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Authors: Tom Llewellyn

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BOOK: The Tilting House
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Then a different article hit the local paper, by the reporter named Van Leopold. It focused on the strange coincidence that a lost work of art this important should be found in the yard of an art museum employee. Van Leopold recalled that great works have been uncovered before, in the attics of widows and plumbers and the like, but never in the yard of someone who actually worked for an art museum. What were the chances? Wasn’t it more likely that this employee, Hal Peshik, was involved in something shady and was using his mysteriously ill-gotten gains to forward his
own career? After all, said the article, wasn’t this the same Hal Peshik who had made the absurd claim that his house temporarily disappeared?

Dad threw the paper in the trash. He fired off a letter to the editor, which the newspaper printed a few days later, but by that time other papers around the country were running versions of Van Leopold’s article, all of which pointed a suspicious finger at Dad.

A few days later, Dad came home from work three hours early. “Unpaid leave of absence,” he explained, which basically meant he’d been fired. Stevens had told him the museum couldn’t risk a scandal and had to distance themselves from Dad and the discovery of Pandora’s head.

“Can they do that?” asked Mom.

“I don’t know,” said Dad. “I’m calling Cal Landgren.”

Dad had known Cal Landgren since college. He was a lawyer. Later that night, Cal sat with Dad and Mom around the kitchen table. Cal was tall, thin, and always wore tiny rectangular glasses and a suit so dark blue that it was almost black.

“As far as your job, they can do pretty much whatever they want,” said Cal. “You don’t have a contract with them. You have what is called ‘at-will employment,’ which means they can fire you for any reason at all.”

“What about the head?” said Mom. “They can’t take it, can they? After all, Josh is the one who found it.”

“Well, technically, Josh found it on city property, since it was less than ten feet from the street. That means the city and the museum can keep it unless its rightful owner shows up. If it had been in your house or at least farther away from the street, that would be a different matter.”

Dad said, “Stevens had the gall to tell me I might find it a consolation to know the head of Pandora will hold a place of honor in their permanent collection. What a rat!”

“That’s an insult to rats. Mr. Daga is a rat,” corrected Mom. “Stevens is a fink. So what do we do now?”

Dad smiled weakly. “I say we look on the bright side. This could be just the break I need. I’ve been meaning to try my hand at writing again. I’ll pull out my old typewriter and get started on a couple of stories. We’ll try to keep paying the bills until this thing blows over. And hopefully I can return to work by the end of the month.”

It didn’t blow over. September ended and Dad spent less and less time writing and more time filling out applications and sending out resumes. By the end of October, we’d spent nearly all of our savings and Dad had still not found another job. The stack of unpaid bills on the kitchen counter was growing higher and higher. Mom expanded her part-time job in the school office to as many hours as she could get, but it didn’t pay much. I knew times were hard when Grandpa started asking Mom to buy him the cheapest tobacco she could find when she went to the store.

A week before Thanksgiving, Dad called a family meeting and all of us gathered in the living room. “Boys, Dad,” he said quietly, “if you remember when we moved into this place, we could barely afford the payments. That was when I was working. Now I’ve been out of work for almost three months. The money coming in from Mom’s job and my unemployment checks isn’t enough to keep us living here.”

“Maybe I could get a job, too,” said Grandpa.

“Dad, you’re already giving us most of your Social Security. I don’t even like taking that. The fact is that if I can’t find a job by
the beginning of December, then we will need to sell the house and move back into an apartment.”

“Sell Tilton House?” I said. “You can’t!”

“It looks like we’ll have to, Josh.”

“Maybe we could just dim it,” Aaron said. “We could use the dimmer switch to make the house disappear and then no one would know we were still here. We could stay forever.”

Dad smiled grimly. “I wish it were that easy, pal. But it won’t work. If I don’t find a job soon, we’re sunk.”

. I knew from a recent vocabulary test that
meant “to lose all hope.” I’d just lost all of mine, so the definition fit.

My parents sat in our living room, talking about moving as if it were no big deal. All the kids in my class lived in houses, but my parents couldn’t keep our house—not even an old house like Tilton House with tilting floors. I bet no one else in my class would even be willing to live in this weird, old house. I’d been worried we’d lose it because it hid the body of a murdered man, but now we were going to lose it because of Dad’s stupid job.

“What is wrong with you people?” I shouted at Mom and Dad. “Why can’t you even give us a decent place to live?”

I didn’t wait for an answer. I jumped up and ran outside into the night. It was late November. Fog sat low and cold on the ground, and I was wearing only a T-shirt and jeans. My feet were bare, and the cold ground hurt with every step. I shivered and instantly wished I could go back in, but my pride and my despair kept my bare feet moving forward. I walked into the fog, which was growing so thick, it made all the familiar neighborhood landmarks look blurry and spooky.

I walked down an uncounted number of streets, making no attempt to keep my tears and anger in check. The fog made the streetlights useless. Instead of illuminating the ground, the light hovered high above. The sidewalk was shrouded in the mist and dark.

I made a few turns and assumed I was walking back in the general direction of my house, but I recognized nothing. I might have even passed Tilton House and not known it. Then I heard a voice in the mist and knew I’d wandered back to my own block. It was the voice of the Talker, and he was chattering about war again. His mumbles guided me like a crazy foghorn.

“Three combat units made up the 187th Division,” said the Talker. “Each unit included a regiment of artillery and a regiment of infantry.”

“Hi,” I called dejectedly as he came into view.

“The 187th fought against established German positions, against much larger numbers,” the Talker replied. “It was the heart of winter, December and January, and we never received our heavy boots.”

“My dad lost his job,” I said, sitting down on the steps next to him, “and it looks like we’re going to have to sell our house.”

“The Germans were holed up in each town, while we had
to attack from snow-covered open ground, without our heavy boots,” he responded.

“I don’t want to move,” I said. “I love our house. I love its secrets. I love this neighborhood, even though the Purple Door Man is a complete jerk. I even like you, and you’re nutty as a fruitcake.”

“Each day, we suffered heavy losses,” he went on. “My feet and the feet of my men were so cold, they were numb. Men lost toes to frostbite. Some lost so many they were unable to walk. We searched the German bodies for decent boots, but found theirs were worse than ours. I was the oldest field officer of the 187th. My soldiers were more boys than men. Even though the odds were against us, even though these boys were the youngest division of World War II, the 187th refused to yield.”

“Are you trying to tell me something?” I said.

“I can recall sitting for hours, waiting for commands and watching as truckloads of cold, dead bodies were hauled from the battlefield.”

“Gross. Can’t you talk about something else?”

The Talker paused for a few seconds, then said, “It was the movie
The Shopgirl
, in 1927, which was to define her career.” I wondered if his change of topic was coincidence or if he was responding to my request.

“I wish I could do something,” I said, mostly to myself. “To save our house, I mean.”

“At the height of her popularity she received more than forty-five thousand fan letters a month,” the Talker said. “Her last film was in 1933. It was called
The Primrose Path.

“That sounds familiar,” I said, trying to remember where I’d heard that movie title before.

“On the last night I saw her, she gave Francis and me a beautiful treasure.”

“Treasure? That’s what I need right now.”

“I ended up with only a small part of it. The rest is likely buried. Under fourteen eighteen.”

“Under what?” I said. “Did you say fourteen eighteen? That’s my address! That’s the address of Tilton House! What kind of treasure?”

But the Talker’s ramblings had returned to the war and the struggles of the 187th again. It didn’t matter. I’d heard enough.

and back into the living room, where Mom, Dad, Aaron, and Grandpa were still sitting around the coffee table. I began telling them, as fast as I could, what the Talker had said about treasure being buried under 1418 and how 1418 was our house number and how all we had to do was dig under our house and we’d be rich and we wouldn’t have to move.

“Who told you this, Josh?” asked Dad, tiredly.

“The Talker, Dad! He said some actress gave him and Francis a beautiful treasure and he’d only gotten part of it and the rest was buried under fourteen eighteen.”

“Francis? Who’s Francis? What are you saying, Josh? You think we should dig around under our house for buried treasure?”


“It’s a lovely thought,” he said as he got to his feet. “A lovely dream from a crazy man. Maybe I’ll dream about it tonight. I’m going to bed.” He walked out of the kitchen. Mom smiled at me sadly and joined him.

I sat in silence with Grandpa and Aaron for a few minutes. Finally, Grandpa said, “So the crazy old guy really said all that?”

“He did!” I replied, exasperated.

“And who exactly is Francis?”

“Francis Tilton. As in

“Well then,” said Grandpa, “we may as well start. Lead the way, Josh.”

We managed to scrounge up a few flashlights that actually worked, and grabbed a couple of shovels from the garage. Grandpa grunted and creaked through the little door into the crawl space under the house. The low ceiling forced him to hunch down. He found the light switch and clicked it on. The lone lightbulb gave off a dim glow—just enough to illuminate the hundreds of cobwebs.

“It’s a mighty big space,” said Grandpa. “If we have to dig up the whole underside of the house, we’ll be here till I die.”

Then it hit me. In my excitement to find buried treasure, I was standing in the dark, ready to dig under the house, and I’d completely forgotten about what F. T. Tilton had said in his journal. I’d forgotten about the body that was possibly, at this very moment, beneath my feet.

My voice shook as I told Grandpa about the journal and the body. “We should get out of here,” I said.

Grandpa squinted into the darkness and then turned to face us. “If you boys don’t mind, I think I’m going to light my pipe and have me a smoke. I always think better when I smoke.” Aaron and I watched as Grandpa struck a match on an overhead beam and lit his bowl of tobacco. It glowed red like hot coal. Grandpa put away his matches and stared at us through the smoke.

“Now, if I was to bury a treasure down here,” he said, “where would I do it? Or where wouldn’t I do it? I wouldn’t put it by any pipes that went underground, ’cause if one of them busted and somebody had to dig it up, I wouldn’t want ’em finding my treasure. So we don’t have to dig where any of the pipes are buried. That should take out a good chunk of the space.”

“But what if we find the body, Grandpa?” I asked.

“Josh,” Grandpa said, as he stared at his pipe, “good things don’t come easy. Look at your parents, for instance. Look how hard it’s been for them to get this home for you boys. Taken ’em years. You can’t expect to just look beneath your house and find a pile of gold laid out for you. You got to take a risk, one way or another. You find either something good, or something bad. But at least you find something. Now then, we can dig, or we can run away like babies. What’s it gonna be?”

BOOK: The Tilting House
5.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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