in a Crowded Place
Going Home
“Sam! Sam! Are you okay?”
The panic in Heather’s voice crawled inside Sam’s head, sounding distant and small.
Blood pounded like surf in Sam’s ears. Every shred of air had been knocked out of her, her lungs were starved for it, and she sucked in great gasps that hooted like an alarm in her head.
She drew one great ragged breath, held it, and slowly let it go. Her air came back, a storm-wind blast across barren desert. She gulped air. Swallowed air.
Her eyes popped open.
Amazingly her glasses were still on. She straightened them, clawed her hair out of her eyes.
The first thing that came into view was a tangle of weeds, then the iron fence around the bell tower. Little spear pickets buried in the ground like spikes at the bottom of a pit trap. She’d missed them by inches.
For all this, she felt a strange calm.
“I’m okay.”
Her voice came from somewhere beyond the surf, tiny and unreal. Then, in case Heather hadn’t been able to hear the little voice, she nodded. Nodding brought a cascade of numb throbbing through her skull.
After a moment she added, her voice sounding a little closer to normal, “My leg hurts, but I can move it.”
Heather was crying. Tears ran down her cheeks. “I was so scared.” Her hands darted here and there, straightening Sam’s jacket, picking twigs and leaves out of her hair.. “Can you stand up?”
Sam had to think about this for a minute. She was careful not to nod again. “I think so.”
After a deep, steadying breath she accepted Heather’s hand and pulled herself up, and then leaned heavily against Heather—crippled by pain and shame in equal measure, and quivering with adrenalin, back from the dead.
“I don’t know what happened to me.” Words poured out of her, squeaking their way in between the ragged breaths. She gripped Heather’s shoulder. “He took control of me. I didn’t know what I was doing. He made me go up there and…”
The full meaning of it all struck the words from her mouth. She’d been possessed, violated, almost killed.
Heather had no intention of entertaining this topic. She was coming back to herself, taking charge. She said, “Can you walk? We should get out of here before somebody sees us.”
Sam straightened up, nodded very slowly and much less painfully, and then started to slowly pick her way out of the overgrown mess of weeds and bush beside the bell tower with Heather at her side.
Her leg hurt. It hurt a lot, and more with each step. Throbbing pain shot all the way up and into her head every time she put her weight on it. But she found that she could walk. She was a mess of pain and humiliation—and overwhelming, weepy gratitude to have Heather there.
Heather didn’t stop talking the whole time.
“I was so scared when I heard all that crashing.”
“I knew you were in there.”
Then, oddly, “My mom is going to come home mad from the next library meeting because somebody broke into the bell tower.”
Just inside the gates Sam stopped and put her hands over her face. As the pain began to fall under control the shame reared up like a wave and overwhelmed her. Through her closed hands she said, “I’m so sorry,” and then she started to cry. It was more than crying—big, ugly sobs that racked her shoulders.
Heather rested her arm across Sam’s shoulder as if she could hold them still. “Hey, it’s okay.”
Sam dropped her hands and said, “No it’s not.” She swiped angrily at the tears on her cheeks and with one great breath said, “I finally meet somebody new and he’s even a boy and then it turns out he’s dead and I can see ghosts and then he tricks me and tries to kill me and worst of all I’m a total jerk to you.”
Heather’s eyebrows climbed slowly up her forehead, and the corners of her mouth twitched as if she were ruthlessly suppressing a smile.
“Well, yeah,” she allowed after a moment. “I guess that is pretty weird.”
The smile escaped, and then became a little snort of laughter. She shook her head, sobered. “Except the jerk part. I didn’t think that you were being a jerk.”
“Sneaking around,” Sam sniffled.
“You were possessed or something,” Heather said. “It’s like ghost sickness. I told you.”
Sam wiped away the last of her tears. Blinked. The memory of what Heather had told her about ghost sickness replayed. The dead try to take the living with them, crawl into their nightmares and and steal the essence of their life. How had she not seen this happening to her?
“I guess you were right after all,” she said.
She sniffled one last time. “Do you think your mom’s really going to be mad?”
Heather laughed again, though it came out high-pitched with relief. “Are you kidding me? It will be like the theft of the crown jewels. Vandals! Now we’ll have to buy boards to fix the hole! How will we afford that?”
Heather sobered. “Seriously. That was the scariest thing ever.”
Sam nodded. “Tell me about it.”
They began to walk again, out through the sagging, rusty gates of Spire Hall and onto Fourth Street. Traffic rumbled past. It was the end of the work day. The people in Southside who could afford to drive cars were coming home from work; the rest jammed the smelly buses that swept up clouds of street dust.
She was back. The filthy, exhaust-laden air seemed cleaner. The shabby old storefronts seemed newer. The fruit and vegetable displays outside the corner groceries didn’t seem as sad and wilted.
She smiled at everybody they met, even the bums fishing through the trash cans for bottles, even against the pain that shot up from her hurt leg and the stiffness that was settling into her whole body.
She had been dragged right up to the edge, danced a step with Death itself, and she was back and alive and Heather was there and it was a fine October day. When she climbed into her pyjamas that night she was sure to discover a whole new crop of bruises and scrapes, and when she vacuumed the living room on Sunday the soreness was sure to still torment her.
This was life. She had nearly lost it.
She was alive and for perhaps the first time she really knew she was alive. Alive meant stolen moments between Aunt Stacie’s shifts at work, being as much of a family as they could be—bickering over the last Piekarnia cookie even though they both knew there had been an even number to begin with, and both knew which of them had cheated. Alive meant discovering a new story and lying in bed reading it, pretending she wasn’t snuggling Sister the bear and wallowing in summer breeze from the open window. Alive meant being with Heather those times when they said nothing.
And then she started to talk.
The whole story came pouring out. She told Heather everything, all of it, without leaving out the parts that she’d hidden before.
She told Heather about sneaking out at night and trying to find a way into the bell tower, and how it had seemed that she hadn’t been in control of her actions.
She ignored the terrified look on Heather’s face and told even the really scary parts, like there really being a ghost of Bartholomew Spire. She told Heather every detail she could remember. It took her so long to tell everything that had happened that they had to stand at the foot of the alley between Sam’s apartment and Li’s Grocery before she was finished.
And when she finally fell silent she waited for Heather to speak, resigned to the blast she knew she would receive.
But Heather seemed to know that this was not the time. There were no lessons to be learned, questions could wait, and walking forward was more important than thinking back. Instead she came out with the most unlikely thing Sam could have imagined.
Heather said, “You’re not going to believe this, but I need you to come with me to library tomorrow. I was going to show you something today, something I found out.”
She grinned. “You’re not the only one that’s been sneaking around, you know.”

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