Read Edison’s Alley Online

Authors: Neal Shusterman and Eric Elfman

Edison’s Alley (21 page)

“I don’t know how it does what it does,” she said, “but rub anything against it, and it removes the stain without damaging the fabric.”

That’s when Seth came bounding out of the downstairs bathroom, passing Nick on the way to the stairs. Nick whipped the washboard up to hide his face, and for an instant he thought Seth
hadn’t seen him. But before he reached the stairs, Seth spun on his heels.

“It’s you!” he said, pointing an accusing finger. “Mom, it’s him!”

“Him who?” Beverly asked.

Nick had to think fast. “Him who’s about to make you and Danny hot fudge sundaes!”

There wasn’t an ounce of ice cream in the house, but it distracted Seth just long enough for him to say, “Sundaes?”

“Yeah!” said Nick, which gave him the time he needed to herd Seth into the kitchen and out the back door, pushing it closed behind them so no one else could hear.

“You were in our house!” Seth said. “You and your friend! I saw you both! You’re burglars!”

Nick could have denied it—after all, it would be Seth’s word against his—but he suddenly realized he had an ace to play.

“Fine,” Nick said. “You know my secret, and I know yours.”

That gave Seth pause. “Huh?”

“You forgot to get your own mother a birthday gift. She said you got the stain remover for her at a garage sale—but you never went to that garage sale. If you did, you would have
remembered this house. Your father bought it, not you!”

Now Seth looked like a kid who’d been caught copying answers from his classmate. “You don’t even know my father!”

“Goofy glasses? Drives a green Saturn? Likes Hawaiian shirts?”

Seth gasped. “How do you know that?”

“Oh, I know lots of things. Not just me, but my burglar friend, too. All my friends. We
all
know what you did!”

“But…but…”

“Here’s what I think happened: your dad brought you back to your mom’s, and at the last second you realized you didn’t have a gift for her, so you grabbed the only thing
you could find in his car. You didn’t even know what it was, and your dad probably doesn’t even know that you’re the one who stole it from him.”

“And I would have gotten away with it, too,” moaned Seth, “if it wasn’t for you rotten kids.”

“So,” said Nick, putting his arm around Seth’s shoulder, “here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to keep quiet. About everything. No one needs to
know about how you totally forgot your mother’s birthday and stole your father’s stain remover, and no one needs to know about me and my friend visiting your house the other
night.”

“Yeah, yeah, sure,” said Seth, nodding so furiously Nick thought he might give himself a concussion. “One thing, though—why were you there?”

“Why do you think?” said Nick, holding up the washboard. “To get this back.”

“Is that all?”

Nick shrugged. “That’s it.”

“But if you wanted to keep it, why did you sell it in the first place?” asked Seth. “That was dumb.”

“Tell me about it,” Nick said simply. “So are we good?”

“Yeah,” said Seth. “We’re good.”

Then Danny came barging out the back door. “Dad says you’re making us sundaes!”

“Tell you what—what if I take you both to DQ?”

“That seals the deal,” Seth said, putting his hand up for Danny to high-five. Danny obliged, because any deal that involved ice cream was fine with him.

They all ended up going out for ice cream, as if they were a family, which made Nick miserable. At least they took two cars, so Beverly and Seth could leave from
there—but Nick noticed how, before she shook his dad’s hand good-bye, she glanced at Nick—as if she would have given him a hug if Nick weren’t there.

Once Nick got back, he grabbed the washboard and took it upstairs to the attic. Before fitting it into the machine, he couldn’t resist rubbing his pomegranate-juice-stained shirt against
it. It did remove the stain, just as advertised. But it did even more: the fabric wasn’t just cleaner, it looked newer. Nick examined the washboard more closely. When he tilted it toward the
light, it seemed to have an artificial depth, like one of those three-dimensional postcards. On a whim, he rubbed the torn knee of a pair of jeans back and forth across the washboard’s
surface. After five strokes, the tear was repaired.

So the thing didn’t just purge stains, it undid
all
damage. It made things new. He tried to figure out how he might use it against the Accelerati, then he caught himself. He was
thinking like them, and that wasn’t good. Maybe he should stop messing with it and just let it take its place in Tesla’s grand device.

He quickly found exactly where it went. Caitlin was right—he was getting better and better at completing the puzzle. He could intuitively see the way it all fit together—sensing not
just the parts, but the whole.

He noticed something about the washboard, though, that gave him pause. Two posts extended from it; one was engraved with a dash, the other with a plus sign. Positive and negative. He knew what
was supposed to be connected to those two posts.

Vince’s battery.

For Tesla’s machine to live, Vince would have to die.

Nick had told Vince they’d cross that bridge when they came to it, but with each object he added, the bridge came closer and closer.

Downstairs, his father was on the phone, and he could tell it was with Beverly. Hadn’t they had enough of each other for today? When his father guffawed in response to something, it set
Nick on edge. Did she think she could be a part of
their
whole?

He idly wondered if he could remove her like a stain, and then he laughed off the idea. But the darkness of the thought lingered.

Meanwhile, in Kiruna, Sweden, there were undocumented reports of a man’s head exploding for no apparent reason.

All the police were able to piece together, besides skull fragments, was that he had been chewing on Life Savers at the time. This detail may not seem important, unless you consider the effects
of triboluminescence, which is the phenomenon that makes Wint-O-Green Life Savers spark when you chew them…and the fact that Kiruna sits atop the world’s largest deposit of iron
ore.

F
or some, the failure of the University of Colorado’s sewage treatment plant marked the beginning of the Colorado Springs Dark Time, as
history would eventually come to call it.

In truth, however, the darkness was being distilled long before then, beneath an unremarkable downtown bowling alley. Ironically, the team of cutting-edge scientists cultivating that darkness
saw themselves as luminaries—great bringers of light. Of course, the light they offered always came with hefty price tags. If the Accelerati had their way, they would control every source of
energy in the world except sunlight—and if they could somehow claim ownership of the sun, they would do that, too.

As for the university’s waste-processing woes, all the troubleshooters knew was that an unexplained, traveling power outage had begun in the physics building, been tracked for a day and a
half around campus, and finally settled permanently at the sewage treatment plant, where the power remained out despite the attempts of a dozen different electricians to get it back on.

The Army Corps of Engineers was called in, but by then the sewage plant had been out of commission for several days and the university was virtually uninhabitable. Classes were canceled,
dormitories evacuated, and people in neighborhoods downwind were advised to stay indoors with their windows closed. There was, of course, a contingent of the population who believed that all of the
things occurring in town, from the vanishing house to the near-satanic stench, were in some way supernatural. These were the same type of folk who saw the aurora and other electrical phenomena
caused by the orbiting asteroid as mystical signs.

Typical,
thought Alan Jorgenson,
that the masses would treat simple science as so much hoodoo.
He blamed the sewer stoppage entirely on Nick Slate, of course, in spite of the fact
that he was the one who had put the power-draining chip in play in the first place.

Jorgenson’s superior was heartily amused by the whole thing and just about laughed in his face during Jorgenson’s next visit.

“The boy has something you don’t, Al,” the old man said, waving his nostril-offending cigar in the air. “He has innate cleverness, and the ability to think on his feet in
a most inspired way.

It was difficult for Jorgenson to hide his indignation—especially from a man as observant as the Grand Acceleratus’s wizened boss.

“You may be a genius,” the old man said, “but intelligence is only one-third of the formula for true greatness. Perspiration and inspiration are the other
two-thirds.”

“Well, sir,” Jorgenson said though gritted teeth, “you certainly are making me sweat, so I have two parts to his one.”

The old man chuckled. “Well said—although I suspect the boy is making you sweat far more than I am.” Then he rang a little bell, calling for the housekeeper. “I look
forward to meeting this scrappy boy wonder.” Jorgenson was sure he said that only to get further under his skin.

“That may prove impossible,” Jorgenson told him.

The old man snuffed the stub of his stogie in an overfilled ashtray.

“Need I remind you that he still hasn’t given us the list of missing items? And until he does—”

“I feel confident we can find the remaining items without Nick Slate.”

The old man sighed. “I know your feelings on the matter, Al—but if the boy’s life becomes forfeit to serve the greater good, you had better assure me that the greater good will
be served.”

“It will, sir. I have no doubt.”

“Well, I have
my
doubts,” the old man said. Then Mrs. Higginbotham arrived with a single tray holding his dinner, which put an end to their conversation.

But that was fine. In fact it was more than fine—because finally Dr. Alan Jorgenson had what he needed from the old man: grudging permission to erase Nick Slate from the equation.
Permanently.

I
t is an accepted anthropological fact that people live in bubbles. Even in a modern, interconnected world, people’s lives consist of the
familiar, the mundane, the routine. The same circle of people, the same meals, the same TV shows, the same Web sites. To most people the “outside world” becomes a place seen only
through layers of shaded glass, until it can barely be seen at all.

Although Caitlin Westfield prided herself on her worldliness, and on being above the mundane, she was a bubble dweller as well. Her life was all about the trials of middle school, her artistic
endeavors, and more recently, irritating matters of the heart.

After the asteroid didn’t end life as we know it, most people reacted by retreating deeper into their comfort zones than ever before. The objects Tesla had left behind, and Nick’s
obsession with them, made it very hard for Caitlin to do the same.

While Nick put together his puzzle, Caitlin was beginning to piece together her own. And she couldn’t help but notice the various effects of the earth’s new satellite.

In truth, no one could miss them, from the fabulous aurora to the nuisance of doorknob shocks. The news treated these things as minor curiosities. Even when airplanes began to have compass
issues, the only reports that seemed to get aired were the ones where pilots landed at the wrong airport, which turned something potentially serious into a laughing matter.

It was while Caitlin was helping her mother with the laundry that her vague sense of concern began to congeal into true foreboding.

When she reached into the dryer and yanked out some bedsheets that had just finished their cycle, she was hit by a shock that knocked her backward into her mother and slammed the two of them
against the laundry room wall.

“My God, are you all right?” her mother asked.

Caitlin wasn’t quite sure. The shock had hurt more than any of the others she had received over the past few weeks. It was jarring, and for a moment she thought she might black out. In
that befuddled moment she was forced to face what she had been refusing to consider.

This could be bad.

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