J.T. Drake stood in the shadow of an elm tree across the street from his father’s rambling old house. He glanced at the glowing face of his watch. Midnight. Pop was up to something. J.T. had suspected as much even before Wanda Moody, owner of the tree under which he now stood, called his L.A. office last week. The widow Moody informed J.T. that, for three days straight, green smoke with a smell like burning rubber had drifted from the back windows of his childhood home.
Despite old Mrs. Moody’s tendency to exaggerate, J.T. didn’t dismiss her claim. The last time Pop’s creative wires tangled, all the windows in the house next door exploded. The time before that, every dog in a three-mile radius howled for hours on end.
Remembering the news coverage on that one, J.T. covered his eyes with one hand and rubbed his temples. The so-called “humorous human interest” story had garnered national press, though Pop’s name had miraculously been withheld. The reporters had simply referred to him as “a real-life absentminded professor in the small college town of Pecan Grove, Texas.”
J.T. returned his attention to the window and whistled quietly. Even in Pop’s younger days, some of his projects had gone haywire. And that was way back when he only got drunk on weekends instead of draining a bottle on a daily basis. His father’s blundering was spiraling out of control, the repercussions more serious each passing year. If J.T. didn’t take command of the situation soon, he feared what news the next phone call might bring. So it had come down to this—waiting like a thief to sneak into the house in the middle of the night, just like he’d done plenty of times in his youth before he finally figured out that Pop didn’t care when he came and went; the old man didn’t even notice.
A lightning bolt ripped the night sky. A rumble of thunder followed. Wishing he were back in his hotel room with the air conditioner blowing full blast, J.T. lifted the tail of his T-shirt to wipe his sweaty forehead and drew a breath of air so humid it felt like he’d sucked warm water into his lungs. The heavy, sweet blend of honeysuckle and roses drifted to him, bringing with it memories of stormy summers long past, memories that coaxed a smile from him one second then tightened his throat the next.
With an ease born of years of practice, he closed his mind to yesterday, forced his thoughts back to the issue at hand. According to Mrs. Moody, Pop’s lights went out each night at 9 P.M.
A muted glow lit the front bedroom window, illuminating a scrawny, slumped-shouldered silhouette. The silhouette paced back and forth, back and forth, again and again.
J.T. shook his head and cursed. No doubt about it, Pop had something in the works. He couldn’t begin to guess what; he wouldn’t try. Considering all the crazy gadgets Pop had come up with over the years, a living, breathing replica of Frankenstein’s monster strapped to a table in the basement laboratory would be no surprise.
Whatever this latest project might be, Pop had not been willing to discuss it over dinner four hours ago when J.T. asked how he’d been spending his time. Pop also, as usual, refused to discuss leaving Pecan Grove to move to an apartment in L.A. to be closer to J.T., insisting he was doing just fine on his own. J.T. scratched his nose. No surprise there. Pop had never pretended to need or want him around. Why would he start now? The old man could be down to his last dollar and dying of starvation, but as long as he had his experiments and inventions, he’d be satisfied. They fulfilled him; J.T. had accepted that fact a long time ago.
He cursed again. He didn’t like the thought of moving Pop to L.A. either, and had hoped to work out some sort of a compromise. Pop was still a reasonably young man with the possibility of a long life ahead of him. But if he insisted on digging in his heels and continuing his reckless habits, sooner or later J.T. would be forced to chop off his feet at the ankles.
He studied his father’s restless shadow as it, again, passed by the bedroom window. Pop’s movements seemed steady. Surely that was a good sign. And the old man had only downed one whiskey sour at dinner. A double, granted, but only one.
Swatting a mosquito away from his face, J.T. listened to the steady drone of cicadas and counted blinks of tiny yellow firefly lights. July in south Texas was a ruthless, tormenting bitch. Though he’d worn running shoes, shorts, and a lightweight T-shirt to stay cool, the shirt, now clammy with perspiration, clung to his chest and back like cellophane. The threatening rain only added to the unbearable humidity, and when the first drops hit the sidewalk, J.T. half expected them to sizzle.
He muffled a sneeze. Mrs. Moody’s flowerbeds still teased his allergies, just like they had before he’d left Pecan Grove at the age of eighteen. He couldn’t afford to get sick. This unexpected trip was a bad enough blip in his schedule at the magazine where he worked. And on top of that, a book deadline stared him in the face. By the end of the month, his editor expected to see the story he’d been investigating and writing for the past two years.
J.T. stooped, plucked a blade of grass, stuck it between his teeth. And then there was Giselle. Leggy, cat-eyed Giselle whose French accent would make the contents of one of Pop’s boring Scientific Quarterly magazine articles sound sexy. Finally, after weeks of trying to coordinate their schedules, he’d booked a date with the busy model. If not for Wanda Moody’s call, J.T. would be coaxing a kiss from those expensive, pouting lips of Giselle’s right now instead of standing in the muggy Texas heat spying on his father.
When Pop’s light finally went out, J.T. waited another fifteen minutes. Then he stepped from the shelter of the tree into the light drizzle of rain, crossed the street and unlocked the front door with his key. He disarmed the burglar alarm before moving quietly through the dark foyer toward the back of the house and down the basement steps.
White light shimmered beneath the door to Pop’s laboratory. J.T. heard a steady, high-pitched hum coming from the other side. He stooped, lifted one corner of the area rug, found the loose floorboard and wedged it free. The key was still there, hidden away where it had been for as long as he could remember.
Seconds later, when J.T. inserted the key into the lock and touched the doorknob, a faint but steady vibration tickled his fingertips. He turned the knob, pushed the squeaky door open, stepped through.
The cluttered laboratory from his childhood had been transformed. Only the old sofa against the wall remained. Shelving and cages lined the other walls. Inside the cages, white mice ran to nowhere on metal wheels. Machines beeped. Computers hummed. A tall metal box with a glass door dominated the center of the immaculate room. On the floor beside it, connected by a host of coils and tubes, sat a generator and another large machine J.T. could not identify.
“What the…?” He left the key in the lock and closed the door behind him.
The box emitted a tremulous radiance, making it unnecessary for J.T. to turn on the overhead light. Careful to avoid the wires and other hardware stretched across the floor, he circled the machine. When he returned to the glass door, he reached for the handle. Upon contact, a tingling sensation raced up his arm and prickled the hair at the nape of his neck. He stepped onto the metal floor inside, catching a faint whiff of the burnt rubber scent Wanda Moody had described. With his back to the door, he studied the knobs and switches on the control panel across one wall of the box.
At the sound of Pop’s voice, J.T. jumped, turned, and stumbled against the glass door, slamming it shut. To right himself, he reached back, bracing a hand on the control panel behind him.
A thunderclap rattled the house’s rickety rafters.
The white light brightened, the humming grew louder, the floor beneath J.T.’s feet quivered. A flash of heat entered his toes, shot through him with the force of a lightning bolt, froze him in place. His shoulders lifted with the surge; his body stiffened. A sharp, metallic taste tainted his tongue, and his nostrils burned from the harsh stench of the green smoke filling the box.
On the other side of the glass door, Pop’s face contorted…blurred…then slowly faded from view.
Roselyn Peabody bolted upright in bed and reached for the trilling cell phone on her nightstand. “Hello?”
“Professor?” She blinked away the last remnant of a very strange dream about accepting the Nobel Prize wearing only her underwear. “Is something wrong?”
“It’s the electromagnetic refractor.”
Roselyn’s breath caught. She scrambled to the edge of the bed and switched on the lamp, warning herself not to become prematurely excited. Professor Drake might be tipsy or simply confused. The poor, sweet man was prone to both conditions more and more often lately, though he still exhibited moments of sheer, lucid brilliance. But premature or not, Roselyn couldn’t extinguish the flame of hope that flared inside of her. “Are you certain?” She snatched her glasses off the nightstand and put them on.
“Quite so. His hand hit the switch and then he—“
For a moment, the professor didn’t respond. When he finally did, he sounded a thousand miles away. “My son. He’s a published author, you know. And a journalist in Los Angeles. Jerome writes a magazine column for—“
“What happened to your son, Professor?” Roselyn interrupted, trying to steer his mind back on track. Lately, he often jumped from subject to subject, telling her things she’d known for years. “Tonight. What happened tonight?”
“Oh…yes…tonight.” The tension returned to his voice. “Jerome slipped into the lab. I heard a noise and came down. I saw it happen, Roselyn. He…” The professor’s voice trembled, then drifted off.
Roselyn pressed a hand on the nightstand to steady herself. “Completely, Professor?” She stood. “The refractor worked completely?”
“Completely,” he answered. “The adjustments we discussed yesterday…I made them after you left. Then Jerome’s unexpected arrival distracted me, and I didn’t have the chance to test the results. Obviously, they worked.”
Clutching the phone to her ear, she stumbled across the clothing-strewn floor to her closet. She threw open the door and tugged the first blouse on the rod off a hanger. “Is he conscious?”
“No, but he’s breathing, thank heavens. And his heartbeat is strong. Too strong for my liking, as a matter of fact. Rather sporadic, too. Fluttering like a frightened bird’s wings. Speaking of wings, did I tell you about the bluebird that visits my pecan tree out back each morning? Such a delightful—“
“Yes, dear girl?”
“Your son…you were telling me about Jerome.”
“Jerome? Oh…yes.” He coughed. “I’m afraid to try to reverse the process until he’s regulated. I thought of calling for an ambulance. But his pulse rate seems to be slowing. Then there’s the matter of…”
He didn’t need to finish the sentence. She knew exactly what else worried him. How would they explain this to a paramedic? A doctor? To anyone? They had never experimented with a live subject, only inanimate objects—books, a chair, an apple, a baseball bat. In the past, they had met with no success. But now…
Roselyn dropped the blouse on the bed. She juggled the phone, tried to tug the T-shirt she’d slept in over her head, then gave up.
Jerome T. Drake. The professor’s conspicuously absent son. Truth be told, if she hadn’t seen the man’s photo on the back jacket of one of the true-crime novels he wrote, she might wonder if he was simply a product of the professor’s imagination. Other than town gossip, Roselyn knew little about Professor Drake’s only child. Still, she’d formed a strong opinion. The younger Drake was the polar opposite of his father. Self-centered. Immature. Irresponsible. Heartless. In fact, Jerome Drake’s disturbing lack of involvement in his father’s life had been the knot that cinched her decision to move to Pecan Grove two years ago.
Roselyn balanced the phone between her ear and upraised shoulder as a long-ago conversation came to mind—a drunken confession from the professor when she’d returned to Pecan Grove for a visit after hearing rumors of his faltering mental health. She wondered if Professor Drake remembered what he’d told her about his regrets regarding his distant relationship with his son. Though he spoke of Jerome often and always with a father’s blind pride, in the years she had known the professor, she had yet to meet his only child.
“Jerome’s my son, Roselyn,” the professor said, interrupting her thoughts, his voice steady again, more coherent and firm than she’d heard it in weeks. “If his vital signs don’t become completely normal soon, I’ll be forced to call someone. I won’t risk his health…his life.”
She tugged on a long wrinkled skirt that she’d tossed into a corner last week. “Of course you won’t. We won’t.”
When her zipper was zipped, Roselyn hurried to the closet again. She quickly rummaged through the jumble of shoes on the floor inside until she found two that matched, then shoved her bare feet into them and tied the ties.
“What if we can’t…”
“Don’t even think it. Failure is not an option. Try to stay calm. I’ll be over in ten minutes.”
A voice. J.T. heard a voice close by. It guided him slowly through a dense, dark fog, a mist of sleep so thick he was lost in it. His head pounded, and the mere effort of trying to open his eyes only increased the beat.
Something snapped at his temple then swept across his brow and into his hair. Cool…dry…the soothing touch somehow familiar, a touch he had long yearned for in some buried part of his soul.
J.T. forced his heavy lids open and gazed up into Pop’s long, gaunt face, those wild gray eyes that had always spooked him a little. To J.T., his father’s restless gaze often seemed to see things no one else did.
That was not the case now.
J.T. lay flat on his back on the floor. His father sat beside him. And though Pop looked at him, he seemed not to see him at all; in fact, he seemed unaware that J.T. had awakened. Pop stared down at J.T.’s nose and, rather than sharp, the gray eyes behind the little round lenses of Pop’s glasses looked bloodshot, worried and blurred by tears.
“I’m sorry,” Pop murmured. “You’ll be fine, Jerome. I’ll make this right. I won’t fail you this time. I promise.” He closed his eyes. “I swear to you, Evie. I swear I’ll make this right.”
An old ache spread through J.T.’s chest when he heard his mother’s name. He tried to speak, but the words wouldn’t come. Before he could make another attempt, a small, thin, woman with damp blonde hair and big, round glasses rushed into the room. She made J.T. think of a broken kaleidoscope—dazzling, but off-kilter, a blur of scattered colors. Her sudden presence seemed to increase the energy level another fifty percent in the already electrically-charged room.
“How is he, Professor?” she asked.
Pop glanced up at her. “His pulse is close to normal now. Much more steady. See what you think.”
She stared at Pop a moment before shifting her attention past J.T. to the floor just beyond him.
Panic streaked through him. Why wouldn’t she look at his face? Why wouldn’t Pop or this woman meet his gaze? Why couldn’t he talk? And his body…it felt tingly, numb.
J.T. tried to move his legs. He couldn’t.
Pop’s hand returned to J.T.’s forehead, generating a tiny shock on contact. His cool, dry fingers slid slowly down J.T.’s cheek, then settled at the side of his neck. “Here,” he said.
The woman dropped to her knees beside Pop, then, squinting, leaned over J.T. A raindrop fell from one curly blonde strand of her hair and plopped onto his chest. She didn’t appear to notice that he studied her, that he cried out to her with his eyes.
Her own eyes were blue and huge behind the round, black-rimmed glasses. Her skin had the smooth, pale texture of someone who spent too little time outdoors, but a flush stained her cheeks a vivid shade of pink. J.T. drew a weak breath. She smelled like baby powder.
Lifting a hand, she placed her fingers beside Pop’s on J.T.’s neck, eliciting another brisk shock. “Oh!”
“Yes,” Pop murmured. “Incredible, isn’t it?”
“Amazing.” She pressed her fingers against his skin, then skimmed down to his shoulder. “His shirt is wet.”
“The rain must have caught him before he let himself in here.”
“He was outside?”
“Yes. Jerome’s not staying at the house. He has a hotel room in town.”
Her hand moved up again. She shivered. “Eerie.”
Incredible. Amazing. Eerie. J.T.’s leg muscles jumped. They talked about him as if he were one of Pop’s experiments. He’d been shocked, which was bad enough, but that was the extent of his injury, wasn’t it?
Summoning what little energy he could muster, J.T. drew another breath, then moaned long and deep.
The woman uttered a startled noise, something between a squeak and a gasp.
“He’s coming to,” Pop blurted, as if J.T. had not been looking up at him for the past five minutes.
“Get a wet washcloth, Professor. A drink of water. It might help him regain consciousness more quickly if we sponge his face, and his mouth will be dry from the shock.”
J.T. heard the slap of his father’s rubber flip-flop sandals against the floor as Pop hurried from the room. A wave of panic swept over him. He was afraid. As afraid as he’d ever been in his life. He didn’t want Pop to leave him.
“Hold on, Jerome,” the woman whispered, staring at his chest. “You’re going to be fine.” She turned and scanned the room. “I should put something under your head, make you more comfortable.”
When she started to stand, J.T. suddenly regained his reflexes. He grabbed her wrist. “J.T….”
“Not…Jerome.” He drew a staggered breath. “J.T.”
He followed her wide gaze down to where he held her wrist. Her arm was raised and, though he could feel her skin and the flutter of her pulse beneath his fingertips, J.T. couldn’t see his own hand.