Sunday, November 12, 2006

1932, 10. The Parkersville Prodigy Sees Through Space-Time

May 12, 1920: Jefferson Edison Franklin, 6 lbs., 7 oz., is born to James and Edna Franklin of Parkersville, Iowa. Edna teaches history at Parkersville State College; James grows corn on 47 acres off Rural Route 25. Edna, long an admirer of our nation’s great inventors, wins a postnatal coin toss to determine the child’s name, thus sparing her son from a lifetime as Ezra Sutter Franklin. James, believing that Jefferson Edison Franklin is a hell of a lot of syllables to drag around, provides the convenient acronym “Jef.”

1921: At one year old, young Jef can say “Mama,” “Papa,” “corn,” and curiously enough, “syllabus.”

1922: At two years old, Jef’s parents catch him staring intently at an open copy of the almanac. They think this is adorable, until Jef begins to read it aloud -- and points out a spelling error in the second column of page 392.

1923: Jef’s mother takes him to the college library for the first time in his life. Eight hours later, she has to threaten him with a spanking to get him to leave. He cries all the way home until his mother promises to take him back the next week.

August, 1925: Jef enters kindergarten.

October, 1925: Jef begins teaching kindergarten. Miss Widowbrook, the actual certified and salaried teacher, understandably has some issues with this. Especially when Jef attempts to teach his fellow students their times tables up to the twelves.

April, 1926: Jef’s parents pull him out of school after Darien Morganveld makes Jef eat schoolyard dirt for the third day in a row. His mother helps clean the commingled mud, snot, and tears from Jef’s cheeks; later, by his workbench in the barn, his father tries to gently explain that some folks, some very lucky folks, are born smarter than the rest of us -- and there’s always going to be some dumb fool who takes it personal. Jef listens to this with wide, thoughtful eyes.

May, 1926: Jef builds himself a bicycle out of spare parts lying around his workshop. Two scraped knees, a bruised elbow, and a nosebleed later, he has learned to ride it.

June, 1926: Sherriff Tate finds Jef bicycling down Rural Route 25 at eight at night on a Saturday, a bundle of metal rods and fastenings strapped to his back, headed for the Morganveld place. With a big storm on the way, already whipping up winds, the sherriff takes Jef back to his worried parents. Not until his mother finds a magazine in Jef’s room, open to an article about lightning rods, does Jef confess that he planned to give Darien Morganveld a bit of a scare, by way of multiple lightning strikes to the rain gutter outside his bedroom window. Jef’s father has to sit him down again, this time to discuss responsibility in general, and its application to the smarty-britches of the world in particular.

March, 1927: Jef’s mother, who has taken over his education since his withdrawal from school, rapidly finds herself approaching the limits of her own education. Jef is reading a book a day, everything from literature to scientific texts, and spends hours in his room each afternoon, sketching diagrams for labor-saving devices and other curious apparatuses.

July, 1927: At the annual Parkersville County 4-H Fair, Jef wins first prize in the agricultural products competition for a self-designed still to convert leftover feed and cornhusks into a crude but serviceable fuel for tractors. Second prize goes to Maisy Lewis of neighboring Graingers Corners, who has raised a 512-pound pig named Edgar.

August, 1927: Jef’s mother catches him on the roof of the barn, about to test a prototype device for human-powered flight, and thus averts a highly premature end to his inventing career.

October, 1927: Devastating rains sweep Parkersville, turning Abel’s Creek from a peaceful gully into a raging torrent of brown water. When Johnson Smith’s truck hits a slick patch on Iron Bridge and goes into the water, trapping him in the midst of the rising torrent, Jef rigs up a counterweight system, persuades his father and the assembled rescuers to lower him down over the rushing river, and gets Johnson Smith fitted with a rescue harness. Jef’s ingenious series of pullies bear the weight, and Jef and Mr. Smith are lifted to safety just as his truck is swept away by the flood. (It is found a week later, upside-down in a pigsty in Graingers Corners.)

Jef gets his picture in the Parkersville Patriot, but more importantly, Mr. Smith stops by two weeks later to give Jef the prize pup of his dog Sadie’s litter. Jef names the puppy Scout, and once his mother has enlightened Jef on the ethical ramifications of using one’s pet as a test subject, particularly for experimental forms of transportation, the two become fast friends and inseparable companions.

November, 1927: With his parents’ blessing, Jef takes a job running errands at the Parkersville Depot in town. Within his first week, he has fixed the busted telegraph machine and begun observations on a way to improve the efficiency of the station’s track-switching.

February, 1928: The defining incident of Jef’s young life begins when an ice storm fells the telegraph poles across the railroad tracks down at the Depot. The resulting delay temporarily strands Dr. Ulysses Underton, professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, en route to Chicago to display his Electrical Hovercraft to a consortium of investors. Jef, fascinated by “Dr. U” and the air of scientific progress that surrounds him, quickly strikes up a friendship.

This proves fortunate for both parties when Red Morgan and his gang, fresh from a string of bank robberies across the Midwest, decide to hole up in Parkersville. When the police catch up, and Red and his gang steal the Electrical Hovercraft, Jef stows away aboard and manages to sabotage the machine -- and blind Red Morgan with a well-timed squirt from an oil can -- to ensure the gang’s capture.

Dr. U is impressed by the boy’s hunger for knowledge, quick wits, and general resourcefulness, and a meeting with Jef’s parents convinces him that Jef has reached the upper limit of his ability to learn in Parkersville. Returning from Chicago following a successful sale of the Electrical Hovercraft design, Dr. U stops once more in Parkersville and invites the boy to come out to Cambridge for the summer. With his parents’ blessing, Jef readily agrees, on the condition that Scout can come, too.

March - May, 1928: Quite possibly the longest, slowest, most agonizingly boring months of Jefferson Edison Franklin’s young life.

June 1928: Jef and Scout arrive by train in Boston, met by Dr. U and his kindly housekeeper, Mrs. Mulligan. Jef is just in time for the annual National Scientific Symposium, being held this year at MIT, and spends a solid week drinking in the displays of fantastic new inventions and charming his way into high-level theoretical discussions with the foremost minds of modern science. Dr. Arlos Satel, a controversial but undeniably brilliant invitee at the conference, is the first to dub Jef “the Parkersville Prodigy,” a name that subsequently sticks with him, much to Jef’s secret delight. Satel and Jef begin a fruitful correspondence on matters of science and engineering that will last for years to come.

When strange acts of sabotage begin to befall the exposition, and scientists begin to vanish mysteriously, it is Jef who pieces together the clues that lead to Fritz Lermann, the deceptively jovial German biologist, who, under the guise of the Phantom Terror, is actually a member of the notorious League of Iniquity. Jef manages to surreptitiously spray an infrared dye on the Terror’s hands during a scuffle in the exhibition hall, later allowing him to catch Lermann quite literally red-handed.

July 1929: His summer visits with Dr. U now an established tradition, Jef and Scout accompany Dr. U to New York to unveil their jointly invented Electroplasmic Ray, a focused beam of energy designed to enable safer, faster construction and excavation without the use of dangerous, unstable explosives. Unfortunately, Malvolio Sinn, the Caesar of Crime, views the ray as an ideal addition to his vast and deadly arsenal, and abducts Dr. U and the ray itself. Sinn holds the city for ransom, threatening to topple the Statue of Liberty with the ray unless paid one million dollars.

Thus is Jef introduced to Sinn’s arch-enemy, Harker Windham, Lord Havoc of the Lost World, and a visiting Tom Morrow, as they team up to foil Sinn’s diabolical plot. Using Tom’s patented Undersea Exploration Suits, they breach Sinn’s submarine fortress at the depths of New York Harbor and mount a rescue attempt. Sinn escapes in the ensuing thrilling conflict, but Dr. U is saved, and Jef and Tom manage to thwart Sinn’s modifications to the ray and disable it, thus saving Lady Liberty and earning the thanks of a grateful nation.

Tom becomes Jef’s new friend and unabashed inspiration, and the two begin trading letters and postcards, swapping ideas for new and fantastical gadgets.

May 1930: On a birthday visit with his parents to Chicago, at Tom’s invitation, Jef is witness to Tom’s mysterious disappearance during the Field Museum’s Treasures of Egypt exhibition. The newspapers breathlessly speculate that the curse of the pharaohs has claimed another victim, particularly in the wake of Tom’s recent prevention of the Horror of the Tenth Plague, but Jef has other ideas. With the grudging aid of the mysterious Mister Gaunt and his assistant Violet Sullivan, Jef helps rescue Tom from the clutches of the Cult of Tempeth-Ta, and foil the ritual meant to bring their dread master Kalhemtep back from the Land of the Dead.

December 1930: Jef earns his fiftieth patent, for an improved bicycle chain, and receives congratulatory telegrams from Dr. U, Tom Morrow, and the President himself.

February 1931: Jef begins preliminary sketches and prototype construction for a self-calculating mechanical man. His father sighs and begins calling contractors to reinforce the barn. Again.

August 1931: Jef accompanies Tom, Lassiter Odes, Dr. U, and his colleague Prof. Vincent Villefort, with the aid of ace pilot Ruby Gale, on an expedition to the distant Himalayas, to the hidden temple known as the Sanctum of Sleeping Gods. Tom and Dr. U are fascinated by the reputedly unique magnetic properties of the surrounding rock; Lassiter wishes to study the Sanctum’s presence on a major fault line; and Villefort claims to be interested in the archaeological significance of the ancient culture that constructed the tomb.

After a harrowing brush with the slavering Yeti Guard, Villefort abandons Jef, Tom, Lasso, and Dr. U to the Sanctum’s ancient deathtraps, retreating with Ruby as his captive to the inner chambers, to the Well of Aeons Lost. There, he plans to enact an ancient blood ritual, copied from forbidden scrolls, to reawaken the beings supposedly slumbering far beneath the Earth -- with the aid of several bundles of Tom’s patented Ultramite high explosives!

Scavenging spare components from the equipment brought along in Ruby’s plane, the Cyclone, Tom and Jef build a crude but powerful mechanical man from Jef’s designs. With the aid of its brute strength and armored skin, they manage to thwart the Sanctum’s ancient traps and reach the Well in time to save Ruby from a grisly fate. As Lasso and Dr. U disarm the explosives, and Tom rescues Ruby her perilous perch far above the bottomless depths of the Well, Jef uses his mechanical man to drive Villefort to the edge of the pit.

He does not, however, anticipate that Villefort will, when cornered, jump to his death. Tom and Ruby do their best to console Jef. They are only partly successful.

Back home in Parkersville, Jef spends a week in his room, barely eating, scribbling on every spare sheet of paper. At last, his mother is able to coax him out with freshly baked cookies, and his father gets Jef to help him fix the busted axle on the truck, and life returns to normal.

But Jef never entirely forgets. And he does not abandon the ideas he began in that week of furious activity...

June, 1932: While working with Dr. U’s niece, 13-year-old Eunice, to solve the Conundrum of Champion’s Cove, Jef makes some preliminary observations that, had they been allowed to proceed, would have led to Jefferson Edison Franklin’s highly important discovery of girls.

Aug. 2, 1932: Back home in Parkersville after his summer’s adventures, and inspired by concepts Dr. Satel has mentioned in his latest letter, Jef decides to tackle a mildly ambitious summer project: Harnessing the powerful forces of electromagnetism to influence the fabric of space itself. Jef still sees Villefort in his dreams, his twisted smile as he steps backward into the pit and lets it swallow him, and would give anything for another chance to prevent that moment.

Aug. 7, 1932: After days of furious construction, Jef runs wires from the electrical pole up through his bedroom window -- having assured his mother, at least five times, that he’s entirely familiar with the necessary safety precautions -- and switches on his first small prototype.

The entirety of Parkersville County promptly goes dark. Jef, in the sudden blackness of his bedroom, hearing his father bellow from downstairs, realizes that he has perhaps not properly considered the infrastructure needs of this particular project.

Aug. 8, 1932: It takes five phone calls to the mayor, and the sherriff, and the local power co-op, to persuade all the necessary individuals that yes, Jef is very, very sorry about the blackout, and no, this will not happen again.

Aug. 10 - 24, 1932: Trucks, fleets of trucks, begin pulling up the dusty drive to the Franklin family farm. It appears Jef is spending some of his plentiful reward money from the Statue of Liberty incident, along with his most recent Morrow Grant, to construct generators. Many, many generators. In the barn. Jef’s father sighs once more, and asks his wife whether they have any milk of magnesia.

Aug. 25, 1932, 10:21 a.m.: The barn is roaring like a million angry hornet’s nests. The livestock, displaced, wander nervously about in the barnyard. Tom’s father is out in the fields, checking the crops. His mother is downstairs, re-reading Homer as she rolls out a pie crust.

Upstairs, Jef tests and retests the connections to the two-foot metal ring he has erected in the cleared-out space in the center of his room. This is only a prototype, only a test of the first step, but it’ll do for now. Crossing his fingers, he flips the switch once more.

Power surges from the battery of biofuel-powered generators in the barn, up the six-inch-in-diameter insulated cable, and into Jef’s device. Electricity crackles in blue veins around the circumference of the ring, and then converges in the center. Jef’s hair stands on end.

In the center of the ring, the air begins to ripple. And then it tears open with a brittle crackle. Strange light streams through the seared, coruscating edges of reality itself. Scout runs in nervous circles in one corner of the room. Jef, fascinated, hair prickling of its own accord, pushes his glasses up his nose, approaches the glowing rift, gets down on one knee, and becomes the first person in modern history to look into another dimension.

Something looks back at him.

10:23 a.m.: Edna Franklin feels the strange electrical prickling on the back of her neck, and sees sparks dancing on the edge of the paring knife as she cores apples. From upstairs, she hears a faint, terrified yelp from Scout, the frantic scrabbling of dog claws on floorboards, and then-- then--

It’s a horrible sound, a wet sound, the kind Edna, in the back of her mind, associates with years of seeing her father butcher livestock. Something drips through the ceiling from Jef’s room directly above, falling in a red drop on her knife blade, sizzling in the residual electrical charge. Blood.

Calling for her son, Edna Franklin runs upstairs.

11:32 a.m.: James Franklin comes in from the fields for lunch, hot, tired, and hungry. The generators still rumble away in the barn, and the livestock still wanders around, nervous and confused. James calls into the still, cool dimness of the house from the front parlor, hanging his hat on the rack by the door. He gets no answer.

In the kitchen, he sees the unmade pie on the counter, and the knife lying in the middle of the floor where Edna dropped it. He looks up to the ceiling, and sees a slowly spreading stain of red. Machinery still hums and crackles upstairs.

He calls for his wife, and his son, and gets no answer.

James Franklin goes to his office, unlocks the gun safe, and loads his shotgun. He says a quick prayer beneath his breath. And then he climbs the stairs.

1:26 p.m.: The last of the generators runs out of fuel. The power dies. The house is still and quiet.

Aug. 29, 1932: Following up on reports of errant livestock from the Franklin farm wandering onto neighboring properties, skinny and starved, grazing on everything in sight, Sherriff Tate pulls his truck into the Franklins’ drive. He pokes his head into the barn, sees the rows of dead generators, and shakes his head in wonder.

He knocks at the door of the farmhouse. There is no answer. He calls up to Jef’s room. Still nothing. He tries the door and finds it open. He wanders through the still and musty rooms of the house, smelling something awful and intense, followed by the buzzing of flies.

Sherriff Tate goes out to his truck, gets his pistol, and makes good and sure it’s loaded. He goes back into the house and climbs the stairs. The door to James and Edna’s room at the top of the landing is ajar, the room neat as a pin. The bed remains made, unslept-in.

Jef’s door is shut. Sherriff Tate listens at the door for a long time, hearing nothing but the buzzing and his own breathing, letting his nose acclimate to the awful stench seeping through the door. At last, he takes a shallow breath, fastening a handkerchief over his nose and mouth, and opens the door.

The county coroner, never the most religious of men, will have his faith further shaken by the end of the week, when he finally manages to identify the remains of James and Edna Franklin. It will take another week for the local vet to determine that, yes, the other thing found in the room was indeed Scout. Countless photographs will be taken of the strange, reeking drawings and diagrams painted on the stripped-bare walls of Jef’s room, in a smudgy, quavering hand, by twelve-year-old fingers. The photographs will be forwarded to Washington, and eventually arrive on Tom Morrow’s work table, in the midst of his suddenly empty and quiet Lookout.

Save a burnt-black spot on the floor, there is no trace of the device Jef was building.

And save for clumps of crudely shorn sandy blonde hair, found sticking to the sodden, stained floorboards, there is no sign of Jef.

No comments: