Slow Dance in Purgatory
Author:Amy Harmon



Paul Anka - 1959

She had seen him. The girl Gus had called Margaret – the girl with the long dark hair who looked so much like Irene Honeycutt. The very first time he noticed her she was dancing alone in the room with mirrors. She had seemed so familiar to him, like he had known her long ago in the time before he had become a ghost of himself. His heart had pounded, and he had cried out to her in recognition, only to have her name elude him and the familiarity fade like he had mistaken her for someone else. Maybe it was just her resemblance to Irene, but the impression had nagged at him still.

He had watched her often since. This time, Johnny had been watching her dance down the hallway. She was caught up in the music he played just for her, and she had obviously forgotten that she was supposed to be mopping floors. She moved effortlessly, almost as if she too could float above the floor or transport herself to other places with a thought. He could do those things, but what he wouldn’t give just to dance with her. He had never admitted it to his friends, but he liked to dance. He had swung his momma around the house to Jerry Lee Lewis more times than he could count. But that was before. Now he wasn’t sure he still could.

“Is someone there?” Margaret had called out, and he had realized suddenly that she was talking to him. She had started walking toward him, and he had panicked. His control slipped, making the music blare loudly, and Margaret had screamed and run down the hallway away from him. She had seen him! Euphoria had quickly replaced the panic. Johnny hoped he hadn’t scared her away for good. He had tried to make it up to her by finishing her floors for her. He hadn’t actually mopped. He didn’t have to. He just instructed the floor to be clean. And it was.

It had taken some practice over the years, but eventually Johnny had figured it out. Anything that was physically connected to the school he could control easily - the floors, the ceilings, the wiring, the walls, the lockers, all of it. He could have maintained the school all on his own, but then the school board wouldn’t have needed to employ Gus. He needed Gus. Gus was the only one who knew he existed. So he left enough work for Gus to do. Plus, he didn’t want people getting scared. Scared people didn’t hang around. Scared people might board up the school or worse, tear it down. So he was careful not to be too obvious.

Now it was Gus, Margaret, and that funny kid Shad, who reminded Johnny a little of Billy, cleaning his school. He had heard Margaret groaning about scraping gum off the desks. He could take care of that. It wasn’t as easy as cleaning the floors and walls; objects that hadn’t always been a part of the school were harder. After a while though, they seemed to absorb the energy that hummed through the school, and he could work his magic. And those desks had been in the school for years. He would make sure she didn't have to scrape off another piece of gum.

With just a little highly focused thought, Johnny could turn on the lights, control the sound system, pull all the books off the library shelves, and return them neatly in no order at all. Mrs. Chase, the pretty librarian, hadn’t liked that last skill very much. She had just thought it was mischievous school kids. Johnny decided pranks weren’t much fun if you couldn’t get credit for your brilliance. The next time, he had arranged the books to spell out Johnny Kinross, using the first letter of the title to correspond with each letter in his name, over and over again. The unused books he had stacked neatly in towering piles on Mrs. Chase’s desk. Mrs. Chase hadn’t seen the pattern. But she had quit. He felt bad after that; he had liked Mrs. Chase. From then on, he had always returned his experiments back to normal when he was finished.

On another occasion, he had failed to notice that his thoughts messed up the computers. He hadn’t had to deal with computers in the early years, and it hadn’t really been a problem until the thing called the Internet was invented. He blew out a dozen computer screens the first year the school got Internet access, and the hard drives were completely cooked. Whatever frequencies of energy and sound made up the Internet seemed to be the source that gave him power as well. It was the hum of energy that surrounded all living things - the heat, the life force, which someone, somehow, had harnessed. He didn’t know how the Internet worked anymore than he could explain his own abilities to call on that same source of electrical interconnectivity to do his bidding. It was beyond sight, but it existed, just as he did – beyond sight.

The school was quiet and dark as Maggie pushed her bike up to the side entrance closest to the dance room. Gus had given her her very own key and told her to take good care of it. Giving keys to students was frowned upon. Gus had said that she was a “member of the maintenance team” so it was okay, although she highly doubted Shad had the same privilege. Maggie loved arriving before anybody else and having the dance floor all to herself. At least she had loved it before she knew about Johnny Kinross.

She chained her bike around the light pole closest to the side entrance and unlocked the door, telling herself she had nothing to be afraid of. But she was afraid. Last night she had dreamed of long hallways that led to nowhere, like an endless maze lined with gaping black classrooms that, when entered, led to still more hallways. In the dream she had kept on walking and turning and ending up where she’d started, all the while being taunted by the same song from decades ago, a song called “Oh Johnny.”

She never thought the song was creepy before; but the way it had echoed down the never-ending hallways in her dream was so haunting and mournful. Oh Johnny, My Johnny.… Gus’s words reverberated in her head, “Oh Miss Margaret, I think you’ve met Johnny.” Maggie’s hands shook, and she dropped the key, banging her head on the door frame as she bent to retrieve it.

“Get a grip, Maggie,” she told herself sternly, walking into the school. “Johnny Kinross is not real!” Maggie told the hallway defiantly. "He is a boy that lived fifty-three years ago, and I am NOT going to be scared off!” Her voice sounded awfully loud bouncing off the empty walls and floors, and it did nothing to make her feel better, but she pulled the door firmly shut behind her and walked quickly to the dance room at the end of the corridor. She looked neither right nor left, and she kept telling herself she was not afraid of the big, bad ghost.

“Oh Johnny, how I miss you,

When you’re gone I lose my mind

I’ve been lookin’ but I just can’t seem to find

My Johnny, Oh Johnny…”

The old song lilted softly out of nowhere, and the intercom crackled as if someone was preparing to speak. Maggie screamed and threw herself through the dance room door. She fumbled for the lights, slamming the door behind her. Her terrified reflection stared back at her from the mirrors that bracketed the dance room floor, and the song that had sent her shrieking into the room ceased as quickly as it had begun. Gulping for breath and trying not to cry, Maggie sank down to the floor, bracing her back against the door. She wanted out of this freaky- assed school! Maggie tended to swear when she was scared. And she was terrified. She wanted out of this freaky-assed school, but there was no way she was going back out into that long, freaky-assed hallway!

“Breathe, Maggie, breathe,” she told herself. “Gus said he was lonely, not dangerous. Lonely, not dangerous.” Maggie repeated the phrase to herself as she tried to calm her racing heart. Surprisingly, as her pulse began to slow her anger began to build, and before long she was royally pissed off. “How dare he?!” she thought to herself. She hadn’t done anything to him! Johnny Kinross might be lonely, but he was also a jerk! What he had done was just plain mean. He had scared her to death twice now, and it was getting old.

Standing up, Maggie yanked off her coat, tossed her duffle bag to the side, and marched angrily to the sound system in the corner. Flipping switches and cranking up the volume, Maggie plugged in her ipod and scrolled through her song list until she found what she was looking for.

Eminem’s “Not Afraid” blasted out of the speakers, and Maggie threw herself into the center of the floor, her movements bold and defiant, daring Johnny Kinross to make his next move. Eminem’s in-your-face style gave her courage, and Maggie pushed herself harder, leaping and lunging, spinning and kicking, until more than an hour had passed. Maggie’s skin shone with sweat, and her heavy hair stuck to her face and clung to her back.

Collapsing in the middle of the floor, Maggie pulled her hair up in a messy ponytail and leaned into a deep stretch.

“Take that, Johnny Kinross,” Maggie said out loud, and smiled widely when there was no response.

After about fifteen minutes of cooling down and stretching, Maggie could hear the sounds of the school coming to life beyond the dance room door. Time to head to the locker room and get cleaned up and ready for school. Maggie fervently hoped that Johnny Kinross didn’t frequent the girl’s bathroom. She didn’t think she could handle a pervert on top of everything else. Gathering her gear, Maggie headed for the door when she suddenly remembered her ipod still docked in the sound system. As she turned and headed toward it, the lights on the system blinked wildly, and a new song filled the room.

“I’m sorry, so sorry…” Brenda Lee crooned sincerely, and Maggie screeched and jumped a foot in the air.

The song cut abruptly, and Maggie yanked her ipod from the sound system, racing from the room and out into the rapidly filling hallway. She had had enough of Johnny Kinross for one morning. Apology not accepted.

She’d made him angry, and he had responded without thinking. He’d heard her say his name when she’d come into the school. At first, Johnny was pleased that she even knew his name – Gus must have told her. The pleasure disappeared abruptly when he realized what she’d said. “Johnny Kinross isn’t real,” she’d said. It had bothered him, and he’d lashed out with words of his own. He’d played the first song that came to his head, one that had his name in it so she couldn’t misconstrue its meaning. He’d scared her and immediately felt like a heel. Since when did he go around scaring beautiful girls? It used to be that girls hung all over him, even when he didn’t want them to. Now they just ran screaming.

Actually, come to think of it, Margaret hadn’t just run screaming. She’d gotten angry, too. He’d watched her dance again. He couldn’t help himself. He definitely hadn’t missed her meaning with the first song she'd chosen, and he had laughed at her courage. She wasn’t like the girls he remembered. And the way she danced… He could watch her all day. He didn’t know if he liked her music. It was more talking and swearing than singing, and it was a whole lot more angry than the music he grew up with. But he definitely liked her sass.

She’d said “take that Johnny Kinross,” and he had almost flashed into the room right then and there. That would have really scared her, though. So he had tried to be a little more subtle. He hoped she believed his apology – but from the way she raced out of the room, he thought maybe not. He would have to try again.

A few days went by and Maggie, Gus, and Shad worked side by side each afternoon after school. Maggie hadn’t complained to Gus or told him she was nervous, but he seemed to know and had found ways for them to all stay together. It couldn’t last though, there was too much ground to cover, and staying together didn’t make much sense. Plus, Shad had been like a caged puppy, yapping and nipping at her heels until Maggie was sure working in tandem was far worse than any run-in with a ghost. So, after three days of shadowing Gus, Maggie volunteered to get the trashes from the third floor on her own.

“They did some kind of bridge building contest in Mr. George’s class, and they got one of those big trash cans with the wheels on it up there full to the top with heavy stuff. Do all the other trashes and then wheel the big one to the dumbwaiter to get it down to the main floor, just like I showed you last week, okay?” Gus instructed.

"Don't let Johnny get you, Mags!" Shad called out. He chuckled, but Maggie didn't miss the worried expression he tried to hide. Gus just shook his head and waved her off.

Maggie took a deep breath and jogged up the stairs, determined not to be spooked, hoping Johnny Kinross had had his fun. Classroom by classroom, Maggie bagged and re-bagged trashcans, piling the bags into a bigger can and wheeling her way around the third floor. The halls were silent, and the classrooms empty, and Maggie started to relax into her work. It wasn’t until she reached the drafting room that she discovered that Gus had not been exaggerating.

The wheeled, economy-sized garbage can was brimming with broken bridges made from assorted materials - everything from sticks, to rocks, to one that looked like it had been constructed with a concrete mold. It was so heavy that Maggie had to rock it a little just to build some momentum to get it to roll. Once she got it moving, she eased it down the hallway and headed for the dumbwaiter around the corner.

Honeyville High had been built before mandatory ramps and handicap accessible regulations had been instituted, so the old dumbwaiter served as a manual elevator for the janitorial staff and the occasional wheel chair. It was a platform large enough to hold Maggie’s trashcan, but just barely. Grunting and shoving the overflowing bin onto the metal platform, Maggie stepped back and tried to pull the sliding door down to close the dumbwaiter, but the scraps piled on top protruded out too far. Maggie stepped onto the dumbwaiter and shoved and pushed, trying to reposition the heavy debris so the door could close.

Suddenly, a loud grating and grinding noise reverberated down the narrow shaft, and the little platform shook violently. Without warning, the crank jerked and the pulley released, sending the platform and its contents plunging toward the ground floor.

Maggie screamed and leaped for the opening, scrabbling to get a foot hold on the block wall of the shaft as her hands clawed for purchase on the ledge. Her legs bicycled, and her arm muscles shook as she clung to the landing above her. The ledge was a smooth, squared-off edge, and she couldn’t get a firm enough grip to hoist herself up. She couldn’t even call out. Every ounce of her strength was needed to just hold on. Even if he heard her, Gus would never make it in time. She was going to fall.

“Don’t be afraid, Margaret. I’m going to try to pull you up.” A man’s voice came from somewhere above her, and Maggie whimpered in relief.

She lifted her head expectantly, and a face appeared above her, leaning over the edge. Strong hands gripped her around each wrist and pulled her up, up, and over the ledge and onto the floor beside the gaping hole. He released her hands as soon as she was safe and then sank to his haunches beside her, elbows resting on his knees. Maggie laid in a quivering heap and stared at her rescuer.

He was young, but probably older than she, Maggie thought. His hair was a dark blonde, and it was swept back off his face, except for one lock that curled down onto his smooth forehead. His jaw was square, and his chin, which he rested on his clasped fists, had a deep groove at its center. His full mouth was unsmiling and his dark brow furrowed above eyes that looked light in color, though it was hard to tell in the shadowy alcove that housed the dumbwaiter. He wore jeans, a white tee shirt, and scuffed black boots that were scarcely two feet from her face. He stood and backed away from her, giving her space to sit up, which she did, though she didn’t dare stand; her trembling legs would never hold her.

“Are you all right?” he asked her softly.

“I think so,” Maggie replied, and felt her lower lip tremble. "I lost my glasses, though." It was the thought of her glasses that broke her composure. They were probably smashed at the bottom of the shaft, where she would have been if not for this stranger. Tears threatened to fall – the relief that she was safe was so sharp she could weep. She swallowed back the emotion that was rising in her chest and struggled to stand. His hands shot out to steady her and then fell when she successfully rose.

“Where did you come from? I mean… I didn’t know anyone was up here,” Maggie stuttered. “If you hadn’t come...I - I would have fallen.”

“Miss Margaret! Miss Margaret!” Gus’s shouts rang up out of the dumbwaiter shaft, and Maggie moved gingerly to the edge to peer down two stories to where the platform had crashed to the floor, spilling garbage out around it. Gus’s grizzled grey head appeared below her, and he stared back up at her, shock and horror stamped on his familiar face.

“What happened? Are you okay? I heard a horrible crashing sound, and I came runnin,’” Gus called up to her. “I couldn’t get here nearly fast enough, and then I couldn’t get the darn door open ‘cause the trash here was wedged up against it.”

“I’m okay, Gus. Something snapped and everything went crashing down. I almost fell but luckily someone was here to pull me up.” Maggie turned back to get her rescuer’s name, but he wasn’t there.

“We're coming up there, Miss Margaret! Don’t you go nowhere,” Gus hollered below her, and Maggie stepped away from the death trap and went to find her savior. He couldn’t have gone far. She walked out of the alcove and looked up and down the hallway, puzzled and bewildered that he would simply leave. She hadn’t thanked him. Maggie stuck her head in the nearby classrooms, but there was no sign of him. Had he broken into the school and been worried about getting in trouble? Maybe he was the intruder from the other night.

Maggie felt ice trickle down her spine and into her arms and legs. There hadn’t been an intruder the other night. There had been a troublesome ghost.

“Johnny?” Maggie called out instinctively. Silence met her query. “Was it you, Johnny? Are you the one who saved me?” Again, silence. Maggie waited several long breaths, feeling silly and wondering if the near death experience had addled her brain.

“Maggie?” A soft voice spoke up behind her.

“Oh!” Maggie jumped and spun, almost knocking poor Shad to the ground. He had beat Gus up the stairs and was looking at her like she had lost her mind. Gus rounded the corner then, breathing hard.

“Who were you talking to?” Shad asked, looking over her shoulder into the empty classroom beyond.

Maggie didn’t respond but turned and looked up and down the long hallway once more.

“You didn’t see anyone on your way up here, did you Gus?” Maggie asked, leading Gus and Shad back into the alcove where the accident had occurred.

“No, Miss Margaret. I didn’t see a soul. Oh Lawdy! You said somebody pulled you up out of there?” Gus asked in amazement, looking over the ledge down at the smashed garbage bin. Shad leaned over a little too far, and Gus grabbed at him, stepping back from the ledge, pulling Shad with him.

“Who was it, Mags?” Shad seemed as confused as Maggie, and she shook her head, unwilling to give voice to her suspicions.

“I would have fallen. I was literally hanging from the edge. He...he pulled me up.”

“Who pulled you up, Miss Margaret?”

“I don’t know, Gus. He was here a minute ago.”

Shad shuddered violently and hugged himself, hopping from one foot to the other. "This freaky-assed school should be closed!! It's scary as hell!" Shad forgot to watch his language in his grandpa's presence and got a thwack to the back of the head as a result.


Maggie was silent. After a moment, the three of them filed wordlessly back down the stairs to the ground floor. Gus said he would take care of the trash and the dumbwaiter in the morning. He seemed anxious to get out of the school where tragedy had been narrowly averted, this time. Maggie and Shad didn't object and followed him out. Shad kept looking behind him, and he slipped his hand into Maggie's like a frightened little boy. Maggie decided it was okay, just this once.