The Phantomime
Chapter Thirty
I expected my parents would be focused on me, their only daughter and star of the moment. But they weren’t.
Dad stuffed his hands deep into his pockets and smiled at the one remaining ghost. “Hey, Will.”
Will stared at him like he’d never seen a man before, which he hadn’t for a couple of decades, I guess. “Uh, hey,” he said.
“You don’t recognize me, do you?” Dad asked. Right then, neither did I. My father didn’t buy theaters, and he sure didn’t talk to ghosts like he knew them.
Will peered a bit harder. “Joey?”
Dad smiled a boyish kind of smile. For a second, I could see him at Will’s age.
“No way. Joey?” Will shook his head. “You got tall, and old.”
Dad laughed. “You didn’t.”
“I’m dead.” Will shrugged, and pointed in my direction. “Wow. Poppy is your kid.”
“Will, I—I’m sorry I left you in here that day. I’ve been sorry every day since.” Dad took a painful breath.
My head spun as I tried to fit this new information inside. “Wait. You were in the theater on the day of the fire?” I asked, looking at both of them.
“Yeah, the Willster and I were friends,” my father said.
“Best friends, actually,” Will added.
“Best friends,” Dad agreed. “We came here to explore, hide out, that sort of thing. I guess you inherited that from me.”
“Wait a minute,” I poked at Will, even though my finger went right through him. “I thought you were an actor?”
Will laughed so hard it bent him double. “You saw how horrible I was in the play and still thought I could act?” His laughter turned into a strangled snort. “No. Cresswell caught us sneaking in most days and kicked us out.”
“We got away with it that day. We tried on costumes to ‘borrow’ for a Halloween party.” Dad pointed at Will’s costume, “We were hanging out up in the balcony, drinking soda until we fell asleep. When someone yelled that there was a fire, I woke up. The place was filled with smoke. I couldn’t breathe. I—I didn’t think to wake up Will. I—” He held out his hand to Will. “I’m so sorry. I’ve never forgotten you.”
“Except that one time in the theater fire, anyway,” Will said. He grinned when he saw the horror on my father’s face and did his best to shake Dad’s hand. “It wasn’t your fault. At least I didn’t get old and stuck with kids and taxes and stuff.”
Dad nodded, but I’m not sure if he believed it.
“Oh,” I whispered. “That’s why Sebastian always let you up in the balcony, even before we talked to him. You died there.”
Mom said something, at last. “We bought this place off my dad’s company. I’m the new CEO.”
“I wanted the job but Archie never liked me, the old coot,” Dad added and Mom punched him in the arm.
“Archie? That’s Grandpa’s name?” Things were making a weird sort of sense. “Oh. Archibald Holdings.”
Will groaned. “Try to keep up, Poppy.”
Dad finished the story. “The company wanted to demolish the theater. But then Poppy came here, and we found out the ghosts were here. That you were here, Will. We couldn’t let it happen. We remortgaged our house and bought the theater off the company last week. It won’t be demolished. You’ll always have a home here, Will, for as long as you want it. I owe you that much, and more.”
Will glanced up at the balcony where the TV and The Ghost in the Gods used to be. “I don’t know, now. It would just be me.”
“What am I? Boiled cabbage?” I wanted to be angry at him, but in the end, leaving wasn’t his fault, or his choice.
Dad took a deep breath. “Then come out to the lobby. I left to get the theater’s papers, and picked up a surprise for you on the way back.”
I knew Will hoped for a TV, but I had something I wished even harder for him.
Most of Riverton gathered in the lobby, my mother’s baking or Dixie cups in their hands. Everyone went silent when we walked in. Even filled with people, the place had never felt so lonely. Most of the people who mattered had already gone.
Dad disappeared into the crowd. When he reappeared, an old lady with dimples and white cotton candy hair held on to his arm like she’d fall if she let go.
Will smiled at her and then turned back to me. “You kept the leaf?” he asked.
I fumbled around for my pocket so I could show him, but I still had the steampunk bride costume on. “It’s in my notebook. I’ll always keep it.”
He leaned forward, closed his eyes, and kissed me with cool, misty—but very real—lips. My mouth prickled with cold but the rest of me went fever-warm. My first kiss.
“You’re my best friend,” he whispered. “Don’t tell Joey. He gets jealous.”
Before I could think of what to say, he turned and ran to his mom, away from me.
The old woman clasped her hands to her chest and wobbled on her skinny legs. Dad held her upright. Someone else shoved grumpy Mrs. Gilbert from the drugstore off one of the red velvet and gold chairs, and dragged it over for Will’s mom to sit on.
“William. My William.” She held out a shaking hand, and he took it. His hand didn’t seem any less solid and real than hers as they held on to each other. “Momma?”
The room went quiet except for the odd sniffle or hiccup. Marissa’s hand found its way into mine.
“You can go now, William, to a better place,” his mother said.
No, I thought. He can’t.
I should have told him that I’d get him a proper TV. A huge one out of the profits from the play. A flat screen, and games. Maybe a computer.
Will bent down and hugged his mother.
I worked hard to build a rep for myself. I’d jumped off bridges—kind of—eaten toxic burgers, and braved fierce old ladies. If my reputation was all I’d have left, then I didn’t want to ruin it by crying in public. I ran into the theater and up the stairs to the balcony. I’d been there so many times in the dark, I found my way even with blurry and wet eyes.
“Sebastian?” It didn’t feel right to walk into the balcony without his permission.
The TV had been turned off, which made it even worse. I tried to imagine smoke crawling around my feet and going solid into the shape of a man, but I couldn’t. The theater felt truly empty and even a bit eerie. A shiver wriggled across my shoulders.
Remembering how Will said I should check out Sebastian’s reserved seat, I walked down the ramp to the front of the balcony. I’m not sure what I expected. A note, maybe, but the seat was exactly as I had left it. I picked up the paper “reserved” sign and sat in his chair.
At least there, on my own, I could sob with all the snot and slobber I wanted and no one would see. Except, I couldn’t wipe my nose all over Mrs. Bellamy’s bride outfit. I was soon a dripping, sobbing mess. I tried to find something, anything to clean myself up on.
Over in the corner, the TV flickered to life. It hissed away quietly as I stood up and took a few careful steps toward it.
“Sebastian?” I whispered in case whoever turned it on was someone I didn’t know.
A cold, damp breeze crept around my feet. Mist, or maybe, smoke. The Ghost in the Gods!
I spun around looking for him. At my feet, the smoke pulled itself together and took a seat in his reserved spot.
“I hope you don’t have any more adventures planned for a while, Poppy,” he said, stretching out his legs in front of him. “It’s been an exhausting night.”
“You turkey, how could you do that to me?” I slapped at him uselessly while he giggled and cringed away. Once my arms were good and frozen, I stopped and smiled. “You stayed.”
Sebastian beamed up at me. “Where else would I go? Someone needs to rain terror from above.”
“I need a tissue before I start raining snot from above,” I said.
“Here you go.”
That wasn’t Sebastian’s voice, it was Will.
A crumpled up fistful of tissues landed in my palm. I blew my nose into them and looked around for him. He appeared at last, sitting on the edge of the balcony like he wasn’t afraid of falling backward onto the seats below—which he probably wasn’t.
I ran at him but he held out a hand to stop me. “Whoa there, girlie. One kiss per night is all you get. Besides, Joey would kill me. He knocked me off my bike once for saying his sister was cute.”
I skidded to a halt a few feet away from him. “I wasn’t going to kiss you, you little creeper.” I made an exaggerated gagging sound. “You thought Aunt Melanie was cute?
“Cuter than you, snot face.”
To think, I’d been miserable thinking I’d lost him. “Shouldn’t you have gone supernova?”
“Looks like I can go whenever I want. Meanwhile, I have TV, wrestling moves to learn, and you to annoy. It’s practically my destiny.”
“Quiet, you two. Wrestling is on.” Sebastian disappeared into his TV corner.
Will winked at me. “What can I do? Wrestling is on.”
Most of Riverton had gone home, probably to think about the weirdest Halloween they’d ever had.
“Will’s staying, Sebastian, too,” I whispered in Marissa’s ear as we hugged goodnight.
“Ooh, more kissy face action, then?”
I shoved her shoulder. “Shut up about the kissy stuff.” Then I grinned. “Thank you, I couldn’t have done this without you.”
“Of course you couldn’t. I did all the work.”
Mom, Dad, and I were the last to leave. Outside, in the frosty cold, stood my brother. He still wore black, but his face had been scrubbed clean and his hair brushed back. Even the jewelry had gone from his face.
“Do you ever stay grounded?” I sighed. “You’re too late. The play is over and no one got exorcised, except Barbara Basch.”
Andy tried to look anywhere but at me. “I saw the play. You’re right. Ghosts are people. I was—w-w-wrong.”
I narrowed my eyes at him. “Is this a set up?”
He shook his head. “If a skinny little wimp like you can handle this ghost stuff, then I guess I can too.” Andy said, with a tiny grin teasing at the corners of his mouth.
“I don’t think you’re in any position to call anyone a wimp, Mr. ‘Eek, eek, get outside, the ghosties are going to eat you.’”
Andy laughed, held out his stiff arms and came at me like Frankenstein in need of some love.
“Too soon, too soon,” I backed away.
Andy rolled his eyes. “Whatever.”
Dad locked the theater door behind us and handed me a small brass key similar to the one Will once stole from the cameraman’s pocket. “I hope you’ll help me get this place going. You know, liaise with your friendly ghosts and make sure they let people in.”
I wrapped my arms around his neck and gave him a hug almost tight enough to dislocate his head. “The theater’s definitely safe, forever?”
He lifted me off the ground before setting me down again. “Unless Mr. Willoughby-Snode stinks the place out every time we try to hold a production.”
“That won’t happen, so long as there’s wrestling.”
I turned around to look at the Majestic. It was still an ugly, boarded up, dusty, pile of bricks, but it was practically my ugly, dusty pile of bricks. By some weird miracle, we’d done it. We’d saved the theater, the ghosts, and probably ended the career of a ghost killer.
Best of all, I had avoided getting my photo in the paper.
A bright light exploded in my face. A camera flash.
“Poppy? Can I talk to you? Holly Matthews, Riverton Gazette. We’d love to have an exclusive with you before all the other papers get here.”
Fame. It seems like just when you’re done wanting it, it lands in your lap.
Thank you all so much for sticking with Poppy and her merry band of spooks. Oops, I mean “spirits”. It’s been so much fun sharing them with you! —Wen :)

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