The Phantomime
Chapter Eleven
All six ghosts sat in a solemn circle under the stage light bulb. When the door opened, their heads swiveled in my direction. Only one of them smiled—Barry. He’d just become the second-least-popular person in the theater, and it looked like the promotion made his afterlife worth not-living.
“Come up here, if you would, Miss Malone.” Cresswell rose to his feet in one movement, like he had a string tied to the back of his neck.
“I—uh—have to get home early. See you tom—”
“Now, if you don’t mind.”
It would have been better if he got hysterical.
I let the door swing closed, which it did with unnecessary force, slapping my backside hard enough to shove me halfway to the stage. I swore over my shoulder at it, but doors are mostly immune to swearing.
Since I couldn’t see another way, I stepped onto the stool and over the piano to get to the stage. It wasn’t very polite to climb all over someone’s piano like that, but the wood had water and smoke stains and lifted up in splinters at the edges. I couldn’t make it any worse.
I stood up and readjusted my pants. “You’re not going to go all evil entity on me are you?”
Cresswell sighed and rubbed at the lines between his eyebrows. “You really are the most tedious human.” He pointed to a gap in the circle near the front of the stage. “Take a seat.”
Frowning, I did as he asked. “I’m not in trouble?”
“While we would have preferred you shared this news with us earlier, I doubt it would have altered our predicament.” Cresswell sat down on a wooden crate so that he towered over the rest of us.
I reached into my pocket for my stubby pencil and notebook, ready to take notes. “Maybe Archibald Holdings will reopen the theater. This could be a good thing.”
“Here we go,” said Barry. “This is where the plucky kid tells us to hang in there, blah blah.”
I shot my filthiest glare at him, and his mouth jerked shut.
Will shook his head. “You said they pulled down other places they bought.”
It sucked that a) he was right, and b) he had such a good memory. Archibald Holdings had no reason to save the theater. There were better theaters in towns nearby. By the look on the ghosts’ faces, they didn’t have much hope either.
“I’ve been researching ghosts on the Internet,” I said.
“What’s an Internet?” asked Will.
I stared at him. Aside from the occasional old-fashioned slang word, I could forget he hadn’t been outside the theater in decades. “Um, it’s—it’s like a—telephone but with pictures.”
They all stared at me, open-mouthed.
“Think of it as a big library everyone in the world can use at once.” I opened my notebook and looked down at my list of questions.
Why do ghosts haunt a place? Answer: Because some traumatic experience keeps them there, or they have unfinished business.
Beneath that, I’d written another question that the internet couldn’t answer: What is the ghosts’ unfinished business?
I asked it.
They blinked like I’d shone a super bright light in their eyes.
“You must know why you’re still here?” I asked.
Six heads shook slowly.
“Well, I have a theory,” I said. “Your deaths were traumatic, and you had unfinished business—a double-whammy-ghosting.”
“The play,” said Janette. “It would have been our big break.”
“Exactly,” I said. “You died during dress rehearsal, right? I think you need to get through a dress rehearsal, safely, and perform the play for a real audience. Then you can move on, and it won’t matter what happens to the theater.”
Cresswell lifted an eyebrow and tilted his head. “An interesting thought, but still, impossible.”
I groaned. “I know, I’m the only one who can see you.”
“While that is a difficulty,” he said, “even if we were visible, there is a resident in this theater who would never let an audience remain long enough to see the play.” He lifted his eyes and jerked his brows in the direction of the balcony seats.
Megan disappeared with her pretty tinkling sound, and reappeared beside Cresswell, bending to whisper in his ear. His brows shot up. As if they all knew what Megan said, every eye turned on me.
“Nuh-uh,” I said. “Quit looking at me like that. I’m not going near the gods.”
Cresswell leaned toward me, resting his elbows on his knees. “Do you know what happens to a ghost if they lose their haunt?” he asked.
“I’m going to assume bad things happen. Enough said.” I glanced around the stage for support. There wasn’t any. In the end, I was the only one who got to walk away if all of this went bad.
In his deepest, most theatrical voice, Cresswell explained. “This theater is our anchor. Without it, we wander, lost, without memories to keep us in one place or time.”
A chill sped through my veins. This afterlife deal kept getting worse.
Will’s brows shot up. “We do?” He scrambled to his feet. “Poppy, you have to talk to him. I’m not wandering around lost forever without any memories. You can’t say no.”
I stood up so I could stare him in the eye. “Yes, I can.”
Maybe he’d have dropped it if he knew about the nightmares I had at the thought of climbing those stairs, but I couldn’t admit to that. Even if I wanted to say it, I doubted my mouth knew how.
Will gaped at me then turned to Cresswell. “Make her.”
Cresswell sighed. “I can’t do that. It is up to Miss Malone’s conscience.”
That was a low blow. I looked down at the notebook in my hands. Sticking out from between the pages was the stem of Will’s little leaf. Ghosts might not have bodies, but they did have hearts.
“But, I—”
Barry interrupted me. “Hide, Poppy. Get the lights off. Someone’s downstairs. They’re coming.”
We ran to the switchboard and ten hands froze mine solid as we all tried to flick the light switch at once. I turned it off, then scrambled around to find a place to hide. Janette pointed frantically at a big old costume trunk.
“They’re in the lobby,” Barry called.
I curled up in the bottom of the trunk, hands clasped over my mouth like I couldn’t trust myself to stay quiet. My ears strained, listening for voices.
“It’s the owners,” Barry called. “And a woman with them. There’s a guy with a flashy TV camera, too, and another with a big light. She’s interviewing the owners. I’ll tell you what they say.”
I’d done too many dares to be claustrophobic. One time, Marissa had me climb into her grandma’s crawlspace to rescue confiscated girl-beautifying items that Marissa needed more than her grandma believed she did. That was way worse than being inside a trunk, and I didn’t freak out then, unless you counted the last few feet when my hair caught in a spider web. Anyway, that was more of an accelerated exit than a true freak out.
The air inside the trunk tasted old, and dust tickled my nose until I had to pinch it to keep from sneezing. I couldn’t hear or see anything. All in all, the crawlspace had been more fun.
I bunched up something I chose to believe was not a small furry creature, and used it as a pillow. “Please don’t be a dead rat,” I muttered.
Will’s head appeared through the side of the trunk. “Have you suffocated yet?”
“No,” I hissed. “Go away.”
“I think I saw a dead squirrel in there once.”
He had to be lying. He’d better be lying.
“Have fun, then.” Will disappeared, and I threw my furry pillow as far away from me as I could in the cramped trunk. Someone outside made a wicked giggle. I guess he heard me.
Barry yelled from somewhere in the theater. “Guys. Wait—no—yes. They’re going. The Ghost in the Gods has let loose the stink of doom and they’re fleeing for their lives.”
While the ghosts yelled and cheered their loudest, I put my hand on the inside of the lid and pushed. It didn’t move. That could not be good.
Taking a deep breath of recycled, dusty air, I yelled for help. I had to holler another three times before they stopped cheering and came to inspect the lock. It had taken them more than ten minutes to flick a switch. I’d suffocate if they took that long to figure out the trunk.
Maybe demolishing the theater wouldn’t be such a bad idea, considering the way people kept dying there in tragic ways. My death would be uber-tragic. And humiliating. I’d end up as a permanent example to little kids of what not to do.
The air tasted like it had been through my lungs too many times. Outside, where they had all the air in the world and no use for it, the ghosts were squabbling.
“I’m telling you,” said Barry, “it’s a matter of leverage, if we all push here at once . . .”
“Russell, you’re the best at this.” I imagined Cresswell pointing at the latch, mustache standing to attention. “Concentrate and flip that snap upward. Miss Malone’s very life depends on you.”
“No pressure then?” Russell asked. He sounded more used to taking orders than giving them, which made him perfect for an afterlife in the Majestic.
I shouted, “Hurry. I can’t breathe.”
“You obviously have enough air to complain,” said Will.
Everyone went silent while Russell concentrated. The chest began to vibrate. A little at first, but it built and built until I thought we might take off. Squeezing my eyes shut, I pressed my hands against the sides to brace myself in case we got airborne. My bones rattled, my teeth too.
Right when my insides were about to liquify, everything stopped. The chest sat absolutely still and there was silence. Then, one small click and the lid opened. Six luminous faces peered down at me with worried expressions.
“Are you dead?” Will asked, then yelped when someone kicked him. It made up for some of the times I wished I could kick him myself.
Theater air had never tasted so good. “Thanks, Russell, that was quite a ride.”
Russell’s chest puffed out. “You’re welcome.”
“Really cool, Russ,” said Will. “You should do that for a stage show.”
“I hardly think an audience would be impressed by The Amazing Russell—Man Who Can Open Chests,” Cresswell said. It was the first, and possibly only, funny thing that man ever said. We all laughed, a lot harder than the joke deserved.
I dragged myself out of the chest and followed the others onstage to sit back in our circle.
“I guess you want to know what they said, then?” Barry asked, looking far too full of his own importance. “Archibald Holdings have bought the building. Officially it’s theirs from midnight, Halloween.” Barry paused while everyone murmured and looked at each other. “But that’s not the most interesting part.”
He let out a slow sigh as his gaze fell on each of us in turn. “The woman with the camera is the host of a ghost hunter TV show, and they’re going to film here.” A huge smile burst onto his face, while a thick knot of fear tightened around my chest. “We are going to be famous!”

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