Alone
in a Crowded Place
CHAPTER
1
Spire Hall
Spire Hall did not belong.
It stood alone in a crowded place, a sprawling old mansion in a cramped part of town.
Houses in Southside had room for perhaps a tree, or a little driveway, but not both. Sagging fences didn’t have room to fall down. Only Spire Hall had room to breathe.
It stood apart from its surroundings, like an ancient castle above a peasant village, on a bit of a hill scattered with half-dead trees. A wrought iron fence came to the edge of the crumbling sidewalks and kept the crowded little world of Southside at bay.
The society that ran the Hall could never quite keep up with it all. Whoever was responsible for cutting the grass did it quickly, as if they were always racing to another job. Weedy flower gardens crept slowly into narrowing strips of lawn. Long shoots of grass grew up between the slats of the benches scattered along the crooked paths.
The Hall itself wasn’t much better. It, too, had a weedy look. Just remnants of chipped grey paint clung to grey, weathered boards, and moss grew from the gutters.
Spire Hall was like many houses all stacked crazily on top of each other, with the addition of round towers and tall spires and sharply-gabled roofs. The bell tower beside the house still stood, though for how much longer nobody knew.
Heather, whose mom chaired the meetings of the Friends of the Library, told Samantha that even after four years they hadn’t had much luck in raising money for their campaign to save the bell tower. For as long as Sam could remember there had been a faded line of yellow tape stretched around the base of the bell tower to keep anybody from getting too close in case something fell off.
Sam didn’t spend much time thinking about how strange it was that the Hall was her local library. She had never known any other sort of library. We find things strange only when we are taught that they are strange—otherwise we accept them for what they are. That’s how it was for Sam.
In fact, walking along Fourth Street on Saturday afternoon and keeping her head down, Sam was at first barely thinking at all about Spire Hall. She was just looking forward to getting up to the third floor. Almost nobody ever went up there, and that was exactly why she liked it—though she did wish that Heather would come with her sometimes.
Heather said the library was creepy, the third floor was creepier, and if she went with Sam at all she made them sit down in the main floor reading room with everybody else.
Sam decided that it was probably better that Heather wasn’t there, because she couldn’t face the crowd on the main floor today.
It was the end of the first week of Grade Six, and a week of school had brought back all of the usual confusion about where she fit in at Southside Elementary.
She really liked school. She liked learning and always earned extra little remarks on her report cards. It was the part before, between, and after classes that left her muddled. There was Heather, of course, marching alongside like Sam’s personal soldier, but the rest of the kids were a mystery. She wasn’t sure just how much any of them really liked her.
Sam and Heather had been best friends since they were little, living in two identical little apartment buildings that stood side-by-side, when there were just the two of them the same age on their dingy little strip of Dunston Avenue. But once they reached school age there were too many people to even try to find new friends in the crowd. School was just a big crowd of people all talking at the same time, and Sam could never really zero in on one person and find out what she might have in common with them. Even after six grades, with a lot of the same kids, that part hadn’t really changed.
Heather had never had that problem.
Sam shivered, wishing she’d grabbed a jacket, and watched her footing on the sidewalk. By not watching where she was going she’d tripped more than once on the cracked and heaving Fourth Street sidewalks. Besides, keeping her head down made it easier to seem as if she was too preoccupied to stop and talk if she met anybody she knew.
Southside was the sort of place where it was almost impossible to not run into somebody she knew. Fourth Street on a Saturday afternoon wasn’t anything near as bad as it was at school, but when she reached the busier part of the street she risked a few extra glances up from the sidewalk to help warn her away from any unwanted encounters.
She walked past grimy little pawn shops, and family restaurants, and convenience stores, and corner groceries with sad displays of bruised fruit and vegetables. Southside wasn’t important enough for any of the really good stores.
The old Southside factories were gone, but people here still worked too hard. Sam would be asleep that night before Aunt Stacie finished her shift at the hospital. She’d read or watch TV, eat dinner alone, and tuck herself into bed.
Down at the end of the next block Sam could see the ancient gates that marked the entrance to the library grounds. The gates, each gate with an elaborate “S” worked into the wrought iron design, stood wide open—sagging, rusted, and sinking into the long grass.
Only now did Sam begin to think more about Spire Hall.
Like anybody else in Southside she knew the basic story of the Spires. They were somehow filthy rich before the story started, and they built the Hall when this was all still countryside beyond the city limits. The last of them was Bartholomew Spire. He spent his life lost in this decaying old mansion, reading books while around him the factory town became a slum-like suburb of Porthaven, and when he died he willed Spire Hall to the city to be a library. And so it was still—a branch of the city library.
Everybody knew about Bartholomew Spire. There was a statue of him out amongst the weeds, but it wasn’t the statue that the kids talked about.
According to the story he’d supposedly been so wrapped up in reading his books that he didn’t notice when one day he died and became a Southside ghost story.
He didn’t make for a very scary ghost, but it was the only interesting story that Southsiders had to tell about themselves.
Sam paused just outside the gates, looking past the overgrown grounds and crumbling mansion, still banishing the last of her school thoughts.
Behind the Hall the sky was splotchy, as if all different shades of grey had been poured into a pot and only half mixed. The air had an autumn bite. There would be rain before the end of the day. She could smell it. The air felt heavy and close, like being under a damp blanket without even the kiss of a breeze.
She hoped that she wouldn’t have to walk home in the rain. This wouldn’t be a mild September rain; it felt more as if October had come early. It was as if somewhere, far above those marbled clouds, something ominous was building.

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