in a Crowded Place
Al dropped like a collapsible toy and ended up sitting on the floor with his face behind his hands. The creature he had become at the end was gone—he was all boy, just a boy.
The shock of Heather’s words was so great that it took Sam a moment to piece it all together.
This was what held Al here at the library, what had kept him from moving on after he fell to his death in the bell tower. He had killed his own brother.
And with the realization came a horrible feeling, a feeling of the deepest sympathy for Al. What he must have gone through. What he must still be going through.
Sam shucked her pack and sat on the floor beside him.
She already knew the truth. She said, “It was an accident, wasn’t it?”
Al sat with his elbows propped on his knees, his hands still covering his face. He was wracked with loud sobs, his head slowly rocking from side to side.
“You didn’t mean to do it,” Sam said.
At first he made no response, just kept sobbing and rocking.
Sam didn’t know what to say. She looked up at the others—Heather numb, Bartholomew Spire and Miss Blanket compassionate and concerned.
“I didn’t mean to do it,” Al finally said.
He fell silent, seeming to gain control of himself. He took his hands away from his face, stared at the ancient carpet on the floor.
“Jimmy and me were just horsing around,” he said. “It was raining like mad, the craziest weather you ever saw at Hallowe’en, and we were stuck inside. It was a Saturday, and Hallowe’en was just around the corner on Monday, and we were stuck inside.
“I just wanted to be left alone. I had a real good book out from the library, and when I was reading that I could lose myself a little bit and not think about all the stuff I could be doing if it wasn’t for that stupid rain. But Jimmy was bored, and he was pestering me like crazy. He wanted to build a puzzle, draw pictures, play cards, get me to watch TV with him. I kept telling him to bug off and leave me alone, but he wanted to play.”
Al seemed to be on the verge of tears again. “He was just a little kid. I was his big brother.”
“Just tell us what happened,” Miss Blanket said gently. “Tell it to yourself, and we’ll listen.”
Al seemed to regain control of himself.
“Eventually I got up to chase him off, but he just made a game out of it like we were playing tag or something. Every time I’d try to go back to my book he’d grab my arm and say, ‘C’mon, Al, C’mon, Al.’ He was driving me crazy.
“My dad had these guns in the living room, just stacked in a corner. He kept them unloaded and everything, but he used to go hunting and so they were always out and handy in the fall hunting season. I started acting tough with Jimmy. ‘You leave me alone, or I’ll just take one of these guns and shoot you!’ I said. And I picked one up, pointed it at him and pulled the trigger and pretended to shoot.”
This time Al did lose his control again, and sobbed.
“The kick of it landed me on the other side of the room. The gun was loaded and I killed Jimmy.”
Another long moment passed, as he sorted out his thoughts.
“Next thing I knew I was outside the house. I don’t remember leaving the house. I’ve tried and tried, but I don’t remember leaving the house. If I’d only just stayed there and picked up the phone everything would be different but there I was heading down the street. I had my book but I didn’t even grab my jacket and I was soaking wet from the rain. I don’t know what I was thinking, if I was thinking at all.”
Sam glanced up and was surprised by the warmth and pity that had come over Heather’s face. She could see sympathy etched onto the faces of Miss Blanket and Bartholomew, too—but they were somehow happy at the same time.
It took Sam a moment to figure that out, to realize how long they’d waited for this moment. How many spinning revolutions of the moon around the earth, of the earth around the sun, had they spent wanting to help and trying to find an answer to a question that could only be answered by only by Al himself?
“I barely even thought about Jimmy at first,” Al moaned. “That came later. I’ve spent years now thinking about Jimmy, but then I just thought what big trouble I was in. I just kept walking, holding that book and water running out of my hair and down my face.”
“I had to get out of the rain,” he said. “Finally I came to the library and thought that I could just go inside and read. At least I think that’s what I was thinking—it wasn’t too clear. But then I thought that everybody’d look at me funny, all soaking wet, and maybe they’d look at me and see what I’d done written all over my face. I saw the door to the bell tower, and cut across the grounds to see if I could figure out a way inside.”
He let out a long breath, and shrugged. “I guess you know the rest of it. I didn’t even end up reading, after all that. The book was just sitting there with soggy pages while I just sat there thinking, I didn’t mean to kill him, I didn’t mean to kill him. I just kept thinking it over and over again, the biggest, dirtiest secret just bouncing around in my brain, and then it stopped. Just one little second of breaking through, falling, and it all stopped.”
His story was finished, and with it he began to fade.
It started slowly, like a sunset that began by darkening the edges of the day and then slowly choked the sunlight into night.
“I didn’t mean to kill him,” Al whispered. He stared into Sam’s eyes, and in his eyes she could read everything he meant to say. Regret, loss.
“It’s okay,” she said, scarcely able to hear her own voice.
She gave Heather a panicked look, as if Heather could help her. Heather was crying, biting her knuckle and crying with the sheaf of papers forgotten in one hand.
“It shouldn’t have been like that,” Al said. “I should have gotten mad at him, read my book, gotten over it. Sunday should’ve come and then Hallowe’en. He was going to dress up as a ghost.” He sniffled. “He was going to be a ghost, with a bed sheet that Mom cut eye holes in, and I was going to be a pirate. She took one of the little circles that she cut out of the sheet and glued it onto some cardboard and coloured it with black marker for an eye-patch. I had one of Grandpa’s old handkerchiefs to tie around my head, and we were supposed to be a pirate and a ghost and go out trick-or-treating on Monday night.”
“It just happened,” Sam said. “It was an accident. Two accidents.”
She reached out for his hand, and after a moment he allowed her to take it. It felt warm, but not quite real—like scooping up a handful of sea-foam. When she looked down at his hand she could see right through it.
“Just ‘cause I didn’t have friends then doesn’t mean I wouldn’t have made some,” he said. “Right? I could have made some friends. Maybe I could have been better friends with Jimmy, too. Maybe when we got older.”
Sam nodded, but before she could think of anything to say Miss Blanket said, “All life is wonderful. The lives you had, you and your brother, were wonderful. They were short, yes, and ended in tragedy, but what you did and what you learned together were wonderful.”
“I would have made some more friends,” Al said.
He had faded more. His hand was just a shape on Sam’s palm, like touching in a dream.
“But you did make a friend,” Sam said. “I’ll always be your friend, remember?”
Al smiled, a sad, vanishing smile.
“Always,” he said, and then he was gone. His last word whispered through the third floor like a memory. The emptiness of the spot where he had been washed through Sam, emptiness that ached in her soul.
For a moment they were silent, and then Heather said, very loudly, “I was so mad, and then look, he breaks my heart at the end.”
Unexpectedly this broke Sam’s mood. She smiled at Heather, and then transferred the smile to Miss Blanket. She said, “But it’s not over, is it?”
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