Danica O’Riley was only six years old, but she had seen enough old, dusty houses to last her a lifetime.
—Now then, the Evelyn Estate was built in 1902. There have, of course, been renovations made to the house since then, but no drastic cosmetic changes. All of our previous owners have understood the significance of such an historic building, and so its original design has been preserved. Still, everything is in working condition.
—Well, it certainly is a lovely building. Looks like something out of a film, doesn’t it, Dani?
Alfred scooped his little daughter up into his arms. Danica looked up at the house only fleetingly before burying her face in the warmth of her father’s wool coat. Beside them, her mother gasped.
—Oh, it’s everything I want and more! We’ll take it!
—Ah, let’s see the inside first, Elisabeth.
Danica yawned and turned her head, resting her cheek on her father’s shoulder. Some long-lost great-aunt had died and left a fortune to her only niece, Elisabeth O’Reily, and so, for weeks now, they had traveled the countryside in search of her mother’s dream home. The Evelyn Estate was about the same as any other to Danica, yet her mother gasped and cooed as she walked through the doors.
When her father first carried her in, Danica looked around the atrium without moving her head, and she scrunched up her nose. Nothing special about this house, as she suspected. The rooms were huge, the doorways were huge, the staircase was huge – as they all were. Everything was too big and too grand for their three-person family, and that was what her mother liked best. Her cries grew louder and more absurd as the realtor led them from room to room. Alfred chuckled.
—What do you think, Dani? Is it a winner?
“Hmm” was the noncommittal reply.
Upstairs was somewhat better. Though bored of these cookie-cutter houses, Danica still found some interest in what her future room might look like. Her mother was interested in her own room, naturally, so plenty of time was wasted on the master suite.
Danica closed her eyes as her mother’s ready-to-buy cries echoed off of the room’s faded walls. Her mother fell in love with every house they looked at but always refused to buy in the end, as if what was perfect one minute could be bested the next. Alfred shifted his arms underneath Danica and hummed, a telltale sign that he, too, was tiring. When he next spoke to his daughter –
—Dani, why don’t you walk for a while, like a big girl?
—she had anticipated his suggestion and slid easily from his arms to the floor, her patent leather shoes clacking against shiny oak panels. Danica didn’t like being called a “big girl” as if it were some sort of accomplishment.
Though this realtor was a stranger to Danica, her tight smile, only so sincere as she thought this sale inevitable, was the familiar judgmental gaze of an adult, and Danica hated her instantly. There was some pleasure in thinking of how the realtor’s face would crumple once her mother’s fancy had traveled elsewhere.
Danica skipped in a circle around her father, her new shoes clacking deliciously against the hardwood. Her mother turned to her in a huff.
—Danica, stop that at once.
Her mother’s threats meant little yet still more than her father’s apologetic smiles, and so Danica stopped. Her mother, a satisfied expression on her face, turned back to the realtor, whose eyes, as mean as her smile, flickered to Danica.
Danica hated her even more and scowled at her mother’s back. Crossing her arms and turning around, she stamped her foot, earning one last glorious clack. She heard her mother’s dramatic sigh behind her and reveled in her own victory.
The master bedroom’s door was open, and Danica could see another room across the hall. Though its door was only half-open, movement inside caught her eye.
There was someone in the house with them.
Danica looked up again, and her parents’ attention was elsewhere, so she crept out of the room and crossed the hallway, placing a hand on the door. While she had intended to throw the door open and yell – sure to catch a prowler off guard – she was suddenly nervous. The hallway seemed wide, her father’s protective arms far away. Instead, Danica pushed the door lightly, and it creaked as it swung open.
“Who’s there?” she asked, her voice bolder than she felt. Sitting on the four-poster bed in the corner was a boy, a bewildered expression on his face. He was older than she but was thin and pale, his hair a dark mess, eyes some muted color. He sat up a little straighter, looking right at her.
It was only a boy, some nuisance trespassing in the house. Feeling several inches taller, Danica pointed at him.
“Sneak!” she said. The boy gaped at her.
“You can see me?”
“Of course I see you! Sneak!”
“I’m no sneak,” the boy said, standing up straight. “I’m a boy.”
“Well, then, you’re a boy sneak, aren’t you?” Danica countered, her index finger still flexed righteously in front of her. “What are you doing in our house?”
“It’s my house,” the boy said, crossing his arms. “I’ve been here for…” He stammered, then weakly added, “A long time.”
“That’s stupid,” Danica said. “This house is for sale, and my parents are with the realtor right now.”
“I know that,” the boy said, his voice more tired than angry. “I hear that woman coming in here all the time with new people, but they can never…” He sighed, unfolding his arms and putting a hand on one of the bed’s columns. Danica let out a cry; she had certainly thought his hand to be pale, but now it was completely transparent. She could see the knotted wood of the column beneath his fingers.
“How—?” she started.
“I’ve been here for a long time,” he said again, more quietly this time. “All my life. My father built this house.”
“Then you’re an Evelyn?” Danica guessed, and the boy laughed.
“Yes. Father built the house for my mother when I was still an infant.”
“This house was built a hundred years ago,” Danica argued. “Why…?”
“Haven’t you guessed?” he asked with a crooked smile. “I’m a spirit.”
“Not a ghost,” Liam said indignantly. “A spirit.”
“What’s the difference?”
“That’s like asking the difference between a cemetery and a graveyard,” Liam said, leaning against the bed’s column. “One just sounds worse.”
Danica supposed that, if given the option, she wouldn’t want to be called a ghost either. She told him so, which seemed to cheer him up. For once, she was not bored by the afternoon-guzzling adventures of her parents.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“That’s a funny name.”
“It is not!” she exclaimed, her temper flaring as it always did. She volleyed back an insult, the first thing that came to mind. “You know what, Liam Evelyn, I don’t like you!”
“Why not?” His expression was hurt, and, despite her anger, Danica wondered at his reaction.
“You say mean things!”
“I didn’t mean it!” Liam said, pushing away from the bed’s column and leaning forward earnestly. “Please don’t be mad! Nobody’s ever been able to see me before! Please don’t be mad! We can be friends!”
When Danica didn’t get her way, she knew how to cross her arms, stamp her feet, and yell until she did. Her mother might get exasperated, but Danica could throw an impressively long tantrum. This boy, though, looked at her so desperately that she felt ashamed for snapping at him.
“Okay,” she said finally. “We can be friends.”
Liam’s face lit up. “You mean it?” he asked. “I’m so glad! I haven’t had a friend in so long, I— A friend!”
The adults’ voices across the hall were soft and slow. She sat down on the bed beside Liam.
“How old are you?” she asked. Liam’s smile faded.
“…Ten?” he said, sounding unsure. “I think I was ten. That sounds like an important age.”
He was older than she’d thought, then! She told him so, and this pleased him less.
“Have you been in this house since…you were ten?”
“You never went anywhere else?” The thought struck Danica. “Can’t you fly and walk through walls? Shouldn’t you travel the world, then?”
Liam sighed heavily. “I can’t fly,” he said, “it only looks it because…” Though he was a spirit, his cheeks still seemed to redden, and he gestured loosely to his feet. Danica leaned over the side of the bed to get a better look and noticed how much more transparent they were than the rest of his body. “Besides, I have to stay here. I can’t leave.”
“No. I’m trapped here. I can travel through all the walls of the house, as you said, except for walls that lead outside.”
Trapped. Liam passed over the word quickly, but it seemed loud to Danica. Her expression must have showed her distress, because Liam continued quickly.
“At least now I have a friend, someone who can see me! I’ll be much less lonely now.”
Danica brightened. “That’s right!” she said.
Hurried footsteps approached, and Danica’s parents and the realtor burst into the room. Her father knelt down beside her and put his hand on top of her head, his smile shaky. The realtor huffed and adjusted her blazer. Her mother’s expression was livid.
—Danica Elisabeth O’Reily!
Her tone was severe, and the use of Danica’s full name was never a good sign. Reluctantly, Danica slipped off the edge of the bed, leaving Liam behind.
—Come on, Danica! Running off like that, do you have any idea how worried I was?
Considering how long it had taken her mother to notice her absence, Danica was very aware of how worried she was.
—We’re leaving now.
“We’re not buying this house?” Walking into the Evelyn Estate, Danica had no doubt that this would be the result of this trip, but now, with Liam’s lonely eyes on her, she couldn’t bear to leave.
Her mother’s tone was lofty. The realtor squared her shoulders, her sullen expression every bit as ugly as Danica had guessed.
“I like this house,” Danica said, and her parents and the realtor looked down at her with surprise. “I want to stay.”
Danica crossed her arms.
—This is a big decision, Dani. You understand.
There was her father, swooping in to support her mother’s sudden irritability. Danica stamped her foot.
—Enough, Danica, this isn’t up for discussion.
“What isn’t up for discussion?” she bellowed. “We’ve been from house to house to house looking at giant stairs and ballrooms, and big yards, and you love them all and don’t want to move into any of them! This house is the best one of all – why don’t you like it?”
—It’s not the right fit for us.
“That’s what you say about all of them!” Danica yelled. “None of them are the right fit! We’re never going to find a house that you like!”
“Well, I like this one!” Danica screamed, her throat stinging with the rush of a good tantrum. “You like it, too, because it’s big and pretty, and you’re just being stubborn, and I want to live here!”
The realtor’s eyebrows were raised, her lips pressed together not with disapproval but every bit of effort to prevent a smile. Her father was inching closer to the door. Her mother’s face was splotchy and red. Danica turned around to face Liam, who was staring at her in shock. She flashed him a smile.
She knew how to get her way.