On the last day of each month, I’ll take a story from the previous month, clean it up a little, see if I can make it better than the first time it appeared, and post it up. When I first wrote “Genius” (day sixteen), it was an experiment in doing a dialogue-only story. No narration, no description, no nothing. Just the words. I think it worked out okay, with some good characters and an interesting premise. For the revisitation, I thought I’d put in a more conventional third-person narrative and see what I could make of it. Let me know what you think!
Kevin took deep, slow breaths to try and keep his heartbeat under control. The tip of the soldering iron trembled ever so slightly, and that wasn’t good enough. This part of the apparatus was vital to the success of the project. He blinked away the sweat that dripped into his eyes. He took one more deep breath, held it, and let it out as he lowered the iron to the circuit board.
“Kevin? Time for dinner, sweetheart!” He jerked the iron up and away from the board and cursed. He swung the magnifier back, dropped the coil of solder on the tabletop and growled under his breath at his mother. “Don’t make me call you again!” she called.
He wiped his forehead, set the iron back in its holder and counted to ten. “I’ll be up in a minute, mom!” he yelled. He stood up and turned on the light, blinking against the sudden illumination. The basement was cluttered and chaotic, with benches and boxes full of parts and various electronic components, cast-offs from neighbors’ trash and whatever he could scrape together from eBay. He took a battered notebook from one of them and started scribbling on a blank page.
“This is the second time, Kevin. It’s getting cold.” His mother’s voice was starting to sound concerned, but that was the default expression for her. For the last few years, she hadn’t know what to do with her son, and that was fine with him. She and his father had tried therapists and talking to his teachers at school, but they didn’t have any help for them. “He’s a great student,” they said. “Top honors, just… He’s in his own world sometimes.”
Would that that were true. If he had his own world he’d be able to get work done, to stay away from such trivialities as whatever it was his mother had cooked for dinner. It was only after many arguments and a little begging and pleading that he convinced his parents to let him use the basement for his own purposes. He promised not to do anything that would burn down the house or get him arrested, and they’d just have to live with that.
In recent weeks, however, he’d spent more and more time down there. He would come home from school, head straight downstairs and not show his face again until he came up to wolf down his dinner. After that it was straight back to the basement, and he wouldn’t emerge again until morning. They had tried to talk to him about it, as they had tried to talk about so many other things, but whatever he was doing down there was taking up all of his attention.
“Kevin,” she called again. “Your father and I… You’ve been down there all week, and we’re worried about you.” He didn’t answer, but put some extra notes next to an improved circuit design. He may not have finished this one, but maybe that was a good thing. If he just tweaked the design a little…
“That’s it, Kevin. I’m coming down there.”
His head snapped up from his notebook as he head her come down the stairs, in flagrant violation of the agreement they’d made. “What? Mom, no, you can’t – No!” He ran to the foot of the stairs to stop her, but it was too late. “No no no no – awwww, mom!”
His mother looked completely out of place in his basement junkyard. Her pale blue suit was clean and uncluttered, and the only jewelry she wore was a tastefully small cross on a thin gold chain. She looked every bit the professional working mother, but she’d somehow managed to make it look easy. She looked around the basement with an expression of horror and confusion, not only at the chaotic mess of things that was down there, but simply the chaos itself. Up above, in the house that she ruled, such a thing as this would never be tolerated.
“What on earth have you been doing down here?” she asked. She reached out to open one of the battered cardboard boxes and recoiled as dusty cables and connectors spilled out. “My God!”
Kevin took his gloves off and tried to escort her back to the stairs. “Jeez, mom, I told you not to come down here.”
“I mean, just look at this mess.” She walked around him and started peering into everything with the horrified curiosity of a driver passing a fatal accident. “Why do you have a shopping basket full of batteries? And broken remote controls? And is this -” She picked up a metal basket with a leather chinstrap. The helmet had been festooned with wires, all leading to a thick, canvas-wrapped cable that was coiled in another box. “It looks like my old colander,” she said. “What are you doing with this?”
“Mom, could you put that down please? It’s delicate.” Kevin was acutely aware of the whining tone that was entering his voice and he squared his shoulders. “Mom, look, just put it down and go back upstairs. I’ll be up in a minute.”
She put down the helmet and sniffed. “And what’s – what’s that smell? It smells like… Like…” Kevin knew what it smelled like, but he was used to it by now. The smell of burned-out electronics was part of the background atmosphere of the basement at this point. She spun around to face him again. “Kevin, have you been smoking down here?”
He wanted to deny it, but stopped himself. “Yes!” His eyes lit up. “Yes, mom, that’s exactly it.” He weaved through the junkpiles and gently took her arm, trying to guide her out. “I’ve been smoking and I feel terrible about it and I promise that I’ll stop, so just go back upstairs and-”
She broke free of him again and approached the door to a walled-off section he had built. “What’s in here?” she asked, turning the knob.
“Mom, no!!” It was too late. The room beyond that door was better than the rest of the basement, at least in terms of neatness. There were small lights in the darkness, a well-organized bench, and shelves of tagged and labeled devices, the successes that had been culled from all his failures.
His mother looked around, and stopped, horrified, when she saw what was on the desk in the middle of the room. “Oh. Oh my God, Kevin, what have you done?” She approached it, gingerly. There was a great glass jar, its thick walls distorting the dim light that shined upwards from the base. Inside, its neck wired to a shining steel base that was covered in little lights, was the head of their family dog, Racer. She leaned towards it, her hand to her mouth.
It opened its eyes and started barking.
“Don’t touch me!” she screamed, stumbling backwards from the dog’s head. She backed up against the door, her face twisting between anger and disgust. “Oh God,” she whispered. “Is that Racer? You – you said he ran away and-”
“Mom, I-” The dog barked again and she whimpered. “Yeah,” he said. “That’s Racer. He – quiet, boy! Quiet!” The dog stopped barking but started licking the inside of its container.
“Wh- where’s the rest of him?”
“Buried out back, mom. I…” She bent over and threw up on the floor. “Oh. Okay. You, um…. I’ll just…” He grabbed a small towel off a rack and twisted it in his hands. “I’ll clean that up after. Don’t worry about it.”
“Sweet Jesus, Kevin, sweet baby Jesus…” She wiped her mouth and took a step closer to the thing in the jar. Racer barked again and started panting happily as she approached.
“Mom, I know how this looks,” Kevin said. “Look at me, Mom.” He reached out to touch her and she flinched away, but she looked at him. “I know how this – shut up, Racer! – I know how this looks. And I know it looks pretty bad.” He tried to smile. “But if you look at the bright side-”
“Bright side? Bright side?” She rounded on him, and her usual expression of careful pleasantness was gone. Now his mother’s wide, tear-filled eyes were full of anger, fear, more real emotion than he could remember seeing from her in a long time. “You have your beagle’s head in a jar, Kevin! And it’s still alive! How –” She gestured around to the bizarre-looking contraptions that were on all the shelves. Some of them looked vaguely identifiable, but there were far more whose purpose she could not begin to understand. “And these machines? Did they do this? Did you make these?”
“That’s what I’m talking about, mom!” Kevin got in front of her and tried to recapture her attention. “I made these! Out of the crap that people throw away. Out of the things in my head! Look at Racer, mom!” He ran over to the desk and wrapped an arm around the glass case. Racer barked again. “He got hit by a car, okay? And I kept him alive! No one else could have done that!”
He left Racer, who whined quietly, and picked up a thing that looked like two old TV antennas stuck together with a copper coil between them. “Do you see this machine, mom? Hold on, let me find…” He put it down and started digging through a box under the desk.
“Hold on, mom,” he said. He stood up again with a metronome in his hand, the one they bought for him when he’d expressed an interest in playing the piano. That had lasted for very nearly two weeks. “Okay, Look at this, okay?” He set it ticking and put it on the desk some distance away from Racer, who was watching it intently. “Nice beat,” he said, “four-four time, keep your eyes on it…. You watching?” He picked up the machine off the desk and pressed a small button. The coils began to hum quietly and a soft glow filled the space between the spreading antennas. He adjusted a dial, pointed the whole thing at the metronome and pushed the large red button in the base of the device. He touched the pale glow to the metronome, which immediately stopped in mid-swing, the pendulum leaning precariously to the right. The glow stayed around it, faint and iridescent.
Kevin turned back to his mother, a huge grin on his face. “Isn’t that cool?” He held up the device towards her and she took a step backwards. “Localized time distortion! I can dial that baby down to almost nothing!” He turned the dial back a bit, just for show.
He gestured back to the shelves. “I have an antigrav plate down here somewhere, and a new plastic that can replace human skin cells. If I can find the remote, I’ll show you my army of mind-controlled cockroaches.” That look of disgust passed back over his mother’s face and she looked like she might want to throw up again. “Okay, maybe not them, but didn’t you wonder why your roses grew so big last year? Why they screamed sometimes? Or what happened to those kids who egged our house last Halloween?” He laughed, and it was a dark laugh. “Not a coincidence, mom. I mean just look at all this stuff!” He turned back to her.
“I… I’m looking, Kevin.” Her voice had gone quiet.
She walked over to the desk, and rested a hand against the glass case. “Oh, Racer…”
“Mom, forget about Racer. Racer was just a stepping-stone, a way up to something better!” He grabbed her with his free hand and turned her to face him. This time she didn’t flinch. “Mom, listen to me: in a few years, I’ll be able to figure out how to keep people alive indefinitely. And not in a jar, either. I have stuff down here that’ll change the world, mom.” He tried smiling again, letting a note of pleading enter his voice. “Don’t you see?”
She nodded slowly, mechanically. “Yes, Kevin. I see.”
“Do you understand why I did all this?”
The nod again. “Yes, Kevin. I understand.”
“So… we’re cool?” He maneuvered to look into her eyes, but she looked away. “Mom?”
His mother took a deep breath and turned to the door. “Kevin. I’m going to go upstairs now. I’m going to call a doctor or someone, because this…” She looked back at the room and shuddered. “This isn’t normal.”
“No, mom. No, you can’t do that.” He gripped the device tightly.
“I have to, Kevin.”
“No, you can’t. I’m not ready – the world’s not ready! You have to just – Mom, wait!!” She was already out the door, heading towards the stairs.
“I can’t let you do this, Kevin, not under my roof!” She reached a block in the maze of clutter and turned around to find a clear path, a sense of haste and panic entering her steps.
“Mom, no! Stop!” He held up the time-stopper as she approached him, and the pale glow lit up more brightly between the antennas. “NO!!“
She tried to step around him, but there wasn’t enough room. She turned to look as the light embraced her and she slowed down. “Kevvvvv…iii…nnnnnnnnnnn….”
Kevin looked at his mother, who was frozen in mid-step. Strands of hair hung, immobile, and the cross on its chain was dangling off towards the lapel of her suit jacket.
“Oh, mom,” he whispered. “You shouldn’t have made me do that.” He reached out to touch her, but drew back his hand. He didn’t know what would happen if he touched her. He made a mental note to test that out later.
He sat down on one of the boxes and rested the device on his lap. “You’ll be fine like that.” He tried to make himself sound sure. “You won’t have to worry about getting old, anyway. Not for, let me see…” He checked the settings on the device and then did some quick math in his head. His eyebrows went up. “Huh. Two point three million years.” He smiled and patted the machine. “Damn,” he said. “I am good.”
His mother stood there, frozen in time and perfectly beautiful. She didn’t understand, and that was no surprise. He’d never expected her to, but rather hoped that he’d be able to show her some of the more amazing things first before letting slip that bit about their dog’s head in a jar. Or the cockroaches. Sooner or later, he figured he’d be able to bring her around – her and his father. But she’d pushed the schedule ahead, and letting her go was far too risky.
And now there was his father to worry about. If she didn’t come up soon…
Kevin picked up his gloves from the workbench and put them on. “All right, then,” he said. He took up the time-stopper again and rechecked the settings. A pale glow bloomed between the antennas. “Dad first,” he said, mounting the first step. “Then dinner.” He smiled grimly.
“Then the world.”
“Kevin? Time for dinner, sweetheart! Don’t make me call you again!”
“I’ll be up in a minute, mom!”
“This is the second time, Kevin. It’s getting cold.”
“I know, mom – I said I’ll be up in a minute!”
“What are you doing down there, anyway? You’ve been in the basement all week.”
“It’s nothing, mom!”
“Your father and I are worried about you, Kevin….Kevin? That’s it, I’m coming down there.”
“What? Mom, no, you can’t – No! No no no no – awwww, mom!”
“What on earth have you been doing down here? My God!”
“Jeez, mom, I told you not to come down here.”
“I mean, just look at this mess. Why do you have a shopping basket full of batteries? And broken remote controls? And is this -”
“Mom, could you put that down please? It’s delicate.”
“It looks like my old colander. But what are all these wires sticking out of it?”
“Mom, look, just put it down and go back upstairs. I’ll be up in a minute.”
“And what’s – what’s that smell? It smells like… Like… Kevin, have you been smoking down here?”
“Yes! Yes, mom, that’s exactly it. I’ve been smoking and I feel terrible about it and I promise that I’ll stop, so just go back upstairs and-”
“What’s in here?”
“Oh. Oh my God, Kevin, what have you done?”
“Don’t touch me!”
“Oh God, is that Racer? You – you said he ran away and-”
“Yeah. That’s Racer. He – quiet, boy! Quiet!”
“Wh- where’s the rest of him?”
“Buried out back, mom. I…. Oh. Okay. You, um…. I’ll just… clean that up after. Don’t worry about it.”
“Sweet Jesus, Kevin, sweet baby Jesus….”
“Mom, I know how this looks. Look at me, Mom. I know how this – shut up, Racer! – I know how this looks. And I know it looks pretty bad. But if you look at the bright side-”
“Bright side? Bright side? You have your beagle’s headin a jar, Kevin! And it’s still alive! How – And these machines? Did they do this? Did you make these?”
“That’s what I’m talking about, mom! I made these! Out of the crap that people throw away. Out of the things in my head! Look at Racer, mom – he got hit by a car, okay? And I kept him alive! No one else could have done that!”
“Do you see this machine, mom? Hold on, let me find….”
“Okay, Look at this metronome, okay? Nice beat, four-four time, keep your eyes on it…. You watching? BAM! Huh? Isn’t that cool? Localized time distortion! I can dial that baby down to almost nothing!”
“I have an antigrav plate down here somewhere, and a new plastic that can replace human skin cells. If I can find the remote, I’ll show you my army of mind-controlled cockroaches. Okay, maybe not them, but didn’t you wonder why your roses grew so big last year? Why they screamed sometimes? Or what happened to those kids who egged our house last Halloween? Not a coincidence, mom. I mean just look at all this stuff!”
“I… I’m looking, Kevin.”
“Mom, forget about Racer. Racer was just a stepping-stone, a way up to something better! Mom, listen to me: in a few years, I’ll be able to figure out how to keep people alive indefinitely. And not in a jar, either. I have stuff down here that’ll change the world, mom. Don’t you see?”
“Yes, Kevin. I see.”
“Do you understand why I did all this?”
“Yes, Kevin. I understand.”
“So… we’re cool? Mom?”
“Kevin. I’m going to go upstairs now. I’m going to call a doctor or someone, because this… This isn’t normal.”
“No, mom. No, you can’t do that.”
“I have to, Kevin.”
“No, you can’t. I’m not ready – the world’s not ready! You have to just – Mom, wait!!”
“I can’t let you do this, Kevin, not under my roof!”
“Mom, no! Stop! NO!!“
“Oh, mom. You shouldn’t have made me do that.
“You’ll be fine like that. You won’t have to worry about getting old, anyway. Not for, let me see…. Huh. Two point three million years. Damn. I am good.
“All right, then. Dad first. Then dinner. Then the world.”