Elsa, Haley, Megan, and Abby are typical eleven-year old girls who love sleepovers, music, and friends. When an unexpected ghostly guest, Mercy Aldridge, comes to Haley's birthday party, they find out that they also like a good mystery, no matter where, or when, it takes them.
A tale of friendship, mystery, and the mystical, this first installment in the Ghost Club series illustrates what four enterprising girls can do when they decide to take on both the normal, and the paranormal, world.
“Hey Elsa, are you still coming over tonight?” Haley asked as she shoved her binder into her over-stuffed backpack.
“Wouldn't miss it,” Elsa answered. “I've got your present waiting at home. You're going to love it!” Elsa tightened up her signature ponytail and then slung her satchel over her shoulder. For Haley’s birthday, she had bought a pair of matching BFF necklaces and a fuzzy pillow shaped like an “H.” Haley loved jewelry and pillows, the more colorful, the better.
The bell at Morton S. Evans elementary had just rung, and students were streaming out of the classroom doors as soon as they could grab their belongings. It was Friday, a good enough reason to celebrate, but what made it sweeter, was that it was also Haley's 11th birthday.
Haley was the last one of their friends to turn 11, so her mother had planned a special party. They'd get to swim in the pool, eat pizza and cake, and best of all, sleep over.
“Race you to the tree!” Haley exclaimed as she threw her backpack over her shoulder. Neck and neck, they burst out of the double front doors and sped toward the old chestnut tree that shaded the front of their old school building. This was the regular meeting place for their gang of friends. As usual, it was a tie.
“Hey, Haley! Happy birthday, girlfriend!” Megan shouted. She ran straight for Haley, squeezed her in a tight bear hug and lifted her off the ground. Megan was tiny, but years of gymnastics had made her unusually strong.
“Happy birthday!” Abby echoed, her brown bob dancing up and down as she greeted her friend. “How's your day been?”
“So far so good,” Haley answered, setting her heavy bag on the sidewalk. “Except Hunter Barnes was my partner in PE. When I was holding his feet for sit-ups, he tooted.”
“Ewww!” all the girls shrieked.
“Oh, looks like my mom's here,” Haley said when she spotted her mom's SUV pulling up to the curb. “My house at 6:00! Don't forget!” she said as she scooped up her bag. Before she stepped into the car, though, she turned once more to her friends.
“Oh, one more thing. Be prepared for a spooky night!” she shouted.
“What?” Elsa called out, but Haley just grinned and closed the door.
Awesome, Elsa gloomily thought. What was Haley planning? Haley knew that Elsa, and Abby, scared easily.
But before she started to worry too much, Elsa gave herself a little pep talk. There was no way she was going to let her fears ruin this party!
She scanned both directions hoping to see her mom, but she was nowhere in sight. She bounced on her toes. There was so much she needed to do before the party, and the sooner she got home, the sooner she'd be at Haley's.
Five minutes went by, and both Megan and Abby's rides showed up. Megan's father was a stay-at-home dad and sometimes picked her up with their tandem bike. Abby's nanny always picked her up. Elsa couldn’t help being a little jealous, because the nanny always took Abby out for an after-school treat, usually a frozen yogurt or a mall pretzel. Elsa's mom worked part-time at the Sav-It grocery store and sometimes had a hard time getting away. It wasn't unusual for her to be late.
Ten minutes later, her mother's blue compact car zipped up to the nearly empty school. Her mother waved at her from the open window.
“Hi, honey,” she shouted through the window. Elsa opened the back seat door and threw in her satchel, then settled into the worn, cloth-covered seat.
“Sorry I was late. Mr. Winschel had me help with inventory. How was your day?” Her mom looked tired. Elsa noticed that her name badge was upside down. It probably had been all day.
“It was OK,” Elsa said, replacing her brief frustration with her excitement for the party. “Remember, tonight's Haley's party.”
“I couldn't forget that,” her mom answered. “You've been talking about it for days.”
Their condo wasn't very far from the school, so they were home in no time. As soon as she walked in the door, Elsa ran to her room and snatched up the to-do list she had waiting on her desk:
1. Feed Buster
2. Play with Buster
3. Take out the trash
4. Have a snack
5. Pack overnight bag
6. Make a note to remind mom to feed Buster
Buster, Elsa's pet rat, was her number one priority. She had had him since he was a baby, and she had taught him all kinds of tricks. He also liked to sleep on her shoulder when she was reading in bed. Next to Haley and the others, he was her best friend.
Elsa had just finished her chores and packed her bags when she heard her mother calling from the living room.
“Time to go!” her mother called.
“Coming!” Elsa grabbed her overnight bag, Haley's present, and her sleeping bag.
When Elsa found her mother waiting at the door, keys in hand, she noticed that her face looked worried.
“Are you sure you'll be all right tonight? I know you think their house is a little scary.”
She thought of the dark upstairs hall, and the old nursery that Haley called her playroom. The house did give her the creeps, but she'd never admit it to her mom.
“Come on, Mom. I'm not a little kid anymore.”
“I know that, honey. But, things will look a whole lot different at three in the morning. Call me anytime if you change your mind. OK?”
She nodded. “Sure. But I won't change my mind.” She did wish that Haley's room wasn't right next to the playroom, though. Brr.
Elsa had barely rung the doorbell when Haley pulled the front door open. When she saw Elsa, she squealed with joy.
“Elsa! You're the first one here,” she said without taking a breath. “Hi, Ms. Tanner.”
Elsa's mom smiled back. “Happy Birthday, Haley. I hope you girls will have lots of fun.”
Elsa gave her mother a quick hug. “See you in the morning, Mom.”
Her mother mouthed “Call me,” holding up a hand like a phone. She waved and followed the sidewalk to her car. Elsa felt a lump rise in her throat. With her mother gone, the house looming above her seemed much larger. Almost like it was waiting for her.
“Come on, let's get your stuff up to my room,” Haley said, dragging Elsa through the house.
It was an old, huge house, which Haley's parents had lovingly restored to its former Victorian glory. There were two living areas, five bedrooms, three porches, and even a balcony. If Haley were to abandon her now, Elsa might not find her way around. It was a little overwhelming for a girl who lived in a two bedroom apartment.
“Let's put your stuff on my bed,” Haley said. Her four poster bed was already crowded with throw pillows and stuffed animals. It was a cozy room, from its wood floors to its cheerful, floral wallpaper. In fact, it looked like a room out of a magazine.
“We're going to sleep in the playroom tonight,” Haley said. “I've got air mattresses in there ready to go.”
Elsa's heart skipped a beat. The playroom?
“I don't mind if we're a bit crowded in here,” Elsa said, her voice a little high-pitched.
“Oh, I've got plans for us in there. Just wait!” Haley answered.
Great, Elsa thought. From far away, Elsa heard the doorbell.
“Someone else is here!” Haley shouted. She turned and ran for the stairs. Elsa paused to grab the gift and followed in Haley's wake, her chest tight with worry. How would she make it through a night in the eerie playroom?
It wasn't long before all of the guests had arrived. Haley's mom, Teresa, told them there would be pizza and cake soon.
“Pizza!” all the girls shrieked in unison.
“And then you girls can jump in the pool,” she added.
Thank goodness Haley's pool was heated. It was mid-October, and while winter weather was weeks away—this was Texas after all—it was still too cold to swim in an unheated pool.
While they waited for the pizza, the four girls played hide and seek in the large back yard. It was the perfect place to hide, since there was a gazebo, a greenhouse, and lots of little nooks hidden behind vines and dense shrubs. Some of the trees were over a hundred years old, and their heavy branches covered most of the yard in shadows. The girls scattered in four different directions, and Haley was “it.” Elsa sped toward the old shed at the corner of the yard, but was disappointed to find that the door was locked tight. She quickly scanned the yard and decided to hide behind the grotto.
One by one, Elsa heard the sounds of screeching as Haley discovered the other girls. Elsa was the last one, and as she hid underneath the vines of a small, hidden grotto, the leaves tickled the back of her neck, making her shiver. When it grew quiet, Elsa was afraid that they had forgotten to search for her. When Haley's hand snaked between the ivy, grabbing her shoulder, Elsa screamed. Haley burst out from behind the grotto, and Elsa gave chase.
The other girls joined in the chase, too. In no time, they caught her, and they all tumbled to the grass in a tangle of arms and legs.
It was nearly dark when Haley's mom called them in for pizza.
The kitchen was bright compared to the yard, and it was filled with the good smell of pizza. Haley's mom had also made a tossed salad and artichoke dip, one of Haley's favorite foods. While the girls made their plates, Haley put on their favorite music, by the boy band UpLink, and they all sang along between bites. Haley's dad joined them just in time—the pizza was almost gone—and he joked about how much growing girls could eat.
“At least they saved me a few crumbs,” he said with a smile, giving his daughter a hug. “Am I too late for cake?”
“We wouldn't have cake without you,” Haley answered, her face glowing with happiness.
The layered chocolate cake tasted as good as it looked. It was three-layers tall and was generously covered with a fudgy frosting. Everyone had seconds. When they left the kitchen to open presents in the “parlor,” what Haley's parents called the living room, she felt like she waddled rather than walked.
In no time, Haley had opened her presents. Sitting cross-legged on the sofa, she was surrounded by clouds of tissue paper and crumpled wrapping paper in every color of the rainbow. As soon as she had opened Elsa's present, she had put her BFF necklace on and hugged her pillow. Elsa could tell that her presents were a hit. It turned out that the other girls had had almost the same idea, and soon, all four of them had a BFF necklace to wear.
“Let's swim!” Haley said when she had finished thanking everyone for the presents. They quickly helped clean up the room, and then they rushed for Haley's room so they could change into their swimsuits.
When she was with the noisy, gaggle of girls, the upstairs didn't seem quite so creepy. All of the lights sparkled against the night, which was now inky black, and the cheerful chatter of her friends made her feel cozy and safe. Maybe the night wouldn't be so scary after all.
By the time the girls had dried off and changed into their pajamas, it was almost 10 o'clock. Somehow, Elsa wasn't very tired. The swim had made her feel wide awake—especially when she had to walk back into the house in a wet bathing suit. Surprisingly, the girls were hungry again, so Haley's mom filled a giant blue bowl with hot, buttery popcorn and made them mugs of hot chocolate dotted with tiny marshmallows. She delivered this feast to the playroom and wished them all a good night.
“You may stay up as late as you like,” she added before she left, “as long as you're not too loud.”
“They won't hear a thing downstairs,” Haley said after her mom left. “It's like they're miles away.” With these ominous words, Haley began turning off the lights. Then, she lit a few candles and carried them to the low table around which the girls were sitting.
Except for the crunching of popcorn and occasional slurping of hot cocoa, the room grew quiet. The snug feelings Elsa had been enjoying evaporated as candles flickered irregular shapes around the long, dark room. Outside, the wind had picked up and whistled through the tree branches. Elsa stood up and looked outside the window. The round moon was covered by stringy clouds, and she could see the dried leaves on the ground dancing across the lawn.
The other girls giggled nervously.
“What's up, Haley?” Megan asked around a mouthful of popcorn. “It's not Halloween for another two weeks.
“We're going to start early,” Haley said with a mischievous smile.
“Nothing too scary, I hope?” Abby asked. She hugged her knees, looking at the group with wide-brown eyes. “I don't want to have nightmares.”
Elsa felt the same way too, but she didn't want to admit it.
“It will be fun, I promise,” Haley said, pulling out a rectangle shape from under the table. “Here's the surprise!” she said. It was a game board box that she had hidden inside a pillowcase.
“What's O-U-Jah?” Abby sounded out the funny name, Ouija, printed on the box.
“It’s pronounced “Wee Gee,” Haley explained. “It's a séance game. It's a way to communicate with spirits.”
“Ooh, that sounds awesome!” Megan said. “How does it work?”
Abby looked a bit skeptical. “I think it sounds a bit weird,” she said.
“We won't really communicate with the dead,” Haley said. “My mom tells me it's just our subconscious minds making us push the planchette around.”
“Plan-what?” Elsa asked. Her mouth felt dry. She tried to act interested, but mostly, she just felt nervous. She wasn't sure if she believed in ghosts, but she knew this wasn't the place to test the theory. The wind rattled against the windows, and Elsa had to stifle a squeak of surprise. The girls all shifted closer around the table.
Haley had opened the box and laid the board on the table. She held up a heart-shaped piece that had little felt feet. “This is the planchette. We each put a finger on it, and when we ask a question, a spirit is supposed to move the planchette, pointing to the letters as it spells its answer.”
“Ooh, can I ask the first question?” Megan asked.
“Sure,” Haley said. “We can all have a turn.”
Not me, Elsa thought.
The girls settled around the table. Since there were four of them, there was only enough room to put one finger each on the planchette. Elsa's palms grew sweaty, and her heart was racing. What if they really communicated with a ghost?
The candlelight flickered on their faces. Everyone looked serious, although Haley and Megan looked like they were trying to hold back their excitement. Abby looked as nervous as Elsa felt. Elsa reached for Abby's free hand and gave it a little squeeze. She wasn't sure if that was to reassure Abby or herself.
Even though she was a little scared, she told herself that this was just a game. She was sure that Haley would push the pointer around to make it look like a spirit was talking to them. It’s just a game, she repeated to herself.
In a hushed voice, Megan asked her question. “Is anybody from the spirit world here?”
Elsa held her breath. The girls all looked at each other with wide eyes. Nothing happened. Elsa was about to sigh with relief, when she felt the pointer tug underneath her hand, and then, to her surprise, their fingers were pulled across the board. Abby yelped when the pointer came to a stop. It had landed on a single word.
Haley's mouth formed an “O.” She looked as surprised as everyone else, so Elsa had to wonder if Haley had really directed the pointer.
“Me next!” Haley said. She looked around the table. “Here goes. What is your name?”
Tension filled the room as the girls studied their hands. They waited for the planchette to move, and like before, it seemed to take a moment for it to move as if it took someone a lot of effort.
With a jerk, the planchette once again slid across the board, this time, pointing to individual letters. Elsa was surprised how quickly it moved between each letter.
“M-E-R-C-Y,” the Ouija spelled.
“Mercy!” Haley whispered. “What an unusual name.”
“Kind of like Constance and Grace, qualities you’d hope your kid would have,” Haley said thoughtfully. “I had a great aunt Patience. It kind of backfired with her though. She was very impatient!”
“Can I ask next?” Abby asked with a small voice. Elsa wondered if Abby felt a little braver because of the spirit's name? If it had said Malachi or Brumhilda, then it might have been a different story.
“Sure,” said Haley. “What do you want to ask?”
Abby chewed on her bottom lip. “I'm thinking.” She tucked a lock of her brown hair behind an ear and stared off into space. “Oh, I know what I'll ask!”
The girls settled in again, ready to receive the answer.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” Abby asked with a hushed voice.
A few moments later, their hands were pulled from letter to letter.
“G-I-R-L,” Abby announced. “It’s a girl!”
“I guess that explains why she's here. She must like sleepovers,” Megan said, always ready with a joke.
“Haley, you should go again,” Abby said. “It's your birthday after all!”
“Great!” Haley said, jumping right in. “Mercy, are you good or bad?”
Slowly, the pointer moved, so slowly that Elsa began to feel a tension mounting inside her. What if she said she was bad? How would she be able to stay in the house after that?
“The first letter's a B!” Haley whispered.
Fear trickled down Elsa's spine. She knew it!
“O?” Haley said when the pointer next stopped. “That's not how you spell bad!”
The pointer then dragged to a “T,” then finally came to a stop on “H.”
“Both? Megan asked, tilting her head. The doggy-ears on either side of her head made her look like a curious puppy. “What does that mean?
“I guess it means she's both good and bad,” Elsa answered. “Think about it. None of us is all good or all bad.” For some reason, Elsa felt a little reassured by this answer. She almost felt as if Mercy was reaching out to her, but that was crazy. First, this was just a game. Second, there was no such thing as ghosts. Right?
“Your turn, Elsa,” Haley said.
Elsa nodded. She could do this. She now wanted to know more about this Mercy who was both good and bad. Curiosity made her overcome her fears.
“Mercy,” Elsa said, “how did you die?”
When they heard Elsa's question, the other girls gasped. Abby pulled her finger off the planchette, but when the other girls moaned, she quickly put it back.
Elsa cleared her voice. “Mercy, if you can hear me, please tell us how you died.”
Finally, the pointer began to move. No one called out the letters this time, but every eye was on the board. When it stopped, the girls looked at each other with stunned expressions.
“Did she just spell MURDER?” Elsa asked with a shocked voice. “I'm imagining things, aren't I?”
Haley shook her head. “Nooo, I saw that too. Murder!” she said with a breathy voice. “A murdered spirit in my own house!”
“Poor Mercy,” Abby said. “I wonder how old she was?”
“Let's ask her,” Haley said. “Everyone, put your fingers back on.” This time, every finger trembled a little.
“I'm sorry to hear that, Mercy. How old were you when you died?” Haley asked.
The girls quietly waited. The pointer stuttered, then slid to the bottom of the board.
It pointed at “1” then “2.”
“12!” Elsa announced. “Almost our age!”
Abby shuddered. “This is too creepy. I've had enough.”
“Me, too,” Megan agreed. “Let's play truth or dare instead.”
Haley reluctantly agreed. “All right, but let's come back to it later, OK? I really think a spirit was talking to us! I promise it wasn't me!”
All of the girls swore that they had not moved the planchette. No one was satisfied until they all had pinkie promised that they had not spelled a single word. Elsa felt a little sad when they packed the board away. She felt as if she was abandoning poor Mercy. Although part of her felt as if it had to be made up somehow, part of her also believed that she was being contacted from beyond the grave for a reason. If Mercy had been murdered as a child, maybe she needed their help to bring her killer to justice.
An awfully serious thought to be had on a sleepover.
Haley turned on a lamp, and Megan hooked up her MP3 player to a speaker. With more light and the sweet voices of the UpLink boys, the mood of the room changed. Once again, they were silly tweenies having fun at a sleepover, the ghost of Mercy momentarily forgotten.