Slow Dance in Purgatory
Author:Amy Harmon



Georgia Gibbs - 1952

“When did they make this flick?” Johnny sat transfixed by the film playing out in life size beyond the front windshield of the Cadillac. The flickering lights reflected off the hard metal surfaces around the room, creating a constantly changing multi-colored glow that lit up Maggie’s smooth face with blue light. His own face seemed to repel it as if he were watching behind darkened glass.

“I’m not sure exactly. It’s pretty old. Maybe sometime in the 1980’s,” Maggie mused, munching a handful of popcorn.

“Gee – that is old,” Johnny quipped, his voice heavy with irony.

“You made a joke, old man! Good job!” Maggie teased and offered the bag of popcorn to him. He shook his head.

“I’ll have to show you sometime what happens to food when I attempt to eat it.”

Maggie stopped mid-crunch and offered him the bag again. “Show me now!”

Johnny picked a piece of popcorn from the warm greasy bag, and popped it into his mouth. He chewed a few times, and then blowing softly, sent a stream of silvery ash dancing through the air in a swirling circle. The ash was so light it floated like dust particles and slowly dissipated beyond sight.

“You incinerated it!” Maggie squeaked. “Do it again!”

He acquiesced, and Maggie watched, awestruck. “It looks like pixie dust!”

Johnny laughed, and Maggie joined in. He blew another silvery stream into the air, and they watched it swirl and vanish as the light from the movie changed, obscuring its departure.

“Maybe it is pixie dust….” Johnny mused. He turned his blue gaze on Maggie, his words barely a murmur. Maggie eyes roved over his face, anxious that he would reveal something crucial and she would fail to hear.

“If it is pixie dust, I guess that makes me Peter Pan – the boy who never grows up.”

Maggie and Johnny stared at each other, struck silent by the utter hopelessness of his plight. A modern day Peter Pan stuck in Never Never land. Maggie gently set the popcorn down and slid across the leather bench seat until she sat in the crook of Johnny’s arm. Holding his gaze she said tenderly,

“Well I, for one, am just glad you aren’t Tinker Bell. Now hold my hand, Peter. I want the authentic drive-in experience.”

Johnny gasped, laughing in amazement at her ability to take a proverbial blow and keep on coming. He had the sudden urge to bury his head in her lap and cry like a lost child. Instead, he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in the soft place where her neck met her shoulder. He held her, and let her hold him, until her hair tickled his nose and her scent engulfed him completely. He pressed his lips to her smooth skin, and she shivered, encouraging him to run his lips up the long line of her neck to the velvety lobe of her ear. He pulled back and looked at her upturned face. Her eyes were closed, and her thick black lashes lay against her pearly skin. She was so lovely it made him ache with a yearning so fierce he audibly moaned.

Maggie lifted her chin ever so slightly, seeking his mouth, and he sank into her, pushing the pain away, letting his lips move over hers in tender desperation. It was her turn to moan, and she climbed into his lap, her hands running down his arms and back up again, cradling his face as she returned his kisses with a frenzy he was quickly losing himself in. He pressed into her, leaning her back against the wheel, hungry for more.

The blare of the car horn sent them crashing down to earth, and Maggie yelped, falling to the floor and bumping her head on the well-preserved dashboard. She giggled, embarrassed, and slid up beside him again, putting a little distance between them. They sat, breathing hard and reining in the need to continue where they had left off. After a moment, he reached out and took her hand chastely in his, and they watched a battle, complete with flying machines and light sabers, play across the room. It wasn’t until a while later that Johnny understood her movie selection.

“Jedi mind tricks, huh? This is where that comes from?”

“Yep. But these guys have nothing on you.” She watched the screen a moment more and then, eyes still facing forward, asked him,

“Why don’t your kisses turn me to ash?”

Silence loomed large and long between them until Johnny finally offered an explanation.

“I honestly don’t know, but I think it’s because you aren’t an inanimate object. I’m not absorbing you. You have your own energy source, and though our energies may…merge…you still remain you – separate and whole.”

Johnny spoke matter-of-factly, and his answer was plausible, as plausible as anything concerning him could be, but Johnny felt horror wash over him at the realization that he had kissed Maggie without any thought to her safety. It had never even occurred to him that it might not be possible. What if he had harmed her...or worse? With crushing remorse, he realized later had arrived.

Maggie tried to stifle a yawn but failed miserably as the movie and their time together drew to a close. Johnny watched her gather her things quietly. He wished he could live the day over and over again. He thought he could be happy in this Never land of his if he could.

As she climbed into her car,and he lifted the rolling garage door that separated him from real life, she leaned out to him, extending her hand. He clasped it in his and crouched down beside her open window.

“This has been a perfect day,” she said sweetly, and touching his cheek she asked hopefully, “There will be more, won’t there?”

His heart broke a little, and he kissed the tips of her fingers. “I hope so,” was all he could say.

Maggie was both exhilarated and exhausted when she pulled the Cadillac into Irene’s garage and shut off the old girl. It had driven perfectly on the drive home, without a hitch or a jerk. Irene would think it was a miracle wrought by the angels. Maggie supposed it was. Angel more closely described Johnny than anything else she could come up with.

She shut the door to the garage and skipped along the little path leading to the front porch. The night was brisk and cold, and Maggie was ready for a hot bath and the oblivion of deep sleep. It wasn’t until she had reached the door and was fumbling for the key that she noticed the figure huddled on the swing. Crying out in surprise, she gripped the keys like a weapon and pressed herself against the door.

“Shad?” Maggie’s heart was in her throat as she peered over at her unexpected visitor. “What are you doing here? You scared me to death!”

“I see the car’s workin’ just fine,” Shad replied sourly.

Maggie approached him, heartsick, and reluctantly flopped down beside him on the swing. He scooted over as far as the swing would allow, clearly communicating his current low opinion of her. She didn’t speak but swung gently, waiting for him to vent his bruised feelings.

“I rode my bike to the school. I didn’t see any cars out front – no cars in back. All the doors locked up tight. I rode around to the side door closest to the dance room, thinking I would see your bike. No siree.” Shad waited for her to respond. When she didn’t, his voice grew harsh and accusing.

“I rode my bike around back, thinkin’ I could practice hoop on the outdoor courts. Then I heard you, Maggie. I heard your voice. I got up close to the service door, and I could hear you talking to someone. It must have been a guy, ‘cause you were laughing and flirting.” Shad did his female impersonation, complete with wiggling and giggling, batting his eyelashes, and fluttering his hands. But neither of them were laughing.

“I tried to see through the slats on the sides of the door, but I couldn’t see much – lucky for you, huh? I could just make out your aunt’s car, though. Imagine that.”

Maggie sighed deeply and pillowed her face in her hands. This was a disaster, and she had no way to explain herself without lying even more. She had to say something, though.

“I’m sorry, Shad. I didn’t want to lie to you. I just didn’t know how to tell you the truth. Irene’s car really wasn’t working well. She and I took it to the shop yesterday morning, and the mechanic told us it was probably the transmission. My aunt doesn’t have money for a new transmission. I wanted to help. I knew somebody that I thought could fix it. He helped me. I could have gotten in trouble, being in the school like that, and I didn’t want you involved, so I lied about the dance rehearsal.” It was as much of the truth as she could spare.

“What friend, Maggie?” Shad protested, the hurt still evident in his voice. “Last I checked, you have about as many friends as I do, and none of them are handy dandy mechanics.”

Maggie groaned. There was no way she could tell him about Johnny. “What?” Shad persisted, “You got something goin’ with the mechanics teacher, Mr. Blaney?” Shad snickered rudely, and then his eyes widened, and he wheeled on her, pointing. “You do, don’t you? That’s just sick, Mags!”

“Shad!” Maggie cried, flabbergasted. “Ew! No! Mr. Blaney is, like, thirty-five, and he’s married and…bald!”

“Fine, Mags. You don’t want to tell me, fine – but I don’t think I’m gonna be able to watch a movie with you tomorrow. You’re gonna have to work to get me back.”

Maggie tried not to smile at that. Shad persisted in telling himself there was some grand romance brewing between them. She resisted the urge to grin and nodded seriously at her injured friend.

“You’re right. Friends like you don’t come along very often. I deserve to be punished. Maybe you and I can watch a movie next week, after I’ve apologized and groveled a lot more.” Maggie turned her mouth down into a sad little frown. Sighing loudly, she stood up from the swing and with her head bowed in deep remorse, walked slowly to the front door.

Shad muttered to himself, “You know it girl. I am one in a million. You can’t treat me that way. You better grovel.”

Maggie bit back the laughter rising in her throat and rattled her keys, taking her time opening the door. Shad remained stewing on the front porch swing.

“Goodnight, Shad. I really am so, so sorry. You better get home now. Gus is going to be worried about you.” She took a step inside the screen door and counted slowly to five.

“Wait, Mags….wait!” Shad called out behind her. “I’m willing to give you one more chance. I can tell you really want to watch that movie together, and I can tell you feel really bad, so I’ll be here tomorrow at five – okay?”

Maggie turned and smiled widely at her predictable little friend. “Okay, Shad. Thank you so much. You bring the movie, I’ll make the popcorn.”

The screen swung shut between them, and Shad extended his arm, pointing at her seriously. “It’s a date, then.”

He began to walk backward, not breaking eye contact, his arm still outstretched, pointing at Maggie as he took several steps in retreat. His feet were a little too long for the porch steps, however, ruining his exit, and he stumbled, going down hard on the front walk.

Shad’s voice was sheepish as he called out from the dark, “My bad….no worries! The Shadster’s still in one piece. Don’t cry for me, Argentina.” He was on his feet in a flash, moving backward again.

“Goodnight, Shad. I’m going in now so that you’ll turn around and actually watch where you’re going.” Maggie turned away, laughing, relieved that their friendship was on the mend.

It took some doing, but Maggie was able to convince her aunt to take a quick drive in the Cadillac Sunday evening to prove her claims of a miraculous recovery. Irene ended up cruising for a half hour and was thrilled to pronounce the car healed. By that time, Shad had arrived and remained thankfully silent on the subject of the car.

He had selected a violent show about inner city gangs that he pretended to think was awesome, but Maggie was pretty sure he hated it as much as she did. They ended up ignoring the show and tossing popcorn in the air and catching it in their mouths. A competition ensued, and Maggie ended up crushing Shad by about twenty successful catches. Shad shrugged nonchalantly, claiming a real man always lets his lady win.

“Shad,” Maggie groaned with exasperation. “You’ve got to stop saying stuff like that. I am not your lady. I am not your girl; this is not a relationship. This is a friendship. I am your friend. You are my friend.” Maggie spoke slowly and gripped his thin shoulders. He was still shorter than she, and she had to bend her knees a little to force the eye contact.

Shad pulled away and slouched dejectedly on the couch. Maggie hovered, hoping he would laugh it off and all would be well between them. When he didn’t, she flopped down beside him and worried the hole in her jeans so she wouldn’t worry a hole in her brain.

“Why, Maggie?” Shad said meekly, lifting his liquid brown eyes to hers. “What is it about me that makes me so hard to love and so easy to leave?”

So that’s what this was all about. Maggie felt heartsick and miserable. This conversation was about more than just Maggie not wanting to be Shad’s girlfriend. It couldn’t be a coincidence that he had gotten needy and aggressive just about the time his mom decided to come back around, reminding Shad just where he had always ranked in her priorities. Maggie was no stranger to this kind of drama. She had seen it over and over in the foster system.

“Shad! You know how much I like you! I think you’re a great kid. You’re funny and smart and extremely cute, too. And I like hanging out with you. Nothing is wrong with you except that you’re fourteen, and I’m almost eighteen. I look like your big sister or something.”

“I’ll be fifteen in six months! Then I can get my learner’s permit! I’ll be able to take you on dates and stuff. The age difference won’t matter when I’m twenty and you’re twenty four! Or 26 and 30.”

“Well, when I’m twenty-five and your twenty-one, we’ll see how we feel, okay?”

“But I already know how I feel, Mags. I love you. I won’t ever want anyone else,” Shad retorted stubbornly.

“But I don’t feel that way about you, Shad,” Maggie spoke gently. “Come on! You have to admit, it would be kind of creepy if I did, don’t you think?”

Shad stood up angrily, pushing her hand away when she reached out to him. “You know what’s creepy, Mags? YOU havin’ a thing for a damn ghost, that’s what’s creepy!” Maggie jerked like she’d been struck.

“That’s right! I heard you say his name yesterday when I was at the school. It didn’t make any sense until I got home last night, and my grandpa said there’s been talk at the school about some strange stuff happening. He wasn’t worried; he said it was probably just Johnny. That’s when I remembered.”

Maggie sputtered, unable to form a coherent response.

“Was he the one who saved you from falling down the dumbwaiter shaft? Is he the one I heard you talkin’ to that night in the hallway? Is he the one who helped you with the car?”

Maggie stood numbly, unwilling to confirm anything.

“Of course it wasn’t! ‘Cause Ghosts aren’t real!!!” Shad jumped up and down like a reincarnation of an outraged Rumpelstiltskin. “This is crazy shit! And the craziest part of all is that you would choose some imaginary guy over me.” Shad was crying now, fat crocodile tears rolling down his smooth brown cheeks. Maggie had never seen tears that big. It hurt to watch them fall, and she covered her eyes with her hands. She realized suddenly that she was crying, too.

“You got issues, Mags. But I still love you.”

Shad grabbed his DVD and bolted for the door, tripping over the bowl of popcorn on his way out and sending it skidding across the floor, spewing white puffs in every direction. Shad just gritted his teeth and stumbled out of the house, his composure completely shattered and his pride in tatters. Maggie let him go. There was absolutely nothing she could say. Shad had it all figured out, and he was right. She did have a thing for a ghost.