Alone
in a Crowded Place
CHAPTER
16
Ghosts Are Real
Darkness ruled Southside by the time Sam left the library. It was October darkness, almost winter darkness. It carried a chill that cut right through her jeans and her fall coat. She stood on the wide steps of Spire Hall, the warm light of the library at her back.
Out beyond the naked, black branches the streetlights cast weird, frightening shadows. All else was darkness, as if a black shroud had been thrown over the filthy streets to smother the living beneath its weight. The library grounds were a shadowland of twisted shapes.
And ghosts were real.
It was one thing to have all of these ghost thoughts in her head under the electric lights of the third floor, listening to Al and trying to forget that he wasn’t just a normal boy. Outside, in the dark, ghosts had become real.
Sam dredged deep inside her, scraping up what bits of courage she could find, pulled her jacket zipper tight to her neck, and with the pale light from the library windows receding behind her ran down the dark path as if demons snapped at her heels.
She reached the first streetlight and slowed her pace, just a little, but then a cat fight suddenly howled out in the darkness and she ran even faster.
Her shoes slapped at the heaving sidewalk, echoed back at her from the fences and shabby little houses. She pushed herself to her fastest pace ever, lifting her feet high so that she wouldn’t trip on the uneven sidewalk.
For some reason this made her think of Jesse in the Bridge to Terabithia book, and thinking of the book sent a sick feeling shivering through her.
She couldn’t face the back alley. She pounded down Dunston Avenue, the slap of her feet bouncing back at her from the darkness so that she felt as if every night beast for a mile around must have perked up its ears and sniffed the cold air for her scent.
She struggled with the key at the front door of the apartment building, heart thumping, tears wet on her cheeks, sobbing little breaths that made high-pitched hooting sounds.
The key scrambled around the lock until finally she got it, hurled herself inside, checked that the lock had clicked, and then leaned against the door and gasped for breath.
She stayed there a long time. Gulping air. Then with a fresh surge of fear she darted to Aunt Stacie’s dark, abandoned apartment. She retreated further, to her own bedroom, where she collapsed on the floor beside her bed. She threw her glasses down beside her and drew herself into a tight ball and even then, as far into her safest place as she could make herself go, she did not feel safe.
She was falling—inside herself, yes, but tumbling endlessly through her imagination just as surely as Al had fallen to his death in the old bell tower.
She had no idea what to do. She had nowhere to turn.
Ghosts are real.
Gradually the horror of death and darkness faded a little, and she found herself thinking of Al as a boy. As far as he was concerned, he was just a boy.
She tried to think rationally through what she knew. She thought about the whole idea of unfinished business, and how a person could die and some part of them could stay living.
Al knew what had happened. Well, he didn’t know exactly what happened, but he knew he’d been killed. She couldn’t even begin to imagine what it must have felt like to be floating there, watching over his dead body for days, watching searchers find him at last.
He knew he was gone, but he didn’t know how to leave.
There had to be some way to help him.
Sam had no idea what to do. She had to talk to somebody, but there was nobody she could talk to.
She had to tell Heather. She couldn’t even begin to figure out how to make Heather believe her, but she had to tell Heather.
Realizing that she had to tell Heather somehow steadied her. She began to climb out of the spiral of hopeless thoughts, like wading through thick mud toward dry land.
Her stomach gave a long, menacing growl, and she remembered that she hadn’t eaten since lunch.
She stood and went to the kitchen, carefully turning on every single light as she went. She stood before the open fridge and stared into it without seeing. Just because she’d come back from the edge of despair didn’t mean that she was quite ready to face the simplest decisions of living. Finally she just had a bowl of cereal.
She thought of how her Aunt Stacie would rant about the cost if she left these lights on, and beat a retreat to her room turning off lights as she went.
The bedside lamp stayed on, and more hours passed before sleep found her.
And then the nightmares welcomed her back into their cold embrace.

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