Whiskaboom by Arkin, Alan

Whiskaboom

By ALAN ARKIN

Illustrated by DIEHL

[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from Galaxy Science Fiction August 1955. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]

Jack's blunder was disastrous, but what he worried about was: would Einstein have approved?

Dear Mr. Gretch:

Mrs. Burroughs and I are sending your son Jack to you because we do not know what else to do with him. As you can see, we can't keep him with us in his present condition.

Also, Jack owes us two weeks rent and, since Mrs. Burroughs and I are retired, we would appreciate your sending the money. It has been a dry year and our garden has done poorly.

The only reason we put up with your son in the first place was because we are so hard-pressed.

He saw the sign on the porch, rang the bell and paid Mrs. Burroughs a month's rent without even looking at the room. Then he ran out to his car and commenced pulling out suitcases and boxes and dragging them upstairs.

After the third trip, Mrs. Burroughs saw he was having trouble with the stuff and he looked kind of worn out, so she offered to help.

He gave her a hard look, as she described it to me when I got home. He said, "I don't want anyone touching anything. Please don't interfere."

"I didn't mean to interfere," my wife told him. "I only wanted to help."

"I don't want any help," he said quietly, but with a wild look in his eye, and he staggered upstairs with the last of his baggage and locked the door.

* * * * *

When I got home, Mrs. Burroughs told me she thought I ought to take a look at the new boarder. I went up, thinking we'd have a little chat and straighten things out. I could hear him inside, hammering on something.

He didn't hear my first knock or the second. I got sore and nearly banged the door down, at which time he decided to open up.

I charged in, ready to fight a bear. And there was this skinny red-headed son of yours glaring at me.

"That's a lot of hammering you're doing, son," I said.

"That's the only way I can get these boxes open, and don't call me son."

"I don't like to disturb you, Mr. Gretch, but Mrs. Burroughs is a little upset over the way you acted today. I think you ought to come down for a cup of tea and get acquainted."

"I know I was rude," he said, looking a little ashamed, "but I have waited for years for a chance to get to work on my own, with no interference. I'll come down tomorrow, when I have got my equipment set up, and apologize to Mrs. Burroughs then."

I asked him what he was working on, but he said he would explain later. Before I got out of the door, he was hammering again. He worked till after midnight.

We saw Jack at mealtimes for the next few days, but he didn't talk much. We learned that he was twenty-six, in spite of his looking like a boy in his teens, that he thought Prof. Einstein the greatest man ever, and that he disliked being called son. Of his experiment, he didn't have much to say then. He saw Mrs. Burroughs was a little nervous about his experimenting in the guest room and he assured her it was not dangerous.

Before the week was out, we started hearing the noises. The first one was like a wire brush going around a barrel. It went _whisk, whisk_. Then he rigged up something that went _skaboom_ every few seconds, like a loud heartbeat. Once in a while, he got in a sound like a creaky well pump, but mostly it was _skaboom_ and _whisk_, which eventually settled down to a steady rhythm, _whiskaboom, whiskaboom_.

It was kind of pleasant.

* * * * *

Neither of us saw him for two days. The noises kept going on. Mrs. Burroughs was alarmed because he did not answer her knock at mealtimes, and one morning she charged upstairs and hollered at him through the door.

"You stop your nonsense this minute and come down to breakfast!"

"I'm not hungry," he called back.

"You open this door!" she ordered and, by George, he did. "Your _whiskaboom_ or whatever it is will keep till after breakfast."

He sat at the table, but he was a tired boy. He had a cold, his eyelids kept batting, and I don't believe he could have lifted his coffee cup. He tried to look awake, and then over he went with his face in the oatmeal.

Mrs. Burroughs ran for the ammonia, but he was out cold, so we wiped the oatmeal off his face and carried him upstairs.

My wife rubbed Jack's wrists with garlic and put wet towels on his face, and presently he came to. He looked wildly about the room at his machinery. It was all there, and strange-looking stuff, too.

"Please go away," he begged. "I've got work to do."

Mrs. Burroughs helped him blow his nose. "There'll be no work for you, sonny. Not until you're well. We'll take care of you." He didn't seem to mind being called sonny.

He was sick for a week and we tended him like one of our own. We got to know him pretty well. And we also got to know you.

Now, Mr. Gretch, whatever you are doing in your laboratory is your own business. You could be making atomic disintegrators, for all Jack told us. But he does not like or approve of it and he told us about your running battle with him to keep him working on your project instead of his own.

Jack tried to explain his ideas for harnessing time and what he called "the re-integration principle." It was all so much _whiskaboom_ to us, so to speak, but he claimed it was for the good of mankind, which was fine with us.

But he said you would not let him work it out because there was less money in it than in your project, and this is why he had to get away and work and worry himself into a collapse.

When he got well, Mrs. Burroughs told him, "From now on, you're going to have three meals a day and eight hours sleep, and in between you can play on your _whiskaboom_ all you please."

The _whiskabooming_ became as familiar to us as our own voices.

Last Sunday, Mrs. Burroughs and I came home from church, about noon. She went inside through the front door to fix dinner. I walked around the house to look at the garden. And the moment I walked past the front of the house, I got the shock of my life.

The house disappeared!

* * * * *

I was too surprised to stop walking, and a step later I was standing at the back of the house, and it was all there. I took a step back and the whole house vanished again. One more step and I was at the front.

It looked like a real house in front and in back, but there wasn't any in-between. It was like one of those false-front saloons on a movie lot, but thinner.

I thought of my wife, who had gone into the kitchen and, for all I knew, was as thin as the house, and I went charging in the back door, yelling.

"Are you all right?"

"Of course I'm all right," she said. "What's the matter with you?"

I grabbed her and she was all there, thank heavens. She giggled and called me an old fool, but I dragged her outside and showed her what had happened to our house.

She saw it, too, so I knew I didn't have sunstroke, but she couldn't understand it any better than I.

Right about then, I detected a prominent absence of _whiskabooming_. "Jack!" I hollered, and we hurried back into the house and upstairs.

Well, Mr. Gretch, it was so pitiful, I can't describe it. He was there, but I never saw a more miserable human being. He was not only thin but also flat, like a cartoon of a man who had been steamrollered. He was lying on the bed, holding onto the covers, with no more substance to him than a thin piece of paper. Less.

Mrs. Burroughs took one of his shoulders between her thumb and forefinger, and I took the other, and we held him up. There was a breeze coming through the window and Jack--well, he waved in the breeze.

We closed the window and laid him down again and he tried to explain what had happened. "Professor Einstein wouldn't have liked this!" he moaned. "Something went wrong," he cried, shuddering.

He went on gasping and mumbling, and we gathered that he had hooked up a circuit the wrong way. "I didn't harness the fourth--I chopped off the third dimension! Einstein wouldn't have approved!"

He was relieved to learn that the damage had been confined to himself and the house, so far as we knew. Like the house, Jack had insides, but we don't know where they are. We poured tea down him, and he can eat, after a fashion, but there never is a sign of a lump anywhere.

* * * * *

That night, we pinned him to the bed with clothespins so he wouldn't blow off the bed. Next morning, we rigged a line and pinned him to it so he could sit up.

"I know what to do," he said, "but I would have to go back to the lab. Dad would have to let me have his staff and all sorts of equipment. And he won't do it."

"If he thinks more of his money than he does of his own son," Mrs. Burroughs said, "then he's an unnatural father."

But Jack made us promise not to get in touch with you.

Still, people are beginning to talk. The man from the electric company couldn't find the meter yesterday, because it is attached to the middle of the outside wall and has vanished.

Mr. Gretch, we are parents and we feel that you will not hesitate a moment to do whatever is necessary to get Jack back into shape. So, despite our promise, we are sending Jack to you by registered parcel post, air mail. He doesn't mind the cardboard mailing tube he is rolled up in as he has been sleeping in it, finding it more comfortable than being pinned to the sheets.

Jack is a fine boy, sir, and we hope to hear soon that he is back to normal and doing the work he wants to do.

Very truly yours,

W. Burroughs

P.S. When Jack figures out the re-integration principle, we would appreciate his fixing our house. We get along as usual, but it makes us nervous to live in a house that, strictly speaking, has no insides. W.B.