in a Crowded Place
Too Many Ghosts
When Al finished speaking Sam felt an unexpected burst of panic.
It had seemed so natural to meet him again, to finish the tale of Bartholomew Spire. But now that his story was told, what would they talk about?
The silence dragged on. He seemed to have nothing further to say. He just sat with his hands folded on the table before him, watching her with a vacant, unblinking expression.
The silence grew even more uncomfortable. She shivered again—resisted the urge to put on her jacket. Even the non-stop questions would have been better than this dead, staring silence. Finally Sam leaned back in her chair and stretched even though she didn’t need to stretch. “I’m glad you told me the whole story,” she said. “It’s a sad story, but it really is interesting.”
Al shrugged. His gaze drifted up into the high, gabled ceiling. Then he seemed to come back to life and grinned at her.
She grinned back.
“Knowing the story makes you look at the old place a little differently,” he said.
Sam gave a matching shrug, and dubiously glanced around the third floor. It was still dusty and abandoned. She wasn’t sure how to respond. “I suppose. I’ve never really believed any of it. It doesn’t feel haunted.”
She’d been telling him the truth—the story really was interesting. But she was also now tired of the subject of Bartholomew Spire.
Uncomfortable as she felt, Sam knew that she wanted to spend more time with Al Jordan. She wanted to ask if he wanted to do something besides sitting on the abandoned third floor of the library telling ghost stories, but the very thought of asking him made her stomach flip upside-down.
She reached into her book bag and took out a notebook—mostly to give herself something to do while she worked up some courage. Then she wasn’t sure what to do with the notebook. She flipped to a clean page and began to draw little doodles. They were pictures of cartoon horses, because her thoughts were plunging this way and that like a frightened colt.
Al still hadn’t answered her. He just sat there as still and quiet as the statue of Bartholomew Spire out on the library grounds. He seemed so different now, not bubbling with life the way he’d been when she first met him.
This was the problem with meeting new people, Sam thought ruefully. The conversation might be just fine, but the silences were awful. It wasn’t like it was with Heather. With Heather some of their best conversations were in silence, when they just sat together not saying the things that didn’t need to be said.
It was hard enough getting to know somebody without the building panic of saying the wrong thing—or worse, of not saying anything at all.
On the other hand, there was nothing like an awkward silence to force her to say something. This silence had gone on long enough. She steeled herself, and took a deep breath.
“I’m kind of tired of just sitting here,” she said. She looked up from the notebook, keeping her expression neutral and her tone casual in case she was stepping over the line. “Do you want to do something else?”
He still said nothing, though he cocked his head.
Sam nodded toward the big ornate window across from them. It showed cloudless blue skies, sunshine washing over Southside. It was the sort of late September day that was almost magic, halfway between summer and winter. The perfect afternoon for a walk. Just short weeks from now there would be icy winds pounding snow down these narrow streets—making Southside into a sort of hell, making a day like today seem like a tropical memory.
Still Al said nothing. He just watched her, so that her awkwardness began to climb toward full-blown embarrassment.
“Even just go for a walk or something,” she said, hating the pleading tone that had crept into her voice. Her cheeks burned. After what it had cost her to make the suggestion, him not even responding was starting to feel a lot like going down in flames.
Finally Al shrugged and looked away. He seemed to have grown sad—maybe even a touch pale. Perhaps he wasn’t feeling well. Finally he said, “Have you ever felt like you saw him? Bartholomew Spire, I mean?”
Sam’s eyes widened in disbelief. It was as if he hadn’t even noticed that she’d gone out on a limb. “No.” She pursed her lips, awkwardness forgotten. “Look, it’s an interesting story, but let’s do something else. Or at least talk about something else.”
For what seemed to be a time he said nothing, still looking away toward the shelves of mouldering old books. But then he said, “Have you ever wondered if there are other haunted places? If there are ghosts somewhere else?”
Sam’s frustration spilled over—fed partly by rejection, and partly by genuine frustration with the subject of ghosts.
“Look,” she said. “It’s a cool story. But I don’t really think the library’s haunted. I don’t even believe in ghosts. They’re just stories. I wouldn’t even believe in ghosts if one jumped out in front of me.”
She snapped shut the notebook and stuffed it back into her book bag. “I’m going for a walk. Do you want to come?”
Too late she realized that she’d gone too far, and her little burst of anger melted away and left her puzzled over where it had come from.
“You go ahead,” he said, standing. His voice quivered, as if he were on the verge of tears. “I’d probably just end up saying something else that you don’t believe.”
He spun on his heel and stormed off into the stacks with what sounded an awful lot like a sob.
Sam stared at his receding back with her mouth slack. She couldn’t believe his reaction.
Anger seethed up again, though this time it was mostly anger at herself. Between that and overflowing embarrassment it felt as if she were glowing from the neck up.
She threw on her jacket, snatched up her book bag, and and marched to the stairs down from the third floor.
She would go for a walk. Or maybe go visit Heather at the Southside Trading Company. This was too weird. She shouldn’t have wasted her time.
Or maybe she’d just go back to Aunt Stacie’s apartment and try to sort out her thoughts about Al Jordan.

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