(Not the final version)
Miranda Woodward heard voices. Not the normal kind everyone hears when they’re thinking and also not the kind that make people question your sanity or send you to therapy. Miranda heard conversations. Usually she only noticed fragments, and as soon as she concentrated on them, the voices stopped, but sometimes they continued for minutes at a time while she stood as still as possible. Listening.
She noticed them first when she was about five years old, sitting on the beige living room carpet with her toy airplane, piloted by her favorite plastic dinosaur. She heard someone whispering across the room, a voice that didn’t belong to her father or mother, and she tipped her head to one side, her dark brown hair tumbling around her shoulders, before looking up at her parents with her brown eyes wide.
“Shhh!” she said, the dino-plane hovering in mid-air. “I’m trying to hear!”
Her mother had opened her mouth to scold her for her rudeness, but her father stopped the conversation and instead scooped Miranda up into his arms and carried her to her room. She sat on the bed hugging the little airplane while he asked her what she’d heard, but she hadn’t been able to catch the words. He didn’t seem worried, but she felt a little scared all the same.
“Is it ghosts?” she whispered to her dad.
“Let’s not talk to your mom about them, okay?” he replied. And she hadn’t mentioned them to her mother since. For a while the voices felt like a magical, wonderful secret between her and her father, but after a while the secret started to get stale. In fact, every time she tried to talk to her dad about them he’d be interested in what she heard but then never wanted to discuss them further. By the time she was eight, she stopped telling him about the voices in frustration, and by the time she was twelve, she’d almost stopped hearing them anyway. Or maybe she’d just stopped noticing them. It was like they’d gone away. At least, they had until six months ago, when everything changed.
“Hey, Miranda, are you coming or what?” Her best friend Jae Rogers was standing about ten paces away, one hand on her hip, tapping her yellow Converse on the gravel lot. Jae was a couple of inches taller than Miranda and had curly dark hair and intense gray eyes. She was wearing her usual jeans and flannel shirt over a tank top, though she always had the best accessories and managed to make her outfits look cool. Today’s necklace was a string of giant, neon plastic gummy bears. Their other friend, Abby McInnis, had driven the three of them to the Henley Corn Maze, but wasn’t out of the car yet. Miranda could see Abby’s straight blonde hair swinging as she pulled the rearview mirror over to check her makeup. Abby had skipped her usual skirt for a pair of shorts and a three-quarter length sleeved top that Miranda had once coveted, back when clothes seemed like a bigger deal. Miranda looked down at her own outfit: jeans, t-shirt, ballet flats. Boring, but it worked. She hadn’t worn much else lately.
“Well?” Jae said.
Miranda shook herself and tried to grin at Jae. “Sorry, I was just thinking about, um, the maze.” The only voices she could hear just then were parents calling for kids and the kids shrieking with delight from the edges of the corn maze she’d talked her two best friends into doing with her for her birthday. She felt a little childish; after all, shouldn’t sixteen-year-olds be too old for corn mazes? But she and her dad had always gone, every year, and she didn’t want to miss it this year, just because things were different. Her friends seemed to understand; they both immediately agreed to go with her when she asked.
“Well then think and walk,” Jae said, reaching out for Miranda. Abby climbed out of the driver’s seat where she’d been touching up her lipstick, and marched across the gravel in her brown boots.
“We’re walking, we’re walking!” she said, waving her arms at Jae, who rolled her eyes.
Abby linked arms with Miranda and hauled her along toward Jae who grabbed Miranda’s other arm, and the three of them set off toward the entrance as the sun set behind the trees, leaving a golden pink glow on the clouds. The smell of wood smoke drifted past them, and Miranda pulled on a button-up shirt to have some sleeves against the cool night air.
They cut across the corner of the adjacent field where bales of hay marked the edge of the play area. A handful of young kids with their parents played corn hole on the lawn. The ticket kiosk stood on the opposite side, with a little stand selling hot apple cider and coffee beside the door to the main produce shop. The man at the ticket kiosk handed them a large red flag as they paid along with a small scorecard listing eight stations.
“Find each station inside, doesn’t matter what order, and use the hole puncher to mark it off. The punchers are all different shapes, so don’t try to cheat. And if you get lost or stuck, wave the flag and whoever’s on the tower in the center of the maze will help you out.” He smiled. “You girls have fun.”
They started toward the well-lit entrance to the maze, though the path faded into long shadows within about ten feet, the corn blocking most of the quickly fading sunlight.. Abby reached into her slouchy, patchwork satchel and pulled out a flashlight. She clicked it on and they all lit their matching glowing necklaces, early summer finds from a day at the beach, and stepped inside, following the trodden dirt path straight into the tall corn. A cool breeze rustled the corn stalks, sounding like whispers in the deepening darkness. Crickets and frogs sang from the trees lining the edge of the field and from somewhere else in the maze children laughed and squealed.
Miranda didn’t talk much, but watched her friends checking the little map in the flashlight beam, the light illuminating the bottom halves of their faces so that their eyes seemed to melt into shadowy pools above their cheeks.
“This is kind of creepy,” Abby said after a while, as they stopped at an intersection. “Which way are we supposed to go?”
“Not sure,” Miranda said. “It changes every year.”
The maze turned in on itself several times and so far they hadn’t found any of the hole punching stations. Miranda peered down both directions of the new path they now faced.
“Y’all are such wimps,” Jae said, laughing. “Little kids are in here. What’s the big deal? Let’s just start going to the left, and keep on making every left turn and we’ll find everything. Right?”
“I guess that makes sense.” Abby shrugged. “But if you get us more lost I’m going to kick your butt, Jae Rogers.”
“Yeah, yeah, say it like you mean it,” Jae shot back.
“So,” Miranda began as they took the nearest left-hand path. “You agreed to come to the corn maze if I’d let you plan the rest of the night. So what’s after this?”
“We can’t tell you. Spoilers!” Jae said, spinning around to walk backwards for a couple of steps and nearly crashing into a wall of corn. Abby laughed.
“Come on, just a hint!” Miranda stopped beside Abby, grinning and leaning against her friend’s shoulder. “Are we going where I think we’re going? Please please please, tell me I get to finally be in on this tradition.” She couldn’t help thinking of the rumors about a House that floated through the school, and of the cryptic things both of her friends had said after their sixteenth birthdays. They hadn’t exactly tried to keep it a secret from her, but at the same time she’d never heard the full story from them either, and it bothered her a little that her best friends would not fully share something so important. They insisted the secrecy was part of the tradition, and while part of her understood and even appreciated that it would be a surprise, she was tired of being left out.
“No hints, Randi!” Abby said, still laughing. “You’ll find out when you find out.!” Abby leaned in a little closer and whispered. “But yes, we’re going where you think we’re going. Just try to act a little surprised.”
Miranda sighed, but let Abby take her arm and pull her into the lead, handing Jae the map as they began to trace the edge of the pathway, turning left twice before being forced to go to the right. With Abby holding onto her, Miranda felt a little better, and tried to shove anything but the corn maze out of her mind. After several minutes, Miranda was fairly certain they had gone in a circle. She glanced at Abby, hoping her friend wouldn’t be frustrated by it, but Abby was facing the other direction so she couldn’t tell what her friend might be thinking. Miranda took a deep breath to apologize.
“Come this way,” someone said behind them.
“Come what way?” asked Miranda, looking behind her.
“What?” Abby asked, turning to look, too. “What are you looking at?”
“Jae said we should go that way,” Miranda said. “But I didn’t don’t see which way she meant.”
“I didn’t say anything,” Jae replied, stepping around the corner with the flashlight and the small map in her hands. “I’m just trying to figure out where we are.”
“But I was sure…” Miranda turned to peer into the corn to their right to see if there was a parallel path to theirs. She could just see another opening through the stalks, but it looked empty. Miranda shivered.
“Why now?” she whispered.
“Why what?” Abby asked. She had stopped walking and was watching Miranda, her pale hair twisting slightly in the light breeze.
“Nothing,” Miranda answered. Surely the ghost voices weren’t in the corn maze. Surely.
“If you’re trying to freak us out, it’s kind of working,” Jae said.
“I’m not trying to freak anyone out!” Miranda snapped. Then, in a softer voice, she asked, “Y’all really didn’t hear anything?”
“No?” Abby said, crossing her arms across her chest and taking a step back from Miranda.
“It’s got to be that way,” the voice whispered.
Miranda spun to her left, staring straight into the corn. She thought for just a moment that she saw something moving behind the stalks, but the breeze made it hard to tell for sure. Turning back to her friends, she took a deep breath and started walking again.
“Let’s just go.”
Her friends followed behind her in silence, though when she looked behind her to make sure they were coming, it seemed like they were avoiding eye contact with her. She sighed and slowed down enough to squish herself between them and link arms again.
“I’m sorry, y’all,” she said, careful not to look directly at either one of them. “I thought this would be fun, but it’s…different. Without my dad. I guess things are just a little weird, y’know?”
“We know,” Abby said, giving her arm a squeeze. “It’s okay. Let’s just find our way through this maze.” Miranda looked up at her friend, who was smiling at her. She turned to Jae who shrugged and smiled, too.
“Sandwich?” Jae asked, and suddenly the two girls leaned hard into Miranda. She burst out laughing and wiped away the dampness that had blinked into her eyes as the other two tried to smash her in the game they’d invented when they were eight.
The mood lightened and the girls continued along the path. After several left turns, they walked straight into a dead end with a wooden post inside. A string with a star-shaped hole-puncher dangled from a nail on top of it. Miranda punched their score card while Jae then checked to see where the other seven stations might be.
“I think if we keep doing this left-hand-turn thing it’ll work,” Abby said, looking over Jae’s shoulder. “I mean, we’ve only been in here something like twenty minutes, right?”
“No way, it’s got to be longer than that.” Jae pulled out her cell phone and checked the time. The glow from the screen made Miranda squint after so long in the relative darkness. “You’re right. It’s only been twenty-three minutes!”
“Yeah, well, we’ve got to go faster than this if we’re going to get through this whole maze,” Abby said, motioning in general at the corn.
“Sorry I made y’all do this,” Miranda said quietly. She didn’t want her friends to be bored, or worse, to think she was lame for wanting to do a kids’ thing.
“No!” Abby reached out and hooked arms with her again. “I didn’t mean it like that, Randi. I just mean we have other places to go tonight, too!”
“No Spoilers!” Jae sang, trotting back down the path and hanging a left. “Are y’all coming, or what?”
Abby and Miranda took off after her. For the next hour, they ambled through the maze and sang as many Disney songs as they could think of at the top of their lungs. Every so often they stopped to check their phones or the map, but they made good time, and soon had all but the last station punched. The darkness settled around them, and the clear sky sparkled with stars. The light from the play area and ticket kiosk cast long, sharp shadows when they got close to that side of the maze, but when they walked along the far side, Miranda saw the thicker part of stars straight across the center of the sky where the Milky Way spun. They reached the last station. As Jae punched their card, Miranda’s phone beeped.
“Ugh, it’s probably Mom,” she said, pulling it out of her pocket. As it came loose, she fumbled, and it bounced across the straw and dirt into the edge of the corn.
“I want to go get some cider before we leave,” Abby said, as she and Jae stopped and waited for Miranda to fish her phone out of the dust and corn leaves on the ground. In the soft yellow light from Abby’s flashlight, Miranda dug through the pile until her hand closed around the phone. She opened her messages and saw several missed calls from her mother, though her phone never rang the whole time inside the maze.
“Why don’t y’all go on ahead?” Miranda suggested, dusting off her phone. “I want to make sure Mom’s okay.”
“We aren’t supposed to separate,” Abby said.
“It’s okay, I’ll be right behind you,” Miranda said. She didn’t want them overhearing the conversation in case her mom was upset again. Her mom was doing better, but still. “Just leave me the flag and I’ll catch up in a minute.”
Jae handed her the flag. “Don’t be long, Randi. We’ve got places to go.”
Abby and Jae walked off into the darkness, arm in arm. Just then a text message popped up.
Heading home now, let me know when you get this. Hope you’re having fun! Love, Mom
She wrote back: Finishing corn maze now, having a great time. See you tomorrow!
“That’s not the way to go. Come this way. This way. Alone. Come alone.”
Miranda jumped. “Who’s there? Are you following us? You’re freaking me out.”
She held the phone up, swiping her flashlight app open to light up the path around her. She didn’t see anything but corn, and the wooden post with the hole-punch still swinging from its nail.
A rustling noise to her right made her turn, and she took a step back, but tripped on a rock and tumbled backwards, landing hard on her butt, still clinging to her phone and the flag. Her legs trembled as she got to her feet and ran down the path after her friends. The wind picked up and the corn leaned and swayed as she ran, bowing into the path in front of her, brushing her face, the silk and leaves getting caught in her hair. Footsteps and laughing voices ahead made her slow down and try to catch her breath; she didn’t need her friends thinking she got scared being alone in the dark. As she rounded the corner, she put on a smile, which vanished again almost instantly; she faced an empty path.
A bird called in the trees to the left. The corn stopped swaying, but the stalks kept rustling as if moved by a wind she could no longer feel. Miranda clutched the flag tighter and started walking again, glancing to the left and right as she went. She thought she saw someone go around the corner ahead of her, and she hurried to catch up to them but when she reached the turn, no one was there.
“Stop and think, Miranda,” she whispered to herself. “The store is lit up. Look for lights and go that way.”
Standing on tip-toes, Miranda scanned the cornfield as far to the edge as possible, and soon picked out where the lights looked strongest. She began winding through the corn in that direction, careful to stay on the path and not cut through any of the corn barriers, no matter how tempting a straight line might be. She burst from the exit, sweating in the cold air and breathing hard. Her friends looked up at her from a picnic table by the snack stand, clutching steaming cups. Miranda handed the flag back to an employee at the maze exit and went to join her friends.
“Whoa, what happened to you?” Jae asked. Her breath swirled over her cup to mix with the steam.
“I tripped,” Miranda said. She looked down at her sweaty self and dusted off her pants.
“We can’t leave you alone for five minutes, can we?” Abby asked. She reached out and plucked a piece of corn silk from Miranda’s hair. “Come have some cider. Then we have Plans.”
Miranda sat across from Jae, and Abby passed her a steaming Styrofoam cup of cider. She wrapped her hands around it and let the warmth seep into her fingers, her shoulders relaxing. She looked back at the corn maze, where a dad with his small daughter emerged, laughing and holding hands. I wish I could talk to my Dad, she thought. He’d know if this was the voices. The corn rustled and leaned to the left as the breeze shifted, and she smelled wood smoke again. The children who played corn hole with their parents earlier got in their minivan to leave, and the dad with his daughter approached the snack bar, the little girl singing about hot chocolate. Across the parking lot, a row of enormous pumpkins appeared briefly in headlights, future giant jack-o’-lanterns for Halloween.
Miranda breathed in, enjoying the cider and smoke and the musky smell of early autumn, something that reminded her of childhood autumns and jumping into leaf piles while her mother yelled at her to stop making a mess. She took a tentative sip of the cider, letting its spicy warmth trickle down into her stomach, and smiled to herself.
“Don’t get too comfy there, cupcake,” Jae said, poking Miranda’s shoulder. “Finish your cider and then we’re heading out. After all, it’s your sixteenth birthday. You’re the last one, thank God.”
“So are we going where I think we’re going?” Miranda asked. She felt an excited swoop in her stomach, the strange encounter from the maze pushed to the back of her mind, drowned by anticipation of finally getting in on the not-so-secret Henley High School birthday tradition.
“Oh yeah,” Jae said.
“Of course we are,” Abby said, nodding solemnly. “Everyone goes to the haunted house for their sixteenth birthday.”
“So.” Jae leaned forward, her curly hair tumbling around her face until it disappeared into a shadow. “Are you ready to be initiated into the Henley High Society of the Haunted?”