Slow Dance in Purgatory
Author:Amy Harmon

"Darn thing," Gus muttered to himself, and then looked at Maggie expectantly. "You okay, Miss Margaret?" Gus always called her Miss Margaret. It was kind of cute when she wasn't scared to death.


Maggie repeated herself patiently, trying to appear calm and hoping that Gus wouldn't make her go back upstairs with him. On second thought, she didn't want to wait here by herself either.


"Hmmm." Gus took off his baseball cap and scratched his head in thought. “You sure it wasn't Shad? Sounds like something he'd do."


"I thought of that, but, no. It wasn't Shad."


"Did I hear the lovely lady say my name?" Shadrach Jasper, all ninety pounds of him, strutted around the corner with his mop and bucket trundling behind him. "Miss me, Mags? 'Cause I sure missed you." Shad tried to sound all Barry White, but the effect was ruined by the squeal that his voice made on the last syllable. Give him a year, and the deep honeyed tones that teased him with inconsistency would be his for good, but at the moment his voice sounded like a braying donkey most of the time.


"I said your name, Shad, but no, sadly, I didn't miss you," Maggie teased, ridiculously relieved to see him.


"It's a little early to quit, but I think we can call it a day," Gus reasoned. "We worked a long time yesterday. Let's go upstairs and see what's what. We’ll get your mop and bucket and call it a night."


Gus proceeded to wind up the long cord on the stripper machine he had been using and then pushed it into the janitor's closet before heading back up the stairs to the third floor where Maggie had seen the intruder. Gus didn't seem scared or upset, and he didn't hurry to get to the third floor. Of course, Maggie had never actually seen Gus hurry. Shad, on the other hand, buzzed between them, asking non-stop questions about the intruder. At the top of the stairs, he paused long enough to hide behind her and peek around when Gus reached for the door.


"My hero," Maggie whispered dryly.


The heavy door swung inward, and Gus stepped out into the hallway and flipped on the switch, illuminating the long expanse as the lights flickered to life.


"You moppin’ in the dark, Miss Margaret?"


"It wasn't dark when I started, Gus!" Maggie huffed out, and then smiled a little when she realized the old man was teasing her, trying to distract her from her nerves.


"Helloooo down there!" Gus called out, his voice ricocheting off the lockers. He walked down the hallway as if he had all day, Maggie on his heels. There was no sign of anyone, and the hallway felt empty now, with no unnatural hush or sinister silence.


"I don't think anyone's here, Miss Margaret. They probably slipped out when you left," Gus said matter-of-factly. "Where's the mop and bucket? You sure did make quick work of this hallway. It looks good, too. I thought it'd take you a lot longer."


The hallway was shiny, clean smelling, and freshly wet. The entire hallway was completely finished. Maggie gasped and whirled around, spotting her mop and bucket neatly waiting next to the exit door. She had left the mop splayed in a messy heap, and the bucket had been about a third of the way down the hall. Someone had finished her work. It couldn't have taken her more than ten minutes to return with Gus. Probably even less than that, yet the huge hallway was definitely freshly mopped. It would have taken Maggie another hour to finish, at least.


"But…" Maggie stuttered and then stopped. Had she done more than she thought? Or maybe the person she'd seen had felt badly that he had scared her and finished for her. No. That was just plain weird. But she didn't have another answer.


Gus was already walking back toward her bucket and mop, and Shad was probably already down the stairs. Maggie didn't wait around to ponder the mystery further. There was no way she was staying in that hallway one more minute. She helped Gus return the bucket and mop to the third floor maintenance closet, and they left the school without saying anything more about Maggie's intruder. Gus tossed her bike into the back of his rickety truck, and the three of them filed into the cab and headed to Maggie's house where dinner was surely waiting.


It wasn't until later that night, as Maggie drifted off to sleep, that she remembered the music. There was no music playing anywhere else in the school when she had run from the hallway. There was no music playing when she returned with Gus. After that, it took Maggie a very long time to fall asleep.