The Phantomime
Chapter One
The first time I got my photo in the paper, it was for dangling from the side of the Nameless bridge by my underwear. Me and my Pretty Princess panties made the front page of the Riverton Gazette, which has a readership of maybe five hundred people since the town is small and the Gazette is lame. Like every other stupid thing I’ve done, it happened because I’m a sucker for a dare.
At the end of summer, someone—I don’t even remember who—dared me to jump off the bridge just outside of town into the Nameless river. I climbed the railing and on the way over I slipped. The back of my jeans and a hunk of my underwear snagged on a rusty old nail. I hung there, flailing, in the grip of the world’s worst wedgie, while my friends ran off screaming to get help.
My best friend, Marissa, leaned through the rails and held on to the back of my shirt—as if that would save me if my clothes tore. “Don’t worry, Poppy,” she said, “you’ll be fine, those are some seriously well-made knickers.”
She’s great in a crisis, Marissa.
Twenty minutes was a long time to dangle over a dark green swimming hole by my underpants. It gave me a chance to think about all the times my parents clucked in disgust over the dinner table about some kid or other who got caught jumping from the Nameless bridge.
“There’s old car bodies under that water,” Dad would say, shaking his head, “someone will get snagged one of these days and drown. You mark my words.”
Mom would look all superior, the way parents do when someone else’s kid does something stupid they’re sure their own kid wouldn’t do. “It’s the parents I blame.”
Me too.
If they had grounded me for the ugly red F printed on my math test, like responsible parents should, then I’d have been home instead of suffering the most humiliating experience of my entire life.
No, the truth was that I earned that grade fair and square. I spent my time reciting lines from famous plays instead of practicing fractions and decimals. I was the one who took on the dare and had to be rescued by the Riverton volunteer fire department. Mom and Dad had nothing to do with it, although it would have been nice to blame them.
Mom didn’t ground me for attempting the dare, either. After picking me up from the bridge where every kid in town had gathered to watch, giggling behind their hands, she settled for confiscating my cell phone. That wasn’t even bad because I kept it turned off most of the time, or else I’d do nothing but reply to Marissa.
The bridge incident wasn’t even the worst thing to come from that F. It was only the third-worst. The second-worst thing happened weeks later when I got suspended from drama club right before auditions for the biggest play of the year.
“I’m sorry, Poppy,” Mrs. Weir said. “You know the rules. You must have passing grades in all subjects or no drama club. It’s such a shame.”
Shame? Oh no, much worse, it was a tragedy.
I missed the last production due to being sick with the ‘flu. Before that, I hadn’t realized I wanted to act yet. Back then my biggest ambition was to be an astronaut, until I heard astronauts needed to be good at math. Actresses only had to remember lines and outrun the paparazzi.
Because of that failing grade I lost my chance to audition and humiliated myself in front of the entire world—or at least the part of it that mattered to me—but it hadn’t done with me yet.
A couple of hours after Mrs. Weir ended my acting career, I lay on the sofa with a pillow over my face, hoping I would suffocate. Pillows are hopelessly inadequate for suffocation. I have no idea where all the stories about people using them to smother their rich, elderly relatives come from.
My brother Andy yanked the pillow off my face.
“No, don’t do it. You have so much to live for.” Sarcasm dripped from every word. The only reason he wouldn’t want me to die under there was because he’d be the main suspect in my murder.
“I should’ve jumped off the stupid bridge and gotten sucked into one of the sunken car bodies.”
“Yeah. You should have.” Andy shoved the pillow over my face again and pressed hard enough to suffocate me for real. I squealed and bucked and kicked him in the thigh until he backed off, laughing.
“You jerk,” I yelled, throwing the pillow at him.
“Just joking. Chill.” He tossed the pillow on the opposite end of the sofa. “Maybe you’ll get lucky and the next stupid dare will finish you off.”
I glared up at him. With the light of the living room window behind him, his dyed black hair had a greenish tinge to it. He looked a bit like the Joker with his pale face and smudged black eye liner. My brother—the biggest goth-wannabe ever.
“No way. I’ll never do a dare ever again.”
“Yeah, you will.”
“Oh, no, I won’t,” I insisted.
A dangerous smile spread across Andy’s face. Ever since he started wearing black and acting all depressed, he’d teased me for not being an “individual.” He was a fine one to talk since he dressed, spoke, and acted exactly like every one of his friends.
“I have a dare for you,” he said.
I stuck my fingers in my ears. “Can’t hear you.”
“Yes, you can,” he said, pulling my finger out of my right ear. It sucked that he was so much stronger than me. “I dare you to sneak inside the Majestic Theater and stay there for half-an-hour.”
The theater was one of the oldest buildings in town, but buildings aren’t scary. Fire gutted it when Dad was my age. Since then it had been restored, and then abandoned before a single new play could be performed. The story on that varied but it all came down to one thing—everyone thought the Majestic was haunted. That didn’t bother me, not when I considered how factually-challenged Riverton’s gossip mill could be. Besides, I didn’t believe in ghosts.
I glanced up at Andy. The theater might be my chance to shut him down for once and for all. It wouldn’t hurt for the last dare I ever attempted to leave everyone impressed. It might be enough to restore some of the cred I gained the year before when I not only knocked on Mrs. McGinty’s door and lived to tell the tale, but sold her two boxes of fund-raising candy bars too. For two whole days no one could talk about anything else. I, Poppy Malone, the girl with mousy blonde hair and freckles was almost famous. I was hooked.
This dare would make that look like nothing.
“Half-an-hour?” I asked, sure I could fill the time without any trouble. The theater would have a stage in it, probably the only one I’d ever get to stand on unless something drastic happened to my math skills. Sending me into a theater on a dare was a bit like punishing a dog by locking it in a butchery.
“Half-an-hour without leaving.” I could tell by the look on Andy’s face that he thought I didn’t stand a chance. Once someone looked at me that way, I’d never back down. “You can scream if you need to, though.”
“Too easy,” I said.
“That’s what you think.” He held out his hand, all boy-sweat and chipped nail polish. “Tomorrow, then?”
I clenched my teeth and shook the hand, hard. “You’re on.”

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