Slow Dance in Purgatory
Author:Amy Harmon



Jody Reynolds - 1958

That night Maggie dreamed of floating alongside Johnny in a sunny haze. She was drowsy, and the brightness of nowhere made colors whirl beneath her closed eyelids. There was no sound, and she was weightless, surrounded by endless white. She reached for him then, wanting to pull him close, but her arms passed through him. She tried to call to him, but was unable to speak. He began to float away, his eyes closed, his body drifting on a current of heat and light. She tried to swim through the air, desperate to follow him, but her limbs got increasingly heavier and heavier, and she realized she could no longer float. She began to plummet through space, tumbling head over heels, the white swiftly smearing into deepening grey, until she was surrounded by a darkness so absolute she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. And still she fell, plunging into a never-ending black hole. She attempted to brace herself, to cover her head, preparing for the inevitable collision with the end, only to discover she had no form. She reached with phantom hands, searching for her face, for her shoulders, for her body. She was gone…but not gone; for she remained her self… aware, alive, and alone.

She awoke way too early feeling sad and out of sorts, the dream lingering to chaff and irritate her raw emotions. Her eyes were shadowed and tired, and she grumped to herself as she studied her reflection. So much for beauty sleep.

She took extra care with her appearance, soaking in a hot tub with a cold towel on her eyes and blowing her hair dry until it was stick smooth. She even applied a little make-up to her eyes and blush to her cheeks. She looked much better when she was finished. She pulled on her softest jeans and her favorite purple t-shirt, the stretchy one with a v-neck that declared her a member of “Team Edward.” The purple made her eyes a vivid blue, and the form-fitting old jeans molded her curves just right.

The thought of Johnny noticing her eye color or checking out the fit of her jeans made her blush and re-consider her choice.

“You’re completely hopeless!” She muttered to herself and felt the unease of her nightmare worm its way back into her heart. Her self-doubt was put on hold when she heard a pounding at the front door. Racing down the stairs and hollering for whoever it was to hold on, she yanked the door open and yanked Shad inside with it.

“What’s buzzin’ cuzzin’?” Shad teetered a little and then strutted inside, throwing himself on Aunt Irene’s flowered love seat and looking at her expectantly. .

“You got plans? I thought we could hang out today, maybe watch some movies, pop some corn, make-out?” He patted the love seat next to him, and waggled his eyebrows, but his smile quickly faded as he noticed her readied appearance.

Maggie’s brain was scrambling for an excuse that would exclude Shad from tagging along. Library? No. Errands? No. Homework? Heck no. She hated to ditch her friend, but she HAD to get back to the school. When she was with Johnny, all doubt fled. He was so heart-stoppingly real. But as soon as they were apart, the unreality of the situation was almost crippling. Her anxiety about Irene’s car and the wisdom of her hair-brained plan gnawed at her insides, and she longed to be on her way, Shadrach free.

“I’ve got a mandatory dance rehearsal today,” Maggie fibbed, trying to hold Shad’s gaze and look regretful. “We’re getting ready for a big competition, and it’s going to be a beast.”

Shad looked crestfallen, so she quickly added, “A movie and popcorn sounds fun – the kissing part, not so much.“ Maggie grinned to soften her smack down. “Come over tomorrow night, okay?”

“Oh, man!” Shad whined, his afternoon plans blown. Maggie steeled herself against the guilt. He perked up suddenly. “Maybe I can come along, you know, play a little b-ball in the gym?”

“The car’s running bad and I’m taking my bike – so unless you want to hitch a ride on my handlebars, I’m afraid not.” Maggie fervently prayed he’d walked to her house instead of riding his own bike.

Shad rose from the couch, dejected and sulking just a little. Maggie breathed a small side of relief and grabbed her jacket, preceding him out the door.

“You’re not wearing those jeans to dance in, are you?” Shad asked doubtfully. “Not that your booty ain’t kickin’ it – but…”

Maggie winced at her blunder. “Thanks for reminding me. And keep your eyes off the booty, please – I forgot my bag.” Maggie turned and raced into the house, shutting the door on Shad so he wouldn’t follow her back in.

Maggie grabbed up her duffle and was back in seconds. She waved to Shad as she pedaled off towards the school. When she glanced back at him he was ambling toward home, a small figure with big feet and a bowed head.

Pulling around the back of the school, Maggie walked her bike to the service bay and tried to calm her breathing. She told herself she was out of breath from riding her bike at full speed for two miles. She told herself it had nothing to do with anticipation. She lied. She tried the door and it rose with a rattle and a rumble and not much effort. Stepping inside, she pulled the door down and locked it behind her. It wouldn’t provide much warning if the mechanics teacher decided to drop by on a Saturday, but it made her feel better.

“I found the problem,” Johnny spoke from underneath the car but rolled out on a wheeled platform as she approached; he must have located that little gizmo after she left.

“I took the transmission apart.” Johnny rose and stood over a neatly laid out assortment of various objects that Maggie couldn’t identify. “You got rings, O-rings, papers, seals, clutches…” He labeled everything, pointing it out as he talked. “Everything needed replacing. The whole thing was bad. So I waited until this morning– it is morning, isn’t it?”

It would be morning for another twenty minutes or so, and Maggie nodded, awed, as he continued.

“I waited until this morning to let everything absorb as much of the school’s energy as possible before I used my…mind tricks,” he grinned at her as he used her phrase, “and repaired everything. Now I just have to put it all back together, remove the excess transmission fluid, and you’re good to go.”

He was ebullient, his face relaxed in a satisfied smile, his hands tossing the wrench back and forth between them. He was also perfectly clean – not a grease stain to be found on his hands or his clothes.

“You’re amazing!” Maggie cried, overjoyed. “Aunt Irene is going to be so relieved. I’ll have to think of something to tell her…maybe convince her that she should wait a week before taking it to Gene’s – or tell her I think it’s working much better.” Maggie schemed out loud.

Johnny’s face fell the tiniest bit. “I didn’t think of that. I guess you can’t very well tell her your invisible friend fixed her car.”

“No… I guess not.” Maggie approached him then, and moving quickly, before she lost her courage, she slipped her arms around his lean torso. She hugged him tightly, resting her cheek briefly on his chest.

“Thank you, Johnny. I can’t thank you enough,” she said softly.

He was frozen for several seconds, his hands paused in mid-air, the wrench dangling from the fingers of his left hand. Then, hesitantly, he wrapped his arms around her and held her for several heartbeats. The silence around them became thick and heady, and Maggie thought she might drown in the pleasure of it. Then Johnny released her and took a step back. With a dizzying flash he was back under the car.

“Can I help you?” Maggie asked after a minute. “Maybe hand you parts or something?”

“Sure. Clutch – “Johnny’s hand shot out from under the car, palm up, waiting.

“Which is which, again?” Maggie wrinkled her nose in confusion as she stared at the collection of parts.

Johnny laughed from under the car. “How about you just keep me company? Just talk to me. I can handle the transmission all by myself.”

“Sounds like a plan – so what should we talk about?” Maggie situated herself, legs criss-cross, on the floor next to the car where she could study his face while he worked.

“What’s ‘Team Edward?’”

Maggie’s laughter pealed out in surprise.

“Long, long story. No real team involved. Edward is just a hot guy.”

The silence in the room was deafening. Maggie squirmed, wondering what she had said. After a moment, Johnny spoke, but his voice was decidedly frosty.

“And hot means…cool, right?”

“Hot means….um, very appealing,” Maggie said judiciously.

Johnny got a strange expression on his face and didn’t respond – continuing to work with a deep furrow between his blue eyes. He worked faster and faster, his hands flying from one thing to the next. Maggie searched her brain for a new topic of conversation when he abruptly spoke up again.

“So, this Edward cat. If he’s so appealing why haven’t you mentioned him before? Is he from your old school?”

Maggie shrieked with laughter and, crawling under the big car, stared down into Johnny’s scowling face.

“Edward is a character from a very popular book series, silly. He’s a mythical creature – a vampire!”

“You mean like Dracula?” Johnny looked completely dumbfounded, and his hands stilled. “And you think he’s…hot?”

“Yes, along with 90% of all females from ages 13 to 90. Read the book, smarty pants. I can pretty much guarantee it’s in the library upstairs. I think you’ve spent too much time floating lately.”

“Huh,” Johnny grunted. “The world has changed more than I thought in the last fifty years.”

“You sound like a grumpy old man,” Maggie teased, still perched over him, laughter still curling the corners of her pink mouth. Her hair swung down around him in a fragrant curtain, cocooning them in a private world. He stared up at her for a moment, struck by the sheer miracle of her. Here she was beside him, laughing at him, looking at him. He’d been alone so long. He was also more than a little jealous of this Edward guy. Impetuously, he reached through the silky length of her hair and grabbed the back of her head and drew her to him, capturing her mouth with his.

Maggie had never been kissed like that.

When her lips touched his, it was like kissing an open flame – without the pain. His lips were smooth and insistent, and a bolt of electricity shot from her lips to the soles of her feet and hummed just below the surface of her skin like a live current. Light shimmered and spread around them, until Maggie felt like she was floating in a golden haze where nothing existed but Johnny, his lips, his scent, his hair beneath her seeking fingertips. It was like her dream…

She broke away from Johnny with a gasp, her blue eyes wide, searching his from only inches away. His expression was as stunned as hers. The dream had ended with her falling through darkness and losing herself in the process. The memory was like an infusion of ice water in her veins, and in a clumsy retreat, Maggie scooted out from under the old car to reclaim the safety of her previous spot.

Her pulse took longer to recover as she watched Johnny, all corded muscles and golden skin, resume his work without acknowledging what had just transpired between them. When he rolled out from under the car to retrieve a new tool, Maggie reached up to touch her still tingling lips, jerking when an arc of static zinged from her mouth to her finger tips.

The rest of the afternoon passed in relative normalcy, with Maggie and Johnny trading questions and answers, tidbits and tit for tat. The conversation was all lightness and ease, but an undercurrent of tension buzzed between them, and both avoided close proximity for a couple of hours.

They covered everything from favorite colors to favorite films, to least favorite foods and most embarrassing moments. Johnny seemed fascinated by the smallest details, and Maggie wondered if it was truly her he was fascinated by, or simply the intimacy of human contact so long denied him. Regardless, she relished his rapt attention and returned it tenfold. The late afternoon sun was beginning to descend when Johnny pronounced Belle, ‘good as new.” He asked Maggie to start her up, and when she offered to let him do the honors, he shook his head.

“I’m afraid I’ll throw a spark.”

Maggie didn’t question him. She knew he threw sparks. She climbed in and turned the key, pumping the pedal as she did. Belle roared to life and sat purring like a well-loved housecat. Maggie threw Johnny a delighted grin and, jumping out of the car, did a little happy dance around the shop room. Johnny tried not to notice how good she looked doing it. Girls in his day wore skirts most of the time. He hadn’t known what he was missing. He suspected, though, that most girls, both then and now, didn’t look like Maggie in a pair of blue jeans. He wisely turned away and began returning the borrowed tools to their proper shelves and trays.

“So….you used to go to drive-in movies, right?” Maggie said from behind him, easing up next to him, but still keeping a wide berth.

“Yeah. We called ‘em passion pits.” Johnny groaned inwardly at the awkward silence that ensued.

Maggie attempted a laugh and cleared her throat instead. “Well, I’ve never been to one. So I was thinking…maybe we could make our own. I’ll be able to drive the car back tonight, right? So I don’t have to leave any time soon. The library has a big projector, we can use the back wall as our screen, and I have the perfect movie. We can watch it sitting in the Caddy. It’ll be fun. Whaddayasay?”

Johnny couldn’t think of a sweeter agony than sitting next to Maggie for a couple of hours in the front seat of Irene Honeycutt’s car. He knew he was a fool. And worse, he knew none of this was good for Maggie. But so much had been taken from him, and he’d been stranded in Purgatory for so long. He couldn’t deny himself tonight. He wanted it too badly: the conversation, the laughter, the girl. Whatever she gave him -- time, attention, affection -- he would take it. He would worry about the consequences later. Later was something he had plenty of.

Shadrach Jasper was bored. He kicked at the rocks, sending one flipping up and nailing himself in the head.

“Ow!” He yelped loudly, and cursed the big feet that made him awkward and ungainly. One of these days he would grow into his feet, just like his grandpa promised. Then maybe Maggie would like him the way he liked her. Of course, by then she would have graduated, and she would probably be off to some big dance school, or dancing in New York on Broadway or some such B.S.

Shadrach knew he was in a bad mood, but he had had the worst week ever, and he really wanted to spend the day with Maggie. He was crazy about Maggie. Sure, she was three years older than him, but someday that wouldn’t matter.

Maggie was beautiful and kind and funny, and she didn’t make him feel like a loser. And she was nothing like his mom. She wouldn’t drink and get mean, or run off with some guy for months on end, or sell herself for drugs or the money to buy them. And Maggie didn’t embarrass him like his mom did.

He couldn’t believe that the first time the guys on the football team had paid him any attention it was because of her. He had been trying to impress those guys since the school year started. Now they were all laughing at him. He hadn’t made the football team…but he would when he grew, and then those guys would beg to hang out with him, he was sure of it. He knew lots of stories about guys who didn’t make their school football team until their sophomore or junior year, and then went on to play in the pros. His time would come. And if football didn’t work out, there was always basketball.

Shad nodded his head and clapped his hands, feeling much better after his little personal pep talk. Maybe he should get his bike and ride over to the school, maybe practice a little bit, sharpen his skills. The doors would be unlocked if there was dance practice going on. Then he could work on his basketball and ride home with Maggie. Maybe they wouldn’t have to wait until Sunday night to hang out.

His mind made up, Shad began loping down the street as fast as he could go, tripping only once and congratulating himself on his improving speed.

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