Billie scuffed her flip flops through the dry needles scattered over the Christmas tree lot. Pine scent filled the air. But it felt too hot for Christmas.
"How about this one?" Her mom turned a ... [+]
"Just look at this place!" her dad exclaimed, taking photos of one rundown building after another.
"You wanted the real deal," her mom replied, driving slowly down the street. "Well, here it is: an honest-to-goodness ghost town."
Sarah sighed. While her friends were off enjoying theme parks and waterskiing on the lake, her parents had planned a road trip through the old west. Make that the OLD WEST. Her dad always said the words as if they were spelled with capital letters.
Mom parked next to a large wooden building called the Idaho Hotel. The front gleamed white, but Sarah noticed that the sides of the building had not been painted.
"Why did they only paint one side?" Sarah asked, pointing to where white boards gave way to brown wood.
"Paint probably cost a bundle in the OLD WEST," said her dad.
Sarah shook her head and tugged her suitcase up the steps.
"Welcome folks," said a man at the reception desk. "Checking in?"
Sarah's parents agreed and filled out the registration card. Sarah, meanwhile, looked around the lobby at antique furniture and old photos on the wall—miners with moustaches, a stagecoach, and one photo of a boy and girl in old-fashioned clothes.
She heard the hotel manager tell her parents, "Yep, the Idaho Hotel has been here since 1866."
"Any ghost stories?" asked her dad.
"Well, I haven't seen anything," the man said, "but once in a while I've heard a door slam when no one's about. And people tell tales . . ." his voice trailed off.
Sure, thought Sarah, there are always tales about old buildings in a ghost town.
She followed her parents down a narrow hall to a small room where two beds took up most of the space. Time seemed to hang in the air like the dust motes that floated in a streak of sunlight.
"Let's explore," her mom said, grabbing the camera.
They wandered through the town—past old houses, a schoolhouse, and a white church perched on a hill. Silver City's sole souvenir shop was closed for the afternoon.
Finally, they made their way up to an old cemetery with weathered, crooked headstones. The top of one marker had broken off, and it now read only:
"Born June 8, 1896
Died June 25, 1905
Beloved Son and Brother"
Walking back to the hotel, she spotted a glint of red beneath a patch of dandelions. Sarah bent down and dug a large marble out from the dirt. She held the worn red glass up to the sky.
"I wonder how old this is?" she said.
Thunder rumbled from an approaching storm, chasing Sarah and her parents back to the hotel. Soon, cold water bucketed down, turning Silver City's dirt streets to mud. Inside, Sarah nodded off to the sound of rain hammering the hotel's tin roof.
Sarah's parents were still asleep when she woke the next morning. Pulling on her hoodie and sneakers, she headed downstairs. The sound of laughter drifted in from the porch.
Curious, Sarah opened the lobby door. Outside, she found a boy and girl in old-fashioned clothes sitting on the wooden planks. A chalk circle was drawn on the porch, and the girl was taking careful aim at marbles in the middle. Shooting a yellow cat's eye, she hit a small orange marble and knocked it outside the line.
"I got it!" she laughed. The boy scowled, then glanced up and spotted Sarah.
"Do you want to play?" he asked.
Sarah stared at the two children, then gazed around her. Silver City looked totally different than the town she had explored yesterday.
Her family's SUV had disappeared, replaced by horses tied to a hitching post. Women in long dresses and men in calico shirts and cowboy hats walked past. Somewhere she heard the faint clucking of chickens.
"I said, ‘Do you want to play?'" the boy repeated more loudly.
Dazed, Sarah knelt on the porch beside him.
"I'm Sam, and this is my sister, Hazel," the boy said.
"Um, Sarah," she mumbled, still unable to tear her eyes away from the busy street. A man rode past on a horse with a long black tail. Sarah heard every hoof beat.
"You got any marbles?" asked Hazel.
Sarah pulled the red one she'd found from her hoodie pocket.
"Hey, that looks a lot like one I lost a couple of weeks ago," Sam said reaching for it. "It was my favorite. But mine was brand-new—not a scratch on it." He rubbed the pitted old glass before handing the marble back to Sarah.
"I don't know how to play," said Sarah.
Sam explained the rules, making sure Sarah understood. "Ready?" he asked when he was done.
"I don't think we should play for keeps," Hazel said. "Sarah only has one marble."
Soon all three were laughing and knocking each other's marbles out of the ring.
With a loud THWACK, a big blue-and-white swirl of glass ricocheted off the railing and bounced out into the street.
Sam jumped up to chase after it, but Hazel grabbed his arm.
"NO!" she yelled, yanking Sam back just as a heavy freight wagon pulled by eight horses careened down the hill.
"Whoa, whoa!" the driver shouted at his team.
"I don't always catch him in time . . ." Hazel whispered.
She said the words so softly that Sarah wasn't sure she heard them right. For a moment the town around them seemed to blur, but then sharpened again.
"Come on, we'll show you around," said Sam, and with a leap he was off the porch and running up the street, his heels kicking up puffs of dust. Sarah wondered why there wasn't any mud after last night's rain, but she shrugged it off. Helping Hazel grab the marbles, the two raced after Sam.
Sam and Hazel took Sarah to the general store, the livery stable, and the barber shop, where the barber chased them outside and told them not to bother his customers.
Then they climbed the hill beyond the cemetery to one of the town's stamping mills, where metal crushed rock to extract silver in a thundering roar.
They sprawled on their backs in a scraggly patch of dandelions, watching a hawk spiral against the blue sky.
"I could lie here forever," said Sam, but Hazel shook her head and told him, "Come on, Sam, we need to head home."
Then, to Sarah, she added, "Want to come with us?"
For some reason, those words raised goosebumps along Sarah's arms.
Sarah shook her head, "No, my parents are waiting for me."
Hazel shrugged. "Suit yourself," she said. Then she and Sam took Sarah back to the hotel.
On the porch, Sarah reached into her pocket and pulled out the red marble.
"Here, you can have it," she said to Sam.
"I'll trade you," he said, holding out a shiny new penny dated 1905.
Sarah caught her breath, remembering the date on the broken headstone. Instead of Abraham Lincoln, the profile of a Native American gleamed brightly.
"Fair's fair," said Sam.
"That's OK," said Sarah. "The marble's a present."
Sam pocketed the penny and turned to go. Sarah saw Hazel try to catch his arm. Another wagon was driving down the hill.
"NO!" Sarah yelled along with Hazel . . .
***Sarah's dad gently shook her arm. "Time to wake up, kiddo."
Confused, Sarah looked around their hotel room.
"That must have been some dream," said her mom. "You were shouting in your sleep."
While her parents checked out of the hotel, Sarah walked over to the picture on the lobby wall of a boy and girl dressed in old-fashioned clothes.
"Goodbye, Sam. Goodbye, Hazel," she said softly, laying the red marble on a sideboard below the photo.
They stopped at Silver City's souvenir shop, where Sarah found a postcard of the Idaho Hotel with horses tied to the hitching post in front. She smiled and handed the clerk a dollar.
The clerk took the money and handed back Sarah's change. She was about to slip it in her pocket, when she felt a strong urge to look more closely at the coins. Among them was a worn old penny with the profile of a Native American. Sarah could just make out the date: 1905.
"No way," she said.
But when she opened the door to leave, the wind blew the whisper of a faint and far off voice, "Fair's fair, Sarah."