. . .
If you’d like to start the story from the beginning follow this link to Chapter 1, if you’d like to refresh yourself on what’s happened follow this link to Chapter 2. I hope you enjoy this, the latest installment of The Grave Dancer.
Here is the second installment of The Grave Dancer. I started it back in August and have finally been able to get back to it! To catch yourself up on the story here’s a link to Chapter 1. Please enjoy this thrilling mystery!
“Is something burning?” Hissed Paul as he glanced to the front of the classroom. Ms. Price stood, arm waving as she wrote the next math problem. Her attention wholly focused on the chalkboard, heedless of her directionless class.
“Joseph!” Paul said, eyes still on the teacher. No one was paying attention to her, nor was anyone paying attention to him. Barely any of the 26 students in his class noticed Paul as he looked around, his alarm growing.
Is nobody smelling this?
Glancing out the doorway into the hall the young boy waited to hear someone yelling.
Paul Glazer’s clothes hung on his stocky body, evidence of a hand-me-down little brother. His round face and tousled brown hair were as plain as the next tired, summer-lusting six grader. Even his hazel eyes seemed to blend into his surroundings. The effect making him appear as ordinary as wall paper. But the ordinary of the second to last week of school shattered. Something was wrong and everyone was missing it. Except for him.
“I think something’s burning.” He said louder, attracting the attention of a wiry boy in the row next to his. Joseph Martin, Jo to his friends, lazily flicked his pencil up the tattooed surface of his desk. Dark eyes staring off into space as the pencil rolled up and down. He allowed the pencil to roll up once, and then drop to the floor.
Jo blinked and then turned to his friend. He half whispered back to Paul. “What? What’s burning?”
Paul was already leaning towards the door. His brow furrowing as he strained to look out the classroom door into the hall. It was empty, not a student in sight. A tap on his shoulder made him jump as a sandy haired boy asked, “What’s up?”
It was Ruben, Paul’s friend from before kindergarten. There wasn’t anything those two hadn’t done without the other. Ruben Strasser stood almost a whole head above his peers. Being so tall he was often mistaken for a middle schooler. It happened everywhere, the local nickel arcade, grocery store, library, even the movie theater. Everyone in his family was tall, his mom and dad and six other siblings stuck out like trees wherever they went. His white blond hair, thick coke bottle glasses, and lanky appearance didn’t help either.
“Something is on fire. I think the school is on fire.” Heads turned towards him. Other children started to sniff at the air.
Paul was twitching in his seat now. What if I just go pull the fire alarm by Mr. Smith’s classroom? Heck, maybe I should just start screaming fire.
Jo looked at Paul, thinking. He glanced up a their teacher, still droning on in front of the chalkboard. With a surreptitious air he leaned towards the open classroom door and sniffed.
“You’re right.” Jo said, eyeing the doorway. By then more than Ruben had joined in sniffing at the air. Half the class was now shifting in their seats, waiting.
“Why aren’t any of the fire alarms going off?” Asked Ruben, thinking aloud. “Maybe Jenkin’s lit the girls bathroom up again.”
Someone snarled behind the three, making them jump. “Oi! Are you kidding me four eyes? I’m right here.”
A large brut of a kid shook a fist in their direction as Jo, Ruben, and Paul turned around. Jenkins was the class bully and nobody talked about him behind his back. Kids usually ended up with a black eye or bloody nose if they talked to much around him.
“Okay, that rules him out.” Jo said. Now the back half of the classroom shifted in their seats, curiosity roused by the tussle. Ms. Price continued like clockwork, her chalk scraping across the board. A small mound of white dust drifted lazily to the floor.
“Um, Ms. Price?” Leslie Harwen’s voice cut through their teacher’s concentration. Leslie was the classroom know it all. She towered over the boy’s in her grade, except for Ruben. Her flyaway tangle of carrot colored hair always struck the eyes first. Followed by her knowledge of mathematics. She was insufferable. The girl was as infuriating a younger sibling. Except even more so because she knew everything, so you could never win.
The chalk snapped in two and fell out of Ms. Price’s hand. Paul groaned as Leslie flicked a bouquet of tight curls over her shoulder. Does she always have to do that? Disgusted, Paul looked at Jo, ready to yell if the smell got any stronger.
“Mmm?” Ms. Price half turned to the class, a toad smile spreading wide across her worn, bespectacled face.
Leslie pointed to Paul, who was half out of his seat. “Ms. Price, Paul thinks something’s on fire.”
Ms. Price blinked, processing the moment.
A billow of smoke curled up over the top of the classroom door. Paul jumped out of his chair, his desk crashing to the floor.
“Fire!” He screamed. Chaos erupted as students took up the cry, some just opening their mouth and screaming. Ms. Price stood rooted to the ground, frozen with shock. Out in the hallway classroom doors banged open and more voices shouted out.
No bells rang.
A panicked wave of children and teachers swept Paul out into the hall. Without the well-practiced sound of the fire drill all turned to chaos. Smoke continued to pour into the hall.
Hands reached around Paul and hauled him into an empty classroom. “Gotcha!”Ruben’s arms could have wrapped around him twice. The two tripped and fell into a third form, Jo. They sat there watching forms trample past.
Ruben jumped up and ran between desks to the large windows. “We’ve got to get out of here. That fire is burning fast.”
He threw open a latch and pulled at the window. Paint flaked off from where his hands scrabbled at the wood. It held fast, rattling at his strength.
“It’s stuck! Paul get over here!” Paul glanced at Jo who was staring at the door. A curious look had come across the dark haired youth.
“Jo? Jo are you alright?”
Ruben grunted, shaking the window panes. “Paul come on! We’ve got to get this open!”
Paul ran to the window, bracing his hands against the frame. Above them smoke curled around the lights. Out in the hall people crammed past the door. Jo just stood there, framed in the door.
“Jo come on, we need your help! Jo?”
With a shriek the window opened a few inches and then stuck fast. Cool summer air blew into the room. Ruben’s movements grew more panicked. “NO! It’s stuck, it’s not going anywhere!”
Paul wiped sweat from his forehead, and then froze. “It’s getting warm in here. We need to move. Now.”
“Jo come on, help us get this window open, we’re going to die if you don’t!” Paul yelled over his shoulder. Anger flared in him. Why doesn’t he move? What’s wrong?
Broken from his spell Jo turned around to his friends, eyes wide. “I’ve got to go . . . I’ve got to go get it.”
“Get what? Jo come on we’re going to be toast in a few minutes!”
“No I need to get her.”
Ruben was about to turn around and slap his friend out of his shock. With a shudder he squared his shoulders. Before either could speak Jo threw himself back into the melee of the hallway.
“Jo! No!” But he was gone.
“Of all the stupid things!” Roared Ruben as he beat a fist against the glass.
“What is he doing?”
Paul just stared, gaping at the space Jo use to occupy.
“I-I don’t know.” He shook his head in bewilderment. Ruben continued to pull at the window.
“What do we do now?” Paul felt panic slipping into his mind. The windows weren’t going anywhere.
A flash of red hair and horn rimmed glasses exploded into the room. “Come on you guys! He went this way! We’ve got to go!” Leslie Harwen stood in the doorway, waving a hand at them and pointing back into the hall. The crowd was thinning as the larger part of the student body left the burning building.
Paul stared open mouthed at the girl, who had never once spoken a nice thing to him. Behind him Ruben gawked, window forgotten.
“You idiots! Come on! Your friend went this way! I saw him! If you don’t hurry the fire is going to get him!” And she was gone, back out the door. Her sudden disappearance galvanized both boys into action. They charged out the door and own a hall. Smoke swirled thick around the ceiling as they ran through now empty halls.
“I think he went this way!” Leslie shouted as she threw herself around a corner. Paul and Ruben threw up their arms as from the other end of the hall flames raged. The ceiling above seethed with heat and smoke.
“Which way did she go?” Asked Ruben as he ducked low, coughing.
“This way I think! To the greenhouse!”
Both paused, looking back at each other.
“You don’t think he’s . . .” Said Ruben, face reddening with anger.
Paul was already spinning around towards the greenhouse. “Yep I do!”
They raced past the school library and into a glass lined hallway. At the end a metal door stood ajar.
“He’s inside!” Called Leslie as she threw open the door. Within the greenhouse plants stood on grow labs and tables. Even some old book shelves overflowed with greenery. The smell of wet earth and decay was stark contrast to the inferno beyond. Dampness clung to the three children as they found their friend crouched low in a corner.
Jo seemed to be whispering to a potted plant cradled in his arms. He reverently held the pot before him. An azure crackled glaze surface shone in iridescent lights.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” Jo kept saying to the room as he turned to his friends.
“JO! WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THIS!” Ruben’s face was beet red and he all but lunged towards the smaller kid.
Paul leapt between the two, pushing Ruben back. He tried to be understanding, considering the circumstances. “Jo what are you doing here? We’ve got to get out.”
Jo’s voice was small. “I know, I know. But this is her pot, it was one of the last one’s she made for the school, you know, before she died.”
Guilt twisted at Paul’s stomach as he remembered. Jo’s mother had died no more than three months ago. She had been a fantastic artist, sculpting hundreds of vases and flower pots. She had given her favorites to the school after the doctors had told her the brain tumor was inoperable.
Paul looked at the floor for a moment, and then back to Ruben and Leslie. He opened his mouth to speak, but Leslie held up a hand, her eyes widening with terror.
All four kids froze in terror. Voices were approaching. Angry voices of adults that seemed to be fighting about something.
“We can’t get caught here, they’ll think we started this!” Shrieked Leslie. “Do you have any idea what my parents will do to me?”
Paul looked in desperation around the smoky greenhouse. Where would be enough room for them to fit?
“They’re getting closer! Jo get over here!” Ruben pulled Jo away from the main door. He still clutched at his mother’s pot of bulbs. Panicked, both bumped into the gardening table. Pots of vibrant Bougainvillea vines that spilled onto the floor.
For an instant Paul stared at the table, then his body caught up with his mind and he moved. “Quick, get under the table now!
“What?” Cried Leslie.
Paul shoved the girl forward. “Go! Under the table now!”
Ruben parted the vines and all but threw Jo inside. Leslie followed behind Ruben’s lanky form. The smoke grew thicker as Paul crouched low as the door handle clicked open. A large frame filled the door as Paul slid under the table.
A rasping voice boomed into the space. “Come on you ingrates! You want to be caught in this?”
The legs of three men came into view between the fuchsia stalks of Bougainvillea. Two were tall and muscular. They carried an oversized black garbage bag which swung side to side.
“Sorry boss, but this geezer is heavier than a bag of bricks.” The bag knocked against a rakes and some shovels. near one end of the table They clattered to the ground. Again Ruben pulled Jo deeper under the table as quietly as he could.
Paul pushed himself backward as the men approached their hiding place. Unaware of his body pressing against Leslie.
“Shut up and get that body over there now! That fire’s spreading faster than I thought. We’re all gonna be bacon if you don’t move!” This voice came from a shorter man. His bow-legged stance could be seen supporting a large paunch of stomach.
The taller men brushed past the table and with a heave dropped the bag at the end of the table. Dust flew up into the air, and right into the kid’s faces.
The paunchy man yelled again. “Come on guys, this place will be gone any second now. Hurry!”
It was all Paul could do to not sneeze. The men loped towards the metal door, kicking equipment out of the way. Flinging the door open the short man wheezed through the door.
Beside him, Paul felt Leslie’s body jerk. Glancing at the girl. Her face was beat red and she was wiping at her face and throat. Dust coated her glasses and dress.
The first tall man passed through the door. Leslie gasped and then let out an explosive sneeze. The second man paused, hand on the door. He looked back into the smoke filled room, right at the vine covered table.
Leslie gasped again, another sneeze forming in her nose. Paul held his hand over Leslie’s mouth, smothering her sneeze against his hand. Her glasses flew from her face and onto the black garbage bag.
“Hey boss?” The man looked back out into the hall.
Smoke poured through the open door as the squat man’s voice echoed through the open door. “What? Are you really stopping? What’s wrong with you? Let”s go!”
There was a hesitation, and then the man’s legs disappeared as the door slammed shut.
“We’ve got go get out of here now!” Yelled Ruben as he all but threw Jo out from under the table.
“My glasses! My glasses, where did they go?” Leslie clawed her way past Paul, her panic growing.
“I can’t see anything without them! And they cost me so much my mom will kill me if I lose them.”
“You guys if we don’t get out now we won’t have to worry about any of that. Glowing embers fell from the ceiling. The heat was almost unbearable. Ruben was already at the door, feeling it with the back of his hand. Jo stood behind him, pot clutched in his arms. Leslie floundered around the room, arms outstretched as she ran into another table.
“It doesn’t feel too warm, I think we’ll be okay. Come on!” Ruben yelled again, as coughing and choking his companions made their way to the door. All except Paul.
“Paul what are you waiting for let’s go! You’re going to die!” Tears poured from Leslie as she turned back to her classmate. “Come on!”
“Oh my gosh.” Paul gasped, then coughed. “You guys! There’s someone in this bag!”
“What?” Leslie ran back to Paul’s side. The sound of crumbling roofing and stressed beams nearly deafened them all.
“There’s a body in this bag!” Paul shouted over the noise.
Ruben had already disappeared with Jo into the hallway, which flickered with red-orange flames. Leslie grabbed Paul’s hand, surprised to find her glasses held firm between his fingers.
“Paul stop it! Come on!” She sobbed.
“Look!” Paul pulled away the bag to reveal an aged face and chest. Leslie tried to scream, but only squeaked and coughed as she clutched at Paul’s arm. An elderly man dressed in a dark jacket and buttoned shirt. He looked familiar, yet vague in her mind. He was dead, his skin white and lifeless. Glassy eyes stared into the opposite wall.
“Who-” Paul was about to ask but then Leslie found her breath and began screaming. He felt her yank on his arm and then the room was a blur of color. Ceiling joists gave way above them crashing down onto the greenhouse’s glass roof. Bricks and mortar groaned and cracked. An immense weight shifted as the outside walls caved inward.
A brick glanced off of Paul’s cheek as flames licked at his back. Leslie was still screaming as they threw open a pair of blistering glass doors. They shattered behind them as what was left of the school thundered to the ground.
Sirens sounded from all around the school as police and fire trucks flooded the scene. Children all around were being shooed into restless groups by harangued teachers. Firefighters surrounded the blaze and positioned gushing hoses. Unnoticed by any adults Leslie, Paul, Jo, and Ruben huddled in the middle of one group. They sat on the ground, breathing in the fresh air, calming their nerves. Soot marked their faces and clothes, even after they had tried to wipe it off with handfuls of grass.
“Well I guess school’s out for the summer.” Said a nearby kid. That drew a few laughs from all around. Someone cheered, but then stopped as a teacher lost her composure and pulled the kid out by his ear.
“Are you serious Paul?” Asked Ruben, his eyes all but breaking his glasses. He looked more like an owl than ever before. “There was a body in that bag they left behind?”
“Shhhh!” Hissed Leslie as she rubbed at her horn rimmed lenses. “Don’t talk so loud. You don’t want anyone else to hear.”
“We don’t?” Asked Jo, who had finally snapped out of his stupor. Although his mother’s vase hadn’t left his hand. “Why not?”
Paul looked around, as if an adult was crawling through the mess of kids to hear them. “Could you imagine what our teachers would do or say to us if they found out we didn’t follow the rules and just leave? Besides what if those guys are still around?”
“So what if they are?”
Paul rolled his eyes. “Jo, come on. Those men killed a guy. What do you think they’d do to us if they found out we were in that room, with the body?”
Jo’s eyes fell back to the ground. “Oh, yeah that makes sense.”
Leslie cut in, her mouth working around the words. “But we need to tell someone Paul. Sooner or later they’re going to find out there’s more than just burnt school work and stuff in there.”
Paul chewed on his bottom lip. “I know.”
But before any of them could say more their classmates were standing up and walked towards the main road. Paul could see it already clogged with worried parents waiting for their children.
The four tried to lag behind as the mass of students pushed away from the now smoking ruin. There was a small bottle neck between two fire trucks that gave them a moment alone and unobserved.
Paul turned to his comrades and whispered, “We need to meet up later. Can you guys meet at the library after dinner tonight?”
They all nodded.
“Good. Don’t tell anyone about this, promise? Not even your-”
A group of adults stepped around the front of the truck, right next to the kids. As one the four turned away, faking innocence. The adults wore masks of consternation. Several were already shaking their heads.
“The alarms were cut. Do you understand? Someone cut the alarms!” Exclaimed a man in red and yellow fire fighting uniform. Leslie hid a gasp beneath a hand as Ruben elbowed her in the side. Principle Hedgely ran a soot stained hand through his hair. He staring at the smoking ruin that was his school.
The fireman looked out at the grassy quad, where kids continued to press towards their parents. “But who? Who would try to kill a school full of kids?”
All four exchanged wide eyed looks as the discussion subsided. Principle Hedgely looked back towards the open field of children.
“I don’t know.
A chill breeze blew between whispering rows of pines around the old Monroe City cemetery. Dried leaves and lawn clippings drifted between darkened headstones. Evening was waning into night as the wizened grounds keeper, Mr. Portsmith, made his final rounds to the dead.
“Cold air tonight.” He said to himself as he brandished his walking stick on the smooth asphalt path. Shadows crept lengthwise across a worn garden shed. Mr. Portsmith’s hunched shoulders turn down a paved path leading deeper into the cemetery. The night air grew heavy with moisture. Mr. Portsmith looked at the setting sun and continued to mutter, “Must be a storms coming.”
Mr. Portsmith had worked within the cemetery for as long as anyone could remember. Everyone knew his gnarled form, working with youthful energy each morning and evening. Gaunt frame inspecting the sprinklers as they shot water across immaculate lawns. Deft hands working between manicured hedges and clearing away growth from worn stone. Even the unmanageable lilac hedge running one length if the property bent to his careful hand.
In the twilight no other soul stood between the rows of pines, linden and willow trees. Mr. Portsmith continued along the cemetery perimeter, legs pushing forward. He slowed as the ground rose to meet the lilac hedge and paused for a time on the small hillock.
“Yes, there’s a good town if I do say so myself.” His eyes crinkled as he sought out the faint lights beginning to spread around the city. Between black pines stretched the city of Monroe, a place full of the small town feel. On main street sat a tired looking city hall, city library, and police station. Across the street a modern looking grocery store, movie theater, and gas station. Sleek and efficient lines drew a stark contrast against the crumbling past. Beyond main street lay straight rows of suburban homes, a two-story junior high and high school. What was not visible beyond that was the local park, and elementary school. The city of thirteen thousand strong began to tuck into the night.
Mr. Portsmith shifted, bending a tired knee as he remembered the past. “So much growth, so much so.”
Above him the sky drew in a brilliant sunset, catching the tips of clouds and setting them aflame. The old man moved on, following the fragrance of lilac. Clumps of purple, blue, and white shifted in the wind, bleeding to black.
Mr. Portsmith stopped again, drinking in the flowers with his whole body. But the moment was short-lived. A sudden chill ran down his spine, and he felt his leg seize. With a grunt he took a hop forward, “Whelp, its past time I headed back to the Misses-”
A sudden noise beyond the hedge made the man pause. It was a lovely evening, but the path seemed darker, colder as if shifting deeper into the night. More noises brushing through vegetation gave Mr. Portsmith pause. An unmistakable sound of feet crunching through dead leaves sounded in Mr. Portsmith’s ears. And for an unknown reason fear set his skin crawling. Someone was walking beyond the hedge, someone who did not want to be seen.
“Hello?” The caretaker tied to say, but his breath caught in his throat, and he felt himself move closer to the hedge. His hand clasped tighter onto his cane. Above him the sun’s final rays alighted on the tips of the pines by the far side of the cemetery next to the main road.
Confused the old man tried to make sense of his actions. Was he actually feeling, fear? The footsteps continued on, growing faint until they disappeared. Mr. Portsmith breathed out a slow breath, whoever it was had gone.
He had just step out back onto the path when a form broke through a gap in the hedge without a sound. It moved no more than fifty feet from where he stood. A figure dressed all in white.
Blood drained from his face as he felt a disquieting twist in his stomach. A creeping desire to remain hidden within the depths of the lilac bush curled tight round his neck. It was near impossible to see the old man, but still he remained motionless.
The figure in white weaved between headstones, reaching out to touch them as they walked by. As they did so Mr. Portsmith saw a shock of dark hair spilling down what could only be a white night-gown.
“Who is she?” He whispered, his voice sounding loud in the dark. Desire to divine the woman’s intention gripped him, and he stepped onto the path. Forgetting the cold, and his bad leg he began to move.
The woman clad in white continued forward, at an angle to the old man’s path. Ahead of her a man-sized granite headstone jutted from the ground.
“She’s headed for the angel garden.” He thought. Many years working in the depths of the graveyard had given Mr. Portsmith time to be creative. Both shadows walked toward a collection of carved figures resting around a thick willow.
The woman stopped at the threshold of the carved circle of figures. Using reflexes he didn’t know he still had, Mr. Portsmith skipped behind a cracked obelisk. He clung on tight to the side of the carved stone and stole a glance around it. The woman cast hear head around, taking in the figures. Drinking in the gentle shifting of willow branches. Forms played all around the cemetery as wind taunted aging branches.
As twilight grew the woman seemed to draw in light, causing her whole body to shimmer and glow. Mr. Portsmith stared in wonder as the woman ran forward to a figure in the center. The night air breathed again, and he felt his skin crawl. Beyond where the old man stood, a dark a shadow shifted.
It was at this moment that Mr. Portsmith’s mind switched back into his caretakers roll. He took a half step around the marker, muttering, “What’s she doing now? She shouldn’t be here, it’s after hours.”
The woman hadn’t noticed and was now doing something rather strange. It made the man pause, filling his gut with unease. With arms raised to the sky, the figure in white began to dance.
Feet kissing the ground, she began to spin around, deftly placing each foot on the cool wet ground. Circling the central figure the wrath I’m white moved faster and faster. Hair flying around her head, white cloth dress blowing around her.
Mr. Portsmith wanted to stop looking. He wanted to turn his back on the bizarre spectacle and walk with purpose confident to his shed. To open the closet where his tools and myriad of keys hung and car was parked. He could see his hands finding the key a hundred times over, felt the door handle click beneath his fingers. Even the turning over of the car engine sent a vibration through his feet and hands. Everything in his body told him to flee.
But he didn’t. So drawn to the woman was he that he didn’t even notice the large form breaking from the lilac hedge. Nor did he see its deft movements towards him, weaving between gravestones.
Mr. Portsmith felt himself step out into the night, not realizing he was a stones throw now from the woman. She continued to dance, and he contention watch. Then as if realizing he’d been there all along the woman stopped mid stride, hands raised once more to the sky. With halting and jerking movements she turned to him.
She had large dark eyes,and a wide mouth framed with a mass of unkempt waving curls. Twigs and dead leaves clung to dress and hair alike. Her face was white as the cloth that garbed the thin body. Full lips parted and Mr. Portsmith watch as the woman’s brows raised, and eyes filled with terror. He stepped back as she screamed. Mr. Portsmith felt a searing pain in the back of his head, and then all went black.
Trees moved in the dark, swaying to and fro. Leaves crackled across the ground, catching on cold headstones. A faint scream echoed beyond the Lilac hedge. Tall stands of pines swallowed all noise coming from the cemetery as the night stilled.