Slow Dance in Purgatory
Author:Amy Harmon

12

“DON’T BE CRUEL”

Elvis Presley - 1958





Maggie needed to see Johnny again. All night she’d tossed and turned, snippets and sound bites of the confrontation with Shad playing on a continual loop until she finally gave up on sleep and stumbled into the shower. She dozed, leaning against the cool tiles, until the hot water ran out, and she was forced to wash her hair in ice water.

The heat and white noise of her blow dryer had her dozing again, and she woke up to a screaming pain in her arm where the blow dryer had pressed against it and burned her while she slept. She ran her arm under cold water and tried not to cry. It wasn’t so much the pain of the burn as it was the utter futility of the situation she found herself in.

She should stay away from the school, from Johnny – Shad was right. She had issues. She had lost too much in her life, starting with her parents, and with them her home, her friends, and her entire life. Through the years she had lost one home after another, and the cycle of loss continued – lost home, lost friends, lost life. She should protect herself from this inevitable loss, for she would lose him too, she had no doubt. How could she not? Maggie hung her weary head and held her aching arm. She knew better, but she wouldn’t stay away. She couldn’t.

Irene wasn’t yet awake when she pedaled her bike quietly down the drive and onto the street. Honeyville never got much snow, if any at all, but winter was breathing down on them, regardless. Maggie pulled her sleeves down over her hands and cinched her hood around her face. Her backpack was an awkward weight that made her teeter a little as she fought the wind for balance, but it actually protected her back against the wind nipping at her face and shoulders. She tried to ignore the blistering sting that radiated from the burn on her arm.

It was 7:00 a.m. when she unlocked the door to the school, and the heat enveloped her immediately. Before she had even taken three steps, Johnny was there, sliding her back pack from her shoulders and loosening the ties that held her hood in place. Her hair tumbled out around her shoulders as he pulled the hood from her head. He breathed in appreciatively.

“You smell like Christmas,” he observed, rubbing her cold hands briskly between his much larger, much warmer ones.

Maggie’s anxiety fled like a guilty felon as warmth spread up her hands and into her tortured heart. A sense of rightness and of belonging replaced her worry, and she beamed up into Johnny’s handsome face, her eyes hungrily drinking him in. Johnny stared down at her, his smile mirroring her own.

“I smell like Christmas? What does Christmas smell like?”

“Christmas smells spicy and delicious and…cold,” Johnny replied and gently moved his hands to her wind-reddened cheeks. The heat and the comfort of his touch almost did her in, and Maggie groaned thankfully.

“That feels so wonderful. I thought I was going to be a block of ice by the time I got here.”

Johnny rubbed his hands down her arms briskly, attempting to spread the warmth. Maggie gasped in pain.

Johnny’s hands ceased rubbing immediately.

“Ouch! Dang! It’s my stupid burn…” Maggie pulled away from Johnny and gingerly peeled off her jacket, sliding her injured arm from her sleeve. The burn was blistered, oozing, and scarlet red. She’d really gone and done it this time. She had smoothed antiseptic cream all over it, but she hadn’t been able to find a bandage big enough to cover it. It looked terrible.

“Maggie!” It was Johnny’s turn to gasp. “What have you done, baby?” Johnny held her arm out for his perusal, and shook his head at the ugly wound stamped on her inner arm just below her elbow.

Maggie ducked her head and blushed at the tender endearment. Nobody had ever called her baby….except Shad, who flung it at her like a leash. When Johnny said it, it sounded like a totally different word.

Johnny moved his hand over the burn and without warning, pressed his right palm down into the weeping sore. Maggie cried out sharply and yanked her arm back, but Johnny held it firm, and with his eyes closed as if he were praying, shushed her softly. The heat from the wound built steadily until Maggie was blinking back the tears and biting her lower lip to keep from crying out.

And then, incredibly, the pain began to slowly recede. It started at the outer edges into an ever shrinking diameter and eventually disappeared altogether. It had taken two minutes at the most. Johnny removed his hand gently, and Maggie stared down at the glossy pink skin; it was slightly raised and puckered around the edges. It looked like it had had two months to heal instead of two minutes. There was a scar, but the burn was completely healed.

“Did I hurt you too much?” Johnny brushed his fingers over the half moon scar.

“You…you healed it!” Maggie whispered, stunned.

“No. Your body did all the work. I just accelerated the natural healing process – at least, that’s what I think I did.” Johnny shrugged, looking down at his handiwork with a pleased half-smile.

“How, exactly?” Maggie couldn’t have been more impressed if she had seen him walk on water.

“Light and energy. Healing takes both. I wasn’t sure it would work, but I thought it might. I just focused on what I wanted to have happen, imagined the skin healing rapidly, and transferred the energy through my hand into your burn.”

“Okay. Yeah. Sure.” Maggie’s head was spinning. She decided that what had just happened wasn’t any more remarkable than Johnny himself. She couldn’t think about it. It fell under the ‘accept, don’t question’ category. She shoved the miracle into a mental drawer with all the others he had performed and locked it tight.

“I’m not sure it will work on those dark circles, though.” Johnny traced the purple bruises under her eyes that she had tried to cover. Her blue eyes were world weary and worry worn. “You look tired, Maggie. Is everything okay?”

Maggie didn’t want to tell him about Shad’s accusations or about the confrontation they had had.

“I’m more than okay.” And she was. Since the moment she’d walked into the school that morning and seen Johnny Kinross, all had been right with her world.

Johnny studied her for several heartbeats, and then sighed, giving up on getting the rest of the story.

“Are you dancing today?” he asked hopefully.

“I wish. I don’t have much time, though. People are going to start arriving pretty soon. I wish I had the entire day to just spend with you.” Maggie leaned her forehead into his solid chest and breathed in his citrus and sunshine smell.

He kissed her bowed head and murmured into her hair, “Hmmm. That sounds good. But where would we go? Would we hide out under the bleachers, or maybe sink down in the back seats of the auditorium where the floor is sticky and the lights are dim? Or maybe we could occupy a couple of stalls in the girl’s bathroom and lift up our feet when the hall monitors check for sluffers. Oh wait - I don’t have to lift my feet.” Johnny’s voice was light and playful but there was an undercurrent of hopelessness that he was unable to hide.

“As long as I’m with you, bathroom stalls and sticky floors are as good as 5-Star Restaurants and sandy beaches,” Maggie said sincerely, blushing a little at her romantic confession. She knew her words were syrupy sweet, but she meant them all the same, and she didn’t dare wait to tell him, for beneath the bliss of new love lay the threat that it all could end in an instant.

His silence fed her insecurities, and she forced back her need for reassurance. She would take what he would give and not look beyond that.

“I’ll be nearby,” was all he said, and with a soft kiss on her forehead he slipped away.


Maggie slid into her spot just after the bell sounded, and Mr. Marshall frowned mightily at her from his lectern. “What kind of high school teacher had a lectern anyhow?” Maggie thought crossly, wishing that she was anywhere but Chemistry class. She had thought this class would be experiments and hands-on projects. Instead, the majority of the time they spent reading aloud from their chemistry books and taking quizzes on what they read. Maggie hated reading aloud. The words swam around on the page, teasing her with their squiggly lines and deceptive curves and corners. The d’s looked like b’s, the W’s looked like M’s – and half the time the letters danced right off the pages and into the margins. She wished she could dance right out of this class and into the hallway.

Maggie knew she had Dyslexia – she’d been told so by a conscientious teacher in second grade who had tried to help her learn to read better. It was at that point that her dad revealed that he too had Dyslexia, and they had started reading together at nights. After a while, she had actually come to enjoy reading the simple stories they had conquered together.

Then her parents died, and Maggie’s progress came to a screeching halt. She was never really anywhere long enough for people to realize she had a learning disability. She was always quiet and well-mannered. She always worked really hard and never complained. Everyone was so relieved that they didn’t have a problem child on their hands that they never realized the child had a problem.

Mr. Marshall seemed to hone in on her disability the very first day and was constantly asking her to read this or that. He seemed to take great pleasure in correcting her when she mispronounced a word or when she hesitated for a few seconds, trying to visually herd the letters into order. However, today they were measuring several different solutions into beakers of varied sizes, and Maggie welcomed the break from the norm. She removed her glasses and pulled on the required protective goggles - she was far-sighted so she should be okay - and hurried to assemble her equipment. Her partner hadn’t shown up for class so she was doing double duty.

“You all have a hand-out in front of you. You will be conducting the experiment as outlined on pages 5 and 6,“ Mr. Marshall instructed without preamble. “You will then need to compare your results with the findings discussed on the first four pages and take the quiz on pages 7 and 8. Please proceed,” he intoned. Stepping away from his lectern, he sank into his chair and spread the newspaper across his desk dismissively.

Maggie snatched up the hand out and flipped to pages 5 and 6. The words swam dizzily on the paper. Breathing deeply, Maggie removed her goggles and slid her glasses back on her nose. She could do this. She would just have to do it slowly like she did all her other assignments. Slowly might mean she didn’t complete the experiment in the time allotted, but without a partner she didn’t have much choice.

“I’ll read, you measure,” Johnny’s voice murmured softly near her ear, and Maggie jumped, his sudden proximity creating an instant hum of awareness under her skin. She jerked her glasses off her nose so she could see him. He laid his hand lightly on the small of her back, and the hum became a full fledged song.

“Slide the handout closer to me, and put your goggles back on.”

Maggie stepped away slightly so she could concentrate. When he was close she felt like curling around him like a sleepy snake. That could get her in trouble, especially considering no one else could see him. She snapped her goggles into place and gave a quick thumbs-up.

“Before this very moment, I would have said there wasn’t a girl on this planet who could pull off protective glasses,” Johnny’s face was serious but there was laughter in his voice. “How is it that you look absolutely delectable in those ugly things?”

Maggie grinned up at him and tapped the hand-out he was supposed to be reading. She would have to concentrate now; the temptation to converse with her invisible partner was incredibly strong.

“Work, work, work,” Johnny sighed and cuffed her lightly on the chin. He started at the beginning, and Maggie breathed a sigh of relief. Maybe she would make it after all. With Johnny reading the instructions, and Maggie doing exactly as he said, they were making excellent progress through the assignment. Then Mr. Marshall decided to intervene.

“Miss O’Bannon,” he raised his voice imperiously. “You aren’t even consulting the hand-out. I’ve been watching you for the last five minutes, and you haven’t looked at it once.” Mr. Marshall rose from his desk and approached her workspace. “This isn’t ‘Make Your Own Potions 101,’” he said sarcastically. “You actually have to follow the instructions in the hand-out.”

“I r-read it before I started, Mr. Marshall,” Maggie stuttered awkwardly, noticing that the other students had ceased working and were tuning in to the confrontation.

“Oh, really?” Mr. Marshall snatched up the hand-out that lay on the table in front of Johnny. “Take me through the first steps in the experiment.” Mr. Marshall was very smug – apparently he had been watching her. She hadn’t been reading, and now he was looking forward to nailing her to the wall.

In a flash, Johnny stood behind Mr. Marshall, looking over his stooped shoulder. “Tell him the first step says to fill the largest beaker with two parts water, one part vinegar.”

Maggie repeated Johnny’s instructions word for word.

“Tell him part two says to fill the smallest beaker with the sodium solution.”

Maggie did exactly as he said, never breaking eye contact with the scowling teacher. Johnny fed her the instructions, word for word until she’d reached the conclusion. Mr. Marshall tossed the hand out down on the table with a sniff.

“You’ve done this experiment before – perhaps at your old school? You should have informed me as soon as you realized. I could have found an alternative experiment for you to do. No credit will be given to cheaters.”

Johnny growled an expletive.

“I have never taken Chemistry before at any school, Mr. Marshall,” Maggie protested, seeing her grade crumbling before her eyes. “You can have the secretary check my transcripts! This is the first time I’ve ever seen this experiment!”

“My dear Miss O’Bannon,” Mr. Marshall snapped sharply. “Please don’t make things worse for yourself. You and I are both aware that you don’t read well enough to have completed this portion of the assignment in the limited time it took you.”

Maggie’s face flamed a hot, deep crimson, and she removed her goggles with shaking hands. It didn’t seem to matter that the other students had a partner to read them the instructions, or that the other students had someone to share the workload with– wasn’t that what she had done? Why was this teacher so intent on humiliating her?

Mr. Marshall turned away from her table with a small smirk and made his way back to his desk. Johnny was there waiting for him. Mr. Marshall made a great display of sinking back down upon his throne. Only…his chair had been removed at the very last second. Mr. Marshall’s head disappeared behind his desk as he fell to the floor with a girlish cry and a manly thud. The class burst into smothered giggles, snorts, and chortles.

Maggie’s persecutor pulled himself up gracelessly, smoothing his disheveled comb-over as he did. Gripping the sides of his leather chair, he again attempted to sit. Johnny shoved the chair forward violently, taking Mr. Marshall’s legs out from under him and sending him flying back into his seat. The momentum toppled the chair and the teacher over backward, wheeled legs and skinny ankles in argyle socks waving in the air. The giggles and snorts turned into guffaws and shouts.

Mr. Marshall rolled out of his upended seat in shocked bewilderment and, rising on wobbly legs, attempted to right his chair. As he leaned over, Johnny grabbed the waistband of his pants and yanked upward, showing the old bully how it really felt to be a pain the butt. Mr. Marshall shrieked and grabbed at the seat of his pants in mortification. Johnny released him, and with a little bump, shoved him back into his chair and scooted him into his desk as if the whole incident had never happened. Then, leaning down very close to Mr. Marshall’s ear, he spoke loudly and distinctly. Maggie marveled that she was the only one who could hear him. His voice practically reverberated through her head.

“You owe Margaret O’Bannon an apology.”

Mr. Marshall rubbed frantically at his ear and stuck his finger into the opening as if a bug had flown into his ear canal. His eyes met Maggie in stunned disbelief. She didn’t know if he had actually heard Johnny, but on some level the message had been received. Johnny resumed his place by her side.

They finished the experiment and the attached quiz in silence. As the class came to a close, and the students filed out, Maggie hung back, waiting for the room to empty. When Mr. Marshall saw that she remained behind, he scampered out, as if fearful that the whole embarrassing episode would repeat itself.

Johnny sank down on a stool and looked at her stonily. He knew she was going to scold him, apparently.

“You can’t defend me from the whole cruel world,” she said softly.

“True. But I can defend you in my tiny corner of it.”

“My knight.”

“My lady.”

Maggie smiled at his rejoinder. “Just…please… be careful. What if people start to talk?”

“About what? Ghosts? I’m not worried about that, Maggie.”

“Please don’t do that again. I almost felt bad for that awful little man.”

“That awful little man has been pulling stuff like that for decades, and his father pulled similar stuff for decades before him.” Johnny stood and captured her hands in his. “I can’t stand by while people are cruel to you. I can’t watch you suffer and do nothing. Don’t ask me to.” His expression was fierce and unyielding. They locked gazes for several long seconds. Maggie surrendered first.

“Will you kiss me, please?” Maggie whispered, lifting her hands to clasp them against the nape of his neck and pulling his glorious face to hers.

“Someone could walk in.” His mouth hovered just above hers, his breath tickling her parted lips.

“I don’t care.”

And at that moment, neither did he.