Eighteen-year-old Sam has always been jealous of his younger brother, Humphrey, the famous "wonder child" pianist. But now that Humphrey is fifteen, the one-time child prodigy isn't able to get any more bookings. Sam's mother refuses to accept that Humphrey's career is over and devises a scheme to recapture his fame: Sam will compose "new works" by a long dead gypsy composer, and they will tell the world that the composer is dictating the music to Humphrey from the grave. The scheme is a wild success--until some ghostly occurrences convince Sam that the spirit of the dead composer has actually taken over Humphrey's fingers. Have Sam and his family unleashed a force from beyond the grave?
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For more than thirty years, William Sleator has thrilled readers with his inventive books. His House of Stairs was named one of the best novels of the twentieth century by the Young Adult Library Services Association. He divides his time between homes in Boston and rural Thailand.
1 "YOU'RE NUTS, Bridget," I said sullenly. I was stretched out on a bed in a dark little hotel room in Venice, far from the Grand Canal. Teatro La Fenice, tomorrow night, was Humphrey's last booking. "No, I'm not nuts, Sam," Bridget said. "I'd call it imaginative." She was sitting in a rickety chair at the toylike desk in the corner, elegant, even in her bathrobe. I sighed. "Why don't you just give up and let Humphrey stop performing? You haven't given him a real break in years. It might be good for him. Maybe there's a chance he could still turn out normal." "That's not the point," said Luc, who was gazing out at the view of a trailer-truck depot. Luc is Bridget's second husband, to whom she is unfortunately still married, and he was not elegant at all in his bathrobe, dark stubble on his face, his legs like flabby toadstools. Naturally he didn't want Humphrey, his main claim to fame, to stop performing. But he still couldn't stomach Bridget's plan. "The point is that it's too dangerous. It just won't work." "It all depends on what you mean by 'work'," Bridgetsaid, lighting a cigarette. As usual, her red hair was tightly braided and done up into a bun at the back of her head, her pale face carefully made up. She never tells her age, but I'm eighteen and she's my mother, so she's probably at least forty. She still looks young, though, and on that day she seemed almost girlish. "No, I don't expect musicologists will be clamoring to write learned articles about Humphrey. I don't even expect the critics to be instantly convinced, cretinous though they are. But I can promise you that Humphrey will get publicity, oodles of it. And that will lead to bookings. Maybe not first class concert circuit, but ..." She shrugged and smiled. "But we're not exactly in a position to be choosy, are we?" We weren't. For ten years we had all depended on Humphrey. And now at fifteen, Humphrey was washed up.
HUMPHREY is my half-brother, Luc's son. His career started with a bang when, at the age of five, he did the Mozart A Major with the Cleveland Symphony. God knows how Bridget even got him in the door, God knows how she convinced them that it would not be a total fiasco; I was only eight at the time and don't remember the details. But from the moment that tiny little kid teetered over to the thirteen-foot Bösendorfer Grand, clambered up onto the bench, and then ripped into the opening passages, he had the audience in the palm of his hand. And they were big hands too, even then. Not like my puny little appendages. Sure, I had had piano lessons. Bridget was a music nut, especially after she gothooked up with Luc, a defunct prodigy himself. I didn't really go for Luc, but the lessons were wonderful, because I loved music, at the beginning. I loved the clean mathematical aspect of harmony, the interplay between chords, the satisfying logic of it. The only trouble was, I couldn't play. Partly it was my small hands, which even now won't span an octave. And partly it was my general clumsiness, a total lack of mechanical skill. I knew what the music was supposed to sound like, but I couldn't get the message through to my fingers. They flopped around on the keyboard like beached minnows, refusing to obey. Humphrey barely weighed four pounds when he was born, and he stayed small all through his childhood. He just happened to have enormous hands and feet, as disproportionately large as mine were small. He had a lot more trouble learning to read music than I did. I can still remember his little wordless, hopeless whimperings of protest--they started on him before he could even talk. But once they had drilled the notes into him by rote and those fingers took over, then he could do anything. "Sammy! Leave Humphrey alone!" Bridget would yell at me twenty times a day. Luc didn't yell; he just pushed me away from Humphrey with his big hairy hands. But I couldn't think of one reason why I shouldn't pick on the little brat Not only was he ugly and noisy and backward (he wore smelly diapers until he was five), he also had a real father. What was especially humiliating was that he was so good at something I loved and couldn't do. And so as soon as Humphrey began to playwell, I lost all interest in the piano. And neither Bridget nor Luc tried to rekindle it in me; now that they had Humphrey, they couldn't care less whether I played or not. I haven't touched the instrument since I was six. I would have avoided music altogether, but it was impossible in that house, with Humphrey practicing all the time. I'd get as far away as I could and close all the doors and bury myself in books about dinosaurs and history and geology and math--anything that was real, that had hard facts. But the music still came through. There was no way I couldn't hear it. And the logic of it made more and more sense to me. Against my will, my understanding of the relationships between the chords grew more vivid, just from having to listen to Humphrey all the time. But even though I understood it, I was still able to hate it. I hated music; I hated the piano; I hated Humphrey; I hated everything. After the Cleveland concert, and another one in Chicago, Humphrey began to be a celebrity. That was not too long after World War II, and people were ready for a phenomenon like Humphrey. Now, not only did he have music, and Bridget, and a father, he also had the love and adoration of the whole world. That's how it looked to me at the time, anyway. The pain was bad at first. I tortured Humphrey unmercifully; I made terrible screaming scenes. Once I kicked a photographer in the shin and then knocked the camera out of his hands, breaking the lens--that was the only time Bridget ever hit me (after the photographers had all gone away, of course). Still, I wasn't a fool. It didn't take me long to notice that the tantrums and scenes, even the rich voluptuouspleasure of making Humphrey howl, in the end only made me feel bleaker. I fought and struggled and finally succeeded in becoming numb. I would be indifferent to the idiotic brouhaha the world made over Humphrey, indifferent to the triviality of music and the arts. I would be above it all, aloof. This attitude made life pleasanter for everyone, including myself. It was practical too, because if I'd gone on being a nuisance they would have sent me away, and I would not have been able to enjoy the benefits of Humphrey's phenomenal success. "Enjoy" is too positive a word; but I did derive a cold satisfaction from the travels to foreign countries, the hotels and restaurants, the private tutor, the boat trips--all provided by Humphrey's career. As for Humphrey himself, I made a continuous effort to avoid looking at him, speaking to him, listening to him. He was not a little boy, he was a thing; and the only safe and sane way to deal with this object was to feel nothing about it at all. Tiny darling Humphrey, with his cute little outfits, his baby face, his carefully styled bangs. At the age of seven he looked like a five year old; at ten he looked seven; at thirteen, Bridget was still pushing him out on stage in short pants, and he could pass for eight Of course Humphrey had no understanding of the music he memorized so dutifully, no expression or interpretation. His popularity depended solely on the bizarre novelty of watching an infant, dwarfed by his instrument, bang out those great crashing chords, those lightning arpeggios. Even the most hostile and acerbic critics couldn't resist comparing him to the young Mozart. And then, three months after Humphrey hit fourteen,adolescence pounced, with vengeance. Humphrey began to grow. There's a Greek legend about a king named Procrustes, who had a special bed in his house upon which all travelers through his domain were forced to lie. Procrustes wanted everyone to be the right size for this bed. If the unhappy traveler was too short for it, Procrustes had him stretched on a rack until he was long enough. If he was too tall, Procrustes would chop off his feet and whatever amount of leg was necessary to enable his guest to fit comfortably in bed. Bridget was aware that using such methods on Humphrey would be considered inappropriate. Though it does seem odd that she didn't at least try hormones. At any rate, for once Bridget was faced with a situation she could not control. All she could do was sit back helplessly and watch Humphrey grow. It all happened at once. One day I could easily have lifted him by the nape of his neck; the next day, I had to look up to stick my tongue out at him. I had experienced adolescence at the age of thirteen, and never got taller than five feet eight. Humphrey passed six feet and kept right on going. He developed a great deal of soft bulk around his middle and on his upper arms and thighs. His voice deepened. Dark hair sprouted on his face and legs and hands. At fourteen he could pass for eighteen; at fifteen, he looked twenty. I had trained myself so rigidly to suppress feelings that I almost couldn't enjoy watching Humphrey's career topple. I was amused, like a vaguely interested bystander watching a demolished building collapse to the ground. Bridget was the helpless victim trapped on the topfloor. She didn't scream for help or have hysterics or fall to pieces; she's too self-controlled for that. At first she tried to brazen it out and pressure people into booking him anyway. But the audiences stopped coming. When he was an adorable toddler, it hadn't mattered that Humphrey didn't know piano from forte; it did matter, however when he became a big, unattractive man pounding woodenly at the keyboard. Bridget forced Luc to try to teach Humphrey something about musicianship, now that it seemed necessary. But Humphrey was unable to absorb it; and since Luc's performing career had ended at about the same age, he didn't have much to teach. Bridget grew more silent and tense and withdrawn as the bookings dissolved and the income dwindled. She stopped talking to Luc. She began to look old.
BUT on that day in the tiny hotel room in Venice, she seemed her old self again as she described her crackpot plan. I really did think at first that she had gone crazy. For a minute I almost felt sorry for her. I should have known better. "Humphrey," she said, "will be visited by the ghost of a dead composer. This composer will dictate pieces of music to Humphrey--in his own characteristic style, of course." She lit a cigarette. "They need only be short little pieces. Humphrey can introduce the first one as an encore." "If he gets enough applause for an encore," I put in. She ignored me. "We can still afford to be subtle. There will probably be some knowledgeable critics at this next concert. All Humphrey needs to do is announce a piece that doesn't exist by this famous composer. It willcause quite a stir." She blew out smoke. "When they interview Humphrey afterward, he can explain how the music was dictated to him." Luc and I, in agreement for once, made our object-tions. Bridget mentioned publicity and bookings. "We're not exactly in a position to be choosy, are we?" she said. "But the timing will make it so transparent," argued Luc, turning from the window and running a hand through his graying mop of dark hair. "To introduce this spirit communication just when his popularity is at its lowest ebb. It's an obvious bid for attention. They'll see right through us." "Us?" said Bridget, pressing her carefully manicured hand to her thin chest "I didn't say anything about us. It will all come from Humphrey. We will be just as skeptical as everyone else. But Humphrey will believe. I think he will be quite convincing when he explains it in that simple way of his." "And we all know how simple Humphrey is," I said. "I resent that," Luc said mildly. "We all. know how simple Humphrey is," I repeated, just to rub it in. "But even he doesn't believe in Santa Claus any more. Just give up and let him have a normal life. How do you expect to get him to believe in this ghost, anyway?" "As usual, the simplest way is the best," she said. "We will just use a little chemical help. Humphrey's never taken a sleeping pill in his life. A three-quarter grain Seconal should do the trick. Slip it to him at dinner, and in an hour hell be out like a light--and he will not remember what happened just before he passed out.That's how barbiturates work. There will be a blank in his memory when he wakes up. And if he wakes up at a desk with a pen in his hand and a hastily scrawled composition beside it--with the ink still wet, as they say--the conclusion will be obvious. Especially if we fill in a few details, telling him how he worked feverishly all night, mumbling foreign words, conversing with an unseen presence. He'll be convinced." Luc had removed his glasses and was gazing at her, his lips slightly parted. "You know, there's a chance that you have something there," he admitted, beginning to be won over. "But do we have to drug him? I find that a little distasteful." "Distasteful?" I snorted. "You didn't find it distasteful to chain him to the piano bench for eight hours a day when he was two. So what's a little medicine?" "Shut up, Sam," Bridget said, her attention still on Luc. "It's a tiny dose, darling. It won't do him any harm. He's a big boy, you know." "Well, maybe," Luc said, nodding slowly. "Maybe you do have something ..." "Except for one little detail," I said, still reclining on the bed. "Where are you going to dig up this music from beyond the grave? It has to be music no one's heard before. It has to be convincing. Just where do you think it's going to come from?" Bridget tilted her head to the side and smiled, directing her charm in my direction now. "But Sammy, dear, you've always had a marvelous ear. It wouldn't be any trouble at all for you to dash something off." " Me?" The bedsprings whined in B flat as I bouncedto my feet. I thought I was furious, so I snapped at her. "You expect me to write these fake compositions? I've never composed anything in my life!" Luc cleared his throat. "Don't you think that I, as the professional, would do better?" he said. "Sam's a musical failure." "You can check the music over, Luc," Bridget said, dismissing him, still fixing me with her pale glittering eye. "But Sammy, you cannot pretend you don't understand music. I know you. I've seen the way you listen. I've seen the way you look at scores. You couldn't hit the notes, but you always knew the chords, even when you were a baby." I was flattered that she wanted me instead of Luc. And perhaps it was not anger that was making my pulse pick up. Perhaps it was a new kind of excitement, a feeling I had forgotten about. I was good at something. I was needed. But I didn't know how to accept it. I wasn't prepared. I only knew how to be ornery. "Even if I could do it, who says I want to?" I said sourly. "It's hard to compose music. It would be easier to let Humphrey stop performing, and better for him. Why should I go to all that trouble just to save his dumb career?" "His dumb career?" Bridget sounded baffled, but at least she was finally allowing herself to hear and acknowledge the idea I'd been pushing more and more over the last few months. "Stop performing? Sammy, do you know what you're saying?" "Uh .....
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