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Authors: Tom Llewellyn

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BOOK: The Tilting House
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“There’s the back door!” said Lola, pointing to a door on the far side of the room. She climbed over the pile of bikes and twisted the knob. The door opened onto the Purple Door Man’s backyard. “Hurry! He could come back any minute.”

I tried to carry my bike over the mountain of other bikes and balls, but it kept tangling in all the other pedals and spokes.

“Forget it!” cried Lola. “Come over here and help me.” I climbed over the pile and we grabbed the bike nearest to the door and pulled it outside.

“Throw it over the fence into your yard!” said Lola.

“Are you serious?”

“Do it!”

Lola and I hefted the bike and tossed it over the shoulder-high fence. It landed on the other side with a crash.

“What was that?” yelled Aaron from the front yard.

“Never mind!” Lola yelled back. “Just keep your eyes peeled!”

We grabbed another bike and hurled it over the fence. Then another and another. We threw the balls over, too. In a few minutes, dozens of bikes and balls lay in a pile in our yard.

“It’s the mother lode!” Lola kept yelling.

We finally reached our own bikes and tossed them over the fence. Then we weaved our way as fast as we could through the Purple Door Man’s house and out the front door. Aaron was frantically looking up and down the street.

“Any sign of him?” Lola said breathlessly.

“No. Did you get the bikes?”

“Did we ever! Come on!”

We led Aaron through the gate into our backyard to the sprawling pile of balls and bikes.

“What are we going to do with all these?” I asked Lola.

“I don’t know,” she said, laughing. “If we split them three ways, how many bikes do you think we’d have each?”

Mom drove up just then. There was no way we could hide the pile from her.

“You had no right to enter his home uninvited,” she said when we told her. “Then again, I suppose he had no right to take your things.”

“He’s probably been stealing stuff from kids for years,” said Aaron.

“What do you want us to do?” I asked.

After a few seconds she said, “You can keep your own things, but we’re donating the rest of it. Now come on. Let’s go for a ride.” She picked up a girl’s bike, checked it for size, climbed on, and shakily rode it into the front yard and onto the sidewalk.

The rest of us climbed onto our bikes and followed my mom. We were riding up and down the sidewalk when the old green pickup pulled to the curb, the Purple Door Man and his potential buyer inside. It took the Purple Door Man only a few seconds to realize we were riding our bikes again. He excused himself to his customer and went quickly inside his house. A moment later, he charged out again. Lola, Aaron, and I stopped riding and watched him nervously.

Only my mom kept riding. She turned wobbly circles in the street, directly in front of the Purple Door Man’s house. She greeted the Purple Door Man cheerily. “Nice day for a bike ride, isn’t it?” she said.

The Purple Door Man said nothing. He stared at my mom. She smiled back at him. He returned to his house and shut the door. The prospective buyer of the pickup truck waited outside for a while, then walked up to the purple door and knocked, but
the man never answered. Finally, the buyer gave up and drove away.

Aaron, Lola, and I rode bikes the rest of the afternoon. Five different bikes each.

S
UMMER WAS ENDING GENTLY
, in long, melancholy shadows. Noontimes still felt hot, but by bedtime the house always cooled down. I would have slept well if the murder wasn’t weighing so heavily on my mind.

I spent hours each day scanning the walls of our home, and I did move closer to a handful of discoveries. I sat in my room, reading about
ilex aquifolium
. I looked it up in our big unabridged dictionary and learned it was the scientific name for holly—like the holly tree growing in our front yard. But none of the other scribbles in my room made sense to me—at least not yet. It would take a trained scientist years to decipher them all. And if
we moved, I’d never learn any of Tilton’s secrets. I’d never get to turn invisible.

In the entryway, I studied the diagram labeled “amplified bioacoustics.” I looked up
bioacoustics
in our dictionary, which defined it as “the science of animal sounds.” If I could make sense out of it, I thought, I could control animals the way Mr. Daga controlled Dinky. Maybe I could make our old cat, Molly, bring me snacks while I lay in bed. I wondered if I could control humans as well.

Behind the couch, I reread “Invisibility, electricity, and the refractive index of air.” It was obvious now that it had something to do with the dimmer switch. The wiring diagram next to it must be a wiring system Tilton had experimented with. Dad must have somehow tapped into it.

There was so much here. So much to lose.

I desperately wished I could talk about the murder to someone other than Lola and Aaron. It felt as if the secret would leap out into the open at any time. Whenever Mom or Dad would ask me a question, I would snap an answer back at them, because I felt like they knew I was hiding something.

A week passed and I began to think about the murder and the mysteries less and to focus instead on the few free days of summer we had left. Dad sat Aaron and me down at Jon’s Barber Shop and told Jon to get rid of our shaggy summer hair. Mom took us shopping at the mall for back-to-school clothes. I didn’t mind because I always liked trying on jeans and sneakers, but I knew that school shopping was the dreaded signal of the end of summer.

Every few days, in the middle of a game or at the end of a long bike ride, my mind always came back to F.T. Tilton’s journal and his confession of murder. My stomach would turn and the thought would cast a shadow on the sunniest afternoon.

I wasn’t sure which was worse: that we were living on top of the grave of a murdered man, or the possibility that the truth would come to light and we would have to move. I felt certain that if my mom found out about the body, she would insist we sell the house. And who would buy this place? The floors all tilted and the house was a crime scene. Every wall was covered in the scribbles of a murdering mad scientist. Or at least a murdering mad engineer. It didn’t matter that he might have the secret of time travel or invisibility written on our walls. We’d still end up back in an apartment. We’d have to leave our beloved Tilton House behind and it would sit empty again. It deserved better. It deserved me, because I loved it. Because I wanted to know its secrets.

The first day of school finally arrived on the Tuesday after Labor Day. I was pacing up and down the front porch, waiting for Aaron, when I spotted something tucked into the branches of the willow tree near the sidewalk.

It was a sack. The top was pulled shut with a coarse drawstring. I tugged it out of the branches. It felt heavy and was made of a sturdy, waxy cloth, mostly black except where it had faded to the color of coffee grounds. Whatever was inside was about the size and shape of a soccer ball.

My fingers moved to the drawstrings and then stopped. What if something horrible lay inside? What if it was connected to another murder? What if a murderer had driven by in the middle of the night and thrown a severed head into our yard? What if I opened the sack, found the head, and then turned it over to the police? They would question me. I’d tell them how I’d found it stuck in the branches of a tree in my front yard. They wouldn’t believe me. After all, how many people find a head in their front yard? After weeks of investigation, they still wouldn’t have any
other suspects, so they’d put me in jail. I’d die in the electric chair before my thirteenth birthday.

On the other hand, what if the sack was filled with a chunk of gold? Or jewels? What if opening it made me rich? If I put it back in the tree, someone else would find it. They’d open it and get rich instead of me.

And what if it was somehow connected to Tilton, to our house, and to the body in the crawl space?

I knew Mom and Aaron would step out the front door any second, so I stashed the sack behind a bush next to our front porch without looking inside. As soon as I had hidden it, the front door opened. I jumped at least six inches.

Mom hustled Aaron and me into our van. “Are you excited?” she asked.

“W-what?” I sputtered. “What do you mean?”

“It’s a simple question, Josh. Is something wrong?”

“No!”

“I just asked if you were excited. About school. Obviously you are. Or maybe you’re a tad bit nervous. It’s okay to be nervous.”

I was nervous, all right, but not about school. Usually the first day of school was one of the big days of the year, but I barely remember anything about that day other than the black sack.

At the end of the school day, I met Aaron and Lola outside of Tilton House and showed them the sack. Lola immediately grabbed it, pulled the string, and opened the top. She screamed. Then she looked again, made a face, and laughed with embarrassment.

“I thought it was real,” she said.

I looked in. A head looked back at us. It was made of stone. I pulled it out. It was the head from the statue of a beautiful woman. Her eyes reminded me of the way Aaron’s eyes look when Mom
catches him stealing a cookie or watching TV when he’s not supposed to—guilty and innocent, both at the same time. He looks guilty because he did something wrong, but at eight years old, innocence is still part of the package.

When Dad came home from the museum, we showed the head to him and Mom. Dad’s jaw dropped open.

“You found this in the front yard? In
our
yard? So it’s ours? It’s very old. It looks Greek—or maybe an Italian Renaissance reproduction of Greek. The museum will probably flip over this, Josh. Would you mind if I took it down and showed it to them?”

I didn’t mind. I asked if I could come along and Dad said yes.

The next day, Dad picked me up from middle school in his pickup and drove us back to the museum. The black sack lay on the seat between us.

When we reached the museum, Dad led me into a long room full of grown-ups. I recognized the red-faced man at the end of the table as Mr. Stevens, Dad’s boss—the same guy who had gotten mad at Dad about the dimmer switch.

“So this is the boy, eh, Hal?” said Mr. Stevens. He turned to me. “It’s Josh, right?”

“Yes. Hello.”

“Why, hello to you, too, Josh. My name is Mr. Stevens.” He was talking to me in a slow, syrupy voice, as if I were a little kid.

“I know.”

“You do? You’re a smart boy, Josh. Did you also know I’m your dad’s boss?”

“Yes.”

“I’m the director of this whole museum. I understand you may have found something pretty special.”

“I guess so,” I said.

“Can we see what you found, Josh?”

My dad carefully set the sack in the middle of the table. He pulled out the head. Mr. Stevens’s face grew redder than ever. The room immediately went into an uproar.

A week went by before the story hit the newspaper. It took the people at the museum that long to figure out that the head belonged to an important Italian statue that had disappeared from the collection of a rich American woman before World War II. The statue was of a woman called Pandora and was made by an Italian guy named Benvenuto Cellini in the fifteen hundreds. The newspaper ran an old black-and-white photograph of the statue, which showed the head attached to a smooth white body. One of the statue’s hands was outstretched, and the other grasped a partially opened box. A single, tiny, fairylike creature was flying out of that box.

Dad told me that Pandora was a character from an old Greek myth—she was a mortal who was given a box full of all the sins and sorrows of the world. When Pandora broke the rules and opened it, all the sins and sorrows flew out and poisoned the world with pain and death, fear and hate. The last thing that flew out of the box was hope, which had never existed until that moment. Now that I knew the story, I understood why Pandora’s face looked guilty and innocent at the same time.

Mr. Stevens was very excited, Dad said, and was constantly thanking Dad for bringing the head of Pandora to them. “Stevens told me this was going to put the museum on the map,” he said at dinner one night. “And he said my contribution is sure to be rewarded.”

“Rewarded? What does that mean, ‘rewarded’?” asked Mom. “And don’t you mean
Josh’s
contribution?”

“Sure. Yeah. What I meant was that we found it in our yard—”


Josh
found it, you mean.”

“Right. And we didn’t try to sell it to a big East Coast museum. We kept it here in Tacoma, so I’ll be rewarded. I’m thinking promotion, raise, bonus. And I’m thinking soon.”

“Soon would be good,” said Mom. “We could sure use the money.”

I was doing some thinking of my own. I was thinking that maybe if Dad got a big promotion, Mom would be so happy that she’d let us stay in our house, dead body and all. I began to plan just what I would say to her. I’d tell her that if we hadn’t moved into this house, we never would have found the sack and Dad never would have gotten his great new job.

Things looked even better the next day when the story hit the local newspaper. The first article actually made the front page. The next day the story ran in newspapers all over the country, and our phone was ringing off the hook. Stevens and the rest of the folks at the museum had never been happier. “Now
this
is the kind of publicity the museum needs, Hal,” said Mr. Stevens to Dad.

BOOK: The Tilting House
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