

“Do you mind?” Alison grabbed for the chest, hugging her treasures close.

Sara sneered at her. “Take it easy! I was just looking.”

“Well don't!” she demanded.

“Boy, are you touchy!” Sara exclaimed, heading for the door, passing right through Amelia in the process.

Alison's eyes grew wide in horror and even Amelia gave Alison a look of surprise before she vanished right out from under Sara's shoes.

Sara paused, rubbed her arms and grimaced. “Your room is cold even in this heat wave. Everything about you is weird!”

It was Alison's turn to stare at Sara. “Are you okay?”

Sara shook her head again, remembered to replace the unfriendly expression she usually used with Alison and said, “Well, there's your books anyway, twerp.”

“Thanks,” Alison replied, then breathed in relief as soon as Sara slammed the door behind her.

Alison sank weakly to the bed, thinking of Amelia. What was going on with that girl? She went over their recent conversation again, realizing she just didn't understand much of what Amelia had talked about. And what had happened when Sara walked right through Amelia like she wasn't even there? Maybe she never had been there. That made Alison consider something else; What if Amelia was a figment of her imagination? What if she'd just created an imaginary friend?

Alison groaned and slapped her hands to her cheeks. Only she would make friends with a girl nobody else could see!

Chapter 6

Alison stood in front of the television, remote control in hand, and continued to flip quickly through the channels. She looked at the TV in disgust, but forced herself to stay calm. Maybe if she kept it up long enough, she might find something worth watching.

After flipping through the entire range of channels once more, she gave up. There was nothing on, period. She had only found three stations that came in clearly enough to see the picture, and all three showed reruns of cartoons. She hated cartoons. They were too predictable, the characters were always falling off cliffs and being smashed by cars, and besides, she had seen them all. Reading a book was much better entertainment than watching fluffy cats and dogs die over and over again.

Alison sighed. She didn't know how she was going to survive in a house without cable. Worse than that prospect, she didn't know how she was going to survive living with Sara in a house without cable. Sara was a notorious TV hog. When she wasn't talking on the phone, she was watching mindless TV.

Her mom hurried into the living room then, interrupting her thoughts.

“Alison, have you seen my keys?” she asked while hastily pushing aside the pillows and cushions on the couch to look underneath them. She didn't stop to replace anything before she moved on to the chairs.

“No, I don't think so,” Alison said. “Have you looked next to the back door? Dad put up those key hooks the other day....”

“That's right!” Her mom hurried back into the hall, heading for the kitchen and the back door leading to the porch.

Alison followed. “Mom?” she asked, trying to arrest her mom's attention for a moment. “Are we going to get cable?”

Her mom laughed. “No, I don't think so. Wyngate doesn't even have cable, and if they did, they sure wouldn't run the lines all the way out here. We're stuck with the local channels for now.”

Alison grimaced. “But nothing comes in very good at all. Everything's all snowy.”

“The antenna on the roof probably needs adjusting, that's all. We can ask your dad and Randy to take a look at it today.”

There was an antenna on the roof? Alison hadn't even noticed.

They reached the back door before she could ask more about the antenna. They both looked to the wall. Hanging on evenly spaced hooks beside the door were the car keys. Her mom grabbed them with a sigh of relief. “Found them. It's a good thing your dad is so organized, Alison, or I would be up the river without a boat.”

Alison smiled. “Without a paddle, Mom. It's up the river without a paddle,” she told her. It always amused her when her parents tried to talk in slang. They never quite got it right.

“Oh, stop making fun of me,” her mom said with a laugh, cheerful now that she'd found her keys. “I'm off to the clinic. Since I missed yesterday, there's a lot of work for me to catch up on. But your dad and Randy are both here, so if you start feeling sick again, just call them.”

“I'm fine, Mom,” she insisted with a roll of her eyes. “Don't worry.”

“I'm a doctor -- I'm supposed to worry.” Her mom grinned. “I'll see you this afternoon.”

Alison stopped her before she could run through the door. “Hey, Mom, will you talk to dad about fixing the antenna?”

“Getting bored?” her mom guessed. She smiled. “Sure. I'll say something about it before I leave. Now goodbye! Do your homework!”

Alison groaned at the reminder about her homework, but she dutifully said, “Bye, Mom.” A minute later she heard the car crunch on the gravel driveway, and knew her mom was gone.

She sighed in the sudden quiet. She felt all that open space of the empty house descend on her, like a blanket thrown over her shoulders. It was relaxing until she starting thinking about what she could do with her day; she saw the long Saturday stretched out in front of her, as empty as the house.

She sighed heavily. Alison decided she might as well start on her homework. There was no use putting it off; there certainly wasn't anything to watch on TV. She returned the TV remote to the living room and headed upstairs.

She made it as far as her bedroom door before she hesitated.

What if Amelia was in there, waiting for her? Alison had tried not to think about the girl she'd met the day before, but it was hard. Though she hadn't appeared since yesterday, Alison half expected Amelia to pop up without warning every time she turned around.

At the same time, Alison had to wonder if she had hallucinated her entire meeting with Amelia. She had never hallucinated before, but she supposed there was a first time for everything. She had certainly been unhappy and sick enough to do it.

But she couldn't go on being afraid to walk into her own bedroom, either. Alison took a deep breath, then cautiously poked her head through the open bedroom door.

The room was empty.

Alison leaned against the doorjamb and breathed in relief.

Then she laughed at herself. She was being so dumb! The sun was shining, her room was cool and inviting, and naturally it was empty. Amelia didn't exist. That was all there was to it. It made so much sense now, a day later and after her first good night's sleep all week. Alison laughed again.

Sara suddenly opened her bedroom door and stepped into the hallway. Alison jerked at the noise and jumped around, certain it was Amelia, and nervous if it was.

Sara wrinkled her nose at Alison. “Boy, are you ever jumpy,” she accused.

Alison put a hand over her pounding heart and grinned. Sara was right; she was jumpy in spite of her attempts to convince herself not to be. “You just scared me, that's all,” she said. Then she noticed Sara's clothes. She was dressed in her best denim shorts and newest shirt. “Where are you going?”

“Gina called and we're all going out for ice-cream in Shelby.” Sara headed for the stairs without bothering to tell her goodbye.

“Does Dad know where you're going?” Alison called after her.

Sara paused at the top of the stairs to give Alison a withering glance. “Of course he does. Do you think I'm a moron or something? And mind your own business, twerp,” she added scathingly.

Sara ran down the stairs. The front screen door slammed as she left the house.

The quiet engulfed Alison once more. A breeze sighed passed her, and she glanced into her room again, still expecting to see something. The windows were open, and the curtains fluttered lazily against the screens, but nothing else moved. Alison looked closely into all the corners, and even pulled her closet door open for a quick scrutiny, but her room remained empty. She was alone.

Alison sighed. Though she was glad that she didn't have to deal with any sudden visitors, real or imagined, she was disappointed. If Amelia didn't visit, she would probably be alone all day; she felt as if she'd been alone for a long time.

With another sigh, this one of resignation, she turned to her bookshelf. She pulled her math and science textbooks off the shelf, grabbed a notebook, and was preparing to throw herself across the bed when Amelia suddenly materialized right in front of her.

“Hi!” Amelia exuberantly greeted her.

It gave Alison such a start that she dropped her books on her bare foot and jumped back. Her heart was thumping too hard to notice the pain in her toes. “Don't do that!” she yelled, breathing in big gulps of fresh air, trying to calm her heart rate.

Amelia was immediately concerned. Her hand flew to her mouth. “Did I frighten you? Oh, Alison, I'm sorry! Here, sit down.” Amelia didn't reach out to help her to the bed, but she backed away to leave her enough room to make it on her own. Her hands twisted helplessly in the apron covering her dress.

Alison sank down on the soft mattress. Her heart continued to thump painfully in her chest. She briefly wondered if she would be able to call her dad if she had a heart attack. She doubted it.

Amelia pushed her face close to Alison's. “Are you feeling better? I'm so sorry! I promise I won't do it again. Maybe you should lie down. Alison?” She was so upset that she ran all her words together, aggravating the distant tinkling sound, making her speech even more difficult to understand. “Alison?”

“I'm all right,” Alison assured her as her strength returned. “You just scared me. Give me a minute.” She rested on the bed and concentrated on breathing.

Amelia stood quietly, giving her a chance to recover. A minute later she started again. “Are you sure you'll be all right? Should I try to call someone? Do you need some water?”

Suddenly the situation seemed very funny. Alison was having a juvenile heart seizure and the only person available to help couldn't even touch her. She laughed. “Will you stop it? You sound like my parents. I have enough doctors worrying me to death already!”

Amelia still looked uncertain. “You are sure?”

Alison nodded. “Yes. Now stop fussing!” To demonstrate her recovery, she grabbed a pillow and tossed it playfully at Amelia.

The pillow naturally passed right through the girl.

Alison's eyes widened in shock and astonishment. Her mouth fell open. Just for a moment, she had forgotten that Amelia wasn't.... She forced a halt to her thoughts. “Oh, I'm sorry! Did I hurt you?” she said.

Amelia's eyes were as wide as Alison's. But she quickly dissolved into laughter. “You didn't hurt me any more than I hurt you. It's just that I didn't expect you to do that!” She laughed some more. “Do it again!”

“What?” Alison asked in further surprise.

“The pillow - is it a game?” Amelia questioned. “Oh, let's play a game!”

Alison shook her head, confused. “You can't... I mean, how can you play anything without... but, you can't touch anything!” she finally managed to say. “Can you?”

Amelia bit her lip, her excitement stalled for the moment. “That depends.”

“On what?”

“On what you mean by touching.”

Alison didn't understand. “Huh?”

“I'll show you.” Amelia stood up straight and said, “Hit me with the pillow.”

Now it was Alison's turn to look uncertain.

“Please,” Amelia persuaded.

Alison shrugged. “Okay.” She grabbed the pillow by the end of the pillowcase and carefully swung it at Amelia. She prepared to brace herself when it passed through her again.

But this time the pillow made a soft thud as it struck Amelia's side.

Amelia laughed again at the expression on Alison's face. “You look so funny!” she said. “But I told you; it depends.”

Alison had to remind herself to shut her mouth before she could ask, “How did you do that?”

Amelia grinned. “It's easy. I just thought about it, and it happened.” At Alison's increased puzzlement, she continued her explanation. “I use my mind. I thought about touching the pillow, and I did. See.”

The pillow suddenly lifted out of Alison's hands and puffed her in the face.

“Ah!” Alison squealed, and held her hands away from the pillowcase, as if they were in danger of being burned. The pillow floated in the air for just a second before it fell to her bed.

Alison jumped back, her eyes wide, her mouth hanging open again like a dead fish.

Amelia moaned, “Oh, I did it again! I frightened you! I'm sorry!” She could only hold her hands up to her pale face and look apologetically at Alison.

Alison's surprise and fright turned slowly but steadily into more laughter. She spluttered, “That was... I was so surprised! Do it again!”

The pillow obligingly jumped off the bed and whacked Alison in the side of her head. She laughed, but had enough control to retaliate. Alison grabbed the pillow, wrestling with it, laughing harder and harder. She managed to hit Amelia one more time before they both collapsed in a fit of giggles.

Amelia abruptly stopped giggling, her merriment cut short by her sudden intake of breath. “I almost forgot to tell you... it's why I'm here!” She turned serious, forgetting all about the pillow fight. “Alison, your sister, Sara, was in your room today. I saw her going through your things.”

Alison stopped laughing. She never thought to question why Amelia was watching her room. She thought only of Sara. An unpleasant sense of helplessness twisted through her as she sat up straight. “She went through my things?” She quickly scanned her room. Everything seemed to be just the way she'd left them. “What things?”

“Your box.” Amelia pointed to the tiny chest sitting beneath one of the windows.

In a flash Alison realized what had happened. Sara had rifled through the same box just the day before. She'd seen the money Alison had hidden there, money just waiting to be 'borrowed' for an impromptu trip to the Dairy Queen in Shelby.

“My allowance!” she wailed, and with a sinking feeling, leaped for the box.

Sure enough, all her money was gone.

Her helplessness burst into a hot flood of anger. Sara was such a... such a...! She wanted to curse, to wrap her tongue around a word that might take away some of the frustration and hurt, but she knew that it wouldn't make her feel any better in the end. Next she considered throwing the box at the wall, and only the worry that she might break her box stopped her.

Instead, she stomped around her room and ground her teeth while tears threatened at the corners of her eyes. “Sara's always doing stuff like this,” she said. “Going through my things, taking what she wants.... It was only five dollars, but it was mine!” Alison snapped the lid back on the box, but banging a lid was a poor expression for repressed rage.

“Can't you report this to your parents?” Amelia innocently asked.

The comment interrupted the surge of anger. Alison snorted a laugh. “Report it? Tell Mom and Dad what a criminal she is? Sara would love that!” she said, unable to keep the sarcasm out of her voice.

Amelia hesitantly pointed out, “But she will be punished for stealing from you.”

Alison nodded. “Sure, Mom and Dad will give her a lecture, then ground her for a week. They might not let her watch TV, though that's not much of a punishment around here,” she added with a twinge of ironic humor.

“I don't understand,” Amelia persisted.

Alison sank onto the bed again. The anger drained out of her as she comprehended the uselessness of her situation. She explained it to Amelia. “If I tell, Sara will get into trouble for a week or so, but then she'll spend the rest of the year making my life miserable because I finked on her.”

Amelia's forehead wrinkled. “Finked?” she asked.

Distracted, Alison smiled. Maybe Amelia had as much trouble with slang as her parents did. “I mean, if I told on her. She'd never let me forget it. She would do awful things to me; I would end up giving her my money just to make her stop.”

“So you can't... fink?”

Alison shook her head. “Definitely not.”

Amelia sank to the bed beside Alison. “Then we will have to think of something else,” she said, as if getting even with Sara were simple.

“It isn't that easy,” Alison protested. “Trust me; I've tried.” She tossed the box to her bed in dejection. “There's nothing we can do.”

Suddenly Amelia's face brightened. She turned towards Alison. “Yes, there is,” she quietly stated.

Alison glanced at her. Amelia's blue eyes had narrowed to calculating slits and taken on a coldness that hadn't been there before. “What?”

“Alison, I think I need to show you more about how I move things around.” At Alison's obvious bewilderment, she added, “In Sara's room, of course.”

A smile tugged at one corner of Alison's lips. “What do you mean?” she asked.

Amelia casually shrugged and pulled her braid over one shoulder so she could chew on the loose ends. “Well, I need to practice, and this is the perfect opportunity to tell Sara that you want your money back.” She looked at Alison, her face beginning to shine with excitement. “And I know the perfect way to tell her. In her room, of course,” she repeated.

“Of course,” Alison said slowly while her mind grappled with the suggestion. They could ransack Sara's room, leave a ransom note for her allowance amidst the destruction, and she would be able to truthfully claim that she hadn't done anything... it was too good to pass up. It was a stroke of genius. The whole idea terrified her.

She had never considered doing anything so outlandishly brave and stupid. She had always tried to lay low and stay safe where Sara was concerned. The fact that Amelia had even made such a suggestion increased Alison's admiration of her. The fact that she appeared more than willing to do it amazed her even more. The depth of such purposeful meanness chilled her. But not too much.

Alison looked at the empty box laying on the bed, and a smile erupted across her face. Revenge really could be sweet.

“Let me show you where her room is,” she suggested.

Both girls jumped to their feet, smiling in devious anticipation. They left the room at a run.

Chapter 7

Alison pushed shut the door to her room and opened all the windows as wide as she could. One stuck halfway up, and no matter how hard she pulled, the window refused to budge. She grimaced at the warped window sill. “We've lived here a month and it's still hot! If this heat wave goes on much longer, I think I'll sweat to death!” she complained over her shoulder.

Amelia materialized next to the bed as Alison spoke, catching only her last few words. “Is it hot?” she asked teasingly, obviously noticing Alison's sweat-streaked face and hair. “I haven't noticed.”

Alison grinned and pulled a pair of faded shorts out of a drawer in her dresser. “The weather never bothers you,” she said, then quickly turned on her radio, filling the room with metallic guitar music. “There, now we can talk.”

Amelia grimaced. “Your music is awful! There's no pretty melody and the words don't make any sense!”

“But Mom won't think I'm talking to myself if the radio's on.” Alison peeled her purple pants off her sweaty legs and changed to shorts while Amelia examined the radio. She wasn't entirely sure what her mom would think if she discovered Alison talking to thin air. She wasn't sure she wanted to find out, either. She just knew she had to be careful around Amelia.

“The music isn't in this little box?” Amelia asked, pointing at the radio sitting on the small table beside the bed.

“I told you. The radio picks up the waves from the radio tower in Iowa City. There's just a bunch of wires in the box.” Alison flopped down on her bed, causing a pile of her text books to fall to the floor with an undignified thump. The books reminded her of school. “I hate school!” she groaned into her pillow.

Amelia quickly turned her attention to Alison, a sympathetic expression on her face. “Oh, what happened today?” she asked.

Alison sat up, suddenly angry. “This morning Brad threw a rock at me when I got off the bus! I can't believe him! He's awful!” She glared at Amelia, her anger growing. “I should have thrown it back!”

“Maybe you shouldn't ignore him so much. Mama told me once that boys do stupid things like throw rocks because they like you.”

“Ugh! I hope he doesn't like me!” Horrified, Alison wrinkled her nose in disgust. “No, ignoring him is the best thing to do,” she said.

“Didn't the bus operator do anything to Brad?” Amelia asked. It was another of her innocent questions.

“No!” Alison laughed then. She could always be sure that Amelia would make her laugh. “He's too busy trying to control all the rowdy kids on the bus to worry about anybody off the bus. He just sits behind that huge steering wheel, looking mean, and all the dust from inside the bus collects on those dirty white t-shirts he always wears.”

“T-shirts!” Amelia scoffed and sat at Alison's feet. “Your people wear such strange clothes! At least this driver doesn't wear trousers that show his legs!” She eyed Alison's shorts disdainfully.

Alison gave a tolerant smile to Amelia and responded, “Well, at least my clothes aren't as awfully old fashioned as yours.”

“That's not funny!” Amelia retorted. “You keep your clothes, I'll keep mine, and we'll both be happy!”

“Agreed!” Alison giggled. “I feel like we should shake hands, but we can't.”

“We will someday.” Amelia assured her. “Have you been practicing?”

Alison sighed and her smile faded. It took a lot of concentration and practice to touch things with her mind, she knew. Amelia practiced constantly. Since that Saturday afternoon when Amelia had 'practiced' on the things in Sara's room, Alison had been trying to do it as well. But she had yet to successfully move anything she didn't touch first. It would be years before she could duplicate the mess Amelia had made of Sara's room!

Alison said, “Whenever I get bored in class, I practice a little. I tried moving the chalkboard eraser in English today, but it didn't work.” She smiled again and laced her fingers around one bare knee. “So instead I thought up all the nasty things I might do to those snobby 'town' kids if I could move things with my mind.”

Amelia laughed and bounced on the bed, though there wasn't anybody bouncing for the lack of movement the bed was making in response. “Like what kind of things? Tell me!”

Alison grinned. “Oh, like tripping them in the hall, throwing their books off their desks, slamming their lockers shut when they're not looking....” She paused. “It sounds dumb now. I guess I'm not very creative now that I think about it. But I can't help myself! I just let my imagination run wild, and once I almost laughed out loud while Mr. Rogers, the gym coach, was lecturing about volleyball rules.” She rested her chin thoughtfully on her knee. “It's fun but it doesn't help me make any friends.”

Amelia looked at her confidently. “That's okay. You've got me instead!”

Alison brightened. “Right! I don't need any snobby town kids for my friends!” She thought briefly about Marie, who was not one of the town kids, but she went on before she could think too hard about that. “You know, Amelia,” she continued, “I never thought I'd be saying I'm glad to be a country person since just a little while ago I lived in a big city.”

“I'm glad you're here,” Amelia smiled shyly, then brushed her dark bangs out of her eyes. “So, what should we do today?”

They thought silently for a moment before Alison said, “Let's explore outside some more. Its too hot in here.”

Amelia jumped up. “We can play by the windmill,” she suggested.

Alison straightened up too. “The windmill?”

“On top of the hill.”

“I've never seen it.”

Amelia headed for the door. “Well, let's go! We can have an adventure!” She grinned widely, as if exploring the farm was the most exciting thing they could do.

Her excitement was infectious. “Okay!” Alison readily agreed.

The air was cooler outside the house, and a soft breeze lazily lifted Alison's hair off her shoulders as they skipped across the back yard. Alison ducked under the clothes line strung between two poles, then tugged at a branch hanging low from the oak tree. “This tree would be great for a swing,” she commented thoughtfully.

“I suppose,” Amelia said, but she wasn't looking at the tree.

Alison followed her gaze across the little drive to a rusting tin shed. “What are you looking at?”

Amelia sighed. “There used to be a barn there. I played in it all the time with my brothers. The loft wasn't nearly as nice as the one in the big barn,” she pointed to the large white barn where Randy had stacked the hay, “but it was a great place to play Midnight.”

Alison stared at the shed. “Well, it's just a shed now. I think that's where Randy keeps the tractors.”

“Randy?” Amelia's lip curled distastefully as she said his name. “Is he that handyman who works for your father?”

Alison was confused at Amelia's sudden change in tone. Where before she had sounded wistful, now she sounded... unpleasant. But she answered, “Yes. He knows much more about farming than my parents do. If it weren't for Randy, we could never keep the farm running. At least, that's what I heard Mom say.” Alison grinned, remembering her first experience with Randy and hay bales.

“He's a common laborer,” Amelia replied dismissively. “He has nothing of his own. If he did, he wouldn't have to work for your father.”

Alison's confusion was growing. “He owns things, like his house up the hill. Besides, what difference does that make?”

“Then why doesn't he work his own farm?” she challenged, her tone spiteful.

This conversation was making less sense all the time. Alison's forehead puckered. Why did Amelia even care about Randy anyway? “I think he really enjoys working for my parents. And I like him,” she added defensively.

Amelia turned to Alison, a cold look in her blue eyes. “If you like him so much, why don't you go play with him instead,” she retorted, her lips drawn in a tight, thin line.

Alison stared at her in stunned disbelief. “What?” she spluttered, astounded by Amelia's outburst.

“I said,” Amelia replied, her mouth even tighter, “why don't you....”

Suddenly Alison understood; Amelia was jealous. She was jealous of Randy! The idea was so ludicrous that Alison burst out laughing.

Amelia's face darkened further. “Don't you dare laugh at me, Alison, or you'll regret it! I am not a funny thing to....”

Alison interrupted again, this time to say, “But Randy's an adult!”

It was Amelia's turn to stare stupidly. “What?”

Alison grinned. “He's old! He's an adult! He's too busy working to play with me!”

Amelia still looked unconvinced. She hesitantly argued, “But you said you liked him.”

“Of course I like him.” Alison rolled her eyes and put her hands on her hips. “Everybody likes him - he's nice. Don't be a dope.”

“I'm not a... a dope,” Amelia protested, but her voice lacked the vicious tones from before. Now she simply sounded unsure of herself. “Are you sure? You still like me?”

Alison gave her a puzzled look. “Of course I like you!” she exclaimed. “I can like somebody else and still like you at the same time. After all, I like my parents, don't I?”

“Well....” Amelia considered for a moment. Then she smiled, and the gesture lit up her entire face. “You're right! I am being a... what did you call me?”

“A dope,” Alison replied.

“Yes, a dope. Well, come on! Let's go to the windmill!” With that, she turned quickly and skipped away.

The argument was over at Amelia's announcement, as if the entire incident had been completely erased. Alison felt too stunned to do anything more than stand still for a moment while the wind blew her hair across her eyes. When Amelia called for her to hurry, she slowly walked across the barnyard, still trying to understand what had just happened. It had been their first fight, but at the same time, the conversation meant more than a simple fight; Alison just wasn't sure what.

Still puzzling, she struggled to climb over a wire fence, then had to wade through a field of tall brown grass before she reached Amelia and the windmill.

Alison had never seen a windmill before. She looked up to squint at the supporting bars that flashed dully in the afternoon sunlight. Together she and Amelia watched the steel paddles slowly turning in the wind. The rusty gears squeaked, making a dreadful chorus with some red-winged blackbirds sitting on the fence near the hayfield.

It was peaceful up there on the hill, alone except for the birds and the wind. Alison breathed deeply. She smelled the dry, gritty smell of dust that the wind whipped up from the nearby gravel road. Something new and unfamiliar mixed with the dust and a moment passed before she realized that a soft odor was drifting from the tall grass that surrounded the base of the windmill. The grass was constantly in motion, each stem swaying against its neighbors, murmuring quietly in cadence to the squeaks of the windmill.

After several minutes of listening to the squeaking, Alison asked, “What's it for?”

Amelia was as mesmerized by the sound as Alison, and she took a moment to withdraw her attention from the surroundings. “What's what for?”

“The windmill. What does it do?”

Amelia laughed pleasantly. “You mean you don't know?” Alison shook her head. “It pumps waters.”

“For what -- the cows?”

Amelia laughed again, the tinkling of her voice blending with the calls from the birds. “No, for the house.” At Alison's surprised expression, she explained, “All the water is pumped from the windmill down the hill to the house and barn. See, you can see the pump housing right there.” She pointed to a metal contraption inside the windmill's base.

“You mean when I turn on the faucet in the bathroom, the water comes from way up here?” Alison exclaimed.

“Well, where else would water come from? The river? That's over a mile away!” Amelia's tinkling sound was barely discernible anymore to Alison's accustomed ears.

“Too bad,” Alison sighed and plopped down among the tall grasses surrounding the windmill. “It's so hot, a jump in the river would feel great!”

Amelia shook her head. “No, it's too muddy.” She sat next to Alison, her skirt spread primly over her knees. “One day I went for a swim in the river. I remember that Papa was pitching hay in the field, and when he saw me walking home, all covered in mud, he grabbed me right up and dunked me in the windmill tank. He didn't want Mama to see me so dirty. Of course, she couldn't understand why there was so much dirt in the water for the next few days!” She laughed again, and Alison joined in.

“What do you mean by molding hay?” Alison asked when they had calmed down.

Amelia pointed a finger at Alison and wagged it back and forth, smiling. “I told you, Alison, it's called pitching hay, not molding. And when Papa milked the cows every morning, Mama and I strained the milk through a thin cloth spread over a bucket. If you don't strain the milk, it tastes pretty bad,” she explained, wrinkling her nose. “Mama made me drink it unstrained if I didn't get out of bed fast enough to help with chores before school. I wasn't lazy very often!”

“No, probably not,” Alison agreed. She was having a hard time picturing the activities that Amelia had mentioned. Instead she leaned back on her elbows to have a better view of the windmill's paddles turning drowsily in the wind. Alison sighed again as the breeze brushed through her hair and teased the grass into rustling waves. The smell of dusty grass was almost overpowering so close to the ground.

Amelia broke the silence again. “Are you sure you like me as much as that handyperson?” she beseeched hesitantly.

Alison glanced at her. Amelia looked lost and pale in the wide open field. As she gazed at her, Alison felt suddenly tired. “Yes.”

Amelia smiled. “Good.” She sighed contentedly.

Far above their heads, the windmill creaked and groaned in the hot September wind.

* * *

Alison woke up the next morning shivering under the thin covers that had seemed just right the night before. The sun was shining, but the air felt crisp, less oppressive. It felt so good not to be sticky in the morning that Alison forgot to be gloomy as she was on every other school day. She jumped out of bed and ran down the hall to the bathroom, beating Sara only by a second.

“Hurry up, twerp! I don't have all day!” Sara yelled, then she pounded on the cracked wooden bathroom door.

Sara could yell all she wanted, but ever since she and Amelia had destroyed her bedroom, Sara had left Alison alone. She had even payed back the money she had borrowed. It was almost as if Sara had a new, grudging respect for her little sister. Still, new respect didn't stop her from banging even harder and calling insults through the door.

Alison ignored her as she slowly washed up and brushed her hair. She watched the water drip out of the faucet and thought of the old, creaky windmill sitting alone on the hilltop behind the barn. It still amazed her to think that the water running over her fingers right now was coming from that windmill! Alison smiled into the mirror, then turned off the water and opened the door. Sara glared at her, but Alison sweetly smiled back.

Since the air was cooler, Alison decided to wear the new jeans her mom had bought a month ago, right after they'd moved to the farm. She couldn't believe they had lived in Iowa for an entire month already. It seemed shorter but also longer at the same time. Unwilling to let any sour thoughts ruin her good mood, Alison shook her head cheerfully and struggled to pull the jeans over her hips. She had not worn jeans much in St. Louis, and they felt heavy on her legs. But all the other kids at school wore them, so she supposed she would get used to the feel of them eventually.

Breakfast was already on the table when Alison reached the kitchen. She sat down next to her mom to eat her bacon and eggs.

“I see you're wearing your new jeans,” her dad said. He stood at the stove, frying more bacon in a pan spattering with grease.

Alison nodded. “It's cold enough now.” She buttered some toast before dipping it in the runny yolk of her fried egg, just like her dad always did. “Good stuff,” she said.

He laughed. “You're cheery today. What happened; did you finally teach those boys in your math class to mind their own business?”

Alison shook her head. “No, they're too dumb to be worth teaching anything to. I just ignore them.”

“Good for you!” her mom exclaimed.

Dad brought a glass of orange juice to the table just as Sara clomped down the stairs in her old tennis shoes. “And how is your life going?” he asked his eldest daughter.

“Just dandy,” she answered sarcastically. “I'm late because twerp here took forever in the bathroom.” Sara glared at Alison.

Alison glared back. “I was thinking about the water,” she said, chewing slowly on a piece of bacon, trying to suck every last bit of salt out of it before swallowing.

Sara gave her a funny look. “You were thinking about the water?”

Alison nodded. “It comes from all the way up the hill, at the windmill. I was thinking how far it has to go before it gets to the house.”

“Boy, you get dumber every day,” Sara said scathingly. She began eating her own breakfast. “The water comes from the well in the back yard.”

“It does not!” Alison protested, dropping her fork.

“Does too. Right, Dad?”

He looked at Alison closely as he sat down to eat, his eyes showing his amusement. “The well in the back yard was dug long before you were born.” He swatted Alison's nose with his finger. “Where'd you get such an idea?”

Alison looked at her father, confused. Had Amelia lied to her? “I just thought....”

Mom interrupted to tell her, “If you want to know about the farm, Randy's the one to ask, you know.”

“That's right,” her dad added. “He knows practically everything about the entire area surrounding Wyngate.”

Her mom looked at her watch then and stood up. “I've got to hurry. I have an early appointment today. Old Mr. Rush. He insists that he come in right after he does chores, so I'll be sure to hear his bad heartbeat, since it only happens after he exercises.” She laughed. “I'll see you tonight.”

“Wait a minute and you can drop me off at the hospital,” her dad called, then jumped up, a piece of bacon still in his hand. They headed for the door in a rush.

Alison was thinking so hard about the water and the windmill that she almost forgot to wave goodbye. Ask Randy, her mother had said. She would have to wait until after school to do it. As she cleaned up the breakfast dishes and ran up stairs to grab her books, she wondered what else Amelia had told her that was wrong.

Alison hurried home after school that afternoon, intent on finding Randy before she talked to Amelia. If she thought about her purpose too closely, she felt guilty for checking up on Amelia's stories, but she had to know. She didn't even stop at the porch to drop off her backpack. She shouldered it, heading past the house to the barnyard, listening for any clue that might tell her where he was. After a moment of relative quiet, she heard some pounding from the tin shed where the farmhand kept the tractors. She headed for the red and white building.

The pounding grew louder, turning into clanging as she peeked around the open sliding door to peer into the shed's gloominess. She still couldn't see Randy, but she could hear him muttering softly to himself. She followed his voice until she saw his leg sticking awkwardly around a large shovel-like piece of machinery resting on the ground before the tractor. The shovel reminded her of the big yellow buckets that sat beside the highway during road construction in St. Louis. The only differences were this shovel didn't have teeth to dig into the ground and it was much bigger. The sharp edge that scooped in front was encased with dirt and hay and yellow kernels of corn, all glued together by something that smelled like it came from the cattle lot. Alison did her best not to breath too deeply while she stood next to it, waiting for Randy to notice her. But he sat on the ground, a hammer in hand, and stared at one corner of the huge shovel, thoughtfully rubbing his chin.

Alison finally dropped her pack beside the iron tool box and plopped down next to him. “What are you doing?”

He was staring so hard at the shovel that he jerked and dropped his hammer when she spoke. “Alison!” he said in his soft, melodic accent. “I didn't see you come in.”

She nodded. “Well, what's wrong with it?”

He retrieved his hammer and gestured at the shovel. “With the scoop? Oh, I'm just trying to get another year of life out of this piece of...uh...junk.”

“Why don't you just buy a new one?” Alison asked.

Randy laughed. “I'd love to, but the budget won't let me. So here I am, trying to decide if I should fix this arm up with a new set of bolts or just give in and weld the whole mess together.”

“I'll help,” she offered and sat up on her knees, the gravel on the floor biting through her new jeans.

He said, “Okay. Here, you hold this,” and he handed her a wrench. “Keep this bolt from turning while I tighten the nut.” Randy grunted as he wriggled his arm around metal to reach the indicated nut.

They were quiet as they worked, Randy speaking only when he wanted her to move the wrench to another bolt further down the arm of the scoop.

Finally Randy sat back and ruffled his hair. “Something tells me this isn't going to work.”

Alison mimicked his pensive posture, wondering what it was he thought wouldn't work.

“The only thing we can do is hook her up and see if she holds.” He jumped up to fiddle with some knobs and levers on the tractor, and Alison stood back. The ugly orange tractor was too complicated for her. She felt better watching Randy from a safe distance.

Now was the chance she'd been waiting for to ask him about the water. After the embarrassment during breakfast, she felt slightly foolish asking where the water for the house came from. Maybe she should work up to the subject and talk about something else first. She took a deep breath, the smell of oil, dirt, and gasoline stinging her nostrils. “Do you ever go up the hill, Randy?” she began, nonchalantly scraping the dirt with the toe of her shoe.

“Which hill might that be, Miss Alison?” he asked cheerfully as he rummaged around in the tool box.

She pointed in the general direction. “The big one, way behind the house. The one beside the hayfield.”

“Ah, near the old windmill.”

“That's right.”

“Yeah, sure I go up there. Every time I mow hay. I love to listen to that windmill screech in the wind. It's kind of eerie.”

Alison nodded. “Does that windmill... work anymore?” She didn't want to be as ignorantly exuberant as she had been at breakfast. She hesitated before each word. “I mean, do we get water from it?”

He smiled fondly at her, his brown eyes kind, but he didn't laugh. “No, I'm afraid not. The well behind the house pumps the water now.”

Alison sighed.

“It was a grand thing in its day, though,” he said and looked off dreamily into the murky corner of the shed.

“You remember it working?” Alison said in surprise. “Dad said it was from a long time ago, and you don't look that old.”

He laughed then. “No, but my own dad remembered using it when he was younger than you. He told me about it.”

“Oh.”

“Who told you that we still use windmills out here in Iowa? Some of those silly kids at school?” His rough hand socked her on the shoulder in a teasing way.

Alison smiled at him. “Yeah. That's who it was. Just a kid.” She sighed quietly at her lie, but she didn't feel up to telling Randy about Amelia. Especially not after the things Amelia had said about him. “But it was used a long time ago, right?” she went on, determined to discover the truth.

“Yep. Only way to pump water until they invented the electric pump.” He was too busy grinning at her and he lost his hold on the screwdriver in his hand. It bounced off the tire guard with a clang.

Hmm, Alison thought to herself. Maybe she should ask Randy about the other things Amelia talked about while she had the chance. “Randy, is there such a thing as straining milk over a bucket? And what's pitching hay?” She had a vision in her mind of a farmer throwing a ball of hay to his animals.

“Pitching hay means to make a stack of hay somewhere.”

“Like we do with the bales?”

“No,” he explained, “I mean loose hay. The kind that's not packed up tight and tied with twine. They used to make huge stacks in the fields or in the yards. When it rained, the inside of the stack stayed dry and sweet, just what the cows like best.” He stopped fiddling with the tractor levers to look at her in puzzlement. “Have you been doing research lately?” She shook her head. “A project for school?”

Alison smiled at him. “Just curious,” she said.

“Well, I guess so.” He smiled again. Randy was always smiling.

Alison was quiet as Randy finished working on the tractor. He replaced his tools in the tool box and even shut the lid. “You never want to lose your tools,” he told her. Then he climbed into the tractor seat and reached for the start button.

“Randy?” Alison's voice stopped his hand just as it reached the black button under the hood. “Would you say that you would pitch hay and strain milk at the same time as the windmill worked? I mean,” she corrected herself, “during the same century?”

He nodded. “Late in the last century up through half of this one.”

She looked quizzically at him, his finger still poised at the left of the tractor hood. “Why don't you use a key?” she asked suddenly.

He shrugged. “It's an old tractor. It doesn't need a key. Well, here we go.” He pushed the button. The tractor shuddered, then the engine turned over and caught. Smelly black smoke shot from the stack, as well as a few other places, and Randy gave it a little gas. The noise in the tin shed was terrifying, but Alison stayed to see if the scoop worked. He pulled a lever, and the scoop slowly lifted into the air. “Hey, how about that!” he yelled at her over the noise. She grinned and applauded.

But then a popping sound came from the side of the scoop they'd been working on, and before they knew it the scoop was listing strangely to one side, held up only by one of its two arms. Randy carefully released a lever to lower the scoop back to the ground. He shut off the tractor, and Alison's ears rang in the sudden silence.

“Well,” said Randy, “so much for that.” He glanced at her. “Think we can weld it?”

Alison shrugged her left shoulder and raised her eyebrows. “I don't know. What's weld?”

Alison left Randy to his welding, which he said meant he was going to heat the metal pieces on the arm of the scoop until they melted together. It was a strange idea to her, and she left the tractor shed when he lowered the protective welding mask over his face. He looked like an alien from one of the movies all the kids at school talked about. She wanted to watch, but also wanted to think about everything he'd told her. She grabbed her pack from the floor and wandered out of the shed, not heading in any specific direction. She walked along the gravel drive in the barnyard, turning circles in the cool afternoon air and watching the birds jumping from branch to branch in the trees high above her.

The wind was blowing again, and the leaves swirled around with the birds. Alison sighed. Everything Randy and she had talked about came from the past. Amelia spoke of the same things like they were common, everyday occurrences. So that at last convinced Alison that Amelia, by visiting her in this century, was not where she belonged. So how did Amelia get to this place if she didn't belong here? Did she travel through time, like in that book Alison had read last year, The Time Machine? Or was she always in Alison's time period? But if that were the case, where did she go when she disappeared?

The questions whirled in her mind like a storm. Not knowing who Amelia was scared her a little. She considered the possibility that her friend was a ghost, but she wasn't like any ghost she'd ever heard of before. Ghosts walked hallways at night and appeared as shadowy forms on stairways. Alison had never heard of a ghost that appeared during the day and had normal conversations with any person it wanted to. But Amelia wasn't real, Alison knew, because she never made dents on the bed when she sat on it, and her hand passed through anything she tried to touch. On the other hand, Alison knew that she had a friend like nobody else. In St. Louis she'd had to share Diane with all sorts of other people. But Amelia was all hers. There was no one Alison had to share her with.

It wasn't as if Alison had anybody else she could talk to and do things with. Maybe she shouldn't worry so much about where Amelia came from. Maybe it was better to just enjoy the fact that she wasn't so lonely anymore.

Alison sighed as the wind ruffled through the bangs that drooped on her forehead. A sad squeal carried faintly to her on the wind. She turned and looked up the hill. She could just make out the shape of the windmill as its blades turned slowly, singing an eerie song to itself.

Chapter 8

The weather cooled off in late September, marking a definite end to summer. Alison's mom bought some additional jeans for her, and she found herself wearing tennis shoes more often than she ever had in St. Louis. She was sad when she looked in her closet at all the skirts, pants, and blouses that she'd worn last year, but she had outgrown most of them now anyway. She tried her best to get used to her new jeans, and didn't look in her closet very often.

The trees turned color overnight. Alison was amazed at how many types of trees there were in the Wyngate area. The leaves changed to so many different shades that they began to clash with each other. Colored leaves greeted everybody in all directions. One Sunday afternoon the entire family piled into the car for a drive to the bluff overlooking the Mississippi River Valley. They sat on the hood of the car to look at the acres of trees spread out below them. The vast Mississippi was overshadowed by a river of fiery color that bordered the water for miles in both directions. Alison collected every different colored leaf she could find from the ground to take back for Amelia to see.

The wind was always cool now, though the sun was still warm that afternoon. Alison noticed that there were more clouds in the sky now than when they first moved to the farm. She watched the wind blow them around as if they were paper. When they blotted out the sun, the crisp October air made her shiver.

Her father pointed out other signs of the approaching fall on the way home. The stalks of corn in the fields had turned brown and brittle, and when the wind blew through them, they made a sound like rain falling softly on a tin roof. Cornfields ringed the house on all sides except the front, and Alison could watch the stalks turn even browner from her bedroom windows. Sometimes she walked through the fields with Randy as he felt the toughness of the ears of corn, checking to see if they were ready for harvesting. The dry, brittle leaves twisted crazily with the wind as Randy and Alison walked through the rows and rows of corn.

Amelia grew more and more excited each time Alison went out to the fields with Randy. “Harvest time is the best time of the year,” Amelia explained. “People come to help in the picking, and we have husking bees and parties and dances.... Oh, it's great fun!” Her braid swished across her back, and she hugged her knees to her chest in anticipation.

Alison felt some of Amelia's excitement catching hold of her too, but she didn't want to get carried away so fast. Her brows puckered. “Dad hasn't said anything about parties. Neither has Randy.” She had learned not to completely rely on everything Amelia said as the truth. Not that Alison thought Amelia was lying, but after the windmill experience, she was more cautious of what she accepted right away. “Maybe they forgot,” she said hesitantly.

It was Saturday afternoon. Since her mom had taken Sara shopping in Iowa City and Dad was helping Randy get the tractors ready for the harvest, they had the house to themselves. The two girls sat on the floor in Alison's room, their legs crossed, Alison's homework spread out between them. Alison picked at a loose thread in the worn carpet. “Mom said she might get me some new carpet this winter.”

Amelia was surprised. “What's wrong with this one?”

Alison's nose wrinkled. “It's ugly,” she stated vehemently. “And look, it's tearing.” She pulled at the string she'd been playing with. “It has stains all over it. You can't tell me you like it?”

“Well, it's been here a long time,” she said. “And it's a light shade so it keeps the room brighter.”

Alison looked around at the yellow walls. “I guess you're right. I never thought of it that way.” Yet she couldn't help curling her lip as she looked at the carpet again. “But it wouldn't hurt to have something a little... newer than this.” Her thoughts turned to her old bedroom. “I had the nicest blue shag carpet in my room in St. Louis. The curtains on the windows matched and it was so pretty!” She glanced up. “This room is a lot bigger, though. I bet I could fit two beds in here, easy.”

Amelia rested her chin on her hand and rocked casually back and forth. “Where is St. Louis?”

Alison pulled her English book to her lap. “I showed you on the map twice already.”

“I know. But it seems such a strange place that I keep thinking it should be far away from here, like in another country.”

Alison laughed. “I suppose it sounds as funny as some of the things you talk about sound to me.”

“Well, I know what a car is now,” Amelia said, letting her fear about cars show on her face.

Alison rolled on her back, laughing loudly. She had pestered Amelia for weeks to go for a ride in the old blue farm car when she went with Randy to check the fields. She had almost convinced her to join them yesterday. Amelia was so scared her face went as white as snow. The minute the car chugged to life as Randy turned the key, Amelia had given an emphatic shake of her head and promptly disappeared from the back seat, her eyes squeezed tightly shut against the blue monstrosity. Alison had started laughing and could not stop her giggles until she and Randy returned to the barnyard. He asked Alison twice what she thought was so funny, but she couldn't tell him; it only made her laugh harder. He decided she just had a giggle fit and laughed with her.

Alison rolled onto her stomach and mentioned, “The car just sounds horrible. If you'd only opened your eyes and looked, it wouldn't have been so scary.”

Amelia shook her head. “No. Those cars travel much too fast for me.”

Alison laughed again. “That old car doesn't do anything but crawl along the road! Lots of other cars passed us, and they were going faster.” She scratched some cuts on her arms made yesterday by the sharp-edged corn leaves. “I got a letter from Diane today,” she added casually.

Amelia's face drew tight and she looked bored. She always looked like that when Alison talked about Diane. But she still politely asked, “Oh? What did she say?”

Alison wasn't fooled by her polite tones. “Just that she went to the zoo last weekend and they are going to Six Flags this weekend,” she said.

“That's the funny park you told me about, right?”

“Not a funny park, an amusement park. Yeah. It's pretty neat, but I've been there before. I don't want to go again.” She flipped through a notebook to a clean page and began copying out the sentences for her English assignment, underlining all the adjectives once and the adverbs twice.

They were silent while Alison worked. Amelia sat quietly and looked at one of Alison's scrapbooks. She came to a picture of Alison with shorter hair, standing next to a girl with red hear exactly the same length. The girl had freckles across her nose and very fair skin. This was Diane, she knew. “Do you miss her very much?” she asked softly.

Alison looked up, noticing what picture Amelia had paused at. She thought a long time before saying in surprise, “No, I guess not. In her letters she just keeps talking about doing the same things we've always done.” She took a thoughtful breath. “They don't seem as exciting as they used to be.”

“Like going to the funny park?”

Alison groaned at Amelia's wrong choice of words, but nodded.

Amelia smiled slowly. “You like it better here now?”

“Well, “ Alison hesitated. “I guess I do.” She smiled at her English book. “But I still don't like school very much. I talk to Marie sometimes at lunch. But all the town kids are too snobby and country kids think I'm just some stupid city girl.”

“Oh, what do you need them for? You can talk to me,” suggested Amelia.

“True.”

“What about that girl with the letter name...?”

“C.J. Wyngate?”

“That's her. Doesn't she talk to you?”

Alison shrugged. “Sometimes she says hi. But she's too busy with her friends to say much to me. She always acts like she has better things to do.”

Amelia chewed on the end of her braid, thinking. “Maybe she's not truly a nice person. Maybe she only pretends to be nice because her great-grandpa, or whatever he was, built the town. Maybe,” and her voice lowered a little, “just maybe she's acting nice so nobody will say what they really think about her behind her back.”

“Amelia Aldin!” Alison yelled, surprised. But then she remembered Marie's warning about C.J. that second day of school, and wondered at Amelia's comment. She sat up and her notebook fell to the carpet. “What gave you that idea?”

Amelia shrugged. “She reminds me of another girl I know.” Amelia tugged on the hair at the end of her braid. “Her last name is Wyngate too. I used to play with her.” Then she brightened. “But I have you to play with now. So I hardly ever see Jane anymore.”

“Oh.” Alison didn't remember ever hearing Amelia talk about playing with other girls, though it made sense that she did. After all, Alison reasoned, she'd had friends before meeting Amelia. It was only realistic that Amelia had other friends besides her, even if she rarely talked about them.

This reminded Alison of something else Amelia never talked about. She decided to bring it up now. “Where do you go when you... you know... vanish?”

Amelia thought for a moment. “It's sort of hard to explain.” She twirled her braid.

“Is it a place?”

Amelia considered that. “Well, I guess it is. It's sort of like a school.”

This surprised Alison. “Do you study there?”

“Not really. We talk a lot.”

“Who's we?”

“The other people there, silly.” Amelia rolled her eyes. “Don't other people go to your school?” she asked rhetorically.

“Do you sleep there?”

“Do you sleep here?”

Alison smiled. “Oh, quit being cute.”

“But I am cute.” Amelia giggled, and the pillow on Alison's bed suddenly flew through the air to puff on Alison's head.

“Ugh! You know that's not fair!” she cried, but laughed too, and they dropped the subject in favor of running downstairs to see if any ice cream was left in the freezer, or “icebox” as Amelia insisted on calling it. By the time Alison was finishing the last drips from the bottom of her bowl, loud music began pouring under the door from down the hall.

“Sara!” they both said aloud, and Alison groaned. Sara and her mom had returned from shopping sooner than expected.

The noise made it impossible for Alison to do her homework indoors, so she loaded her books into her backpack, told her mom she was going to study in the woods, grabbed several cookies from the Tupperware container sitting on the table, and headed out the back door, Amelia right behind her. Her mom called that she had too many cookies, but Alison pretended not to hear her and raced Amelia passed the barn, then out of sight.

The next week Alison's dad stayed home from the clinic to help Randy pick the corn. Alison wanted to stay home and watch too, but he said she had to go to school.

“You can watch all you want when you get home,” he promised.

Alison waited impatiently for Monday to get over so she could go home, but the day dragged on without end. She considered asking some of the other farm kids if they knew anything about picking corn. She almost did say something to Marie at lunch, but she didn't want to make herself look stupid in front of everybody else sitting at the table, so she decided to stay quiet. Instead she pretended to be absorbed in her book while beside her Marie and Jessica concentrated on the game of Spades they were playing with two boys Alison didn't know.

She asked herself several times during the day why she was so interested in the farm, and was unable to come up with an answer. She only knew that she liked the trees and the fields and Randy. She was even getting used to the smell of the cows in the barn. She guessed Amelia's stories were making her excited, too. When the long, monotonous day finally ended, and the bus stopped beside the Martin's mailbox, Alison was ready to explode with impatience.

Alison jumped off the bus and ran up the driveway in front of Sara. She didn't even stop to see if there was any mail for her. She yanked the screen door open, then let it bang shut behind her as she ran into the kitchen where her mother was chopping up carrots for dinner. “Mom! Are they out picking?” She dropped her pack on the table with a thud.

Her mom laughed. “Not yet, Alison. They're having some problems with the combine. If you want, you can take some iced tea out to them in the tractor shed. I'm sure they're ready for a break by now. Tell them I'll be out in a minute to help.”

They weren't picking yet? Alison stood rooted to the floor next to the counter. Disappointment washed over her in a flood. She felt stupid for having looked forward to a job as mundane as picking corn, but she couldn't help feeling like she'd been cheated. “But what are they waiting for?” she wailed.

Her mom put the carrot slices in a bowl and ran cold water over them. “Well, something's wrong with the combine. A belt broke or something along those lines. Mr. Aker is working on it as fast as he can.”

Alison paused in her disappointed thoughts. “Who's Mr. Aker?”

“Oh, you haven't met him yet, have you?” She pulled four plastic glasses down from the cupboard over the counter and began filling them with ice cubes. “He lives in that house down the road with all the pine trees in front of it.” She poured tea from the brown pitcher into the glasses and set them on an old tv tray that had lost its legs many years ago.

“You mean the house with the big “beware of dog” sign by the driveway?”

“That's the one.”

“Why is he here?” Alison reached for the tray of glasses.

“It's his combine,” her mom explained.

Alison looked at her mom in confusion. “What's a combine?”

She laughed. “Go out and see,” was all she would say.

Alison carefully carried the tray out the back door and across the gravel drive to the tractor shed. She noticed the two tractors parked outside the shed in the grass. The scoop lay a little distance away. She wondered what was going on, but she had to concentrate on not spilling the tea too much to wonder very hard. The sound of the men's voices reached her before she saw any of them. When she entered the shed, she understood why she couldn't see anybody.

A huge machine occupied the space where both tractors usually sat. Alison looked up and up... she could hardly see the top of that big, ugly combine. It used to be red but now most of the paint had worn off, showing the bare metal underneath. What looked like a storage area or wagon sat on top of the machine near the back, and a long tube hung beside it, like it was waiting to dump something into the tank. It reminded her of the arm of water towers for the old-time trains that had to stop to put water in the engines. Right in front of the tank area was the enclosed cab where the driver sat. Alison could just see the steering wheel through the dirty windows. A solid step ladder led up to the cab door, but she didn't feel inclined to climb all the way up to see what else was way up there in the air. Sharp, teeth-like fixtures jutted from the front of the machine. Alison heard grumbling voices coming from behind the teeth.

“Dad?” she yelled, still unable to see anybody.

“Alison?” he called. “Is that you?”

“Where are you?” The tray tipped dangerously in her hands and she had to concentrate hard to keep from dumping it.

He came around from behind the spikes, an oily rag in his hands. “Hi, honey. Hey, is that iced tea? Great! Just what we needed!”

He reached for a glass and Randy appeared, scooting on his back from under the contraption. More oil streaked across his cheek, and he even had a drop or two in his curly hair. The black drops made his gray sideburns look almost white. He smiled, cheerful as always, and brushed the dirt off his shirt and jeans. “Hey there, Alison!” Randy winked at her and downed his glass of tea in one great swallow. An older man followed him around the rear of the machine.

Alison handed one of the two remaining glasses to the stranger standing beside her father before taking the last for herself. She set the tray on a pile of boards stacked on the ground a few feet away, then cautiously watched the older man as she drank the cold, sweet tea.

He wore overalls with dark patches at both knees, and what looked like an engineer's cap, though the blue had long since faded to a pasty white. The overalls hid his huge belly, and grisly gray sideburns and a rough, untrimmed beard almost hid his face as well. He had a dry, gravelly voice that grated on Alison's ears when he said thank you for the tea, but he had nice quiet manners, and his pale blue eyes smiled warmly at her.

“What is this?” Alison asked, pointing at the hulking machine with her free hand.

“That's the combine,” her father answered quickly. “That's what picks the corn.”

“If we ever get it running,” Randy joked.

Alison stared at them, confused. “You mean that does all the work?”

Dad nodded. “Come here, I'll explain it to you.” He led her to the front of the machine where the spikes stuck out wickedly towards the tin wall of the shed. “The spikes bend the corn stalks down, and then the machine pulls the ears of corn off the stalks.” He moved further down the combine, pointing at the middle section, near the high cab. “The corn is shelled off the cob, separated from all the chaf, and then it fills the big tank right there.” He pointed at the slanting sides of the empty tank ready beside the arm-like tube. He went to stand behind the combine where a big metal box with no bottom hung about four feet from the ground. “The shelled cobs fly out back here, and these belts here,” he grabbed a sturdy black belt hanging with three others like it and twirled them around, “spread them over the field to help regenerate the soil.”

“What does that tube do?” she asked, pointing.

He explained, “When the tank is full, the corn is emptied through the arm to a wagon brought right to the field.”

Alison stared at the enormous combine, perplexed. “But where are all the people?”

The three men looked at each other, puzzled. “The driver sits in the cab. That's all the people you need to run the combine.”

“But Amelia said we would have parties and husking bees...” Alison stopped, reminding herself too late that she shouldn't talk about the things Amelia told her. She caught herself, but the damage was done.

Randy's puzzled expression deepened when she spoke of Amelia. “Who's Amelia?” he asked. “Is she the one who's been telling you about farming in the past?”

Alison blinked, thinking fast. “Um, yeah, she's a girl at school. She told me that sometimes they have parties when it's harvest time.”

Mr. Aker laughed. “Harvest is certainly a good reason to celebrate.”

Alison smiled disarmingly at Randy, but truthfully she was even more disappointed now than she had been earlier in the kitchen. The parties were what she had secretly been looking forward to. But she tried to keep smiling back to them and asked, “When do you think you can start picking?”

Randy still looked thoughtful as he stared at Alison. She felt like shrinking into the wall, and silently ordered herself never to mention Amelia's name to Randy again. Then his brown eyes warmed and he smiled, restoring the friendly expression he usually wore. “Not today,” he answered her question.

Mr. Aker scratched his beard and chuckled. “Perhaps you would be better off using someone else's machine.” Neither he nor Dad had noticed the look that passed across Randy's face.

“Not on your life,” her father said as he twirled his empty glass in his hands. He left streaks of dirty water all over the outside of the cup and Alison understood why her mom had not used the good crystal glasses. Randy dumped his ice on the ground and handed his glass back to her.

“Do I get to help?” she asked, gesturing at the combine.

Randy looked doubtfully at her. “Well, it's a mighty big combine and you're an awful little girl.”

“I am not,” she protested proudly.

The other two men laughed. “Maybe you can get a ride on it tomorrow,” her father soothed.

“Can I? Please?” Alison figured that if there wasn't going to be any party, then she should at least get to help.

“We'll see,” was all he would say, though he gave her an affectionate hug before turning to the combine again. “But nobody's going to do anything if we don't fix this beast.”

Randy and Mr. Aker returned their attentions to the combine as well, leaving Alison to collect the dirty glasses and the tray by herself. She wandered slowly back to the house, kicking bits of gravel with the toe of her tennis shoe. Well, that was that. She was glad now that she hadn't asked any of the kids at school about picking corn. They would have laughed themselves sick if she'd talked about harvest parties and husking bees!

Alison immediately told Amelia all about the combine, Mr. Aker, and the strange look Randy had given her. She asked, “Has Randy ever seen you?” in an accusatory tone.

Amelia instantly shook her head. “How can he see me, silly? He doesn't even know about me.” Then her eyes narrowed. “What's wrong, are you jealous if he can see me?” she asked in spiteful tones.

“But....”

Amelia sighed impatiently. “Listen, Alison, nobody else has ever seen me or heard me. Nobody but you believes in me enough to see me.”

Alison gave her a puzzled look, “You mean I can see you because I believe in you?” When Amelia didn't answer, she went on. “So do you exist only because I want you to?” Amelia shrugged and played with her braid.

Alison sighed. “Okay, I give up.” Then her face grew worried. “But we have to be careful. What will Randy do if he ever finds out about you?”

Amelia rolled her eyes and picked at one of the buttons on her left shoe. “He won't find out, and if he does, what can he do to me? I didn't know you were such a worrier.”

Alison felt anger begin to rise inside her, but she knew Amelia was only disappointed that the use of a combine took all the fun out of harvest time, and that fighting with her would not solve anything. She decided to let the subject of Randy drop and instead said, “I still don't quite understand why I can see you because I need to. Were you here before I needed to?”

Amelia nodded. “I told you about the Hills and the family with the eight kids, didn't I?”

“They all lived here before my great-grandparents,” Alison said, remembering what Amelia had said about them that day they'd met.

“Right,” Amelia said.

“So you're not just created by my imagination,” Alison said softly, talking more to herself than to her friend seated on the floor beside her bed. “If you were just my imagination, you wouldn't know all about the farm and those other people who lived here.” She shook her head, confused. “But what about Randy...?”

Amelia scowled. “Will you forget about Randy? I don't want to talk about him. Don't think so much, Alison.” She jumped to her feet and ruffled through her bangs with her fingers. “Let's go out to the barn and look for some kittens.”

Chastised, Alison let the subject drop. She groaned, “We never find any. Aren't cats supposed to have kittens in the spring?”

“You never know when you'll find kittens. We had five at Christmas one year. Come on!” Amelia grinned, her blue eyes sparkling in the autumn sunshine. She flew to the door and it opened at her wish.

Alison groaned again, but rolled off the bed to follow her, crying, “Wait for me!”

Chapter 9

“Try harder!” Amelia ordered.

“I am trying!” Alison insisted. “It makes my head hurt.”

“Just a little more. Concentrate!”

“I am!” If she concentrated any more, Alison knew she would bite right through her tongue held clenched between her front teeth.

“Can you feel it?”

Alison screwed her eyes shut and waved the air lightly with the outstretched fingers of her right hand. Her fingertips felt cold, like an ice cube had brushed across them, but gradually they warmed as something solid wrapped securely around them. The solid object suddenly turned into the firmness of flesh, and Alison could feel the distinction between the fingers of Amelia's right hand.

“Wait!” she breathed softly, then yelled, “I can feel it! I feel your hand!” Her eyes popped open, and in her excitement Alison stopped concentrating. Amelia's fingers lost their solidity and without warning, they slid through Alison's hand as they had during so many past attempts, leaving only the familiar icy coldness behind.

Alison took a deep breath, because she had forgotten to breath earlier, and looked at Amelia in amazement.

“We did it!” Amelia yelled. Her blue eyes danced merrily in the fading sunlight.

Alison jumped up and down, her feet making marks in the soft ground, her brown hair flying wildly across her eyes. Her fingers tingled with Amelia's touch, but she ignored them in the excitement of their sudden success. She reached down to scoop up a handful of leaves and tossed them into the air. “Yay!” she hollered in excitement.

In contrast to Alison's exuberant actions, the leaves floated serenely back to the ground. Except for Alison's happy squealing, quiet reigned in the woods of the east pasture. Golden oak leaves from the old tree just up the hill fell silently, swaying in a natural rhythm as they drifted to the ground. The breezy, dry air felt good after so many rainy, bone chilling days in a row.

It had rained for two days after Alison met Mr. Aker and his combine, leaving the roads, yards, and fields a sea of mud. Randy had to wear knee-high rubber boots when he fed the cows in the barn lot. Big, ugly brown splotches of mud covered the car. Though the great combine was fixed by Tuesday afternoon, the fields were too wet to take such a heavy machine into them. The combine was sure to get mired in mud up to the axles before they finished even one round. So Randy twiddled his thumbs, waiting for the ground to dry. Alison twiddled her thumbs and did her homework. Nobody was very happy.

Once it stopped raining, Alison and Amelia took long walks together in the afternoons, wandering aimlessly down old cow paths in the wooded pastures, picking handfuls of pussy willows and rushes. They threw sticks into the clear, cold water of the creek dividing the Martin's land from their neighbor's, the Johnson's, and watched yellow-gold leaves float from the tree branches high above their heads.

But on this sunny Friday afternoon, they had gone down to the pasture to get away from Sara's prying eyes, and to be alone so they could practice. Finally, after working hard for over an hour, they had succeeded at last.

“It was only for a minute,” Alison said, a bit disheartened after the initial thrill wore off.

“But you did it. The hard part is over,” Amelia encouraged. “It'll be easier now, you'll see.” She walked with Alison to a fairly dry, rotting tree stump where Alison sat down. “How do you feel?”

Now that the event was over, Alison felt the strain of so much concentration all at once. Her head hurt, and her skin felt sticky with sweat, though it was a cool fifty-four degrees. “Kind of sick,” she admitted.

Amelia nodded. “You know, I think I had to work as hard as you. I'm tired too.” She sat next to Alison on the jagged stump.

“I'm hot.” Alison unzipped her blue and white flowered jacket, but Amelia stopped her from taking it off.

“My mama always says that Fall is the best time to catch a cold, because you get hot, but the air's not very warm. So you better leave your coat on.”

Alison kept it on, though she rebelliously left it unzipped. “I don't understand why you don't need a coat or anything.”

Amelia shrugged and remained quiet for a few minutes, letting the breeze cool Alison. The wind also brought the sounds of cows mooing from further down the pasture, and a few larks still braved the cool nights to sing from the hayfield near the house. They watched a flock of geese fly by above them, their 'v' formation wavering slightly as they changed direction to land on Johnson's pond. Soon Alison found herself zipping her jacket again as Amelia knowingly laughed at her.

Glancing up, Alison said, “Randy told me that geese fly in a 'v' because it's easier flying for them when the wind blows.”

Amelia nodded. “They change positions, too, so none of them get too tired from flying in front.”

Alison cracked a piece of the stump off with her fingers and began peeling away the layers of rotting bark. “The wind blows all the time here. Did you ever notice that?”

Amelia smiled. “It's nice, isn't it?” Alison only wrinkled her nose. Amelia doubtfully asked, “Doesn't the wind blow in St. Louis?”

“Yeah,” Alison tilted her head, “but not this much. It must be because it's more open here. There are no buildings.” She sighed thoughtfully. The distant noise of a tractor distracted her. “Randy said they can start picking corn on Sunday or Monday. If it doesn't rain again, that is.”

“You don't sound very excited about it,” Amelia observed. Her calico skirt wrinkled around her knees when she moved to a more comfortable position on the stump. She smoothed the material down with her hands.

Alison smiled apologetically. “Sorry. I was thinking about the history project Miss Sheffield assigned today. It's not due until Thanksgiving, but I don't know what to do it on.”

“Do it on whatever you like, silly,” Amelia said. “Is it a report or something?”

“It's sort of a report. But we also have to write five pages. It has to be on some sort of historical event that happened in or around Wyngate.”

“Sounds hard,” said Amelia.

“Well, we have partners, so it won't be too bad.”

“Who's your partner?”

Alison paused, knowing that Amelia wasn't going to like what she was about to tell her. “C.J.,” she answered.

Amelia reacted as Alison suspected she might. She angrily kicked at the stump with the solid heel of her black shoe. “Why her? Couldn't you have chosen somebody else?”

“Oh, you're only saying that because you don't like C.J.” Alison squirmed uncomfortably on her uneven seat. “Besides, I didn't have any choice. Miss Sheffield assigned the partners.” She grinned suddenly. “I was just glad that I didn't get a boy, like Rick. Ugh! That would have been worse than death!”

Amelia ignored Alison's last statement. “Maybe you can change partners on Monday. Or you can work alone and I'll help you! Will Miss Sheffield let you do that?”

Alison looked hard at Amelia. Why did C.J. bother Amelia so much? In fact, why did Alison's association with anybody else bother Amelia so much? “Why do you care?” she said aloud, asking what was becoming a familiar question. “What difference does it make?”

Amelia's expression turned cloudy as her lip curled slightly. “I just don't like C.J.”

Alison argued, “You've never even met her.”

“She's probably just like Jane.” She scowled. “Jane was always mean to me.”

“I thought you used to play with Jane Wyngate.”

Amelia sent a nasty look at Alison. “Well, if you're so busy with C.J., maybe I'll have to start playing with Jane again,” she said.

The angry tone of Amelia's voice annoyed Alison. “There you go again. Why are you so mad?”

Amelia's scowl deepened. In a softer voice, she explained, “I guess I like you to myself. It's nice to have a friend that's just mine.”

Alison wasn't sure that she liked the possessive way Amelia talked about her, but if she were honest, she had to admit that she occasionally thought the same way about Amelia. It was nice knowing that somebody would always be there to talk to and listen to her problems.

Alison smiled at Amelia's words. Possessive or not, they were nice to hear. She said, “Well, I don't plan on becoming best friends with C.J. Wyngate. I don't think she likes me very much.”

Amelia's dark expression lifted. “Really?”

Alison laughed, glad that her friend was no longer mad. “You dope!” she said. “I don't care about what C.J. does!” This, of course, was not entirely true; C.J. had intrigued Alison from the moment she met her, and she occasionally spent her lunch hour watching C.J.'s group of girls from behind the safe cover of a book. She continued, “She's just my partner on this stupid assignment. We'll probably hardly talk to each other.”

“Good,” Amelia said, then laughed. “I feel better now.”

“I wish you didn't always get angry about this,” Alison said quietly, trying not to complain.

Amelia sighed. “I can't help it. I just worry that you'll go away too, like everybody else did,” she explained.

“I'm not going anywhere.” Alison watched Amelia, but when she didn't say anything, turned away to look across the pasture again. She didn't know what to say to reassure Amelia, so she said nothing.

“All right,” Amelia grumbled at last, “I believe you, Alison. I'm sorry. I promise that I'll try not to be jealous anymore.”

Alison's lips twitched at Amelia's tone, and she couldn't quite stop the grin from showing. “You don't sound very sorry,” she observed.

Amelia rolled her eyes. “I am sorry, and I'm sorry I don't sound more sorry. Sorry. Okay?”

Alison glanced at Amelia again, smiling now. “I just wanted to make sure. I'm sure now. Okay.” Amelia grinned with her. Then they both giggled at each other. Then they were laughing so hard Alison almost fell off the stump. Neither of them knew what was so funny, but Alison felt relieved to be laughing.

When they had calmed, they sat for a minute, contentedly watching a group of birds rise out of a tree further up the hill and fly, squawking, to another tree. “I'm hungry,” Alison commented cheerfully.

“Let's go back to the house. Maybe your mom baked some cookies today.” They stood up and Alison brushed bits of wood off her jeans while Amelia straightened her skirt and pulled up her black stockings. “Race you!” she yelled and ran up the hill towards the house, Alison beside her, her shoes slipping on the still-damp ground. They ran across the gravel drive and plunged breathlessly through the back porch. Alison almost tripped over Randy's feet as he sprawled in a chair in the kitchen.

“Whoa, there!” he said, reaching for her. “Careful now!”

“Sorry,” Alison said, a little smile on her face. The kitchen felt warm and cozy after spending so much time outside, and Randy's friendly face always made her spirits rise. She plopped in a chair to watch the sun slanting through the windows dance off dust specks floating in the air.

Her mother said, “C.J. Wyngate called for you this afternoon.”

Alison was surprised. “On the phone?” she asked.

Randy laughed. “How else would she call you?”

Alison blushed, feeling stupid, then looked at Amelia still standing by the door. The closed, pinched line of Amelia's mouth stopped Alison's sudden excitement at receiving a phone call. “Did she say what she wanted?”

“Something about a history project you're doing together.” Her mother stood at the sink, mixing a pitcher of tea under the faucet. Her hair was pulled back with a bright yellow ribbon; Alison thought it almost matched the color of the leaves she'd seen in the woods.

Randy winked at her. “What's going on? Are you hob-nobbing with the ritzy people of Wyngate?”

“No!” Alison rolled her eyes. She described the project she and C.J. had been assigned, occasionally glancing at Amelia's dark face from the corner of her eyes. She tried to sound unenthusiastic for her friend's sake.

“A historical event in Wyngate,” Randy repeated, his expression thoughtful.

Alison settled more securely in her chair, ignoring the dark sigh of resignation coming from Amelia. “You've lived here a long time, Randy. Do you have any ideas?”

He rubbed his chin with his gnarled hand. “Well, let me think. There used to be a railroad that ran through town.”

“A railroad?”

“Yeah. It stopped at the grain elevator during the '20's and '30's. They tore the track out when they laid the new main street.”

Alison wrinkled her nose.

“Not too interested in railroads, huh?” Randy took a long drink of tea. “How about the history of the golf course? My dad always said they built part of the fairway over the old cemetery. That might be interesting.”

Mom interrupted. “I don't think my daughter needs to be digging around in old graveyards, Randy.”

“Oh, Mom!” Alison said, though she wasn't too thrilled with old cemeteries either.

“Okay, okay.” They were all silent as they tried to come up with some ideas. Suddenly Randy sat up. “I've got it. Do it on this farm.”

“This farm?” Alison was doubtful.

“Sure. You're always asking questions about where things were, what the farm looked like. You probably know as much about it as I do.”

She considered his suggestion. “But how can I research a farm?” she finally asked.

He waved his hand dismissively. “That's easy. You can find out who owned the land over at the courthouse. I'll go with you to help. And I bet the county library in Shelby has a book or two on local history. It'll be easy!” His eyes were shining and he was beginning to get excited about the idea.

His excitement was infectious. Alison felt her interest rising. She glanced at the door to see what Amelia thought, but the girl had disappeared while Randy spoke. Alison had not even noticed when she left. She turned back to Randy and said, “It depends what C.J. wants to do. But it sounds like a good idea.”

Mom pulled the pitcher full of tea out of the sink. “Why don't you give her a call and see what she says. She left her number for you.”

C.J. was not quite as enthusiastic when Alison told her about Randy's idea. “Well,” she said, “it's okay, I guess.”

“Do you have another idea?” Alison hesitated to ask. She didn't want C.J. to regret having her as a partner, and she no longer felt as confident as she had a moment before.

C.J. sighed over the phone. “No.”

Alison went on. “Randy said he would help us with the research and take us to the library tomorrow afternoon.”

There was a pause on the line. “I was going shopping with Bert and Karla tomorrow.”

“Well, we can do it another time,” Alison said quickly. C.J. sighed again, then in a petulant voice remarked, “No, I suppose we should start on this right now and get it over with. What time?”

As they settled on a convenient time, Alison suspected that C.J. was still less than thrilled with this entire project. Her suspicions were confirmed the next day.

The Shelby County Library was housed in an ancient building that had once been the county's first fire station. Renovated to an atmosphere more fitting to reading and research, the inside was still dimly lit and smelled of old wood. The high ceilings and oak stained tables and chairs lent the building a feeling of deep serenity unique to aging libraries.

C.J. glared unhappily at the books surrounding them. “I don't see why Miss Sheffield didn't let us choose our own partners. I really wanted to be partners with Bert or Karla. Or even with Janet,” she groused, her voice hushed.

Alison felt her scalp prickle at the jab. Her first instinct was to say she was sorry things hadn't worked out differently. Instead she stubbornly gathered her courage and indifferently said, “I didn't much care who I worked with.” She pulled a big blue book off the shelf and began flipping through the glossy pages.

C.J. glanced at her from behind her curls. “Even Rick or one of his stupid friends?”

Alison felt her determination waver. “Well, maybe not,” she admitted. She stared at the black and white pictures on the page before her.

“You don't have very many friends, do you?” C.J. asked after an uncomfortable silence.

Alison's eyes narrowed. She didn't say anything.

C.J. continued. “I always thought you were a little weird because you read so much at school and you never talk to anybody.”

Alison felt a knot of anger twist deep inside her. “Maybe nobody talks to me,” she said defensively.

C.J. shrugged, and said, “Maybe.” Then she went back to searching though the books on the shelf.

Her pulse racing, Alison stared at the book she was holding, her eyes unfocused as she thought about what C.J. had just said. It was a minute later that she suddenly realized she was staring at a picture of her great grandparents, taken beside the house at the farm. In her excitement, she forgot about the disagreement and instantly showed C.J. her find.

With Randy's help, they found several more mentions of a few of Alison's relatives who had lived in her house. But they didn't know quite who else to look for until they went to the courthouse a week later. C.J.'s dad had to take them because Randy was busy picking corn with the big combine. Since Mr. Wyngate was a lawyer, he knew a lot about land deeds. They had no trouble finding what they needed. Alison was not at all surprised to recognize the names of the past owners of her family's farm. Amelia had told her about them often enough. It was interesting to validate all Amelia's information. The names suddenly became real people to Alison. Because of Amelia, Alison found she already knew much of what she and C.J. discovered in their research. Sometimes she even found herself telling C.J. all the stories Amelia had told her, and had to stop herself from telling too much. But after working for several weeks, C.J. was becoming suspicious of Alison's knowledge.

On a rainy Saturday afternoon two weeks into the project, they sat around the table in the Wyngate's kitchen, looking over the books they had checked out of the library. Mrs. Wyngate had supplied them each with a glass of soda, while a half empty bowl of chips sat between them. C.J. pushed her glass aside to point at a picture of a grumpy-looking man with shaggy whiskers reaching to his chest. “Get a load of this beard!” she exclaimed.

Alison recognized the man immediately though she'd never seen his picture or read the caption in the book. “That's Ebenezer Hill,” she said. Amelia had told her all about the Hills just the day before, and without hesitation Alison repeated how Mr. Hill had built a silo out of wood. “It blew down in the first big wind storm that hit the farm.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” C.J. asked, staring at her in amazement.

It was then that Alison realized that she'd done it again. Her eyes widened and she smiled a small, guilty smile, thinking rapidly as she stared at the flowered curtains hanging over the stainless steel sink. “I'm just interested in... in what we're doing,” she answered lamely.

“Oh, come on, Alison,” C.J. said, brushing aside Alison's excuse. “You know a lot more about Ebenezer Hill and his family than is in the book. How do you know all this stuff?” she repeated.

Alison looked at C.J.'s curious face, the bouncing natural curls in her hair, the oversized Georgetown sweatshirt she wore, and for a minute she considered telling her about Amelia. It would be a relief to finally talk about Amelia with somebody, to try to explain some of her problems concerning her unusual friend. But then she thought of all the times C.J. had ignored her at school, and the uncaring way she'd treated her since they began work on this report, and decided she just couldn't tell her. Instead she said, “My dad knows most of the old people in town, and he just told me some stories that they told him.”

“But about people who lived a hundred years ago?” C.J. prompted.

Alison shrugged. “He likes history,” she said.

C.J. sent a disbelieving look in Alison's direction. “Is your whole family like this?”

Puzzled, Alison asked, “Like what?”

“Weird.”

As often happened after C.J.'s blunt statements, Alison felt herself growing angry. She played with the spiral edge of her notebook to remain calm, but her heart was beating fast. “We're not weird.”

C.J. didn't notice the tight look on Alison's face. She went on. “Well, you like all this history - it's not normal. And my dad says that your parents are more interested in the farm than in being doctors.”

“So?”

“But farming's not as important as curing people.” C.J. flicked a speck of dirt off the blue sleeve of her sweatshirt.

“It is too!” Alison objected, rising slightly in her chair. She lost control of her temper and yelled, “It's just as good as being a lawyer!”

The angry words startled C.J. “Calm down, Alison! You don't have to get so mad about it.”

Alison plopped down in her chair again, her face red and her ears burning. “Sorry,” she mumbled, though she really didn't feel sorry at all.

C.J. leaned across the books on the table. “What's wrong with you, Alison?”

Alison grimaced. She could tell C.J. exactly what was wrong with her. She was tired of being treated like some kind of freak. She didn't like school. She knew that C.J. didn't like working with her on this stupid history assignment. And her best friend was a girl nobody else could see.

Alison wanted to say all these things to C.J., but she pressed her tongue to the roof of her mouth so she wouldn't. Above all, she didn't want C.J. Wyngate feeling sorry for her. She took a breath to calm her shaking stomach and grumbled, “Nothing.”

C.J. leaned back, her eyes still fixed on Alison. At last she shook her head. “Whatever you say.” She stood up and carried her empty glass to the sink. “It's almost four o'clock. We'd better quit before your mom comes to pick you up.”

Alison glared at the books on the table. Why had she gotten so mad? Why did she care what C.J. thought about her father? Alison sighed. She had hoped that working with C.J. might give them both a chance to finally get to know each other. But if they kept fighting like this, they would never become friends. C.J. would tell the other kids that Alison was too weird to bother with. Amelia would be her only friend for as long as she lived in Iowa! As much as Alison liked being with Amelia, it would be nice to have a friend that other people could see.

Hesitantly she glanced up at C.J. Maybe if she made an effort to be more friendly, C.J.'s opinion of her might change. She joined the other girl at the kitchen sink and in a quiet voice she apologized. “I'm sorry, C.J. I didn't mean to yell.” They stood side by side and watched a strong wind blow gray clouds across a sky almost hidden by bare branches.

C.J. sighed tiredly. “I guess I don't blame you for getting mad,” she said.

The sound of a car pulling into the drive at the front of the house ended their conversation.

“It must be my mom,” Alison said. With a sense of relief she grabbed her notes and some of the library books, stuffing the jumbled mess into her backpack.

“Hey, Alison,” C.J. said, sounding suddenly nicer. “I'm having a party next weekend. It's kind of an October get-together. We're having a bonfire and a wiener roast down the hill. We had a lot of fun last year. Do you want to come?”

The invitation surprised Alison so much that she stopped, a book still held in midair. Her eyes were wide, but she couldn't think of anything to say.

“Everybody's coming,” C.J. continued.

Though Alison still felt doubtful, she came to a quick decision. “Okay. I'll ask my mom.”

C.J. smiled warmly. “Good. Mom said I should ask you. I could have done it sooner....” A car horn from the drive interrupted her. “There's your mom. You'd better go.” C.J. zipped Alison's bag shut for her and walked her to door. “Bye, Alison! See you at school.”

Rain started to drip from the overcast sky as Alison jumped into the front seat. She'd been happy with the invitation until C.J. mentioned that her mother suggested she ask her. She told her mom about the party, but when her mom gave her permission to go, Alison didn't feel very excited. Why couldn't C.J. want Alison to come without being told to ask?

Alison sighed. She wondered if friends were worth all this trouble and worry.

Randy was just finishing picking the corn in the field nearest the house when she arrived home. Alison decided her depressed spirits couldn't be hurt any more by a little rain, so she leaned on a wooden fence post to watch the combine make its last two turns around the field.

“You're home! I've been waiting for you all day!”

Alison turned to see Amelia standing next to her at the fence. The rain drops fell around her, none of them leaving a mark on her black hair or dress.

Alison wiped a drop off her own nose. “I was working with C.J.”

Amelia glared with glassy eyes at the field, but politely asked, “How did it go?”

Alison nodded her head. “Pretty good. We found some stuff on Ebenezer Hill today. I told her about the silo blowing over. She thinks I'm weird because I know so much about the people who have lived here.”

Amelia said, “Well, don't let her bother you. She thinks she's special just because she's a Wyngate.”

The mention of the Wyngates reminded Alison of Amelia's experience with a girl of that name. “Did you see Jane today?”

“Goodness no!” exclaimed Amelia. “I try not to see her if I can help it!”

Alison giggled. “I guess she's not needed.”

Amelia smiled at the joke. “She sure isn't!”

They watched in silence as Randy expertly followed the few rows of corn left standing in the field. The brittle brown stalks bent willingly before the sharp corn head. Husks and cobs spun in the air behind the combine, settling in clumps on the wet ground. Amelia reached out with her hand and Alison concentrated instinctively. For a split second she tuned out the noise from the machine and the sound of light rain pattering on the dead leaves to focus her attention on Amelia's hand. Then she felt the hand flat on her shoulder as Amelia softly patted her.

She smiled at Amelia. “Hey, we're getting pretty good at this. You didn't even have to warn me.”

Amelia smiled back. “Well, we've been practicing enough lately; we should be good at it.” A cottonwood leaf fell, fluttering between them. Alison swatted it away. “Does my hand feel cold?” Amelia continued.

“No.” Alison touched it with her fingers, shaking her head. “Not any more. It's nice and warm.” Then she patted Amelia on the arm with her hand. The calico material of the girl's dress felt smooth to Alison's inexperienced touch.

Amelia comfortably put her arm around Alison's shoulders and leaned against her as they watched the combine finish off the last corn stalks. Alison smiled. It was nice to be with someone that liked her after spending the afternoon with C.J..

Thinking of C.J. reminded Alison of the party. “C.J. invited me to a party next weekend.”

Amelia stiffened slightly. “Oh?”

“Yeah. Her mom made her do it.”

Amelia looked at Alison, stunned. “Did she really tell you that?”

Alison nodded.

“Typical Wyngate. Are you going?”

Alison shrugged her shoulders under the pleasant weight of Amelia's arm. “I don't know. I might. She said they're having a bonfire. I've never been to a bonfire before.”

Amelia glanced back to the now empty corn field. “Oh, they're not such a big deal. You'll have more fun here with me.”

Alison was silent. She secretly wanted to go to C.J.'s party very much, just to do something with real people for a change. But she was afraid Amelia might get mad if she told her that. Not telling Amelia what was on her mind also made her feel bad.

It was as if she didn't trust Amelia enough to tell her. It was all very confusing. So she just sighed and put her arm around her friend's shoulders as the rain dripped steadily on the top of her head.

Chapter 10

C.J.'s typically indifferent manner continued Monday morning at school when she ignored Alison in history, as usual. She spent all her time talking with Bert and her other friends about the party, giggling when anybody mentioned the fact that boys were invited as well as girls.

There were five girls in C.J.'s group. Alison knew all of them by name because she had a few classes with each of them, but only one, Roberta, had spoken to her besides C.J. Everybody called her Bert. She smiled a lot, and told everybody that her parents had only chosen boys names for her, thus explaining her name. Bert was one of the tallest kids at Wyngate Junior High, and C.J.'s best friend. Alison frequently watched them both from behind the safe cover of a book, envious of their friendship. The other three girls in the group looked like unsophisticated elementary students when standing beside C.J. with her beautiful curls and Bert's surprisingly graceful form.

But even while she slightly scorned that very popular, very alive group of girls and their excitement about the party, Alison was still drawn to them. It was confusing; she liked them, yet didn't like them at the same time. She wasn't at all sure she wanted to spend an entire night at C.J.'s watching them giggle together. In the end, she had no choice. Friday evening at dinner, when Sara asked, “So, are you going to your little junior high get-together with the other kiddies tomorrow night?” their mother made the decision for her.

“I think you should go, Alison,” Mom said. “It's been over two months since school started and you haven't made any close friends yet. It will be good for you to do something with kids your own age.”

“What if I don't want any friends?” Alison grumbled into her mashed potatoes.

Her dad interrupted her mumbling. “Where's your sense of adventure, Alison? It might be fun.”

“But I don't want to go,” Alison persisted.

Sara said, “Boy, you really are a geek.” Sara turned to her parents. “You should hear what everybody at high school says about her. They all think she's this nerdy kid who reads too much. I'm ashamed to admit I'm related to her.”

Mom glared at Sara, but only said, “I think you need to get out of the house, Alison. You spend far too much time by yourself.”

“But....”

“No arguments,” she said firmly. “You're going to C.J.'s party.”

Alison slumped in her chair and sighed in angry resignation.

* * *

The party had already started when she arrived at C.J.'s house. Light poured through every window, making soft yellow squares on the freshly raked lawn. The surrounding trees moaned quietly in the cold October wind as Alison climbed from the car.

“I'll be back at ten thirty or eleven o'clock, okay, Alison?” her mom called to her.

“Sure, Mom.” Alison pulled her coat closer around her body, then walked quickly up the circling sidewalk.

Mrs. Wyngate opened the front door. “Alison! They're all in back. Go on through; you know the way, I'm sure!” She beamed a happy smile at Alison, standing aside so she could come through the door.

Alison smiled back. She had always liked C.J.'s mother, a tall, friendly, dark haired woman who wore tight flowered leggings and sweaters to match at least one color in the bright flowers. “Thank you, Mrs. Wyngate,” Alison answered, practically blinded by the large orange sweater hanging from the woman's shoulders.

Alison moved into the front living room. It was almost a parlor, with its plush white carpet, hanging lamps, and uncomfortably formal furnishings. Alison hurried across the room, hoping she didn't have any mud on her shoes, since she'd forgotten to wipe her feet on the rug in the foyer. Then she tripped down the step between the living room and the kitchen. A sliding glass door led her from the kitchen to the deck out back.

Stained wooden steps went from the deck to the grassy backyard. The Wyngate's property ran far back from the house and down a hill, ending in a deep ravine-like creek choked with wild brush. Trees crowded the yard behind the house, keeping everything in shade in summer, but now Alison could see the faint gleam of a few stars between the leafless branches when she looked up. The light from the bonfire, built on a level spot a little way down the hill, kept all but the brightest stars from view.

Most of the students in seventh grade were running around C.J.'s yard, darting in and out of the dancing shadows created by the fire. Alison saw Brad chasing two girls from one side of the yard to the other. Several people were playing a game of volleyball over the wire clothesline strung between two metal poles. The players had to keep running after the ball in the darkness beyond the firelight, adding to the confusion.

“Alison!” C.J. had spotted her from the side of the house and was coming towards her at a fast trot.

Alison sighed and started down the steps. Here I go, she thought. Then C.J. was upon her.

“Hi, Alison! You came!”

Alison tried to smile politely. “I guess I did,” she answered. Bert and Janet were at C.J.'s side, watching Alison curiously. Janet, a small girl with tightly permed, shoulder length brown hair, stood with her hands stuffed in the pockets of her bleached jeans, smiling thinly at Alison. Bert's smile was a little wider as she looked at Alison from behind a curtain of long bangs hanging in her eyes. “Hello, Alison,” the two girls said together.

Alison groaned inwardly, but said, “Hello, Bert. Hi, Janet.” If things continued like this, Alison thought, it was going to be a very dull party.

“There's the fire,” C.J. pointed down the hill. “You can make a hot dog or roast marshmallows, whatever you want.” She grinned and bounced excitedly. “Practically everyone's here now. There's a volleyball game about to start. Come play if you want. Have fun!” Her duty as hostess over, C.J. whirled away, followed by Bert and Janet, who started talking the minute their backs turned to Alison. Her thank you was lost on all of them.

Alison wandered down to the fire, delighting in the sudden warmth she felt from the blaze. The logs crackled and popped crazily in the cool night air, hissing occasionally when juice from a hot dog sizzled in the ashes.

“Hi, Alison! Come here and roast a marshmallow!” C.J.'s sister Deanne gestured for her to join the group around the bonfire.

The crowd of kids standing around the smoking fire obligingly parted to make room for her, and Deanne gave her a green stick with the bark peeled off and one end whittled down to a sharp point for roasting. The next thing she knew, she was standing awkwardly between Jessica and Marie, warming her hands by the fire as she held her hot dog in the flames with the stick.

“The fire feels good, doesn't it?” Alison asked cheerfully, trying her best to start a conversation with either of them. Conversations had been short since that time Marie had spoken to her beside her locker. They generally revolved around assignments and school activities even then. But now nobody even talked about that. Alison sighed. The night seemed to be growing longer by the minute.

“I like the heat,” Jessica replied a moment later, attempting to be just as cheerful. She had always been friendly to Alison, though distant since that same fateful conversation. “It kind of flows over you and warms you all over. Like wrapping up in towels you just took out of the dryer,” she concluded. She grinned at Alison.

Alison nodded in agreement. She bit her lip in concentration, trying hard to keep her hot dog from falling into the flames. She carefully turned the stick, roasting the other side, but most of her attention was centered on the two girls. From the corners of her eyes, she saw Jessica send an aggravated look towards Marie. She instantly interpreted the look to mean she was intruding on an already established friendship. It was time to move on.

“You're going to lose your hot dog,” Jessica said suddenly. “Here, pull it out and I'll show you how to do it right. Quick, it's falling off!”

Alison quickly looked at her food. She tried to pull her stick out of the fire carefully, but the hot dog fell off anyway, landing deep in the ashes between two burning logs. She watched it roast there among the popping wood. “Darn,” she sighed.

“Look, Alison,” Marie blurted without preamble as the three were leaning over the fire to watch the hot dog, “I need to apologize to you.”

Alison couldn't have been more surprised if she'd suggested they all jump off the top of C.J.'s house. “What?” she asked sharply.

“About C.J.,” Marie went on more quietly, looking at Alison now. “That day when school first started. You remember.”

Alison certainly remembered that day. What Marie had said to her was, in reality, the cause of the depression that had led to her finding Amelia. It would have taken a memory extraction to make her forget. But she only nodded.

Her reaction was enough encouragement for Marie to continue. “I think maybe Jess was right. It's not any of our business who you want to spend time with. I was only trying to help... that day, you know, by the lockers.”

Jessica picked up where Marie trailed off. “We haven't been very nice to you, Alison. That's our fault. We're sorry.”

Alison wasn't sure she should believe what she was hearing. Their words changed too many of her assumptions all at once. She was having trouble keeping up. Had they said they were sorry for something? “Did your moms put you up to this?” she asked suddenly, recalling C.J.'s invitation.

Marie's eyes went wide. “What? We'd never do that, Alison!”

“Honest!” Jessica agreed. “What makes you think that?”

Marie chimed in again, “My mom would never try to make me do my own apologizing. I guess I'm old enough to know when I've messed up without my mom telling me about it!”

“I'm sorry!” Alison apologized herself, desperate to fix this new mistake on her part. “It's just... I thought... Oh!” she ended in frustration. She looked from Jessica to Marie, confused, not knowing what to say. She said the first thing that came to her mind. “You were right!”

“Uh - what?” Jessica asked dumbly.

Alison darted more glances at both of them, back and forth. “You were right, Marie, that day by the lockers.” When they continued to stare at her blankly, she explained, “About C.J., I mean.”

“I was?” Marie sounded surprised. “But that's none of my busi -”

“I'm sorry,” Alison said again automatically. “I didn't mean that about your moms making you... but that's what C.J. did, and I was just thinking about it, and I said it to you before I thought about how rude... you guys probably think I'm a total idiot!” she exclaimed helplessly.

Jessica threw her head back and laughed. “Alison, you don't make any sense!”

The laughter was infectious. Alison found herself smiling helplessly before she could stop herself. “I'm not trying to... I mean, I am trying to, but it's not working. I mean... I don't know -”

Marie cut Alison off with a wave of her hand. “What did you mean about C.J.?”

“When she asked me to the party,” Alison hastily explained.

“Not so loud you two - this is her party, after all.” Jessica warned. “Go on, Alison.”

In a quieter voice, Alison told them about C.J. asking her to the party only because her mother made her.

“She said that?” Jessica's voice held disbelief.

Alison nodded. “So you were right about her, Marie. She is just a... uh, well -”

“She's just C.J.” Marie finished for her and rolled her eyes. “She can't help it.”

“Yeah,” Jessica agreed. “She was born mean.”

“Jessica!” Marie giggled even while she scolded her friend. “We shouldn't say things like that. Or at least, not here! What if she hears us?”

Jessica grinned wickedly. “That might not be so bad. I've always wanted to tell her what I think....” It was Marie's turn to glare at Jessica. “Okay, you're right. I'll shut up. But it's still a fun thought.” Her grin remained.

A silence fell over them as they all looked at each other, the heat from the fire beginning to sear their faces. Marie leaned back to find relief from the heat. “Well, I just wanted to say that, Alison.”

“Thanks, Marie,” Alison said.

“The person who needs to apologize,” Jessica stated, “is C.J., though it would probably never occur to her.” She turned to Alison. “But now that you're here, we might as well eat. There's no point in going hungry, not when C.J.'s supplying the food!” She grinned again. Alison and Marie grinned with her.

Suddenly Alison recalled her hot dog. It was still roasting slowly in the glowing ashes. “But what about my hot dog?” she wailed. “It's burning!”

Marie laughed. “Get her another one, Jess. We'll do it right this time.”

Jessica scrambled up to find Deanne. While she was gone, Alison took the opportunity to tell Marie, “Thanks again. I mean it.”

Marie shrugged, then she gave a half smile. “Well, it's my fault. I always open my mouth when I shouldn't. I think I learned it from Jess.”

“And you were right,” Alison continued. “I've experienced C.J. enough to know that!”

Marie patted Alison's shoulder. “So have I. I've been wanting to say something about it for a long time. So, no hard feelings?”

Alison smiled and shook her head. Of course she didn't feel bad; this was the first true conversation she'd shared with anybody real in months! “You can tell me what you think any time you want, Marie!” she invited.

Marie smiled back. “Okay!” she promised.

Jessica returned with three more hot dogs and they managed to roast all of them without losing any more to the fire. Jessica sighed in happiness as she took a large bite from her hot dog. “I just love bonfires,” she said.

Marie added, “I like s'mores the best, though.”

Alison had never heard of s'mores before. “What are they?” she asked around the food in her mouth. She greedily bit off another bite. She couldn't believe how hungry she was! She couldn't believe how good she felt, either. It was nice to have finally cleared things up with Marie.

“S'mores?” Jessica looked at Alison over her hot dog. “They're graham crackers and marshmallows--”

“And pieces of chocolate bars,” Marie finished for her, licking her lips in anticipation. “They're as good as...as good as....” Marie couldn't find anything to equate them to, and lamely said, “Well, they're just good!”

Jessica added, “I'll say they are. Too bad you're always too full from hot dogs to eat very many of them. My mom always says....”

Marie suddenly hit Jessica in the arm, interrupting her tirade, and smiled. “Hey be quiet! Chad's telling some of his stories. I can't hear him with you talking!”

“Oh, you just like him, that's all,” Jessica teased loudly.

Alison laughed at Marie's suddenly idolizing stare at a boy across the fire, almost choking on her hot dog in the process. She didn't know Chad very well, but she turned her attention to him, listening to his stories and jokes. Soon the entire crowd standing near the fire was exploding with laughter.

Deanne came over with a bag of marshmallows and tossed them two at a time to anybody wanting them.

Alison had roasted marshmallows a few times before, but never in the blaze of a bonfire. The first two she attempted immediately burst into flames and fell off her stick in a gooey mess. She laughed with everybody, and Deanne good-naturedly gave her two more to roast. She showed Alison how to hold her stick away from the hottest parts of the fire so the marshmallows couldn't burn, and how to turn them, browning them evenly on all sides. This time, Alison managed to pull the marshmallows off the stick with her fingers and popped them in her mouth. They stuck to her teeth, her fingers, the stick, but they tasted good! She gurgled and laughed through her sticky teeth. “I've never done this before.”

“Really?” Jessica said, unbelieving.

Marie chimed in, “My dad let's us roast in the fireplace during the winter. It's fun.”

Her voice filled with curiosity, Jessica asked, “Don't you have bonfires in St. Louis?”

Alison shrugged. “I suppose you could, but we never did.”

“Do you like it?”

Alison nodded and smiled happily. “This is the most fun I've had since we moved to Iowa!” she surprised herself by saying. But it was true; despite the rocky beginning, she was having a great time at C.J.'s party. She hadn't laughed this much in a long time.

“Yeah, C.J.'s parties are usually pretty much fun,” Marie commented.

“Even though C.J.'s the one giving it,” Jessica commented quietly, her wicked smile back in full force.

Marie giggled, then continued, “Last year it rained, but we watched movies and ate chips in the basement.”

“But I don't get something,” Alison said suddenly.

“What?”

“I know what C.J. thinks, so why did she invite me to her party at all?”

“It probably had nothing to do with her mom. She invites everybody,” Jessica said nonchalantly around the marshmallow in her mouth.

Marie nodded. “How else would we get invited?” She pointed from herself to Jessica. Jessica grinned, and marshmallow oozed between her teeth.

Alison glanced around the yard at the party going on while she slowly chewed her second marshmallow. They were right - practically the entire seventh grade was there, darting in and out of the firelight. “Well,” she finally said. “No matter why I'm here, I'm glad I came!” And she was glad. The air was cold, but she was comfortably warm inside her coat and near the fire. She liked Jessica and Marie, though she had rarely spoken to them before now. Even at lunch they were always busy playing card games. But now she was completely relaxed with them. She felt as if they could be her friends. That thought warmed her as much as the fire.

The boy telling jokes continued his recitation after they'd all had some more marshmallows. Firelight bounced off the trees on the hillside, making menacing shadows on the dry grass, but Alison felt safe and content among the other kids, and she reached for another hot dog.

“Hey look, there's the city girl!” Brad and Rick ran past the group at the fire, throwing sticks and a few rocks from the landscaped front flower beds at Alison. “City girl, city girl!” Rick chanted. “Dumb city girl!” he yelled, then ran away into the darkness, screeching with laughter.

“What a jerk,” Marie said with a shake of her head.

Alison looked around as the other kids stared at her. She suddenly found herself the center of unwanted attention, and she glanced quickly away. She just did not understand why kids who looked down on her because she lived on a farm also teased her for coming from a city. It didn't make any sense.

But she said nothing. She felt miserable under the scrutinizing stares of her classmates, but she could not think of anything to say.

“Siiily ciiiiity giiiirl!” Rick was back, singing with gusto and making faces at Alison before turning to run again.

Then, without warning, Jessica flung her arms up, gesturing after Rick with her hot dog. “Don't be stupid!” Jessica responded scathingly. “Alison lives on a farm.”

Alison was surprised at Jessica for defending her so quickly, but at the same time it felt good. A warm, rosy feeling started inside her. She smiled and opened her mouth to tell Jessica thanks when a large drop of ketchup and mustard dripped from Jessica's upraised hot dog, landing with a splat at the ends of Alison's hair. Alison's mouth froze open, her words of gratitude stopped in her throat. The cool wind carried the tangy smell of tomatoes and spices to her nose.

“Oops,” Jessica said, looking suddenly contrite. “I'm sorry, Alison, really I am!” She grabbed a napkin and tried to wipe the sticky ketchup out of Alison's brown hair, smearing it on her coat instead, doing more damage than good. “I'm such a clutz!”

Alison blinked. Then she laughed. Other kids were laughing too as she gingerly pulled her long hair away from her stained coat. Strands of hair clung to her sticky fingers, and she said, “I better find C.J. and see if we can't clean me up a bit. If my mom sees me like this, she'll be upset.” Alison wrinkled her nose as another strong burst of ketchup aroma blew up to her. She left the fire and started up the hill, surprised when Jessica followed her.

“It's my fault,” Jessica explained. “I thought I could keep you company.”

Alison smiled her thanks. When she saw C.J. embroiled in a volleyball game, she decided not to interrupt her and instead they went in search of Mrs. Wyngate. She supplied Alison with shampoo and a towel and showed her to the bathroom.

“Having a good time?” Mrs. Wyngate asked pleasantly as she waited while Alison leaned over the bathroom sink and used the flower-scented shampoo to wash the ketchup out of the ends of her hair.

“Uh-huh,” Alison struggled to answer. The edge of the marble sink cut into her stomach, making it hard to talk.

“You go on back to whatever you were doing, Mrs. Wyngate,” Jessica suggested. “I'll make sure Alison doesn't drown in your sink.” She laughed as she regarded the tiny porcelain sink that was almost smaller than Alison's head. “It was my hot dog that dripped after all.”

Mrs. Wyngate nodded and left. A few quiet minutes went by as Alison laboriously leaned into the tiny sink, swishing her soapy hair back and forth under a stream of warm water, and Jessica lounged against the wall. “I hate the smell of ketchup,” Alison said, then had to spit out the soapy water that ran down her cheek and into her mouth when she spoke.

“Something silly like this always happens at C.J.'s parties,” Jessica commented as Alison rinsed the soap out of her hair. “Last year Todd Bremer and Jason Klein got into a fight in the basement. Todd broke Jason's finger, accidentally I think,” she added emphatically. “It was raining, so we watched movies....”

“Marie said something about that,” Alison said through teeth clenched tight to keep water out of her mouth.

Jessica continued, “Anyway, Jason was being a jerk about throwing nacho dip at the TV and Todd got mad at him. Threw a football at him and Jason jammed his finger when he tried to catch it -- he never could catch a football -- and the next week he came to school with a splint on his finger.”

“Why are boys always so... weird?” Alison pulled her wet hair out of the sink, holding her hand out for a towel, wiping soap out of her eyes and mouth at the same time.

Jessica put a thick, brown terry cloth towel in Alison's groping fingers and answered her question. “They can't help it. Especially if they have a crush on you,” she said with a resigned sigh. “They yell a lot and laugh and tell jokes that don't make any sense, and then they expect girls to like them. Can you believe it?” She grinned at Alison's ratty hair under the towel.

Alison grinned back and began pulling the worst knots out with her fingers. “I stay away from boys as much as I can.”

“Maybe there's a comb around here you can use....” Jessica pulled open the drawer beside the sink to rummage through a basket of eye-shadow, blush, and mascara, finally finding a comb buried at the bottom. She handed it to the tossled-haired Alison with the comment, “You stay away from everybody, Alison.” Her voice was kind, not at all reproachful.

Alison felt her defenses rising nonetheless. Some of her newfound confidence in Jessica began to drain away. “That's because nobody seems to want to talk to me. You don't even talk to me at lunch,” she accused mildly, taking the comb through her bangs.

“Well,” Jessica hesitantly pointed out, “you're always reading.”

The comb stopped as Alison considered Jessica's words. “True,” she admitted reluctantly. For a brief minute she considered that maybe she had not been trying very hard to make any friends besides Amelia. And her friendship with Amelia had just sort of happened. Neither of them had had to work at it. Now that she wanted more friends at school, the thought to actually put her books away and make the first move had not occurred to her. She glanced apologetically at Jessica, catching her lip between her teeth.

Jessica laughed. “Don't look so sad, Alison! You look like a scarecrow with your hair all wild.”

“But I guess everybody thinks I'm stuck-up because....”

“Don't worry about it!” Jessica tucked her hair behind her ear and regarded Alison in the gilt-edged bathroom mirror. “Look, comb your hair out while I find a hair dryer -- I know I just saw one somewhere in here -- and on Monday you can take Brandi's place in our Spades game at lunch. She has to get her braces tightened again.”

“I don't know how to play Spades,” Alison objected, still clutching the comb in her fingers.

Jessica shrugged. “Neither does Brandi. So you don't need to worry about it. Now hurry up!” She grinned and motioned with her hands for Alison to hurry. “We're missing the party.”

Alison smiled back, hesitantly at first, then with her confidence restored. She energetically attacked the tangles in her hair as Jessica pulled a hair dryer out of the bottom drawer beside the sink, flourishing it triumphantly. “I knew I saw one somewhere!”

When Alison's hair was dry enough to go back outside, she and Jessica rejoined the group near the warmth of the fire. The volleyball game had broken up and everybody stood by the flames, roasting hot dogs and making s'mores with Hersheys chocolate bars. They sang songs, and Alison sang along with them, standing with Jessica and Marie, across from C.J., Bert, Stacy, Ame, and Janet. Night sounds floated over them from the other side of the hill where trees and brush obscured the lights from neighboring houses. The Wyngate's back yard was like a warm little niche cradled in the cold night. Alison breathed the smoky air with happiness. For the first time she felt a part of this group of small town and country kids. She smiled at everybody happily, enjoying every minute she could.

“Man, it's getting cold out here,” Janet complained during a lull in the singing. She thrust her hands further in the pockets of her jeans.

Does she ever take her hands out of her pockets? Alison wondered and bit off a chunk of the crispy graham cracker she was holding.

“Let's go in and tell ghost stories in the basement,” Brad suggested loudly in Alison's ear. He knocked her hand and the rest of her graham cracker fell to the ground where he crushed it into the dead grass with his tennis shoe.

Alison glared at him and shoved back.

“Oh, that's a dumb idea,” C.J. scorned. “You tell the same stories every year and they weren't scary the first time you told them.”

Bert pushed her long wavy bangs out of her eyes and said, “Didn't your mom rent a movie or something?”

C.J. shrugged. “She got something that looked pretty gross - you know how much she likes those dumb horror movies. And we have a few on tape. We could do that if you want.”

“Sounds good to me! I'm sick of standing around in the dark anyway.” Brad pushed his way through the group of girls that always surrounded C.J., Rick and three other boys right behind him.

The group followed Brad's lead and trooped up to the house. Marie leaned in to Alison and Jessica and said, “I bet he's just afraid of the dark.” They laughed as they crowded through the sliding glass doors. Together they threw their coats on C.J.'s bed before joining the rest in the family room downstairs.

Mrs. Wyngate had arranged bowls of chips and popcorn on the counter top of the bar and she cheerfully pulled packs of Coke and Pepsi in from the garage for anybody who wanted something to drink. They settled on the sofa, an old armchair, the tall wooden bar stools, or the carpeted floor to watch the movie rented from the Hy-Vee grocery store in Shelby.

Alison curled up against the bar, contentedly munching on chips and sharing a Coke with Jessica. Marie said carbonated drinks made her sick, so she had a glass of iced-tea nestled beside her knee. They laughed at the movie, yelled at the boys several times to make them be quiet, and ate chips until they knew they would be sick if they ate much more. Just as C.J. was putting in the tape for the second movie, Mrs. Wyngate called down the stairs that Rick's, Bert's and Alison's parents were ready to take them home.

Alison looked at her watch in surprise. It couldn't be eleven o'clock already, could it? She was more surprised to see it was eleven thirty. She was having such a good time that she had forgotten that she would have to leave eventually. “Well, darn,” she muttered, pushing the second can of Coke to Jessica. “You'd better drink the rest, Jess. I have to get my coat.”

Mrs. Wyngate called down again. “Jessica! And Andy, come on up! Your moms are here!”

Jessica sighed at the Coke. “Oh, well. I guess I'll take it home. Maybe my dad will drink it.” She turned to Marie. “Come on, Marie, better get up if you want a ride home.”

Alison waved goodbye to Jessica and Marie through the frosted side window as her mom skillfully maneuvered the car around the other vehicles clogging the Wyngate's asphalt driveway. Trees soon enclosed the road and darkness settled over the car.

“Did you have a good time?” Mom asked, her grin illuminated by the green and yellow dashboard lights. “I can see by your smile that you had at least a little fun.”

Alison nodded. “I had a lot more fun than I thought I would! I ate so much I could blow up. We roasted marshmallows and made s'mores.... It was great!” She leaned back in the seat, smiling, tired and content. Oh, she couldn't wait to tell Amelia all about the party! She tiptoed up the stairs when she arrived home and paused in the doorway of her bedroom.

“Well? How bad was it?” the tinkly voice floated out of the darkness of the room.

“Oh, Amelia, I had the best time tonight!” Alison whispered to her friend after she quietly shut her bedroom door on the sleeping house and flipped on her reading lamp. Amelia, as Alison had expected, was waiting on the bed for Alison to come home. “There was a bonfire and we told stories and Jessica dripped ketchup in my hair and I ate so much I feel sick!”

Alison had not expected to see the sour expression that Amelia greeted her with. “I thought you didn't want to have fun,” was Amelia's grimacing response.

Alison paused to glance at Amelia a second time before hanging her coat in the closet, her excitement faltering. “What's wrong?”

Amelia crossed her arms over her aproned chest and shrugged. “Nothing. I just thought you didn't want to go to this party in the first place, that's all.” She rose smoothly from the bed. “I suppose you talked to C.J. all night long.”

Alison shook her head. In a low voice she answered, “No. I didn't say much to her at all. I spent most of the time with Jessica and Marie, you know, the girls I sit with at lunch.”

“Oh,” Amelia's pale face looked even paler in the dim light from the shaded lamp hanging on the wall above the bed.

Alison felt her scalp tighten and some more of the happiness she'd had from the party slipped away. “Okay, what happened, Amelia? What's wrong?”

Amelia turned away. “Nothing's wrong. I'm just surprised you had such a good time when you didn't want to go.”

Alison's sigh echoed in the big room. “Mom made me go. You know that.” She pulled one shoe off and dropped it on the floor. “But that doesn't matter, I guess. I thought you'd be glad that I had some fun.”

“I can't believe you even went to that party!” Amelia said, ignoring Alison's last comment.

“It's not that big of a deal, Amelia,” Alison said calmly. Her friend only glared at her, her hands resting stubbornly on her hips. “Come on, Amelia, haven't you had some fun with your other friends too?”

“No, I haven't!” Amelia replied, her anger suddenly flashing out of her blue eyes, her pale face flushing a deep crimson. “You're my best friend, my secret! Why would I want to bother with anybody else?”

Suddenly Alison was as angry as Amelia and she kicked her shoe across the room. It hit the closet door with a thud. “I don't know! Just because! I thought you would be happy that I had a good time for a change. I'm sorry you're so upset, but....” Amelia's angry eyes stopped the words in her throat. “I told you Mom didn't give me a choice, Amelia! Stop looking at me like that!”

Amelia's voice shook with fury when she spoke. “You were my friend, mine! You needed me. Now you've ruined it! Things will never be the same, you wait and see. You've ruined it!”

Alison was confused at Amelia's words. How had she ruined it? She didn't understand anything that was happening. “Amelia, what are you talking about?” she asked.

“I wasn't supposed to share you!” Amelia said in an awful whisper.

The possessive way Amelia talked about her put Alison on edge. In an equally harsh whisper she said, “I'm not your toy, Amelia! I'm a person, a real person. You can't tell me who I can talk to.”

“I can do anything I want!” was Amelia's angry response. “You're supposed to be my friend. But you're too busy with C.J. and Jessica. Maybe I'll just find another friend!”

“Fine,” Alison retorted. “Go ahead.”

“Fine, I will!” Amelia's braid swished back and forth. She was so mad she was shaking and swaying in front of the black square of the window. Her hands clenched into fists and she said, “I'm leaving, Alison!”

“Good!”

“Goodbye!” Amelia vanished, her face still red with rage. Her angry blue eyes were the last thing Alison saw before she was gone.

The emptiness of the room strangely surprised her. Alison stood still and just breathed. Her skin felt prickly and hot under her clothes.

Above everything, Alison noticed the silence. Her bedroom windows were shut to keep out the cold autumn air, and she couldn't hear any noises in the rest of the house. The old boards in the hallway weren't even creaking. There was nothing to listen to except the silence all around her. A ringing sound pealed loudly in her head, and it took a moment for the quiet of the house to pierce the memory of Amelia's awful words.

She cleared her throat, just to make a noise. She wondered if Amelia was coming back. She waited in the silent room, but nothing happened.

Now what could she do? Should she apologize to Amelia and promise never to talk to Jessica and Marie again? But she hadn't done anything wrong, she insisted to herself, and it would be so nice to have someone to talk to at school.

But what if Amelia never came back? A cold, lumpy knot started in her stomach, and her face felt pinched and tight. Was she supposed to choose between any other friends she made and Amelia? How could Amelia make her do that? Her head spun at each thought and Alison sighed, looking around the empty room with dry, wide-opened eyes.

Suddenly she hated her bedroom. She hated the yellow walls and the cracked ceilng and the ugly carpet. A great longing to be back in St. Louis hit her. She wanted to be in her old tiny bedroom with the matching curtains and carpet, go places she recognized, see her old friends, and above all, not see any girls named Amelia!

Dejected, Alison plopped down on her bed. She grabbed her pillow to her chest, hugging it close as the first tears pooled in her eyes, then dripped smoothly down her cheeks.

Chapter 11

Tear stains marked her pillow when Alison woke up the next morning. With the tears had come a deep sadness that persisted even after she forced herself out of bed. It was there, centered in her stomach, when she tried to eat her breakfast, a dullness that was worse than any stomach ache she'd ever had. When her parents asked enthusiastic questions about the party, she could only answer them with a few terse words, unable to explain what had happened to make her so upset. How could she tell them that she felt guilty for having fun at C.J.'s party, that Amelia was making her choose between her and new friends at school?

The numbing sadness wore on into the afternoon. She spent most of her time staring blankly out her bedroom window, her skin stretched tight and hot across her cheeks. Her homework, when she attempted to do any, had wrinkled edges where she had gripped the empty pages too hard. It no longer seemed to matter if she finished her work or not. She just couldn't make the lonely emptiness in her stomach go away. It was worse than the loneliness she had felt when they first moved to Iowa. Then she had just been scared of moving away from familiar things. Now she felt like she had lost something, something important.

“Alison,” her mom knocked on the bedroom door, interrupting her homework and dark thoughts. “C.J.'s on the phone.”

Alison's head jerked up. She didn't want to talk to anybody, especially not C.J. Besides, she instinctively thought, Amelia wouldn't like it if she talked to C.J. This worry was the only thing that replaced the emptiness, and then it only made her sick. She hesitated, uncertain how to answer.

Her mom pushed the door open to glance in. “Al, didn't you hear me?” She paused then, noticing Alison's tear-streaked face. “What is it, Alison? Don't you feel well?”

Alison shook her head, ashamed to be lying to her mother, but glad she didn't have to tell her the truth at the same time. Although it actually was a half truth, she thought to herself; she didn't feel well.

Her mom guessed, “Did you eat too much junk at the party last night?”

“Maybe,” Alison answered in listless agreement.

“I wondered why you didn't eat any lunch.” Mom smiled knowingly at her. “Well, C.J. just wanted to get together on your history project, but I'll tell her you're not feeling up to it today. Okay?”

Alison managed a wan smile. Her skin felt tight and pulled uncomfortably across her cheeks. “Thanks, Mom.”

“You just rest. I'll come up in a while to see how you're doing.” She nodded and smiled again before she left.

The door shut with a quiet click and Alison was alone again. She sighed thinly and lay back against her bedspread, her homework forgotten. Maybe she should have tried to tell her mom about Amelia. But it took so much effort to raise the courage to speak; she felt too tired. She hated herself for lying.

Alison looked out the window, watching dark, heavy clouds push themselves around the sky outside. It looked like it might rain. Alison hoped it would. She felt dreary and wanted the rest of the world to feel dreary too.

She pushed herself up and leaned against the brass railings at the head of her bed. She sighed again. Her nose was cold. Then she noticed that her room was cold. Wasn't it too early in the year to be cold indoors? It seemed as if she'd always been cold, as if she'd been stuck in this dull fog of unhappiness for years.

On the verge of being overwhelmed by her feelings and the gloom of the autumn sky, she shook herself until her head felt a little clearer. Maybe she could read for awhile. She'd tried reading one of her mom's old Victoria Holt books that morning, but her stomach had twisted into pretzels, and she had quit. Now she pulled the book off the little table beside her bed and opened it, settling back comfortably against the bed railings.

The next thing she knew a shaft of sunlight pierced her eyelids, and her eyes fluttered open. Clouds still covered the sky, but the sun occasionally found a chink in the thick, gray layers. One persistent ray of sunlight blazed through Alison's south window for a moment, waking her up completely from her nap before slowly fading away as the clouds moved together again.

Alison blinked and yawned. Her book lay on the floor beside the bed where it must have fallen sometime during her nap. She glanced at her clock out of habit, paying no attention to what time it was. Instead she looked out the window and was surprised to discover by the hazy, cloud-covered sun that it was late afternoon, almost time for supper. Her stomach rumbled at the thought of food.

Then she caught sight of Amelia materializing near the foot of her bed. All thoughts of eating flew from her mind.

The two girls carefully regarded each other across the length of the bed.

“Hi,” Amelia said, breaking the strained silence.

Alison propped herself against the railing again and felt her stomach flip over. “Hello,” she said guardedly.

Amelia walked around to stand next to the bed. “Can I sit down?”

Alison considered the request, then hesitantly nodded and Amelia sat down primly. As usual, the bedspread remained smooth and unwrinkled beneath her.

“How are you?” Amelia asked next.

Alison stared at her suspiciously. Amelia hadn't been this formal with her since the day they met. “I'm fine. Why are you here? I thought you were going to find some other friend.”

Amelia relaxed her formal manner. In a softer tone, she confessed, “Well, I tried to find another girl to be my best friend, but....” She stopped to look uncomfortably out the window. “I couldn't find anybody that I liked as much as you.”

Alison stared dumbly at Amelia. She'd expected to continue the argument from the night before, not to hear such a sincere admission. It was a relief to know that Amelia still liked her; it took too much energy to fight. She smiled wanly, and the knot of anxiety began to loosen in her stomach. “I missed you too, Amelia,” she said.

“You did?” Amelia gave Alison a beseeching look. “It wasn't any fun without you, Alison,” she admitted and apologetically glanced at Alison from behind her lashes. “Friends again?” she cautiously asked.

Alison agreed that she certainly hadn't had any fun without Amelia. More of the sickening, empty sensation drifted away until Alison could nod. “Friends,” she declared with a smile.

Amelia smiled back. “Oh, it's good not to be fighting anymore!” she exclaimed, and enthusiastically flopped onto her stomach and propped her head up on her hands. She swung her stockinged legs back and forth, clicking the soles of her shoes together.

Her smiled growing, Alison agreed. “It is nicer. I don't like to fight.” She was pleased it had been so easy to make up with Amelia.

“I don't either,” Amelia admitted.

They grinned at each other, and Alison breathed in relief and slid to a position matching Amelia's. She settled her chin comfortably in the palms of her hands. The rest of her tension drifted away as she thoughtfully considered her friend. “Amelia, why were you so mad?”

A groan escaped Amelia's lips. “Oh, because,” she said. “It wasn't your fault.”

Alison perked up. “Were you, maybe, a little jealous?”

“Of those school girls?” Amelia asked, horrified. Then she relented. “Well, maybe a little.”

“Just because I talked to them?”

“Mostly because you were having such a good time.” Amelia laid her cheek on the bedspread, refusing to look at Alison.

Alison sighed and carefully said, “I don't understand why I can't be friends with other people and you at the same time.”

“You mean with C.J.?” Amelia asked quietly.

Alison shrugged. “Probably not. But maybe Jessica or Marie. It doesn't matter who, it....”

“But then you'll do things with them all the time. I'll never see you,” Amelia complained.

“I see you all the time when I'm at home, Amelia,” Alison pointed out. “I would still see you the most of anybody.”

Amelia shook her head against the bedspread, unconvinced. “You'll forget all about me,” she predicted glumly into the bedspread.

Alison sighed in frustration. What could she say that would make Amelia more comfortable with the idea of sharing her with other friends?

“You won't need me anymore with Jessica and Marie around,” Amelia continued. “You won't want me.”

“That's silly!” Alison protested. “Why wouldn't I want you?”

“You'll be too busy for me. Busy with your other friends.”

Why did it always have to be a choice with Amelia? After all, Diane had never made her choose between her and their other friends at school. And Jessica and Marie were willing to include her in their friendship. But Amelia seemed unable to accept the simple possibility of having several friends at once. Alison wondered if Amelia had ever had more than one friend at a time.

That thought gave Alison an idea. “What if you were friends with them, too?” she suggested.

Amelia lifted her head, interested in spite of the look of disbelief on her face. “Me? I can't!”

“Why not?” Alison asked, sitting up, excited by the idea.

“They can't see me!” Amelia argued.

Alison had to concede she might have a point. But she went on, “Maybe not, at least at first. But didn't you tell me that you're easy to see when people know to look for you? I could tell Jess and Marie all about you. Once they know -”

Amelia interrupted, “No, that won't work.”

Alison didn't understand. It seemed so simple to her. “But why not?”

Amelia scowled. “Because it doesn't work that way, that's why. Besides, it's not fair,” she said unreasonably. “You don't have to share me with anybody, do you?”

“Well, no. But then, you've never mentioned it. I guess I wouldn't mind meeting -”

“There's no one else to meet, Alison,” Amelia said, her voice rising. She sat up. “I don't want to share you with anybody else. It wouldn't be the same.”

Alison couldn't argue with that. If she were friends with others at school, her relationship with Amelia was bound to change as a result, even if she couldn't predict how it would change. But she didn't want to give up just yet. “Could you try?” she entreated. “Please?”

Amelia took in Alison's hopeful expression. She grimaced, and sighed. “Do I have a choice?” she grumbled.

Alison wasn't sure how to answer. She knew she needed more contact with people. Just the way she had enjoyed C.J.'s party told her that. And she really wanted to be friends with Jessica and Marie. She liked them, and she felt fairly sure that they liked her. School was so awful, with nobody to talk to, but she didn't want to give up her friendship with Amelia, either. She resorted to begging. “I promise to tell you about everything that we do,” she shamelessly pleaded, then continued, “And if you make other friends, you can tell me all about them.”

Amelia sighed. She still wasn't convinced.

Alison tried one last suggestion. “What if I promise that whenever I'm at home, it's our special time? What do you think about that?” Please don't make me choose, she silently added.

“What about things like your history project with C.J.?”

“Oh.” Alison had been so intent on being convincing that she hadn't thought about that. She sighed her frustration. “I just want to be friends with all of you,” she lamely confided.

Amelia frowned and sighed too. She was clearly not happy with this arrangement. She rose to walk slowly around the room, chewing moodily on the loose hairs at the end of her braid. Finally she turned to face Alison once more. “All right,” she agreed reluctantly, resigned. “I guess that's fair.”

“But you don't like the idea,” Alison accused, surprised that Amelia had agreed so easily.

“Alison!” Amelia groaned, her frown giving way to a look of frustrated fondness. “I said it was all right, didn't I? Now you're being a... what do you always call me? A dope!”

Alison had to laugh at that. “You're right, I am. I'm a dope!”

“A big dope!” Amelia laughed too.

Alison smiled hopefully then. “So, are we still friends?”

Amelia put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes in mock irritation. “Yes, Alison. Friends!” she said emphatically.

“Good!” Alison blew out her breath in a huge sigh of relief. “I would never want to lose my first friend from Iowa.”

“Me neither,” Amelia agreed, smiling brightly.

Such a cheerful attitude was such a complete turnaround for Amelia that Alison asked once more, wanting to be sure. “You don't mind about Marie or Jessica?”

“No, not if you don't mind about my other friends.”

Alison's eyebrows rose. “I thought you said there wasn't anybody else where you live.”

Amelia shrugged. “Sometimes new people come to live there,” she explained vaguely. “I never know when someone new might show up.” Her eyes glistened mischievously as she spoke.

“You're teasing me,” Alison said.

“Are you jealous yet?” she continued in a far more teasing tone.

Alison smiled, happy to be on such friendly terms again. “You bet!”

“Good!” They both laughed again in lighthearted enjoyment.

Alison grinned up at Amelia. “Well, now that you're here, what should we do? I smuggled Sara's cards out of her room yesterday; do you want to play a game?”

“Let's go for a walk, instead, Alison,” Amelia suggested. “I have something to show you.”

Alison was surprised by the suggestion. “You want to go for a walk? Now? Isn't it raining?” She looked out the window and saw the dark clouds scuttling across the sky, but no rain.

“Please, Alison,” Amelia cajoled. “Come for a walk with me, and you can tell me all about the party last night.”

This surprised Alison even more. She never would have expected that Amelia would want to hear about the party. But the idea of discussing the details with her friend delighted her. “You really want to hear about it?”

Amelia looked straight into her eyes. “Sure,” she said evenly. “Let's go.”

Alison glanced out the window once more. It looked unpleasantly chilly out there. She hesitated.

“A good friend would gladly come with me,” Amelia said, teasing again.

Alison grinned at her friend's words. “Boy, you sure know how to drive a hard bargain.”

Amelia grinned back. “Come on,” she encouraged.

At Amelia's eager expression, Alison said, “Okay.” She stood gladly enough, but wove unsteadily on her tired legs. She had forgotten that she hadn't eaten very much since the hot dog and marshmallows at C.J.'s party. Amelia grabbed the arm she held out. “Maybe I shouldn't do too much just yet,” she said.

“Why? Are you sick?” Amelia was definitely disappointed.

“Well, no --”

“Then come on. You'll be with me; nothing will happen to you.” Amelia walked to the door and beckoned for Alison to follow. “The air will do you good. All you need is some exercise,” she insisted. “And it's so much safer for us to talk out of doors.”

Alison sighed. Amelia was right, she decided. “Wait for me to get my coat. It looks cold outside.”

Amelia's smile returned. “I forgot you get cold. Hurry up, Ali, I can't wait to show you this.” She stood impatiently at the door, her manner rushed now as well as eager, as if it was important that they hurry.

Pulling her coat from the closet, Alison asked, “If it's so neat, why haven't you showed me before?”

“Because I didn't think of it. Now come on!” Amelia grabbed Alison's hand with an excited smile. The bedroom door obligingly opened for them, and they darted into the hallway.

Amelia led Alison down the stairs and through the kitchen, then out the back screen door. The porch door thunked closed behind them and they were in the open yard.

The cold air bit into Alison. She gasped a deep breath. “When did it get so cold?”

“Walk fast. It might help,” Amelia said and started across the yard.

Alison had to jog to keep up the fast pace Amelia set as they walked in the direction of the barn. Her heart thumped in her chest with the exercise. “What's the hurry?”

“It's important,” was all Amelia would say.

They slid around the edge of the barn, Amelia pulling Alison most of the way. Alison was breathing hard by then and wanted to slow down, but Amelia was conscious only of their mysterious destination. This walk was turning into something more like a forced marathon. There was no danger of Alison rambling on about the party because she couldn't talk anyway. Finally Alison had to stop.

“Wait,” she panted. “I need to rest.” Her empty stomach gurgled in protest at the sudden activity.

Sunshine broke though the gray clouds again, warming Alison as she tried to regain her breath. Few birds were left to sing in the almost bare branches of the old trees near the barnyard, but Alison heard a woodpecker from somewhere in the woods, its knocking loud in the quiet afternoon. The hum of a few cars on the road reached her ears. Though it hadn't rained during the day, the air felt wet and clammy against Alison's exposed skin.

“Are you ready?” Amelia asked, then without waiting for an answer, took her hand and headed up the hill to the windmill.

“It's just the windmill,” Alison mentioned when they stood in the tall dry grass at its base. “I've seen it a hundred times.” She looked at Amelia while the wind blew her hair across her eyes. “I don't understand.”

“Just wait,” Amelia said. She gripped the nearest iron leg that anchored the creaking windmill to the ground, then stepped up on a crossbar. The edge of her skirt grazed across the very tip of the long grass, and she inched her way up the iron bar until the grass no longer appeared to touch even her shoes. “See, it's easy!” she called delightedly down to Alison. “Come on. We have to climb to the top!”

Alison stared up at Amelia, her eyebrows raised to her hair in disbelief. “You want me to climb the windmill?”

“I can't give you my surprise on the ground,” Amelia answered. “Come on.”

Alison hesitantly touched the cold steel leg. “I don't know, Amelia. I don't feel real good yet.”

“Come on, Alison! You have to see this.”

“Amelia....”

Amelia looked down on Alison, her smile warm and her voice persuasive. “Give me your hand. I'll help you.”

Alison chewed on her lip, glancing around at the house below the hill and the empty hayfield nearby. Amelia was still smiling when she looked up again. “We might get in trouble for this.”

Amelia laughed, the soft tinkling sound carried on the wind like the peel of distant bells. “Nobody will ever know. Now come on. I'll help. Or don't you want to play with me?”

Amelia's plaintive expression was an excellent motivator for Alison. She didn't want to disappoint Amelia, and she definitely didn't want this to turn into another argument. Alison reluctantly grabbed the iron leg and stepped on the same cross bar Amelia stood on. The minute she had both feet off the ground, Amelia reached out for her arm. The hand on her wrist was warm, and before Alison knew it, she was standing beside Amelia, hanging from the crossbars in the middle of the windmill.

The cold air strangely didn't bother her so much now, and the wind only whispered around the windmill to ruffle her hair. “You're right, this is easy!” Alison commented with a tiny smile growing on her lips.

“We're half way there already,” Amelia said, and moved her feet up to the next crossbar.

“Is there something at the top?” Alison asked, following her friend. “A bird's nest or something? Can we see the Mississippi River from there?”

Amelia laughed again. “It won't be a surprise if I tell you. You'll see in a minute.”

They climbed up, each step bringing them closer to the top until Alison felt the breeze from the windmill's slowly turning paddles brush her cheek. Amelia didn't stop until they stood on the tiny platform at the very top of the windmill, directly in line with the blade mechanism. There was barely enough room for both of them to stand side by side. The wind vain stuck out from the windmill, gently swaying with the wind, making the tiny shelf they stood on even more cramped. Alison clung tightly to the bars connecting the wind vain with the blades, determined not to look down. The height was dizzying.

She perched precariously on her toes and looked around, surveying the countryside from a new perspective. The rolling hills of the farms looked much flatter from her height advantage. When she turned her eyes to the east, she caught the far-off glint of hazy sunlight on water.

“There's the river!” Alison pointed while clinging to the rusted metal bar with her free hand.

Amelia ignored her gesture, pulling Alison's attention back by her words, “Now watch, Alison.” She carefully stepped away from the platform on the windmill, hanging only onto Alison's hand. “See?”

Alison gaped at Amelia as the black-haired girl floated in the air, a foot away from the safety of the windmill. “How...?”

“Come on,” Amelia smiled. “It's fun.” She tugged encouragingly on Alison's hand.

Alison's eyes grew even wider. “You want me to....” She threw a look at the ground many feet below, her head swimming. “No, Amelia,” she answered, her voice weak. “This is as far as I go.”

Amelia still smiled. “Oh, nothing can happen to you as long as you hold on to me.” She tugged Alison's hand again, her blue eyes shining. “Hurry up, Alison. It's not hard at all. You just step out.”

Alison shook her head and curled her fingers tightly around the iron. “No. I'll just watch you.”

Amelia's smile drooped a bit. “Oh, Alison, you're no fun.”

“Why didn't we try this earlier, from the stumps in the pasture or something? Some place that's not so high up?”

“It's better this way. Now come on.” She pulled on Alison again.

Alison looked down. The tall grass bent in the wind, winding pleasantly around the windmill's legs. It was a long way to the ground. “What if I fall?”

Amelia rolled her eyes. “You won't fall because you're with me,” she patiently reminded. “You'll always be with me.” She reached out her other hand for Alison to grab.

Alison firmly shook her head. “No, I can't do it. Let's try it later from someplace not so high.” She turned to start the climb back down to the ground.

“No, now!” Amelia insisted and pulled.

She pulled so hard that Alison lost her balance on the narrow platform. Her right foot slipped, and she teetered, dangerously close to pitching over the edge. Only her tight grip on the cold metal of the windmill saved her. She pulled hard with all the muscles in her arm and managed to find her balance again at the last minute. “Amelia!” she gasped. “I almost fell!”

But Amelia didn't appear to hear her. She was intent on the platform supporting Alison. She pulled again on Alison's hand, an insistent force that Alison found hard to resist. At the same time, Alison felt the tiny metal shelf she was standing on shift under her feet. She risked a glance at it. The narrow piece of iron was bending under her weight. Her feet slipped again, and this time she couldn't maintain her fragile balance. The platform was going to break out from under her, and she would fall.

“Amelia, let go!” she yelled, clutching desperately at the thin metal bars connecting the wind vain to the rest of the windmill. “I'll fall!” She glanced up to see Amelia looking at her with a smile on her face. Amelia didn't say anything. She just continued to smile that same, sickly sweet smile. Her grip tightened.

Suddenly it was obvious. Alison's eyes opened wide in slow comprehension. She blinked stupidly, her mouth frozen open, unable to speak. Her breath leaked out of her lungs to hiss through her open mouth.

“Come on Alison!” Amelia persuasively said. “We practiced so much, and this way, neither of us ever has to be lonely again. So let go!” Her blue eyes were bright and sparkling under her dark bangs. She pulled in determination.

Alison's brow wrinkled. A chill coursed up her spine. For a moment, she could only stare at Amelia. She wants... she wants.... kept repeating over and over in her mind, and she was as incapable of finishing the thought as she was of doing what Amelia asked. Horrified, she shook her head. She looked at the ground again, then back at Amelia. Alison was suddenly very afraid. “Stop it,” she said, sluggishly coming to her senses. She tried to wriggle her hand out of Amelia's grasp. “Let go of me.”

Amelia just tightened her grip, the pale fingers wrapped like a vice around her wrist. “Come with me! We can play together all the time, now, Alison.”

“I don't want to!” Alison yelled, her voice loud and disturbing in the relative peace of the hayfield surrounding the windmill. “I don't want to go with you! I want to stay here!” She desperately twisted her hand, trying to pull it out of Amelia's grasp, but the girl gripped her wrist so tight that Alison could feel her fingers begin to go numb.

“No!” Amelia's determination was rapidly crumbling to anger. “I don't want to be lonely anymore.”

“Let go!” Alison yelled, pulling hard.

Amelia pulled equally as hard. “You're coming with me! Now, let go of the windmill, Alison!” She pulled again.

They tugged at each other, first one gaining an inch, then the other. Alison struggled silently against Amelia's grip. She was quickly tiring, the lack of sleep and food over the last day too much of a drain on her system to waste any energy on speaking. She had a hard enough time just maintaining her precarious balance on the tilting shelf.

Then, without warning, the platform suddenly fell away from under her feet.

Alison screamed. It happened so quickly that she barely had time to register what Amelia had done. The tiny metal strip fell gracefully, flipping end over end, smashing into the windmill's crossbars with loud metallic clangs. It disappeared into the weeds and Alison heard a muted thump as it hit the ground.

“Stop!” Alison yelled. Her feet scrabbled at the legs of the windmill, unable to get a grip. The crossbars didn't go far enough up the windmill's support system, and now that the platform was gone, there was nothing else for her to stand on. She hung from the rusted wind vain and Amelia's hand, while her legs banged uselessly against the windmill's metal supports. “Amelia, stop it!” she begged. “Stop!” Her wrist clasped in Amelia's grasp hurt. Her fingers wrapped around the metal hurt. She couldn't hang on much longer.

Amelia ignored her. “I won't share you!” she was saying through clenched teeth. “I won't lose my friend to them!” She yanked again.

Alison was losing her grip on the windmill. One more strong pull was all Amelia needed to finish her hold altogether. Amelia knew that. She pulled again. At the same time, the wind vain jerked in the opposite direction from Amelia's tugging. Alison's feet flew out in the open air, swinging in a wild arc as she dangled between Amelia and the bar she still desperately clutched with her right hand.

Alison felt her fingers slip. She tried to tighten her grip on the bar, but her muscles wouldn't respond. She was too tired. She blinked against her exhaustion and aching muscles to look up at Amelia floating in the air an arms' length from her.

Amelia's pale face was set in a ruthless grimace as she prepared to yank Alison's arm one last time. Her trapped hand had gone completely numb by now, and the sensation had started to travel further up her arm. The dead feeling of it reminded Alison of Amelia's touch before she'd learned to feel the other girl. Her hands and arms had tingled, like they were asleep, each time she and Amelia had attempted to touch each other. The sensation was so similar to what she was feeling now that she could almost pretend that's all that was happening.

Alison blinked rapidly several times. Suddenly, as if someone had snapped a blindfold away from her mind, she knew what to do.

Alison forced herself to stop struggling against Amelia. Instead of pulling away, she concentrated on not sensing Amelia at all. Just as they had spent hours together so that Alison could feel Amelia's hand and fingers, now she attempted to end that connection.

It worked. Just as if Amelia didn't exist, Alison's wrist began to slip through her gripping fingers.

“No!” Amelia gave a startled jerk towards the ground. Then she quickly tried to restore her tight hold on Alison.

But the minute Alison felt Amelia's grip loosen, she twisted her wrist, wrenching her fingers away. The almost forgotten sensation of her arm being asleep assaulted her. She concentrated harder.

Amelia reached for Alison's twisting fingers, but she couldn't maintain her hold. “No! Alison, we have to stay together. We won't be lonely if we're together! We won't!” A desperate expression on her face, she grabbed at Alison's flailing hand, but she wasn't fast enough.

“Go away,” Alison whispered as her hand slid neatly through Amelia's pale fingers, severing their connection. Alison was free. She felt her body swing back towards the windmill, and she uselessly tried to grab at one of the steel bars to stop her momentum. She crashed into one of the windmill's supportive legs. A shudder went through the entire windmill, and the vibration broke the rusted metal rod that she was still clinging to with her other hand. The wind vain sagged without the metal bars to keep it attached to the blade mechanism, and her fingers lost their grip and slipped off the cold metal.

Alison screamed again, the sound scratching the insides of her throat. She hung for a heartbeat, suspended in the air between Amelia and the windmill. The pull of the ground sucked at her feet. She started to fall.

At the same instant she reached out with her numbed, tingling arm and forced herself to wrap her fingers around the topmost crossbar as she fell past. The weight of her fall wrenched her entire arm, and the bones in her wrist snapped at the sudden jerk. She gasped in pain and lost her grip again.

This time, instead of falling straight down, she hit one of the windmill's thick supporting legs and slid along it for several feet before her knees caught on a crossbar. She flipped over, narrowly missing another bar with her head. As suddenly as her fall began, she jerked to a stop.

Alison dangled upside down, momentarily disoriented. The world spun in sickening circles around her. One minute she saw the ground, and the next she could only see the gray clouds covering the sky. Something else spun crazily up near the sky. Her head cleared enough for her to realize that she was staring up at the windmill's blades, still rotating slowly in the wind. The sound of their creaks and groans broke the stillness of the hayfield.

Suddenly Alison could see Amelia again. The girl was in the same place she had been all along, floating in midair, only now she had a piteous expression on her face. She heaved a deep, melancholy sigh. The sound tore through the quiet afternoon to finally mix with the sighing of the windmill. “I just wanted to keep my friend,” Amelia said in a whisper.

Alison heard her in spite of the quietness of her voice. She squeezed her eyes shut so she wouldn't have to look, sickened by the return of her fear. “Go away!” she said again, her voice high and frightened. She shook her head back and forth, on the verge of sobs. “Go away! Just go away!”

“I just want....” Amelia repeated in a whisper, but she didn't finish. The sound choked off, her voice strangling suddenly to silence.

The strange gurgling sound that followed prompted Alison to open her eyes. She looked at Amelia in dulled surprise.

Amelia was slowly fading. Her dress and shoes lacked substance, and her braided hair that curled over one shoulder looked dusty and thin rather than the sleek black that Alison was used to seeing. Her apron became sheer, and wisps of clouds peeked through. She opened her mouth to speak, but no sound came out except the soft moaning of the wind. Her skin glowed in a pale light, growing paler and more translucent.

Alison saw the look of sorrow and lost sadness on Amelia's face as the girl slowly disappeared from sight. Only the dark gray clouds were left to whirl across the space that she had occupied, and the quiet creak of the windmill was the only sound.

Then another sound pierced the air. At first Alison couldn't place the noise; it wasn't a bird, it wasn't a tractor or a car, and it came in short bursts, too short to be the groans from the turning windmill blades. It was only when she felt hands touching her shoulders, supporting her enough to disentangle her legs from the crossbar that she understood the noise was voices yelling her name.

“Alison!”

She instinctively jerked away from the hands and the voice, thinking that Amelia had returned. But this grip was far more gentle than Amelia's had been. The hands on her back insistently pushed her up into a sitting position. The world spun again. Alison moaned against the sensation of vertigo.

“Alison?” came the voice once more.

Alison clung to the windmill, trembling against the cold steel. Her teeth chattered in fear and shock, and she had trouble breathing around the lump in her throat. A loud ringing peeled in her ears. “What... what...?” She couldn't go on. It took all her concentration just to hang on. Alison blinked some more, then stared right into her sister's face. “Sara?” she whispered. Her gaze slid beyond Sara to see her mother and Jessica just arriving at the bottom of the windmill, worried expressions on their uplifted faces. Her mom grabbed the lowest crossbar and started to pull herself up.

But where was Amelia? Alison looked all around, twisting to glance behind her and to look up at the spinning blades, wanting to be sure Amelia was really gone. “Is she...? Is she...?” She couldn't finish the sentence. Her teeth were chattering too hard.

Sara shook Alison. “Alison, stop moving around so much! Look at me. Can you hear me?” Her voice was warm and promised safety. She wrapped an arm around her for support.

Alison looked at Sara through unfocused eyes, and had to blink several more times before the spinning slowed down and the ringing subsided in her ears. “Yes,” she answered hesitantly. “I can hear you.” A wet wind circled the windmill, chilling her exposed hands and ears, and she swallowed hard. She found it hard to think though the gray fog that filled her mind. “My wrist... hurts,” she managed to say as she gulped air through her tight throat and leaned against Sara. “I fell.”

Sara smiled a small, tight smile. “I know. I saw you from the house. What a squint you are.”

Alison agreed with a nod.

“Can you climb down if I help?”

Alison took a deep breath, clearing her head. The ground wasn't nearly so far away now. She nodded. “I th... th... think so.”

Sara said, “Okay. Just hang on. I've got you.” She slowly worked her way down the windmill's crossbars, inching along with Alison clinging to her waist until they reached their mom's hands. Together the three of them managed to slide along the crossbars to the bottom of the windmill. Jessica helped them all back to firm ground.

Her mom was the first to break the tense silence. She quickly became the capable doctor and ran concerned hands all over Alison's body to feel for bruises and broken bones. “Are you all right, Alison?” she asked calmly. “Can you answer me?”

Alison nodded, still numb. She felt dizzy and sick to her stomach, and her wrist hurt, like hot little needles shooting pain up her arm. “I'm okay, Mom. I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you.” She swayed tiredly on her feet, and three pairs of hands helped to steady her.

Certain that she had no major injuries, her mom knelt down and held Alison tightly in her arms. “What were doing climbing the windmill?” she asked, the first hints of fear entering her voice.

“I was... I was only....” Alison didn't finish. She didn't know what to tell her mom. Suddenly she was too tired to care. “How did you know I was here?” she asked instead.

“Jessica came to see you since you were sick, and when you weren't in your room, we began searching for you. Sara saw you.” She glanced up at the creaking paddles far above them. “We never expected to find you on top of the windmill.” She rubbed Alison's cheek with a warm hand.

Jessica smiled shyly at her over her mom's shoulder, then she reached out to awkwardly pat Alison on the shoulder. “You climbed all the way up the windmill? I think you're pretty brave, Alison.”

Surprised, Alison gave Jessica a puzzled look. She hadn't felt brave. “Really?”

Jessica grinned. “Yeah. I would have been scared to death!”

Alison finally felt enough of her fear melt away to smile shakily. “I was.”

Mom shook her head. “Enough talking. I want to take you to the hospital. Your dad's on duty, and he can look at your wrist. I think it's broken.” She briskly rose from her knees and said. “We'll talk about this later, Alison. For now, let's make sure you're all right.” She smiled and Alison managed to lift the corners of her mouth in response. It hurt to smile, but for her mom's sake she did it anyway.

Slowly they made their way back down the hill towards the house. Alison limped, noticing for the first time that her left ankle was hurt too and had started to swell. Her knees ached as well from hanging upside down for such a long time. Jessica offered support by keeping her hand on Alison's arm the entire way. Sara followed closely, unusually quiet, occasionally patting Alison's shoulder and helping her over the gravel drive. Alison had to admit that it felt good to hang on to somebody alive again.

Just as they reached the house, Alison took a quick look back over her shoulder at the windmill sitting innocently in a block of warm sunshine on the hilltop. Immediately she thought of Amelia. Alison knew she would never see Amelia again, and that thought made her glad and sad at the same time. She remembered all the good times she and Amelia had enjoyed together, the walks and adventures on the farm, and especially the long talks they'd shared. But the afternoon's events shrouded the good memories in a blanket of new, unpleasant fear. The thought of Amelia already left a sour taste in her mouth.

She sighed tiredly and turned back toward the house, away from the windmill. But for a long time she could hear its eerie creaking, calling forlornly across the fields.

Chapter 12

Alison glared at her left hand in frustration and tilted the notebook she held on her lap to just a little more of an angle. She was gripping her pencil so tightly that it left dents in the sides of her fingers.

Jessica curled her legs more securely under her, rumpling the flowered spread and jouncing the bed as she noticed the direction of Alison's look. “When do you get your cast off?”

Alison grimaced. “Not for another week. The day after this stupid history project is due. Doesn't that just figure?”

“Jessica, quit bouncing on the bed!” C.J. grumbled and reached down to retrieve her book that had fallen to the floor.

Jessica quickly turned to look at C.J.. “What's the problem?” she asked, accidentally bouncing even more.

C.J.'s book fell again with a thud. “Oh, I give up.” She followed her book, sliding to the worn carpet in a heap. She settled against the white iron bedpost and opened the library book once again to the section on eastern Iowa.

“I quit too,” Alison said in dejection and dropped her notebook beside her on the bedspread. “I just can't write good enough with this stupid cast. We'll never be able to read it when we have to type it up.”

C.J. glanced back at Jessica. “We won't have anything to read if we don't get through this last book,” she said pointedly.

Jessica just smiled at C.J.'s complaining. “How was I supposed to know that you two would be working today? I just came over for a Saturday afternoon visit. It was Marie's idea, really.”

Marie looked up from her inspection of Alison's music collection and smiled. “Sorry, C.J..”

C.J. twisted one of her perfect curls around her index finger and grimaced. “I just can't believe you two have your project finished already. It seems like Alison and I have been working forever!”

“She has a broken wrist,” Jessica explained patiently, shrugging in Alison's direction. “Give her a break.”

Alison groaned at Jessica's choice of words.

“Oh, I don't mean literally,” Jessica hurried to say. “I mean, you already have one broken bone. After all, I don't want you to hurt yourself or....”

Marie cheerfully interrupted. “Jess, shut up.”

Jessica nodded. “Good idea.”

Alison giggled.

C.J. sighed heavily. “I have an even better idea. Here, Alison, you look at the book and mark the places that you think are important, and I'll write them down. We'll never get finished if you keep trying to write with that stupid cast.” She tossed the library book up to Alison and pulled the notebook down to her lap.

For a moment Alison just looked at C.J. sitting on the floor of her bedroom. All C.J. had done since she'd arrived at the Martins early that afternoon was complain. Alison suspected she hadn't been particularly pleased to find Marie and Jessica keeping Alison company. Maybe C.J. felt uncomfortable around the other two girls. Alison considered this idea with surprise. It amazed her to think of C.J. being intimidated by Jessica and Marie! I guess C.J.'s not as perfect as she thinks, Alison thought, and turned to the book in her hands. But the beginning of an amused smile threatened her control.

She didn't even care that C.J. still wasn't very friendly to her. In the past month Alison had discovered that she had many things in common with Jessica and Marie, and their friendship took much of the sting out of C.J.'s biting comments and general unfriendliness.

Thinking of friends reminded Alison of Amelia, and she quickly opened the book to distract her thoughts from the ghostly girl she'd called her friend. The more Alison thought about Amelia, the more she doubted that the girl had ever really existed. The entire idea of ghosts and poltergeists and hauntings made Alison nervous and a little sick to her stomach. She preferred not to think about any of it. Alison sighed and started glancing through the yellowing pages of the book, a surprise from Randy who had picked it up at the library just the day before. It was the last book they needed to research before she and C.J. could start organizing their report.

“Alison, you're handwriting is awful,” Jessica commented as she leaned over C.J.'s shoulder for a closer inspection of the notebook.

“Do you mind?” C.J. glared at Jessica.

“Calm down, C.J.,” Jessica admonished. “We'll help you, since we're here anyway. Put some music on, Marie, and come over here.”

Marie raised her eyebrows at Jessica, but only selected a CD, then joined the others. Soon they were all quiet as Jessica, C.J., and Marie did their best to decipher Alison's scratchy handwriting and Alison marked pages for C.J. to look at with small pieces of paper.

Then C.J. wrinkled her nose. “What are we listening to?”

“A soundtrack to some western movie,” Marie answered. “I thought it would set the mood for your project.”

“Yeah,” Jessica agreed. “You know, those waving prairie grasses and all that stuff.”

Marie continued. “Besides, this kind of music is easy to block out and helps us think. Right, Alison?”

But Alison wasn't paying any attention to what they were saying. Instead she was staring at a picture in the leather bound book C.J. had tossed up to her, her eyes wide, her heart racing, and her palms sweating. It was a picture of Amelia!

“Alison.”

She looked up, startled. “Huh?”

Jessica regarded her in amusement. “The music. It helps us think, right?”

C.J. sarcastically said, “I guess it helps some people think more than others.”

Alison forced her full attention to the conversation. “Oh. My grandma gave it to me before we moved. She thought it would help me get more prepared for the country. Actually, I think she just liked the movie a lot.”

“I guess,” C.J. grumbled. “Put something else in, Marie. This is driving me nuts.”

But before Marie could comply, Alison's dad appeared in the bedroom doorway. “Hey, anybody hungry? I've got brownies downstairs, right out of the oven.”

Jessica brightened. “I'm all for it. Thanks, Dr. Martin.”

C.J. closed the notebook with a grateful snap. “Anything is better than doing homework.”

Marie stopped the cd player, then paused. “Are you coming, Alison? Jessica will eat them all if we don't hurry.”

Alison nodded. “I'll be right there. I just want to finish reading this last page.”

Marie shrugged, then she was gone. Alison heard her footsteps fading down the stairs.

Breathlessly she opened the book again. Yes, there it was, a bit fuzzy and faded from age, but the identity of the girl was unmistakable. Amelia looked the same except she was wearing a different dress made of a checked material, and there was no heavy apron to cover the front. Her braid was pulled over her left shoulder, and her eyes smiled mischievously from under her dark bangs. Alison's breath caught in her throat; the picture seemed eerily real.

Alison's gaze slid to the caption under the picture: “A typical family portrait of the Aldens, farm owners near Wyngate, Iowa. Standing, Matthew and his wife, Ann, holding a new baby. Children: Tom, Matthew Jr. and Jacob. Seated, the oldest child, Amelia, only months before her death from Scarlet Fever. Children often died before their teens in the remote, rural areas of Iowa where accidents and diseases were plentiful, but doctors were few.”

Alison leaned back against the hard iron posts of her bed. Her heart thumped in her chest. She had to bite her lip to stay calm, but her mind twisted crazily whenever she looked at that picture. It seemed like Amelia had been laughing at the camera when the picture was taken. Alison felt that the girl was laughing specifically at her.

“Don't be stupid,” she told herself out loud. “She's gone.” Alison shut her eyes for a moment and forced herself to take a deep breath. She knew she'd feel better if she could just calm down.

“Alison!” her mother called up the staircase. “Are you coming? Sara and Jessica are eating all the brownies. You'll miss out if you don't hurry up.”

Alison took another deep breath, forcing thoughts of chocolate brownies to the front of her mind. Brownies were much more enjoyable to think about than Amelia. A moment later, she relaxed against the bedframe, and almost smiled.

Then, so quiet she almost didn't hear it, the tiniest rustling sound carried to her from the corner of the room.

Alison's eyes popped open, wide and staring. Instantly she snapped the book shut, tossed it on the bed, and scrambled up all at once. She didn't take time to investigate the corner of her bedroom, but ran into the hall, yelling, “I'm coming!”

The sound of her feet pounding down the stairs receded, leaving the sun-filled bedroom empty and quiet. A curtain fluttering serenely against the white windowsill was the only movement in the deserted room.


The End


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