The Phantomime
Chapter Fourteen
After much coaxing, I stood at the bottom of the stairs that led up to the balcony. In one hand I held my holy water pistol, the other clutched my rabbit’s foot. A very reluctant Will stood beside me. He didn’t look any more pleased about our mission than I did.
I took a deep breath. “Dare me.”
“Dare me to do this.” My voice had more cracks in it than my plan.
“Um, okay. I dare you to go up there and talk to the Ghost in the Gods,” Will said, “preferably alone.”
Maybe dares had lost their power over me. The stairs looked just as full of dark and doom as they did before. No super-shot of adrenaline to power me up there, no sudden burst of determination. I’d have to do this on regular, plain-old human-nerve.
“It’s not like he can hurt me, right?” I asked, tapping the pistol against my thigh.
Will’s teeth chattered loud enough to hear. “Sure he can. If he can touch solid things like we’re learning to, he could throw you down the stairs or worse. He threw me over the balcony, and he likes me. It’s a long way down, too.”
“Not helping.” My hands clenched so tight I could feel rabbit claws and sharp plastic edges digging into my palms.
“You might as well know the odds,” Will said, “which are not good, by the way.”
“Yeah. Got that.”
A big part of me wondered whether these ghosts were worth risking a short flight off a tall balcony. Cresswell yelled at me all the time. Barry was sullen, and Will—was Will. Meeting ghosts had been one thing when I didn’t know that’s what they were. I hadn’t known to be afraid, and now, I did. I closed my eyes, trying to decide which direction to take—up, or home.
Will moved closer, and the cold mist of his hand wrapped around mine.
My heart did a powerful thud in my chest.
“I’m ready,” I said. “Let’s go.”
Hand in sort-of-hand, we crept up the stairs. They were carpeted—probably in a dusty red like the rest of the theater, but I couldn’t see well enough to tell. I had to reach out and feel the wall as the stairs wound in a curve up to the balcony seats.
“Can you see anything?” I whispered.
“My after-life flashing before my eyes,” Will whispered back.
When we got to the top of the stairs, the light from the stage made it a bit brighter. I could see outlines and shapes, but no color, and no ghost. The seats curved around the walls in long, empty rows. I’m not sure what I’d expected, but the gods seemed like the theater downstairs—lots of dust and cobwebs.
“Oh well,” Will sighed. “We tried and he’s not here. We did our best.”
“Don’t you dare move.” I held up my hand like a stop sign. “Hello?” I asked, as loud as my shaking voice would let me. “I—come in peace.”
Will cackled. “You come in peace?”
“Shut up.” I reached out and smacked at him. Of course, my hand passed right through. He could be very misty when it suited him.
“We’d like to talk to you. It’s important,” I called.
We waited so long with no reply that my heart quit thudding on the inside of my ribcage like it wanted to burst out. “Maybe he isn’t here.”
“I told you that hours ago,” Will said.
“You have a poor sense of passing time, you know.” I meant to follow that with some other clever remark, but the horrified look on Will’s face stopped me.
He raised his hand to quiet me. “Can you smell it?”
“Uh, no. I can’t smell anything, remember? I’ve told you that.”
“Smoke. Uh-oh.” Will stood to attention like a soldier in front of the president. I didn’t freeze, I shook. My hands quivered so hard I dropped my rabbit’s foot. When I stood after picking it up I couldn’t see Will anywhere. The little snake had vanished.
A thin veil of smoke crept out from under the seats and around my feet so I couldn’t see the floor anymore. “Will, where are you?”
“I have something to do down here,” he called from the stage. “You’re doing awesome, Champ.”
If I survived, I would find a way to exorcise that boy myself.
Anyone who ever watched an action movie with my dad and me knew that we were all for firepower, and lots of it. If Dad were with me in the theater, he’d say, “Don’t bring a water pistol to a bazooka fight.” I looked down at the little plastic toy in my hand and felt like a bit of an idiot. Even if it shot holy silver bullets instead of holy water, I doubt I’d have felt any better.
Since I didn’t have a ghost-grenade, I’d have to make the best of what I had.
I held the rabbit’s foot and pistol out in front of me, finger ready on the trigger. “My name is Poppy Malone. I’m not going to hurt you. Unless you leave me no choice.”
I waved the pistol around a bit, for emphasis.
A low, moaning laugh echoed around the balcony.
My breath made a little, “yip” sound, but I stood firm. Down on the stage, all six actors stared back up at me. They seemed a very long way down. I tried to swallow, but I couldn’t get past the lump that used to be my tongue. The phantom smoke got thicker around my feet, and a rumbling growl vibrated the floor. I clenched my eyes and hands as tight as I could to keep from running away.
A gust of air whooshed through my body, so cold it burned.
Well. That was just—rude.
“Ex—cuse me. I came here to help you. There’s no need for bad manners.”
The ghosts on stage let out a gasp. Barry said, “Did she tell him to mind his manners?”
Will laughed. “I think she did.”
“Good Lord,” Cresswell said. “We’ve gotten her killed.”
My knees shook too much for me to pull off the confident bit much longer. I wished I could evaporate like Will. “Sorry. I’m a trespasser. This is your . . . gods, not mine.”
Weapons held out at arm’s length, I sidled toward the stairs. I’d almost made it when a soft-as-smoke voice whispered, “Sit down.”
Some self-destructive bit of me took over my mouth. “Say, please.”
If the ghost had tossed me off the balcony, I probably would have deserved it. To my surprise, he laughed a slow, hollow laugh instead. “Please.”
I staggered to the nearest seat I could find and crumpled into it.
The smoke around my feet swirled and twisted. It sucked up from the floor to form the shape of a person a few seats away. I watched from the corner of my eye, wishing I couldn’t see it at all.
If I could have moved, I would have run.
Shoulda. Woulda. Coulda. Too late, as usual. I adjusted the water pistol to point at the smoke going solid beside me.
“By the way,” the voice whispered. “Holy water is for vampires.”
I’d have said something like that, too, if I were bluffing. I kept my finger on the trigger and rested the squirter on my lap. “I only want to talk.”
As if a breeze passed through it, the smoke separated, then tightened itself back into shape. “I’m aware of your concerns. It’s the only reason you are still here,” the ghost said.
Any half-decent bluffer would say that too.
“You know what’s been going on?” I asked.
“Of course I do. This—” the S on that last word dragged on until it sounded like a hiss, “—is my theater. I built it. I know everything that happens here.”
“Then you know what will happen on Halloween.”
I’m pretty sure the smoky shape nodded, but I couldn’t be certain. “It might be—fun.”
“What?” I turned in my seat to face the smoke.
He made a slow, pained sound. “I made this theater, it’s part of me. I don’t want to leave it, but it’s just so—boring.”
I lowered my voice so that the ghosts on the stage wouldn’t hear. “There are better ways to keep busy. If the actors put on the play, we can save the theater and you could join the troupe.”
Another wispy sigh. “Oh, my stars, no. It’s all, go, go, go with them. I’m more of a rest-in-actual-peace kind of fellow. My skills lie more in observation and supervision. I have no interest in performing for an audience. An empty theater is a happy theater. In my experience, living people are nothing but trouble.”
In my experience, the dead ones were worse.
“So, you’d rather be banished somewhere dreadful?”
With the sound of a sneeze played backward, he popped into the shape of a solid, and very worried human dressed just like Cresswell, but more authentic and way less dignified. A stiff collar held his head high like his neck couldn’t be bothered to make the effort. He had a tiny goatee beard combed to a point on his chin.
“Boo,” he said.
“Eek,” I said.
“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Sebastian Willoughby-Snode the third.” He held out an insubstantial hand to me, and I mimed shaking it.
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. The Third. I’m Poppy Malone. But you already know that.”
He leaned toward me. “What did you mean by dark and dreadful?”
If he didn’t know what happened to exorcised ghosts, maybe he couldn’t help as much as Megan thought.
“You know—when ghosts are exorcised—bad stuff?” I lifted my brows and waved my hands encouragingly.
His eyes shot open. “Exorcised? Who would do such a barbaric thing?”
I blinked at him. “I thought you said you knew everything that went on in this theater?”
“I admit I may have missed the odd thing.” His already slumped posture sagged a bit more. “In truth, I slept through most of it.”
Trying not to smile, I told him the story, adding my own dramatic touches. No unicorns, or zombies, or anything too interesting, but I did make it sound like the sort of situation he shouldn’t ignore.
“That does shine rather a different light on things, does it not?”
“It does—not—does . . . whatever.” Obviously, if I wanted this ghost’s help, it’d have to sound easier than doing nothing. “You don’t need to do much, less than you are now, in fact.”
“Less?” A smile spread across his face that made him quite handsome. I bet he’d been popular with the ladies.
“Except for dangerous people like the ghost hunters, you don’t have to scare anyone anymore. Think of it as a vacation.”
“A vacation would be nice. I’ve been here since the night I climbed up to this balcony and my shoe caught on a nail left poking out of a stair.” He smoothed the hair at his temples, which was smooth enough anyway. “All the money I spent on bringing some culture to Riverton, and a simple act of laziness on the part of one of my workers ended my life.”
Death from acute irony poisoning.
“I understand. Nails have done me wrong, too,” I said, thinking about the bridge incident. “I only need one more teeny little thing from you, some information, about ghosts.”
Mr. The Third stroked his tidy little goatee. “One learns a lot with little to do but sit and think about the big issues. Information is one thing I have in abundance.”
I smiled at him and wondered how frightened anyone would be of this ghost if they knew everything I did. “How can I make the ghosts visible? We can’t put on a play if only I can see them.”
“I will answer, but I have couple of conditions.”
I tucked the water pistol into my coat pocket. “Done.”
“Perhaps you should hear what they are, first.”

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