Slow Dance in Purgatory
Author:Amy Harmon

7

“ALL SHOOK UP”

Elvis Presley - 1957





On Sunday, Maggie squirmed through church and fussed and fidgeted through dinner. She rattled and cracked her way through the after supper dishes, breaking one saucer and a teacup, and fiddled incessantly with everything in sight until finally Aunt Irene ordered her from the house with instructions to “go work off some of that nervous energy!”

“Gus?” Maggie asked the old man as he rocked beside Aunt Irene on the front porch swing. “Do you think I could go to the school and dance for a while – would that be okay?”

Gus thought for a moment and then gave a quick puff on his fragrant pipe. “I suppose it wouldn’t do no harm. But take Shadrach with you."

Maggie stopped in her tracks. Taking Shad wouldn't work. Gnawing her lip, Maggie turned, wondering how she was going to get out of the house without hurting his feelings.

"I was going to rehearse my dance routines, and Shad will be bored, won't you Shad?" Maggie asked hopefully.

"I can shoot a little hoop, get my Michael Jordan on." Shad shot an imaginary ball and then dribbled it through his legs. His feet got tangled with the imaginary ball, and he went down hard on his butt. His Michael Jordan definitely needed work. Maggie groaned.

"Fine," Maggie grumped, "but you stay in the gym. I can't dance with you wanting to show me a move every ten seconds, okay?" Maybe Johnny would still show up.

“Take the car, dear!” It’s getting dark, and I don’t want you riding that bike home at night,” Irene insisted graciously.

And don’t go wanderin’ about alone, Miss Margaret.” Gus had been quite shaken by her near fall the week before. “Your guardian angel may not be nearby to help you this time.”

Irene raised questioning eyebrows at Gus’s comment. They hadn’t told her about the dumbwaiter fiasco. Maggie didn’t hang around to see if Gus spilled the beans. Shouting at Shad to meet her in the car, she ran into the house and up the stairs, pulling on a leotard and a wrap around skirt and pushing her feet into ballet flats. Pulling a brush through her long hair, she flew back down the stairs and yanked the keys from the rack, slipping out the back door to avoid the couple on the front porch.

Aunt Irene’s ancient Cadillac was parked in the unattached garage, and Maggie eased into the front seat next to Shad, slamming the door and starting the engine. Aunt Irene had had this car since high school. Its tailfins dated it to the late 50s, and it was so long Maggie only drove it when she knew she wouldn’t have to maneuver it into any tight spaces. It had been meticulously cared for and could probably be sold for a pretty penny. Aunt Irene had stubbornly hung onto it through a bad marriage and Roger’s attempts to sell it. She’d hung on to it through the loss of her wealth and most of her possessions, and finally through the loss of all of her family except Maggie. The Honeyville Bank and Trust would get Irene’s home when she died. The only reason she had stayed in it as long as she had was because her close friends owned the bank and had reversed the mortgage, taking ownership of the house and giving her a small stipend to live on and the right to live in the house until she died. When she did, Maggie would be out of a home once more. But she would have the car. Aunt Irene had made sure of that.

Maggie parked her inheritance in the back of the school and hoped that her being there wouldn’t get Gus in trouble. They should be safe. Nobody spent Sunday evenings at the school. She would stay in the dance room like she had said she would, and Shad would stay in the gym. Hopefully, Johnny would know she was there. Her heart sped up at the thought of him, and she checked her reflection in the big rearview mirror. Her blue eyes were bright with anticipation, and her cheeks and lips were flushed pink. Her skin looked good; she could usually count on that, and she looked much better without her glasses. She was going to have to replace them soon. Everything was so blurry. Gus had looked for them at the bottom of the dumbwaiter shaft, but he hadn’t been able to find them. She wished she had contacts, but Irene couldn’t afford them and Maggie would never ask. Her own money went to dancing and school clothes and the miscellaneous items that really seemed to add up. Contacts were a vanity she really couldn’t indulge. It had never really bothered her before, but somehow she didn’t think a girl with big glasses was the type of girl Johnny Kinross would go for, or would have gone for…before. Maggie sighed. She was mooning over a guy who was ‘sorta dead.’ Something was seriously wrong with her. She pushed the thought out of her head.

"Come on, Mags! I'm the only one here to impress, and I already think you're beautiful." Shad had already gotten out and was waiting in front of the car, impatiently tossing his basketball from one hand to the other.

The school felt warm and cozy when she entered, like maybe it was glad to see her. Shooing Shad to the gym, she waited until his footsteps faded. Several minutes passed, and she wondered if she should call out to Johnny. She suddenly felt shy and awkward. He would know she was there. Better to let him come to her. The thought made goose bumps rise on her arms, and she hoped he wouldn't simply appear in front of her. She walked slowly down the hall to the dance room and unlocked it, propping it wide. Could ghosts open doors? Maggie shook her head violently. The whole thing was bizarre, and trying to make sense of it was impossible.

Maggie moved to put some music on and hesitated once more. How could she start dancing when, at any moment, Johnny could waltz into the room or worse, not show himself at all? She could rehearse her team's dance numbers, but the routines were flamboyant and sexy, and Maggie knew she didn’t have that kind of confidence at the moment. She was at a complete loss. How was she ever going to be able to dance as long as she knew he could be watching? Maggie walked to the barre and proceeded to move through her standard warm-up, but found that her eyes kept searching the room behind her in the mirror, expecting him to be there, knowing he would startle her when he was. After fifteen minutes of a truly pathetic warm-up, Maggie sighed and sank to the floor. This wasn't working.

"You aren't dancing." Johnny leaned against the dance room door, arms crossed in front of him, one black boot propped against the other.

Maggie shrieked a little and smothered it with both hands. Darn him!

"You have to stop popping up out of nowhere and scaring me!" Maggie grabbed the ballet barre over her head and pulled herself to her feet, hands clutching at the barre to keep from shaking.

"I wasn't trying to scare you. I just couldn't think of a way to approach you without scaring you," Johnny confessed softly. "I was almost afraid to try. I was worried you wouldn't be able to see me again, that it had all been some cruel cosmic joke." The thought that Johnny might be as unsure of himself as she was made Maggie feel a little better.

They regarded each other warily. Maggie couldn't seem to take her eyes from him. Maybe it was because she was afraid he would dissolve into thin air. She was sure it couldn't have anything to do with the fact that his skin was golden and his eyes were a piercing blue, or that his shirt clung to his muscled shoulders and arms like a sculpture in a museum.

"Your skin is darker than mine. How is that possible?" Maggie blurted out, and then almost groaned out loud at how silly she sounded. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one who was a little rusty at conversation with the opposite sex.

"It was August when I was.... changed. Now nothing changes. My hair doesn't grow, my skin color doesn't lighten, I don't age." Johnny shrugged as if it was no big deal. "My clothes don't even wear out." Johnny pulled his t-shirt away from his beautiful chest and let it go again, sliding his hands down to shove them in his jean pockets and shifting his weight from one foot to the other. His eyes met hers, considering.

"Are you still afraid?" He asked bluntly.

Maggie brought her hands to her heart. It was pounding. "No," she lied.

"Why aren't you dancing?"

"I was afr..." Maggie cut off abruptly, caught admitting something she had just denied. She tried again. "I was nervous ... um, I guess I felt…self-conscious." Maggie finished in a jumbled rush and looked down at her feet.

"I'll leave."

"But... can't you still see me, I mean, can't you watch me without me knowing it?"

"Yes. But I won't."

Maggie considered it for a moment. The thought of him leaving made her feel bereft, though she didn’t want to examine those feelings too closely.

"Don't leave. Just.... can we talk some more? I don't think I want to dance today."

"Do you want to walk?"

Maggie remembered that she had promised Gus she wouldn't go wandering around. Of course, he had said don't go wandering around alone. She wouldn't be alone.

"Okay. But Shad is here..."

"I'll keep my eye on him," Johnny said, as if that weren't humanly impossible.

Maggie walked toward him, and Johnny moved from the doorway, letting her pass him into the hallway. As she did, the ends of her hair rose and reached for him, and her skirts clung to her legs as if she had rolled for an hour on thick carpet.

"What the..?!" Maggie's hands shot to her skirt, trying to maintain her modesty.

Johnny reached out and ran his hand along her hair from crown to tips. Immediately, the locks fell in heavy relief, and her skirt swooshed back down around her legs. Maggie's heart pounded, and her skin practically hummed with awareness.

"What did you do?" Maggie gasped.

"It was static electricity. I just reversed the charge."

"How?"

Johnny shrugged again. "As a man thinketh, so does he."

"That's from the Bible, right?"

"It is. But I can't give you a better explanation. I seem to be made up of energy. I attract it, and then I'm able to release it and use it. I don't know how."

"Is that how you control the music?"

Johnny nodded, looking down at her as she walked beside him, hands clasped behind her back.

"You scared me that time up in the hallway when I saw you, and then again in the dance room the other day. Why did you do that?" Maggie wasn't sure she had forgiven him yet. Nor did she understand him at all. Scare her one day, save her the next. To say Johnny Kinross was an enigma was putting it mildly.

"You scared me, too." Johnny stopped and turned toward her. "I didn't know you could see me, and when you called out to me it startled me, and I reacted. The music reacted with me. I didn't mean for it to happen."

"Oh.” Maggie supposed that made sense. “But what about the day I came early to dance? How did you know I had dreamed about that song?"

Johnny raised his eyebrows in question. "What song?"

"That ‘Johnny’ song. That was very mean of you." Maggie stuck out her chin, challenging him to disagree. His lips twitched a little at her stony expression.

"I don't have any way of knowing what you dream, Maggie. I… felt… you walk in to the school and I was…. excited… to see you. Then you said that I wasn't real. It made me angry. I guess I wanted to show you that I was....real, if that's what I am." Johnny's mouth quirked cynically.

"But that song?" Maggie countered, incredulous.

“I didn't think about it. I just pulled that song out of the air, literally. Songs are easy to access. Every song that has ever been played is there in the ether somewhere, playing endlessly. Energy isn't really created or destroyed, it's simply redirected."

Maggie shook her head in amazement, and Johnny began to walk again as if he hadn't said something completely mind blowing. Maggie watched him for a moment, and he turned back toward her, waiting.

"Is that what happened to you?" Maggie said hesitantly. "You weren't destroyed....just redirected?"

"No, Maggie. That's the problem." Johnny's eyes spoke volumes as ancient as time. "I wasn't redirected."

"What does that mean?" Maggie whispered.

"I seem to be stuck here, or stuck in between here and somewhere else."

"You mean somewhere between life and death?”

"Maybe…..or between Heaven and Hell. I guess this is Purgatory. I'm trapped in high school." Johnny's voice was dry with irony. "The place I hated the very most, and the funny thing is, I begged to stay. When I was dying, I begged to stay. I refused to go."

They walked together for several minutes. Maggie noticed absently that his feet made no noise in the deserted hallways.

"Maggie?"

"Yes?" Maggie looked up at him and blushed at the intensity of his gaze.

"What year is it?"

"It's November of 2010."

Johnny sagged where he stood, and the absolute desolation that played over his features had Maggie reaching out to him. She clasped both of her hands around one of his, and he jerked at the contact, shocking her with a sharp frisson of static. She didn’t let go, though. All she could think about was how it might feel to never touch another human being for over 50 years. As if he could read Maggie’s mind, Johnny's hand clenched hers like a drowning man, and Maggie felt a sensation similar to that of holding her hands close to a television or a computer screen without actually touching it - like a humming, buzzing heat radiated out from him. Her breath caught in her throat.

"Mags?" Shad's voice was a high pitched mix of laughter and scared confusion, and Maggie jerked like she had been shot. Johnny vanished like she'd flipped a light switch. Her hands, now empty, were posed mid-air. Why hadn't Johnny warned her Shad was coming?

Maggie's hands dropped to her sides, and she slowly turned towards Shad, her mind a tangled torrent of excuses and alibis.

"Margaret O'Bannon, what in the name of Martin Luther King, Jr. are you doing?" Shad invoked the name of Martin Luther King only when he was truly bowled over. Thankfully, his mouth also went in to hyper drive.

"Wait….you saw him, didn't you? You saw the ghost? Can you see him now? Is he nearby?" Shad went into Ninja stance, his basketball forgotten, bouncing forlornly down the hall. "What did he look like, Mags? Can you see through him? Did he float?" Shad did a couple lunges and karate chops to the left and then the right. Then he glanced in terror up at the ceiling, as if the ghost of Johnny Kinross were waiting to drop over him like a net.

"Shad...calm down!" Maggie tried to interrupt Shad's blithering tirade, but he was moving down the hallway in Ninja squat, arms still high and poised for an attack by a ghost… or anyone with a black belt. Retrieving his basketball, Maggie followed behind him, trying to convince him that Johnny Kinross wasn't going to drag him off.

By the time they had shut off the lights and exited the school, Shad had resumed normal posture, and his speech had returned to its regular speed, which was still almost too fast to follow. It wasn't until they pulled out of the school's parking lot and headed for home that he fell silent. The silence was almost worse than his non-stop chatter, and Maggie wiggled uncomfortably. Shad looked out the window and said nothing until Maggie pulled into his grandpa's driveway. Dim light shone through the front window, and Maggie could see Gus rocking in his chair in front of his old fashioned television. It still had rabbit ears on the top, although she didn’t think rabbit ears worked on TV’s anymore.

"I know you're holding out on me, Mags," Shad said softly. "I saw you! You were standing there in the middle of an empty hallway like you were reaching out to someone…or touching someone. That was super freaky, Mags." Shad looked scared, and he reached for the door as if he were suddenly afraid of her, too. "What I can't figure out is why YOU aren't freaked out, too."

"It was nothing, Shad!" Maggie laughed weakly, and it sounded wrong even to her own ears. Her ability to lie to strangers obviously didn't translate to lying to people she cared about. "Everything is okay. You don't have to worry." At least that much was the truth, and the ring of sincerity must have satisfied Shad, because he sighed and proceeded to open his door.

Suddenly, the lights of another vehicle swung around the corner, and a run-down pick-up truck jerked to a halt alongside Irene's classic Caddie. Shad froze in his seat, his hand gripping the open door.

"Shaddy! Is that you, baby? Shadrach! Come help me with my bags." A thin, black woman with matted corn-rows hanging half way down her back tumbled out of the driver's seat and was pulling odds and ends out of the back of the poorly parked truck. Apparently, Malia Jasper had decided to come home. Maggie looked at her young friend and wondered what was worse, losing your mother to death, like she had, or losing her year after year, over and over again, every time she decided to split.

The door to the little house opened, and Gus's thin frame filled the doorway, backlit by the blue glow of the television. He flipped on the porch light, and even from the harsh shadow, Maggie could see the strain on his face.

"See you tomorrow, Mags," Shad sighed like he carried the weight of the world, or at least Honeyville, on his shoulders. He stepped out of the car and shut the heavy door behind him.

"Shad!" Maggie called after him, wondering if she should hang around for moral support. Shad leaned down, sticking his head through the partially opened window. “Please go, okay, Mags? Just .....just go, okay?" He pleaded sweetly, and Maggie nodded her consent.

He withdrew his head, and Maggie backed out, wishing she could help, but knowing that there wasn't a damn thing she could do. Yep, life sucked sometimes.


Maggie wasn’t sure what had awakened her – but the moonlight shone brightly through her open curtains, and the room was lit up in white moon glow. She rubbed the sleep from her eyes and sat up, disoriented and grumpy. She cried out in terror as a big man suddenly loomed at the end of her bed. He didn’t lunge for her or seek to silence her scream, but instead lumbered over to the cushioned window seat that jutted out below her big window that looked out over Irene’s flower garden. She knew him…he’d been in her room before.

With some difficulty, Roger Carlton knelt beside the window seat and pulled the cushion off. Inserting a key into a little lock that had been covered by the pillow, he lifted the seat, exposing a hollowed out area that looked empty except for the large book of some sort that he pulled from inside. Grunting heavily, he heaved himself up, shut the lid, and then sank back down on it. When he opened the heavy tome, Maggie could see what looked like newsprint and black and white photos.

The ghost of Roger Carlton perused the pages slowly, one by one. Maggie couldn’t see what he was looking at, but he seemed absorbed by what he studied, his face twisted in concentration. She knew he wasn’t really in her room. This was simply something he’d done many times when he was alive, and she was getting a repeat performance…again. The book he read may very well be sitting inside the window bench at this very moment, or it could have been moved before he died. Still, her heart pounded and her limbs shook as she watched him finger the words and pictures intently, turning a page only after staring at the previous one for what seemed an eternity.

Suddenly, his image winked out, and Maggie was left staring at the empty bench, its cushion restored, completely alone in her room. On shaking legs, she crept from her bed and pulled the thin cushion from the bench. She tried to lift the lid as she had seen Roger do, but it was locked tight. Maggie stood, looking out the window into the backyard at the light and shadows that colored the empty flower beds, leafless trees, and bristly shrubs in varying shades of grey. She would really have to see about getting a new room. This was the second time she’d had to wake up to Roger Carlton. She didn’t think she could stomach sharing her room with his old secrets.





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