Slow Dance in Purgatory
Author:Amy Harmon

Slow Dance in Purgatory - By Amy Harmon

Prologue


The halls had long since expelled the energetic swarm of youthful humanity, and the din of lockers and laughter had long since settled into stillness. It was his least favorite time of the day. He could lose himself in their conversations, lurk behind them as they ran, as they danced, as they embraced one another. He could sit in on many a lecture, solve the most challenging equations, recite the first chapter of a Tale of Two Cities word for word, and as long as life filled the halls, he could pretend he lived among them. But when they were gone he was utterly and completely alone. Alone as he had been day after day, year after year, decade after decade. There was a time he had descended into madness - but time had brought him out again. What good is being crazy if there is no one who can deem you insane? Or for that matter - care whether you are normal? Insanity was exhausting and futile. So was pain. For a time, the despair was so great that he begged for oblivion. But time had taken even that from him. Now he simply wished to feel anything at all. And so he continued on, waiting for redemption.





1

“RUMBLE”

Link Wray - 1958


August, 1958



The parking lot had been freshly lined, and the pavement was so new and clean it gleamed in the moonlight. The final touches had just been added on the brand new high school that cast a long shadow over a pile of construction debris that had yet to be hauled off. Crickets chirped, and the breeze sighed, and from far off the sounds of a souped up Chevy with a loud muffler grew steadily closer. Then, as if the noisy muffler had awakened the night, the sound multiplied and split, and lights from several vehicles swung onto the long road leading to the school. Soon shouts and music could be heard spilling from open windows. Shiny chrome and heavy curves slid and jerked to haphazard rest as arms and legs and exuberant youth spilled out of heavy doors painted in dizzy pink, pastel yellow and cherry red. As the cars continued to fill the newly minted parking lot, battle lines began to emerge, as each vehicle seemed to pick a side, leaving a swath of empty black between the two. It was a party atmosphere with an undercurrent of danger, and the expectation in the air hummed along with Chuck Berry reelin’ and a’ rockin from the radio tuned in on every car.

The cacophony of laughter and leers feverishly peaked and then hushed in anticipation. The guys pulled their combs nervously through greased back waves, and the girls made sure their red lipstick was freshly applied as a low-riding, black Chevy Bel Air with thin red flames curling down the sides slid down the empty space between the opposing sides, like a dancer taking center stage. The car slowed and then swung into a spot left open just for him. The heavy door of the shiny Chevy opened, and a black boot hit the ground as Johnny Kinross stepped out of his pride and joy and lit a cigarette like he had all the time in the world and no one was watching.

He was dressed like some of the other guys -- jeans, boots, white tee and black leather jacket, but he seemed suited to his choice where others looked posed. His dark blonde hair swooped high off his forehead, and his blue eyes swept over the kids standing by or sitting atop somebody’s Studebaker or someone else’s Lincoln or any one of the various cars and trucks arranged in two lines. Johnny noticed that Irene Honeycutt's pink Cadillac convertible took up two spaces. It was a miracle she hadn't dented a tailfin yet. That baby was so long it could drive in two counties at once. Irene was the only girl in Honeyville who had her very own spankin' new wheels. He wouldn't mind taking that car for a ride, not to mention the girl.

Donnie had put new wheels on his truck, and it looked like Carter’s dad had come through on the new carburetor for his old Ford. The last he’d seen, it was up on blocks. He would have helped him put it in if he had known. Johnny let the cars distract him; the cataloging of parts and paint jobs calmed him down and made him forget for just a moment that he was here to bloody a few noses, break a few tail lights, and generally raise Cain.

But someone had alerted the ladies. Who the hell brought chicks to a rumble? Johnny sighed and tossed his cigarette. He was almost nineteen years old and already felt way too old for this shit. Eyeing the school, he thanked his stars that he would never have to attend the shiny new edifice the whole town was talking about. He had graduated in May, and he was never setting foot inside the new Honeyville High. They would have to kill him first. He had almost never attended classes at the old school. Classes were torture, and sitting still had never been his thing. Graduating had been tricky, but he had a head for numbers, and no one made him read in math. Mechanics and wood shop were easy. So all it took was a few stolen kisses with Miss Barker, his lonely English teacher, and she gave him good enough grades to just squeak by.

The passenger door on his black hot rod opened, and his fourteen-year-old kid brother, Billy, stepped out. He didn't try to imitate Johnny. It would have been laughable if he had. He wore thick glasses with black rims and could never seem to get his hair to lie down at his crown or swoop up off his forehead, so he wore it in a tight crew cut and looked more at home in bow ties and sweater vests than tee shirts and leather. He had insisted on coming along, though, knowing that Johnny was more likely to remain calm if his little brother was with him. Johnny had told him to stay home and had expected Billy to give in to his stern command, but for once Billy had been adamant, knowing that Johnny was set on picking a fight all because of him.

"You lookin' for Roger, Johnny?" Someone called out. Johnny didn't bother to answer. They all knew he was. Johnny strolled down the line of cars and stopped in front of Irene Honeycutt's pink ride. Irene smiled shyly, and her girlfriends giggled a little and elbowed each other. Irene probably shouldn't be smiling considering Roger Carlton was her guy, but Johnny had that effect on the girls. If he wanted to, he could crook his little finger at any one of the twittering females perched on Irene's car and be hot and heavy in five minutes flat. Maybe later. He really wasn't that interested in Irene's friends. From what he'd seen, Johnny wasn't so sure the blue-eyed brunette was that in to Roger. But who was he to question it? Roger was smart, rich, and popular, and Irene's daddy sure seemed to have plans for him. Johnny had plans for him, too. He was going to beat the hell out of Roger and all his cronies and swear that it'd be ten times worse the next time anyone messed with Billy Kinross.

"He isn't here, Johnny!" A plump redhead named Paula called out, and Irene leveled a look at her that Johnny couldn't decipher. The redhead squirmed nervously and ducked her head when another girl poked her in the ribs.

Johnny zoned in and moved close to the nervous little carrot-top. Tipping her chin up with a long finger, Johnny spoke low and clear.

"Then where is he, Pidge?"

Paula stammered a little, and her cheeks flamed as bright as her hair. "I, um, I'm not sure…he just wanted us to tell you he had better things to do…or something…I think. Um…didn't he say that, Irene?"

"Then what are all of you doing here?" Johnny jerked his head, indicating the crowd, his eyes meeting Irene's, demanding an answer.

She didn't respond, but her blue eyes were wide and the expression on her face had him smelling a rat. The crowd shifted uncomfortably, and someone cleared his throat. A few of the guys that Johnny called friend started asking questions and calling out, and everyone seemed to chime in at once:

"We haven't seen him Johnny –“

"Somebody said they thought he was here!"

"Tommy swears he saw his wheels parked here an hour ago!"

"Go home, Johnny!" Someone else called out. "No one wants trash like you or your brother hangin' around here!" The voice came from back in the crowd and Carter and Jimbo were on it immediately, a scuffle breaking out before Johnny could even see who it was. Like it had been carefully orchestrated, Roger Carlton’s friends were suddenly swarming out of the backs of trucks and cars. Fists were pumping and insults flying as Carter and Jimbo were swallowed up in the fracas. Donnie and Luke were in there somewhere, too. Luke's bright hair and superior height made him visible for a moment before someone pulled him down.

"Hey! Hey!" Johnny shouted out as girls screamed and a few random horns bellowed as people scrambled to jump into their cars or out of their cars, depending on whether or not they wanted in or out of the trouble that had erupted.

Turning to Billy, Johnny swung his arm out fiercely, grabbing him by the shirt and pulling him in close. "Stay in the car, little brother. These guys don't fight fair, and it's gonna get ugly. I can't worry about you getting the crap beat out of you while I'm wailing on Carlton."

"Just let it go, Johnny,” Billy pleaded. "We shouldn't have come here at all. I have the willies about all of this, like cooties marching up my spine or somethin'."

"Just stay out of it, Billy!" Johnny insisted again, releasing Billy’s shirt and shoving his brother back towards his car. "Take my car and head down the road a ways. I'll meet you in an hour at The Malt." The Malt was an ice cream parlor where the kids liked to hang out and flirt. It wasn't really Johnny's scene, but he knew Billy would be safe there.

"What if I get caught? You know I ain’t got proof!" Billy hated getting in trouble, and driving without a license would definitely garner some unwanted attention if the cops pulled him over. "And what if I wreck your car?" Billy's voice rose in panic at the thought of putting even a scratch on Johnny's car. That would be even worse than getting caught driving.

"You'll be fine! Just go!" Screams and shouts pulled Johnny's attention from his little brother, and he shrugged out of his leather jacket, threw it at Billy, and took off at a run, barely intercepting an attempt to brain Carter with a piece of a two- by-four someone had snagged from the construction debris.

Alarm sounds were jangling through Johnny's head as he realized these guys weren't playing around. In his periphery, he noticed cars peeling out as the ladies apparently realized this was not a place they wanted to be. Good. One less thing he had to worry about. And there was plenty to be concerned about, because Johnny and his friends were sorely out numbered. What was supposed to be a man to man brawl had turned out to be 3 or 4 to one. Johnny felt himself go cold as he cranked up the volume on the intensity of his own attack. So where the hell was Carlton?!

Then, as if his question had been overheard and answered by some unseen power, Johnny saw him. The walkway to the entrance of the school was lit up, and Roger Carlton was running towards the front doors at full speed. Johnny forced his way through the swinging arms, landing a few shots and taking more than a couple on his way out of the writhing mass of fists and feet. Just as he thought he would break free, someone flew into him, knocking him down and wrapping him up in the thrashing legs and arms of several people. By the time Johnny had fought his way back out, Carlton was gone.

Johnny raced toward the entrance of the school, eyes swinging left and right, and then swinging right again and stopping cold. His baby was still parked where he had left her, but the driver's side door was hanging open as if Billy had suddenly changed his mind about leaving and bailed out in a hurry. The front head lights were broken in. It looked as if someone had taken a bat to the windows, too. Rage pounded in Johnny's temples. He had no doubt who had inflicted the damage.

Looking back at the ongoing fight, there was no sign of Billy, but it was hard to see which way was up in that mess. Billy wouldn't have been able to hold his own for too long with those guys. He was better at using his brain than his fists, and from what Johnny could see, the guys trading blows knew what they were doing. In fact, Carter, Jimbo, and the rest looked like they had turned a corner and were more than holding their own. He would give the fight about 30 seconds more before Carlton's goons started running and pleading uncle. But where was Carlton, and more urgently, where was Billy?

From somewhere far off, Johnny thought he heard the sounds of sirens. Heat. He had to get Billy and scram. Running on instinct, he headed for the entrance to the school. Just as he had feared, the door was unlocked. Either someone had a key, or the construction crew had been negligent and left the school opened, which didn't make any sense. He needed time to find Billy, teach Carlton a lesson, and get out before the cops thought to sniff around INSIDE the school. The unlocked door wouldn't afford him much time, but hopefully the cops would assume the school was locked up tight and the fight had remained outside.

The entrance opened into a large three story rotunda with gleaming tiles and a great staircase that swept upward to twin balconies that edged the second and third floors.

"Billy!' Johnny called out, suddenly uncertain as to where to go. The school seemed silent and untouched, and all at once he doubted the wisdom in coming through the doors. If the cops caught him in here he would have more than a few bruises and a black eye to explain. Breaking and entering maybe, even though the door had been open...

A gunshot rang out, interrupting his second thoughts. Johnny ran forward, taking the stairs three at a time, hurling himself up the wide expanse. Oh God, please no....no... no.... the words pounded through his head as he cleared the stairs and skidded to a stop on the third floor, eyes searching both ways down a long wide hallway that ran beyond the balcony to corridors and distant rooms. Suddenly, Billy was running toward him, his shirt untucked, his glasses gone, his face a mask of terror. A gun in his hand.

"Johnny! Johnny! Run! Run! He's probably coming. Get out!" Billy cried out frantically as he raced down the hall, waving the gun towards the entrance as if to shoo Johnny towards it.

"Billy, stop! Put the gun down, kid! You're scaring the hell out of me! Where did you get that – “

And then he knew. It was the gun he had taken from the trunk of the jalopy he had been servicing at Gene’s Automotive. He had seen the gun and impulsively wanted his mother to have it. He knew what she did for the extra money she was suddenly bringing home, and as much as he'd yelled and threatened and tried to protect her, she hadn't stopped. He had seen that gun sitting there like an answer to prayer the very morning after she had come home roughed up at two a.m. He hadn't let himself consider the repercussions of what he was about to do. It was small and lightweight, and he'd thought he could teach her how to use it. So he'd taken it. He had never stolen a thing in his life, contrary to popular opinion, and he knew if his boss, Gene, ever found out what he'd done, he would lose his job. But the owner of the jalopy hadn't come back looking for it. At least not yet. He had had it in his car for a couple of days, trying to come up with a way to sell the subject to his mother. Obviously, Billy had found it first.

"Billy! I heard a shot. Did you shoot someone? Did you shoot Carlton?" Johnny didn't know how he would get them out of trouble if Carlton was shot dead somewhere in the school.

"No! I just wanted to scare him, you know? I was in your car. He didn't know I was there, and all at once he was smashing the windows and sides of your car with a bat. I got down on the floor, and there was this gun under your seat. I grabbed it. I thought if he saw it he would stop, and he did! When he saw me, he took off running toward the school, so I followed him." Billy was spitting the story out as fast as he could, and Johnny grabbed his shoulders to slow him down.

"I told him to leave me alone and to leave Momma alone, but the gun went off accidentally, and the bullet broke a window back there." Billy's face screwed up in worry. "I don't know how much windows cost. I hope I have enough saved to cover it."

"Billy! You aren't gonna tell anyone about the gun or the window. We're getting out of here right now."

"Johnny! Look out!" Billy cried out and stumbled back against the balcony railing as Carton hurled himself out of the shadows. He had circled around and come down the other end of the long hallway. Johnny's back had been to him the whole time, and Billy had been too distracted and upset to see him coming up the dark corridor. The air whooshed out of Johnny in a painful blast as Roger Carlton tackled him from behind. Billy cried out again, and the gun discharged once more. Johnny felt something burst in his chest as he plowed into Billy, unable to stop or even slow his momentum. He wrapped his arms around his brother, trying to cushion the impact, unintentionally pinning Billy’s arms at his sides and forcing him back. They hurtled over the balcony railing and flipped end over end, unimpeded as they plunged to the unforgiving tiles two floors below.


Johnny tried to open his eyes and resisted the magnetic pull that fought to wrench him from himself. It was like the pull of the undertow, and for a moment Johnny thought he was dreaming. He thought he was back at the beach - ten years old - feeling the sand being sucked out beneath his toes, his mom and Billy back on the blanket, the sun bright overhead. But the pull was much stronger, and Johnny fought for something to anchor himself to. His hands didn't want to work, and his legs felt like they had fallen asleep. His chest burned like he had been too long underwater. He curled his toes inside his boots and fought against the pull with all his might. Why was he wearing his boots at the beach?

In terror, he realized what the pull was, and he forced his eyes open to find his brother. Billy lay beside him.

"Billy?" He tried to form the words, but he could not.

"Billy!" He tried again and heard only a whisper of breath. Billy wasn't fighting the pull like Johnny was. He was lying on his back, and his eyes were opened. There was blood beneath his head, and he wasn't moving. He wasn't moving, and he wasn't breathing.

Johnny screamed inside his head. He screamed, and he fought the pull and demanded an audience with the source of the power trying to disconnect him from his body.

"I'm not going anywhere!" he raged over and over, over and over, until the pressure built and exploded in white light and brilliant sparks like a blow torch on metal. Johnny felt a snapping and a shredding. But there was no pain, only pressure, and then a giant crack, like a million balloons simultaneously popping. And then…nothing.