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Authors: Tom Llewellyn

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BOOK: The Tilting House
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“What about Mom? If we find a dead body, do you think she’d keep living here?”

“Your mother? She’s one of the strongest, wisest women I’ve ever known. A pile of old bones isn’t going to bother her. Don’t you worry about your mom. Now, what’s it gonna be?”

Aaron and I looked at each other.

“What’s it gonna be?” Grandpa repeated.

“Dig,” Aaron said.

Who was I to wimp out on my eight-year-old brother? “Dig,” I repeated.

“Fine, boys. Where do we start?”

“Maybe he buried it by the chimney,” said Aaron.

“Maybe,” said Grandpa. “Maybe so.” He hobbled toward the furnace chimney, where a column of brick stood in the dirt. Before he’d reached the spot, his wooden leg slipped out from under him and he landed on the ground with a thud. Grandpa let loose with a long string of beautiful curse words, so big and bold, I could swear they almost lit up the darkness.

“Sorry about that, boys,” he finally said, lying flat on his back, “but by the time you reach my age, you learn to save the four-letter words for special occasions. Now come on over here and help me to my feet.”

We scrambled over and pulled him up. Aaron found Grandpa’s pipe and handed it to him. Grandpa wiped it on his sleeve and set about repacking it with fresh tobacco. He fished another match from his pouch and struck it on the beam above his head. The flare of the match lit up the dark, casting weird shadows on Grandpa’s upturned face.

Grandpa kept looking up and when the match went out, he lit another. “Look here, boys,” he said. The flame illuminated the words “six o’clock” in white chalk.

“Six o’clock!” I shouted. “I know what that means! Six o’clock points straight down!” I explained to Grandpa about the words I’d found in the attic.

Grandpa grunted. “Straight down is right where I’m standing. We may as well give ’er a shot.”

Aaron and I started digging directly under the white words. Aaron’s shovel kept clanging against mine, and I couldn’t seem to
get much dirt into each scoop. After fifteen sweaty minutes, we’d barely scratched the surface and Grandpa’s patience had run dry.

“No offense, boys, but you stink at this. Kindly step aside and let a one-legged old man show you how it’s done.” Grandpa grabbed a shovel and stabbed it deep into the dry ground. In less than a minute, he’d dug more than Aaron and I had in fifteen.

Half an hour later Grandpa’s hole was four feet deep. Then his shovel hit something hard. We shone our flashlights into the hole and saw white peeking from beneath the dirt. Grandpa climbed out and had me go down into the hole. I began to brush away the dirt from around the object.

Aaron screamed. It was a hand. A white hand. We hadn’t found the treasure. We’d found the body instead.

I scrambled out of the hole and Aaron clutched Grandpa’s shirt so hard, he almost pulled them both to the ground.

“Settle down now, boys. It ain’t alive. Aaron, quit tugging on me. Hold the light still and shine it down there so I can see it.” Aaron managed to obey, and Grandpa squinted into the hole. “I can’t see from here. Josh, get back down there and clean off more of the dirt.”

I thought I was going to throw up. “You want me to go down there?”

“You heard me. Don’t take all night.”

I took a breath and carefully lowered myself into the hole. With the toe of my shoe, I kicked away at the dirt, ready for the hand to reach out and grab me at any moment. The hand didn’t move. I knelt down and scooped away some dirt. The hand was attached to a smooth white arm.

It took us another hour of slow and careful digging to uncover the whole secret. The arm was attached to a body, and the whole
body appeared to be made of hard white marble. We’d found the statue of a woman in wonderful condition—except that it was missing its head. It was Pandora.

When we uncovered Pandora’s other hand, it was holding a partly opened box, just as the newspaper articles described. A single tiny figure, like a fairy, was flying out of the box. That would have been hope, I guessed.

Tucked inside the box lay something else—a rolled-up leather pouch. Grandpa opened the pouch and carefully pulled out a moldy sheet of paper. It was a letter addressed to Francis Theodore Tilton.

“Who’s it from?” I asked.

“I’ll be,” said Grandpa, staring at the fragile paper intently.


What?
” Aaron and I cried.

“It’s from Mary Preston.”

“Who’s Mary Preston?”

“Mary Preston was a movie star. Way back in the early days of the talkies—the first talking pictures. She was a real beauty. ‘The beautiful shopgirl,’ they called her.”

“Mary!” I said. “That must be the Mary that Tilton wrote about in his journal. What’s the letter say?”

In the dirt and the dark, next to the white, headless body, Grandpa read the letter aloud:

Dearest Francis
,

I traveled to your beautiful Tacoma looking for happiness. It appears I’ve somehow managed to bring misery with me
.

You were so kind to me. I loved you in my own untidy way. But I loved Hanson, too, and that could never work
.

If I found I was the cause of the end of your friendship with Hanson, I would never be able to forgive myself. Please don’t let things end this way. I am leaving, but I am giving both of you a single gift. This statue is my most prized possession, and I want you and Hanson to have it. Let it keep you together. May you share fond memories of me
.

With love
,
Mary Preston

We pieced together what must have happened. After Mary had left the statue and said goodbye to Tilton, Hanson had come over to Tilton House. The two had fought over the statue and it had somehow broken. Tilton had buried the body in the crawl space so Hanson wouldn’t find it, and Hanson, assuming he had survived his fight with Tilton, must have taken the head. No one had been murdered. The body and the treasure were one and the same.

But who was Hanson? How and why did Hanson or someone else leave the head in front of our house? And how did the Talker know the body of the statue was buried under 1418?

“Grandpa, do you know the Talker’s real name?”

“I don’t. That’s all we’ve ever called him.”

“Come on,” I said. “We’re going to dig through his garbage.”

T
HE LIGHTS WERE OFF
in our parents’ bedroom. I led Grandpa and Josh across the street and into the alley behind the Talker’s house. We found the green garbage can against his back fence and opened it. It stunk like rotten vegetables. I started pawing through it without hesitation.

“We just need to find a piece of mail—an envelope or a bill or anything. Here’s one!” I pulled out a crumpled envelope from the gas company and unfolded it under the glare of my flashlight. The name on the envelope was Karl Hanson. The Talker was Hanson.

Josh and I ran home as Grandpa clunked quickly behind us. The front door was locked for the night. We pounded on it with
our fists until Mom and Dad woke up and flung it open. We spilled the whole story there on the porch. Then we led Mom and Dad down to the crawl space to take a look at the statue. Dad whistled low when he saw it. “Well, Josh,” he said, “you may not have found buried treasure, but I think you got my job back.”

It turned out we got much more than that.

We skipped school the next morning. After breakfast, I looked outside. The Talker—Karl Hanson—had already taken his regular place on his front steps. He was babbling away again about the 187th when Dad and I lined our wheelbarrow with blankets and rolled Pandora over to his house. For the first time since we moved in, the Talker stopped talking. He looked at the headless statue, smiled softly, and said, “Dora.” We set Dora on his porch, and Hanson stared up at it in silence.

Dad called Cal Landgren, his lawyer friend, and told him about the letter and how it proved Karl Hanson’s ownership of the statue. It took another couple of days, but Cal brought a court order down to the museum and returned to our house with Pandora’s head packed in a wooden crate.

“It’s nice to have the head back,” said Mom, “but what about Hal’s job? We’ve got bills to pay, you know.”

“All in good time, my dear lady,” said Cal with a smile.

“First, we need to bring Dora’s head back to her body,” said Dad.

Dad and I walked over to Karl Hanson’s house. It was raining, so Karl was sitting inside on a comfortable chair. He stopped talking and smiled when he saw us through his front window. We took that for an invitation and stepped inside.

“We have something for you, Karl,” said Dad. He pulled the head carefully from the wooden crate and handed it to him. Karl
smiled at the head as he took it from Dad. He carried it out onto the porch and set it carefully on Dora’s body. It fit perfectly. The crack circled Dora’s neck like a silver chain.

Karl turned back to Dad and said, “Mary gave her to me. I loved Mary.”

“I know you did,” said Dad. “She loved you, too, Karl.”

Karl took Dad’s hand and set it on Dora’s arm. “You have her,” he said to Dad. “You’re young enough to love her. I’m too old.”

Dad found out it was impossible to argue with the Talker, so the next day Cal Landgren drew up papers giving Dad complete and legal ownership of the head and body of Pandora. Dad and Cal went back to the museum for what Dad called “an important meeting.” This turned into another meeting and then a whole series of meetings that lasted weeks. The first of December came and went, but I heard nothing more about us moving.

During that time, the newspaper found out what had happened and Van Leopold, the reporter, wrote a series of stories, which got picked up again by papers all over the country. This time, all of us—Dad and Grandpa and Aaron and I—came out looking like heroes.

Dad called the family into the living room and finally explained what all the meetings had been about. The museum wanted Dora. They knew Dora was the source of all their publicity and their rise in attendance. They also knew Dad owned her free and clear. Dad wanted the museum to have her, too, but he also knew the statue was really valuable. In their last meeting, both sides had finally agreed on a price for the statue. “Two point three million dollars,” Dad said. “With all the publicity, they said it would be well worth it. I could have gotten twice that at the bigger museums back east, but I want her to stay in Tacoma.”

The museum offered Dad his job back, but he said no. “I was as polite to that fink Stevens as I could stand to be,” he said, “since the museum is paying so much for Dora.”

“If you’re not going to work there, what are you going to do?” I asked.

“Stay home,” Dad said. “I like hanging around this old house, tilting floors and all. I may finally get around to photographing these walls. And I may finally get around to writing.”

“What would you write?” I asked.

“Your grandpa’s not the only one who’s got stories to tell. Heck, I might even write a few stories about this strange old house. Oh, and Josh,” Dad said, in his low, serious tone, “we have you to thank for all of this—you and Aaron and Grandpa. Don’t think I don’t know it. Your mother and I are setting aside a good chunk of money for you and your brother in a trust fund. But we both agree you deserve something now. Something significant.” Dad mentioned an amount of money he said I could spend as I wanted. I’m not going to say how much it was, but Grandpa used the same amount to buy a brand-new Cadillac. It was not black.

No one asked us to, but Aaron and I shared enough of our money with Lola to make her smile.

“So you’re staying?” Lola asked.

“We’re staying,” I said.

“Good. Because I like having you around here, Peshik.”

“I like having you around here, too, Dolores.” She punched me. She kept punching until I promised never to call her Dolores again.

The Talker still sat out on his steps, talking away, on sunny days and still sat inside, talking away, when it rained. I never completely figured out his life story, but Grandpa and Dad and I have what we think is a pretty good guess:

We know the Talker, Karl Hanson, was Tilton’s partner when they met Mary. Tilton’s journal said Mary was promoting her last movie,
The Primrose Path
, which we found out was released in 1933. That must have been when Tilton and Karl had their final fight. Karl did talk about Mary every now and then, but mostly he talked about the 187th. Grandpa had friends who had fought in World War II. He called some of his buddies, and one of them remembered the 187th as the division that fought at the Battle of the Bulge, one of the bloodiest battles in the whole war. Almost 100,000 German soldiers and 20,000 American soldiers died there.

Dad guessed that after Mary left, Karl went off and joined the army and he was still in the army when the war started eight years later. “Surviving something like the Bulge couldn’t have been easy,” Dad said. “Considering everything that Karl’s probably been through, it’s a wonder he’s not crazier.”

One night we brought Karl over to our house for dinner, but it turned into a complete disaster. Mom tried to act as if he were a normal dinner guest, but the guy never shut up, even for a second. It’s hard to eat when a crazy old guy with a mouth full of peas is talking about all the dead bodies he’s seen.

BOOK: The Tilting House
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