The Phantomime
Chapter Twenty-Eight
Practically every eye in Riverton was focused on me, but it didn’t matter. The next time I tried to speak, the words came out. Only, they weren’t the ones we practiced.
“This week, everyone asked me the same thing: are the ghosts real? Until tonight, I wasn’t sure. I mean, it seemed more likely that I’d lost my marbles. But Barbara Basch, that lady with the camera crew, she thinks they’re real—in a ‘ew, gross, let’s step on them,’ sort of way. What she doesn’t know is what exorcism does to them. I do, because I saw her try.”
I waited while the audience murmured and turned to look for the cameras.
“When our play finishes at midnight, you can make up your own minds about whether she’s right. But what I know is this: Ghosts can be annoying, funny, lazy, totally out-of-their minds nuts, or even very sweet—” I glanced over at Will, who had a not-sweet, confused look on his face, “—which makes them exactly like every other person. Except for the being-alive-and-having-a-body-thing.”
I paused to take a long, shaky breath. In the front row, Mom blew me a little kiss.
“Now, I would like to present my friends, the actors of the Riverton Players Troupe: Cresswell, Megan, Barry, Russell, Janette, and Will. This is their story, The Phantomime.”
Another buzz went through the audience as they recognized those names. I bowed a little at the waist, the way Cresswell taught me to, and walked into the wings.
Cresswell shook his head. “What did I say about improvising?”
“You said, ‘So long as you speak from the heart, it won’t matter what you say’,” I said.
He did a small double take. “I said no such thing. That doesn’t sound like me at all!”
I shrugged. “It was implied.”
Megan drifted onstage as the lights began to change. The sets raised up out of the floor all bright and glowing blue, more real and haunting than I’d ever seen them. The crowd let out a soft gasp and then went silent.
As if they’d saved their very best for this performance, the sets came to life in a whole new way. The scene stretched out across the stage in perfect 3D—a glowing, eerie diorama starring real people, or more accurately, real ghosts.
“Told you I could do better,” Barry whispered in my ear.
“You did this?” I asked.
His chest swelled out. “Sure did.”
“Kudos, my friend.”
I sat on the edge of the big chest and watched from the wings as the actors told their story for the whole town. Marissa sat beside me and linked her arm in mine. “It’s incredible.”
All I could do was nod. I’d seen that story dozens of times already, but this time seemed more beautiful, sad, real. Final.
Rain fell onto the stage, splashing in plunks and hisses into puddles on the floor. I thought that if I touched it, I would get wet. The actors huddled together as phantom firemen hurried past and smoke drifted up from the hollow brick walls of the theater. The ghosts stepped into the phantom ruins as the building rebuilt itself around them. Then we were inside as they began their daily rehearsals.
Each scene morphed into the next like it had been edited by a Hollywood expert.
The story didn’t finish then, the way it usually did. A strange, glowing version of myself peered through a set of newspaper-covered doors. Phantom-me slipped inside to meet Will and the others. A ghostly Barbara Basch arrived, and the actors were sucked into their black tornadoes, screaming and terrified, until Phantom-me ran out to stop it. The real Sebastian even made a guest appearance, to drop the big elbow on the silvery cameraman.
The play finished with the actors taking their bows.
Megan waved for me to take my place beside her in the line-up. We stood together, lit by the ghost lights, staring out at a silent audience.
There should have been applause.
Seconds passed without a sound. Not even a sneeze. Then more seconds. Then a whole minute. We all shuffled in place.
“At least they’re not throwing things,” Will whispered.
They weren’t doing anything. I wasn’t even sure they were breathing.
I couldn’t stand it anymore. “Um, The End?” I said.
My words broke the spell.
A roar started up. They clapped and shouted. They stomped their feet and whooped. Dad even punched his fist in the air and blew a shrieky wolf-whistle. A giggle burst out of me, but no one could hear it over the noise. We all bowed together, once, twice, three times, as the applause continued. My heart sang in my chest. It leaped and danced and wanted to hug the entire world.
Now this was proper fame.
I waved for Marissa to come out and stand with us. We all bowed again, and the applause slowed. When it finally stopped, I fumbled in my pocket for my speech and smoothed it out.
“I wrote this for the ghosts,” I said. “I want everyone to know about The Riverton Players Troupe.”
I took a deep breath and the ghosts gathered around. There had been a lot of information online, but my speech was about what I knew, not what the rest of the world did.
“Sebastian Willoughby-Snode the third built this theater, although mostly in a supervisory capacity. It’s his pride and joy. He created it and died here, and he deserves to be remembered. Also, he has a mean big elbow.”
Sebastian stepped forward and bowed quickly at the hips before lifting his arm in the air to show his elbow. I bit my lip to keep from smiling.
“Megan doesn’t talk since the fire, although she sang and acted when she was alive. She always knows when you need a friend.”
Megan smiled and I swore there was a blush in her glowy cheeks.
“Janette and Russell think we don’t know they’re in love. Maybe they don’t know it either. Russell is great at unlocking trunks, and Janette loves a pretty dress.”
The two of them stared at each other and, finally, Russell put his arm around Janette’s waist for everyone to see.
I read on. “Cresswell is super-superstitious, terrified of the Scottish, and a stickler for rules. But that’s because theater is the most important thing to him, and he cares about the people in it.”
Cresswell bowed to the audience and glanced over at me. For once, he had nothing to say. I called that a win for Team Poppy.
Next, I turned toward the unemployed lighting tech. “Barry learned the hard way to take superstition, and Cresswell, seriously. He really should wear a belt, the whole baggy pants, rear-cleavage thing he has going on is gross. He misses his daughter, very much.”
Someone sobbed out in the audience, and Barry looked out to search for whoever made the sound. I couldn’t see, but he could.
“Casey!” He jumped from the stage and ran down the aisle to meet a woman who wriggled her way past the other seats. Together, they walked out into the lobby.
“And last, but not least, is Will,” I said, coughing past a catch in my throat. “Will runs on the back of chairs, and every year he waits to see his mom bring him a balloon. He’s the sort of boy that makes sure the leaf he gives you is green, so it won’t crumble in your pocket. He’s the kind of boy I’ll never forget.”
Will looked extra-hard at me.
Janette and Russell started to laugh. They wrapped their arms around each other and began to glow very bright. “Thank you,” Russell said.
They grew brighter until the light burst into a thousand tiny stars, then sucked back together and faded into nothing. Megan stared after them, and then at me.
“Oh,” I whispered. “They went supernova.”
The audience began to cheer, although I’m not sure they realized quite what they had seen. In the front row, Mom waved, tears running down her cheeks. But I couldn’t see Dad anywhere. Barbara Basch charged down the aisle, her face set like rock. When she reached the front of the stage she waved for me to meet her at the backstage door.
I felt a hundred pounds lighter. It didn’t matter what she did now.
She met me with a forced, sweet smile.
That should have been my first warning.

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