in a Crowded Place
At The Library
“He sounds like a jerk,” Heather said.
Heather punched out the words. Her anger had obviously been building up ever since she’d realized that something had changed in Sam’s world. She might not have been entirely sure what had happened, and she might have been holding her silence, but she’d obviously been waiting to be angry at whatever was bothering Sam.
It was Friday afternoon, the day of the community hall play that would be attended by too many people, and during the walk from school Sam had finally told Heather the whole story of meeting Al.
Sam still wasn’t entirely happy talking about Al, but with everything that had happened she needed Heather’s help.
“He’s just different,” Sam countered. “It was sort of my fault, too.”
Heather frowned at her, disagreeing that any of this could possibly be Sam’s fault.
“I’d say he’s different,” Heather snapped, “sending a letter like that. A letter.”
Sam shrugged helplessly. “So you’ll come with me?”
Heather glared. “Of course I’ll come with you. No way I’d let you go alone, now that I know about it.”
“What about the store?”
“I’ll tell my mom that I’ll work the morning. She’ll probably have a heart attack, me saying that I’d actually get out of bed to open the store, but she won’t think twice about taking the opportunity to sleep in. That way we can go to the library at three.”
Sam grinned in relief. “Thanks. That’s awesome.”
Yet even with Heather having agreed to come with her for moral support, Sam spent Saturday morning worrying about seeing Al again. It felt so awkward, given the way they’d parted last time. The letter felt odd, too, a little childish, like passing notes in kindergarten.
Still, going felt like the right thing to do. It felt as though some connection had been forged between them, right from the moment they met, and that had made it hard to believe that it had really ended in a silly disagreement that Sam couldn’t even explain properly when she tried to tell Heather about it.
Besides, she was just meeting up with somebody she’d run into a couple of times at the library. It was no big deal.
She swept through her wardrobe like an autumn storm, convinced that nothing she owned really looked all that good on her. It wasn’t as if she had a lot of clothes anyway—she was pretty sure that Heather had at least twice as many outfit choices—but by lunchtime her old brass bedstead was draped with so many clothes that her room looked like a thrift store.
Finally she settled on a tangerine cardigan that she thought was pretty cool and worked backward from there.
Still, by the time she’d shrugged her way into her heavy fall coat and walked to the store to meet Heather she was a jittery mess. Fortunately Heather was loud and funny all the way to Spire Hall so that Sam didn’t think of backing out even once. Or at least not very much.
Yet what little resolve she felt melted away as they climbed the stairs to the second floor. By the time they’d gone halfway up the narrow stairs to the third floor, to the little window that faced the weatherbeaten bell tower, all confidence had flown farther south than the few summer songbirds that bothered to visit Southside.
She was actually twitching with nervousness—though she hid that from Heather—and she tried to imagine herself hiding behind Heather’s easy self-assurance.
The third floor was abandoned, dust motes hanging in the air among the empty tables and towering bookshelves. There was no sign of either Al or Miss Blanket.
“I don’t even know how you stand it up here,” Heather said, bustling to one of the tables and shucking off her coat. “It’s cold and stuffy like an old attic.”
Sam followed her, removed her coat more slowly and then draped it from the back of her chair. She tried not to be too obvious about bobbing around so that she could catch glimpses between the books to see if Al was already there and back in the stacks. Instead of sitting she randomly snatched a book from a shelf, and sort of half looked at it.
“Well?” Heather demanded. “How long do we give him?”
Sam shrugged and sat down with the book still in her hand. “I don’t know. You know everything I know. He just said come here on Saturday, and here we are.”
“I sure hope he didn’t mean Saturday morning.”
From the corner of her eye Sam imagined that she’d seen movement. She tried to ignore it, but she couldn’t.
“What?” Heather said. “There’s nobody here.”
“Restless,” Sam said helplessly. She stood again and took a few tentative steps toward the stacks. “I just don’t want to sit.”
“Seriously, Sam. This is nuts. ‘Meet me on Saturday at the library?’ That just doesn’t make any sense. You think he’s going to just sit here all day waiting for you?”
Sam didn’t respond. She bent her head to see down one of the rows of shelves, and there he was, flitting past her vision at the far end of the shelves.
“Come on, Al, it’s just my friend Heather. She won’t bite.”
Al came closer, walking slowly up the aisle toward her. He emerged from the stacks and stopped, and sadly shook his head.
“Sam, what are you doing?” Heather demanded. She’d stood from the table, and propped herself against the wall a few paces away from her. “Are you pretending to talk to your guy?”
Al cast a sad look over Sam’s shoulder at Heather, and then back to Sam. He raised a hand, reaching out.
If she’d been jittery before, now she was a quivering wreck. “Al?”
Heather gave an impatient snort, and looked away, scowling. “Sam, have you lost your mind? Why are you talking to yourself? This is nuts. I know you’re upset that your guy didn’t show up, but this is crazy.”
Sam caught her breath before it became a scream. The book slid from her hand.
Finally she understood.
Her cheeks burned. She stooped for the fallen book, her thoughts reeling.
Yet something clicked. Somehow this simple realization that Heather couldn’t see Al, and understanding why Heather couldn’t see Al, all made sense. And even though she might think back later and wonder what she was thinking and why she accepted it, she accepted it on the spot.
Al wasn’t really there—not as a real, living boy. Only she could see Al. Al was a dead boy, a ghost.
She straightened, busied herself with returning the book to the shelf so that she didn’t have to meet Heather’s eyes.
“Uh. Sorry. Just messing around. I don’t know what happened to him. Maybe he forgot.”
“That’s not a very funny joke.”
Sam forced a helpless grin. “Sorry. Let’s just get out of here. Go do something else.”
Heather rolled her eyes, but returned to the table and put her coat back on. Sam followed, but before they left the third floor she said, a little too loudly, “I’ll come back another time, maybe I can see him then.”
Heather turned and gave her a sharp look.
“What’s with you? You’re acting nuts.”
Sam gave her a defensive look, but she said it again. “What? I’ll be back. Maybe I’ll see him then.”
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