Slow Dance in Purgatory
Author:Amy Harmon

A gunshot rang out, interrupting his second thoughts. Johnny ran forward, taking the stairs three at a time, hurling himself up the wide expanse. Oh God, please no....no... no.... the words pounded through his head as he cleared the stairs and skidded to a stop on the third floor, eyes searching both ways down a long wide hallway that ran beyond the balcony to corridors and distant rooms. Suddenly, Billy was running toward him, his shirt untucked, his glasses gone, his face a mask of terror. A gun in his hand.

 

"Johnny! Johnny! Run! Run! He's probably coming. Get out!" Billy cried out frantically as he raced down the hall, waving the gun towards the entrance as if to shoo Johnny towards it.

 

"Billy, stop! Put the gun down, kid! You're scaring the hell out of me! Where did you get that – “

 

And then he knew. It was the gun he had taken from the trunk of the jalopy he had been servicing at Gene’s Automotive. He had seen the gun and impulsively wanted his mother to have it. He knew what she did for the extra money she was suddenly bringing home, and as much as he'd yelled and threatened and tried to protect her, she hadn't stopped. He had seen that gun sitting there like an answer to prayer the very morning after she had come home roughed up at two a.m. He hadn't let himself consider the repercussions of what he was about to do. It was small and lightweight, and he'd thought he could teach her how to use it. So he'd taken it. He had never stolen a thing in his life, contrary to popular opinion, and he knew if his boss, Gene, ever found out what he'd done, he would lose his job. But the owner of the jalopy hadn't come back looking for it. At least not yet. He had had it in his car for a couple of days, trying to come up with a way to sell the subject to his mother. Obviously, Billy had found it first.

 

"Billy! I heard a shot. Did you shoot someone? Did you shoot Carlton?" Johnny didn't know how he would get them out of trouble if Carlton was shot dead somewhere in the school.

 

"No! I just wanted to scare him, you know? I was in your car. He didn't know I was there, and all at once he was smashing the windows and sides of your car with a bat. I got down on the floor, and there was this gun under your seat. I grabbed it. I thought if he saw it he would stop, and he did! When he saw me, he took off running toward the school, so I followed him." Billy was spitting the story out as fast as he could, and Johnny grabbed his shoulders to slow him down.

 

"I told him to leave me alone and to leave Momma alone, but the gun went off accidentally, and the bullet broke a window back there." Billy's face screwed up in worry. "I don't know how much windows cost. I hope I have enough saved to cover it."

 

"Billy! You aren't gonna tell anyone about the gun or the window. We're getting out of here right now."

 

"Johnny! Look out!" Billy cried out and stumbled back against the balcony railing as Carton hurled himself out of the shadows. He had circled around and come down the other end of the long hallway. Johnny's back had been to him the whole time, and Billy had been too distracted and upset to see him coming up the dark corridor. The air whooshed out of Johnny in a painful blast as Roger Carlton tackled him from behind. Billy cried out again, and the gun discharged once more. Johnny felt something burst in his chest as he plowed into Billy, unable to stop or even slow his momentum. He wrapped his arms around his brother, trying to cushion the impact, unintentionally pinning Billy’s arms at his sides and forcing him back. They hurtled over the balcony railing and flipped end over end, unimpeded as they plunged to the unforgiving tiles two floors below.

 

***

 

Johnny tried to open his eyes and resisted the magnetic pull that fought to wrench him from himself. It was like the pull of the undertow, and for a moment Johnny thought he was dreaming. He thought he was back at the beach - ten years old - feeling the sand being sucked out beneath his toes, his mom and Billy back on the blanket, the sun bright overhead. But the pull was much stronger, and Johnny fought for something to anchor himself to. His hands didn't want to work, and his legs felt like they had fallen asleep. His chest burned like he had been too long underwater. He curled his toes inside his boots and fought against the pull with all his might. Why was he wearing his boots at the beach?

 

In terror, he realized what the pull was, and he forced his eyes open to find his brother. Billy lay beside him.

 

"Billy?" He tried to form the words, but he could not.

 

"Billy!" He tried again and heard only a whisper of breath. Billy wasn't fighting the pull like Johnny was. He was lying on his back, and his eyes were opened. There was blood beneath his head, and he wasn't moving. He wasn't moving, and he wasn't breathing.

 

Johnny screamed inside his head. He screamed, and he fought the pull and demanded an audience with the source of the power trying to disconnect him from his body.

 

"I'm not going anywhere!" he raged over and over, over and over, until the pressure built and exploded in white light and brilliant sparks like a blow torch on metal. Johnny felt a snapping and a shredding. But there was no pain, only pressure, and then a giant crack, like a million balloons simultaneously popping. And then…nothing.

 

 

 

 

 

2

 

 

“SOUND OFF”

 

Vaughn Monroe - 1951

 

 

 

 

 

November, 2010