in a Crowded Place
Miss Blanket
Sometimes an idea, even a bad and impossible idea that should never have grown wings in the first place, takes flight before you can quite snatch its feet and stop it from flying away. That happened when Heather phoned on Sunday night.
“I’m going to be late for school tomorrow morning,” Heather said. “Grandma and Grandpa and Mom have an appointment at the bank. I just wanted to let you know so you wouldn’t wait for me to walk to school.”
Two thoughts came charging in from different directions and collided in Sam’s head.
The first was of course disappointment. Sam and Heather always did absolutely everything together so even a tiny change in routine was unsettling.
The second thought came so suddenly that it must have been lying in wait long before Sam darted out of her bedroom to answer the phone. It had been almost a week since she saw Al on Monday night—a week that had even included the torture of two days hanging out on the main floor of the library with Heather and not being able to sneak up to the third floor.
On a scale of one-to-ten of people likely to skip school, Sam would have rated herself a minus-five—but the idea was suddenly perched there, its wings already fully formed.
“I’m kind of scared,” Heather said. “I don’t really know what’s going on, but this doesn’t sound like it’s going to be good news.”
This brought Sam swimming back through her schemes and possibilities and she said, “What do you mean?”
“I don’t know. They won’t tell me. But you can tell they’re worried about something.”
“Do you think it’s serious?”
“I don’t know. But they’re funny about it. You know what I mean. Like, you know something’s happening because they’re being so careful to make it seem like nothing’s happening.”
If this were something new for the Southside Trading Company, Sam might have been more concerned—but she’d long since come to the conclusion that there were always troubles and it never seemed to change anything. The store had been there forever and was always scraping along from month to month. Sam bit her lip and asked carefully, “How late do you think you’ll be?”
Heather didn’t know, and the question seemed to make her impatient.
Heather said, “Why don’t you come to the store with me in the morning?”
The question gave Sam’s stomach a guilty lurch. There was a pleading note in Heather’s voice. But the opportunity to see Al was too strong.
“No, I better go to school.”
She knew that if Heather asked one more time, if that pleading note grew even a touch stronger, she’d give in.
Heather didn’t repeat the question, and Sam reasoned that if Heather had really wanted her to come she would have insisted.
Yet the idea of skipping school gave her a shiver.
Just a quick visit, Sam thought. Get there first thing, don’t stay more than a few minutes, and get to school. She would be at her desk long before Heather made it.
In fact, the idea that she needed to hurry made her set a Monday morning speed record. Then once she was out of the apartment she realized that Spire Hall didn’t even open for another half-hour, and she had far more time than she needed.
The guilty rush turned into a leisurely walk. There were high wisps of cloud and a light, mild wind; the last few leaves held on for their lives, quivering on pencil-thin branches. Sam watched cars and faces and peered over sagging fences into seedy crops of autumn weeds that should have been gardens. It all seemed so interesting and new that she didn’t even realize that it might have been the first time she’d ever walked from her apartment to the library without trying to hide her face from the world.
Mrs. Gaskell was surprised to see her. Sam just nodded her way past as if she had every reason in the world to be there and of course she wasn’t cutting school and she didn’t slow her pace until she was on the landing half-way up the narrow staircase. Then the window caught her—or rather, the view through the window of the bell tower looming like a sorcerer’s eyrie.
Evil dreams had given the bell tower an unwelcome familiarity. She cocked her head and gave it a critical, daytime look. As she watched, the tower seemed to change in some imperceptible way, as if it grew sharper and the background of colourless rooftops and leafless trees and pale sky grew dim and unreal.
It took an effort to tear herself away from the view.
The third floor was abandoned. Her cleverness was wasted. She should be at school. She suppressed the thought that she should really be at the Southside Trading Company.
She stood for a moment, alone with the dust motes and ancient books and the guilt. Then she noticed Miss Blanket’s date stamp resting on top of the card catalogue.
It lay on a blotter, and one date was stamped over and over again all around it: October 29, 1994. October 29, 1994.
Sam frowned. This was odd.
Maybe the date stamp wasn’t working properly. Miss Blanket probably realized it after she signed out Bridge to Terabithia for Sam, and had been fixing it.
In that moment, thinking but not thinking about Miss Blanket—but still with Miss Blanket sort of thoughts wandering aimlessly through her mind—the truth popped into Sam’s head with cold certainty.
Maybe she’d always known. Half-memories swirled past her like mist.
Miss Blanket was never anywhere in Spire Hall but the third floor.
Miss Blanket was part of the silence.
Miss Blanket, with her old-fashioned card catalogue and date stamp, was a very old librarian indeed. So old, in fact, that she was no longer among the living.
Just as all of the pieces fell together a slight movement caught Sam’s eye and she turned. There was Miss Blanket, wearing exactly the same clothes she always wore, watching Sam from behind her little old-fashioned glasses.
“I see that you’ve brought your thinking cap for once,” Miss Blanket said. There was an edge to her voice that surprised Sam.
Sam nodded, slowly, puzzled by the tone and a little shocked that she wasn’t nearly as surprised about this as she probably should have been.
“I guess,” Sam said. She glanced down at the date stamp, back up at Miss Blanket. “But I’ve known you for years. Seen you for years.”
Miss Blanket gazed inscrutably at her. After a long moment she replied, “Who can say how such mysteries work? For some of the living the walls between worlds are thinner than for others. You are one of those.” She seemed to ponder this for a moment. “Yet what you see is determined, sometimes, by what you are ready to see. The living hide behind a veil of normality which grows more opaque as they age. Sometimes they see things perfectly well and yet pretend they have not seen them and instead create a vision of what they expected to see.”
She gave Sam a wintry smile. “It is just as well. If the living did not thus protect themselves, they would go mad.”
The librarian’s expression softened. She came a little closer in a movement as gentle as cotton window sheers wafting in a summer breeze.
“You’re shivering,” she said. “I don’t blame you. This room has grown as cold as an unpeaceful ghost. This is no longer a safe place for you. You must leave.”
Sam frowned, her thinking muddled and confused. The meaning of Miss Blanket’s words seemed to bounce and echo in her head, so that she understood only parts of what was said. “Are you unpeaceful?”
Miss Blanket raised her eyebrows into an incredulous expression. “Me? Don’t be ridiculous. The dead only slip down that path when they begin to tear off pieces of themselves to lure the living.”
Sam stared uncomprehensively for a moment, and then tried to clear her thoughts with a shake of her head. “Look. I just came here to see Al. I only have a minute.” She shook her head again. “If he’s not here I should get going.”
Miss Blanket’s look darkened again. “You should not be here, Samantha. You, particularly, should not be here. You are in grave danger. Ghosts are no concern of the living. Alan Jordan’s great problem is especially of no concern of the living. Leave here. Leave this problem to Bartholomew and I. Leave now.”
With this Miss Blanket faded from sight, and Sam was again alone with the dust motes.
There was no more she could learn here. She turned to go.
She stopped.
She turned back into the room.
“Wait a second. Bartholomew…?”
But there was nobody there, nobody alive or dead.
And didn’t have time to think about this. Not now.
She flew from the third floor. She pounded down the staircases to the main floor and out the front doors, driven by a new surge of guilt at having abandoned both school and Heather. A glance at the clock in the main floor reading room told her it was already half-past nine and that gave her legs even more speed. She raced out onto Fourth Street, trying not to even look at the statue of Bartholomew Spire as she crossed the library grounds.
Even though she ran all the way to school she wasn’t quick enough. She came stumbling into her class with a late slip crumpled in one hand and the very first thing she saw was that Heather was already there.
Heather spared her just one angry, wet-eyed look that sent the enormity of Sam’s betrayal cascading through her from head to foot. She collapsed onto her chair and huddled over her desk, head down, feeling as if everybody in the classroom was still staring at her the way they had when she exploded through the door. Except Heather. Heather didn’t even glance her way.
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