Prom Night in Purgatory (Slow Dance in P)
Author:Amy Harmon

Prom Night in Purgatory (Slow Dance in P - By Amy Harmon


To Every Thing There is a Season

The house was the same, but different. The old swing wasn’t old. In fact, it looked as if it had just been hung, so squeaky clean and shiny were the chains that suspended it above the broad front porch. Red and yellow tulips dotted the flower beds, the first buds of spring. There hadn’t been any the last time she’d looked. The house appeared as if it had just been freshly painted and the shutters were a gleaming black instead of the peeling flat charcoal they had faded to. There was Irene’s car. It was parked haphazardly in the long driveway, as if it had been left in a hurry and was waiting for its owner to return. The chrome glistened, and the pink of the paint looked so new that Maggie wondered that it didn’t drip from the doors. Another car passed in front of the house. And then another. There must be a classic car show nearby. A big black Buick pulled into the driveway behind Irene’s Cadillac, and a man Maggie had never seen before stepped out of the car in a huff and slammed the heavy door.

“Irene!” The man bellowed, walking towards Irene’s poorly parked car. He was tall and a little heavy set, but he wore his weight well, like a man who was comfortable with himself and accustomed to leading others. His hair was slicked back from his face, waves neatly lacquered into place. His suit was black and almost baggy in its fit, the roomy legs of his slacks pooling slightly above shiny shoes. His white shirt was neatly pressed and his thin red tie disappeared into the V of his big suit coat. He wore a hat like Frank Sinatra’s, and it gave him a dapper air. Men looked good in hats, Maggie thought randomly, watching the man stride toward the pink Cadillac.

“She never puts the car away like she’s asked, constantly leaving it blocking the driveway,” the man mumbled as he yanked the car door open, leaning inside the Caddie’s roomy interior. Maggie could see that the keys hung from the ignition. He slid his big frame into the car and pulled the door shut behind him. Maggie wondered if she should stop him or call out for help. He was obviously taking Irene’s car. She lurched forward, lifting her arms and shouting. Instantly she stood by the open window of the car, as if propelled at lightning speed to her goal. He didn’t seem to notice her standing pressed against the window – and then she wasn’t, pressed up against the window, that is. She now sat beside the big man on the bench seat of the car; the high-glossed leather of the seat should be smooth against her thighs, but it wasn’t. She couldn’t feel the seat at all or her legs that lay against it. As she ran her hand along the dashboard, it was as if she pulled her hand through the air. She couldn’t seem to connect with the objects around her. She must be dreaming. Yes. That’s what it was. Just a dream. The big man turned the key in the ignition and prepared to drive the car forward, his eyes trained on the garage in front of him. Someone tapped at the window, a sharp rat-a-tat, and Maggie’s head swiveled to the left, a movement replicated by the man beside her.

Johnny. He was leaning down to peer into the driver’s side window, his dark blonde head tilted to the side, the knuckles of his right hand still pressed to the glass. A small grease stain made a black crease between his first two fingers. The man next to Maggie quickly rolled the window down several inches. An aqua colored truck with bulbous headlights and rounded wheel wells sat at the curb. A flat bed extended from the cab with “Gene’s Auto” emblazoned on the side. The truck’s horn tooted, and the driver touched his cap and pulled away from the curb.

“Mr. Honeycutt. Sorry to startle you, sir. Gene sent me to pick up the Buick.” Maggie’s heart skipped and smiled in her chest. Johnny wore a striped blue work shirt with GENE’S embroidered on the pocket. The short sleeves were rolled a little, as if he struggled to conform completely to the uniform.

“Oh, that’s right!” Mr. Honeycutt wiped a big hand down his broad face. “I forgot all about that. I did tell Gene to send someone by.”

“Would you like us to come back another day, sir?” Johnny’s voice was deferential and his manner very businesslike. Maggie stared into his face, wondering why he hadn’t even looked in her direction. She waved her hand at him experimentally. His eyes stayed trained on Mr. Honeycutt.

“No…no. Today is as good as any. The keys are in the ignition. The car has been pulling a little to the right. I told Gene. I don’t think it’s anything a little adjustment can’t fix. Change the oil while you’re at it, too.” Johnny stepped back from the door, and Mr. Honeycutt turned the key off, opened the door, and heaved himself out. Maggie moved to scamper out of the Cadillac after him and was instantly sitting in the big, black Buick parked behind Irene’s Cadillac. A few seconds later, Johnny slid in behind the wheel of the Buick. He pulled the door closed and leaned out the open window. His right hand slid up to twelve o’clock on the wheel; his bicep bunched in a hard mound. Maggie reached out to run her hand along it softly but felt only the barest hint of something warm beneath her finger tips and nothing more. Johnny didn’t flinch but swatted at his arm, as if he had felt her touch and thought it was the wispy legs or wings of an insect landing on his skin.

“I’ll bring it back tonight, sir, unless there’s a problem, in which case we’ll call you. Should I leave the keys in the ignition or will someone be home to leave them with?”

“Someone will be here, son. Tell Gene hello. He always takes good care of us.”

Johnny nodded and waited for the man, who was obviously Irene’s father and Maggie’s great grandfather, to turn and head into the house. Turning the key and shifting into reverse, Johnny eased the bulky car backward and swung out into the street. Maggie breathed in deeply and smelled Old Spice and the hint of a cigar, just like her great-grandfather must have smelled. Funny… she couldn’t feel anything, but she could still smell. Could she smell in all her dreams? Maggie slid over next to Johnny, as close as she could without dissolving into him. She breathed deeply. She smelled citrus and soap and the warmth of sunshine; his scent made her dizzy. Maggie stuck out her tongue experimentally and ran it along the line of his jaw to see if he tasted as good as he smelled. Hmmm, nothing. Darn. She might as well be tasting the air. She whispered into his ear.

“This is a wonderful dream, Johnny. I hope I never wake up.” Maggie smiled happily to herself as she drank in his handsome profile, the length of his black lashes, and the straightness of his nose. Johnny worried his lower lip with his teeth and then sang a little, his voice husky and a little off key as he extended his left hand out into the afternoon sunshine and let it stream through his fingers as he drove. “I’m just a fool, a fool in love with….” It was that song. They had danced to that song.

“Ah, Maggie,” he sighed. “Where did you go, baby?”

He was talking to her. He had said her name! Maggie struggled to answer, to tell him she was here, right beside him. But she couldn’t speak. Her throat was on fire. She wrapped her hands around her neck, as if they could block the pain. Her throat was raw and each breath she took torture. Maggie moaned, and Johnny shimmered next to her. Maggie gasped as something sharp was inserted into her wrist. She held her hands out in front of her, gazing down at them in disbelief. A needle slid smoothly into a pulsing vein below the base of her left palm. Someone said her name, and something icy traveled up her arm from the origin of the inserted needle. She was jerked from Johnny’s side, and she grabbed for him futilely as she was sucked through a narrowing black tunnel. Johnny became a rapidly fading point of light at the farthest end. He never even turned his head to see her fly through space.

The burn in Maggie’s throat receded with the cool relief injected into her veins. She heard voices around her, speaking faintly and efficiently. They pulled at her, but she pushed back, eager to fall back into the dream that had given her a glimpse into Johnny’s life before Purgatory. He was so real. She refused to heed the voices around her, and they began to fade until they were nothing more than the buzzing of distant traffic. Maggie drifted in a warm, black cocoon and was aware of nothing more.

When consciousness returned, Maggie was in a room she recognized as the room Irene had once decorated as a nursery and then converted into something less painful when the babies never came. She had left it the cheerful yellow that had seemed appropriate for young children but had placed a large bookcase on one wall and had set several plants on the window sills. She had pushed matching chairs against another wall and placed a lamp between them. A fat rug, well made but worn, stretched across the floor from corner to corner. Maggie had often seen Irene in the room reading or working on her needlepoint. She said when Roger was alive it became her private little oasis and he had left her alone there.

Now it was almost unrecognizable. If not for the position of the windows and the size and shape of the room, Maggie might not have known where she was. The warm brown of the wood floors was unchanged beneath the fluffy pink rug that had replaced the heavy oriental in Irene’s reading room. Pink flouncy curtains topped the tall windows. A small white desk sat beneath one, and below the other was a white console proudly displaying a record player with dozens of small round records littering the floor around it. A ruffled pink bed was pushed against the far wall. An assortment of pillows, stuffed animals, and dolls decorated its surface. A little girl, maybe nine or ten, judging from her size, sat on the end of the bed and talked sweetly to a fat bear that she clutched in her hands. Her hair was a soft light brown that just grazed her shoulders, and it was neatly barretted above her small ears. She wore a dress the color of ripe peaches, and her neat white bobby socks and black flats stuck out beneath the skirt that hid her crossed legs.

“Come on, Jamie. You know I need to practice on someone, and if I can’t practice on you, who can I practice on? I know you’ll feel silly – I’ll feel silly too, but if I’m ever gonna marry James Dean I will need to know how to kiss, won’t I?” With this convincing argument, the young girl stuck out her lips and laid a very firm kiss on the bear’s furry snout. Her eyes were pinched closed, and her lips were pushed out comically. She opened them slowly, and a furrow grew between her blue eyes.

“You’re not very good at that, Jamie. You and I will have to practice.”

Maggie giggled a little at the serious admonishment. The little girl’s eyes snapped up and locked on Maggie in horror. Maggie’s giggle died in her head. She hadn’t giggled out loud had she? Could the little girl see her? That was impossible. She wasn’t really here...this was just a dream.

The little girl’s eyes grew wide and fearful. She scooted back on her bed and squeezed her bear close against her skinny chest. She closed her eyes again, but this time, fear was stamped all over her face and her lips weren’t pursed for kissing. Instead, they moved in a rushed whisper.

“Ghosts aren’t real, ghosts aren’t real, ghosts aren’t real.” After several incantations, she opened one eye as if to verify that Maggie still remained. The blue eye immediately squeezed shut again, and the denials of ghostly existence resumed.

“Is she talking about me?” Maggie thought, stupefied by the thought. “Are you talking about me?” Maggie said aloud, although “out loud” felt different in this dream body. It was almost as if she directed the thought out instead of actually creating sound.

The little girl frowned and her eyes popped open. She raised one eyebrow slowly, and Maggie had a rush of recognition. Her mother used to do that…raise that one brow ever so slowly, creating an expression that said “Are you kidding me?”

“Daddy got really mad at me the last time I told him about Grandpa sitting in his chair after the funeral. How was I supposed to know it was a ghost? He looked real to me! Daddy sent me to my room for two whole days after that. I had to eat in here and everything. It was awful! Now whenever I see a ghost I have to pretend that I don’t. It’s very frustrating.” The girl folded her hands in her lap and waited for Maggie to respond. Maggie stared, dumbfounded. This little girl saw ghosts…just like she did. The slim eyebrow rose again, imperiously. Maggie rushed to introduce herself.

“My name is Margaret. But you can call me Maggie. What’s your name?” Maggie thought she might already know, but the answer was too crazy to be true, and she waited breathlessly for a response.

“My name is Elizabeth, but you can call me Lizzie.” The girl parroted her response in the same cadence Maggie had used. Maggie tried to school her expression into calm acceptance.

“Is your older sister named Irene?” Maggie wondered aloud, trying to appear casual. She failed. She could see that the girl thought she was being visited by the angel of death.

Lizzie’s expression immediately grew guarded, and fear tiptoed back across her features. “Why? What do you want with her?”

“Nothing…I don’t want anything.” Maggie shook her head as she spoke, underscoring her words. How could she possibly explain? They stared at each other for several long moments. Lizzie was the first to speak again.

“Most ghosts don’t usually talk to me,” Lizzie said matter-of-factly. “They just walk around doing boring things and pretending I don’t exist. It’s very rude.”

Maggie smiled at that. She would have to agree. “I’m not really a ghost.”

“You certainly are….”

“No. I’m not dead, I’m just dreaming. I mean, I don’t think I’m dead.” Maggie suddenly realized that she could very well be dead. Maybe she had returned to the past because that is where Johnny had existed. If so, she supposed God had been benevolent; wherever Johnny was was where she wanted to be.

Lizzie rose from the bed and walked toward Maggie with a determined set to her chin. She walked with a slight limp, and Maggie noticed her right leg was somewhat shriveled next to the left.

“Did you hurt your leg?”

“I just got my cast off last week. I broke my leg falling out of the tree in our backyard. It was worth it, though. I got to see my mother. She talked to me just like you. And I could see through her, just like you. That’s how I know you’re a ghost.” Lizzie stopped just in front of Maggie and crossed her arms defiantly.

“How do you know Irene? And why are you in my room?” The little girl had some moxie – no doubt about it. She reminded Maggie a little of herself. Maybe being able to see ghosts had steeled their spines and given them courage in the face of the impossible.

“Well. This might sound strange…but, I’m your….your…granddaughter,” Maggie finished sheepishly, knowing how ludicrous she sounded. But weren’t dreams supposed to be a little bizarre? Without warning, the pulling sensation she had felt as she’d sat beside Johnny in Irene’s father’s car began to radiate around her. She pushed back against it. She had never known her grandmother. She wanted to stay. The feeling abated a little. She spoke again.

“I live in this house, too…just a long time from now.” This time, both of Lizzie’s eyebrows rose and disappeared under her curled bangs. The tugging increased around Maggie, demanding that she succumb. She shoved at it again, annoyed.

“My mother was Janice….your daughter.” The pull became a vise – an ever tightening clamp. Maggie sucked her breath in sharply and struggled to free herself from the invisible bands.

“Maggie?” Lizzie reached out her hand. “I can barely see you now, Maggie. Can’t you stay a while? I’m really tired of Jamie’s company. He’s just a stuffed bear, after all.”

Maggie could barely see Lizzie either. The room had narrowed in diameter, and, just like before, Maggie was whisked away from the past, and the world that held Lizzie winked out like a light.

At first she thought it was her dad calling to her, entreating her with the gentlest of voices. She wanted to see him. She wanted to be held and welcomed. She struggled out of the black she was floating in. The voice urged her on. She moved toward it eagerly. She could be with them now…with Dad and Mom, and Johnny too. Oh, please, Johnny too.

But it wasn’t Dad. It was Gus. She stopped struggling. She loved Gus, but Gus belonged to a world where Johnny no longer existed; it was a world she didn’t want to inhabit any longer. But she had risen too close to the surface, and she could no longer block out the words that poured over her.

“He’s gonna need you now, Miss Margaret,” Gus said insistently. “He’s gonna need you real bad. He’s been through hell and back to be here with you. So you need to wake up. You gotta wake up now, Miss Margaret.”

The words came again. Gus said Johnny was…..alive? Johnny was here? With supreme effort, Maggie opened her eyes.

“Where is he?” she croaked. Her throat felt like it had been used to sand down an entire gymnasium floor. The pain shot through her and made her shudder and close her eyes once more. She opened them immediately and gazed at Gus. There was a flurry around her as a series of little beeps sounded and two nurses and one doctor came running. The patient was awake. Maggie endured the bustle, poking, prodding, and questions with as little movement and speech as possible. Irene was there, bursting in and rushing to Maggie’s bedside. Tears streaked down her soft cheeks. Shad was allowed a little later, but he hung back by the door. He stared at her wordlessly, but she could see the relief in his brown eyes, a relief that relaxed the tightness around his mouth and curved his lips into a small smile. She tried to smile back. Her lips were so dry she could only manage a grimace, so she raised her hand to give him a little wave. The motion caused a tug at her arm and she looked down at the I.V. stuck in her left wrist. It reminded her of the dream. She had been with Johnny, but he couldn’t see her. He had been driving Irene’s father’s car. He had smelled so good, and he was painfully real. The dream was unlike anything she’d ever experienced.

“We’ll let you rest, dear. I can see that you’re still a little foggy.” Maggie realized that Irene was talking to her, and had been talking to her for several seconds. She looked at her aunt apologetically. Shad tipped his head in farewell and Irene and Gus began to follow him out.

“Gus!” Maggie’s raspy whisper rose from the bed, compelling him to wait.

“Go on. I’ll just be a minute,” Gus assured Irene. He waited until they left the room and the door swung closed behind them. He turned and looked at Maggie soberly.

“Johnny,” Maggie insisted, her eyes beseeching.

“He’s here. Down the hall, actually. He’s recovering from a gunshot wound to his chest. He’s pretty out of it. I don’t know if I can get you in to see him… but I promise you I’ll try. He’s got a sister…she’s looking out for him. I don’t know what she’s told the hospital staff.”

“A gunshot wound?” Maggie scraped out in horror. “Someone shot Johnny?” Then the rest of what Gus said registered in her wool-filled brain. “A sister?” Maggie rasped in disbelief.

“I never told you. I guess I just never thought about it. Chief Bailey and Dolly Kinross had a daughter. You know Principal Bailey?”

Maggie nodded her head, dumbfounded.

“They found him at the school, just lying in the rubble, right where the rotunda stood. He wasn’t burned or anything. He just had that wound, and he’d lost a lot of blood. Principal Bailey happened to be there when he was found, and she recognized him. I reckon she’s spent her whole life lookin’ for his face…and her poor momma before that. She’s pretty shaken up, but she’s a strong woman.” Gus wrung his hands, obviously missing the hat brim he usually abused.

“He’s really alive? He’s really here?” Maggie felt the realization rise up and tears spill over onto her cheeks.

“He really is, Miss Margaret. As God is my witness, he really is. Praise Jesus,” Gus marveled, shaking his head in wonder. “I ain’t never seen the like…”