in a Crowded Place
The Door
She awoke, or came partly awake, with that horrible feeling of not knowing where she was even though she was in her own bedroom. Something was different. After a moment she realized that what she had sensed was just Aunt Stacie sneaking into her bedroom to switch off the bedside lamp.
That meant it was very early morning, the end of a shift at the hospital. Without opening her eyes Sam could tell that first dawn had come.
She didn’t move. Her memories struggled to find themselves. Distantly she remembered how in the beginning she’d fought against the nightmares, how in the morning she’d been twisted in clammy sheets. She did not fight the nightmares now. She was resigned to them, recognized the pointlessness of escape—like an animal locked in a cage, a sacrifice already tied to the altar.
But which was nightmare and which was life? Were these really nightmares at all? If they were nightmares, would they not stay in the night instead of waking with her and following her into the day?
Especially since her last visit to the third floor it seemed as if there had been no difference between being awake and being asleep.
Perhaps the real nightmare was knowing she was awake and still unable to tell the difference between midday and the hollow part of the night.
She realized, abruptly, that this night had introduced a new element to the nightmare—that of falling, falling, a bird suddenly without wings.
She frowned, eyes still closed, trying to sort out why this addition seemed important. There was some meaning to this, if only she could think properly and reason her way through it.
Then the part of her brain that sought reason, sought answers to questions, abruptly switched off. The sluggish, lifeless fog again descended behind her eyes and everything faded to grey.
There was a wall between Sam and the world, even after she opened her eyes. It was as if she squinted against heavy rain, her reality wrinkled and distorted.
She groped for her glasses, dressed, and then sat on the edge of her bed. She faced the window, still as a mannequin, and waited for the day without real thoughts. She vaguely remembered her nighttime journey to the library, but it was as if it had happened long ago or maybe even to someone else.
She ate breakfast, went to school. It wasn’t real. She couldn’t have repeated anything she was taught, or anything said to her in the hallways between classes.
She had to avoid Heather.
It was vital that she avoid Heather. This idea consumed her, filled her with a cunning that was alien to her nature.
Heather watched her. Sam could tell. She very carefully avoided eye contact, bided her time until she could escape. At the end of the school day Heather lingered, waiting. It took careful effort, watching from hidden places, to hide from the worried looks until Heather gave up. When Heather finally shuffled off, head bowed, shoulders slumped, Sam felt nothing but fierce satisfaction.
She went home. Aunt Stacie was awake. They may have exchanged words; Sam wasn’t sure. She wondered why she’d come here. She was supposed to be at the library. She went.
Her feet carried her down Dunston to Fourth and then to Spire Hall. She was even less aware of her surroundings than she had been the night before.
At the library the first thing she saw was that Heather was at one of the tables, studying something.
The sly cunning returned. Sam darted to the stacks. She held her breath, pushed up against a wall of books. After a moment she shifted her position, so that she could see between the bookshelves and have a good view of most of the main floor. She waited, knowing she would soon be shown what she needed to see.
Heather wasn’t looking up from her work. Sam scanned the rest of the main floor. Then, finally, she caught sight of Al. She watched him sneak furtively along the back of the library, disappearing and then reappearing between the shelves, until he slipped through a door marked “staff / private.”
Sam moved stealthily along the aisle she had chosen, still peering back between the shelves at where Heather sat. At the end of the aisle she faced a problem.
When she moved from the shelves to the door Al had used she would be in full sight of Heather.
The cunning that had kept her from becoming entangled in Heather all day now considered this. If she hurried she would be obvious. If she walked casually across to the door and walked through it as if she had a purpose, on the other hand, she might pass unnoticed.
She walked, not turning her head to the left or the right but carefully watching Heather from the corner of her eye. Heather looked up, saw her, started.
Perhaps it didn’t matter after all. Not now.
Sam slipped through the door after Al.
She was breathing in short little gasps.
She turned and locked the door behind her.
There was no sign of Al. But she saw right away that she’d solved her problem.
Three normal doors led off a short hallway. Two stood open, leading into rooms piled full of library debris. The third, at the end of the hall, could only lead to the bell tower. She tried the handle, and it was unlocked.
She went in.
The windows seemed to have been firmly boarded shut from the outside, but there were enough gaps between the boards to admit a grey, dusty light. After a few seconds of blinking into the dimness Sam could see just fine.
The sense of purpose that had carried her this far grew confused. Vaguely she remembered that she was looking for clues.
The inside of the bell tower was several degrees colder than the library. From the little window on the third floor landing she’d imagined the inside of the bell tower as furry with dust. That didn’t even begin to describe it. Dust lay in blankets, and the spiders had redecorated.
Once upon a time the bell tower had been a showpiece. An elegant, spiral staircase stood to one side, with carved spindles supporting a delicate railing, and the windows and doors were trimmed with fancy woodwork. Yet it was all now decayed elegance, cluttered with bits of broken furniture and other junk. The closer she looked, the more decrepit it seemed. She could see light right through cracks between the board of the walls in more place than one.
She took a deep but careful breath, not wanting to breathe in the dust but needing to steel herself, and then began to make a long, slow sweep of the floor. She didn’t know what she was looking for.
She poked behind covered lumps of furniture—at least, she hoped that the strange shapes beneath the grey, shroud-like sheets were furniture—and kicked at the dusty floor.
Sam tried not to think about the spiders, which in this old tomb must surely have grown to the size of black mice, and she tried not to imagine bats swooping down from the heights of the tower and tangling themselves in her hair.
She found nothing. Her tracks led around and around the room so that the dust on the floor was stirred up and pockmarked and looked like the surface of the moon.
Distantly she heard the door back to the library rattle. Somebody had tried the knob. Heather. Sam needed to hurry.
She didn’t want to look up, but she did.
Some of the spindles on the spiral staircase were broken or missing altogether, and at the bottom the stairs treads had collapsed in on themselves like a line of dominoes.
There was no other way to reach the top. Whatever had happened to Al Jordan, it had happened at the top of those stairs.
She craned her neck and squinted into the dimness above, trying to judge the condition of the staircase higher up.
She went to the bottom of the stairs and tentatively poked at the collapsed steps with one toe. They’d given away, but the wood itself seemed solid. She stepped up onto the first step and shifted a bit, fully expecting it to collapse beneath her weight. It held.
She hoisted herself up past the collapsed steps, keeping her feet near the edges where it seemed as if it might be stronger. It held again.
The word whispered around inside the dusty tower.
Sam, half-in and half-out of the fog that had controlled her for the past day, spent a moment deciding whether or not she’d really heard anything. It took another moment to recognize it as a word, and another moment again before she carefully turned her head to see behind her.
Al Jordan stood at the base of the staircase.
“Don’t,” he said.
Sam was scared to move, but she shifted to a slightly more secure position and then shook her head. She couldn’t think of any words.
He gazed straight into her eyes. Sadness pooled there, sadness that had been building up for however many years it had been since he had climbed those stairs in life. He didn’t look away, didn’t blink.
Finally he said, “I just want to be your friend.”
It took another moment for these words to sink in. Then she said, “I told you. I am your friend.”
She turned her head back to the staircase. Took a deep breath and shifted herself up another step.
She looked back at him, but he said nothing more. Just watched her, sadly, as she took another step.
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