in a Crowded Place
The Mysterious Book
Something had changed. Perhaps it was just the looming storm, but as Sam climbed the third floor staircase the air was even soupier than usual. A stack of science books she’d collected from the main floor reading room now felt like a pile of bricks.
It wasn’t as bad as summertime. In summer the heat pooled so heavy on the third floor that it crushed the air out of the place and Sam was driven, gasping, outside to the overgrown benches.
This final staircase at Spire Hall was so steep that it was almost like climbing a ladder. It wasn’t much wider than her shoulders, and turned back on itself with little landings every few steps.
It was no wonder that hardly anybody ever braved it after the wide, polished marble steps up to the second floor. The entrance to the third floor stairway was just a narrow slit between shelves, gaping like a toothless mouth.
One needed a very good reason to take these stairs.
For Sam, of course, the very good reason was that scarcely anyone else did.
Sam stopped on the landing before the last flight of stairs to catch her breath against the stale air.
There was a dirty little window high on the wall. It occurred to her that she’d never looked out this window. She hugged her stack of books and stood on her tip-toes for a quick peek while she rested.
The old bell tower filled the window. At such close quarters she could see that the tower was in desperate shape. Rot chewed at the corners of the grey boards.
She used to believe that she could hear the bell all the way from Aunt Stacie’s apartment on Dunston Avenue. It sometimes tolled a low warning in the night, just as she was drifting off to sleep. Sometimes it came even later, creeping one strike at a time into her dreams. It never failed to bring her fully awake, peering into the dark corners of her bedroom with wide eyes.
Even when she was little she knew that she was being silly. It was just a bell. But when she happened to mention it to Heather she learned that the clapper on the bell at Spire Hall had been seized up for years. There was no possible way for it to ring. Sam must have been hearing church bells.
But church bells didn’t mark the midnight hour. Church bells did not ring with a murderously slow and dusty peal, like a ratty old crow that tap, tapped its way into her sleeping imagination and transformed dream to nightmare.
And if church bells, why had she never heard them even once since Heather had told her that it was impossible for this bell to ring?
She imagined what it must be like inside the bell tower—shut up like an ancient tomb, furry with thick dust.
Sam forced her gaze away from the bell tower, pointedly not thinking about the bell. She looked past the bell tower, intrigued by this bird’s eye view of Southside.
Summer had faded from the treetops, now just a green stain over the rows of cramped grey roofs. It scarcely seemed real.
For a long moment Sam peered through the dirty glass, watched the rain clouds gather, watched October arrive in September.
She heard no bells—just distant crows screaming about the cold.
Then she climbed the rest of the way to the third floor.
She was disappointed that Miss Blanket wasn’t there, but glad that there was nobody else. Sam dropped her books onto one of the old tables and sat.
She reviewed the ordeal of getting through the downstairs reading rooms, trying to decide whether or not she’d somehow embarrassed herself.
Saying hello to Mrs. Gaskell had attracted the attention of a table of girls from Sam’s class. Sam gave an embarrassed wave but didn’t risk swerving close enough to say hello. She moved purposefully to where she knew the science books were kept. It was always best to just keep moving.
The science assignment wasn’t due for weeks, but she thought that she might as well get started. She chose a couple of likely looking books from the shelf and made for the stairs.
Now the science books lay unopened on the desk. She couldn’t bring herself to even crack the covers.
“Choose three examples of simple machines and provide at least a 200-word description of how each operates.”
Nobody had yet invented a topic more boring than that.
She tilted back her chair and looked at the grey sky outside a tall dormer window across from her. Then she gazed up at the ceiling—or ceilings, rather, for each odd gable and tower of Spire Hall’s roof came with its own set of crazy angles.
Bored, she stood and wandered into the tight paths between the musty stacks. The third floor stacks were sort of like a mirror maze. It was easy to get tangled up and lose track of where she was.
This was where the library kept all of Bartholomew Spire’s old books, a bazillion colourless, crumbling volumes of ancient myths and Egyptian tombs and voyages to South Sea Islands and Arctic ice.
Sam browsed half-heartedly along the shelves: Mysteries of the Masonic Order. Elements of Mathematical Electricity. The Secret World of Earwigs.
But then, right before her eyes, there was a book that simply did not belong.
Her hand reached for the book before her brain told her hand not to do it.
It was newer than any other book on these dusty shelves, given a different binding in the way that libraries used to do when books were read until they came apart. Sam held it for a long moment, frowning at it. It was a dull red, with a brownish-gold spine and corner guards. There was no clue to what the book might be about. The title on the spine was mostly worn away.
The book gave her a funny feeling. Just holding it in her hands sent something like a mild electric shock crawling up her arms and buzzing through her body.
She was supposed to pick up this book. There didn’t seem to be much choice in the matter.

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