in a Crowded Place
Heather’s Project
For two days after she told Sam about her dad Heather didn’t even mention Al Jordan or the library. For two days it was as if the whole conversation—ghost sickness, cookies and all—had been no more than a figment of Sam’s imagination. For two days they pretended to be no more than a couple of Southside kids marking off dates on a calendar and enjoying a welcome break in the weather.
Perversely, with October having come in September, they now had a week of mild September days in October.
Sam barely even needed a jacket, though she wore one anyway because this false summer couldn’t fool her. Summer was gone with the songbirds. The sky was pale, a washed-out blue that couldn’t even pretend to be summer, and the light grew smoky too soon after school for anybody to forget that winter was creeping up on them with steady steps.
Those two days were agony for Sam, but she didn’t dare try to slip away. The thought of Heather having seen her, racing the darkness down Dunston Avenue, left Sam almost sick with shame. Heather knew now, and if she broke her promise it would be like breaking Heather’s trust. She was alone except for Heather. Without Heather she would be just alone. Alone with a ghost.
Heather was trying to make it seem normal, but in an extra-chatty sort of way—she’d had to go to help stock shelves at the store after dinner because the Hallowe’en candy order had arrived; Brittany didn’t really have a crush on Ben after all, and Jenny Mayfield didn’t know what she was talking about.
Sam wondered if Jenny really had seen a book move by itself at Spire Hall. Then she wondered why some people saw ghosts and some people did not. And why she had to be one of the ones who saw ghosts. How did it work? Were you given some sort of secret mark at birth? A mark nobody else could see, but ghosts could read plain as day—“Here. This one sees you. This one will listen to all your problems.”
Sometimes with Heather during those two days it was almost like it had been before she met Al, half-sentences roaming in and out of comfortable silences. But then Al would wander into her thoughts, distracting her from everything else.
And then Heather unexpectedly announced that she wanted to go to the library.
Of course Heather didn’t want to go to the third floor. As a matter of fact even just the main floor of Spire Hall seemed to be almost too much for her—she pushed her way through the main doors with an expression that made it look as if she’d just stepped face-first through a spider web. She led them to a table and bustled about settling herself in, and then just as Sam got comfortable she said, “Just wait here for a second. I want to ask a question.”
Sam frowned at Heather’s back as she went up to the circulation desk at the entrance.
She took a quick look around the main floor. Al wasn’t there. The third floor was his place.
He was trapped upstairs with the crumbling old books from the library of Bartholomew Spire, and there was no possible excuse she could invent that would allow her to sneak upstairs. Heather would guess in a heartbeat what she was doing.
Heather was being extremely mysterious. She was taking a very long time with Mrs. Gaskell, leaning over the librarians counter and almost whispering. Sure, one was supposed to be quiet in a library, but she’d never seen Heather lower her voice unless she was gossiping about somebody.
And then, when she finally left the librarian’s desk, Heather vanished the stacks, consulting a little scrap of paper that she’d taken from Mrs. Gaskell.
“What are you doing?” Sam demanded when Heather finally came back.
Heather showed her the spine of the book she was carrying —Pathways to the Past: A History of Southside From the Earliest Days Until the Present.
Sam could feel her eyebrows climbing, pulling her glasses up with them. “You’ve got to be kidding me. Why are you looking at that?”
Heather shrugged evasively. “Just looking,” she said, and then she opened the book and studiously ignored Sam.
The next day, Saturday, was even stranger. Again Heather wanted to go to the library, and Sam went along—not wanting to question Heather’s sudden interest and hoping against hope that today she could at least catch a glimpse of Al. She stared up at the third floor windows as they walked up the overgrown path, but the windows were empty and lifeless.
This time when they went inside Mrs. Gaskell looked up and smiled at Heather, pointing with her pen toward a great stack of huge books set out on one of the tables. “Right over there, Heather,” the librarian said. “Any other library would have the newspapers digitized, or at least on microfilm, but no—we have to do everything the old-fashioned way…”
Mrs. Gaskell seemed to remember that she was talking to the daughter of the board chair of the Friends of the Library, and her complaint trailed off.
It seemed to Sam that Heather was being very careful to not so much as glance at her as she marched to the table, pulled the first big book off the pile, and completely ignored Sam as she flipped it open.
“What are you doing?” Sam demanded.
Heather gave her a casual, guilty glance. “Just looking up some stuff.” When Sam didn’t respond Heather marked her place with a finger and pointedly met Sam’s gaze. “There’s just some stuff I need to know, okay?”
Sam couldn’t get anything more out of her than that. And Heather still had a guilty look.
Sam was starting to be able to make a pretty good guess about what Heather was doing. She was delving back into the past, looking for Al Jordan. But why? There couldn’t be much more to know that what Sam had already learned from Al himself.
She fiddled around with some homework. She took out her notepad and doodled until she realized that she was drawing little Hallowe’en ghosts.
She couldn’t concentrate.
She watched the corners for Al, tried to peer back into the stacks. It was incredibly frustrating, to be so close but not see him.
Again and again she reviewed everything he’d told her, but for the life of her she couldn’t think of a way to help him.
She had to learn more. Surely if she could talk to him she could draw out more details, find the missing pieces of the puzzle.
She needed to see Al.

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