|Publisher:||Open Road Integrated Media LLC|
|Series:||Johnny Dixon Series , #6|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 0.60(d)|
|Lexile:||860L (what's this?)|
|Age Range:||8 - 12 Years|
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The Trolley to Yesterday
A Johnny Dixon Mystery: Book Six
By John Bellairs
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1989 The Estate of John Bellairs
All rights reserved.
For a long time Johnny Dixon had been worried about the professor. The old man was in his seventies, and he had always been a bit peculiar, but lately he had been doing a lot of very strange things, and Johnny was afraid that he was losing his mind. Johnny cared about Professor Childermass a lot.
Johnny lived with his grandfather and grandmother in the town of Duston Heights, Massachusetts, and the professor lived across the street in a big, gloomy, gray stucco house. The thirteen-year-old boy and the old man were an odd-looking pair—Johnny was blond and shy, and he wore glasses; the professor was short and bespectacled, with muttonchop whiskers and a nose that looked like an overripe strawberry. But somehow they had gotten to be friends. They played chess and talked to each other a lot about history and politics and life in general. But lately things had been different.
He's acting weird. That was the thought that kept running through Johnny's mind. The professor's acting weird. Johnny was a bit on the weird side himself, and he knew it: Other kids were always making fun of him because he was lousy at sports and good at school work. He was used to being an odd creature, and so was the professor. But these days the professor's oddity was something different—he just wasn't acting like himself. Usually the professor invited Johnny over to his house two or three times a week. But lately the old man had been keeping to himself. He didn't go out much anymore, except to teach his classes at Haggstrum College. Now and then Johnny would see him stalking along the sidewalk with his coat collar turned up and the brim of his battered fedora pulled down. Sometimes when Johnny woke up in the middle of the night, he would look out his window and see that the lights were on in the professor's living room. The shade was always pulled, but he could see the dark shadow of the old man. Sometimes the professor sat dead still for a long time, and sometimes he paced back and forth. A few times he seemed to be talking to someone, but Johnny could not imagine who it was. The professor lived alone, and he hardly ever had houseguests. Was he talking to himself, or to some imaginary person? Johnny had always heard that it was a sign of mental illness when people started talking to themselves. It didn't look good for the professor.
Johnny felt helpless. What on earth could he do? His gramma and grampa were kindly folks, but they didn't believe in psychiatry, and anyway they really didn't think that there was anything terribly wrong with the professor. As far as they were concerned, he was not any more eccentric than he had ever been. In desperation Johnny turned to his only other friend, a smart-alecky kid named Byron Ferguson. He called Fergie one evening and told him that he was worried sick about the professor. As usual Fergie tried to laugh the whole thing off.
"So what's wrong with the old coot?" Fergie asked cheerfully. "He been chasin' cuties down the street, has he? Or does he think he's Napoleon?"
"No, it's not like that at all!" said Johnny severely. "He's ... well, he's sitting at home a lot and talking to himself. I'm really getting worried about him. What do you think we oughta do?"
"Steal his booze," said Fergie, giggling.
Johnny was really beginning to get upset. How could Fergie be so heartless? If the professor had turned into an alcoholic, it was not something to make smart remarks about. "Look, Fergie," he said angrily, "if you can't do anything but crack jokes, you can just hang up. Do you want to help me or not?"
"Okay, okay!" said Fergie soothingly. "Don't get all hot under the collar! Why don't you and I go out after school tomorrow and play flies and grounders? We'll think of somethin' to do about the old guy."
The next day was chilly and windy, a typical March day in New England. Johnny and Fergie were out at the athletic field batting balls back and forth to each other, and when the wind caught a high fly, it sometimes took it way over onto the cinder track that surrounded the field. This was the 1950's, so when Johnny batted, he often imagined that he was one of the famous bespectacled players in the American League. Sometimes he would be Earl Torgeson, the slugging first baseman of the Boston Braves, or the Red Sox center fielder Dom DiMaggio. Johnny was not naturally athletic, but with Fergie's help he had gotten to be a fairly good fly-ball hitter. Over and over he tossed the ball up, gripped, and swung. Fergie looked awkward and uncertain as he circled under high flies, but he never missed, even though he was catching them barehanded. Then it was Fergie's turn to hit, and that was not quite so much fun for Johnny: Sometimes Fergie hit hard liners that stung Johnny's hands when he caught them, and the fly balls always made him feel dizzy when he stared up at them. They batted and caught for about an hour, and then they ambled over to a bench and sat down. As soon as he had caught his breath, Johnny started in again about the professor. He wanted Fergie's help and he wanted it bad, but first he would have to convince his skeptical friend that something was really, truly wrong.
Patiently Johnny went over all the odd things that the professor had been doing and saying lately. Then he threw in a surprise, something he hadn't told Fergie about: the sand on the study floor. Johnny told him how he had gone into the professor's house one day after hammering on the door and getting no reply. He went upstairs to the study, where the professor did his work, but the old man was not there. However, on the floor of the room were little heaps and trails of sand.
Fergie listened intently to Johnny's story, and then he made a bored face and shrugged. "So what?" he said carelessly. "So what if there was sand on the crummy floor? Maybe he went out walkin' on the beach an' he forgot to empty out his shoes till he was upstairs. He's a lousy housekeeper—you know that. If his shoes were full of sand, he'd just dump 'em out on the floor an' sweep up the mess later. Well, come on—wouldn't he?"
Johnny frowned and shook his head. "That's a dumb explanation, Fergie, and you know it as well as I do. The professor hates beaches. He doesn't even go to them in the summertime, so why would he have gone to the beach in March?"
Fergie grinned. "Maybe he's collectin' sand for a sandbox, on account of he's goin' into his second childhood."
Johnny scowled and gave Fergie a very dirty look. "Oh, sure!" he said sarcastically. "I'm sure that's exactly what the explanation is! Look, Fergie, you're being a pain in the neck, and you know it. There shouldn't have been sand on the floor of the professor's study, and if we figure out why it was there, we'll know why he's acting so strange."
Fergie was still not ready to take his friend seriously. "Okay, let's go sweep up the sand!" he said with a laugh. "Then we can have it analyzed, an' maybe we'll find out that it's from the moon, so then we can wonder how the prof got himself to the moon and back."
Johnny clenched his teeth. He had to struggle to keep from telling Fergie off. Finally, when he had calmed down, he decided to change the subject. "Okay, okay, let's forget about the sand!" he said with a scornful wave of his hand. "There's something else we ought to think about. Why does the professor sit up in his living room late at night and talk to somebody who isn't there?"
Fergie sighed. "Like I told you, he's gettin' senile. I know you don't wanta believe that, but I think it's true. My grampa went senile, an' he sat in his rocker and drank eggnog an' talked a blue streak for hours at a time until he died. And he—"
"I don't care what your stupid grandfather did!" snapped Johnny angrily. "The professor does not come from a family that gets senile! His father and his grandfather both lived to be nearly a hundred, and neither one of them lost his marbles—at least, that's what the professor told me. So think of another explanation."
Fergie grinned mischievously. "I'm fresh out of explanations, John baby. But I've got a great idea: Let's you and me go an' hide in his house tonight, an' then we can sneak down and listen in on what he says. That way we'll be able to figure out whether he's goin' crazy or not. Whaddaya say?"
Johnny nodded helplessly. He hated sneaking and spying, but if he had to do things like that to help the professor, then he would.
That evening, around eight o'clock, Fergie showed up at Johnny's house. They did geometry problems for a while and played two games of chess, and then, when Grampa Dixon went to the kitchen to give Gramma her insulin shot, the two boys got up and tiptoed to the front door. They opened and closed it quietly, trotted quickly across the porch and down the creaky wooden steps, and then crossed the street. When they got to the professor's front door, they were surprised to find that it was locked. This was really very unusual. The professor never locked his front door even at night, and he was always saying that burglars were welcome to come in and carry away anything they wanted. So what was going on?
"That's a heck of a note!" muttered Fergie as he stared at the locked door. "All right, what are we supposed to do now?"
Johnny bit his thumbnail nervously. "I think we ought to go around and try the back door. It'll probably be locked too, but at least we tried."
Without a word Fergie followed Johnny down the steps, across the front yard, and down the muddy, potholed driveway. When they got to the back porch, the boys went up the steps very slowly, while the boards creaked and complained under their feet. Pausing on the porch rug, they were about to step forward and try the door when suddenly the kitchen light came on. The boys froze where they stood, but luckily the shade on the porch window was pulled down. As they watched, the professor's stubby shadow moved back and forth, but it was hard to tell what he was doing. The professor sat down at a table near the window and lit a cigarette. The curling shadow of smoke rose upward, and the professor's jaw wagged—he seemed to be talking to someone. The boys noticed the shadow of something that was sitting on the table a few feet from the professor's gesturing hand. It was hard to tell what the object was, but it was about the size of a water jug. Was the professor talking to a jug? It looked as if he was.
"We've got to get closer," Fergie whispered. "That window looks like it might be open just a wee little bit. Get down on your hands and knees and follow me."
Johnny did as he was told, and the two of them inched forward across the warped boards of the porch. As they got closer to the window, they heard a muttering sound, and it got steadily louder. When they were right under the windowsill, they could hear the conversation quite clearly. The professor was talking to someone with a raspy voice and a pompous, sarcastic way of speaking.
"I think we might be able to get into the Harbor of Contoscalion," said the professor as he puffed thoughtfully on his cigarette. "And the Gate of the Contoscalion will be open till the siege is actually under way. The winds in that area usually blow—"
"The winds in that area blow where they want to blow," said the raspy voice, cutting him off. "If you want my private opinion, you'll probably wind up hundreds of miles from where you want to be. The Turks will capture you and you'll end up as a galley slave. Won't that be nice?"
"Leave it to you to be optimistic!" growled the professor. He shook his finger at the shadowy form on the table. "I tell you, this plan is going to work! We'll get into the city and save all those people. Isn't that a wonderful thing to think about?"
"Just super-duper wowee," said the other voice. "I'll think about it every night before I go to bed. But hadn't you better ask those other two in?"
The professor jumped a little—he seemed startled. "Other two? What in blue blazes are you talking about?"
"I'm talking about the two boys who are crouching under the windowsill on your back porch. They've been there for some time."
The professor swore loudly and pushed his chair back. He walked to the back door and jerked it open. With a flick of his finger he turned the porch light on, and then he stepped outside. There were Johnny and Fergie down on their hands and knees. They looked very sheepish.
The professor made strangled sounds in his throat. He opened and closed his mouth and spluttered a bit. Finally, however, he found his voice. "You two!" he roared. "I should have known! I should have known! You're going to ruin everything!"CHAPTER 2
Fergie and Johnny pulled themselves to their feet. Their faces got red, and they both tried to talk at once, but the professor cut them off.
"Be quiet!" he barked. "I don't want any flimsy cooked-up explanations from you two!" He paused, and the boys braced themselves for a scolding. But it didn't come. The professor was trying very hard to look crabby and fierce, but the corners of his mouth began to twitch, and then he started to laugh. After a while he heaved a deep shuddering sigh and pulled himself together. He took off his glasses and dabbed at his eyes with a handkerchief. Meanwhile the boys glared at him. This was worse than being bawled out—they felt silly and stupid.
"I'm sorry that I laughed," said the professor as he put his glasses back on, "but the two of you looked so idiotic crouching under my windowsill that—Oh well, I'll save my insults for some other time. You may as well come in and meet my new friend. Come on, come on! It's quite safe, and I'm not insane, in spite of what you may have thought. So for heaven's sake, come in! It's a chilly night, and I'm freezing out here!"
With bowed heads the boys followed the professor into the kitchen. The room was in its usual state of messiness. Dirty saucepans stood on the stove, and the sink was full of dishes, glasses, and cups. However, the table where the professor had been sitting was clean. On it were three things: a potted geranium, an ashtray full of cigarette butts, and a strange-looking statue about a foot and a half high. The statue was made of polished black stone, and it was shaped like a falcon. Its wings were folded at its sides, and its hooked beak and beetle-browed glare made it look crabby. On the statue's head was an odd sort of double crown with an ornamental cobra wrapped around it.
Fergie and Johnny looked around, and they even peered under the table. Who had the professor been talking to? With an amused smile the old man walked over to the table and patted the statue on the head.
"This," he said, "is my new friend. His name is Brewster, and he—"
"My name is not Brewster," said the statue, cutting him off. "I am Horus, the son of Isis and Osiris, and I am a god of Upper and Lower Egypt. Don't listen to anything that this elderly wreck tells you. He's as full of garbage as a disposal unit."
Fergie and Johnny were stunned. For several seconds they just stared at the statue openmouthed, but then suddenly Fergie let out a loud, braying laugh. "Hey, I know what the heck's goin' on!" he crowed, jabbing his finger at the professor. "He's been practicin' ventriloquism, an' he's been throwin' his voice at this statue here. Hey, pretty good, prof! I coulda swore—"
"I am not throwing my voice," said the professor huffily. "The wretched statue actually talks, because he is ... well, who he says he is. I like to call him Brewster because he reminds me of Brewster the rooster, who is the trademark of Goebel's beer."
"Yeah, sure, sure!" sneered Fergie, glancing skeptically at the professor. "We know all about it!"
"Oh, very well!" sighed the professor as he turned to the statue. "Show them what you can do, Brewster."
"Do I have to?"
"Yes, you do."
There was a pause. Then, as the boys watched, the statue rose slowly from the table. It turned bright pink, and then it began to spin rapidly, so rapidly that it looked like a rosy blur. Finally, when it had stopped spinning, the boys saw that the statue had turned upside down and was hovering a full six inches above the tabletop.
"There!" said Brewster crankily. "And now, if you don't mind, I shall return to my normal shade and position. This is all very undignified, and it is making my head hurt."
Excerpted from The Trolley to Yesterday by John Bellairs. Copyright © 1989 The Estate of John Bellairs. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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