Planetoid of Amazement
by Mel Gilden
Chapter 1: Anything Can Happen
Mrs. Congruent walked into the breakfast room where Mr. Congruent and their son, Rodney, were having breakfast. She looked around as if miffed at the walls and at the sunlight streaming in through the tall windows, and said, "Have either of you seen my decoder ring?" She was a handsome woman who had short silvery hair cut close, like a helmet, against her head. Her gray jumpsuit showed no wrinkles.
Rodney, a hefty kid with a head of brown hair that was more curly than he liked, swallowed his instant oatmeal and said, "Nope."
Mr. Congruent was an older, rounder version of his son, though he had less hair. He was wearing pants that flared at the hip and were tight as they went into his high black boots. The room being warm, his leather flight jacket hung open. He said, "It was on your dresser last night, next to your hyper spanner."
"Ah," said Mrs. Congruent. "I must have put them both into the tool box." She marched from the room.
"If she can't find it," Mr. Congruent said, "I guess we can share mine."
"Wouldn't things be a lot simpler if the Chocolatron business reports weren't in code?"
"True, Rodney, but most of us feel that Captain Conquer would have wanted them that way. Tradition is worth the bother of decoding." Mr. Congruent got up and tore open a packet of brown grainy powder that he mixed with some milk that had been heating in a pan on the stove. "Have some Chocolatron, Rodney?"
"No thanks, Dad. I put a spoonful of it in my oatmeal."
Mr. Congruent's eyes opened wide. "Your oatmeal, hm? How is it?"
"Tastes good to me."
Mr. Congruent brought his steaming cup back to the table and moved his leather flight helmet so that he could make a note on a sheet of paper clipped to a clipboard. "That's pretty clever. I think I can use that at the Chocolatron sales conference." He blew gently on his cup of hot Chocolatron. A heavy chocolaty aroma filled the small round room. "So, you think you'll be all right while we're gone?"
"It's only a couple of days," Rodney said. "Besides, if you're not here, maybe I'll have an adventure or something." Rodney did not sound hopeful.
"Absolutely. You never know what might set off an adventure. When my father gave me this Official Captain Conquer Signet Ring for my thirteenth birthday, I had no idea that it would plunge me into the adventure of my lifetime." He chuckled as he turned his hand, showing off the big klunky ring. "Boy, was I one naive kid."
"Well," said Rodney, "I'm ready. Good and ready."
"You never know when an adventure will take hold," Mr. Congruent said again. "Anything can happen."
Mrs. Congruent returned to the breakfast room and began to make herself a hot cup of Chocolatron. "I found the ring," she said. "Right in the tool box next to the hyper spanner." She shook the hand with the ring on it in their direction.
When she sat down she said, "I heard you practicing this morning, Rodney. You're getting better and better on that kazoo."
"Maybe I inherited Grandfather Simpson's talent along with the instrument." Rodney shook his head.
"What's the problem?" Mrs. Congruent said.
Mr. Congruent had been mumbling to himself as he read sales figures off his clipboard. Now, he looked up and said, "Did she challenge you again?"
"Not yet, but she's about due. She really wants the first chair of the kazoo section." "I'd have thought after a challenge every week for fourteen weeks that Mr. Weinschweig would be convinced you're a better player than she is."
"He's convinced all right. But he says a challenge has to be honored, no matter how stupid it is."
"He didn't say `stupid' did he?"
"Well, not exactly."
Mrs. Congruent said, "With a name like Nutty Phil, she has bigger problems than her inability to depose you as first chair kazoo of the Raff Street Junior High School Orchestra."
"Yeah," said Rodney, "like her parents. I suppose they can't help it that their last name is Phil, but what kind of parents would call their own kid Nutty?"
"Mr. Phil is in the nut business," Mr. Congruent said.
"I'm with Rodney," Mrs. Congruent said. "His business is no excuse."
After breakfast, Rodney gathered together his books and his kazoo and ran for the front door. His parents were there, synchronizing their watches. "Have a good time at the conference," Rodney said as he opened the door.
Mrs. Congruent said, "One of us'll be calling you about the mail." She frowned.
"I'll be OK, Mom," Rodney said.
"I know you will." She kissed him lightly on the cheek. As he ran out the door, his father called after him, "Anything can happen!" "Right," Rodney called over his shoulder.
Anything could happen, Rodney thought, but mostly it was just the same old stuff over and over again. He sat on the same old bus, swaying to its familiar rhythm. His books were in his lap, along with Grandfather Simpson's electronic kazoo in its black pebbled case. He wasn't paying much attention to the world around him. It would take at least twenty minutes for the bus to creep through the morning Raff Street traffic to his school.
Both his parents had had adventures, and had even enjoyed brief noisy moments of fame. His father was the famous Watson Congruent, who had saved the Earth from the Puddentaker's plan to turn the atmosphere into something that was almost like cherry Jell-O. His mother was the former Pennyperfect Leiberman, who for years was the able assistant of a superhero called the Tuatara. But that had been a long time ago, even before he was born.
Mr. and Mrs. Congruent were always pointing out possible adventures to Rodney. Anything could set one of them off: a flat tire, getting lost ("you're not lost till you're out of gas"), a wrong number on the telephone, sirens in the night, meetings with unknown relatives who suddenly turned up. Each event had been interesting, but not one of them had lead to a real adventure.
Rodney was honest enough to admit that he was jealous of his parents.
A fat guy huffed as he sat down in the empty seat next to Rodney. The guy was dressed in striped denim bib overalls and a railroad engineer's hat. His labored breathing sounded like a soft tiny train whistle. Could this be the start of something big? Rodney watched carefully, his every nerve tuned to any suggestion that the guy was about to ask him for help with some bizarre problem. But no. The guy got off two stops later and left nothing behind.
More of nothing happened after that. He rode the bus a little farther, then got off at school.
It was spring and everybody was a little crazy with its soft promises. School would be over in a few weeks. Kids and teachers could see what Mr. Congruent persisted in calling "the light at the end of the tunnel." Despite his lack of adventures, even Rodney felt pretty good. He carefully skirted a crowd of jocks who were horsing around and went to sit with his friends.
"Morons," said Waldo, looking up from his nuclear physics book and gesturing with his head in the direction of the jocks; at the moment, they were experimenting with shoving each other backward over the lunch benches. Waldo, himself, would never be a jock. He was enormously tall and thin. The black stuff on his head was more like toothbrush bristles than hair, and it stood up, people said, because he'd once been struck by lightning. Rodney had never believed Waldo's lightning story. Waldo knew that and he didn't seem to mind.
"Uh oh," Waldo said and gestured again with his head.
Rodney looked in the direction that Waldo indicated and saw Nutty Phil bearing down on them, clutching her books and her kazoo case to her chest. She was somewhat taller than Rodney, almost Waldo's height, but was proportioned better, like an actual girl. She always dressed in a business suit, as if she worked in a real office instead of going to school. Actually, she wasn't bad looking and Rodney might have been able to work up some interest in her--if only as a friend—if she hadn't been such a creep.
Nutty pushed her tiny gold-framed glasses up her nose and said, "Hello, Waldo. How you doing, Rodney?"
Waldo nodded and hunched his body into the book he was reading. He might as well have pulled blankets up over his head.
"Hiya, Nutty," Rodney said.
"I see you have your kazoo with you."
Rodney nodded, waiting for the zinger.
"I hope you've been practicing because I'm going to challenge you today."
"Is anything else new, Nutty? Is maybe the sky blue?"
Waldo looked up and said, "You must know by now that Rodney is a better kazoo player than you are."
"He's been lucky. I'll grant you that."
"I've been practicing," Rodney said. "Hah," Nutty said derisively. "It'll take more than practice to beat me. See you third period." She strolled away.
"I guess that's her idea of psychological warfare," Waldo said.
"If it is, I think my brain is safe," Rodney said.
Rodney made it through first period gym class without offending his instructor too badly. Second period was math, which he really kind of enjoyed, mostly because the teacher used to be a singer, and with spring in the air, it was not difficult convincing her to sing songs instead of teach math.
Third period was orchestra. Mr. Weinschweig taught the class out in a bungalow away from the other buildings so that regular classes wouldn't be disturbed by all the noise of junior high school kids trying to play music.
The inside of the bungalow was shabby but friendly. The tile floor was faded and badly scuffed. The walls needed a new coat of green paint. In one corner was Mr. Weinschweig's desk. It was as old as anything else in the room, and it was piled high with sheet music. Though Mr. Weinschweig was not a little guy, when he sat at his desk he was hidden by the sheet music except for his bald head and maybe the top of his tortoise shell glasses frames. Standing to one side was an old wooden bowling pin that he'd let you initial with the sharp point of a can opener when you graduated from Raff Street. There wasn't much room left for new initials.
Mr. Weinschweig nodded to Rodney when he entered the bungalow, then went back to scribbling notes on music paper. It was no secret that Mr. Weinschweig was writing a symphony. As a matter of fact, most of the sheet music piled around him was covered with his own work.
A lot of kids were already in the bungalow warming up by running their instruments up and down lopsided scales and playing bits of popular songs. The violins outnumbered everybody else, but the trumpets were the loudest. Once in a while the kid who played the drums would beat out a riff. The resulting chaos sounded like some of the New Age music Rodney had heard on the radio.
Rodney sat down and plugged in his kazoo to conserve the battery power. He hummed into the kazoo and made a sound like a flying bee. He made the bee hum scales, adding to the confusion around him. Rodney was so busy that he didn't notice when Nutty sat down beside him. She didn't say anything, but as she warmed up, her elbows flapped around and more often than not, she poked Rodney in the ribs.
Rodney tapped her on the shoulder. She smiled at him sweetly and he flapped his elbows like a chicken. She nodded as if she understood, but when she began to play again, she continued to poke him.
Rodney knew there was no use complaining. She'd been poking him on and off all semester. He slid his chair aside a few inches.
Pretty soon Mr. Weinschweig walked to the front of the room and everybody sat down. He took roll by asking if anybody was missing, and after making out absence cards, he began to conduct.
Generally, Rodney wasn't much of a team player, but he liked playing in the orchestra. It was fun being in the middle of all that loud organized sound, and seeing how all the parts fit together. If you took into account that they were just a junior high school orchestra, they sounded pretty good. They played the "Latvian Sailor's Dance" (traditional), the "Robin Hood Overture," by Rooski-Pedruski and a little from the first movement of Mr. Weinschweig's own symphony. As they played, Mr. Weinschweig sometimes got so carried away that he closed his eyes and pretended he was playing an invisible violin with his baton. It was all pretty entertaining.
Orchestra class always seemed the shortest one of the day, and pretty soon, it was time for the students to put away their instruments.
While Rodney reamed out his kazoo with a rag of old t-shirt, he watched Nutty pick her way among the chairs to the front of the room and talk to Mr. Weinschweig. Mr. Weinschweig shook his head. She spoke again. He shook his head again. She spoke again. Mr. Weinschweig sighed, shrugged, and followed her back to where Rodney was just snapping closed his case. From her folder, Nutty pulled the kazoo music for the hair cutting scene from "Sampson and Delilah" by Pastrami. She threw it at Rodney's feet and said the ancient formula: "`My music hath more charms than your music.'"
" 'Hath,'" said Mr. Weinschweig.
" '. . . than your music hath,'" Nutty said.
"Do I hafta?" Rodney said.
"If you want to continue being first chair, you hafta," Mr. Weinschweig said.
"OK. I accept the challenge. When?"
"Here," said Nutty. "Tomorrow at lunch."
Rodney nodded. So much for adventure. So much for excitement.
The house was empty when Rodney got home. It took a moment for him to remember that his parents were at the Chocolatron business conference.
Just as well. He felt like being alone, and anyway, maybe without adult supervision he would be more likely to have an adventure. After he put his books and his kazoo away, he picked up a stack of letters from the floor in front of the front door and sorted through them.
His parents must have been on some funny lists. They got advertisements from magazines that wanted to make them millionaires, and from others that wanted them to "discover the romance of collecting antique slot machines"; from manufacturers who wanted to sell them Chocolatron scoops, from societies dedicated to the UFO method of tax preparation. Each envelope said something like, YOU CAN'T AFFORD TO PASS UP THIS OPPORTUNITY!. Or SAVE THE UNIVERSE. SAVE YOURSELF! Or even YOU MAY ALREADY BE IMMORTAL AND NOT EVEN KNOW IT!
That was why when Rodney saw an envelope with a headline written in curliques, and dots and splashes of color, he didn't think much of it. He guessed you were supposed to wonder what all that fancy art meant, and tear open the envelope in a sweat of curiosity. Like a lot of the other advertising, it was for his dad, but instead of it being typed or printed, the address was written in the scraggly longhand of a little kid. It was one curious package, all right. Rodney had to give the advertisers that.
He sat down with a plastic bag full of cherries and waited for his mom or dad to call in.