Alone
in a Crowded Place
CHAPTER
21
Sam Haunted
Sam stood on the corner of Dunston and Seventh. She’d raced here from school, but now her feet had lost their ambition. Another half-block would put her in front of the Southside Trading Company.
Heather had avoided her all day Monday and then vanished so that Sam had to walk home alone. Sam hadn’t had the courage to call, and today Heather hadn’t shown up for school at all.
Sam felt as though a chunk of her had been ripped out. She had to clear the air between them.
But that didn’t mean that she was in a hurry to walk this last half-block.
This part of Dunston Avenue looked as if nature had tried to take it back. The roots of the big trees along the curb had thrown the sidewalk slabs helter-skelter. The building gutters were furry with moss, and the bricks were so chipped and darkened that the buildings were like crumbling piles of rock. The Trading Company itself crouched low to the ground, hiding under a colourless awning that looked as if you might be able to poke your finger right through it.
Sam dug around inside herself for a place to bury the guilt over having gone to the library behind Heather’s back, and her irrational anger over Heather having caught her at it.
Sam shuffled a few steps and stopped, shuffled a few steps and stopped. Past a dingy pawnshop called Woody’s Place that looked vaguely dangerous—though Woody was in fact an older lady named Della with a huge laugh and cats sleeping on the front counter. Past Pete the Barber, and Gary’s Groovy Record Shop with its weird posters in the window.
She tried to pretend that she was in the right and Heather in the wrong—how could Heather be angry with her for just going to the library?—even though she knew it wasn’t so.
Sagging card tables in front of the Trading Company were buried under stacks of withered paperbacks at a dollar each, and a rolling rack offered a selection of unfashionable jackets. Sam focussed on these and kept her feet moving.
She stopped the instant she stepped in front of the store.
The store windows were papered over, with big signs painted on the glass in jagged capital letters that said:
CLOSING OUT SALE
EVERYTHING MUST GO!
Her brain stopped working. At first she wasn’t able to absorb what she was seeing.
Then, everything that had happened since the previous morning forgotten, she was inside before she realized she had even moved from the sidewalk.
It took her a moment to even spot Heather. The place was jammed, busier than Sam could imagine it ever being. Everybody in the neighbourhood must have seen the sign and rushed in. In fact, Mr. Li from the corner grocery beside Sam’s apartment was at the counter negotiating with Heather’s mom on a vast array of things he’d collected from the shelves.
Heather was at the “new to you” clothing section, helping a young mother with a squirming baby and a leashed toddler. Sam elbowed her way through the crowd without thinking about it.
When Heather finished with the mother she held up one finger to an older lady with an armful of baby clothes, begging a minute, and turned to Sam with a glacial look. “What do you want?”
Sam was startled by the tone. Heather clearly hadn’t forgotten everything that had happened. She said, “What’s going on?”
“What do you think?” Heather demanded. “We have to close the store, okay? Isn’t it obvious?” Her tone was hurt and icy and skittering on the edge of hysteria.
Sam stepped back, hurt in turn. “I didn’t know.”
Heather closed the distance between them and in a low voice that almost bubbled with anger hissed, “What do you even care? The one time I ask you to be here for me and you go back to that dead boy. The one time I ask you for help and instead you go and do the one thing I’ve ever told you not to do. How do you think that makes me feel? Pretty special, huh?”
“I didn’t know,” Sam repeated. She lowered her voice and added, “I didn’t see him.”
“But you tried to,” Heather said, glaring.
Sam didn’t respond.
“I’m too busy to talk right now,” Heather said.
“But I’ll see you later, right? Will you be at school tomorrow?”
Heather didn’t answer. She just turned away to help the lady with the baby clothes. After a minute Sam pushed her way through the crowd and back to the street with even less patience than she’d had going in.
Heather missed school again on Wednesday. Sam missed most of it as well, because even though she was there her head was too full to add anything to it.
She kept thinking back to Bridge to Terabithia, the part where Jesse had to choose between spending time with his friend Leslie or his teacher. The lesson was pretty obvious.
She should return the book to the library and never go back. She was playing a dangerous game. Heather was all that mattered.
But that wasn’t true.
Al was real. Ghosts were real, and she was getting used to the idea.
And if Al was real, he needed help. But if she helped him her friendship with Heather, the most important thing in Sam’s life, was at risk.
Back and forth she went, from Heather to Al, as Wednesday’s classes droned on.
When she met Al her world had finally expanded beyond Heather. Now the old world seemed to be collapsing just because she’d decided to explore a new path. It was like finally building up the courage to go through a dark tunnel to see what lies beyond it, only to have your escape route blocked by a cave-in behind you.
Her life had scarcely changed in all the years she remembered, a long slow rhythm like a lazy river. The apartment, school, the Southside Trading Company and Spire Hall. Folding laundry and dusting and making toast and treasuring moments with Aunt Stacie. Listening to Heather tell stories about the world Sam barely lived in, and being too comfortable with the simple flow of it all to really recognize loneliness.
Now it seemed as though everything was changing all in one terrifying, sudden sweep. She could tell that even she was changing.
Yet if she understood how this all worked, if she helped Al then he would no longer be there for Heather to worry about. Presumably he would go to wherever ghosts went when they weren’t stuck being ghosts.
By the end of the school day on Wednesday she had decided that this was the only possible way out of her dilemma.
She would help Al. She’d find a way to do whatever it was that he had left undone, and then both of her problems would cease to exist.
She doubted it would be quite so simple. But she darted straight to the library after school before she could think too much more about it—or, worse, change her mind.
Al was there this time. As soon as she turned onto the final flight of the narrow stairs to the third floor she could see him slumped at one of the tables.
But then, stepping out from the confined walls of the stairwell, she stopped cold.
There was Miss Blanket, in a hushed conversation with…
Bartholomew Spire.
The statue had come to life.
Her world crumbled a little more.
She looked at the window.
It was not twilight. There was still reassuring sunshine. Yet it seemed as if she were teetering on the edge of her nightmare, off balance.
As if, at any moment, the library bell might begin to toll.

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