The Phantomime
CHAPTER
2
Chapter Two
The thing about dares is, smart people avoid them.
The thing about me is, I guess I’m not that kind of smart.
Case in point: When I arrived at the theater the next afternoon, I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. The Majestic looked great compared to all the other abandoned buildings in Riverton. There were plenty of those, since—let’s face it—the town’s best days were long gone.
The theater’s walls were tag-free and its windows in one piece. Everyone steered clear of Maple Lane. Even the other buildings had their backs to the street like they were giving the Majestic the cold shoulder.
To most people that would have been a clue.
Even my usual posse of enthusiastic bystanders refused to come along, but I didn’t mind. No one would know if I succeeded, but they wouldn’t know if I failed in an epic call-the-fire-department kind of way, either.
The box office windows were all boarded up. The glass doors behind it had yellowed newspapers taped to the inside with no gaps big enough to see through. I gave one of the doors an experimental shove, but it was locked.
“You gonna stand there all day?”
I would have screamed except I’d inhaled my gum and was choking to death.
Andy thumped me hard between the shoulder blades until the gum flew out of my mouth and disappeared among the piles of leaves and trash that had collected around the doors.
“That’s twice in two days I’ve saved your life,” he said. “You owe me big time.”
Between gasps, I managed to call him some colorful names.
“How’d you get that open?” Andy nodded over at the glass door I’d just tried. It sat open about six inches, looking like it had been that way all along.
“But . . . I didn’t.” I poked the door with a wary finger, looking for some sort of hidden opening device that a sister-smothering brother might have installed. “Did you do that?”
“Uh, I just arrived in time to save your skinny butt, remember?” He tapped his watch. “Three-forty-five. Your half-hour starts now.”
Before Andy could call it a forfeit, I ducked through the door and inside. Little clouds of dust billowed around my feet as I ran up the stairs. At the top, I stopped to catch my breath.
“You have to go into the theater itself, not just the lobby,” Andy called from outside.
Ignoring him, I had a quick look around. Faded faces on old posters grinned out at me from inside their glass display boxes. Some had slipped off their pins and crumpled to the bottom of their box. A domed iron and glass skylight in the ceiling let in a bit of light, but not much, thanks to the crows that pooped all over it and covered the edges with their sprawling nests.
A corridor led into darkness on one side, and two ornate double doors sat at each end of the inside wall. The theater had to be on the other side of them. I tried the one on the right, but it was stuck. The one on the left gave in with a bit of a shove. Inside, rows of dusty red velvet seats stretched off into the darkness.
“Hurry up,” Andy yelled from downstairs.
I fingered my lucky rabbits foot in my pocket. It was nothing but stubble and dried-up claws after seeing me through every dare that ended well—including the time I was the first girl to eat a one-pound “Mini Burger” stuffed with hyper-jalapeño secret sauce at Mini’s on Main Street. That one earned my photo a place on Mini’s Wall-of-Fame.
With the rabbit’s foot clutched in one hand, I reached through the door to feel for a light switch. It felt even colder in there than the lobby. I stretched as far as I could so I wouldn’t have to leave the doorway.
My sleeve snagged on something.
I tugged—it held firm.
I tugged harder—it held firmer.
While the industrial strength knickers my mother bought had saved my life on the bridge, the even-more-sensible coat had me trapped. The irony in this situation did not escape me, and I could not escape it either.
After a few moments of panic, I pulled myself together with a few deep breaths. I reached across my body with my free hand and squirmed until I could get into my pocket for my teeny LED flashlight. I flicked it on and ran the beam along the length of my arm to where my sleeve had snagged on a broken light switch.
I had almost freed myself when something—or someone—made a sound, very close by.
The beam of my flashlight darted around, landing on dusty seats and weird ornamental fixtures. “Who’s there? Andy? I swear, I’ll—”
Someone giggled.
I turned the little beam of light on the place where the noise came from, which, unfortunately, was right by my caught hand.
A face. Grinning. At me.
I screamed.
It disappeared.
Somewhere down the opposite end of the theater a voice boomed out, bouncing off the walls. “Get back up here. What did you do?”
If I was one of those girls who fainted, I could have passed out and spent the rest of my half-hour blissfully asleep. Sometimes, a sturdy constitution is a curse.
The flashlight slipped from my fingers and rolled off toward the seats. I pulled so hard on my sleeve—while screaming—that it tore free. My butt caught the door and the door closed and there I was, in complete darkness without a flashlight, with strange people somewhere nearby and an enormous tear in my best coat that my mother would kill me for if I survived.
Gasping, I slapped at the wall, trying to find the door handle. I couldn’t see it, and I sure couldn’t feel it. I dropped to my knees and felt around under a row of seats that had a vague glow underneath. At last, my fingers closed around the metal cylinder of my flashlight. I pulled it out, waving it around to catch out the mysterious creeper.
“Who’s there?” I held the flashlight in front of me like a light saber.
Someone chuckled. Someone else cussed.
Voices meant people, and people weren’t scary. Mostly. I turned my light in the direction of the stage, but I couldn’t see anyone on it.
The same voice as before boomed out again. “Who are you?’”
It asked with so much authority that my mouth answered before I told it to.
“I—I’m Poppy Malone.” I kicked myself for that. If the speaker was an ax-murderer, now he knew my name. Not that an ax-murderer would need my name to kill me.
Panicked whispers echoed from the stage. It sounded as if there were others there. That meant there were enough people around for me to be safe, or that ax-murderers traveled in packs. I sure hoped it was the first thing, not the second.
The big voice cleared its throat. “You—heard us?”
“Uh, yeah.” Then, it I realized who these people were, and why they were here. “Wait. This is a set-up. You’re Andy’s friends. I get it. Scare Poppy into running so Andy wins the dare.”
More hushed whispering. “Miss Malone, would you come closer to the stage?”
“No. Way.” I reached out my hand to search for whatever magic opened the doors. Definitely no handle. That had to be a fire violation or something. “Do you think I’m stupid?”
“I do not know you well enough to judge that. Considering you have entered an abandoned theater on your own, one would have to assume the likely answer is, yes, you are at least a little stupid.”
Aside from the smarty pants attitude, the voice didn’t sound young enough to be someone Andy knew. Then, I remembered my brother’s obsession with freaky television programs.
“Is this one of those hidden camera shows where I’m supposed to think you’re a werewolf or the Jersey Devil, and then you tell me I’m on TV? Because if it is, I’d never fall for that.”
Dad and I had a standing bet on whether someone would keel over from a heart attack because of those shows. Well, it sure as sugar wouldn’t be me.
One of the seats had a broken wooden arm rest. I yanked it free to use as a weapon. It’d make a good-sized dent in even Bigfoot’s skull. It even had pointy bits on the end that could take out an eyeball. Gruesome, but effective.
“If you’ll stop destroying the theater for a moment, we’ll turn on a light for you.”
I held the flashlight and chunk of wood together and backed up against the wall. The whispering continued for what felt like a very long time. I thought my eyes would adjust, but some kinds of darkness get the better of you no matter how many carrots you eat.

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