in a Crowded Place
Al Reads a Book
“I was just looking for a place to read where nobody would bother me,” Al said. “I didn’t think I was gonna die because of it.”
A quivering feeling shivered right through Sam. On one hand she didn’t want to hear what she knew he was about to tell her, but on the other hand she wanted to hear it more than anything else.
“I needed a place to hide.” He frowned with a puzzled expression, as if this wasn’t exactly what he’d meant to say. “Well, maybe it was more that I wanted to be as alone as I felt.”
Sam nodded encouragingly. She knew what he meant.
“I was…”
He paused uncertainly. Frowned. Waved his hand as if whatever he’d meant to say was unimportant.
“Some stuff happened. I loved that book, I could barely put it down, but now I couldn’t concentrate on it.” He shrugged. “My brain was full. But reading always gets me in the end. Pretty soon I got so wrapped up in it that I actually believed all of that stuff that was happening in Terabithia. I was there.”
Sam found herself nodding again, also knowing exactly what he meant by this.
“There was something I read there,” Al said. “It said that life is as delicate as a dandelion, that just one little puff and it’s blown to bits. Do you remember that part? I read it over and over again, because it made me think about something that had just happened. One little puff. The part it doesn’t say is that you don’t have the slightest idea that the puff is coming until you’re nothing but floating bits of dandelion fluff.”
Al had slipped into a different voice. It was no different than when he told Bartholomew’s story. Once he got started talking it was as if he knew some special kind of magic that wove the words into spells.
He cocked his head. “Have you ever been in the old bell tower?”
Sam shook her head. “It’s been closed up for years. There’s yellow tape around it and everything. Nobody can go in there.”
Al laughed. “It was a dangerous wreck even then. That’s not the sort of thing that would stop me. That means it’s a place where you can get away and not be bothered. It’s like a big sign that says, ‘Hey! Come here!’
“There’s stairs inside, around and around all the way up to the top where the bell is. Sometimes I just sat down in the bottom—there’s some chairs and stuff there—and then sometimes I climbed up to the top. That day I took my book and went all the way up to the top.”
Al fell silent for a long moment, a faraway look in his eyes, lost in the memory.
“I don’t know quite what happened next,” he said.
He had set down the book.
He had stood up.
He had stretched.
That was the last thing he remembered. That was the moment of the terribly unexpected puff.
Sam felt her shoulders slump, half disappointed and half relieved that he couldn’t remember more. “You must have some idea of what happened,” she protested. “I mean, that’s it? You stretched and that was it?”
Al shrugged. “Those rotten old floorboards just snapped like breadsticks,” he said. “They found my body at the bottom. I know, because I watched the whole thing. I was somehow there and somehow not there, but I could see it all.”
He shook his head. “It took them a long time to find me. Days, until somebody decided to stick their head in. Then there were people all over the place, cops and stuff. I just sort of floated there and watched it all happen. It was weird. I knew that I should be really sad, but it was as if I couldn’t feel anything any more. It was like a tape playing over and over in my head, ‘I’m dead, I’m dead,’ but I couldn’t feel nothing from it any more that I could feel it when I reached out and tried to touch my body as they carried it out past me on a stretcher. I knew I was still there—the thing they carried out was just a shape, like a hollow log or a rotten pumpkin or something all empty inside.”
Sam tried to think about that without thinking about it too deeply.
“So you just… stayed?”
“I just stayed. And stayed. And stayed. Not so much like a dandelion puff anymore. More like an empty bottle after somebody drinks all the pop out of it and chucks it into the garbage dump. That old bottle just lies there. It never changes at all, but everything around it slowly rots back into the dirt and worms.”
Sam shivered. It was only partly because of the cold on the third floor. “But why?” she demanded. “Why you?” She thought of her parents and grandparents, all taken from life in one fell swoop. “That doesn’t always happen, does it? Not everybody who dies becomes a ghost.”
Al shrugged again. “The thing about ghosts is that you only end up a ghost if there’s something you didn’t do, something about your life that didn’t get finished that you knew you really, really had to do.”
“Unfinished business,” Sam said. “I’ve read about that.”
Al nodded. “Yeah. Everybody knows that. But what?” An odd expression crossed his face, something Sam couldn’t define, and his voice dropped to little more than a whisper.
“But what? I was thirteen years old. My whole life was unfinished. I could have been a policeman or a cowboy or flown rocket ships. Or there was nothing unfinished. I’d shucked off homework and counted down the days until Christmas and found shapes in clouds and done everything you’re supposed to do when you’re thirteen years old. You see what I mean? What could be unfinished? Everything, or nothing. So that can’t be it—it has to be something about that old bell tower. Something happened up there, or maybe didn’t happen that was supposed to happen, in that last second when the puff of air hit the dandelion.” He gave a mournful shake of his head. “I don’t know what it might be, but whatever it was it was something about that old bell tower. I’m sure that if I could just go back there, there would be some sign of it. Some clue.”
“Why can’t you go back there?”
“I’m not sure,” Al said, looking away. “It’s like I have to stay in the library. I’m here now. I guess that you just sort of end up in a place when you’re a ghost.”
“I could go,” Sam said. “I could!” The idea sprang from her lips at the same time that it popped into her head. “If there’s some kind of clue there, maybe I could find it.”
“No!” Al shook his head violently, glanced sharply around the third floor as if somebody might have been there to hear her outburst. “No, it can’t happen that way.” He glared wildly at her. “You can’t do that.”
Sam leaned back, hands up, palms toward him, startled by the flash of anger. “Okay, okay. It was just an idea.”
He calmed instantly. “Sorry. But it’s dangerous.”
She nodded. “Okay.”
Yet then his look grew wistful. “Too bad though,” he said. “I’m sure that’s the answer.” He fell silent for another moment, and then said quietly, “The weird thing’s the book. Nobody ever went up to the top to get that book. I don’t understand how you ended up with it.”

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