He Laughed with His Other Mouths
“Jasper Dash!” a voice called. “Someone is looking for you!”
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.”
Jasper smiled shyly.
“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.
The crowd gaped. You could have heard a pin drop.
Jasper smiled. “So. We just flick on the nuclear reactor here . . . and . . . voilà!”
The machine started to chug. Jasper Dash picked up the headset and fitted it on over his mouth and one ear. With a great deal of drama, he extended one finger. He reached toward the dial.
He cranked the dial around, and it sprang back in a circle, rattling. He did this several times. Then he waited.
The whole crowd waited: girls with sarcastic expressions, mothers with strollers, grandmothers in pleated jeans, a few soccer jocks who hated dorks like Jasper Dash, antsy brainiacs, and Lily, who couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. All of them stared.
And the phone on the lunchroom wall rang.
Mr. Krome looked over at it, annoyed.
It rang again. And again.
“Pick it up!” said Jasper, delighted.
Mr. Krome walked over and got the phone.
Jasper said, “Mr. Krome? It’s me! Calling . . . from the first—the very first—fully mobile telephone!” He waved at the principal across the room. “See? See this? You just drag this cart with you, and occasionally put in some uranium ingots, and you can make calls—to anywhere within this town!” He was practically crowing with pride.
People were perplexed. Then they were surprised. Had he really invented a mobile phone the size of a truck?
People coughed. They exchanged winks
with one another. The school jerks started snickering. Then other people laughed quietly.
Lily’s heart sank. She saw the crowd chuckling. She saw kids pointing at Jasper and whispering.
Jasper was not always aware of what was going on in the world around him. He came from a different, older America, and did not understand the modern world very well—which is surprising, considering that he thought only of the future.
But he understood he had done something wrong.
“You don’t understand,” he said. Now he could almost not be heard over the laughter. He was blushing. “You don’t understand! This phone has its own engine! It’s not hard to pull! It will drive right beside you!” He took a few steps and the contraption chugged along beside him, clanking like roadwork.
Kids only laughed harder.
“No! Wait!” he said.
Lily couldn’t stand that he kept going. She wanted to tell him to stop. He was no longer blushing. He was as pale as a ghost, because there was no blood left in his face.
Jasper insisted, “Look! We’ll call the mayor! With our fully mobile telephone! I have the number right here!”
“Shut up!” yelled one of the school jerks. “Take a seat, flyboy!”
“Lily!” called Jasper desperately. “I’m going to make the call! Start shoveling atomic fuel!” He dialed the phone.
Lily loyally opened the little door with the atom on it. She took a shovel and scooped pellets from the uranium scuttle into the hopper.
She could hear people say, “Who is he, anyway?” “This is stupid.” “He’s in some kind of old-timey books. They’re really dumb and boring.”
Lily glared out at the crowd as she fed the nuclear reactor. She glanced at Jasper’s face. She could tell he’d heard every word. He had
turned away from the crowd. He was almost crying. He still had on the headset.
“Mr. Mayor?” she heard him say, hopefully. “Are you there? . . . You are? . . . Yes, I’m at the Pelt Science Fair, and I wonder whether you’d tell the great people of Pelt that—”
“I know where you are,” said the mayor, standing right behind Jasper. “I’m here to see my daughter explain how a rainbow works. You called my cell.”
Jasper turned, astonished. He saw the glowing thing in the mayor’s hand.
At that, he staggered backward.
“Oh my,” he said. “Oh my. All of you . . . already have . . . ?”
Lily stopped shoveling. She bit her lip and hid behind her bangs.
The mayor nodded. He patted Jasper on the shoulder. He walked away.
The school jerks walked over from their cheese molecule and began kicking the machine’s wheels. They began pushing it back
and forth and screeching around corners. Jasper didn’t even notice. He didn’t even move.
Lily stood next to him.
“This is the last straw,” he said. “I wish I could just disappear.”
He did not know, but he would soon get his wish.
“I guess,” he said sadly, “that maybe instead, I should have showed them my matter transporter that can take a man instantaneously to the stars.” I
Not available in stores near you. Not available at your favorite online retailer. Available only at church rummage sales, usually stuffed in boxes under an old brass chandelier and some knitwear, next to the bag of mildewed finger puppets. You move aside the dusty chandelier, and there’s this book from the 1930s or 1940s, and on the cover is a blond-haired boy full of pluck and adventure. He’s running away from some gunmen side by side with a robot. The robot looks dumb and old-fashioned. It is built entirely from metal boxes, with a stupid-looking face on it. In fact, the robot looks so dumb that you feel bad for it. You know that it doesn’t know how dumb it looks. It kind of breaks your heart. You don’t want anyone else to laugh at the robot. So you actually pick up the book and you pay the church ladies ten cents for it, and then you look and see that there are more books from the series, and you pay ten cents for them, too. You are on vacation, and you figure that it somehow feels right to be reading oldy-timey books in the little house your family is renting by the lake, where the loons call at night and motorboats skip along the flat water by day.
When you get back to your family’s car, you have a rumpled paper grocery bag full of Jasper Dash books. They smell like mold. Everyone looks at you like you were crazy to buy them. Crinkling up the top of the bag, you realize you are probably never going to bother to read them, not in a thousand years. II
In Jasper Dash #63: Jasper Dash and the Hyperspace Naptime.