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Authors: Tom Llewellyn

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BOOK: The Tilting House
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“I guess he wasn’t dead after all,” Dad said. Aaron gave a hopeful sniff.

Dad plugged in the lamp, clicked it on, and set it inside the dark attic. We peeked inside. The space stretched on past the glow of the light, making it hard to tell how big the attic was. It smelled like a wet dog that had rolled in dead fish. Old boxes lay scattered under the low, slanted ceiling. The lid on the nearest one sat askew. The crying seemed to be coming from there. Dad pulled back the lid.

Eight pairs of tiny, shining black eyes stared up at us. The eyes belonged to a family of rats huddled around the limp body of the one Dad had killed. All the faces staring up at us looked frightened. All except one. The biggest rat looked mad. He stood on his back legs, stared right at us, and threw his front paws up in the air.

“You got a lot of nerve!” the rat yelled. “It ain’t enough that you murder my son, but now you interrupt us during our moment of grief! You got no decency!”

The rat scurried up the side of the cardboard box, jumped out, and darted over to Dad’s feet. He sat up on his hind legs and thrust out his big, hairless belly. “You’re a bum!” he shouted at Dad. “You’re a murdering bum and I want you outta here!” We backed out of the dark room, the rat marching after us. He kept yelling. “You bust into my home. You kill my kid in cold blood. You don’t deserve to live!”

The rat followed us into the room and closed the panel door after him, groaning and straining against its weight, but when Dad tried to help, the rat waved him away angrily. He turned again to face us. “I ain’t through talking to you,” he said to Dad, “but I don’t want the missus or the kids to hear what I’m gonna say. They been through enough already, what with you smashing my Jimmy.”

“He bit me!” Dad said. “I’ll probably have to get rabies shots!”

“Rabies?!” said the rat. “You really are a jerk, you know that? You saying my kids are vermin? When your kids bite some other snot-nosed human kids, do they spread rabies? Would you kill them, too?”

“N-n-no,” stumbled Dad, “but they’re not rats.”

“No, they ain’t rats. They sure ain’t rats. Neither are you. A rat would never do the rotten thing you did. If your sons were rats, they wouldn’t have to worry about their old man going around smashing helpless little kids. ’Cause that’s what you did. You smashed a helpless kid. You killed my son. My Jimmy. My Jim. You’re gonna pay for what you done. You’re gonna make it right.” Then he burst into tears.

That’s the part of the whole thing I remember most. The part when the tough-looking rat sobbed uncontrollably and Dad stood there, trying to figure out what to say. Dad told me later it struck him right then what it would feel like to have one of us die.

“Mr. Rat,” he said softly, “what would you like me to do?”

The rat straightened out his whiskers, sniffed a few times, and said, “Well, now. The first thing you gotta do is get outta this house.”

“What?” Dad cried. “That’s crazy. I just borrowed three years’ worth of wages for this place. I’m not about to leave. I may be willing to try to make things right, Mr. Rat, but let’s be reasonable.”

“Reasonable!” the rat yelled. “Be reasonable with a murdering fink like you? This is my home and I want you out!”

“Your home? What’s your home? The cardboard box?”

“Box? No, I ain’t talkin’ about that stinkin’ box!”

“Well, what, then? This attic? Do you want this entire attic? Because—”

“What, are you nuts? An attic ain’t a home! An attic is a room in a home!”

“Then what do you mean? What’s your home?”

“This—this whole place!” The rat waved his paws around. “This whole house! The upstairs and down and the attic, too. The kitchen, the living room, the dining room. All the bedrooms and all the stinking bathrooms. The front yard, the backyard, the driveway, and the pile of junk behind the garage. That’s my junk.” His voice grew calm, and he stared into Dad’s eyes. “This whole rotten house is our home. It was my great-great-great-grandfather who first moved in here when Tilton was alive. It’s what we’re accustomed to. You just got here. Thanks for stopping by and killing my son. Now it’s time for you—and your rotten kids—to go.”

I thought the rat was right, but I kept my mouth shut.

Dad was silent a moment. Then he rubbed his eyes with the palms of his hands and said carefully, “We’re not going to leave, Mr. Rat—”

“Mr. Daga. Would you stop callin’ me Mr. Rat? My name is John Daga, but you’re gonna call me
Mister
Daga. And who are you?”

“You can call me Hal, Mr. Daga. Hal Peshik. These are my sons, Josh and Aaron.”

“Josh and Aaron, eh? A little advice, young Peshiks: Don’t turn out like your dad, because he’s a murderin’ fink.”

“No, I’m not! Look, I’ll give you the attic for a couple of weeks,” said Dad, “until you can find a new home for your family. But that’s it.”

“That ain’t gonna cut it, Peshik,” said Mr. Daga. “No bum is gonna force us to live in an attic.”

“You’re rats,” Dad said, firmly. “If you haven’t noticed, you’re forcible.” He turned and guided my brother and me down the stairs. Before we shut the door to the All-the-Way-Up Room, we heard Mr. Daga shout after us: “You’re gonna pay for what you’ve done, Peshik. I’m gonna see to that.”

L
OOKING BACK
, I guess we should have expected what happened that night.

About an hour after dinner, we were watching TV in the living room when the power went out. No more lights and no more TV. I followed Dad out the back door to the breaker box. A minuscule note was stuck to the panel door with something sticky and smelly. Three words were written in tiny, shaky letters:

“ ‘Time to pay,’ ” mumbled Dad. “Fine. We’ll see who’s going to pay.”

Mom was standing at the back door. “Pay what? What’s going on, Hal?”

“Nothing,” Dad said. “It’s just a little, er, mouse.”

“You’re going to pay a mouse?”

“Or maybe a rat.”

“A rat? I hate rats!”

“I know. I know. And this one talks. His name is Mr. Daga.”

“Cute,” said Mom, with a smirk. “Could you please just get the electricity turned back on? And if there are really rats in this house, Hal—”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got it covered.” Dad marched up the stairs. Aaron and I jogged to keep up. In the All-the-Way-Up Room, Dad popped open the secret attic door. The box still sat there, but the Daga family had left only a few tattered pieces of fabric.

“We’ll call an electrician in the morning,” said Dad. “It’s summertime. We can live without lights for a little while.”

“What about TV?” said Aaron.

“We can live without TV, too!” yelled Dad. He marched out to the garage, where the electricity still worked, and ran an orange extension cord all the way into the kitchen so we could plug in the fridge. The refrigerator started humming again, but if you asked me, it sounded kind of nervous.

That night, I dreamed that talking rats were crawling around under my blankets. Aaron woke me up when he yelled at me to stop rocking the bed.

The next morning, as I sat drinking some orange juice in the kitchen, Mom opened the cereal cupboard and let out a scream.

“Rat droppings! There are rat droppings in my kitchen!”

I looked over her shoulder. Little black crumbs lay scattered all around the cereal boxes.

We skipped breakfast that morning.

After an expensive visit from the electrician, the lights finally came back on. The electrician said it looked like something had chewed through our wires, and recommended we call an exterminator. Dad nodded, but he never made the call. I was glad he didn’t. Even if Mr. Daga was making life tough for us, I didn’t want him dead.

Aaron switched on the television set in the living room and settled on the couch. Mom went into the laundry room to do a load of laundry. I followed Dad upstairs to see if the rats had returned to the attic.

When we walked by the upstairs bathroom, a horrible smell came from it. The cupboard next to the toilet was open and a pile of rat droppings lay inside.

“Oh, goodness,” said Dad. “Don’t let your mom see that.”

“See what?” came Mom’s voice from the laundry room downstairs.

Startled, Dad slammed the cupboard door shut. As the scream came from below, we realized he had just emptied a laundry chute full of rat droppings onto Mom’s head.

The power went off again halfway through Mom’s shower. She had to finish in the dark.

“Maybe we can watch TV at that girl Lola’s place,” said Aaron.

“No way,” I said, recalling Lola’s comments about our house. “She’s mean.”

The next day, tiny holes started appearing in Dad’s favorite shirts. Mom refused to open any of the cupboards for fear she might find more rat droppings. She would have. The black crumbs were in every corner of the house. And she banned Aaron and me
from the attic. “I don’t ever want you boys going up there!” she yelled. “A rat might bite you. You might get rabies.”

“Mr. Daga said he doesn’t have rabies,” said Aaron.

“Who is Mr. Daga?”

“The talking rat.”

“Very funny. A comedian, just like your father.”

Molly, our cat, wasn’t much help. Molly was so old that she was more like a striped orange beanbag than a cat. She was definitely too old to catch anything.

Dad and I were brushing our teeth in the bathroom one morning when we heard a voice as if from nowhere.

“You ready to pay for what you’ve done, Peshik?”

“Where are you?” Dad said, looking around.

“I’m up in the bathroom fan.”

“Oh, yes. I can smell you now,” said Dad, crinkling his nose.

“Watch it, wise guy,” said Mr. Daga. He burped. “Ooh! Sorry. Had an old hotdog for breakfast. Anyway, I figure it’s safe up here, since you ain’t had no electricity for the last week and a half.” He laughed.

“Thanks to you,” said Dad. “And now my wife won’t go near the kitchen because of all the rat droppings.”

“Quit your whining, Peshik,” said Mr. Daga. “You humans sure have a problem with poop. Rats don’t mind a bit of poop. Heck, we poop in our own nests. As for your lights, they’ll come back on as soon as you settle.”

“What do you want from us?” Dad asked.

“We want a home of our own. We want security from all you stinking humans. We’d prefer to stay in this house since we’ve been here so long, but we ‘re willin’ to relocate if necessary.”

“Dear Lord,” mumbled Dad. “How in the world could I ever
afford another house? I’m an art museum employee! Do you realize how little I get paid?”

“Tell you what, Peshik,” said Mr. Daga. “I’ll help you with the money. Who knows? You might even come out ahead on the deal, ’cause I’ve got a pretty valuable collection of stuff. Us rats are real good at finding things. Expensive things.”

Dad shook his head and went back to brushing his teeth. He spit, rinsed, and said, “So what you’re saying is, you’ll help pay for a house with little things you and your children have found?”

“Now you’re getting it,” said Mr. Daga, sounding pleased. “Hey, you wait right there and I’ll give you a sample.” We heard the scurrying of tiny feet, then silence.

Dad and I looked at each other, not knowing what to expect. A minute later the scurrying feet returned. “Heads up!” called Mr. Daga. A silver coin dropped out of the vent and fell to the bathroom floor. Dad picked it up.

“It’s a dime,” he said with a shrug. “It’s gonna take a lot of dimes to buy a house.”

“For a guy who works in a museum, you don’t know much about old stuff, do ya?” asked Mr. Daga. “It ain’t just a dime, smart boy. It’s an 1897 Barber dime. A gem-brilliant proof. Accordin’ to the book, only seven hundred and thirty-one proofs were struck. You should be able to get at least fifteen hundred bucks for it at a decent coin shop, if ya got any brains at all. Try it. I’ll check back with you tomorrow.”

I took a look at the coin. On one side, it had a face that looked like Julius Caesar’s. On the other, there was a wreath made out of wheat.

After we finished getting dressed, Dad found a coin shop in the Tacoma phone book.

“Where are you going?” asked Mom as we headed for the front door. She was sitting at the kitchen table, having a cup of tea with Grandpa.

BOOK: The Tilting House
11.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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