in a Crowded Place
When she tore open the envelope all that was inside was a sheet of paper with the same careful handwriting:
“Please come, one last time. Please come soon.”
She just stared at the note. It was like having seen a car accident—moving from horrified disbelief, to reluctant acceptance that it had happened, to noticing little details whether she wanted to or not.
On closer inspection the writing wasn’t quite as careful as before. The lines of the handwriting were more twitchy and uncertain. As if it were written with a hand that didn’t quite tremble, like an older person no longer able to keep tight hold on the pen, like a forgotten letter found in the back of a book that hadn’t been opened in years.
It was a ghost letter. Writing from the past.
She knew she should crumple the paper into a tight ball and throw it into the trash and never think about it again. She didn’t.
She remembered how she’d fallen inside the story of Bartholomew Spire, lost in Al’s words. It was the first time except for Heather that anybody seemed really interested in her.
She had promised to be his friend. She didn’t want to die to be his friend forever, but now that she thought about it she realized that he must have changed his mind about that. Why else would he have appeared to her in the bell tower? At the last minute he’d tried to stop her.
She read the note again, and then again.
She didn’t have to ask Heather. There was no question what Heather would tell her.
Sam knew that she was just pretending to think this over. She would go. Of course she would go.
The problem was Heather. She couldn’t face the idea of what Heather would think—what Heather would say—if she went back to see Al.
She met Heather before school on Tuesday morning, hiding under the awning of Li’s to stay out of the rain while she waited. They walked to school with their heads down, big drops splashing in the puddles so that it seemed to be raining from above and below at the same time.
Sam could barely concentrate on school. The idea grew in her mind that there was an urgency in Al’s note that could not be denied.
Please come soon.
She’d wanted to help him. She still wanted to help him. Maybe Heather would understand if she knew how important it was.
Please come now.
It wouldn’t take long. She would see him one last time, hear whatever he had to say, and that would be that.
As it turned out, she didn’t have to escape from Heather. As soon as they emerged from their last class on Tuesday Heather said, “Hey, you’re on your own. There’s something I need to do.”
“Where are you going?”
Heather seemed evasive, but after a minute she admitted. “I’m just going to the library for a bit. Something I need to look up.”
“I’ll come with you,” Sam said. At the look on Heather’s face Sam protested, “Hey, I still have to read.”
Heather smiled and shook her head, but made no further protest.
When they got to the library, wet and cold, Heather pointed to the circulation desk and said, “I just need to ask a question. Grab a table and I’ll be there in a minute.”
Sam nodded, and, trying not to betray herself said carefully, “I’m just going to look at some books.”
Heather’s eyes narrowed. “Seriously,” Sam lied. “Catch up with you in a minute.”
She walked into the stacks, and doubled back around toward the stairs to the second floor.
The stairs were harder work with her hurt leg, but she was carried by her anxiousness to get this done. Just this one last task remained, and then her conscience could rest.
The long stairs were almost more than she could handle. She climbed more and more slowly, one step at a time, hauling herself with the handrails in a futile attempt to ease the pain she was causing in her leg.
For all that, when she finally reached the third floor, dragging the useless bundle of pain that was her leg, there was nobody there. The suffering had been pointless.
She wandered past the end of the shelves, peering down each stack. She glanced at the top of the card catalogue to see if Miss Blanket had left her any messages.
Finally she went to one of the big windows and looked outside. Sheets of rain spattered the glass, so that Southside seemed distant and unreal. She should sit, rest her leg before she even tried to navigate back down the stairs.
She’d grab a book from the second floor. Maybe Heather wouldn’t question that.
She turned.
Al stood near the table where they had sat the day they met.
It was Al and it was not Al.
His eyes were sunken pits, his flesh white-green and sickly and somehow melted.
“You have no idea what it’s like,” he hissed. “No idea at all.”
Fear smashed through her.
She darted for the stairs but her leg betrayed her and she stumbled.
It was too late anyway. Suddenly he stood between her and the top of the stairs. The eyes were terrible. His slow smile was terrible.
“No idea at all,” he said again.
He began to slowly pace toward her.
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