Short Story Challenge – Required Elements: a bowl of talking fruit, a cat who eats leeks, a mental asylum, a giant bug fight, George Washington, and a self-moving car.
THE MAD SCIENTIST DAY CARE CLUB
A Short Story by
Lewis B. Smith
Timothy Snodgrass and Johnny Belcher waited impatiently for the school bell to ring, signaling the end of the day. The two fifth graders had been inseparable since they met on the first day of school three years before. Having odd last names had singled them out for a certain amount of ribbing by their classmates, but it had also bound them together in what they liked to call “the Rejects’ Club.” They had both become fairly popular over time, but they enjoyed each other’s company and the sense of camaraderie that the “club” had given them that first year, so they kept the name even if it didn’t exactly fit any more.
The clock’s second hand seemed stuck in tar, it moved so slowly, but finally it crawled to the top of its orbit once more, signaling that it was 3:15, and the end of day bell rang. At last! School was out! The boys grabbed their books and ran for the door, ignoring the droning voice of their teacher, Mister Longino, as he reminded them of the math assignment that was due tomorrow. That could wait, they thought, because it was Thursday, and that meant that they got to go to Doc Thrugmeister’s house!
Thrugmeister was an eccentric scientist who lived about five blocks from the school on the edge of a huge vacant lot. His house was a tall, rundown Victorian gingerbread monstrosity that had probably been quite lovely in its time. Doc had bought it cheap because no one really wanted to fix it up, and he frankly didn’t care what the outside looked like as long as his equipment stayed dry. Doc was a distant cousin to Tim’s mother, and he had agreed to watch the boys every Thursday so she and her husband could meet after work and have dinner. Since they were best friends with Johnny’s parents, they had decided earlier in the year to make the dinner date a foursome, and Johnny got to join his best friend once a week at Doc’s house for three hours after school.
Timothy thought that Doc was the coolest human being on the planet, because the man was an honest-to-gosh mad scientist. Thrugmeister wore an actual lab coat around the house and was always doing some crazy experiment or testing a new invention. The boys looked forward to Thursdays as the high point of their week because Doc was the one grown-up who talked to them like they were equals, and often let them help him with his experiments.
As they trotted down the street, the friends passed a tall chain link fence that ran parallel to the sidewalk. A familiar figure in a white jumpsuit leaned against it, his hands clutching the wire.
“Hey young goldfish! Off to Doc’s house again?” the tall man asked.
“Hi Crazy Joe!” Tim said. “Yeah, it’s Thursday, ain’t it great! Doc said his new invention should be ready today.”
Crazy Joe grinned at them. The fence was the boundary of the Calm Chowder Asylum, the local nut house, and Joe was a resident there. He spent nearly every afternoon when the weather was nice standing at the fence and staring out at the world, referring to all the kids he saw as “Goldfish” and all the grown-ups as “Sharks.”
“You little goldfish be careful. That Doc is one crazy old shark!” he said.
“I guess you would know, huh Joe?” Johnny said.
“Hey, I’m getting better,” the mental patient replied. “Just last night I was talking to my psychiatrist, and I said ‘Doc, you gotta help me! Half the time I think I’m a teepee, and the other half I think I’m a wigwam!’ You know what he said to me?”
Timothy had heard the joke before, but he also knew Crazy Joe loved telling it, so he played along.
“What did he tell you, Crazy Joe?” he asked.
“He said: ‘Your problem is, you’re two tents!’ Ha ha! Get it . . . too tense, two tents?” Joe cackled.
“You are one funny crazy guy, Joe!” Johnny said. There was no ill-will in the banter, the boys simply called life like they saw it. If Joe wasn’t crazy, he wouldn’t be in the asylum, they figured. Neither of them realized that he was actually an orderly shirking bedpan duty whenever he could by hanging out at the fence.
Passing the asylum, they briskly walked the last couple of blocks to Doc’s house and dumped their backpacks on his front porch. One of Doc’s rules was ‘No homework in my house!’ and they cheerfully respected it. He believed life was too short to waste conjugating verbs and multiplying fractions when the boys could be helping with do real science.
“Doc! We’re here!” Tim announced as they walked in.
There was a large bowl of fruit on the hallway table that had not been there the last time they visited, and as they passed it, the banana suddenly popped upright and began to sing the first stanza of ‘Yes, we have no bananas.’ Then the apple interrupted it.
“It makes no sense for you to sing that,” it said. “You are here, singing the song, so we obviously have bananas!”
“Well, first of all, I am the only banana in the bowl, so technically, the lyrics are correct -” the banana began.
“Orange you being over-literal?” the orange chimed in.
“No one invited you into this!” the apple snapped. “Why don’t you go contemplate your navel!”
“You just think you can get away with being rude because you’re all golden and delicious!” said the banana.
The boys stared at the bowl of talking fruit in wonder as Doc poked his head out of the lab. He saw the looks on their faces and cackled.
“There you are!” he said. “How do you like my new gizmo?”
“You made fruit talk?” Johnny asked.
“Hey, if a singing bass on a plaque can be sold into hundreds of thousands of homes, why not a bowl of wisecracking, argumentative fruit?” Thrugmeister asked them.
“So is this the invention you were so excited about?” asked Timothy.
“Oh no, that is just a gimmick to put some groceries on the table,” Thrugmeister said. “I already have orders for fifty of them! Come on into the lab and I’ll show you my greatest invention ever.”
They boys walked into the lab, eager to see what Doc was talking about. Mr. Beans hopped up onto one of the lab tables and meowed loudly as they came in. He was an elderly grey tabby cat with a large white blotch on one side shaped vaguely like a pair of nostrils. Timothy stopped to scratch him behind the ears.
“Beans is probably hungry,” said Thrugmeister. “Here you go, you greedy old boy!” He set a plate full of onion sprouts on the table, and the cat began chowing down enthusiastically.
“I thought cats liked meat,” Johnny said.
“Mr. Beans is mostly vegetarian these days,” said Doc. “He especially loves leeks of all sorts.”
“Wait – you mean, he likes to take a leak?” Timothy asked.
Doc rolled his eyes. “No, not leaks, leeks!” he said. “Onions, scallions, stuff like that!”
Timothy shrugged. “Weird cat!” he said. “So show us this great project of yours, Doc!”
Thrugmeister led them out the back door of the lab to a huge garage. Parked there was a 1978 Dodge Charger, painted gleaming black. A hole had been cut in its hood and a large, gleaming metal gadget protruded from it, with several colored lights winking on it. In the center of the steering wheel another metal plate with flashing lights had been mounted.
“So it’s a souped up Dodge,” Johnny said, sounding unimpressed.
“That’s exactly what it is,” Doc said. “I give you – the Dimensional Dodge!”
“Dimensional?” the boys asked.
“Well, trans-dimensional, to be exact,” Doc Thrugmeister said. “Hop on in and we’ll take her for a spin.”
The two boys climbed in the back seat, and Doc got in after them – on the passenger side!
“Wait a sec, who is going to drive?” asked Johnny.
“The Dimensional Dodge is entirely self-piloting,” Doc said. “Its operation requires adjustments that are far more quick and precise than any person can make.”
“Where shall we go today, Master?” a voice asked with an impeccable English accent.
“Let’s show the boys that planet we last visited,” said Doc.
“Wait, did you just say planet??” Tim asked.
“Indeed!” said Doc. “Off we go!”
“But I have to be back by seven!” Johnny said, but by then the garage had disappeared and the car was surrounded by the blackness of space and the comet-like streaks of stars flashing by. Metallica’s “Master of Puppets” was blaring on the stereo. In a matter of minutes, the car slowed, the streaks resolved themselves into dots of light – although arranged in a pattern that resembled no night sky either boy had ever seen.
“Well, boys, welcome the far side of our galaxy,” said Doc. “I should remind you that the Dimensional Dodge does generate a protective shield around itself; as long as you stay in the car you are safe from anything you see outside the windows. But don’t get out, no matter what you see!”
The boys were still trying to process how they got from a garage in Pennsylvania to wherever this place was when the ground began to rumble. Over the horizon, a gleaming black dome as big as a sports stadium drew into view. Underneath it, six giant legs, each one multi-jointed and several feet in diameter, churned to carry the enormous beetle forward.
“I hate bugs!” Johnny muttered.
Suddenly a booming chittering sounded from behind them, and another colossal insect – this one a mantis over a hundred yards in length - appeared and attacked the giant beetle. The two colossal arthropods grappled and rolled back and forth, trying to bring their mandibles to bear on each other. The boys shrieked in fear, but even when the giant bugs rolled over the car, the force field protected them from harm.
“Can we go home?” Timothy begged.
“Don’t you want to see who wins?” Doc asked.
At that moment the giant mantis got its claws around the beetle’s head and yanked with enormous strength, pulling the head free of the thorax. Foul smelling green bug juice sluiced out, soaking the car.
“OK, score one for the mantis!” said Tim. “Now can we go?”
“Back to Pennsylvania it is!” said Doc, and the car lifted off the planet’s rocky surface and rocketed into the sky. The stars blurred and shifted as they jumped across dimensions again. They set down in a snow-covered field next to a dirt road with a stone wall standing alongside it. In the distance a large barn stood, and some men clad in rather tattered clothes were huddled around a fire.
“Wasn’t it spring when we left?” asked Timothy.
“And where are the power lines?” asked Johnny.
“Dodge, where are we?” asked Doc.
“We are in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania,” said the car with the English accent.
“All right, then, only a few miles from home,” said Doc. “But what year is it?”
“It is January of 1777,” the car calmly replied.
“Why did you bring us back two hundred and forty years early?” Thrugmeister asked angrily.
“You said Pennsylvania, you did not specify a timeframe,” the automobile indignantly replied.
About this time a man on horseback approached. He was tall and imposing and somehow familiar, and he regarded the vehicle and its occupants curiously. Johnny rolled down his window.
“Where are you gentlemen from, and what is this contraption you are in?” the man asked. When he spoke, they could see he was missing several teeth.
“We are from Philadelphia, and this is our carriage,” said Doc before the boys could answer.
“What kind of carriage has no horses?” the man demanded.
“It’s a horseless carriage, just arrived from Germany,” Timothy said quickly. “Sir, are you -”
The man sighed, and a hint of a smile played at the corner of his mouth.
“Yes, I am General Washington,” he said. “Your vehicle made my soldiers nervous.”
“Well, then, we shall get out of your way,” said Doc. “Dodge, please take us back home!”
“Watch out for that Benedict Arnold!” yelled Johnny. “He’s a turncoat!”
“What do you mean? Arnold is one of my best -” Washington started to say, then fell silent as the car lifted off the ground and into the sky. The boys rolled up the window as the stars turned to streaks again.
Moments later they were back in Doc’s garage, and the boys came tumbling out of the Dimensional Dodge just as the doorbell rang.
“That should be your parents,” Doc said. “See you lads next Thursday?”
“You betcha!” Johnny said. “Do you think we can go look at dinosaurs?”
“I don’t see why not,” Doc said, and the boys ran for the front door to collect their backpacks, and another afternoon at the Mad Scientist Day Care Club came to an end.