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Authors: Lynne Jonell

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BOOK: The Secret of Zoom
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The garbage truck rumbled toward the electrified fence. With a screech of metal, a buzzer sounded, a high gate swung open, and the big truck with the happy faces painted on the side rolled through into the forest.

Taft clung to the truck until just past the first bushes and then let go. The truck engine was making so much noise that the crash of a body into the underbrush was hardly noticeable.

The gate swung shut and locked with a clank. The garbage truck dwindled in the distance, belching exhaust as it labored up the dirt road through the forest. And Christina, keeping her flashlight prudently off, crawled on hands and knees to the place where Taft had landed.

“I
knew
there was a tunnel,” said Taft. His narrow face, lit from below by Christina's flashlight, was smudged but elated.

Christina leaned back against the tunnel's interior wall, proud of herself. She had not only found Taft but (to her great relief) had actually managed to locate the tunnel's entrance again in the dark. “You're coming back with me, right?”

“Back where?”

“My house, of course.” She looked at him worriedly. Now that she finally had a friend—sort of—it would be nice to keep him. And he had to stay somewhere.

Taft shook his head. “All I want is to stay here long enough for them to forget about me, and then I'm going to run away. I've got to find a good place for me and—”

“But what about food?” Christina interrupted.

Taft shrugged. “I don't eat much. Anyway, maybe I can find something to eat in the woods. Berries and things. You know.”

“But you could stay in my attic. No one's been up there for
years. And”—Christina leaned forward, struck with inspiration—“you can learn math on my computer.”

Taft turned his head alertly. “Math?”

Christina clapped in glee. “You can do all my assignments! You'll love it, I won't have to do them, and my father will be happy. It's the
perfect
plan.”

Taft looked thoughtful. “But if I stay in your house, they'll catch me for sure.”

“Who will?”

“Your father, or whoever takes care of you . . . no one is going to want a dirty orphan around,” he added bitterly. “They'll send me straight back to the orphanage, and then I'll be in
real
trouble.”

“I told you, no one ever goes in the attic. Hardly anyone even comes up to the third floor, where my room is. Nanny is too fat to climb the stairs, and my father is too busy, and Cook just stays in the kitchen. Come on, I'll show you.”

Christina tugged Taft to his feet and pulled him along Leo Loompski's dimly lit tunnel, still talking. “I'll bring blankets and a pillow, and I'll make you a bed behind some boxes. If anyone does come up, they'll never see you, if you don't move.”

“A pillow?” said Taft, trotting after her. “A real pillow?”

 

The attic was dark, but the flashlight, set on end, made a circle of brightness on the ceiling and illumined a corner of the vast room.

“So where does the garbage truck go?” Christina folded over an old quilt to make a sleeping pad and laid two extra blankets on top.

“Nobody knows.” Taft took another bite of the pie Christina had sneaked from the kitchen and a drink of milk from a thermos. “They say it's up the mountain to break rocks in a mine, but that can't be true. Who needs broken rocks?”

“But what happens to the kids?” Christina plumped a spare pillow.

“No one knows that, either.” Taft's mouth, blueberry-rimmed, turned down at the corners. “They go on the garbage truck, and they never come back.”

Christina's hands stilled. “Never?”

Taft shook his head.

“And you almost had to go!” Christina was horrified.

“I would have gotten picked before that, if I hadn't sung off-key,” said Taft, calmly licking his fingers.

Christina sat back. “What does singing have to do with getting picked?”

Taft shrugged. “I'm not exactly sure. But I figured out that if you sang on pitch, you got picked to go on the truck first of all. So now everybody sings like a hyena, unless they're new and don't know.”

He scooped the last of the blueberry pie into his mouth. “This place is way better than the orphanage already,” he said through a mouthful of crust. “Do you have any more pie?”

Christina looked at him thoughtfully. If Taft was going to have a big appetite, it might be hard to sneak enough food without raising suspicion. “I thought you said you didn't eat much.”

Taft hunched one shoulder. “I don't eat much orphanage food. Burnt potatoes and dried peas and oatmeal without
sugar . . . no thanks. But this,” he said, gazing with reverence at the blue stains left on his plate, “is worth eating.” He licked the plate and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “So when can I do some math?”

Christina made a face. “Right now, if you want. Come on down to my room. Nobody will come up tonight—it's too late.”

 

“Go-Go, Chickie-Chickie, Chickie-Go Math!” squeaked the computer, showing a horde of dancing chickens, each dangling a mathematical symbol from its beak. Taft watched with a rapt expression on his face, hardly blinking.

“This is
great
,” he said. “I can't
believe
this.”

Christina gazed at the chickens as they goose-stepped their way across the screen. She couldn't believe it, either. With any luck, she would never have to deal with mathematical poultry again.

She showed him how the program worked. “For starters, you can do my last three assignments. I skipped them.”

She ran the vacuum while he began the first problem, cleaning her room to keep Nanny from getting suspicious. Now and then she helped Taft navigate the computer screen; he picked it up very quickly. But when she bent to change the vacuum bag, she heard footsteps on the stairs.

“Shh!” she hissed. “Quick! Under the bed!” She lifted the scalloped edge of her quilt to let Taft scoot beneath. No one ever came upstairs—well, hardly ever. Why did someone have to come tonight?

She smelled her father's pipe in the hall. There was a
knock at her door. Christina scrambled into her computer chair. “Come in!”

“Well!” Her father, sounding pleased, put a hand on her shoulder. “Doing math, are you?”

Christina faced the screen, feeling her eyes glaze over as she looked at the numbers. “Just a little,” she said, pushing a button at random.

Dr. Adnoid bent over. “But surely you're farther along than this?”

“I just thought I'd do some review,” Christina said in a hurry, turning the monitor off. She swiveled to face her father, hoping fervently that he hadn't come to help her with math or, worse yet, question her about an escaped orphan. “How was work today?” she asked, in an attempt to head him off.

Her father's eyebrows drew down slightly. “Work was fine.” He set a large green scrapbook on Christina's desk and pulled out a tape measure. “Here, let's see how tall you are this year.”

Christina stood up, eyeing the bulky album as her father stretched the tape measure from her toes to the top of her head. She had seen that book before. Once a year, her father opened it and wrote down her weight and height and anything else he could measure. It all struck her as remarkably pointless, but since it didn't happen often, she tried not to complain.

“Four feet, eight inches—very good. You've grown two inches since last year.”

Christina made an effort to be interested in this information. “Two inches doesn't seem like much.”

“You're in the sixty-fifth percentile for height for girls your
age. That's about half a standard deviation above average—perfectly normal. Now, your weight . . . let's see.” He walked Christina to the bathroom scale and noted the figure. “Hmmm. Only fifty-second percentile for weight. You need to take in more calories. I'll tell Cook to add oil to your broccoli.”

Christina resisted this suggestion. “How about if I just eat more ice cream?”

Dr. Adnoid shook his head. “Trans fats. Too many. Now, what about your shoe size?”

Christina sat kicking one foot while her father measured the other with calipers. “Is it really important to write all this down?”

“Well . . .” Her father straightened. “Perhaps not. But your mother”—he paused to clear his throat—“she began this book when you were a baby, and I know she would have wanted me to keep it up. So I have done my best.”

Dr. Adnoid fished a large handkerchief out of his pocket, rubbed at his eyes, blew his nose with a protracted honk, and tucked it away. “Now, then. What else can we write about you that's interesting?” He picked up the book and sat down heavily on Christina's bed. “Dental work, perhaps? Did you have any cavities this year?”

The springs creaked under Dr. Adnoid's weight, and a small surprised grunt came from beneath the bed. Christina coughed loudly to cover it and slid her foot under the bed frame, nudging a thin brown hand back into the shadows.

“Or how about math grades? Those might be exciting!”

Christina suppressed a shudder and cast around in her mind for something her father could write that wouldn't
lead back to the dreaded subject of numbers. Suddenly she knew.

“I have perfect pitch,” Christina announced with relief.

Dr. Adnoid sprang up, his face pale. “Who told you that?”

“Mrs. Lisowsky,” Christina said, surprised. “My music teacher. I was singing for her today, and that's when she found out.”

Dr. Adnoid gripped the edge of the desk. “I'll call Mrs. Lisowsky at once,” he muttered. “She can't be allowed to spread such rumors. I only hope she hasn't mentioned it outside these walls.”

He whirled to face Christina. “You mustn't tell anyone. Do you hear me?”

Christina nodded. She heard him, all right. She just didn't understand.

“And don't sing anymore,” Dr. Adnoid said as he hurried out of her room. “Not one note. It's
dangerous
.”

T
HE
door clicked shut. “All clear,” Christina said in a low voice.

Taft rolled out from beneath the bed in a wreath of dust, rubbing one shoulder. “I wish your dad hadn't sat down so hard.” He looked at her accusingly. “I thought you said no one ever came up here.”

“Sorry. Hardly anyone ever does.” Christina looked at the green scrapbook her father had forgotten. “Why do you suppose he was so worried about me having perfect pitch?”

Taft shrugged. “It's obvious, isn't it? He doesn't want you going to the mines with the other orphans.”

“But I'm not an orphan!”

“That wouldn't matter to Lenny Loompski. If he knew you could sing, he'd find a way to get you.”

Christina grabbed the sides of her head in frustration. “And who is this
Lenny
Loompski? I thought it was Leo!”

Taft glanced around the room. “I'll tell you, but let's go to the attic. Your father might come back.”

“All right.” Christina lumped a blanket under her bedspread in what she hoped was a lifelike manner and turned out the light. Then, sock-footed, flashlight bobbing, they slipped into the closet and up the ladder.

The attic wasn't quite as dark as before. The moon had risen and was shining in flat trapezoidal stripes through the vent in the wall. Its pale light glanced off the curved cylinder of the telescope, still on its tripod on the broken chair, and spread along the wooden floor.

“Hey!” Taft reached out to touch the telescope's smooth barrel. “I've never seen one up close. Let's look through it!”

“Later.” Christina lifted the tripod down from the chair and set it aside.

Taft's eyes were shadowed. He hunched one shoulder. “I suppose you don't want a dirty orphan touching your things.”

Christina stared at him in dismay. “I didn't mean that at all. I just wanted you to tell me about Lenny Loompski first.”

BOOK: The Secret of Zoom
13.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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