The Ghost in the Third Row (7 page)

“Oscar Hammerstein spent some time in a mental hospital, once,” said Chris. “You know, the guy from Rodgers and Hammerstein. He wrote some of his best stuff after he came out.”

“You don't say!” shrieked Eileen happily as she tore the sleeve off an old blouse. “Here, this might work for your first scene in Act One, love,” she said, fitting it on me. After a few pokes and pulls, she said, “Jump down now, that's a good girl. And you hop up, Miss Chris.”

Chris looked at me helplessly. It was clear that Eileen had totally missed her point about Alan. I shrugged. I figured we might as well let Eileen babble on and see if we could learn anything else.

The plan worked halfway: she kept babbling, but we didn't learn anything more worth knowing.

“Even so, it was worth it,” Chris said as we walked away from the costume room. “We did pick up a couple of suspects. Plus we had our first costume fittings. Which puts us ahead of most of the cast.”

“How did you know that thing about Oscar Hammerstein?” I asked. “Or did you just make it up?”

“No, it's real. My father's a big musical theater fan. He knows all that kind of stuff. You can't shut him up about it. It rubs off, I guess. I probably wouldn't—”

I never did find out what Chris probably wouldn't, because Pop came walking past us right then. Chris stopped talking and jabbed me in the ribs with her elbow. “Let's follow him,” she whispered. “He's a suspicious character if I ever saw one.”

I hesitated. We were on shaky ground being in the building as it was. I didn't think Pop would take kindly to it if he spotted us tailing him. “Oh, why bother,” I said. “He's just an unhappy old man. How many secrets can he have?”

While we were trying to decide whether or not to follow Pop, a familiar voice called my name. “Nine! Come here, will you? I need to talk to you.”

CHAPTER ELEVEN

One of the Ten Stupidest Things I've Ever Done

It was Paula Geller. She was standing on the stage with a stack of music clutched in her arms. Her red hair was pulled back in a tight braid that dangled over one shoulder.

“I never knew this place was so busy during the daytime,” whispered Chris as we walked down the aisle to join Paula at the front of the theater.

“I'm glad I spotted you, Nine,” said Paula, as we climbed the steps at the side of the stage. “I've been working on your solo, and I think I've taken care of that spot where you were having trouble.”

“You changed the music?” I gasped.

“Sure,” said Paula. “Why not?”

“But that was the way the song was
supposed
to be. You can't go changing it just because I couldn't sing it.”

Paula looked at me strangely. “Nine, who wrote the song?”

“I thought you did,” I answered.

“Well, there you are. If I can write it, I can rewrite it. It's not like it's an old standard. Alan and I are still working on it.”

“You change stuff after it's all written?” I asked.

Paula burst out laughing. “If you want it to be any good you do,” she said. “Haven't you ever heard of second drafts? Or fifteenth drafts? I get the feeling you're worried that I'm going to ruin my song just so you can sing it.”

I nodded my head.

“Well, get rid of that idea right now,” said Paula firmly. “Songs are just like stories and poems. They aren't written so much as rewritten.”

That made about as much sense as saying “black is white,” and I said so. Actually, I didn't put it quite that way. I think my exact word was “Huh?”

“You act like writing is something magical,” said Paula. “As if things always came out right the first time.”

“Don't they?”

“My poor little Nine,” said Paula. “I hope you're planning to be something simple when you grow up. Like a tax lawyer. Every once in a while a song comes out right the first time. And those times
are
magical. But mostly it's just hard work—writing it over and over until you get it as good as you can. Sometimes a song doesn't work at all. Alan and I threw out more songs than we kept while we were writing the show.”

I couldn't believe such waste. “You guys are crazy!” I said.

Did you ever wish you could take your tongue and tie it in a knot so it would stop getting you in trouble? As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I remembered what Eileen had just told us about Alan. Actually, I probably would have been all right even then if I could have just let things alone. But not me. No. What did I do? I clapped my hands over my mouth and looked horrified. “Like a complete idiot” was the way Chris described it later. She was right.

Paula looked at me sharply. “I take it you've heard about Alan's problem,” she said softly.

I was so embarrassed I think my toes were blushing. I nodded my head, afraid that if I opened my mouth I might say something stupid again.

Paula sighed. “Come with me. I want to have a talk with the two of you.”

Half an hour later I knew more than I ever wanted to know about mental illness. I also knew a lot about Alan Bland and how brave he was. That was the main thing that came through in Paula's talk with us. How much courage it had taken for Alan to put his life back together after things had gone haywire.

By the time she was done, I was pretty much convinced that Alan Bland would not try to wreck his own show.

Not only that, I could sing my song! It turned out that half the problem had been the song and half had been my nervousness, which was largely because of Melissa's judging me.

“Now, think for a minute,” said Paula. “If having Melissa watch you makes you so nervous you can't sing, what do you think it does to Alan to know people are watching him for any little sign that he's going to mess up his whole life?”

I thought about it. I didn't like it. “Should we say something to him?”

“Yeah. ‘Hi. How are you? I like the show. I don't like the show.' The same kind of stuff you'd say to anybody. Don't treat him like he's different or anything. Here, hit this note.”

I did. It sounded wonderful, if I do say so myself.

“Perfect. Now scram, you guys. I've got work to do.”

Chris and I didn't have to be told twice. We scooted out of Paula's practice room and back down the stairs toward the lobby. We had a lot more investigating to do before the day was over!

We had almost made it to the stairway when a brassy voice called out, “What are you two doing here?”

Gwendolyn! I couldn't believe it. Didn't the people in that theater have anything better to do than hang around and look for kids they could bother?

“We've been working with Paula,” said Chris quite honestly. “Just wait till you hear Nine's song! By the way, do you know where Pop is?”

I wished I could be cool like that. It was unbelievable. Chris stood right in front of Stone-face Gwendolyn Meyer and without blinking an eye convinced her to tell us what we wanted to know.

Gwendolyn told us we would probably find Pop in the theater and also told us where his office was, in case we had to leave him a message.

We headed for the theater. Sure enough, there was Pop, fixing a broken seat near the back.

Suddenly it hit me that I had no idea what to do next. “What are we going to say to him?” I whispered to Chris.

“Nothing, dummy. We don't want to talk to him at all. We're heading for his office.”

That didn't stop her from waving and shouting a cheerful “Hi, Pop!” as we went strolling by. Pop looked up from the seat he was working on, scowled at us, and made a noise that may or may not have been a greeting. We continued on down the center aisle as if we owned the place.

Behind the stage was the stairway that led up to the dressing rooms. There was also a down stairway. That was where Gwendolyn had told us we would find Pop's office.

We stood at the top of the stairs and looked down. Neither of us moved. I had a feeling we were each waiting for the other to go first.

“Dark down there,” said Chris after a while.

“Sure is,” I said. I was squinting down the steps, trying to make something out.

“Person might get hurt, stumbling around.”

“Sure could,” I said.

“They ought to keep it better lit.”

“Sure should,” I said, getting ready to turn around and leave.

“Well, let's get on with it,” said Chris. She started walking down the stairs.

I couldn't believe it! I thought she had been trying to talk herself out of going down there. The truth was, she had just been building up her courage.

Now I had to build up mine!

It helped to have Chris ahead of me. I started after her, sticking as close to her as I could.

When we reached the bottom of the stairs, we were standing in a little hall. A large space opened off to the right. It wasn't as dark as I had thought, because a few dim lights were on. We could see, but the lights also threw weird shadows all over the walls.

It would have been spooky under the best of conditions. Knowing there was a ghost hanging around made it worse. It didn't make any difference that I was convinced the ghost was friendly. The hairs on the back of my neck were slowly starting to stand up. I shook my head and shivered as a chill ran down my spine.

We walked along the hall to the larger room. The concrete walls were damp and cool to the touch even though it was summer.

The place was littered with old props and pieces of scenery. Seen up close, a lot of the ones that were supposed to be scary were kind of funny. But some of the funny ones were downright terrifying.

There was one that I still see in my nightmares sometimes—a gigantic clown face that had been propped up against the far wall. It had to have been at least ten feet tall. I don't have any idea what they used it for originally, but I imagined it looked wonderful and jolly when it was on the stage.

But now it was standing in front of a light fixture, so light streamed out of its eyes and mouth. It looked evil. I stood in front of it for the longest time, fascinated by it, yet afraid at the same time.

I rubbed my arms as if I were freezing and tried to turn away. But it was as though I were under a spell. I didn't seem to be able to take my attention off the clown face until Chris called my name.

“Hey, Nine!” she said. “Look at this!”

I turned around and saw her sitting in a fake coffin held up by a pair of sawhorses. I wondered where it had come from. Then I remembered that the day of the auditions my father had mentioned seeing a stage version of
Dracula
here a few years ago.

“I'm looking for blood donors,” said Chris. “Anyone want to volunteer?”

I laughed in spite of myself. “Chris, get out of that thing before someone catches us down here!”

“I can't! I'm one of the living dead! Watch!”

With that, she lay back in the coffin and pulled the lid completely shut.

“Chris!”

Slowly the lid of the coffin began to rise again.

I thought I was going to go out of my skin. I mean, I knew who it was and what was going on. But being down there with all that weird stuff was making me pretty jumpy.

Suddenly Chris sat straight up in the coffin, crossed her eyes, and stuck her front teeth out over her lower lip. “Where's that beautiful Edgar?” she cried. “I want to bite his neck!”

“Chris!”

“OK, OK,” she said, climbing out of the coffin. “Here, you try it.”

“Are you crazy?”

“No! Come on. You may never have a chance like this again.”

Even now I can't believe I was stupid enough to let her talk me into it. But I climbed into the coffin to see what it felt like.

I had to admit, it was an interesting experience. I mean, did you ever get to sit in a coffin?

“Now close the lid,” Chris said.

“Are you crazy?” I said for about the fifteenth time.

“Come on, Nine. You won't know how weird it is unless you close the lid. Besides, I want to see what it looks like when you open it. You got to see me do it. I bet it was really creepy. I want to see it, too.”

“Oh, OK,” I said grumpily.

“Great!” said Chris, stepping away from the coffin.

Feeling foolish, I took hold of the handle inside the lid and lay back. (Yes, I know. Coffins don't usually have handles inside their lids. But this one was made especially for a show, remember?)

As I brought the lid down over my face, I tried to imagine it really was closing on me for the last time. I figured as long as I was at it, I might as well go for the whole experience.

It spooked me for a minute. But once I got over my initial scare, it was so dark and quiet and cozy I almost decided I liked it.

I took a moment to figure out what I would say when I opened the lid. I can't remember the line now, but I thought it was really funny at the time.

Unfortunately, when I pushed on the lid to get out, it wouldn't budge.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Headline News

I pushed again. Nothing.

“Chris!” I yelled. “Quit fooling around! Let me out of here!”

“Well, open the lid and get out,” said Chris. “I'm not stopping you.”

If I live to be a hundred, I doubt that moment will ever come off my list of the ten worst things that ever happened to me.

I smashed my hands against the lid of the coffin. “CHRIS!” I screamed. “GET ME OUT OF HERE!”

“Hold still!” yelled Chris. “I'm trying!”

I could hear her scratching and poking around the edges of the lid.

I took a deep breath and tried to hold still. That got me to wondering if there were air holes in the coffin. Weird visions began to flash through my head. I saw my entire fifth-grade class coming to my funeral. I saw our teacher, Mrs. Grambicki, standing at the edge of the coffin, dabbing her eyes with a handkerchief and talking about what a good kid I had been.

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