Alone
in a Crowded Place
CHAPTER
7
Heather
That night Sam’s dreams were haunted by more than just the bells.
They started as normal dreams, just little pieces of her life all jumbled together in funny ways—the same sort of dreams that everybody has, to help file away the things that happen from day to day. But then strange ideas swooped in, thoughts as dark and silent as hunting owls.
She woke before dawn, twisted in sheets and blinking at the darkness and somehow convinced that she was trapped in the library at night. Or perhaps it was not quite the library, and maybe it was neither day nor night.
She clicked on her bedside light and the very normal details of her room replaced the half-seen shadows from the dreams.
There was the stack of books on her dresser. There was “Sister,” the battered teddy bear that guiltily refused to be grown out of. Gradually her thoughts fell into order. It was Sunday morning. Aunt Stacie would be home from work now, asleep until at least late morning.
The details of her dreams slowly slipped away, although she remembered the cold, grey statue of Bartholomew Spire walking. And talking in a bottomless voice that might have risen from beneath the earth.
They hadn’t been nightmares exactly, but dreams that were deeply troubling in a way she couldn’t quite pinpoint.
There was no hope of going back to sleep, so after a few minutes Sam padded out to the kitchen table with her stack of science books from the library. She read and wrote. Her hunger grew with the magical smells from the Polish bakery next door, growing stronger and stronger as the morning progressed, but she was finished writing 200 words with three examples of simple machines by the time Aunt Stacie came yawning into the kitchen.
While Aunt Stacie made herself a cup of coffee Sam built a pile of toast for them to share.
It turned into a boring Sunday. Aunt Stacie napped, as she often did on her first day off. Sam did laundry and tried to tell herself, as always, that the fresh stains on Aunt Stacie’s nurse uniforms were most likely just ketchup or gravy spilled at the hospital cafeteria. Mostly, though, Sam spent Sunday wishing that Heather wasn’t at the store again.
She would have walked down for at least a quick visit—she was dying to tell Heather about Al Jordan—but Saturday’s rain hadn’t lifted. It was so heavy that when she looked through the rain-smeared window she saw that Mr. Li hadn’t even put out his stands of fruit and vegetables at the corner grocery. The memory of the stinging cold drops, when she ran home from the library the afternoon before, kept Sam inside the apartment.
In the afternoon she read more of Bridge to Terabithia. Her first impression of the book had been completely wrong—it didn’t have much to do with running, or farming, and it turned out that she really liked the character of Jesse. In fact, she was beginning to wonder if it wasn’t one of the best books she’d ever read.
It was funny how some stories were like that. They started out slow and quiet, just somebody going about their business on a normal day, and then the story snuck up and grabbed you even tighter than if it had started with something really exciting. Maybe it was because it seemed more real that way.
Day passed drearily into night, and Sam woke up on Monday morning excited to see Heather. She barely remembered that she’d dreamt the same dreams.
She wolfed a bowl of cereal, dawdled at the front closet over memories of how cold she’d been on Saturday and eventually added a scarf to her outfit, and then exploded through the front door of the apartment building. She saw Heather outside Li’s Corner Grocery, and Mr. Chlebek waved through the glass as Sam passed the Piekarnia Bakery to meet her.
The rain had stopped at last. The streets were still damp, the morning smells of the bakery and Mr. Li’s produce were more vivid than ever, and the few birds that braved this fading concrete world were singing. Sam and Heather ducked down the narrow lane beside Li’s, abandoning Dunston Avenue for the back alley shortcut to school.
“What did you do this weekend?”
Heather had a way of speaking that was all her own, an accent unlike anybody else’s. Sam guessed that it was partly invented. Heather was half Navajo, through her father, though Sam didn’t really know much about that because Heather’s stories didn’t always match up. Her father was long gone from her life.
Now that Heather was finally there, Sam wasn’t sure where to begin. Carefully not looking at her, Sam said, “Not much. Got that science homework finished.” She risked a glance at Heather and added, “Went to the library on Saturday.”
Heather shook her head and rolled her eyes. “Why am I not surprised? You’re a nerd.”
The air in the back alley was heavy—full of the sickly sweet smell of garbage behind the stores, and the lingering exhaust of the delivery trucks.
At first Sam didn’t respond. She understood Heather in a way that she didn’t understand anybody else. She knew when Heather was teasing, even if she didn’t always know when other people were teasing. She shrugged.
“There was a guy at the library,” Sam said at last, just tentatively putting the idea out there.
Heather stopped so abruptly that Sam ended up a couple of paces ahead of her and had to turn around. “Yeah?”
Sam bowed her head, blushing. She said, a little defiantly, “Yeah.”
“Let me guess,” Heather said, laughing. “He was sitting across the room, you thought he was cute, and you spied on him from behind the bookshelves.”
Sam felt a little burst of anger—mostly because, if Al hadn’t talked to her, that might have been true. “No.” She scowled defensively, pushing up her glasses when she looked at Heather. “We talked for awhile. Sat around.”
Heather’s eyebrows shot up, and she grinned wickedly. “Really?”
Yet now that she finally could talk to Heather, Sam was for some reason reluctant to tell her about Al Jordan. She told Heather his name. She described him. But she didn’t tell Heather about the weird, electrical feeling that had somehow made her drop her defences and venture into the stacks, and she didn’t tell Heather about how Al made her comfortable almost from the start.
And she certainly didn’t mention that Al had been telling her a ghost story.
In time Heather realized that Sam didn’t really want to talk about it after all, and let the subject drop and moved on.
They talked and didn’t talk, beginning mid-sentence and ending mid-sentence, with the easy familiarity of two people who couldn’t remember a time when they weren’t friends. It was the way Sam liked it. She was good with words, but only when they were written in books. Words said out loud were never the right words, never said what she really meant to say. Especially since, when it came to Al, Sam wasn’t sure what she meant to say.
By Tuesday Heather seemed to have forgotten about Al Jordan, though Sam certainly had not. He was never far from her thoughts.
The dark dreams seemed to have come to stay, the twilight library and the walking statue, and she imagined that she heard the bell of Spire Hall.

Keep Reading

Chapter 8

The Betrayal of Bartholomew Spire

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