The Phantomime
Chapter Eight
By the time I shuffled downstairs next morning, Dad sat alone at the table, making his lunch.
Apparently, I hadn’t just slept late, I’d woken in an alternate universe where my father made his own food. He’d spread every single sandwich filling out on the table. Mom had to be out. No way would she stand for this sort of food-foolery.
“You should know I contemplated sending in a rescue team,” Dad said. “The Popperpants I know would never miss breakfast.”
“Popperpants? Do you hate me?” I took a plate and butter knife from the kitchen and sat in my place at the table.
“It could have been worse.”
“Oh, I know,” I said.
My sleepless night had used up a bunch of calories. I slathered one slice of rye with mayo, another with mustard, and then filled the middle with slabs of ham and cheese. Even squashed, the end result was two bites short of fitting in my mouth. I nibbled at the edges while my father created a mega-structure made from incompatible foodstuffs.
“Do you know anything about Archibald Holdings?” I asked him, between bites.
He paused for a second over his lunch tower. “Some. Why?”
“I wondered why they’re pulling down every old building in town.” The more I tried to make it look like a casual question, the less it did. I have no idea why I ever thought I could act. Acting was basically practiced lying, and no one in the entire universe sucked more at lying than me. Luckily, Dad didn’t notice. He was too busy with the Empire State building of sandwiches.
“They’re trying to give Riverton a kick in the behind, get the place going again.” He made another attempt at getting his sandwich into his mouth. When it didn’t work, he put it on his plate and pressed down like he wanted to give it CPR. Filling squirted out the sides, skittered over his plate and onto the table.
I got up and grabbed a roll of paper towels. He sat back like he thought I would clean up the mess. “Thanks, Pop-tart.”
“Uh-uh.” I passed him the roll and sat back down in my own place. “Your mess, you clean it up.”
He sighed and gave the roll of paper a confused look. “When did you start caring about old buildings, anyway?”
“I heard they’d bought the Majestic. I hoped it would open again, maybe get a theater group going.”
“Too much tragedy there. I’d rather you found some other place to act.” He stared at the mess in front of him for a second, then pulled off a paper towel. “Anyway, no one can stand the smell there.”
“Someone could air it out, or hang up a few of those pine air fresheners you have in your car.”
“Unless the smell is supernatural.” He looked at me from under a pair of wriggling eyebrows.
When it came to being scary, my dad couldn’t startle a five-year-old, and they’re the most easily freaked-out age-group—if the time I babysat Joshie Murdoch (and never got invited back) was anything to go by.
Even though my nose only sat on my face for decorative purposes, I didn’t think the Majestic smelled. If someone burned toast, it stung my eyes. If the Majestic stank that bad, I would have noticed. The ghosts wouldn’t be behind it, anyway. Cresswell and his troupe were even more desperate for an audience than me.
Dad tore off a few more sections of paper and pushed the mess around on the table without cleaning much. “I better get used to doing this stuff if your mother’s not going to be around.”
“What? Where’s she going?”
His face screwed up a bit. “She’s started work.”
“No planning. No interview. She just starts work?”
“You know your mother. She gets what she wants through sheer force of will.”
There had to be more to it than that. You don’t get a part in a play without auditioning, and you don’t get a job without interviewing. She must have been planning this for ages.
Sneaky, sneaky mother.
The weather was perfect for hanging out in a haunted theater—low clouds that sucked up all the light, the right amount of wind to whistle through gaps, and cold enough to make me glad I’d retired from bridge jumping.
I’d seen enough of Maple Lane to know that no one but me ever went there. Except for today. Several cars were parked near the Majestic, including a black van with tinted windows that either belonged to the F.B.I. or a stalker. A small crowd of people stood right outside the theater door.
No matter how much the theater wanted to let me in, I doubted it would with that many people watching. I’d have to wait for them to leave and at least try to be patient.
I sidled up to the old garage next door and pressed myself against the glass windows in front. The garage door also had a pink slip taped to it—they were spreading like bacteria.
A bit of sheet metal had lifted away from the side wall, so I bent it out enough to hide me from the view of the theater visitors. It worked well—if I sucked in my belly, didn’t breathe too deep, and pretended my legs didn’t count. It even had a convenient nail-hole to peek through.
Maybe they were from Archibald Holdings, come a few weeks early to dismantle the theater. Or, maybe the theater owners were selling off the contents ready for demolition.
“Poop.” I muttered.
“Potty mouth,” said a voice behind me.
I didn’t scream, although I sure wanted to. Clamping my hands over my mouth, I spun around in a circle to see who said that, but no one was there.
Someone cleared his throat nearby.
“Will? Is that you?” I hissed in an angry whisper. No answer.
The garage windows had been white-washed. I scratched at an area where the paint had thinned until I could peer through. Inside, a face grinned back at me, wearing smears of grease and a pair of coveralls. I didn’t scream—although I did bounce a bit—which showed how far I’d raised my standards for freaking out. The garage had been empty for years, so he had to be a ghost. They were as contagious as the pink slips.
Inside the garage, a car and racks of tools and tire stacks materialized out of nothing, the same way the actors’ sets did. The ghost lay down on what looked like an over-sized skateboard and trundled under the winched-up car. What an afterlife—car repair for eternity.
The crowd at the Majestic began to go their separate ways. They hugged and shook hands before scurrying off to their cars. As they drove away, I did my best impression of girl-not-up-to-anything by staring with a ridiculous amount of interest through the garage window.
I listened to the ghost humming along to old-fashioned rock’n’roll music and the clank of metal against metal, until a loud crack echoed inside the garage. The chain that held the car’s front-end in the air gave way and rattled through its winch. With an almighty bang that the whole lane should have heard, the car crashed down before the mechanic had time to move.
I stumbled and skidded onto my backside on the sidewalk. Cursing, I got up and limped to the window, but the mechanic and his phantom car had gone. So, there was something even worse than eternal rehearsals or car repair—reliving your death.
By now, even the creepy black van had gone. I ducked out from my hiding place and dashed through the rain to the front of the Majestic. But, not everyone had left yet after all. On the other side of the box office, near the far set of doors, someone was crying. Cursing the rain, I waited outside, heart thudding so hard they should have heard it on Main Street.
My butt went numb from pressing against the wall. Most of the rain missed me, but it got colder by the minute until I wondered if I should forget hiding and introduce myself. But, the sobs turned to sniffles, turned to hiccups, turned to silence. As the footsteps left, I crept back into the entrance, keeping the box office between us.
A bent lady with white, cotton candy hair and a red balloon that bobbed on the end of a string walked away from the Majestic and didn’t look back, luckily, because I had nowhere left to hide. She stopped in the middle of the lane, lifted her hand into the air, and let the balloon go. It scooted off in the wind and disappeared.
She gazed after it, then shuffled off toward Main Street on foot.
Breathing at last, I turned to open the door. That’s when I understood what I’d intruded on. Bouquets were laid in front of the doors. Some had photos attached. One had a tiny stuffed teddy bear on a stick amongst the flowers.
I bent over one of the bunches to read the card. “To Daddy, I will never forget you, Casey xxx.”
I stepped away from the note and took a deep breath. Was today the anniversary of the fire? After failing to work out how many years it had been, I figured if my dad had been around, then the ghosts’ families might still be too.
Now I wasn’t sure I wanted to go inside. This situation needed actual tact—which is so not my strong suit. Impatient, the door shuddered and vibrated at me until I couldn’t ignore it.
With as much respect and care as I could, I stepped over the flowers and through the door. The Archibald Holdings sign had been torn down, leaving bits of tape and corners of pink paper behind. As the door squeaked closed behind me, I heard more sniffles—the quiet, private sort.
“Poop,” I muttered. This time no one told me off.
Will sat halfway up the stairs. He gazed through the windows above the doors, the only ones without newspaper taped to them. Today, he looked faded—not quite as real as usual—but I could still see the wetness on his cheeks.
Oh, no. I hated tears.
I stepped up until I stood a few stairs below him. As if he’d just noticed me, he rubbed at his face with the back of his coat sleeve, then went back to staring out the window.
“It’s nice weather for a haunting,” I said.
Oh, good grief. I prayed for the theater to pick me up and toss me back out the door. This is why I shouldn’t be allowed to speak when tact was needed.
Will nodded as if he didn’t hear me right—thank goodness.
Before I could say anything stupider, I sat down on the stair beside him and followed his gaze. “I’m sorry,” I said.
“The lady with the balloon is my mom,” Will said, swallowing hard, “she still thinks I’m five.”
“I can relate. My father calls me—never mind.”
Will looked down at his shoes. “She’s getting really old.”
“People do that.”
“Not me.”
My parents could be annoying, and I wished someone would adopt Andy, but I wouldn’t want to be separated from them. Well, maybe Andy.
I couldn’t think of what else to say, so I didn’t say anything. I reached out my hand until it hovered over his, close enough to feel the cool breeze of his skin.
“Thanks,” he said, without looking. After a while, my fingers turned blue at the tips, so I took my hand back and squeezed it closed around my cool palm.
Someone moved, outside, near the box office.
I bent over a little, to get a better look through the gaps. “Did you see that?”
Will squinted. “What?”
“I think I saw someone. A woman. In the middle of the street. Watching us.” It had only been a glimpse, but I had definitely seen something.
“Watching you, not me.” Will shrugged. “No one but you ever saw me before.”
I searched for another glimpse of the woman. Something about her made me nervous. The way she stood? The look on her face? No. There was something else.
A head of very red hair covered with the hood of a black slicker came into view as she backed away from the doors. I ducked down out of her line of sight.
Now I knew what bothered me. Tucked under her arm, she carried a very expensive, very professional looking, camera.

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