Slow Dance in Purgatory
Author:Amy Harmon

6

“I BELIEVE”

Frankie Laine - 1953





Maggie arose early that Saturday and pedaled the mile or so to the pretty Main Street that boasted a variety of pricey boutiques and the stately courthouse and city buildings that handled most of the official goings on in Honeyville. Maggie had never been inside the newly remodeled library, and it hadn’t been on her list of things to do since she’d moved to Honeyville five months ago. Aunt Irene had offered to drive her there, but Maggie didn’t want her aunt to know what she was looking for, and she didn’t know how long it would take her to find it – if it could be found. She had fibbed and said she needed the exercise. Maggie danced two hours a day, minimum, and she didn’t need the exercise, but Aunt Irene shrugged and let her be. That was definitely one of the things she liked most about Aunt Irene. She gave her plenty of space without making her feel like she didn’t care.

The lady at the front desk looked like she knew her way around a library, and as Maggie approached, she mentally rehearsed her prepared lines.

“Hi,” Maggie chirruped cheerfully, smiling her best how-to-butter-up-a grown-up-smile. “I’m doing a little research on Honeyville High School for my school paper. We’re doing a big spread called ‘Back to the Past,’ and I wondered if you had some old newspapers from around the time when the school was built?” Maggie didn’t like to lie but, unfortunately, her time in the foster care system had helped her to cultivate the ability to tell a pretty convincing whopper when she needed to. She supposed she could have just said she wanted to do research on the Johnny Kinross disappearance, but she didn’t really want to explain herself. Defensiveness was also a by-product of living in seven different homes in seven years.

“What an interesting idea!” The librarian seemed impressed with her lie. Maybe she should make some suggestions to the school's newspaper editor, Maggie thought with just a twinge of guilt.

“Well, you are in luck!” the librarian continued happily. “We have a new, state-of-the-art microfiche system that has been updated with articles from the last 100 years of Honeyville history. It is so much easier than digging through those old binders of newspaper print.”

The trim librarian bustled down a long flight of stairs and into a room lined with tall stacks of very old books and a couple of cubicles with computers housed on metal desks. Instead of old books, the whole room smelled like paint and new carpet, courtesy of the recent renovation.

The librarian led Maggie to one of the cubicles and showed her how to access the microfiche records. The librarian punched in a series of dates and started scrolling through the available records.

“Do you know the year it was built, dear?” The librarian asked kindly.

“Yes ma’am. It was completed in 1958,” Maggie answered, her eyes glued to the screen in front of her. She had wheedled that information out of Gus.

“Well, this should be about the right time period then. Just click through these dates. You can also enter key words to narrow your search. If you have any questions just come back upstairs, and I will be glad to help you.”

Maggie thanked the nice lady and waited until she climbed the stairs before she started clicking through the newspaper articles that might help her unravel the mystery of Johnny Kinross.

She found articles that talked about the construction of the school. She saw a picture of Aunt Irene’s father-in-law, Mayor Clayton Carlton, with a shovel in his hands at the ground breaking. He was a handsome enough man, if a guy in his forties could even be handsome, which Maggie wasn’t convinced he could.

She clicked ahead until she found a headline that caught her attention. “Tragedy at Honeyville High,” it shouted in bold print. There were several pictures below the article. One picture had a shot of what looked to be Mayor Carlton, his wife, and a young Roger Carlton exiting the school. They all looked harried and upset, and the caption read “Roger Carlton shown leaving the scene of the terrible accident of which he was a witness.”

Another picture was of a pretty woman who was clearly distraught being led from the school on the arm of a policeman. The caption identified her as Dolly Kinross. Johnny’s mother.

Maggie scrolled down farther, and her breath caught in her throat. The two brothers, in what were clearly yearbook shots, stared back at her from the screen. Billy Kinross, the caption indicated his name below his photo, wore thick black glasses not unlike hers, and he was smiling shyly into the camera. His hair was buzzed short, and it appeared several shades darker than his brother’s. He looked young and innocent, and Maggie felt a stab of something very close to grief when she looked at him. Life really sucked sometimes.

The other picture was of Johnny Kinross. She would have known it was Johnny without the caption. After all, she’d seen him before. He was the boy who had saved her from falling. In the picture, he was smirking at whoever was behind the camera, and one eyebrow was slightly raised, telegraphing his disdain for the photo shoot. He was so handsome it almost hurt to look at him. His hair was the same, down to the unruly curl on his forehead. He was dressed in a black suit and tie with a white dress shirt. She guessed all the other senior boys would have worn the same thing, just like they had done for senior pictures a couple months ago. That much hadn’t changed much in 50 years.

He looked exactly the same. He hadn’t aged at all. Maggie shook her head in disbelief. How could that be? She supposed it would make sense if he were just a ghost, but she had clasped his arms in her hands and felt the warm skin and the strength of the sinewy muscle beneath when he had pulled her from the shaft. He wasn’t a ghost.

Maggie painstakingly read article after article speculating on Johnny’s whereabouts. She wasn’t a good reader, and it took her a while, but the story held her transfixed. Someone had let it slip to the newspaper reporter that there hadn’t been a blood trail, though there had been significant blood thought to be Johnny’s found at the scene. The reporter quoted an officer Parley Pratt who said “the kid just up and vanished.”

There was an article about the gun Billy Kinross had allegedly brandished against Roger Carlton, and it was thought that Johnny Kinross had most likely stolen it out of the back of a car passing through Honeyville. The owner had stopped for some service on his vehicle at Gene’s Automotive where Johnny had worked. The owner of the gun hadn’t noticed the gun was missing for a couple of weeks. Maggie wondered why Johnny would need a gun. The fact that he was suspected of stealing the gun reinforced his bad boy reputation and fueled the argument that maybe he had run off after his brother was killed. Some speculated he had pushed his brother over the balcony, though the evidence would indicate otherwise. Roger Carlton fed that rumor and was quoted as saying, “I know Johnny Kinross would have killed me too, if he’d had the chance.” Maggie felt a spark of anger at the smarmy comment. Roger Carlton apparently hadn't taken any responsibility at all for the part he'd played in the tragedy.

Roger's inflammatory statement created quite a buzz for several weeks as possible ‘sightings’ of Johnny Kinross popped up all over Texas and surrounding states. There had reportedly even been sightings in Mexico, and the editor of the Honeyville Crier suggested that Johnny Kinross was most likely hiding out south of the border.

A significant amount of time later, there was a sighting at the school, and the paper was jam-packed once more with several articles about the case. “Gus Jasper, a janitor at the high school claims to have seen Johnny Kinross inside the school and alerted local officials,” one article stated.

Eventually there were no more articles about the Kinross brothers. No more sightings, nothing else to report. A couple of years after Billy’s death and Johnny’s disappearance, Dolly Kinross married the Chief of Police. His name was Clark Bailey, and he looked like a nice man. There was a picture above the announcement in the paper, and Dolly Kinross looked a little worn around the edges. But she and the Chief looked good together, and they looked happy. Maggie was glad Dolly had found someone to love. Nobody should lose her whole family in one day. Maggie knew how that felt.

She clicked through a couple more years of microfiche records – pausing only once to look at the wedding announcement of Miss Irene Honeycutt to Roger Clayton Carlton, III. Irene looked young and beautiful in an off-the-shoulder wedding gown and a lacy veil. Roger stood stiff and unsmiling beside her. Maggie was surprised at how much she looked like her aunt. She never would have guessed they resembled each other so closely. It pleased Maggie that she would have that connection with Irene; it increased her sense of belonging.

And then there was nothing more - no further mention of Johnny Kinross. The mystery had never been solved, and Maggie’s mind raced around in every direction, trying to formulate a scenario where what she had seen could make sense. There wasn’t one. Maggie left the library, thanking the librarian for her help on her way out. Then she got on her bike and pedaled furiously toward the school. Her key was in her pocket.


Maggie left her bike in the rack closest to the tennis courts. Three bikes were already parked in the rack. The tennis courts were obscured by thick trees, and if someone saw her bike in the rack they would simply assume she was on one of the courts. She had no reason to be inside the school on a Saturday. Gus would not approve, and she didn’t want to get him in trouble. Shoving her hands into the pocket of her light blue hoodie, she felt for her key and sprinted around the school to the side entrance door. Not stopping to question the wisdom of her actions, she stuck her big key into the lock and slipped through the door in a matter of seconds. She made sure the door was locked behind her and then she simply stood, back against the door, wondering how in the world she was supposed to get Johnny Kinross to come out and say hello. She wasn’t going to throw herself down the dumbwaiter shaft again. She would have to think of something else, something less life threatening. Slowly, Maggie moved away from the door and down the hallway.

“Johnny?” Her voice came out a whispery squeak, and she giggled nervously. Clearing her throat, she tried again.

“Johnny?” Much better that time. “I know it was you who saved me the other night. I wanted to thank you.” No response. Maggie continued moving forward, turning down an intersecting corridor. She called his name again and again, and the sound echoed around her. She kept on talking.

“I could have died, Johnny. At the very least, I might not have danced again. A fall like that would have broken my legs.”

She descended a set of stairs and walked down another short corridor, which opened up into the large rotunda that served as the impressive entrance to the stately old school. The lobby was pristine and quiet, defying the violence that had christened her floors. Descriptions from the articles Maggie had just read crowded in her head…a pool of blood, a missing body, Billy Kinross lying in a broken heap. Twin chills tiptoed up her arms and met at the base of her neck. This spot probably wasn’t the best place for their first conversation. She turned to retrace her steps.

“A fall like that broke Billy’s neck,” a low voice spoke behind her. Maggie gasped and spun around. The blood in her veins froze, and her heart faltered from the strain of trying to pump solid ice. Her legs wanted to buckle, and she clung to the wall, desperately willing them to hold her. Johnny Kinross stood in the center of the rotunda, his hands shoved in the pockets of his low-slung jeans, his head cocked to the side. He looked so normal. If normal was James Dean but even better looking.

Maggie stared at him, transfixed. Part of her wanted to run screaming, but her legs had succumbed to the ice water infusion in her blood, and she couldn’t feel them anymore. She couldn’t move if her life depended on it. When she had seen the picture of Johnny Kinross staring defiantly from the pages of the decades old paper, she had known that he was indeed the person who had pulled her from the dumbwaiter shaft – she had known it was him…but knowing he existed was a totally different matter than having him standing before her, larger than life, stranger than fiction.

For the life of her she couldn’t think of what to say next. All the things you would usually say to a cute boy didn’t quite work in the current situation…and she had no experience talking to dead people. She could feel her heartbeat in her throat and echoing in her ears; her vocal chords were now frozen as well. Johnny seemed to sense that she’d been stricken dumb. He was the first to speak.

“How is it you can see me?” His voice was hushed…incredulous…as if the night he had rescued her had been an anomaly – as if she’d imagined it all. Johnny cocked his head to the other side and raised his one eyebrow. It reminded her of his senior picture, and the very normal human gesture released her from her paralysis.

“How is it….that ….you can be seen?” Maggie questioned in return, her voice cracking as she forced it to thaw. “Aren’t you…. dead?” Maggie didn’t even cringe at her preposterous question. The dreamlike quality of this encounter made her query eminently reasonable.

Johnny took a few steps toward her and halted.

“Sorta.” He shrugged nonchalantly, but the eyes that swept over her were anything but casual. They were a piercing, unblinking blue, as if he feared closing them would cause her to vanish. Seconds passed, and then he continued speaking, his voice mystified.

“Nobody else can see me. Nobody else can even hear me.”

“Gus Jasper has seen you. He’s the one who told me about you.”

“Thank goodness for Gus.” A brief grin flashed across Johnny’s face, revealing strong white teeth and deep dimples that bracketed his mouth briefly before disappearing as his smile fled. Maggie gulped. He was way too beautiful for a dead guy, even a ‘sorta dead’ guy. She reached down and pinched herself hard. Was this really happening??

“But Gus has only seen me a few times… a few times in….what must be decades,” Johnny protested. He took a few more steps until only five or six feet separated them. His eyes bore in to her, as if she were hiding something vitally important to his existence.

“It’s different with you. You see me and hear me…although there have been times when you have been unaware that I was near. I don’t know why you see me sometimes and other times you don’t, and I never know when those times will be….so I’ve had to start watching you through the walls.” He seemed reluctant to confess the last bit, and shifted awkwardly, breaking his intense eye contact.

“You can see through walls?” Maggie squeaked. Maybe she had it all wrong. Maybe Johnny was from the planet Krypton. It would explain so much.

“I can see anywhere I want in the school without actually being there. I just have to picture the room in my head until it comes in to focus,” Johnny explained hesitantly, as if knowing how ridiculous his explanation sounded.

Maggie didn’t know what to say to that, so she said nothing. She knew he could control the sound system without being in the room, so if he said he could see through walls she supposed he could.

“What do you mean you’re ‘sorta’ dead?” The questions started piling up behind one another in her head, jostling for a turn, but this one was first in line. “Nobody can see me or hear me, present company excluded.” He quirked that eyebrow at her. “So that makes me think I am…. somewhat….dead.”

“I have seen ghosts of people who are….. actually…dead,” Maggie agreed, “so seeing you would still be possible for me if you were, indeed, deceased.” Maggie thought this might be the most surreal conversation she had ever had.

“Ahh.” Johnny nodded his head seriously. “That makes sense, then.”

“It does?” Maggie thought to herself, bewildered. Aloud she said, “But I didn’t just see you and hear you, I touched you……didn’t I?”

Johnny closed the distance between them and reached out his hand tentatively. Maggie stiffened imperceptibly, and Johnny’s hand ceased moving. What was she so afraid of? She knew touching him wouldn’t hurt her. Lifting her own hand, Maggie laid it against his. They gasped in unison, and Johnny’s eyes held hers intently.

“That’s the sorta part.”

Maggie held her breath, feeling his hand pressing into hers. It was warm and firm, and his fingers dwarfed hers by two inches. It was flesh and bone just as she remembered, and there was a slight vibration that hummed against her skin as he pressed his palm to hers.

Johnny’s eyes shifted to the corridor behind her. “There’s someone else in the school.”

Maggie swiveled her head around, dropping her hand.

“I shouldn’t be here. I could get in trouble.” When she turned back around, Johnny again stood in the middle of the rotunda, his hands back in his front pockets. Maggie shook her head dizzily. How was that possible? She had simply turned her head for a second.

“So why are you here?” Johnny questioned softly.

“What?” Maggie was still trying to figure out how he had moved so quickly.

“If you could get in trouble, why are you here?” he repeated patiently.

“I wanted to thank you for saving me,” Maggie blurted out. “I would have been seriously hurt or killed.”

“We wouldn’t want that….would we? There’s already one ghost too many around here.”

Maggie gaped at him. Was he joking? “That’s not very funny.”

“No….it’s not, is it?” Johnny looked a little flummoxed, and he ran his hands through his hair, barely disturbing the golden strands. “My conversation skills are a little rusty, I’m afraid.”

Several voices echoed down the long hall, growing closer to the entrance where Maggie and her strange companion stood. Maggie was caught between needing to run and desperately wanting to stay. Johnny nodded towards the door.

“Go out the front. The door locks from the outside. Nobody will ever know you were here.”

Maggie ran for the entrance but turned to make sure he hadn’t disappeared. He hadn’t moved an inch.

“Johnny?”

“Yes, Margaret?”

“You can call me Maggie, most everyone else does.”

“Okay...Maggie.”

“Maybe I can help you with the rust issue,” Maggie suggested hopefully.

Johnny didn't respond, but he smiled a little.

“You won’t hide from me next time, will you?”

Johnny shook his head.

“So I’ll see you on Monday, then?”

“What day is today?

“You don’t know?”

“I don’t keep track. It’s easier that way.”

Maggie stared at him wordlessly, shaken by his response. He returned her gaze without further explanation.

“Then I will just see you soon,” she acquiesced softly.

“I would like that very much, Maggie.”