in a Crowded Place
Friends Forever
Sam could see that she’d come in at a bad moment and interrupted something. A “hello” got caught in her throat when Miss Blanket and Bartholomew Spire gave her matching cold looks, solemn as a pair of tombstones, and then retreated into the stacks, almost out of Sam’s sight, where they began to whisper together in private conversation.
Sam shivered at the thought of what sort of secrets the two old ghosts might be guarding.
She walked uncertainly to Al’s table and sat down opposite him.
After a moment he glanced at her. “Hi.”
More silence. Al gazed darkly at Bartholomew and Miss Blanket, his mind still on whatever she’d interrupted. Sam looked away, uncomfortable.
She shouldn’t have come. She should have gone to the Trading Company and found a way to help whether Heather wanted her there or not.
The third floor felt different. It felt wrong, unpleasant, as if maybe it had awoken this morning in a sour mood. Perhaps after bad dreams.
It felt gloomier than usual, a little more old and decayed. Sam couldn’t quite place the difference. The change lurked just at the edge of her perception, like a sound you didn’t notice until it stopped and then could only guess what it had been.
Perhaps the smell of dust and old books was more oppressive than usual. Perhaps the spiderwebs lay a little heavier than usual. Sam looked up into the gabled ceiling. Cracks in the old plaster blended into the spiderwebs so that it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began.
It was colder on the third floor than it was outside.
Sam shivered, then pushed up her glasses and forced words into the wooden silence. She nodded back toward Bartholomew and Miss Blanket.
“What’s that all about?”
His attention finally drifted back to her. After a moment, with another nervous glance at the old couple, he whispered, “I don’t know. They always have secrets, those two.”
“I just figured it out about Miss Blanket,” Sam said, not sure why she was also whispering. “What’s her story? What’s keeping her here?”
Al shrugged. “Nobody knows her story. She was a spinster who showed up in town and found work at the library. There was this rumour that she’d come to Southside looking for somebody, people said it was a man who’d jilted her, but if that was true then she never found him. Sad story, but if she never found the person she was looking for then it’s pretty obvious what her unfinished business was.”
Apparently there was no storytelling in him today.
Sam watched Miss Blanket and Bartholomew curiously for a minute, and then turned her attention to Al. “Listen,” she said, louder than she’d intended. “I’ve been thinking. You said that if you could just get back into the bell tower you might find a clue about what happened to you. I know you said I shouldn’t, but I want to take a look for you.”
“Shhhh!” Al had raised his finger to his lips with a panicked look toward Miss Blanket and Bartholomew. In a voice even quieter than before he said, “Look, I really appreciate you trying to help. I really do. I’ve been alone since… Since what happened to me. But…”
“But I know what that means,” Sam hissed, her voice back to a whisper. “I’ve only really got one friend.”
“That’s one more than me,” Al muttered.
“I’m going to find a way in,” Sam said.
It almost seemed as if there were two sides of Al, struggling behind the dark eyes. He’d misplaced the easy smile that caught her when they first met. Sam frowned. Now that she looked at him a little more closely she could see that he seemed a little spongy, as if he were transparent around the edges.
“No.” Al’s voice was quiet, but his tone firm. “I wish I could go in the bell tower, you’re right. I wish I could finally just know what happened. But you can’t go. It… You just can’t.”
Sam nodded, still feeling as if he was torn—as if he wanted her to go to the bell tower for him, but that he was scared that she would be hurt or even killed just like him. But it was different for her. He hadn’t known that the bell tower was dangerous. She could be careful, and make sure that she didn’t step anywhere dangerous.
“No matter what happens,” Al said, “promise me you’ll always be my friend.”
Sam smiled at the curious way he said this. “Friends forever,” she said, in a lighthearted tone.
And she was pretty sure that the best way to be his friend was to sneak into the bell tower for him.
Al reached across the table and laid one hand across hers. When he touched her she felt a jolt that shivered through her, much like when she’d first touched the book on the day she met him, as if a connection had somehow been drawn between them.
He fell back into morose silence.
The cold nibbled at Sam, worked its way through her so that she could no longer control the shivering.
Al’s silence grew profound. He stared blankly at Miss Blanket and Bartholomew in a way that made Sam think of a computer that had been switched off.
She abandoned the third floor. When she stood and said “see you later” he didn’t even respond.
At the little landing with the window she stopped and gazed up at the grey and age-chewed bell tower. The idea of getting inside it possessed her. Indistinct thoughts swirled through her head like thick fog.
It felt as if the new, tormented mood of the third floor crept down the narrow stairs toward her like icy fingers. She turned and left—but her steps were sluggish, as if she were walking through sand.
The whole encounter replayed in her mind so that she was barely aware where she was, but she stopped as soon as she reached the main floor.
Her memories came back to her, winding through faraway thoughts.
There was a familiar figure in the main floor reading room. A figure more familiar than any other. Sam came back to herself, blinking at the surprise of seeing Heather.
Heather stood over by the tables with her back to Sam, reading an old, yellowed newspaper.
Awash with guilt, Sam suddenly realized that she couldn’t be caught here, and darted out the front door before Heather could turn and notice her.
She tried to understand what Heather was doing. Heather had been needed at the store, needed so much that she’d missed two days of school. It must have finally quieted down enough that her mother and her grandparents no longer needed her, and had let her go. But instead of go back to her apartment, instead of doing all of the other things that she could have done, she had come here to continue whatever it was that she had been working on.
She had gone back to trying to help Sam.
Guilt and warm gratitude battled their way through Sam as she made her way back to Aunt Stacie’s apartment.
Yet once she was alone in her room these emotions faded, to be replaced by an unpleasant sensation as if her head echoed with whispering voices.
If she found whatever it was that Al had failed to do and helped him do it, he would no longer be a ghost. Yes, that might bring Heather back. Yes, it was how she could help Al. But if she did it, she would lose him forever. Was that really what she wanted?
Yes, said Sam. No, said the voices.
The only way to help him, to be his friend, was to do her best to help him go. Forever. Whether she liked it or not.
Or join him. To keep him she could join him.
The voices battled. It was as if she were no longer in complete control of her own thoughts. She wondered if she might be going mad.

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