in a Crowded Place
The Window
Sam took a step back, faltering. Her fear seethed and bubbled, heart-pounding fear that twitched in her fingertips.
Al took another step toward her.
He didn’t speak. His eyes were filmed, opaque, dead.
In a sickening flash she saw what he meant to do.
She stole a panicked glance over her shoulder at the window behind her.
She could almost feel the ancient glass crumbling at her back. She could see herself falling, spinning in air, smashed into broken flesh and bone against the ground below. Falling into a half-light where the library bell always tolled.
He took another step closer.
She could do nothing to stop it. She’d only just realized and breathed life, and life was over. She took another step back, the hurt leg almost giving out.
She was almost at the window. Just one more step.
His form had decayed. He was little more than the melted shape of the normal boy who’d smiled up at her over his book, who had told her the stories of Spire Hall.
He toyed with her, like a cat with a mouse. Faked a lunge.
She took that last backward step and her bad leg gave out and she lost her balance.
She fell toward the window, her whole weight hurtling toward the glass.
But she didn’t go through. She fell into softness, a pillowy softness that caught her, caressed her, gently lifted her back up.
On Al’s face the nightmare mask vanished, replaced by a startled, scared boy.
Sam scrambled, found her feet.
Al was just a boy again, yes, but faded—as if he no longer had the strength to seem alive. He looked even more scared than Sam had felt a moment before. Just a scared, faded boy.
Shapes formed on each side of Sam. They began as dust motes that drew together and swirled into mist, mist that grew in form and colour until Bartholomew Spire and Miss Blanket stood one on each side of her.
Al fell back a step, eyes darting between the two old ghosts like an animal in a trap.
Only now did Sam realize that the older ghosts had saved her, caught her the instant before she plunged to her death.
Bartholomew Spire stepped away from Sam, toward Al. “Fear,” he said.
His voice was so deep and ancient that it shuddered through the floor beneath her feet, as if it were the voice of Spire Hall itself.
“You have brought yourself to this through your own fear. Would you truly take the life of another, thinking to ease your loneliness, rather than search your own soul?”
Miss Blanket also stepped forward. “You’re scared to face what it is that really holds you to the world of the living,” she said in a gentler tone. The voice was persuasive, hypnotic. “What is it that holds you here?”
Miss Blanket’s voice crept inside Sam, twisting around her heart so that even she wanted to tell Miss Blanket about her fears. Loneliness, yes, and being alone. Death. Her parents.
Miss Blanket took another step and Al retreated again.
“Why will you not tell us? It is almost too late now.”
“I’ve told you,” he protested. “I told you.” He nodded at Sam without looking at her. “I told her. I never had a friend. Nobody should die without ever having had a friend.”
Sam found her voice. “I said I was your friend.”
The older ghosts ignored her.
“Blast you, boy,” Bartholomew thundered. “Enough of your games! What is really holding you here?”
“I’ve told you a hundred times,” Al said. He retreated another step. “Stop it! You can’t hurt me.”
“You’ve hurt yourself,” Miss Blanket said softly. “Have you not?”
Al seemed uncertain. He seemed to flicker, somehow, to grow even more transparent before regaining his form. Yet it was little more than shape—as pale and cold and snow and ice.
“The book,” Miss Blanket breathed, in a sigh that whispered through the third floor with the rustle of wind-swept leaves. “As soon as you tore off a piece of yourself to create the book it started to be too late. You have stolen your own choices. You cannot find friendship among the living. You cannot lure them into your torment and think it will ease that torment. You know what holds you here. Why will you not tell us?”
Al said nothing.
“It’s your last chance, boy,” Bartholomew said—kinder, but still in a voice as dusty as the spiderwebs up in the high gables. “You would not let us help you. You shut out everything but your own great trouble. You lost hope, perhaps, lost your way on the paths that wind through the torments of your final living thoughts. You reached into the world of the living. You reached out for a living soul who knew death, and to do it you have sacrificed a piece of yourself. Too much of yourself. If you don’t face your fear, face the great thing that has held you here all these years, it will be over. You will fade to a place far worse than being trapped, unliving, in the world you left when you fell to your death. If you don’t escape now you never shall.”
“We can’t tell you what it is that holds you here,” Miss Blanket said. “Only you hold that answer. Face your fears. Tell us what it is.”
“I told you,” Al said. His head swayed slowly from side to side, crying ghost tears. “I told you.”
He faded a little more, as if he were collapsing into himself.
Bartholomew’s voice grew even deeper, spreading across the third floor like a shroud—final, absolute.
“But you’re lying.”
Sam saw that Al would not speak. But just then a small, uncertain voice crept up the narrow staircase from the second floor. “Sam?”
The ghosts fell silent. All heads turned toward the stairs.
Another moment and the voice came again, “Sam?”
Not Heather. Not now.

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