in a Crowded Place
The Haunted Library
That Sunday was the longest, weirdest, most confusing day in Sam’s whole memory.
Heather was busy at the store. Aunt Stacie was sleeping her way toward a night shift so that the apartment had to be completely quiet.
The library was closed.
Sam moved like a zombie through her round of Sunday chores, tidying the apartment and folding laundry, with Al Jordan whisking here and there through her thoughts and making it impossible for any thought to really go from start to finish.
Al needed her help. She was sure he needed her help.
It was impossible to think of his as dead, a ghost. He was so real and vivid, just like anybody else she’d ever met.
In most ways he seemed even more real than anybody else she’d ever met except maybe Heather.
When she finished her chores she retreated to her room and collapsed on the bed. At least the chores had provided something to occupy her mind. She couldn’t even begin to concentrate on the little bit of homework that was waiting for her. She couldn’t read. She couldn’t even properly think. She was lost in a dazed swirl of hopeless, helpless thoughts.
In some ways Monday was even worse. School was a fog of people and a drone of teachers and it seemed to go on forever and ever. For the first time in her life Sam was simply unable to grasp the simplest things in class. She couldn’t even focus long enough to hear a single sentence.
Sitting with Heather at lunch was the only time she really surfaced at all. She had to banish Al from her mind altogether if she didn’t want Heather to return to that horrible, embarrassing scene on the third floor when she had seen Sam talking to empty space.
Heather was waiting so that they could walk home together after school the same as always. Sam burned with impatience. She wanted to dash to the library, but of course she had to pretend that there was nothing whatsoever on her mind as they plodded toward Dunston. Heather was in a mood to dawdle.
Worse, Sam knew that Heather was still worried about her, still didn’t understand what had happened in Sam’s world. It was as if she sensed some illness in Sam—but the effect was like somebody being too attentive and doting when you weren’t really sick. Or at least, there was nothing wrong with her that Heather would understand.
Sam’s attention drifted away from Heather’s chatter. She watched passing cars, autumn clouds. October now had Southside firmly in its grip. Dead leaves lay tangled in twisted bits of garbage along the curbs, and the light was already failing even though it wasn’t quite four o’clock. It would be twilight as people trickled home from work, dark as they prepared their evening meals.
And still Heather wanted to linger, talking, talking before they split off to their separate apartments. Sam could scarcely follow what Heather was saying, though she tried. What she did know was that they’d stood there long enough that a chill settled into her bones as the temperature dropped with the sun.
Finally, finally Heather went home. Sam slipped through the door of her apartment building, waited a long moment to give Heather time to get inside, and then took off like a wind-blown leaf, doubled back around Li’s Corner Grocery, and broke into a jog as she hit the back alley. Darkness pooled around the garbage bins behind the little stores and apartments, as black and sour as a tomb.
She held the jog as she emerged from the alley and swerved toward the library. The exercise helped warm her. Cars passed with their faceless drivers, but there were almost no people about and she had the sidewalks to herself and the fallen leaves. Her jog became a run. If before she’d been a wind-blown leaf, now she was the October wind itself, blasting along the broken sidewalks to Spire Hall.
The sky faded to gold behind the black cloud of tree branches overhead. Building shadows inched their way across the road. The porch lights and shop windows seemed to grow brighter against the gathering darkness.
The October wind inside her died when Spire Hall came into view. She came to an abrupt stop, bent with her hands on her knees and trying to catch her breath while she peered up at the library through cautious eyes.
She’d been so full of the need to see Al that she’d barely noticed the gathering darkness, but Spire Hall demanded to be seen. It seemed to leer at her. A tiny, panicked giggle escaped her when it occurred to her that it looked haunted and she realized the truth.
It was haunted. The realization swirled through her. It really was haunted.
The leafless trees on the grounds were like corpses that had hauled themselves up from the grave, reaching for her. The dying jungle of growth that had consumed the library grounds was as dark as the wildest wood, where the worst creatures of the night might prowl and wait. The path was a winding strip of pure darkness.
Yet the windows glowed with warm light within, and Al needed her.
She took a deep breath darted between the rotting iron gates and scuttled up the dark walk.
She came up short again before the library doors, feeling as tiny as Jack before the giant’s castle.
She was frozen there for a minute, trying to convince herself that she didn’t really have to do what she was about to do. The huge library doors seemed like portals to another world. Then, with an extra shiver, she realized they were just that—beyond these doors she could see into the afterlife.
The thought didn’t help her confidence.
She drew a deep breath that made a squeaky sound like a hiccup. She opened the door.
A young volunteer she didn’t know worked the front desk instead of Mrs. Gaskell, and there were only a few people scattered around the first floor reading room. There was nobody at all on the second floor as she dashed through to the third floor stairs in a race against her failing courage.
Al sat at the same table they’d used when he told her the story of Bartholomew Spire. His hands were folded on the table before him. He stared listlessly at them with an expression that had forgotten all hope, as if he’d dropped onto a chair when Sam and Heather left on Saturday and hadn’t moved a muscle ever since.
He was so real. There was the same sandy hair, the same lopsided grin.
Tears came into Sam’s eyes, and she whispered, “You can’t leave, can you?”
He looked up startled, as he had when she’d surprised him on their first meeting, and then he shook his head sadly.
“No. This is my place. This is my only place.”
Sam frowned, and shook her head. “Then why haven’t I ever seen you before?”
He shrugged. He thought about this, frowning gently. Finally he said, “Nobody’s ever seen me.”
Sam sat, facing him. “Then why did I see you this time?”
Again he thought for a long moment before answering.
“I think it was the book. I was reading it when I died.”

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