in a Crowded Place
Ghost Sickness
“My grandparents had the store when my mom was growing up,” Heather said. “My mom never even thought about staying here to take over the store. She doesn’t tell me very much about the past, but she tells me all the time that she didn’t like it here. Then when I ask her why she stays here she just says, ‘You play the hand life deals you.’ But I know that if it hadn’t worked out the way it did with my dad she would have been long gone out of here.”
It was easy to understand that. Nobody Sam knew wanted to be in Southside. Even the kids at school talked like that.
“You’ve never really talked about your dad,” Sam offered.
“Because I don’t know what to say. I don’t really know anything about him. I know that he was a Navajo because that’s what my mom told me, but that’s all I know. I tell people that I never see him, that he’s back there in Arizona or New Mexico or someplace and I just never get there to see him. But that’s not the truth. He’s dead. He was dead before I was even born.”
Heather rolled over onto her stomach, propped herself up on her elbows and helped herself to the last Piekarnia cookie. Sam was pretty sure that Aunt Stacie wouldn’t say anything even if she was mad that the cookies were gone.
“I don’t know the whole story,” Heather said. “My mom never talks about it. But sometimes she lets little things slip, and a couple of times my grandparents have said things, so that I ended up being able to figure out some of it.”
Sam didn’t really know Heather’s grandparents, though she sometimes saw them at the store. They were old and shrunken, but they still helped as much as they could. Heather’s mom always said that the Southside Trading Company wouldn’t survive a month if they’d had to actually pay somebody to work there.
“Mom says that she worked really hard to get out of here,” Heather said. “She went to university to be an anthropologist, and started getting more and more interested in these ancient people, the Anasazi. They’re long gone now, but they built these really cool houses right up in the cliffs. Anyway, she decided that she was going to specialize in studying the Anasazi. One year she ended up going out there. It was some kind of summer field work, helping on an archaeological dig or something.”
“So what happened?”
“She says, ‘That’s how I met your father.’ That’s where the story always ends.” Heather spread her hands and gave a long shrug. “I used to ask questions, you know? I mean, he was my dad—I want to know about him. So I ask her, What happened? How did you fall in love? She just says stupid little things, like, ‘He was nice.’ She never really tells me anything. Mostly what she does say is more about herself. ‘I didn’t know what I was doing.’ ‘I was young.’ Then when I ask more about him she says, ‘He died,’ and tells me to go stock the canned goods.”
“I didn’t know.”
“Nobody knows. I don’t tell them.”
All of this left Sam feeling strangely empty. How could Heather keep something that big a secret? It didn’t seem possible, after so many years. Heather was the only person she really knew, or thought she knew.
Not knowing that her dad was dead seemed like a pretty big and important thing to not know.
“So how did he die?”
Heather shrugged. “I don’t know. I mean, I don’t even know that. For a long time I thought maybe he killed himself. I heard my grandma say something like that once, that he’d gone and killed himself, but then I figured out that it was just a figure of speech because he’d done something stupid. All I can figure out is maybe a car accident or something. From what I can tell he was a bit wild. But then after he died my mom went sort of crazy, too, like she was trying to do the same thing.”
“You mean she wanted to die? That’s really scary.”
“Yeah. I guess she got really sick, too. I don’t know the whole story.” Heather shook her head. “But here’s the really crazy thing. One time I was looking at my mom’s books from university. I do that sometimes, trying to find out at least a little bit about the Navajos, so I can at least pretend I know something about myself, and I came across this thing called ghost sickness.”
“Ghost sickness?”
“I know, right? She’d written notes all over these pages, like it was something she’d really read and thought about a lot. I guess it’s something that the Navajo believe. The book said that the dead sometimes try to take the living with them. People who think too much about the dead can be sort of eaten up, and then get sick and die themselves. And I know that when my mom got sick she was really weak and having trouble breathing and having nightmares and stuff. I showed that part in the book to my mom and she said that she believed it. Then she wouldn’t say anything more and the next time I looked she’d gotten rid of all those books. So I figure that’s what happened, or at least what my mom thinks happened. My dad died and he tried to take her with him.”
Sam just stared. It was unbelievable.
Heather took a deep breath. Sam could see that talking about this had really upset her.
“Anyway. After she got better she came back here to Southside. I was born. Mom worked in the store. Then she gradually took over the store. My grandparents sometimes say that she changed a lot, but to me she just seems tired. I wish I knew how to help her more.”
There was a ball in Sam’s stomach, as if she’d eaten too much. The idea of ghost sickness was sloshing back and forth through her head. “You don’t think that’s true, do you?” she said. “That ghosts do that? Do you think it’s really like that?”
Heather shrugged. “How am I supposed to know?” She scowled. “You know what I know about this? Nothing.”
After a moment she muttered, “I’ve never even met a Navajo.”
Without meaning to Sam giggled. “Sorry,” she said when Heather gave her a dark look. “It’s just… You are Navajo!”
“No I’m not,” Heather snapped. “I’m not even half Navajo, not really. I don’t know who I am. I’m not like anybody. I’m all alone except for you.”
Sam blinked, startled. She couldn’t even begin to digest that. Heather was the popular one.
Heather must have read her thoughts in her expression, because she said, “Not like you’re thinking.” She gave an exasperated frown. “I can’t explain. I know lots of people, but there’s nobody else like me. It’s like I’m alone inside myself.”
Sam fell silent. Sometimes words just got in the way of thinking. The whole idea of Heather feeling alone was a lot to swallow. Then she realized that she had been holding her breath and let it out in a long sigh. Finally she repeated, “I didn’t know any of this.”
“But you see? That’s why everything about this ghost boy scares me so much. It’s like I almost wasn’t born because of a ghost, even though I came from a ghost.”
“Al isn’t like that,” Sam protested. She couldn’t explain it, but she knew it was true. Al obviously didn’t mean her any harm.
“Promise me, Sam,” Heather said, pleading and sincere. “Promise me you won’t go back there.”
Sam let the silence hang there, her thoughts spinning around like a whirlwind. Maybe Heather was right. Why was she getting involved in this? It was crazy. It wasn’t her problem. It was an easy solution. Walk away, maybe save herself.
“I guess you’re right,” she said.
“Of course I’m right,” Heather snapped. “If you take one step into that library again I’ll think you’re the dumbest, craziest person ever.”
Sam nodded. “Okay.” She took a deep breath. “Okay. I promise.”
“You’re not going back,” Heather insisted. “I know you think you are. I won’t let you.”
“I said I wouldn’t.”
Heather smiled suddenly, breaking the dark mood of her story about her dad. “But I don’t think that you were completely telling me the truth,” she said.

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