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Authors: Tom Llewellyn

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BOOK: The Tilting House
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That night, John Natalie died of a heart attack. He was seventy-two years old and at least sixty pounds overweight.

Two days later, I saw the black Cadillac again. It drove past
our house and parked in front of the duplex. I watched through the front window as Victor Peat and Ludwig climbed up the stairs. Mrs. Natalie met them at the gate and invited them inside.

Our family went to the funeral. A lot of people Grandpa’s age attended. They all seemed to know Grandpa from way back and kept calling him Red—Mom said that Grandpa’s hair was red before it went gray. I couldn’t remember ever seeing Grandpa—even in a photograph—with anything other than his thin silvery hair.

A lot of those old people had interesting stories to tell about Nat, the fat, grumpy old man I’d only known for a few weeks. Considering how little I liked the guy, I was surprised by how much I didn’t hate his funeral. Victor Peat and Ludwig made sure everything ran smoothly. The punch tasted especially good. It had orange sherbet in it.

I didn’t think about that black Cadillac or Victor Peat until two weeks later, when I saw the car parked in front of Lola’s house. The day before, her stepdad, Jerry, had died of a burst appendix. I wasn’t about to go to Lola’s to ask her about the car, since every time I saw her on the street, she made fun of our tilting floors or asked if I’d seen any rats in our house. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have said anything at all if Lola hadn’t said something first.

We saw her at her stepdad’s funeral. The service had ended and a couple of women who looked like old versions of Lola were serving refreshments in the reception area of the funeral home. My brother and I were scooping that same orange sherbet punch into our glasses when Lola walked up.

“What are you two doing here?”

“We came with our parents.” No one spoke for a while, because what do you say at a funeral?

“That guy gives me the creeps,” said Lola, finally.

“What guy?”

“That guy. Mr. Peat.” She pointed across the room at Victor Peat, who was standing next to Lola’s mom. He was smiling, jutting his chin in her direction.

“He’s the same guy who arranged Mr. Natalie’s funeral,” I said.

“He’s creepy. He came by our house and tried to sell us a coffin. Then Jerry died the very next day, out of the blue. It gives me the shivers just thinking about it.”

“He came by Mr. Natalie’s house the day before he died, too,” I whispered. “We were there, helping Mrs. Natalie weed the garden. He gave her a catalog of coffins and gravestones.”

“He did?” asked Lola. “That’s so creepy.” Then one of her relatives called her away.

“Do you think maybe he had something to do with it?” Aaron asked.

“Something to do with what?”

“With them dying.”

“I don’t know. I don’t see how he could have. They died in different ways. It’s not like they were murdered or anything. But it’s like he
knew
they were going to die. When he came to the Natalies’, he had Mr. Natalie’s name on a list.”

“Vultures,” said Aaron.

“What?”

“They’re like vultures. Like those birds that circle over dying cows.”

The next time I saw Victor Peat was early on a Saturday morning. Dad is a pancake fanatic and usually makes a big breakfast on Saturday. It was seven thirty and Grandpa, Aaron, and I were sitting at the kitchen table while Dad mixed ingredients. Mom was still in bed. Dad tried to let her sleep in each Saturday, but
Aaron usually ended up waking her early to ask her where his shoes were or what we’d be having for lunch later.

We were going to start painting the outside of the house that day, and Dad had forced Aaron and me to go to bed early the night before. When someone knocked on the door, it was so early that we assumed it was somebody we knew. Aaron yelled, “
COME IN
!”

“Shush,” Dad hissed. “Mom’s still asleep.” No one came in.

I raced Aaron to the door and won. I pulled the door open as Aaron stampeded down the hallway, while Dad shushed us again from the kitchen. Aaron stopped dead when he saw Victor Peat.

“Good morning,” Mr. Peat said, smiling thinly. “I’m sorry to bother you so early, but I’m looking for the home of a young man named …” Ludwig handed him the list. “Ah! A young man named Aaron Peshik. Would one of you be Aaron Peshik?”

I looked over at my brother. His face was turning white.

“Who is it?” hissed Dad from the kitchen. “Tell ’em to come in!”

Victor Peat removed his hat and stepped past us into the kitchen. Ludwig followed him, scanning the writing on our walls without comment. Aaron stared after Victor Peat, his eyes filling with tears and his lips quivering.

“Don’t worry, Aaron,” I said. “It doesn’t mean anything. He’s just some freaky guy. Don’t worry about it, okay?”

Aaron burst out crying and collapsed onto the floor. Who could blame him? Wherever this weird guy went, people died the next day.

Dad came in from the kitchen. “Josh, could you see what’s wrong with your brother?” He apologized to Victor Peat and Ludwig, then ushered them out the front door, saying he wasn’t interested in their services.

“Please take this information and put it someplace handy,” Victor Peat said, stepping over a sobbing Aaron. “If ever we can be of assistance, just call. Number’s on the card.”

Dad nodded and accepted a stack of papers. Victor Peat reached a bony hand down to Aaron and patted him on the head. “Don’t worry, young man. Whatever’s troubling you now will soon be a distant memory.”

Aaron cried even louder as Dad closed the front door. Dad knelt down and tried to comfort Aaron, but when Aaron starts crying like that, it’s impossible to talk to him. Dad turned to me for help.

“It’s that guy, Dad. Victor Peat.”

“Victor Peat?” He looked down at the card in his hand and frowned. “How’d you know his name?”

“He’s the same guy who planned the funerals for Mr. Natalie and Jerry.”

“Oh, right,” said Dad. “That’s where I’ve seen him.”

“And both times he showed up the day before those guys died and tried to sell them coffins.”

“He’s a vulture!” blubbered Aaron. “And he said he was looking for me!”

I think Dad understood how scary it would be, especially for a little kid like Aaron, but he didn’t believe there was any connection. He tried to comfort Aaron by tickling him and finally offering him candy. None of it worked, so he picked Aaron up, set him on the couch with the Saturday comics, and went to clean the breakfast dishes.

As soon as he left the room, Aaron whimpered, “I’m gonna die!”

I had to agree. Aaron was going to die.

I helped Dad in the kitchen, and then we went outside and started covering the bushes with drop cloths. Thinking about Mr. Peat’s visit distracted me so much that I kept fumbling with the corners and turning the cloths the wrong way. I could tell that Dad was trying hard not to yell at me.

We found a wooden ladder in the side yard. All the rungs tilted, so we knew it must have belonged to the original owner. It made it a little tricky for Dad to stand on.

“Hold the ladder steady!” Dad yelled from the top rung. He began to roll the first coat of gray-blue paint over the wall of the house. I could almost swear that Tilton House shivered with pleasure. I was surprised at how beautiful the color looked, and suddenly I really wanted to see what the house would look like when Dad was done.

But I knew I couldn’t spend all morning helping Dad. There was no way to know how much time we had before the vultures claimed their victim. Somehow, I had to find a way to save Aaron. I was so preoccupied that it took me a moment to realize the ladder was tipping. I grabbed it tightly and barely managed to keep Dad from crashing to the ground. “Josh!” yelled Dad. “Please be more careful!”

Please be more careful
. Hadn’t Victor Peat said the same thing at Mrs. Natalie’s front gate? I thought of what else he’d said that day: “I’m nothing without my list. You could say we live and die by the list.” A desperate, crazy idea formed in my head. I let go of the ladder and ran to the front door.

“Josh! Where are you going?” Dad yelled after me. I didn’t answer. I found Aaron still curled up on the couch.

“Let’s go see Lola,” I said.

“Why?”

“I think we can beat Victor Peat and his list. But we’ve got to ask Lola a question first.”

A minute later, Aaron and I were knocking on Lola’s front door for the first time ever. She looked surprised to see us.

“What do you want?”

“Can we talk to you?”

She stepped back wordlessly and we walked in. I knew our house seemed weird to her—even though she’d never been inside it. But her house—with its complete lack of dust and clutter—seemed weird to me. Someone had polished the bare—level—wood floors in the entryway to a high shine. By contrast, our entryway was always a tilting jumble of shoes, Frisbees, and skateboards. The furniture in Lola’s house, what little there was, looked brand new and uncomfortable. I stood up straighter and wanted to tuck in my T-shirt.

“We can go up to my room,” she said. We followed her upstairs. The door to her room had a brass plaque on it that read
DOLORES’S ROOM
.

“Who’s Dolores?” I asked.

“I am.”

“I thought your name was Lola.”

“Dolores is my full name. Only my mom calls me that, so don’t even think about it.”

“We wanted to ask you about your stepdad.”

She opened the door. Her room didn’t look like it was part of the same house. The floor was buried in stuffed animals, CD cases, books, soccer trophies, stacks of drawings, and polished rocks. Aaron picked up a very round, black rock and turned it slowly in his hand.

“My stepdad’s dead,” said Lola.

“I know. I’m sorry. But Mr. Peat just came to our house this morning and he was looking for Aaron.” I explained to Lola about the visit and our theory about the list.

Lola sat down on top of a stuffed elephant on her bed. She stared at me. “I’ve seen the list. Mr. Peat had Jerry’s name on it the day before he died.”

“That proves it!” I said. “We need to get that list.”

“I’m dead! I’m dead!” cried Aaron.

“Shut up,” said Lola, but even Lola couldn’t keep Aaron from sobbing. Lola pulled him in front of her. She cupped his face in her hands and stared directly into his eyes. “Look at me,” she said, surprisingly gently. “We’re going to get that list. If we can destroy it, you won’t die. But you’ve got to stop crying, okay?”

Aaron sobbed away.

“If you stop, I’ll let you keep that rock your holding.”

Aaron looked down at the rock and sniffled loudly.

“Good job. Now you and Josh get your bikes. I’ll meet you in front of my house in five minutes.”

I had to admit, when it came to blubbering little kids, Lola was pretty good.

We rode our bikes to the address on Victor Peat’s business card—the same funeral home we’d been to twice before. There was a sign out front:
PEAT AND PEAT. COMPLETE FUNERAL ARRANGEMENTS
.

The lobby had dark carpeting, straight-backed chairs, and a black coffeepot oozing steam. I asked a frizzy-haired woman sitting at a desk if Victor Peat was there. She told us he and Ludwig were out calling on prospective clients.

“They’ll be back this evening at five o’clock for a funeral but won’t be available to meet with anyone until Monday morning. Is there something I can help you with?”

I mumbled, “No thanks,” and we went outside.

“What are we going to do?” asked Aaron. “If we don’t get the list before Monday, I’ll be dead.”

“We go home for now,” Lola said. “And we come back here at five o’clock, for the funeral. That’s our only hope.”

When we got home, Dad was still painting. He’d made remarkable progress on the front of the house, tilted ladder and all. I told him I’d felt sorry for Aaron and had thought of a way to cheer him up. Dad still yelled at me, so I took my position at the bottom of the ladder again. I stayed there, helping him move the ladder, until four o’clock.

At four thirty, Aaron and I were in our bedroom, putting on our dressiest clothes—black pants, white shirts, and clip-on ties. Aaron looked horrible. He’d been crying all day and his whole face was puffy and red. At a quarter to five, Aaron and I were sneaking out the back door when we heard Mom call us to set the table for dinner. We made a run for it. Aaron’s life was on the line. We had no choice.

Lola met us in front of her house. She was wearing a dress and looked years older than me. We pedaled hard until we reached the chapel, where we hid our bikes in the bushes out front and went inside.

The chapel was crowded, so we sat in the back row. A minister told us all about a man named Joe Lampkin. According to the minister, Joe had worked as a garbage collector, always remembered his nephews’ birthdays, and was a friend to everyone on his route. Between frightened sniffs, Aaron said the dead man sounded like a nice guy.

“Everyone sounds nice at their funeral,” said Lola. “That’s the rule.”

In a few minutes, Victor and Ludwig Peat entered the chapel through a side door. They watched the rest of the service quietly, and then Victor Peat went to the front of the chapel and invited all the guests to the reception area, where they could “enjoy some refreshments and reminisce with friends and loved ones.”

“Ludwig keeps the list in his inside coat pocket,” I whispered to Aaron and Lola. “If we can get him to take off his coat, we can snatch it and get rid of it when we’re safe at home.”

“How do we get him to take his coat off?” Aaron asked.

“I don’t know. Let’s go to the fellowship room and see what we can figure out.”

When we entered the reception area, Aaron grabbed my arm and pointed to the punch bowl. “We could get punch and spill it on Ludwig’s jacket. He’d take it off if it was wet.” Lola and I followed him over and watched him fill a glass.

“It’s too small,” Lola said. “Spill that on him and he’ll just wipe his jacket with a napkin. We need a bigger glass.”

“No, we don’t,” said Aaron. “We just need more of them.”

He filled three more glasses and barely managed to pick all four up at once. With four full glasses balanced in his stubby hands, Aaron was ready, but when we looked around for Victor Peat and Ludwig, they were nowhere to be seen.

BOOK: The Tilting House
12.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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