in a Crowded Place
The Bell Tower
She almost never went into the living room of the apartment except for Sunday cleaning, but Sam was alone in the living room. She sat stiffly on a seldom-used chair beside the window.
She sat with her hands folded on her lap, looking neither left nor right.
She was barely aware that Aunt Stacie had left for work. She was only indistinctly aware of anything at all. She stared at the window.
Her thoughts gathered and then trickled away half-formed as darkness stained the sky, darkness that crept upward from the horizon so that it seemed as if street lamps were stealing the sun’s light. On Dunston the shop lights dimmed, steel gates were swung across doors and windows, and shopkeepers shuffled tiredly away into the night.
It occurred to Sam that she had stepped away from herself, that she was no longer as she had been. She dismissed the idea as unimportant.
Twilight and darkness had crept inside her, leaving her numb and dull. The bell tower was a shadow across the room, as real, as rotten, and as haunted as if she stood before it.
Even though she was awake it seemed as if she could faintly hear the tolling bell.
In time loud music started up in the next apartment, throbbing with bass. The suddenness of it startled her.
She physically shook herself, with a feeling of surfacing, gasping for breath. Awakening. Groggy. Cold. The room was blurry. She instinctively looked around her for her glasses and was surprised to find that she was wearing them.
She might have been talking to herself. She frowned at this, because when she probed the thought it was more as if somebody else had been there talking to her.
Gradually the blurriness receded, and she realized that it was partly just darkness in the room.
The darkness puzzled her, but then remembered that she had watched the darkness come. She fumbled with a lamp, clicked on the light. Out loud she muttered, “What is wrong with me?”
She stood, stretched, and opened the window, leaned out and tested the night. She was aware of the cold night air cascading over the windowsill and pooling down around her feet, though it didn’t really seem all that much colder than it had already been in the room. Somewhere a dog barked, a shrill, steady, incessant warning like a car alarm.
The barking seemed to awaken her even more, bring her to her senses.
The idea of exploring the bell tower suddenly seemed like the worst idea in the world. It was crazy. Going out at night in Southside was a stupid idea even without poking around a dangerous, collapsing ruin of a building. The ruin of a haunted building.
This thought brought back the deadening of her senses, as if someone had reached in and switched off her fear. She needed to get into the bell tower, climb to the top, solve the mystery.
The icy calm returned, but in a way that felt unnatural. As if she stood beside herself, watching herself be calm. As if she were no longer really in control.
The time had come.
She rummaged through the hall closet, choosing warm clothes and stashing Aunt Stacie’s big flashlight in her pack. Something made her leave the apartment lights turned on—not because she didn’t want to return to darkness, but because returning was unimportant.
At the front door of the apartment building she stopped, all senses alert. It was if she could feel the night. It took a moment to realize what had pricked her senses.
Heather. She couldn’t let Heather see her, not yet. Not until later.
Later it wouldn’t matter.
There was no point in thinking about that.
She bolted from the building, ducked along the narrow alleyway beside Li’s Grocery and ran until she had cleared the back lane and was completely out of sight of both apartments. The need for stealth was powerful, as if Heather could see right through the walls and watch her every move.
She walked inside a mist that numbed her thoughts and memories. She was part of the night. Her steps followed one another in a slow march, measured steps that seemed to use somebody else’s feet.
The dog still barked its warning, but it was distant and unreal. Everything was unreal until she stood before the rusted gates.
She was startled to find the library open. Lights burned behind the big old windows, but the overgrown grounds had found total darkness.
The grounds were so dark that she noticed for the first time that there were stars in the sky.
This was a rare enough sight that it penetrated the fog that had possessed her, as if she had twitched awake inside herself. She stopped, confused, and looked up above the skeletal trees.
Against the overwhelming, total darkness of the library grounds the sky seemed more pale. She understood that this was caused by the reflected light of street lamps against the sky. She thought about this for a minute, mystified by the realization that she had never seen a night sky without city lights. Had never, in fact, been beyond Southside in her whole life.
These stars looked down on other places, different worlds. A vague, fleeting thought fluttered by, tied to a memory of Heather saying how her mom had worked so hard to escape.
Everybody talked about getting out of Southside, so much that the words were meaningless—it was like talking about the weather. Those words had never before been attached to the idea of a life un-lived, things undone.
The idea that there might be a future brought her back with a gut-wrenching lurch. Thinking about being alive brought her alive.
It was if she had been trapped inside herself.
She was standing at the verge of Spire Hall’s inky jungle, by herself, and hours had just been carved from her life in an extremely disturbing way.
She had difficulty piecing together the events since she’d left the third floor and seen Bartholomew Spire for the first time.
Sam drew a long, shuddering, calming breath. She was here now. She had to help Al. If she lost courage now she would never find it again.
She stole down the path, swerving off while she was still safely beyond the light from the windows, and crept around Spire Hall until she was below the dark shape of the tower.
She had not wanted to use the flashlight until she was inside the tower, but she needed to risk it for just a moment. She carefully studied the lit windows of Spire Hall for signs of movement. Seeing none, she dug out the flashlight and turned it on.
After one slow sweep of the light across the base of the tower she switched it off and allowed herself to absorb what she’d seen.
The narrow strips of mowed grass stopped well short of the bell tower. The weeds and bushes around the base were as wild and tangled as an abandoned cemetery. They’d grown over a low fence that had once contained gardens, an iron fence with arrow-sharp pickets and a faded, yellow-tinged strip of warning tape tangled through it.
Every possible opening had been solidly boarded over. She marked in her memory where the single outside door had been and carefully moved closer. She clicked on the light once more, which only confirmed that this trip had been wasted.
There was no way to enter the tower from the outside. Even if there were a way to prise off the grey boards, force her way through the walls themselves, it would have been all but impossible to penetrate the shield of overgrown trees and brush.
She was stumped for a moment, as if, with no way to get into the tower, she had no further purpose. But the weird mental lethargy didn’t return.
The deeply unsettling sense that she had not been alone these past hours again brought back the memory of stepping onto the third floor and seeing Bartholomew Spire in conversation with Miss Blanket.
She finally noticed the cold of the night and shivered.
Suddenly more worried that her light had been seen she stuffed the light back into her pack and began to creep back the way she’d come.
She was alone in the dark, in the library grounds at night.
The terrifying reality of this struck home and she suddenly broke and ran. She ran with a terror that all but crushed her heart, until she was a shivering, crying mess huddled inside the front door of Aunt Stacie’s apartment.

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