A Ghostly Sonata: Part 1

Prologue

There exists a unique caste system in America. A subtle social hierarchy that determines one’s worth by their station in life. Those who have been spit out by polite society lurk in the shadows; forced to hide like a dirty secret far from the light. Forgotten, but not gone. I found this out the hard way, at a young age.

Flap. Slap. Slap. Flap. Brush, brush, slap.

“Brilliant! Angel, you are a natural!” Stephen Daye leaned forward, smiling up at the girl on stage as he burst into rapid clapping. His daughter Erika ceased her tap dance practice and grinned, her blue eyes glowing at his words of approval. Her black hair shone like it was sprinkled with stardust, reflecting the stage lights above her. She wore a sparkling white dress, white velvet ribbons in her hair, and black and white tap shoes.

“Practice makes perfect, though. Keep your arms tight and controlled when you swing them. Let’s run through it one more time before dinner. One-two-three-four-six-six-eight,” Stephen repeated as he tapped the beat.

“Dad, I’m tired, it’s been two hours already.”
“This was your idea. Do you think anyone ever succeeded by giving up? C’mon.” He made a rolling motion with his hand, in her direction.

Erika’s distorted reflection in the highly polished wooden stage floated below her as she danced.

When practice was over, Stephen and Erika walked toward the old elevator to the family’s ten-room apartment A muscular man in denim overalls was replacing a fuse.

“Hello, Uncle Jerome. Did you see me dancing?”

“I heard it., Shirley Temple’s got nothin’ on you.” Jerome winked.

Stephen threw back his head and laughed. “We know, that’s what started this. Angel saw the movie The Little Princess with Shirley Temple, and she decided to begin tap lessons so she could dance as well as Shirley.”

“I’m getting quite good at it.,” Erika tossed one of her braids back over her shoulder.

“No doubt.,” Jerome smiled; his teeth bright in his dark face.

“Are you still coming up for dinner?” Stephen asked.

“Sure am, just need to finish up a few things. Be there soon. I’m gonna take the stairs, though. Don’t trust that thing to hold my weight.”

The elevator took several minutes to travel to the upper floor, creaking and shaking the whole way up. “He’s not wrong about the elevator, but those stairs are a narrow death trap.”

“I like the elevator too. Oh, guess what? They’re doing a play at my school. A Seussical; that’s a musical based on Dr. Suess books. I’m going to audition tomorrow. Mrs. Larmer said you and Mom have to sign the permission slip. I gave it to Mom. She thinks it’s wonderful, but I had to wait and ask you. Can I?”

“Of course! I think that’s wonderful news! Your first play! What role are you auditioning for?” Stephen asked.

“The Cat in The Hat, of course,” Erika sighed dramatically, as if he should have known. “I talked Paul into trying out for Conrad, and Melanie is going to audition for Sally.” I’m going to get the lead. Know why?”

“Why?”

“Because I’m the best singer!” Erika took a deep breath, pushed her diaphragm out like she had seen her mother do, and la-la-la-ed a scale in dramatic soprano.

She has a greater range than even her mother, the most talented coloratura soprano of her generation. Erika is only twelve, Stephen thought. Her voice will only improve as she matures.

“And I’m the tallest in my class., I should get that role.,” Erika continued to chatter about her upcoming musical. “I’m happy for you,” Stephen said when she paused for breath.

“Hello, Stephen.,” His young wife Katherine greeted him with a kiss as he walked into their apartment. “Erika, dear, I was watching your practice., I moved that hidden panel so I could see the stage. You looked and sounded divine! Just divine!” Her voice was cultured and melodious.

Katherine had high cheekbones and sculpted features. Her beauty and her voice, along with her talent, had propelled her to become one of the most celebrated performers of her generation. Erika had inherited Katherine’s features, but her father’s coloring.

The third time really is the charm. Stephen thought. His first two wives hadn’t wanted children. Katherine was several years younger than him, and already had a successful career when they met.

“Thank you, Mom. It was fun. What’s for dinner?”

“Fried chicken and brussels sprouts, since I know you like those,”

“I don’t like those.”

“Erika,” Katherine sighed. “I distinctly remember you telling me that brussels sprouts are the only vegetable you like.”

“That was last week. I don’t like them anymore.”

“Erika,” Stephen said. “Don’t argue with your mother and go set the table please. Jerome will be up here soon.”

“Thank you,” Katherine murmured against his shoulder as she put her arms around him.

“It smells like the chicken is burning,” Stephen said. I need to hire a cook. I love Katherine, but she is a terrible cook.

“No, I think the stove is smoking; it’s old and there is sediment that won’t come off.”

But after she turned off the oven, gray smoke continued to fill the apartment.

“It’s getting worse,” Stephen coughed. “I don’t think it’s coming from the stove.”

“Where is all the smoke coming from?” Erika asked. “And what is that crackling sound?”

“Hang on, let me check,” Stephen sprinted to the apartment door and opened it slowly. The walls outside were alight.

“We have to get out!” Stephen shouted as he scooped up Erika and grabbed his wife’s hand. “Cover your mouths!”

They fled to the elevator, and Stephen slammed the gate closed as he pushed in behind them. He mashed the descend button. He was gasping, taking shallow, rapid breaths in his panic.
The elevator creaked and moved down a few feet, then squealed to a halt. There was a loud whip-like snap as a cable broke and the elevator slammed sideways in the shaft, knocking the family off their feet.

Stephen jumped up and tried to pry open the gate. It moved few inches, but then stuck fast.

“Damn, it won’t open!” Stephen stared around him as he gripped the sides of his head. We have to get out. He could feel the heat from the flames coating the elevator roof above him.

“Dad, I’m scared!” Erika’s eyes were wide, showing white all the way around as she stared up at him, trusting her father to get them out of this.

“Stephen!”

“It’s going to be okay. I’m sure Jerome has called the fire department by now.” His muscles tightened and he gripped the gate again, putting all his effort into prying it open. Nothing.

“Oh, God! Stephen, the wires are burning, they’ve caught all the wood on fire!” Katherine cried out.

Hungry flames devoured the wood all around them. Sparks from burning wires fell into Katherine’s red hair as she coughed and gasped.

“Stephen, she’s passed out!” Katherine shrieked as she patted Erika’s cheek, trying to revive her.

The space became an inferno. Katherine’s hair was blazing; flaming tendrils lay across Erika’s face, burning her. The smell was terrible, like sulfur, but also like nothing he had ever smelled before. If hell has an odor, this might be it. Stephen tried to put them out, adrenaline rushing through his veins and blocking out the pain of his own blistering flesh. But darkness took all sight, sound, and knowledge from him.

*******
Jerome was pounding up the stairs at that moment, a handkerchief tied over his mouth and nose, but still the acrid smoke choked him. The hallway was ablaze, but there was a narrow path. Jerome gripped his toolbox, unwilling to leave it behind. The apartment door stood open. He ran in and hollered their names. No answer.

They must have gotten out, I’m sure of it. He hurried back the way he came. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed that the elevator gate was partially open. He skidded to a stop, and then saw the elevator box was tilted sideways and back in the shaft, allowing him to see the motionless, burning forms of the family inside.

“Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh shit. Oh Lord,” he muttered as he flung the toolbox down and snapped it open with trembling fingers. He scrambled for the hacksaw, dropping it with his sweaty palms before snatching it up again. He grunted in effort as he sawed through two of the slats at the top and bottom.

Jerome flung the hacksaw aside and dropped to his stomach, extending his arm through the opening he made. Erika’s face was burned all along one side, and Katherine’s hair was nearly burned off.

He grabbed Erika first, taking a fistful of the bodice of her dress. She was limp as a ragdoll, but Jerome twisted and maneuvered her through the opening as gently as haste allowed.

He ripped off the handkerchief and patted her face, extinguishing the flames. He tried to be careful, but pieces of her skin sloughed off.

Jerome laid Erika on the carpeted hallway and turned back. He had just put his arm through when he heard a whip like screech and felt the elevator shake. He yanked his arm back a second before the last cable snapped, and the elevator free-fell to the basement.

“Stephen!” Jerome wailed. Stephen Daye had been his best friend since their school days. He had held Erika when she was just a tiny baby, the day her parents brought her home from the hospital.

Erika!

Jerome left his toolbox where it lay and swung her up in his arms. Her head lolled as he turned and ran down the narrow staircase as fast as he could.

“I’m gonna get you out of here, Erika. Hold on, hear?”






Chapter One (a) Ghost

A one-bedroom apartment. Harlem. Gleaming wood floors and exposed brick walls. Golden light bathed the empty wrought iron balcony outside and poured through the open window upon a man seated in his favorite armchair drinking coffee and reading the paper.

“Damn! Look at this, somebody bought that theater,” Jerome Collins whispered to himself as he read the article on the front page. He shook his head. “She ain’t going to be happy about this, I guarantee.” He wiped his forehead with his handkerchief and stuffed it back in his pocket.

“Are you talking to yourself again?”

Jerome jumped, startled as his foster daughter appeared next to the armchair where he was reading the paper and drinking coffee. “Told you about sneaking up on me, gonna give me a heart attack one of these days.”

“Sorry. I walk quiet, can’t help it.”

Jerome just grunted as he flipped to the sports section. “Could come in the front door like normal people, ‘stead of sneaking through that alley to the back door.” He muttered.

“Who won’t be happy about what?”

“Hmm? What’s that?”

“When I came in, you were saying somebody wouldn’t be happy about something?”

“Well, ain’t you nosy?! I dunno, some tiny article I read, I already forgot,” he stammered, coming up with the quickest lie he could think of. “Let me read my paper in peace, please. Haven’t even had my coffee yet, and here you come with questions!”

He snapped the paper and lifted it in front of his face, blocking her out. Snap! His foster daughter flicked it with her thumb and forefinger, startling him again.

“I was thinking it’s time for me to get my own apartment. I should have done this a while ago.”

Jerome lowered the paper and set it on the coffee table. “With what money? You don’t have a job!” He watched her swallow and her gaze slid to her left. “Ghost?” He asked gruffly, calling her by the nickname she preferred, his eyes narrowing in suspicion. “What you been up to?” He closed his eyes and rubbed his forehead. “Tell me you ain’t stealing again.”

He looked her over. Ghost’s black braid stuck out of her hoodie, tied with a black ribbon like always, her blue eyes looked a bit bloodshot, like she hadn’t been sleeping well.

“No,” she still wouldn’t meet his gaze. “I got a job.”

“Legal?”

“It’s not dangerous.”

“Prison is.”

“Only if I get caught.”

Ghost turned and headed into the kitchen, where she clattered around making herself a cup of coffee. “You want a bagel?” She hollered.

“Yeah. Alright.”

She’s right about needing her own place. This place barely qualifies as a two bedroom, she’s been sleepin’ in a converted closet for ten years. It had to be that way, didn’t want too many people knowing there was a kid here–a white kid–social services would have come around asking questions and hauled her right back to foster care. She’s grown now, twenty-two, ain’t no danger of that.
As for whatever she’s got going, maybe the less I know, the better. She gonna do what she gonna do.

Jerome closed the paper so that the sports section faced out and kicked the footstool down before walking into the kitchen.

Ghost had set his bagel, loaded with cream cheese, on the table. Jerome bumped into the chair, stubbing his big toe. ‘Ouch, damn,” he said, wiggling his bare feet. Ghost stopped in the midst of preparing her own bagel and eyed him intently over her shoulder. “Are you alright? You’re acting nervous, what’s up?”

He shrugged. “Old age.” He bit off a chunk of bagel, mumbled thanks, and shuffled back to his armchair, toe still aching. He could feel Ghost’s gaze on his back, knew without looking that she was frowning.

He expected her to ask more questions and was a bit surprised when she didn’t. She ate her bagel in silence, at the kitchen table, while he finished reading the paper. “Got some things to do, be back later,” She called as she rinsed her dishes and put them on the drying rack. “Mmhmm,” he feigned disinterest, but he watched her glide out the moss-green back door that led to the alley. No one in this apartment building used that door except Ghost. She preferred to avoid contact with other people whenever possible. Jerome sighed, wishing for the thousandth time that things could be different for her, that she could have had the life that was once promised, ripped away from her by chance.

************************************

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