Well, that comment froze me. Mr. Leon had seen my house! I glanced over at Gil, whose eyes were even more focused on Mr. Leon. And I realized why: Gil had an interest in my house, too. I felt the cold air of solitude on my neck. What was going on?
All I could do was repeat what he’d said. “You’ve seen my house?”
“That’s what I just said.” Mr. Leon didn’t seem to think it was all that interesting. His voice was starting to soften with … what? … boredom?
“Why?” asked Gil. “Why were you in Vickie’s house?”
Mr. Leon was busy re-lighting his pipe, his eyes moving back and forth from us to the bowl and the flame. “Oh,” he finally said, “I used to live there.”
The cold air grew colder.
Gil spoke first, his curiosity more powerful, it seems, that my shock. “And when was that?” he asked. I looked at him. I pictured him as a newspaper reporter, sitting there with a little notepad. Well, he had no notepad, but he might as well have. He looked, I realized, just the way my father did when he was interested in a story. I felt my anger rising once again.
“Some years ago,” he said. He paused. “Quite a few, actually.” He puffed again. “Seems like forever ago.” He was looking past us now, focused on the room behind us.
Mr. Leon spoke again. “And then, after the tornado …”
“You were there?” I said. “I didn’t see you.”
“Lots of people don’t see me,” he said. “Even when I’m standing right in front of them. Or even upstairs in the cafeteria,” he said. “I can be standing right beside a table full of kids, and not one of them will even be aware that I am there.”
I was trying to decide if this was creepy. Or just sad.
“But when were you there after the tornado?” I asked.
“Just the once. Just that night.”
“But we weren’t there …” We had spent some nights at a local motel while repairs were being done. Our house, as you may remember, was among the most damaged in the entire storm. As if the funnel cloud had fixed its attention on us.
“That’s right,” said Mr. Leon. “You weren’t there.” More silence while he smoked.
Then Gil said, “What were you doing there? What did you do?”
More silence while he smoked. “Just looking around,” he finally said. “Picking through the rubble.”
“Did you go inside?” asked Gil.
More silence while he smoked. “I did,” he sighed. “Just to see what that storm had done.”
“But there was yellow police tape everywhere!” I cried. “Why did you—”
“I told you,” he said. “I used to live there, too. And I felt … something.”
More silence while he smoked.
“And I went down to the basement,” he said finally, now staring right at me. “And, Victoria … ‘Stone,’” he said, “I think you know perfectly well what I found down there.”
You know all those clichés? My heart just stopped … my heart froze … That sort of thing? Well, it happens, I’ve learned, and it happened to me when I heard Mr. Leon say what he’d just said. He was in our basement. He saw what no one else but Father had ever seen. I am not good at hiding shock, and I knew that trying to lie—or pretending that I didn’t understand what he was talking about—was pointless. At least with Mr. Leon. But with Gil …? That was another story—or at least I hoped it was.
I said nothing. Just looked at Mr. Leon, who was calmly puffing away some more on his illegal pipe.
I felt Gil staring at me. The silence a balloon, swelling with each passing moment. I couldn’t stand it anymore and glanced over at Gil.
I almost laughed. He looked like a cartoon character with question marks in his eyes. “You’re probably wondering,” I said, “about our basement?”
Gil’s eyes changed from question to exclamation marks.
“Well,” I went on, “it’s an old basement”—pause—“a very old basement”—pause—“and after the tornado had shaken the house, we found there was a crack in a wall down there”—pause—“a crack that led into a little room I had never known was there.”
Now I could feel Mr. Leon watching me. I started having some profound sympathy for zoo animals.
“And we found some … old family things that my father had … stored down there. Things I hadn’t known about.”
Gil’s eyes were turning again into question marks.
“Nothing all that important,” I lied. “Family papers.”
“That’s partly true,” said Mr. Leon.
I hoped my eyes were flashing caution lights at him. If so, he ignored them. “You also had quite a little science lab down there in the basement, didn’t you?” he said mildly.
“Not really,” I said. “Just a few things.”
“Just a few,” he laughed.
Gil looked more relaxed. “Oh, I have a room where I put all the things I like to do, too,” he said.
“That’s great!” I chirped. “We all need hobbies.”
“Hobbies,” snorted Mr. Leon, launching a fit of coughing.
I decided it was time to get out of there. “Gil, what time is it? We don’t want to miss Mr. Gisborne.
Gill looked at his watch. “I don’t know,” he said. “My watch has stopped.”
“We have to go, Mr. Leon.” Gil and I stood up simultaneously.
“I suppose you do,” he said. And as we were heading up the stairs, I thought I heard his voice following us with: “I’ll be seeing you later …”
Upstairs, in the cafeteria, I glanced at the school clock high on the wall. Another jolt to my chest. “Gil,” I said, “what time does your stopped watch say?”
He looked. “Hey,” he said, “it’s running again. It’s just about six o’clock, which isn’t right,” he said, “because that’s what the time was when we came inside. And we were downstairs for, well, for a little while … right?”
I pointed to the school clock. Gil looked and saw what I had seen: 6 o’clock. No time had passed since we’d entered the school.