Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Enrichment Week Story #3 - THE MAD SCIENTIST DAY CARE CLUB

During Enrichment Week, I taught a creative writing seminar class, and we wrote one story each day for four days.  I took part as well, and this children's story was the result of a short story challenge - each person came up with a list of six random things that had to appear in the story, and then we swapped lists.  This was my result:

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. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Enrichment Week Story # 2 - A Close Call at the Theater

One of the things we did during my  Enrichment Week creative writing seminar was take a hand at writing a short story that was historical fiction.  My students complied with some imaginative tales - a 19th century cavalry troop running afoul of an Apache werewolf, Neil Armstrong encountering cuddly little aliens on the moon and keeping their existence a secret, and a neat little epistolary tale set in the 1920's.  I did every assignment I gave my kids to do, and my contribution was this little tale of alternative history that had been cooking in my brain for a while.  For the record, this may or may not become the prologue to a future novel . . . .

A CLOSE CALL AT THE THEATER 
A Short Story by 
Lewis Smith 
 
John Parker looked at his pocket watch and yawned.  It was nearly nine o’clock, and the President was late – again.  Mrs. Lincoln, already seated in the coach, glanced at the door of the White House and sighed.  After so many years, Parker figured she ought to be used to never seeing the first act of a play, but he could tell she was upset.  Not angry – her legendary fits of temper were unmistakable – but disappointed no less.  Finally, at nearly nine, the front door of the Executive Mansion opened, and the lanky form of Abraham Lincoln, wearing his trademark stovepipe hat, stepped out and strode across the White House lawn towards the carriage. 
“The play started thirty minutes ago,” Mary Todd Lincoln said. 
“Good thing we’ve seen this one before then, eh?” the President replied.  He was used to her moods and knew when to take a light tone and when to be sympathetic. 
“As I recall, we missed the First Act then, too,” she replied.  “But that’s all right, Father, I just want to relax tonight.  It’s been such a long time since we both had a good laugh!” 
“Indeed, little Mother,” he said, patting her hand.  “Makes you wish we were going to a better comedy, doesn’t it?”  Lincoln had been disappointed with ‘Our American Cousin’ the first time he saw it – it was more vulgar and slapstick than he generally liked his plays to be. 
“They say that the script has been re-written, and that Laura Keene and Harry Hawke are both hilarious in this production,” she replied. 
“Well, we shall soon see then, won’t we?” Lincoln said as the driver whipped the carriage towards Ford’s Theater.   
Parker stood on the running board of the carriage, his Colt in his pocket, scanning the crowds.  As a Washington policeman detailed to protect the President, big crowds always made him nervous.  Lincoln was unpopular in many circles, and not a few people wanted him dead.  No American President had ever been assassinated, but a madman had tried to kill Andrew Jackson thirty years before, and anything could happen.  He would be glad when the President was tucked away safe in his box at the Theater.  The mood of the capitol was generally jubilant since Lee’s surrender a few days before, but many Confederate sympathizers lurked in the city still.  Besides, he thought, he’d been late for duty and had no time for supper; perhaps he could grab a bite – or better yet, a drink – once the President was seated. 
It was a short ride from the White House to the theater, and once they arrived, Parker escorted the Lincolns and their guests, Major Rathbone and his fiancĂ©e, Clara Harris, to the Presidential Box.  As they filed into their seats, Harry Hawke, playing the role of Asa Trenchard, a penniless American adventurer, caught site of them.  He quickly modified his line – a protestation of his worth to his potential mother-in-law – to fit the occasion. 
“Well I’ll have you know,” he declaimed, “I am just as fine a gentleman as the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!”   He gestured at Lincoln with a flourish as he spoke, and the tall man from Illinois tipped his hat to the crowd, who gave him a vigorous round of applause.  Lincoln accepted it gracefully, and then gestured to the actors to continue.  As they did, he turned to his bodyguard. 
“We are fine for the timebeing, Mr. Parker,” he said.  “Feel free to sit among the audience and enjoy the play.” 
“Thank you, Mister President,” said Parker.  There was a chair in the narrow corridor right outside the Presidential box, but it had no view of the stage at all.  He went down the stairs and took a seat, and soon he was chuckling along with the rest of the audience at the onstage antics of Harry Hawke and Laura Keene. 
It was already late in the first act, and Parker had not been seated for very long when the intermission was called.  As the gas lights were turned up, he recognized Lincoln’s coachman, Robert Stark, sitting a couple of seats over. 
“Come on to the Lone Star with me and get a drink,” the garrulous Scotsman said. 
“I really shouldn’t,” said Parker.  “I’m supposed to be watching out for the President.” 
“Aw, come on, my good man!” Stark said.  “Lincoln never leaves once he’s in his box. It’s safe as can be.” 
Parker shrugged.  He was not a particularly conscientious man, as his spotty record with the Washington police showed, and he was powerfully thirsty.  Lincoln would be fine for a half hour, he reckoned. 
The Lone Star was crowded, and as they entered, Parker saw the popular actor, Wilkes Booth, getting up and leaving a corner table.  He nodded at the young thespian as he brushed by, but Booth ignored him.  Theater people!  Stuck up brats, the lot of them, was Parker’s opinion. 
He grabbed a tankard of beer and was about to join Stark when he saw a beautiful woman seated at the bar.  Parker was married, but was no more particular about his marital vows than he was about his police duties.  He plopped down next to her and greeted the young lady with a grin and a wink. 
“John Parker, Washington Police,” he said.  “How are you this fine evening, my lady?” 
“I am quite well,” she said with a radiant smile.  “Louise Fletcher, at your service, officer.” 
His spirits lifted.  That smile – it was obvious she liked policemen! 
“Are you from Washington, Miss Fletcher?” he asked. 
“Mrs. Fletcher,” she said.  “My husband was a Captain in the Union Army, but he died at Gettysburg.  I volunteered for the Sanitary Commission after that, hoping to help other men like him.” 
“Very noble,” said Parker.  A lonely widow!  His prospects were looking up. “I am a personal security guard for President Lincoln,” he continued. 
“How exciting!” she said.  “Are you off duty?” 
“Not exactly,” he said.  “The President is next door watching a play.” 
“Then why are you not with him?” she asked sharply, disapproval written on her futures.   
“Well, I just came over to have a nip -” he started, but she would have none of it. 
“You are tasked with protecting the most important man in America, and you leave your post to take a drink?” she snapped.  “That is terribly unprofessional.  If something were to happen to Mister Lincoln, the whole nation would curse you! 
“Well,” he lied, “I have been on duty since noon, and I just needed to wet my whistle before I return to the job.  In fact, I ought to get back, I suppose.  It was a pleasure to meet you.” 
She snorted and turned her back, and Parker muttered a few choice words under his breath as he carried the tankard back across the street.  It wasn’t like anyone would try anything in the middle of a crowded theater! 
The second act was already underway, and Parker’s seat was occupied by someone else when he got to it.  Grumbling, he headed up the stairs to the Presidential box.  At least no one up there would bump his arm and make him spill his drink.  He glanced up to where his chair sat in the hallway, and blinked at what he saw. 
The unmistakable form of John Wilkes Booth was opening the door of the Presidential box very slowly with his left hand, and in his right he grasped a small Derringer pistol.  So intent was he on slipping in unnoticed that he did not see the policeman on the stairs below.  Parker set his drink down quietly, drew his own weapon, and took the stairs two at a time. 
The play was nearing a climax – the American Asa had been unmasked for the penniless fortune seeker he was, and Laura Keene’s mother was laying into him with a vengeance. 
“Mister Trenchard!” she sniffed in an upper class British accent, “You are a foul-mouthed, ill-tempered barbarian, utterly unfit for the manners of polite society!” 
Well, I may not be fit for polite society,” Hawke drawled, “But I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sock-dologizing old man-trap!” 
The audience roared with laughter, and Booth raised his pistol even as Parker came up behind him. 
“Hey there!” he shouted, desperate to distract the assassin.  “Stop this villainy!” 
Booth pulled the trigger, and the pistol roared loudly in the confined space. There were shrieks in the audience below, but Parker’s shout had accomplished one thing: Lincoln had turned his head at the sound of his voice, and the bullet aimed at the back of his head had only grazed the edge of his ear.  The President lunged out of his chair and his long, wiry arm shot out, grabbing Booth by the wrist.  The actor snarled in rage, and with his other hand drew a long, lethal-looking Bowie knife from his belt.  Lincoln grabbed that wrist with his other hand, and the two men were caught in a deadly grapple.  Parker had his pistol out, but could not get a clear shot as the two men swayed and struggled back and forth.  Mrs. Lincoln was screaming, and Clara Harris fainted dead away in Major Rathbone’s arms, temporarily preventing him from aiding Lincoln. 
Abraham Lincoln was enormously strong, and always had been.  Years of splitting rails had made his arms as tough as steel cables, and even in his fifties he could hold an axe by the very end of the handle, parallel with the ground, for a full minute at a time.  Once, in a brawl as a young man, he had picked up his opponent and flung him headfirst into the ground so hard that the man was unconscious for two hours.  Booth was a superb acrobat and swordsman, but he was no match in stature or strength for the enraged prairie giant he was now wrestling. 
Parker decided to simply help the President subdue Booth instead of shooting into the midst of them, so he tried to grab one of the actor’s legs.  As he did so, a powerful kick from Booth’s opposite foot caught him in the forehead, knocking him out cold.  He crumbled to the floor unconscious. 
But Booth had thrown himself off balance by lashing out with his foot, and a veteran “rassler” like Lincoln knew how to take advantage of that.  Booth’s pistol had already fallen out of his hand as they fought, and now Lincoln shifted his grip with that hand to the actor’s collar.  Lifting and twisting, he raised the shorter form of Booth clear of the ground and flung him out and away from the Presidential box – into the air above the screaming crowd.  Lincoln just had time to register the hate in Booth’s eyes turning to shock and then to fear as his body tumbled into the empty air.  The actor threw out one hand, trying to catch the edge of the box.  Instead, his fingers wrapped around the red, white, and blue bunting adorning the box, and he pulled it after him like a streamer as he plunged downward to the stage.  He struck headfirst, and his neck snapped with a sickening crunch.  His arms and legs were still twitching as the bunting slowly settled over his dying form. 
The audience’s screams were slowly displaced by a buzz of wonder and excitement.  Someone had tried to shoot the President, and Lincoln had killed the man with his bare hands!  One by one, eyes glanced back and forth from the crumpled form on the stage to the tall man standing in the Presidential box.  Lincoln raised his hand to his ear and it came away bloody, so he reached into his pocket and pulled out a handkerchief, holding it to the side of his head.  He waved one hand at the audience to show that he was all right, and all of Ford’s theater erupted in applause.  Mary Todd Lincoln, who had been standing virtually paralyzed with fear and shock, suddenly came to herself and embraced her husband, heedless of the hundreds who were watching.  The applause redoubled until the rafters of the theater vibrated. 
The next morning Lincoln came to work in the Executive Office as he would have any other day, only the white bandage covering his ear betraying the night’s adventure.  Reports were still coming in – Booth had been part of a larger conspiracy, and although two of his men had missed their targets, Secretary Seward had been stabbed to death in his bed by a deranged veteran named Lewis Payne (or Powell, depending on who you asked).  Several of Seward’s family members and an attending nurse had also been slashed or stabbed before the man was subdued.  Another assassin had been told to kill Vice President Johnson, but Johnson was at a party surrounded by people, and the man had given up.  There were rumors of another assassin stalking General Grant, but he had not yet been apprehended.  Officer Parker, whose warning had saved the President, had been knocked senseless by the blow to the head and was still in bed, although he had regained consciousness that morning.  The press was hailing him as a hero. 
The Vice President was ushered into Lincoln’s office, and as he surveyed the man, Lincoln heaved a sigh of relief that Booth had failed in his mission.  Andy Johnson was a decent fellow, and would make an excellent goodwill ambassador to the South once the last of the fighting ended, but – President Andrew Johnson?  Lincoln shuddered at the thought. 
The former Tennessee Democrat smiled at his chief. 
“I heard you had a close call at the theater,” he said laconically. 
“Indeed,” Lincoln said.  “If not for Officer Parker, I would have gone the way of all flesh!” 
“Well, I’m glad that wasn’t the case,” Johnson said with a long sigh.  “Can you imagine me trying to put this fractured Union together again?  I would have no clue how to proceed!”