The Phantomime
Chapter Twelve—PT2
On Saturday morning, I got up early and ate my breakfast alone while Dad’s snores rattled the walls upstairs. My cereal tasted like it had been rattling loose around the bottom of my school bag. With half a bowl still uneaten, I left my dishes on the counter along with a note to my parents: Home for dinner. Poppy. xoxo.
I had a mission to complete before I got to the theater—a self-imposed dare in the name of being prepared to meet a monster. Head down, breath hanging around me in frozen clouds, I left home in the opposite direction to the theater.
The sign outside St. Barnabas church said it would open at nine a.m. My seriously out-dated Charlie Brown watch told me I had fifteen minutes to wait. I stuffed my hands into my pits and stamped back and forth in front of the church, counting off the seconds in my head.
Bad sign number one: The hairs on the back of my neck prickled.
Bad sign number two: I had the creepiest feeling someone was watching me.
At first glance, I couldn’t see anyone. Then I noticed the “St. Barnabas Catholic Church” sign had a pair of stocking-clad legs poking out from under it.
“Hello?” I asked the legs.
A huge pair of spectacles attached to a small elderly woman shuffled out from behind the sign. “Do you mean me?”
Relieved to see someone normal, I smiled. “Yes, ma’am.” I glanced at her thin, cotton dress. “You must be freezing.”
“You can see me?”
So that was it. The only people who said that, when not playing hide and seek, were ghosts. “Oh, sure. It’s my thing.”
“Your thing?” She blinked huge, magnified eyes at me from behind her thick lenses. A thin nylon string dangled around her neck to catch the spectacles if they fell. If they did, I worried the weight of them would lop her head clean off.
“It doesn’t matter. How are you?” Talking to ghosts could be as awkward as talking to anyone else, but with fewer options for discussing the weather or sports.
She smiled a shaky sort of smile. “Forgive me, my dear. It’s been a very long time since I had someone to talk to. I’m forgetting my manners. Can I help you?”
That made a nice change. “Help me?”
Her fingers played with the front of her dress, tugging at the fabric in a nervous sort of way. “I’m the church greeter—in an unofficial capacity, of course. Every mass since my Jamie passed, I welcome people inside and show them a seat. Only, these days they all ignore me. It’s the youngsters. They don’t have any manners.” Then she looked at me from under her wrinkled eye-lids. “Present company excepted I’m sure.”
At least the troupe knew they were dead, but this lady didn’t seem to have any idea. I didn’t fancy being the one to break that news to an old lady.
“When the church opens, you could show me inside if you like,” I said.
She straightened up and a bright smile folded her face into hundreds of wrinkles. “Oh, the church is never locked for me.” She held out her hand to show me a big, old-fashioned iron key.
I had serious doubts that a ghost key would work. Then again, I knew a theater door which only opened for me. Anything was possible.
The old woman hobbled up the ten steps to the door of the church. I followed her, the frosted grass making my sneakers damp and icy cold. At the church door, with a super-cheery smile on her face, she cleared her throat. “Welcome to St. Barnabas church. My name is Esther Jackson. Come on inside.”
She slipped the key into a lock much too modern and small for it. The door unlocked with a clunk.
I’d met a few ghosts, but she was the first useful one. “Awesome.”
“Youngsters.” She shook her head and sighed. “Don’t even know what a key is for.”
Esther let me heave the old door out of the way and then hurried in ahead of me. The whole way up the aisle she tsked and tutted. “Will you look at that? Not a flower in sight.”
At last, she came to a pew near the front. The sun caught the colored glass in the windows and fell right on one seat like it was pointing it out. “Do sit down.”
I tried not to squirm on the wooden bench. I wanted to get what I came for and leave before anyone solid arrived. The minute Esther wandered off, I reached into my pocket for the plastic water pistol I’d grabbed from my old toy box and hurried to the back of the church.
I’d just arrived when Esther bustled back in, all flustered and excited. “Girly, you won’t believe it. I made it out of the grounds, I can go home.”
She held out her hand for me to shake, but it was more like the puffs of my frozen breath than a real hand. “I don’t know what you did, young lady, but I’m very grateful you did it.”
I did an awkward job of shaking her hand. “Um, you’re welcome.”
“I have to go find my Jamie, now. Don’t forget to close up the church when you leave.” Esther turned and hurried off down the steps.
She got brighter and brighter, as if the sun shone only on her, until I couldn’t see her at all. At the last second, a sort of human shape made out of golden sunlight seemed to appear beside her. Jamie?
Maybe all she needed was to escort just one more person into the church, and do her job one last time. I helped her. Me. Poppy Malone.
Wherever she went she seemed pleased about it. No wandering around lost, forgotten and forgetting in dark, freaky places. I wanted that for my friends—a happy ever afterlife. Now it seemed like the most important thing in the world that I would be the one to get it for them.
Then again, it was that sort of heroic thinking that got me into this situation. I slapped some sense into my own cheek.
A noise echoed down the aisle of the church—the sound of a real key in a lock. The priest, or maybe the flesh and blood Church Greeter, had arrived.
As quick as I could, I twisted the cap off the water pistol and dipped it into the holy water stoup by the door. Only, it had frozen over and the plastic hit with a click. I smacked at the ice with my knuckles until it cracked and shoved the toy inside. Fingers stiff from the cold, I snatched the little pistol out of the water and screwed on the cap. I had no idea if there were laws against stealing holy water, but it sure felt like there should be.
“Morning, Miss,” a holy sort of voice said.
I stared up at a very tall man with a priest’s collar and neatly brushed silver hair. He looked solid, but I couldn’t take that for granted anymore. “Sorry, sir, uh, Father. I was just—” I stared down at the orange plastic pistol in my hand and knew I was doomed.
“Vampire hunting, are you?” he asked.
Helpless, I nodded. “Kind of.”
“We get a lot of that.” He laughed, and I relaxed a little.
“It was unlocked.” I pointed at the door. Technically, I didn’t lie to a priest inside a church, because Esther opened the door.
“Oh, I know. No matter how careful I am to lock up every evening, that door’s always open when I arrive in the morning. Good thing too. I long since misplaced the key.” The priest had a throaty sort of laugh. “I like to think of it as one of St. Barnabas’ little quirks.”
I shoved the pistol into my pocket, debating whether to tell him that he might want to get a locksmith. He petted me on the head in a way that made me want to say something blasphemous, so I kept my warning about the key to myself. “I better be going. Thank you, Father.”
I didn’t really have anything to thank him for, but it seemed like the sort of thing you should say to a man of God on a day you were going to face something terrible.
If I had to face a homicidal ghost, the least Mother Nature could do was send clouds, or a nasty fog, or something gloomy. But, no. The sun warmed up and the day was glorious. At least Maple Lane was deserted, just the way I liked it.
It wasn’t until I passed the box office that I spotted something was off. The leaves in front of the doors had been pushed away or trampled. Someone had been inside. Who?
I wrenched the door open and pelted up the stairs, yelling. “Will, where are you?”
Heart pounding, I shoved at the lobby door. It flung open, just as Will’s face appeared through the wood. I screamed and grabbed at my chest to keep my heart from exploding out of me.
“You’re here.” His face burst into a dimpled smile. “uh—I mean, you’re late. Hurry up, we’re having a meeting.” He disappeared through the door.
Leaning against the wall, I took some deep breaths.
Will’s head popped through the door, shouted, “Hurry up,” and disappeared again.
I pounded the wall with my fists, since I couldn’t thump him, and ended up covered in a shower of fine dust particles. Defeated, I headed for the stage. Everyone sat in their meeting circle again, wearing their crisis-faces.
“What now?” I asked.
Cresswell rubbed his trembling hands together. “First, have you learned anything new?”
“My brother is a traitor, and apparently there’s quite a vampire problem in Riverton.” I petted the shape of the pistol in my coat pocket and took my place in the circle. “What happened?”
They tried to talk at once, except Megan who waved her hands.
I made a time-out signal. “Whoa. Hold up. I can’t understand you.”
Will spluttered out the words. “Ghost hunters.”
It took a while to get the whole story. In their hurry they skimmed over lots of important bits, and the gaps in their story were infuriating.
“Let me get this straight,” I said. “Barbara Basch and her crew were here last night?”
They nodded as one.
Not the best news, but at least the ghosts were still alive. Or dead. “And they filmed you?”
Barry rolled his eyes at me. “We’re invisible, remember?”
I let him have that one, I’d already used my anger bomb on the lobby wall.
Janette filled in the important parts. “They filmed a promo for the Halloween show. That red-haired woman talked about the theater and its history and they filmed for a bit.”
“You should have seen her. One of her crew would drop something off camera to make a noise, and she’d scream and clutch at her chest like she might faint dead away,” Will laughed. “If she weren’t trying to destroy us, she’d be kind of funny.”
“Yeah,” I said. “She’s a riot.”
That sealed it. No backing out now.
If I wanted to give my friends a proper farewell of the same sort I got for Esther Jackson, then I had no other choice.
Time for the Ghost in the Gods.

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