in a Crowded Place
The Long Climb
Part way up the stairs she was herself again.
Whatever had possessed her was gone, its purpose accomplished. The fog had lifted, and she was surprised to find herself climbing these rotten steps.
She paused, took a breath, made the mistake of looking down.
She was a long way up. If she fell she could really hurt herself.
She could do more than hurt herself. She could…
She pushed the thought from her mind. Trying to retrace her steps would be more dangerous than finishing the climb, turning at the top, and picking her way back down. She kept her eyes raised, barely even letting herself look down enough to place her hands and feet.
She focussed on her goal, the top of the tower. Through a gap in the floorboards she could see the old bell, drawing closer with every step.
Finally she reached the top step. She tested the floorboards with one foot and then eased up with her whole weight. The floor held.
She had been holding her breath and suddenly realized that she was starved for air. For a moment she just stood there, gulping breath and trying to calm down.
It was Heather’s voice. With an effort Sam swallowed her heavy breathing, again held her breath, and listened.
Heather sounded panicked, and this sent a fresh wave of guilt crashing over Sam.
There was a boarded window just a few paces away, in the direction of Heather’s voice. She looked down at the floor.
Nothing else could have made her step farther onto the bell tower floor.
Sam controlled her breathing, watched the floor and eased toward the window. Whether she imagined it or not, it seemed as if the boards swayed a little under her weight.
She peeked out between the cracks in the boards over the window. Heather was just below her, down among the tangled, washed out jungle of bush and long grass. From here Heather seemed tiny. The grounds of Spire Hall seemed like some blasted wasteland from a fantasy story.
She could see that Heather looked scared. Very scared.
Sam ducked back from the window.
She turned back into the small room at the top of the tower.
She saw a crumpled shape on the floor. She frowned at its familiarity.
It was the book, the book that she knew even now lay on her nightstand back at the apartment.
It looked nothing like the book she had found in the shelves on the third floor. It lay in a crumpled, dust-covered heap beside the jagged hole in the floor, its pages swollen fat with years of moisture.
Her thoughts spun crazily, like a spent top just before it collapsed.
The book she had at the apartment was… a ghost book? The real book lay there where it had fallen when the floorboards gave way under Al all those years ago.
It hadn’t even been a real book, that day in the library. It was there for her to find, to see and touch, suddenly as real as Al became. It was all…
The realization flooded through her. He wasn’t supposed to be able to come into the bell tower, but there he’d been at the bottom of the stairs.
He wanted to be her friend forever.
Forever and ever.
A high-pitched, keening sound began to echo around the bell tower. It took her a minute to realize that the sound was coming from her.
Heather’s voice brought her back. She was in terrible danger. She had to move, to get back down and get out of there.
She took a careful step toward the top of the stairs and then her courage broke. She dashed back to the top of the stairs. It wasn’t her imagination this time—the floorboards staggered beneath her weight.
She was only five or six steps down when a board broke beneath her weight. She was thrown forward. For one brief moment of terror she was airborne, not touching with hands or feet.
She caught the railing. Miraculously it held. Spun her around. For a flash she teetered, backward on the edge of a step halfway up the bell tower. Then she fell again.
She fell in a ball, rolling around the curving stair with her arms and legs flailing. Her brain said she was dead, though she felt no pain. She catapulted down. A fleeting vision flashed through her mind, of the arrow-spiked iron fence around the base of the tower.
She fell against the railing and this time it snapped under her weight and she was launched into space, spinning like a rag doll.
She struck the tower wall just at one of the windows, and the old boards covering it collapsed outward and she was falling in daylight.
Sharp fingers of branches suddenly tore at her. She smashed through the bushes and landed on the ground with what seemed like an explosion that stole her breath.
Breath came in ragged, loud gasps. She lay as flat as if she were embedded in the ground. Pain in her leg snarled at her. Somewhere Heather was screaming. She gulped for air.
I just want to be your friend. Always be your friend.
She was alive.

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