Alone
in a Crowded Place
CHAPTER
5
Sam Samantha
Curiosity flared up inside her. Sam came to her feet, padding toward the shelves in slow, measured steps.
At the same time the rational part of her mind was firmly telling her to sign out the science books on her way out of the library, and save her homework until she was trying to kill another evening alone at Aunt Stacie’s apartment. Until then she should go visit Heather at the store.
But she had to know.
If she didn’t find out what had made that sound, her imagination would create something that might have made it. She didn’t want that.
She’d just peek through between the books. Maybe Miss Blanket had returned after all—the old librarian was, after all, the master of the silence.
She listened carefully, pausing between each step, and then grinned and shook her head at the thought that she was stalking along like a flamingo.
She was still half convinced that she’d imagined the sound. She couldn’t hear anything now. If anything had changed at all it was just that the third floor felt less stale and hot. In fact it was starting to feel downright chilly.
She stopped, held her breath, and listened even more carefully. Yes, there it was again. The sound seemed to be coming from just around the next shelf. She steeled herself, and slowly poked her head around the corner.
A boy of about her age sat cross-legged against the end of one of the shelves, with one of Bartholomew Spire’s crumbling old books open on his lap.
She’d been quiet enough that at first he didn’t notice her. Then some instinct made him look up. He twitched with surprise at the sight of her looming over him, but then he grinned. It was as if the corner of his mouth and the matching eyebrow were attached, because they went up together—with the eyebrow vanishing under his mop of sandy hair as part of the lopsided grin.
When their eyes met, something inside Sam tilted sideways. For once she didn’t bow her head, or quietly apologize for her curiosity and walk away. It took her a few moments to realize that she should probably stop smiling. And step out so that she wasn’t peering from behind a bookshelf like Harriet the Spy.
She stepped into the aisle. After another few moments she realized that he was still grinning at her, so she smiled again.
The boy said, “Hi.”
She was smiling too much, tried to control it, and ended up blushing instead.
“Hi.”
He came to his feet, standing effortlessly from his cross-legged position, still smiling. “My name’s Al Jordan.”
Sam nodded. He had the sort of eyes that were hard to not look at. “Hi.” Then, realizing that she’d forgotten it, she added, “I’m Sam. Samantha.”
Al casually tucked the book he’d been reading onto one of the shelves, and then walked past her, out of the shelves and back toward the tables. “Well, Sam Samantha,” he said over his shoulder, “what are you doing hanging out in a haunted library?”
“I come here all the time,” she said. She followed him, as he clearly meant her to. “And it’s just Sam.”
He grinned back at her to show that he knew that. He said, “It really is haunted, you know.”
Sam grinned back. “Everybody knows that.” She did a goofy ghost pose with dangling fingers. “Bartholomew Spire, and all that.”
Al didn’t respond. He led them to the table where she’d left her science books, and sat across from where she’d been sitting. Sam tentatively reclaimed her seat.
Al was looking at the book she’d found in the stacks—not picking it up or flipping through it, just looking at it with bottomless eyes. This caused her a brief, uncomfortable moment, and Sam glanced over at the window across from them.
It had grown darker, almost wintry, so that the electric lights of the third floor seemed to shine brighter. As she watched, squirts of rain began to strike, big raindrops that splattered against the glass and then carved trails in the summer dust on the outside of the window.
“Those are crazy glasses,” Al said, smiling. “I love them.”
Sam gave him a little frown, self-consciously pushed up her glasses. He was watching her now, grinning again. He seemed uncomfortably close. She smiled uncertainly, trying to decide if “crazy glasses” was meant as a compliment. She decided it was. “Thanks.”
“Do you live around here?”
She tried not to frown again. “Yeah. Over on Dunston.” Then, because it seemed awkward to not return the question, “You?”
An odd expression crossed his face, and he looked away. “I used to live over on Garden Place,” he said.
Now Sam felt awkward because she’d asked. She knew Garden Place. It was a decayed old strip of heaving concrete and falling bungalows without a garden in sight. Anybody who “used to” live there probably lived someplace even less appealing now.
Yet if he’d been embarrassed by the question he didn’t show it. In the time it took these few thoughts to run through Sam’s head he’s already asked her another question. She had to ask him to repeat it.
“I said, I bet you have lots of friends.”
Clearly she couldn’t think through her answers as quickly as he could think of questions. By the time she said, “Not really,” he’d already asked another.
She was glad Heather wasn’t there today. On the other hand she wished Heather was there. Al’s barrage of questions made her uncomfortable.
In fact, as soon as she realized this, the impulse to escape kicked in. She sat back in her chair, the universal body language for ending a casual conversation. She thought that maybe she should just go and visit Heather at the store after all.
Yet just then a tremendous rushing noise swept over the third floor, as the clouds finally collapsed under the weight of a rain that pounded into the roof and the windows. Sam, with no jacket, looked down at the book she’d found in the stacks and frowned again.
None of this slowed Al’s flow of questions. He’d gotten to the stage of what foods she liked to eat. She answered distractedly.
Then he unexpectedly fell silent, and when Sam looked up she saw that Miss Blanket had returned.
She immediately expected Miss Blanket to shush them for talking, but the old librarian didn’t say a word. Instead she gave Sam the oddest look, then narrowed her eyes at Al.
Al smiled uncomfortably, as if to apologize for talking, but as soon as Miss Blanket’s back was turned his look soured. For a minute he actually fell silent.
Again feeling awkward, Sam again let her gaze drift to the rain driving against the big, ornate window across from her. The rain distorted the world outside. Or perhaps the world outside was normal, and she looked out from a distorted world.
Miss Blanket drifted away again, back into the stacks with a determined expression.
Al said again, “This place really is haunted, you know.”

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