He laughed with his othe.., p.1
He Laughed With His Other Mouths,
In memory of my Great-Uncle Charles
INCIDENT ON OPPOSITE DAY
The moon was not the only thing glowing in the sky that January night. Other things soared over the white farms and forests. Things watched the cold Earth carefully. Things peered down at the hills and the little houses and the fir trees on the mountainsides.
From a mile above, a car looks like a very tiny thing. Just like a toy.
Inside the car, there was a lot of noise. The Delb family drove home from their skiing vacation. Mom Delb drove. Dad Delb slept. And their two kids, Grady and Hopper, fought in the backseat, slapping each other’s heads.
“You’re broken, and don’t touch my pillow.”
“Touch. Touch. Touch.”
“I said you’re broken, and don’t touch my pillow!”
“Touch. Touch. Touch.”
“Which one of you is that?”
“Hopper. I told Grady not to touch my pillow.”
Mom said, “Don’t touch his pillow, Grady.”
“Mom? What day is it?”
“Umm, the sixth of January.”
“Oh, wow, I think it’s Opposite Day! So that means I got to do the opposite of whatever people say! Touch touch touch. Touch touch touch.”
“Hey! Stop touching my pillow! You’re stupid!”
“Opposite Day! You mean I’m smart!”
“You’re a pig-hog!”
“Opposite Day! You mean I’m an angel made from gold.”
They had been arguing this way for hours. They did not pay attention to anything outside the car.
On either side of the road, everything was white and silent. There were steep white pastures. The windows of small white houses were dark. The white smoke from woodstoves and furnaces rose quietly into a black sky frosted with stars. There were forests of spruce with their dangling arms all sleeved and gloved in snow.
Then, above the trees, there was motion. To see it, Grady Delb and Hopper Delb would have had to look backward. They didn’t. They were too busy punching each other.
Hopper had figured out the trick of Opposite Day. Now he was saying, “You’re handsome, Grady! You’re the most handsome anywhere!”
“Thank you. I know I am.”
“No, you said it was Opposite Day!”
“It just was over. Clang! Opposite Day over! I’m handsome! You said it! It sticks! I’m glue!”
“Actually, Grady?” said Mrs. Delb. “It’s not midnight yet. About three minutes. So it must still be Opposite Day.”
“Ha!” said Hopper, and he began to throw every compliment he could at his brother. “Hey, Grady, you’re smart! You’re a real brain casserole. No: Opposite Day! You’re a great person. Opposite Day! Every girl on the slopes from every town thought you were cool. Opposite Day!”
“Make him stop!” said Grady. “Make him stop saying opposites!”
Then a shadow fell across them. Something had blocked out the moon.
Hopper said, “You’re going to have a long and successful life. Oppos—”
Hopper noticed Grady gaping at something behind them. They both looked out the back window.
The trees on either side went like an aisle. Above them, sliding along through the stars, was a glowing shape. Its lights were bright.
Something was following them.
The Delb children looked around wildly.
The car was passing through a deep, dark forest. There was no one around them except whoever hung above them.
“Mom . . . ,” hissed Grady. “Mom. There’s a ship.”
“Hmm?” said Mom Delb.
“A flying saucer,” whispered Grady. “Right behind us.”
“What? Hopper, what’s Grady saying?”
The saucer swung down lower. It played beams over the fleeing car.
Hopper didn’t know what to do. He wanted to warn his parents too, but he wasn’t very smart, and he really believed it was Opposite Day. “Mom!” he squealed in terror. “Grady is absolutely wrong! There isn’t a flying saucer at all!”
Grady screamed, “We’re being chased by aliens!” and Hopper hollered his agreement: “No! We aren’t! We really aren’t, Mom! Go slower—now! Slower, Mom!”
“What are you two talking about?”
“A flying saucer!”
“No flying saucer!”
Mom Delb chuckled. “Could you make a decision and then get back to me?”
Hopper insisted desperately, “Mom, there is no hovering spaceship with red lights lowering itself right over the car, chasing us, blocking out the sky like some rogue evil moon, come down to Earth to wreak havoc among all mankind! OPPOSITE DAY!”
“Hey,” said Dad Delb, waking up. “What’s all the noise?”
“There is a—
“There is no—
US!” the two kids yelled.
“You see what I put up with?” said Mom Delb. She said, “Okay. You first. Hopper, what is it you want to say?”
“SLOWER, MOM! DRIVE SLOWER! THERE IS NO, ABSOLUTELY NO, GLOWING FLYING SAUCER WITH—”
“Oops! Midnight,” sang Mom Delb. “If it was Opposite Day, it’s over now!”
But it was too late. Light flooded the car.
Then all lights went off.
The engine stalled. The car coasted a few feet, the wheels crackling on frost.
It came to rest.
The family all heard each other’s breath tremble. All Delbs were terrified.
There was no glow from above. Everything was gray. Metal was gray, and the frozen road, and the distant fields of snow.
Dad Delb pressed a button to roll down his window. It clicked, but nothing rolled.
Carefully, they all opened their doors. They stepped out of their car. They raised their eyes above the prongs of their skis, which were clipped to the roof.
Four curls of breath steamed in the air.
Above them was a huge, dark thing. It hung there, blocking out the sky.
A breeze moved through the forest, and the tops of the fir trees swayed. The object above them didn’t move at all.
For a while, they stared up at it. It didn’t seem like it made sense to try to run away.
And then the lights of the ship came on.
The family stumbled.
The snow had hardened in the cold, and there was a hard crust on it. The reflection of red lights shot along the furrows and the sloped fields.
The ruddy glow lit even the dark, squashed places deep in the forest: the weird, tangled limbs, the pimpled bark.
* * *
In the morning, all four Delbs woke up. There was a rushing noise. Bright white light. They shot up in their seats. They were belted down. Dad Delb yelped.
Phew! They were just in their car. They were by the side of a major highway. Traffic was shooting past. Grady had just been asleep and drooling on Hopper’s pillow.
They all looked around. They were confused. They had some dim memory. . . . Hadn’t they seen something? Above them? And hadn’t they been taken to a white, glowing place? Where someone had questioned them, asking them again and again a question that they had not understood:
Where is Jasper Dash? The human called Jasper Dash? Where is he?
They did not know. They had no idea who Jasper Dash was. Even now, they had trouble remembering their dream. It faded. They did not talk about it.
Mom Delb started up the family car.
Without speaking, they drove toward coffee.
“Jasper Dash!” a voice called. “Someone is looking for yo
Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, looked up from his welding torch. He was putting the final touches on his science fair project. He shut off the torch’s bright white flame. He lifted the visor of his welding helmet to see who was speaking to him.
It was a teacher. They were in the school cafeteria. Everyone was setting up their science fair projects on folding tables. Kids had drawn posters on foam core. They had ant farms and pet iguanas. They had videos to show. Jasper Dash had a fifteen-foot-tall, mysterious machine with a built-in nuclear reactor.
You have probably never heard of Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut. Once, he was famous. He invented rocket cars and submarines and even a bicycle that drilled to the center of the Earth. He was, in fact, the hero of a series of old books with names like Jasper Dash and His Amazing Interplanetary Runabout, Jasper Dash and His Incredible Undersea Drill, Jasper Dash and His Attractive Photon Sweater, Jasper Dash on Death Mesa, and Jasper Dash: Beyond Space! And Under Time!I He was a blond-haired boy full of pluck and adventure. He fought evil and greed with both fists, which left his feet free to scissor-kick wicked German barons.
Unfortunately, no one really reads Jasper’s books anymore. He has not aged or changed since his books originally came out, back in the twentieth century. He has always been thirteen or so, and is always inventing rockets and radio-control airplanes. Back in the day, millions of kids had read his adventures. Hundreds of thousands had crammed their closets with his cardboard zap guns and die-cast metal spaceships and decoder scarves. Now, no one read his books other than his friends.
Luckily, Jasper didn’t care about fame and fortune. He didn’t care about much other than his inventions—and truth and justice, of course.
“Thank you, Ms. Shellberg,” he said. “Who is it who’s looking for me?”
“One of the students . . . Lily Gefelty. She said she’s helping you with your presentation. I saw her looking for you over there. Should I tell her where your booth is?”
“Yes, please, ma’am!” said Jasper. “Lily’s going to pull the sheet off my invention!”
The teacher smiled at him and secretly hoped this time the invention wouldn’t have mechanical tentacles. She went off to find Lily.
Jasper didn’t go to school, and hadn’t for a long time, but he was always invited to participate in the school’s science fair. Recently, however, the principal and the school board had talked about leaving him out. He always meant well, of course, but somehow Jasper’s inventions did not seem to work as well as they had back in the last century, in the 1930s, forties, and fifties. In the last few years, in fact, his science fair inventions had occasionally malfunctioned and caused problems, and one of them had even ended up roaring,
“TREMBLE BEFORE ME!”
which no one, least of all Jasper, appreciated.
His new, big machine lurked under its white sheet.
Lily Gefelty ran to his side. “Hey, Jas!” she said. “Are you ready?”
Jasper knelt, tinkering with some bolts. “Absolutely,” he said. He rapped softly on the metal. “Why, this gizmo is going to knock your socks off.”
Lily grinned. She loved his enthusiasm. “What is it?” she asked. “What does it do?”
Before he could answer, there was a loud, crowing laugh from the next booth. It was a group of the school’s jerks. They were pointing at Jasper’s project and cackling.
One of them asked, “What is it this year, boy wonder?”
They said, “You always have the stupidest machines.”
Jasper did not look at them. He just fell silent and pretended to shine his contraption’s hubcaps.
“Don’t pay any attention,” whispered Lily.
One of the jerks yelled, “The only reason anyone ever comes to the science fair is to see what stupid thing you’ll do next.”
“I believe,” said Jasper, with dignity, “that you will all be surprised and dumbfounded when you see what I have come up with this year.” He inspected their project, then tried to be friendly by saying, “And may I say that I hope your chemical analysis of orange spray-cheese is warmly received by an inquisitive public.”
The jerks laughed again and turned away. They leaned against their table.
“Don’t think about them,” said Lily. “Everyone thinks you’re great.”
Jasper said, “My last few science fair projects have perhaps not been very successful. Though what is success? I do not think many youngsters have ever transported a whole kindergarten class to another dimension. And gotten them back. All of them.”II He cleared his throat. “Plus an extra student who we never could explain. Isn’t that a kind of victory? I try so hard. . . .”
“You’re going to be super today,” said Lily. “No matter what your invention is.”
“Super stupid,” added one of the jerks from the next booth over.
Lily flinched and didn’t know what to say.
She was a very shy person. Her hair hung in front of her eyes, and she liked the fact that it hid her face a little. When she needed to see something interesting, she blew her bangs out of her eyes. She wished sometimes that she could just watch the world while floating around invisibly, and never be seen or heard.
Now that they were being made fun of, she felt particularly shy. She was silent. She and Jasper didn’t look at each other. The Boy Technonaut stood up, put down his wrench, and wiped his hands on his shorts.
“Okeydokey,” he said. “Whenever that crowd comes in, we’ll be ready for them.”
When all the exhibits in the Pelt Science Fair were ready, the teachers would throw open the doors to the dining hall, and all the parents and kids waiting outside would come in. There would be a little speech by the principal, Mr. Krome, and then they’d invite their special guest, Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, to unveil his newest creation. Then refreshments would be served and everyone could spend a pleasant hour at the different tables finding out about the life cycle of locusts and the different strata of the Earth’s crust.
Jasper and Lily stood anxiously and whispered to each other about the way she was going to pull the sheet off the invention. Lily had practiced at home, on the dining room table. She had discovered a special flick of the wrists so that the cloth would whoosh up and then float gently down. She wanted everything to go perfectly for Jasper.
It was time. The teachers opened the doors. Everyone filed in, shaking hands and gossiping. Parents who hadn’t seen one another for months waved across the room. Kids were squirming, excited to show off their butterflies and seismometers.
Mr. Krome, the principal, tall and businesslike, bustled up to Jasper. “We’re almost ready,” Mr. Krome said. “Please, please don’t blow us all up.”
“Have I ever blown you up, Mr. Krome?”
“No. The fuse was damp.” The principal looked around. “Do you have a parent anywhere? Is your father coming or something?”
This was not a very sensitive question to ask. Jasper blinked and looked down at the floor. Then he said awkwardly, “I, um, never knew my father.”
“Oh. I’m so sorry,” said Mr. Krome, embarrassed. “I just want someone here in case another one of your projects starts yelling, ’Kneel and obey.’ And calls the teachers ’puny human rubbish.’ ”
“Yes, I . . . why, there’s my mother. Over there. Say, hi there, Mom!”
Jasper’s mother, Dolores Dash, swept over, taking Jasper’s hands in her own. She had once been an astronomer. Jasper Dash did not really have a father. He had been created by a highly concentrated beam of information projected from the region of the Horsehead Nebula.
Mrs. Dash was dressed in a sharp, sherbet-green suit. Her hair was swirled and piled up in a big, classy bell on her head. “Jasper, honey,” she said. “I’m so excited! Why, hello, Mr. Krome. You are so kind to ask Jasper to participate in the science fair again. You should know that Jasper has been working on his project for weeks. It’s a big secret. He won’t say a single peep about it to anyone.”
“Great,” said Mr. Krome. “And now you’re going to spring it on an unsuspecting world.”
“I certainly am,” said Jasper.
The principal sighed. “You ready?”
“Mr. Krome,” said Jasper, “I spread ’ready’ on my sandwiches.”
“I know you do,” said Mr. Krome. “Just remember, ’Accidental Death’ is a lunch counter I don’t want to visit.”
Jasper nodded. “There will be no problems. Cross my heart,” he said, “and hope to . . . um . . .”
The principal raised his eyebrow.
“Never mind,” said Jasper.
It was time. Mr. Krome swiveled and clapped his hands. He held up an arm. He clapped his hands again. Finally the crowd quieted down.
“Hello, parents and children of Pelt! It’s a fun day! A day I’m sure you always look forward to! Your kids have been working hard on their projects for weeks. I can’t wait to walk around and see what they’ve cooked up for us.
“It’s so important that we foster scientific creativity in our schools, if we want this great nation to stay on the cutting edge of innovation and technology. That’s why we’ve invited Jasper Dash, Boy Technonaut, to show us one of his new inventions. Jasper has been creating inventions since the 1930s! And he doesn’t look a day over thirteen!” (Uneasy laugh from the crowd. In fact, Jasper was thirteen. Or about a hundred, depending on how you counted.) “Take it away, Jasper!”
Everyone applauded. They strained forward to see. Some of the boys hoped the experiment would be a big disaster and something sloppy and dangerous and alien would stumble out of it.
Jasper stood next to the invention. Behind him, Lily was ready to pull the sheet off.
“People of Pelt,” said Jasper. “What I am going to show you may amaze you. But I swear to you—someday, every one of you will own one of these devices. Time and progress move swiftly! You have to jog like billy-o or you’ll be left behind. But, fellows, you can always get an update on which way progress is heading with THIS dandy contraption!”
At that, Lily, pale with anxiety, whipped the sheet off the machine.
Everyone gasped. They couldn’t tell what it was. It was complicated and as big as a lunch cart and had an antenna on top. It had huge metal wheels. It had a little door on the side with an atom painted on it. It had some kind of dial and a headset on it.