“Sarah, that calculator is driving me bananas.” Henry peered at me from behind the garage workbench his dad had built for him, a puff of vapor emerging from his mouth in the frigid December air.
It was only six o’clock and darkness had already fallen outside. Although I could barely see, a dim light bulb above us cast a reddish glow on everything. I stared, transfixed by the ruby sheen on Henry’s glasses.
“I’ve programmed in all the cool effects I want to add to my Hypergigablaster game, but I can’t get the string concatenation to work.”
“Say what?” Henry’s words often confused me; this time proved no exception.
“String concatenation.” He paused, as if I should know what he was talking about, as though it were something I should have learned in elementary school. “Concatenating text strings. You know, combining them.”
Still baffled, I said nothing. Although I was a full half-year older than Henry, a flush of inferiority swept through me.
Misinterpreting my silence as understanding, he continued, “Aside from that, Sarah, everything else is just about finished.” He rummaged around on the cluttered bench near the wall and retrieved a small box with two dangling cords. “These cables allow the calculator to exchange data with the player’s computer, so high scores can be uploaded to the website.”
I blinked, dumbfounded. “You haven’t even let anyone else see the game, and you’ve already got a website for it?” Actually, this behavior was fairly typical of Henry, whose ambitions often exceeded his results. Occupied with his wires, electrodes, batteries, and other hardware, he did not respond. As I had intended my question largely rhetorically, I let the matter drop.
“Could you hand me the tiny screwdriver? The one on the floor over there.”
I stooped to pick up the stick of metal. “Why are we in your garage anyway? We could watch television or play cards or something besides standing out in the cold!”
Hunched over his electronics, he fine-tuned a small dial with the screwdriver, then responded distractedly. “I read in—a magazine—that wires—conduct better—when they’re cold.”
“Need some help?” I don’t know why I stayed on as his assistant. Maybe because I had a thing for him, although he seemed oblivious. Maybe it was his curly red hair, or maybe I just loved testing his creations, going where I’d never been before.
“That’s all right—I’ll be done—in a sec.” After a few minutes of tense silence, he straightened. “I guess it’s ready.”
“For what?” I already knew the answer.
“I think we can test it now.”
“We? Oh, no, you don’t.” I crossed my arms in front of my tight sweater, not that Henry had noticed.
“Oh, come on, Sarah, it’s just a calculator game. Not anything like that airplane we built four years ago.”
“What would I have to do?” I ventured, still wary. Somehow I always gave in to being his test subject.
“You can play the game with the joystick I made.”
“It’s a bit dark to read the calculator screen in here.”
“We won’t need to. Dad brought this home for me from the junior college the other day.” Henry hoisted what looked to be a slide projector onto the hood of his father’s green sedan, and I heard something reminiscent of nails scraping down a blackboard.
“I hope your dad isn’t too fussy about his car’s paint job.”
Too immersed in his activities to care, Henry frowned, then promptly dug into a cardboard box. He eventually emerged with a cable which he used to connect the calculator to the projector. “Do you think you could plug it in?”
I shoved the cord’s prongs deep into the wall outlet. “What is it?”
“It’s a projector for the calculator. This one’s on loan from the math department.”
Resigned to my fate as a guinea pig, I picked up the joystick. “Let’s go.”
He turned on the calculator and pushed the oversized power button on the projector, and a familiar blinking prompt appeared for the first time on the inside of the garage door, all the brighter for the dark outside. Henry navigated through the complicated menu screens and finally located an item named HYPRGIGA, which he selected. I almost asked why the name was only eight letters, but figured I’d save myself from a discussion on calculator operating systems.
“How do I play?”
“Push the joystick forward to start the game.”
I moved the joystick around. “It’s not doing anything.”
“Hold on.” He buried his face in the wiring. “Ah, there it is! I forgot to hook up the transformer for the joystick. This should fix things.”
His circuits apparently didn’t agree with that, and suddenly a tremendous electrical arc leapt from the controls I held to the closest grounding body—namely myself. My teeth chattered violently, and my skin felt as though it might separate from my bones. I blacked out shortly after that.
It must have been a few minutes before I regained consciousness. “Did I get a high score?” This, while still lying on my back.
Henry bent over me. “Remember the string concatenation stuff? I haven’t been able to create the scoring system yet.” He took the calculator and slipped it into its case, then knelt to help me up.
I rubbed my neck, and saw for the first time the dim fluorescent glow of an electric lantern. Out the small window, there were no other lights to be seen, save for the various constellations in the night sky. “What happened to the power?”
“I think we blew a fuse or something.”
Henry started to guide me back into the house, but I stopped. “Shouldn’t we unplug the projector?”
“Let’s leave it where it is. You need to get inside.”
I teetered unsteadily on my feet as we entered the living room.
“Are you okay?”
I grinned. “Peachy-keen, for someone who’s just had the shock of her life.”
“When the power comes back on, would you like to try it again?”
“I wouldn’t go that far, buddy.”
Henry looked crestfallen. “Just in case you change your mind, would you like to spend the night?”
Had my ears deceived me? I fought to keep my voice and facial expressions under control. “I’d love to.”
The phone lines still appeared to work, so I cleared things with my parents. Henry and I then built a fire in his family’s wood stove, and we sat down to an improvised meal of crackers and ginger ale. His parents were nowhere to be seen.
When we had finished eating, Henry excused himself. “I’ll be right back.” Henry disappeared upstairs with a flashlight, then returned a couple of minutes later with a small poster tube. “I drew these up a couple weeks ago, and wanted to show them to you.” He pulled out a rolled sheet of blue contractor’s paper, unfurled it on the floor in front of the fire, and seated himself proudly on the sofa.
I stared at what lay before me, incredulous. “You’re building a go-cart with lifts?”
“Not quite—it’s a hydraulic suspension system, but it does the opposite. It’ll be the first low-riding go-cart in history.” This, from the person who had once told me, “It’ll be the first homemade airplane in history,” years and years ago.
At the time, I’d wryly pointed out, “Haven’t you ever heard of the Wright brothers?”
I looked over in the plans. “Maybe you’d better stick to programming.” I picked myself up and grabbed a convenient afghan from under the cat, Couscous, then sat next to Henry. Couscous, riled from losing her warm bed, came over to me, inverted herself, and tried to disembowel my hand, biting my fingers while kicking my wrist away with her back legs.
After about seven-thirty by my watch, Henry’s dad, a tall beanpole of a man, came downstairs. “Hey, you two, I was just listening to the radio. Looks like the power’s out in the whole northwest corner of the city. There’s maybe ten thousand dollars’ worth of damage to the transformers along the lines.”
I exchanged a worried glance with Henry.
His dad shook his head. “And they say things are getting more efficient!”
Relieved, Henry and I settled down into the couch.
“I’m headed to the junior college to teach my night class. Henry, your mother’s asleep, so keep your voices low.”
We waved, and his dad headed toward the garage.
“Um, Henry—what’d we do with the projector?”
He rubbed his chin. “I think we left it on the car.”
“Do you think he’ll see it?”
A worried look dawned across his face. “The power’s out, so, um—”
We heard the rev of an engine and the garage door opening followed a moment later by a screeching sound akin to nails scraping down a blackboard—the same as I had heard that afternoon, except perhaps fifty times louder. This screeching terminated with a terrific crash, like a motorcycle diving through the window of a grocery store and upsetting all the baskets, shopping carts, and candy items near the registers.
Another sort of screech, this time from a man, filled the air. “Hen-RY!”
We pretended to be asleep.