The booming explosion erupting from Toadley Manor caused no panic. It didn’t even come as a surprise. Yes, it jangled the nerves of everyone near enough to hear it and feel its trembles in the earth. But such ear bruising spectacles were a regular occurrence in the village of Toad Hollow.
All the creatures in Toad Hollow were accustomed to the sudden explosions, the spurts of multicolored flames and the showers of sparkling cinders that fell like dirty snow over their homes and burrows. Any one of these could come belching out of Toadley Manor’s chimneys and windows at any time and in any combination. Sometimes all of them appeared at once. Worse still were the vile creeping wisps of foul-smelling smoke that stung the frightened eyes and perplexed brains of the annoyed animals.
The only one unperturbed by the sporadic violence at Toadley Manor was its sole occupant, Mr. Toadley Smith. He was a jolly but eccentric mantoad with a talent for finding trouble or creating trouble when there was none to be had. He enjoyed solitude and tinkering and hand rolled cigars of dubious composition and so was always held in suspicion by the more conservative creatures in his community.
Toadley tottered out of his mansion through the thick cloud of smoke spilling from his front door. A shattering crash came echoing after him and then a second, smaller explosion that sounded like the stuttering hiss of a slowly deflating balloon. The toad was so thoroughly blackened by soot that he looked like a puffy marshmallow toasted too long in a campfire. There was even smoke trailing up from his singed overcoat. He coughed and sputtered and dabbed at his eyes with the collar of his ruined shirt.
Toadley raised a hand and shouted, “It’s all right, everyone. No need for worry. I’m fine.”
Those who had stepped from their homes or leaned out of open windows now shook their bumpy or furry little heads. Some scowled with weary disgust that, like the smile of a beauty queen in a long parade,
only pantomimed the real emotion. They had seen in all before and often.
“It’s eight o’clock in the morning!” wheezed Zachary Hopson, a chocolate colored and undersized toad with chronic bronchitis.
“You’re giving me fair warning?” asked Toadley, whose ears were still ringing.
“You almost gave us all heart attacks!” shouted Zachary.
“Heart attacks!” hollered Zachary, shaking his fist.
“Beaver ticks?” Toadley grimaced. “No thank you. They taste funny and cause liver spasms. Didn’t you know?”
Zachary Hopson turned and grumbled and went inside. There squatted Mrs. Hopson who, in contrast to her diminutive mate, was enormous. A real whopper. “Was he on fire again?” she asked with the mildest curiosity.
“No. Only singed this time. He’ll blow himself to bits one day. You watch.”
“No he won’t.”
“What’s this?” puffed Zachary. “It’s us he’ll blow to bits. We’ll all
wake up dead one morning and that toad will be just fine. Strutting about with his cockeyed grin as if he just discovered the cure for Squirrelpox.”
“Hmmm,” muttered Zachary, adding a grave nod for good measure. He disagreed but had learned never to contradict the missus.
Toadley patted himself and a fine cloud of soot formed around him like a wisp of dirty fog. When it settled down the toad saw that a very small grey mouse had crept forward. The tiny beast simply stared at Toadley. Its enormous unblinking eyes looked like black marbles. It said nothing.
“Are you here to sell me something?” asked the toad, his eyes narrow with suspicion.
“No sir,” said the mouse. And you could tell by its small size and the timid timbre of its voice that it was a very young rodent. The equivalent of perhaps a seventh or eighth-grader in human terms, though of course mice stop their formal educations after the fifth grade.
“Are you a beggar?” asked Toadley. “Because I don’t believe in charity.”
The mouse flinched and answered, “I’m not here to beg, sir.”
“Well then why are you sneaking about? Hmm? Lurking, even. It’s unsettling.”
The poor mouse’s tail twitched with anxiety but he tied to sound brave. “I’m here for the job, sir.”
“Job?” asked Toadley. “What’s this job nonsense?”
“Isn’t this Toadley Manor? Isn’t there a job as a lab assistant?”
“Great green globs of algae!” cried the toad. “I completely forgot about that. But now I must tell you that I don’t hirerodents. You carry diseases, you know. Bubonic plague and Elbow Lice and Purple Fever so forth. You’re really quite dangerous.”
“I hope I haven’t injured anyone.”
“Nonsense! If it’s your natural state to spread deadly germs then I say injure away!”
“So you’ll hire me then?”
“Are you crazy? No!”
The young mouse’s face melted with despair. “There’s no job?”
Toadley scrutinized the mouse.
“What’s your name?” “Vernon.”
“Vermin? Where are you parents, Vermin?”
“I don’t have any parents, sir.”
“An orphan,” said Toadley, his face puckering with contempt. “Just keep in mind, Vermin, that being an orphan doesn’t make you special. We’re all orphans someday. I’m an orphan myself some five years now. What are your qualifications?”
“Your skills, mouse.”
Vernon considered this for a moment. “I’m prompt and hard working.”
“Blah!” said the toad. “I said skills, Vermin. Not trite clichés.”
“I can carry twice my own weight.”
“Boring!” shouted the toad.
“I can chew through nine-gauge copper wire like a knife through warm pine sap.”
“Okay, that’s actually very impressive,” Toadley begrudgingly admitted.
“I can take a pebble and knock thistle from the air in high wind.”
“You’re that good a shot?”
Vernon nodded. “A deadeye born, I’m afraid.”
Toadley leaned back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Show me.”
The little rodent picked up a smooth brown pebble. “What should I hit?”
Toadley squinted and looked about. He pointed up into the air. “There.”
Vernon looked up. High above a black shape floated in the breeze. It was a crow, wings spread. The mouse licked his lips, cocked his arm and fired.
Crack! The pebble bounced off the crow’s head.
“Great shot!” shouted Toadley.
The bird went limp and plummeted to the ground at their feet. A cloud of brown dust and grimy black feathers erupted into air. Once this had settled there remained something resembling an untalented kindergartener’s first art project. A raggedy black pile from which protruded a crooked beak and two round eyes, one crusty with conjunctivitis, the other keen as a polished gemstone.
“Moses!” said Toadley.
The crow hopped to its feet and shook itself lengthwise, neck to tail feathers. He wore a tattered and stained orange silk ascot around his neck that all the other crows openly sniggered at when he flew past. Blue ascots were the current fashion, as they knew.
“You look terrible, old sport,” said Toadley. “You really should take better care of yourself.”
“I suppose I should. This reminds me of the time that-”
Toadley cut him off. “I’ve got no time for your tomfoolery today.”
The crow laughed. “I haven’t come to fool any Toms.”
“Shoo! Go on before my rodent friend bounces another pebble off of that empty head of yours!”
Moses looked at the young mouse. “You’re that good a shot?”
Vernon nodded. “The very best.”
“Fly away, you old rascal,” warned Toadley.
“I brought something you’ll like,” the crow croaked with a grin that sent his crooked beak further askew.
“No, thank you. I don’t have need for worthless bits of tin foil or leaky old batteries.”
“Suit yourself,” said Moses.
This lack of persistence convinced Toadley that the bird was sincere. Moses was only tenacious when he brought something worthless, which was usual. The toad eyed the bird. “What is it?”
Moses smiled and produced a string of firecrackers with the fuse still intact.
Toadley’s eyes widened in happy surprise and he emitted an appreciative, “Ooooh.” The toad was horribly obsessed with chemicals of any kind and explosives in particular. With his clever, compulsive little hands he would spend hours tinkering and concocting. The results were usually useless lumps of putty or oozing spurts of goo, but occasionally one would begin to smoke or smolder or even catch fire. These last he considered great successes.
“They’re glorious! Wherever did you find them, old sport?”
“It wasn’t hard,” answered Moses. “Remember I see everything from far above. The big picture. Do you want to buy them or not?”
The toad became cagey. He rubbed his chin and tried to look disinterested. “I’m afraid they’re not worth much. I’ll give you ten.”
“Fifty,” countered the crow.
“Fifteen,” said Toadley.
“Fifty,” demanded Moses. “And don’t say you won’t pay that much because you gave that crazy woodpecker sixty last week for a parcel full of pyric acid.”
“You rotten little bladderwort! You extortionist!” shouted the toad. “Twenty.”
“You wouldn’t place some greedy profit motive above the noble pursuit of scientific discovery, would you?”
“Can I pay you tomorrow?”
Moses cocked his head to one side, then nodded. “Sure.” The crow lowered the contraband down to Toadley. He saw the soot and lingering filaments of smoke wafting from the toad’s collar. “You look awful, Toadley,” Moses observed. “What happened?”
“Is science always so painful?” asked the crow.
“If you’re any good at it, yes.”
Vernon was timid but persistent. “So?”
The toad rolled his eyes in wide, annoyed circles. “Little mouse, let’s examine your bona fides. You’re a prompt, wire nibbling, pebble tossing orphan?”
Vernon squinted as if working out a very difficult piece of long division in his head. “Does that mean I’m hired?”
“Hired! A diseased, parentless rodent? I should say not! There are only two types of orphans, you know. Now tell me, Vermin. Are you the begging type of orphan or the thieving type?”
Vernon was a young mouse and not too sophisticated but could tell he was being needled. He bristled and angrily snapped, “You’re an orphan. What type are you?”
Toadley grinned at this display of spunk. Nodding, he asked, “Can you start right now?”
Vernon grinned and hopped to and fro from his left feet to his right, back and forth, like a small boat bobbing in choppy water. His greyish-pink tail curled into a spiral the way a mouse’s tail will when it’s terribly happy.
“Oh, stop it,” said the toad. “You look like you’re having a seizure.”
Toadley turned to his front door and was about to enter his home when he heard Moses. “Ahem,” the crow said. “Should I start my weekly rounds now?”
“Hot pebbles!” said Toadley. “I nearly forgot. Let me set this inside and grab you a fresh batch. Can you wait?”
The crow shrugged and then quipped, “I don’t have any genius conventions on my schedule today.”
Toadley turned to the mouse. “Come on then, Vernon. These won’t carry themselves.” The mouse lifted the small bundle of firecrackers and moved toward the house.
Once inside Toadley Manor they paused in a small parlor. “How did you and Moses become friends?” asked Vernon.
“I’m not paying you to transcribe my life story,” snapped the toad.
“Poor Moses doesn’t have any other friends,” said Toadley. “Not even among other crows.”
“I wonder why.”
“Everyone has one thing they were born to do. For me it’s inventing. For you it’s spreading diseases. For someone else it might be finding earthworms or performing surgery or writing silly stories. But Moses? That poor fellow hasn’t found his niche. His purpose. At least not so far.”
Working together, Toadley and Vernon hoisted the fireworks into the next room, a large chamber with a coffered ceiling that was smoke stained with swirling greys and browns. Toadley grinned at the still-smoldering wreckage strewn about. The toad gave a satisfied sigh. Such complete failure gave him a sense of real accomplishment. He had destroyed more in a single morning than most toads destroy in their entire lives.
This is not to say that wanton destruction was the aim. It wasn’t. But each crashing failure yielded valuable knowledge that brought him closer to his goal. This morning, for instance, Toadley learned that equal parts nitrate salts and prickly pokeweed oil do not create the proper fuel needed to power the tiny portable generators he’d invented. Tomorrow he might try a two-to-one ratio or perhaps mix in some distilled milkweed alcohol instead.
With Vernon lugging the fireworks they entered a large chamber that had once been a grand ball room. Now the space was heaped to the ceiling with chaotic stacks of tiny jars, spools of wire, frayed electrodes, greasy packages and broken bits of machinery.
“Right there,” said Toadley, motioning to an old babyfood jar. They set the fireworks down upon it.
Vernon blinked about at the wreckage. “Do you purchase all these things just so you can blow them up?”
“No. But it does usually turn out that way.”