The Ghost in the Third Row (5 page)

played a game,” I said. “I had nothing to do with it.”

“Suit yourself,” said Chris with a shrug. “The point is, I traded a little information with your father. I told him we had seen the ghost, and he told us why. If that wasn't a fair trade, I don't know what is.”

I was trying to come up with an answer to this when the silver BMW pulled up to the curb and Melissa stepped out.

“Watch this,” Chris whispered.

“Hello, troops,” said Melissa, walking over to us. “You can stop worrying. The star has arrived.”

“What a relief,” said Chris sarcastically. Then, before Melissa could respond, she asked, “Did you ever see the ghost, Melissa?”

Melissa looked at her in disgust. “What do you think I am?” she snapped. “Crazy?”

Chris winked at me, and I realized the trap she had set for Melissa.

“That's amazing,” said Chris, her eyes wide and innocent. “According to the legend, the ghost only appears to young women who truly love the theater. So I was sure you would have seen her.”

My snort of laughter was cut off by a familiar scream.

“Lydia again!” said Chris grimly. “Let's see what's bothering her this time.”

Working together, we managed to beat Melissa to the door. Lydia was standing in the center of the lobby, clutching shredded white fabric in her hands.

“It was her!” she screamed. “She did this. She's out to get me! I tell you, the Woman in White is out to get me!”

“Lydia, for heaven's sake, calm down,” said Edgar, who was standing in front of her with his clipboard in his hand. “What are you babbling about, anyway?”

“Babbling?” screamed Lydia as she shook out the bundle of fabric. “You call this babbling?”

Without intending to, I gasped. It was the beautiful gown she herself had chosen to wear at the end of Act One.

It had been torn to pieces.

As I watched the blood drain from Edgar's face, I could feel Chris's fingers digging into my arm.

“What is going on in this theater?” she whispered.


The Crowd Goes Nuts

The theater was in an uproar. A couple of women from the chorus had spotted Lydia heading for the lobby with her tattered dress and tagged along to see what was going on. Once they heard what had happened, they started running around, spreading the word that the ghost was getting violent. It didn't take long until the entire cast was in a frenzy. People were demanding protection and wanting to know what the theater was going to do about the ghost. Half a dozen people announced they were going to quit the show. A couple of the women were crying. It didn't look like things were going to quiet down any time soon.

Gwendolyn Meyer did a good imitation of a bull elephant as she herded the entire cast into the first two rows of the theater. Except Lydia, of course. Gwendolyn gave Ken Abbott the key to her office and asked him to take Lydia there so she could lie down until she recovered.

Chris, Melissa, and I ended up sitting in the center of the second row. Somehow, Chris managed to maneuver things so I was sitting next to Melissa. I wish I could figure out how she did it!

Once everyone else was seated, Gwendolyn, Edgar, and the rest of the production crew lined themselves up along the edge of the stage to quiet us down. To me it was like trying to put out a forest fire by spitting on it. But little by little people became quiet and ready to listen to what was being said.

Gwendolyn spoke first. “You people are acting like complete imbeciles, and I think it's time you stopped.”

It wasn't really the best way to calm everyone down. We all began muttering angrily.

Edgar rose to the occasion. Putting a hand on Gwendolyn's arm to warn her to back off, he said loudly, “Listen, people. I know a couple of strange things have happened in the last few days. But I'm afraid you're letting your imaginations run away with you.”

There it was—the dreaded phrase. That was one of the reasons I hadn't wanted to tell anybody about seeing the ghost to begin with. I knew I would hear: “Your imagination is running away with you.” It's one of my least favorite sentences in the whole world.

“Now, let's think about this rationally,” said Edgar, slowly walking down a set of stairs on the side of the stage. He walked over to the front row and began to stride back and forth just in front of it. “What's really happened here? Lydia claims to have seen the ghost. And her dress has been cut up. What does all this mean?”

“It means this place has one cranky ghost,” said Ken Abbott, returning to the theater and sliding into a seat just ahead of us. This got a couple of nervous laughs and a few angry mutters.

“Does it really?” asked Edgar sharply. “Or does it mean we've got a group of imaginative people doing a play about a woman who met a tragic death—and doing it in the very theater where she died. A theater where her ghost—it has been rumored—has been appearing for fifty years. Under the circumstances, it makes sense for poor Lydia to get spooked occasionally. In fact, I might be worried about how seriously she was taking her part if she didn't. But that doesn't mean the place is haunted.”

“What about the dress?” Marilyn Williams asked. Marilyn was a very pretty actress who was playing the part of Lily Larkin's best friend.

“Well, let's think about the dress,” said Edgar. “Obviously there's something strange going on. But how strange? Again, let's think carefully. This theater is open all day long. We're located on a busy downtown street where a lot of crazies hang out. A dress is torn up. Does it really make sense to think it was done by a ghost? Or is it more likely that it was one of our local looney birds?”

Paula coughed, and suddenly Edgar began to blush and stammer. He got control of himself quickly, but it was clear something had upset him.

Chris leaned over to me and whispered, “What was that all about?”

“I don't know,” I hissed back. “But it was definitely weird. I'd like—”

I was interrupted by Mark Jordan, one of our dancers. “Then you're saying this theater isn't haunted?”

“I'm saying so what if it is?” said Edgar. “People have been saying the place is haunted for nearly fifty years now, and in all that time the ghost hasn't done one bit of harm. Why should she start now?”

“Maybe she doesn't like the script,” Ken Abbott said.

“Thanks a lot, Ken,” said Alan Bland.

“Hey,” Paula said. “It's an old theatrical tradition. When something goes wrong, blame the writer!”

“That's what Lydia said,” chimed in Marilyn. “Well, I mean, she didn't say she doesn't like the script. But she told me she thinks the ghost might not want us to do the play.”

“Or maybe Marilyn doesn't want Lydia to do the part,” hissed Melissa smugly. I looked at her. “Well, after all,” she whispered, “if Lydia drops out, Marilyn would get her part.”

Leave it to Melissa to think of something like that. The idea probably came naturally to her. I wouldn't have been surprised if it was the sort of thing she might do herself. Personally, I thought Marilyn was kind of nice. It had never occurred to me she might want Lydia out of the way so she could have her role.

But now that the idea had been planted in my mind, it made a certain amount of sense. I wished Melissa had been sitting somewhere else—like Mars, for instance. I don't like thinking about people that way.

“I just want to know one thing,” said Sandy Patterson, one of the girls in the chorus. “Is this theater haunted, or isn't it?”

For a moment nobody said anything. I don't know what was going on in other people's minds, but I was engaged in a full-scale argument with myself about whether or not to speak up and admit I had seen the ghost.

She asked a question,
said one part of me.
Answer it!

Don't be stupid!
said another.
She didn't ask you. She asked the people in charge. Let them answer.

“Of course it's haunted,” said Gwendolyn. “It's haunted by the memory of every actor who has ever worked here, and every show that's ever been put on here. It's haunted by nearly sixty years of everything that happens in a theater, all the love and hate and anger and tears that go into making a show.

“It's haunted by applause, and the memory of greatness. It's haunted by the things that haunt every theater worth working in, and if you want to keep working on stage, you'd better get used to them.”

Well, all in all, it was one of the best speeches I'd ever heard. Gwendolyn talked about theatrical traditions, and the show must go on, and what's a little ghost compared to being on the stage, and not confusing facts with fears, and all kinds of other stuff. I thought it was really impressive. At least, it convinced me. I was ready to jump up on the stage and start acting that very minute.

“What a performance,” said Melissa after Gwendolyn was all done.

I looked at her strangely.

“Oh, come on,” she said. “It was a terrific speech. But don't get all dreamy eyed about it. What you just saw was acting, pure and simple.”

As much as it galled me to agree with Melissa, I had to admit she was right. It was a remarkably good piece of acting.

But somehow the way Melissa said it made it sound as though there was something wrong with that. I felt confused. If someone else had given Gwendolyn's speech, it probably wouldn't have worked half so well. Did that mean there was something wrong with the speech? Was it wrong for Gwendolyn to use her skills to persuade us?

I was trying to figure all that out when two things happened. One: Barney Caulfield got in a shouting match with Gwendolyn. Two: I felt a cold chill run down my spine.

The first was easy to explain. Despite Gwendolyn's speech, Barney started asking stupid questions and talking about walking out on the show. Gwendolyn, who had been quiet and reasonable for more than ten minutes that night—which was about her limit—went off like a skyrocket. It was no big surprise.

The chill down my spine was a little more difficult to explain—until I turned around and saw the Woman in White sitting in the seat behind me. She seemed to be listening to Gwendolyn and Barney argue.

She had a sad look on her face. But she was beautiful. Really, truly beautiful.

I gave Chris a little nudge with my elbow. She turned to see what I wanted and caught her breath.

“It's her!” she whispered.

The Woman in White gave us a tiny smile. Then she raised a finger to her lips, indicating that we should keep quiet.

Unfortunately, Melissa noticed that we weren't paying any attention to the Barney-Gwendolyn argument. “What are you two looking at?” she asked loudly. “The ghost?”

Chris started to laugh. “I knew she couldn't see her,” she said.

looking at the ghost!” yelped Melissa.

That was all it took. The Woman in White faded out of sight.

And the crowd went nuts.



As things worked out, we had no rehearsal that night. When the excitement finally died down, Gwendolyn just sent the cast home. I assumed she was hoping that by morning we would settle down—and that by the next night most of us would be back, ready to work.

Actually, she didn't dismiss quite everyone. Chris, Melissa, and I were taken to her office for special treatment.

She was furious, of course. That didn't really bother me that much: Gwendolyn was always furious. But Edgar was with her, and the look in his eyes was breaking my heart. I could tell he thought we had started all that trouble just trying to be funny. As far as he was concerned, we had stabbed him in the back. It was killing me to have him believe that.

I don't think there's any feeling in the world worse than having someone you care about think you've let them down.

Gwendolyn started things off. “I cannot accept such foolish, irresponsible, stupid, childish behavior in this theater. That little stunt you three pulled tonight was one of the most unwarranted, unkind …”

Well, you get the idea. She was off and running, and it was several minutes before she managed to wind down.

“Now, do you have anything to say for yourselves?” she asked at last, glaring at us as if the first person who actually did say anything would immediately be torn to pieces.

“Yes,” said Chris. “We do.”

I kicked her. Hadn't she learned there were times when it's safer to keep your mouth shut, even if you're in the right?

“Well?” said Gwendolyn, drawing out the word very slowly. It was the most dangerous sounding “well” I had ever heard.

I had to admire Chris. Other than a tiny tremble in her voice, which you might not have noticed if you weren't used to the way she talked, she didn't show any sign of backing down. She was braver than I would have been in her shoes!

“We weren't fooling around,” said Chris. “The ghost
sitting right behind us.”

Gwendolyn looked at Chris shrewdly. Without saying a word, she turned her attention to Melissa. “Did you see the ghost?” she asked.

I bit the corners of my mouth to keep from smiling. If Melissa lied and said she had, which seemed to me perfectly likely, there was no telling what Gwendolyn might do to her.

But if she told the truth, she would be admitting to Chris and me that she didn't love the theater enough for the Woman in White to appear to her. I could almost hear the wheels turning in her head while she tried to figure out what to say. It reminded me of something my mother used to tell me when I was little: “One nice thing about the truth is it's usually less work.”

“Well?” asked Gwendolyn when Melissa didn't answer for a long time.

Melissa finally decided to tell the truth. “No, Mrs. Meyer, I didn't see the ghost.” If you want my opinion, she didn't tell the truth for any moral reason. It was just that she had decided Chris was bluffing.

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