The Ghost in the Third Row (3 page)

I looked back through the glass doors of the theater. A few people still lingered inside the lobby. I could see Edgar, Gwendolyn, Paula, and Alan. They seemed to be arguing about something. I didn't want to intrude. But I
had
to use the bathroom.

Moving quietly, I slipped through the doors and headed for the stairway that led up to the bathrooms. Nobody seemed to notice me.

The mezzanine where the bathrooms were located was like half a second floor. Part of it was cut away, and it was surrounded by a railing, so I could look down into the lobby.

I wasn't too thrilled by the fact that the lights were out up there. But by sticking to the railing, I got enough light from the lower level to see where I was going. Trying to kind of glide along, so I wouldn't make too much noise, I passed above the group on the first floor.

“Not good for the cast!” I heard Edgar saying. His voice was low, but fierce. I was dying to stop there and eavesdrop for a while. But I had to get to the bathroom!

The lights were out there, too. But once I was inside the door, it took only a moment of fumbling to find the switch.

If I had had any common sense, I would have taken care of my business, run back down the stairs, and headed for the street. But common sense was never one of my strong points. At least, that was what my mother had always claimed, before she left. So she probably wouldn't have been surprised at what happened after I left the bathroom.

The funny thing is, it still surprises
me.
I mean, I'm not usually all that bold and brave. And when you consider what had already happened in the theater that night, I should have been shaking all over. But when I spotted that little sign over the door that led to the balcony, I just couldn't resist sneaking up to take a look. I had admired the balcony from the stage the first night of rehearsals. I also knew it was off-limits, except when the theater had some attraction that really packed the house.

I figured I might never have a better chance to see it. Even so, I hesitated for a moment, wondering if my father had gotten there yet. But then I decided that I had had to wait for him, so it wouldn't hurt him to wait another minute or two for me.

Taking a deep breath, I stepped through the door.

The stairwell was dark and surprisingly cool, considering what a hot night it was. Keeping one hand against the wall, I made my way slowly up the short flight of stairs.

The carpeting muffled my footsteps. The theater seemed deathly still.

I was tingling with excitement, and for a moment I had the feeling I was headed for some wonderful adventure—that maybe when I had traveled through this strange, dark passage I would come out in some totally different world.

Sometimes my imagination gets out of control.

Naturally I was disappointed when I reached the balcony and discovered that it was, after all, only a balcony.

But only a
little
disappointed. Because it was wonderful being up there. By the dim light filtering up from the stage area, I could see great long rows of seats stretching in front of me. To my right the rows marched upward, rising until they were lost out of sight in the darkness at the top of the theater.

When I turned left, toward the stage, it was even more wonderful. The theater was stretched out beneath me like some glorious, oversize dollhouse. The modern movie theaters I go to suddenly seemed bare and tiny compared to this space.

I settled into a seat and stared down at the stage, imagining myself there, acting, singing, gracefully dancing.

Suddenly I caught my breath. Someone
was
dancing down there.

It was her!

Leaning forward, I held my breath and watched as the shimmering figure of the Woman in White glided across the stage. She was wearing that same old-fashioned dress, which I now realized must be the costume she had been wearing when she was killed. She had her arms raised, as if she were dancing with some invisible partner. But she was alone. And she looked sad. Very, very sad.

From somewhere, I heard the faintest strain of music.

At first I could barely make it out. But after a moment I recognized it as a song Paula had played for us earlier in the evening. It was “The Heart That Stays True”—the song Lily Larkin had been singing when she was murdered.

I should have been scared, I suppose. But I didn't sense any evil in this ghost. Just terrible loneliness.

So I wasn't frightened at all—until a huge hand clamped down on my shoulder.

Then I nearly fainted.

CHAPTER FIVE

Chris

Three things happened at once: I started to scream; I spun around in my seat; and I heard a familiar voice snarling, “What are you doing up here, kid?”

It was Pop. He looked fierce, not at all like the sweet old grandfatherly type I had imagined him to be.

I swallowed and looked back toward the stage. The ghost was gone.

Had he seen her?

“I said, what are you doing up here?” repeated Pop, giving me a little shake. I turned back to him. There was anger in his eyes—and something else, too. Only I couldn't figure out what it was.

“I—I just came up to look,” I stammered. “I wasn't hurting anything.”

“Well, just get yourself right back down,” said Pop gruffly. “This balcony is off-limits to anyone who doesn't have a ticket—which is most people, most of the time. You kids get to sneaking up here and the next thing you know one of you will be falling over the edge. Then your parents will be suing the theater because we didn't keep you out of here! They ought to sue themselves for not teaching you better manners! Go on! Scat!”

I got out of there as fast as I could, racing down the stairs so quickly I nearly made Pop's prediction about hurting myself come true. I shot across the mezzanine, down the next flight of stairs, through the lobby, and out the front doors—something like the Cowardly Lion running away from the Wizard of Oz, except that I opened the door instead of going through the glass.

My father was just pulling up to the curb.

“Well, looks like my timing was perfect,” he said cheerfully as I quickly got into the car. “They must have put you through some workout tonight, Nine. You're all out of breath!”

If he only knew, I thought.

Lydia and I had seen the ghost on Wednesday night. There was another rehearsal scheduled for the next evening. But by ten o'clock on Thursday morning I was so desperate to talk to somebody about what I had seen that I thought I would go out of my mind waiting.

Finally I decided to call Chris. It took me six calls because there were over a dozen Gurleys in the phone book, and I had no idea where she lived. I just started at the top of the list and worked my way down. No answer at the first two, an old lady at the third, no answer at the fourth, and a
very
cranky man at the fifth. He said he worked nights and I had woken him up. He also said several other things, but I had better not put them on paper.

I was about ready to give up after the episode with Mr. Cranky. But then I remembered my grandmother's saying that people who gave up on something with less than a hundred tries didn't deserve to succeed anyway. That always seemed a bit on the high side to me, but I figured five was really on the low side. So I tried again.

“Hello, this is the Gurley residence,” said Chris.

Bingo!
“Chris,” I said. “This is Nine.”

Chris ignored me and kept right on talking. “This is Bonk, the cat, speaking. No one else is available now, so the folks have put me in charge of the phone.”

An answering machine. I hate answering machines!

“At the sound of my meow, please leave your name and message. I'll make sure it gets to the right person. Also, please let me know if you have any spare mice.”

There were a couple of seconds of whirring noise, then a loud meow.

I almost said, “This is Nine. I saw the ghost. Call me as soon as you can!”

Fortunately, I caught myself in time. If Chris's parents got to the answering machine before she did, they'd think I had really freaked out.

“This is Nine,” I said. “I need to—”

I was interrupted by a clicking sound. “Nine! How are you?”

“Chris?”

“You were expecting maybe the Woman in White?”

“Don't say that!” I snapped.

“Hey, what's going on? You sound grouchy enough to be Melissa!”

“Don't ever say that to me,” I said. “You startled me, that's all. Anyway, why do you have your answering machine on if you're at home?”

“To filter calls, dummy. What if it had been Melissa, instead of you? I haven't had breakfast yet. I don't think I could stand to talk to her on an empty stomach this early in the morning.”

“Chris, it's almost noon.”

“So shoot me. It's summer and I like to get up late. Did you want something, or did you just call to nag me?”

“No, I need to talk to you.”

“Go ahead.”

Suddenly I felt really stupid. “Can we get together somehow? I don't want to talk about it on the phone.”

“Why not?” asked Chris. “Is it dirty?”

“No, it's not dirty! I just don't want to talk about it on the phone!”

“Can you get downtown?”

Downtown itself was easy; the bus came right by my house every fifteen minutes or so. Getting permission was another matter.

“I'll have to call my father at work and ask him. You'd better be flattered. I'll probably have to endure a ten-minute lecture on the dangers of downtown before he lets me go.”

“Better you than me. I'll wait for your call.”

Chris was standing in front of the library when I got there.

I smiled when I saw her. Not because she looked funny, or even because she looked pretty, though the fact is, she was both, which isn't easy. I smiled because that's the kind of person she is. She just makes you want to smile.

I waved when I spotted her. I expected her to wave back, but she acted as if I didn't exist.

I thought maybe she had decided she was angry at me for dragging her down there to talk, instead of just telling her my problem over the phone. I figured I'd better apologize as soon as possible.

“Look, Chris, I'm sorry about—”

She cut me off with a fierce hiss. “Shhhhh!” She looked around, then squinted at me. “Follow me!” she whispered. “Ve vill go vhere no one can hear us!” She was speaking in a ridiculous German accent and arching one eyebrow like a bad actor playing a spy in an old movie.

Taking my arm, she led me across the street to a little plaza filled with pigeons and hot-dog vendors.

We crossed the plaza and headed down a narrow side street that went off in an odd direction. About halfway to the next block, Chris cut into a parking lot. At one side of the parking lot, looking totally out of place, was a large tree. Chris scrambled up the trunk, sat down on one of the branches, and motioned for me to follow.

“What are you acting so mysterious about?” I asked when I had managed to struggle my way up the tree. I'm about three inches shorter than Chris; it's not much, but there are times when every inch counts.

“Me?” she said indignantly. She scowled, then switched back to her sophisticated German act. “My darlink, am I ze one who called and begged to talk wiz someone, zen refused to tell someone vat it vas all about? Oh, no, no! Not I. It vas
you
who indicated a need for secrecy. I am zimply tryink to provide it.”

I smiled. “That's pretty good,” I said. “How long did it take you to get it down pat?”

“Forget that!” said Chris, dropping the accent. “Tell me what this is all about before I get really impatient and push you out of this tree.”

I blushed. Out there in the open, with the sun shining so brightly, the whole thing seemed totally silly. Suddenly I understood why ghost stories work better in the dark.

“Come on, Nine,” said Chris impatiently. “What's up? Do you have a crush on Cute Edgar or something?”

I could feel my blush spreading. “I told you this was serious!” I said, sidestepping her question.

“Well, what is it?”

I took a deep breath. “I saw the ghost last night.”

Chris's eyes flashed angrily. She started to climb out of the tree. “Nine, if you dragged me all the way down here to—”

“Chris!” I said desperately. “I'm not kidding! I saw her. And it was the second time!”

I don't know if it was something in my voice or if she had just started to leave for effect, but now she looked at me and said, “You're not kidding, are you?”

“Chris, I had to promise to do dishes for a week to get my father to let me come down here. Now would I do that for a joke?”

“Not unless you're dumber than you look,” said Chris, climbing back up beside me.

We sat in silence for a moment. “Well,” Chris said finally. “What a relief that is.”

“Huh?” I asked, sounding less than intelligent.

“I'm just so glad you saw her. I thought maybe I was going out of my mind.”

“What are you talking about?” I asked.

Chris looked at me. “Isn't it obvious?” she said. “I saw the ghost, too!”

CHAPTER SIX

The Hunk in the Reference Room

“Whoa, girl,” yelled Chris, grabbing my arm to steady me on the branch. She did this because I nearly fell out of the tree when she told me she had seen the ghost, too. I had never thought about anyone else seeing it.

“Take it easy, Nine,” said Chris. “You look like—sorry about this—you look like you just saw a ghost. What's the matter? Didn't you want me to see her? Were you planning on keeping her all to yourself?”

“No. It's just that—Well, why didn't you say something before?”

“Why didn't
you?
” Chris asked logically.

“I don't know. I was afraid no one would believe me. I thought they would laugh at me.”

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