The Phantomime
Chapter Twenty-Nine
Framed by the backstage door, Barbara Basch held her hand out for me to shake.
“Well done,” she said.
Because I’m a good sport, I smiled and took the hand. “Thank you.”
“We’re live in less than fifteen minutes. Can you move everyone out of the theater now?” Back at the lobby door, her crew carried in big black crates and boxes. “We need time to prepare before the network cuts to us.”
“You’re still going to do this?” I asked.
“We have sponsors, Poppy. Huge corporates. They spend millions with our network, and they’ve paid a premium for their spots tonight. The play was sweet and touching, but I have obligations.” Her smile went harder at the edges.
“You can’t exorcise them now.” I waved up at the stage. “You saw what happened with Russell and Janette.” I hated the way my voice squeaked like a frightened five-year-old when I needed to be authority on legs.
Barbara hissed, “The exorcism is the most important part of the show. It’s when we provide a happy ending for our viewers. Wallace promised me it’s beautiful. We’re doing the same thing for them that you did for—Russell and—what were their names?”
“It’s not beautiful, it’s awful. What happened to Russell and Janette wasn’t anything like that.” I gripped the door-frame so tight my stubby fingernails scraped into the paintwork.
“It will be televised,” she said, as if that made all the difference. “Nothing like this has been done on TV. You’re a genius for making these ghosts visible. This is a world first. You will be a celebrity. This could change your life.”
Celebrity. Had I ever wanted that? Not her sort, anyway. “I like my life just fine, thanks.”
I grabbed the door and threw it closed, but she jammed her foot in the way.
“I’m not going to mess around with you, Poppy.” She pushed past me and shoved her way up the stairs to the stage. “Ladies and gentlemen!”
The ghosts moved away from her as she took over. “We have a live broadcast starting in a few minutes. The play is over and I’m sure we can all agree it was a resounding success. Please make your way to the lobby.”
She said it with so much authority that everyone stood.
“Wait,” yelled Marissa. “We can’t let this woman banish these ghosts.”
We linked arms so Barbara Basch couldn’t push us out of the way.
Confused, the audience froze—some still in their seats, some halfway to the door.
The ghost hunter lifted her hand to shade her eyes and stared out into the audience. “Officer Bugden, Clear this theater, immediately.”
Riverton’s only cop made his way up the aisle from the back of the theater. “I’m sorry, folks. Ms. Basch has permission to use this theater. If you could all please make your way to the lobby.” He said it in his toughest cop’s voice, but he didn’t look any happier about it than the rest of us.
It’s one thing to stand up against a TV show host, but it’s another to disobey the law. Maybe no one agreed with Barbara Basch, but Riverton was a law-abiding town.
“No,” I cried, as the crowd filed out of the lobby doors. “Civil disobedience. Come on.”
A few people—maybe a dozen—stayed, but most hurried out of the theater to wait in the lobby. We were running out of options.
Megan began to cry in tiny, muffled sobs. She moved in front of the TV host with her hands clasped to her chest and mouthed the word, ‘Please’.
Ms. Basch looked straight through her as if she was still invisible. “Gerald, Allen, get that equipment ready. We’re running out of time.” She barked her orders, then turned on us. “Get off this stage now.” She jabbed a pointy finger in the direction of the lobby door.
Cresswell banged his walking stick hard into the floorboards. It made a thud that shook the floor under our feet and made everyone freeze. “You are not the authority on my stage.”
Someone in the remaining audience began to clap. The others joined in until the applause became almost as loud as if the whole audience had stayed. Hearing the noise, some of those who had left for the lobby filed back in.
Those of us left on the stage, including Sebastian, moved into a circle around Barbara Basch and did our best to link hands. Whenever she tried to walk away, we all moved with her.
“Feel free to begin your broadcast, Ms. Basch,” Cresswell said.
“I can’t with you all around me,” she yelled. “Move.”
“We can’t stop you. We’re just spooks,” Will said, then added, “Boo!”
“Bugden, get them away from me.”
Pushing his cap back from his head so he could scratch the bald spot on top, Officer Bugden shrugged. “I don’t know what you expect me to do about a bunch of ghosts, ma’am.”
Purple, throbbing veins bulged out along the sides of Basch’s neck as she screamed at her crew. “Do something. Wallace, where is Wallace? Get rid of them!”
The small, weedy man with the strange outfit and freaky knowledge of Latin got up from his chair in the back of the theater. He moved toward us, but had to stop when every remaining audience member stood between him and the front of the stage.
“Do it from there,” Barbara yelled, veins standing up on her neck and sweat beading on her lips and forehead. She’d need more makeup soon.
To my horror, Wallace lowered his head and began to chant.
“No,” I screamed. Already the black mini-tornadoes began to rise through the floor.
Cresswell, Megan, Sebastian, and Will all froze with looks of pure terror on their faces, only their eyes able to move. “Look. See what you’re doing to them. You have to stop!”
“If you think I care what happens to them now, you’re more of a fool than I thought. Keep going, Wallace. Make it hurt!”
I wanted to scream at the triumphant look on her face.
The shrieking black shadows reached the wild-eyed ghosts’ knees. Marissa and I grabbed at them with our bare hands, but it did nothing.
“Stop it, right now!” The shout came from the lobby doors and the crowd moved out of the way. Standing there, holding a white sheet of paper, was my dad. “My wife and I are the new owners of this theater, and I never gave my permission for filming. Officer, I want this film crew off my property immediately.”
My parents owned the building? What happened to Archibald Holdings?
Officer Bugden shouted at Wallace to cease and desist. Shaking his head in disgust, the exorcist quit the chanting and stamped out of the theater in a huff.
“But I got permission,” Barbara Basch said in much smaller voice.
“From my wife’s assistant. She didn’t have the authority,” Dad said. “She works for Archibald Holdings, not us. She didn’t know this theater is our private property.”
Barbara Basch stared wide-eyed and helpless at her crew, and choked out a question. “Gerald, why can I see a red light on top of that camera?”
Gerald did a perfect comic double-take and stared at the red light that glowed beside the camera’s lens.
“I thought you wanted it on?” Will asked. “You were all like, ‘Get that equipment ready, quick, we’re running out of time’. Now, say, ‘thank you, Will, for helping’.”
“It’s live?” she squeaked.
“No, it’s a camera, so it’s as dead as I am,” Will sighed, “but the people at home can see you, if that’s what you mean?”
A smile twitched at the corners of Ms. Basch’s mouth. She lifted a hand to adjust the red tangles of her hair and asked, “Gerald, are we live?”
Will sighed. “I thought we covered this. You alive, me and camera, not alive.”
Gerald stared at the camera. “Uh, would you like me to turn it off?”
Lower lip trembling, Barbara Basch nodded. “If you wouldn’t mind?”
We stood aside as she walked stiff-legged off the stage. She carried on through the backstage door, down the aisle, and past my father on her way out of the theater. The TV crew stared at the camera that turned itself on and ended what had been a pretty sweet job for them. With Officer Bugden gently guiding them, they left the theater.
“How did you do that?” I asked Will. “You’ve been visible all night.”
Will huffed on his fingernails and polished them on his shirt. “They were busy listening to your speech. They wouldn’t have noticed me if I’d shouted.”
Marissa’s eyes bulged in her head. “It’s been on the whole time?”
Will dusted his hands on the back of his pants. “Yep. They won’t have broadcast all of it, but definitely the exorcism bit and everything after. We’re famous and Barbara Basch will be properly fired.”
The words, “properly fired”, were now my official favorite words ever.
We bounced and danced around together. When we settled down, I noticed Cresswell and Megan together in the wings. They had goodbye written all over their faces and it made my heart hurt. I hurried over, expecting them to explode into balls of light before I could reach them.
Cresswell stood up straight and smiled. “My dear, Poppy. I do believe this evening has been a success.”
He called me Poppy. It felt even worse than when my dad did it.
“Almost,” I said. “But you’re still here. I mean, it’s not like I want you to go, but—” I stopped to catch my breath and swallow hard around the painful lump in my throat. “—I want you to be safe and happy.”
Megan raised her eyebrows into an ‘aw’ shape and wrapped her filmy arms around my shoulders. “I am,” she whispered, the only words she ever said to me.
She stepped back, smiling as her light went bright and exploded. Instead of stars like Janette and Russell, Megan’s light showered silvery glitter and flower petals all over us.
I stepped back and covered my mouth with my hands. It’s funny how fast the shine can be rubbed off a best-ever-day.
Cresswell took a deep breath that made his mustache quiver. “I know that I’ve been harsh on you at times, Poppy, but as you so astutely pointed out in your speech, it’s only because of this.” He lifted his hands and turned in a small circle “Now, I know we will not be forgotten, thanks to you.” A small silvery tear slid down his cheek. He didn’t even bother to brush it away.
“But—I don’t want you to go,” I whispered. To keep the tears I didn’t want to cry from falling, I added, “I need acting lessons.”
“I think you will do fine all on your own.” Carefully, he rested his hand on my head, and I would have sworn I felt it. I closed my eyes tight and pressed my knuckles into the sockets until it stung.
When I opened my eyes, he was gone.
I took a deep breath before I turned around. Marissa snorted and honked into a fistful of tissues, while Will pointed at her with an exaggerated mocking expression and mouthed: Lame.
“Where is Sebastian?” I asked, spinning around to find him. All was quiet up in the balcony. I cupped my hands around my mouth and called his name.
“If you’ll hush for a minute, I’ll tell you,” Will said. “He said he’s not good at goodbyes, they’re exhausting. He said to tell you to check the chair you reserved for him, and thank you.”
“At least you’re still here.” A horrible, selfish part of me wished that Will would be different, that he’d stay.
“Yeah,” he said, “you clearly did something wrong.”
“Me?” I asked. “Maybe you don’t know when you’ve outstayed your welcome.”
Marissa wiped her nose and soggy, red eyes. “This sure sucks.”
Our parents waited for us outside the backstage door. Marissa’s gushed in their usual enthusiastic way. “You’re a little diamond,” her mom said.
Mine just hugged me, which was all I wanted, anyway. I definitely didn’t want any more goodbyes, much less the hardest one of all.

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