The Ghost in the Third Row (2 page)

As it turned out, Pop was just the man's nickname. He was in charge of keeping the theater in shape. After Edgar introduced him, Pop gave a few rules: “No smoking, no drinks in the audience area, no gum under the seats …” Then he shuffled away to a smattering of applause.

“What an old fart,” said Melissa.

“Shhh!” hissed Chris, who was sitting on the other side of me. She had kept quiet until then, but I could tell she had been dying to tell Melissa to shut up.

Melissa's eyes flashed, and I knew instantly that it wouldn't be a good idea to get stuck between her and Chris any more than necessary.

As he was passing out the scripts, Edgar asked Alan Bland to give us a little background on the story. Alan said it was about a tragic romance that had taken place in the Grand Theater some fifty years ago. In those days Syracuse was a major tryout town for shows heading for New York City. One of the great stars of that time, a beautiful actress named Lily Larkin, had come here with a big costume drama that looked like it was going to be a smash hit when it finally got to Broadway.

Two of the troupe's actors, Edward Parker and Andrew Heron, had fallen in love with Lily. Both men had been courting her all through the tour, but only one man had been successful. Lily Larkin had fallen in love with Edward Parker. When the troupe reached Syracuse, Lily and Edward announced their engagement to the cast.

After Lily chose Edward, Andrew Heron decided if he couldn't have her, no one could. During the next night's performance, he climbed into the rigging, cut a rope, and sent a huge chandelier hurtling toward the stage. It struck Lily while she was in the middle of her big song, a romantic ballad with the same title as the show: “The Heart That Stays True.”

Lily fell to the floor. Moments later she died in the arms of her true love, Edward Parker.

Since that night, according to the legend, Lily's ghost had haunted the theater where she died—the very theater we were sitting in!

As Alan spoke, I could feel the hair on the back of my neck begin to rise. Not because it was a good story—although I thought it was. Not because I was sitting in a cold draft, although that was true, too. The reason the hair on the back of my neck was standing up was simple: the woman Alan Bland was describing was the woman who had been sitting next to my father on the day of the auditions.

I had actually seen the ghost of Lily Larkin!

CHAPTER THREE

Lydia the Leading Lady

At first I didn't say anything about what I had seen during the auditions. I didn't think anyone would believe me. I wasn't even sure I believed it myself.

But just a few nights later, two things happened to make me change my mind and tell all.…

It was our third night of real rehearsals. Edgar had sent Chris, Melissa, and me to a little room on the second floor of the theater, to learn our big second-act song.

Paula Geller, the composer, was working with us. I was really excited at first, because she had assigned each of us a solo. Then I found out I just couldn't sing my part right!

After my fifth try, Paula raised her fingers from the keyboard and looked at me over the top of her glasses. “You're a trifle flat,” she said.

“Of course she's flat,” whispered Melissa. “She's only eleven!”

Melissa was
only
twelve herself, but she was built like she was fourteen—at least.

Pow!
I thought, sending a mental blast in her direction. If mental telepathy really worked, I would have fried her brains.

Unfortunately, it had no effect. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw Chris give her the elbow.

Good old Chris. At least I had one friend in the room!

Paula pushed back the strand of damp red hair hanging over her eyes and let out a little sigh. “Let's try it again, Nine,” she said slowly.

I wasn't sure whether she was sighing because of my singing or Melissa's wisecracks. I imagine they were both a little hard to take on a hot summer night in a cramped room with no air-conditioning.

“Breathe more deeply this time,” Paula said as she began pounding the keys again.

What am I doing here?
I wondered desperately.
I can't do this!
I was beginning to get the feeling that pretty soon I would be asked to leave.

Of course, Melissa's comments weren't helping any. I really thought I could do what Paula wanted if I could just relax. But who can relax with a beady-eyed blonde waiting for you to make a mistake so she can laugh about it?

I wondered if it wouldn't have been smarter to let my father plan my summer for me after all.

“Yoo-hoo,” said Paula. “Are you there, Nine?”

I blushed. I had gotten so distracted that I missed my cue.

I took a deep breath and nodded my head. Paula began to play again. Remembering a trick my chorus teacher had taught me, I tried to imagine the note I kept messing up coming out clear and bell-like.

The note was only two measures away. I belted out the words “on the stage!” and reached for the note as if my life depended on it.

I was lucky it didn't; I would have been dead on the spot.

Paula put her head on the keyboard and groaned. Melissa snorted. I could feel a blush creeping up my cheeks.

“You'd better work on it at home for a while,” said Paula softly.

I wanted to crawl under a rock and die.

Just then Edgar came bounding into the room. He had a pencil tucked behind one ear, and he was carrying a clipboard. “Well,” he said, “how goes it, troops?”

He looked so eager and enthusiastic I couldn't bear for him to find out I was letting him down.

“Scram, Edgar,” said Paula in a tired voice. “We're not ready for you to hear us yet.”

“In fact, we probably never will be,” whispered Melissa.

I thought it would be nice if the ceiling fell in on her right then.

Edgar's smile faded a little. “Paula,” he said, “we're using this number for the radio spot. It has to be ready by next week!”

I thought Paula was going to explode. “Next
week
?” she screeched. “The show doesn't open for nearly two months! Now you listen to me, Edgar Lonis—”

Paula's tirade was interrupted by a scream from the hallway.

I had heard kids scream on the playground all my life. And I'd heard scream queens in the movies. But that was the first time I had ever heard a real-life scream of terror. I thought my skin was going to crawl right off my body.

Have you ever been watching a movie when they stop the projector but keep the picture on the screen? For a minute everyone just freezes in some weird position. Then the projector starts again, and everyone bounces into action.

It was like that in the little rehearsal room. For a minute after we heard that scream, no one moved at all. Then everyone bolted for the door. Chris and I were the last ones through. Melissa was first, naturally. A small crowd had already gathered in the hall by the time we got there.

“Stand back! Give her air!” That was Edgar, trying to push his way through the cluster of actors and production people.

As they moved aside, I could see who had been screaming. It was Lydia Crane, the beautiful woman who had the starring role in the show.

Lydia was stretched out on the floor. Alan Bland, Paula's writing partner, was kneeling behind Lydia. He had placed her head on his knees. Ken Abbott, the handsome, dark-haired leading man, was bending over her, patting her cheek as though he was trying to wake her up.

Lydia's eyes were wide open, but I had the feeling she wasn't seeing any of us. It was almost as if she was looking into another world.

Edgar reached down and put his hand on her arm. First she flinched away from him; then she turned and looked into his eyes.

“The Woman in White,” she whispered. Her voice was husky with fear. The sound of it made the little hairs on the back of my neck stand up. “Edgar, it was the Woman in White!”

She buried her face in her hands and began to sob.

CHAPTER FOUR

The View from the Balcony

Do you know what
frisson
means?

If you do, you're ahead of me. I only learned it because my fifth-grade teacher used it all the time. He was a true horror-movie freak, and he decided if a film was any good by whether or not it provoked a frisson in him. Anyway, it's a word the French came up with to describe that tingle that skitters down your spine and across your skin when something truly horrifying happens.

Frisson
is the word I always think of when I remember the look in Lydia's eyes that night. At one point she turned her face directly toward me. But I know she didn't see me. It was as if she were looking into some bottomless pit.

That's when the frisson hit me. It was like thousands of little ants running across my skin.

Poor Alan Bland was almost as bad off as Lydia. His big eyes were wide with fright, and his bony hands trembled as he tried to hold her up.

Paula knelt by his side and put a hand on his shoulder. “Did you see it, too?” she asked.

Alan shook his head no. His mouth opened and closed a few times, and his Adam's apple bobbed up and down in his throat. But no sound came out.

Melissa nudged me in the ribs. “What a nerd,” she whispered loudly.

Paula shot us a sharp glance.

I wanted to die of embarrassment—and I hadn't even said anything! Right about then I would have handed Melissa over to the ghost without a second thought.

Suddenly a booming voice cried out, “What in hell is going on here?” Looking up, I saw Gwendolyn Meyer pushing her way through the knot of people surrounding Lydia. Ken Abbott quickly moved out of her way.

“Lydia thought she saw something,” Edgar said quietly. “It frightened her.”

Gwendolyn rolled her eyes. “Don't tell me,” she said sarcastically. “Let me guess. Our famous ghost has made another appearance, and our leading lady has become faint-hearted and collapsed.”

“Gwendolyn,” said Edgar, in a warning tone.

But Gwendolyn was wound up and ready to roll. Her nostrils flared, making her look a little like a racehorse. “Actresses!” she snorted. “Someday I'd like to produce a series of plays without a single actress in them. I get so tired of whining, sniveling—”

“Gwendolyn!” snapped Edgar. “Back off!”

Gwendolyn reared back, a ferocious look on her face. But she closed her mouth.

“What's bugging
her
?” Chris whispered as Edgar and Alan helped Lydia to her feet.

“Oh, she's always that way,” whispered Melissa knowingly.

“All right, why don't we get back to work?” said Edgar. “We've got plenty to do!”

Muttering among themselves, the cast and crew began to drift away. Chris, Melissa, and I lingered on because Paula was still talking to Alan.

“You girls had better go back to the room,” she said, suddenly noticing us. “I'll be there in a minute.”

Reluctantly, we turned to go. As we did, I noticed that the only other person still standing in the hall was Pop.

He didn't see me looking at him because he was staring at Lydia. I don't know what he was thinking. But the look in his eyes sent another frisson skittering down my back.

I turned and hurried after the others.

“Well,” said Paula when she joined us back in our rehearsal room. “That was certainly exciting. I had no idea Alan and I would be stirring up such nonsense when we wrote this show.”

“Nonsense?” said Chris. She sounded really surprised. “Do you mean you don't believe in the ghost?”

Paula snorted. “How dumb do I look?” she asked. “Bite your tongues,” she said before any of us could answer.

I smiled. She had said it to all of us. But she was looking directly at Melissa.

Not that it did any good. Melissa opened her mouth anyway. To my surprise, she asked a halfway intelligent question. “If you don't believe in the ghost, why did you ask Alan if he saw it?”

Paula began to blush. “I—I just wanted to know if he had seen something that might have looked like a ghost,” she said. “I assumed there was something that Lydia took for a ghost. I thought he might know what it was.”

I didn't believe her for a minute. Neither did the others. “She was lying through her teeth” was the way Chris expressed it when we were standing outside the theater waiting for our parents to pick us up.

Before I could ask her why she felt that way a battered blue Volkswagen bumped into the curb in front of us. “That's my dad,” said Chris. “I've got to go. See you tomorrow night.” She scrambled into the car and rolled down the window. “Assuming the ghost doesn't get you first!” she cried as her father began to pull away. Then she tried to laugh a deep, spooky laugh. Only it came out more like a cackle.

I was alone in front of the theater. Actually, Melissa was standing beside me. But as far as I was concerned, that still meant I was without human company.

To my surprise, she actually spoke to me. “I've got my lines all memorized,” she said. “Do you?”

Before I could answer, a silver BMW slid in next to the curb. Without waiting for me to answer her question, Melissa walked to the car. I thought she was going to leave without even saying goodbye. But just as she was about to get into the car, she turned to me and said, “Try sneaking a breath two beats before that note you're having trouble with. It might help.”

She slid into the car and slammed the door before I could say either “Thank you” or “Bug off,” which were the two responses I was considering. The BMW pulled out into traffic.

As I was standing there, it started to rain. I was tired. I was hungry. And I had to go to the bathroom.

“Come on, Dad,” I said, bouncing on one foot and then the other. “Get me out of this place.”

He didn't come.

Five minutes went by, and he still hadn't come. I was starting to feel as if I might explode.

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