The Pumpkins of Time
by Mel Gilden
Chapter 1: Dandelion Whine
Myron postponed the inevitable confrontation for a moment more by ignoring her and going to answer the door. Uncle Hugo had rigged his front door bell to sound like a spaceship taking off, which was what all the commotion had been about. Myron saw no one there till he looked down when he heard a small meow.
Sitting on the door mat licking a front paw was a thin calico cat with enormous eyes. She meowed again, and walked into the mansion as if she owned the joint.
"Hey look," said Myron, hoping to distract Princess from the comic books. "A cat."
Princess dropped a comic book and ran down the stairs, causing the cat to shy for a moment. "Isn't she perfect?" Princess cried. She and Myron knelt to pet the cat as it sniffed around.
"Who does she belong to?" Princess asked.
"You know as much as I do. She just walked in the door."
"Why do you keep calling it she?"
"Like ninety-nine percent of calico cats are girls. It's genetic."
"You seem to be the big favorite," Princess commented. "What am I, chopped liver?"
The cat purred loudly as she rubbed up against Myron. He petted her happily—he'd always liked cats—though he also didn't understand the attraction.
"If you were chopped liver," Myron said, "you'd probably be the big favorite."
The cat trotted up the stairs, sniffed at Myron's comic books, and sneezed. Great, Myron thought. Even the cat's a critic.
"What should we call her?" Myron asked, hoping to delay the inevitable discussion about comics for as long as possible.
Princess followed the cat back up to where she'd been sitting. "This isn't The Wonderful World of Accounting," she said and pointed to the evidence. The cat sat down on the evidence and started to wash her foot again.
Myron sighed. "It's the illustrated version," he insisted without much hope. "It's for kids."
"Right," Princess said as she gently pulled a comic out from under the cat. "This looks like a complete run of The Spartan." "I thought you only read science-fiction books," Myron said, "with your little finger raised and your nose in the air." He raised his little finger as if he were drinking tea from a fragile cup and lifted his nose high.
"Hey," said Princess, "I'll read anything that'll expand my mind." She sat down on the steps and flipped pages. "This is great," she said. "I didn't know you were into comics, Myron."
She sounded more enthusiastic than sarcastic, he noted with relief. "I wanted it to be a surprise," he said, knowing how lame the explanation sounded.
"Huh?" she asked. "Why? It's nice to see you taking an interest in something important for a change."
"Accounting is important."
"Nothing is as important as expanding your mind."
"That's no problem around here," Myron commented. He sat down on a step and began to admire the garish colors on the cover of The Spartan Number Three, "The Spartan Battles the Horrible Dr. Westinghouse--HE TURNS WATER INTO ICE!" The cat curled up against Myron and began to take long swipes at her side with her tongue.
Why was the cat attracted to him? Why to this house? In Uncle Hugo's neighborhood, nearly all the houses were mansions, and they were all a mile or two apart. If this cat was lost, she was really lost. He wondered if she was hungry.
Hugo ran into the foyer. "Myron, Princess," he cried excitedly. "Come into the library. I have something to show you." Then he saw the cat and smiled. "What's this?" he asked.
"A cat," Myron said. "She just walked in and made herself at home."
"Does she have a name?"
"Not yet," Princess said.
"Great. We'll call her H.G. Wells. Now that that's settled, follow me."
"But H.G. Wells is a guy's name," Princess said.
"Whatever it is, she seems to like it," Myron said. The first time Uncle Hugo had mentioned the name, the cat stood up and pricked her hears in his direction. "You want to be H.G. Wells?" Myron asked as he scratched her between the ears.
"Meow," the cat said.
"Well, there, you see!" Uncle Hugo said. He ran into the library and Myron and Princess could do nothing but copy his actions. It seemed just as they had left it. Uncle Hugo was standing with his back to them looking at something on his desk.
"What's wrong?" Myron asked.
Myron and Princess stepped forward and stood on either side of him. "Wow," they said together.
The schmoozosaurus skull was glowing gently, and the jar that supposedly was collecting time flickered in and out of existence like a bad fluorescent tube. In the center of the desk sat a machine about the size of a shoe box. It looked like a polished brass sleigh but with additions and modifications. Attached to the back was a big vertical wheel. On the front was a cylindrical control panel covered in black leather, with a lever and three lights. In the center of it all was a wooden chair padded with red velvet. On the chair rested a bunch of dandelions. The machine flickered in exact cadence with the jar.
It was awesome. Apparently, H.G. Wells agreed, because she leaped onto the desk and sniffed at the contrivance as if it were made of tuna.
"Way cool," said Princess. "It's H.G. Wells' time machine."
Myron had recently read the English Major's Choice comics version of H.G. Wells' (the writer, not the cat) The Time Machine, and he knew that Princess was right.
"Yes," Uncle Hugo whispered as he stared at the machine.
It was delicately made, and parts of it did not seem real. Those, Myron knew, were the parts that extended into the fourth dimension--into time. The flickering slowed, and the glow faded. Soon everything seemed stable again. H.G. lost interest, climbed carefully into Uncle Hugo's chair and went to sleep with her tail over her nose.
"Where did it come from?" Myron asked.
"I don't know," Hugo said. "It just appeared. Didn't you hear its arrival? The whole place shook."
"I thought it was the front door bell," Myron said. "So did I for a moment," Hugo said. He squatted and looked across his desk into the mechanism.
"Funny how the cat at the time machine arrived at about the same moment," Princess said.
"Funny, yes," Uncle Hugo said. "Strange. Exciting!"
"But does it mean anything?" Myron asked.
"Not yet," Uncle Hugo said, and chuckled. He shook his finger at the time machine. "It must have been swept to the here-and-now by the time currents caused by my experiments."
"But from where?" Princess asked.
Hugo shrugged. "Who knows? But I'll tell you this: that machine must be old because it was made to be beautiful as well as useful. These days, scientific apparatus is just made to be functional."
"It looks Victorian," Myron stated, thinking of the English Major's Choice comic book.
"What do you know about Victorian design?" Princess asked with surprise.
Myron smiled and rolled his eyes. "I had a class in it once," he said.
Princess laughed. "You're probably right," she said. "It looks a lot like the machine in the movie."
"I don't remember any dandelions in the EMC comics version, though," Myron said. He was still trying to keep his comic book collection separate from his real life, but he could see that Uncle Hugo's project, the arrival of the time machine (and the cat, too--who knew?) would make this increasingly difficult.
"Not in the movie or the book either," Princess agreed.
"No," Uncle Hugo said. "But I'm sure they're important. I've seen dandelions like these before, growing in the ceramic jars in which I store my time."
"How can you tell?" Myron asked. "Don't all dandelions look pretty much alike?"
Hugo picked up the dandelions and studied them closely. "These are not just alike, they are all exactly the same--as if they came from the same mold." He handed them to Myron and went to the other side of his desk where he pulled open the drawer. H.G. yawned at him.
Princess looked over Myron's shoulder while he considered the flowers. He found a petal that was slightly smaller than the others, and lined it up with a similar petal on another dandelion. While the flower was obviously real, the sizes of the petals, and the way they were bent were exactly the same all the way around.
"I'll bet they were genetically engineered," Princess suggested.
"In the nineteenth century?" Myron asked skeptically.
Hugo shrugged. "If they can build time machines, why couldn't they do genetic engineering? Kids, you'd be surprised what can be done with rivets if they're small enough." He showed them the dandelions he'd taken from his desk drawer. They looked fresh. "You know how dandelions begin to wilt almost immediately after you pick them?" Myron and Princess nodded.
"Well, these are almost a week old. And look . . . " He held up one of his desk flowers next to one that had arrived with the time machine. They were exactly the same.
"It must mean something," Myron said.
"Yes," Uncle Hugo said. "I believe that these flowers will improve my process."
"You mean they'll allow you to drain more time out of old things?" Princess asked.
"Not exactly," Hugo said hesitantly. "I'm afraid I have a confession to make. Draining time to be stored for later use was never my goal, but only a step along the way. My goal was always to find a better way to preserve food."
Preserve food? Such a project didn't seem up to Hugo's usual standards for weirdness. Preserving food actually sounded like something a normal person would want to do. And coming right on the heels of draining the time from a Schmoozosaurus skull, the mysterious arrival of a cat, and the even more mysterious arrival of a time machine loaded with identical dandelions, Uncle Hugo's interest in something so conventional was not only a disappointment but surprise.
"I get it," Myron said. "You want to improve two of the four basic food groups--frozen and canned."
"What are the other two?" Uncle Hugo asked.
"Fast and spoiled," Princess said. "It's an old joke."
"This is no laughing matter," Uncle Hugo insisted. "Think about it, Myron. What makes food spoil? What makes ice cream melt? What makes pizza cool?"
"Time?" Princess suggested before Myron had a chance to respond.
"Exactly," Uncle Hugo said. "Think of the environmental impact of the perfect food keeper!"
"I'm thinking about it," Myron said. "But, well, hasn't the vacuum jug already been invented?"
Uncle Hugo waved away vacuum jugs with disgust. "I'm not talking about chicken soup and coffee, my boy. I'm talking about solid food for the millions. Think of it." He put an arm around Myron's shoulder and gesturing expansively with his other hand, showed Myron the future. "Vacuum jugs are not perfect keepers. A little of the outside temperature leaks in with a little of the outside air. A little of the internal conditions leak out. Food in vacuum jugs is spoiling even as we speak! Everything goes bad eventually. Besides, a vacuum jug big enough to hold a hamburger and fries and a mocha shake is an expensive proposition. Not to mention the fact that no vacuum jug ever built could keep some things hot and some things cold at the same time. With my method, nothing would go bad simply because it would not get any older."
"It's the Fountain of Youth," Princess cried. "I'm sure my parents would be interested."
"I don't know," Myron said. "If something doesn't get any older, it's also not changing. Does that mean a person kept alive using Uncle Hugo's method would become a statue?"
"Suspended animation?" Princess asked.
"Maybe. Possibly. Nobody knows. See the potential?"
"That's great, sir," Princess said, "but how will these dandelions help?"
"First things first," Hugo said. He set down the dandelions on the desk. "We must discharge a responsibility to Mr. Wells, the man who built this time machine." He rested his hands on either side of the time machine and stared at it. "We can do this experiment only once," he said. "When that machine is gone, I don't believe we can ever bring it back. But that's no reason to stop its journey. Mr. Wells may be depending on it."
He scribbled something on a notepad, tore off the top sheet, and handed it to Princess. She read what he'd written, nodded, and handed the paper to Myron. The paper said DEAR MR. WELLS: GREAT BOOK! HIP HIP HURRAH!
"That seems to cover it," Myron agreed.
He handed the paper back to Uncle Hugo, who folded it once and set it on the little red velvet chair. Uncle Hugo reached into the machine with one finger and pushed the control lever forward. They heard a distinct click, but nothing happened.
"Great," Princess said. "We broke it."
"I don't think so," Uncle Hugo said. "Perhaps these dandelions are even more important than I first thought. We must assume Mr. Wells had his reasons for keeping the importance of the dandelions a secret--perhaps as a security measure."
Myron understood immediately. You couldn't have just anybody knocking around in time. In his comics, that sort of jaunt always led to trouble.
Uncle Hugo set the bunch of dandelions back in the chair, and covered it with the note; together they looked a little like a man who'd fallen asleep under his newspaper. "Now," he said and rubbed his hands together. He reached in again with his finger. He stopped suddenly and smiled. "Perhaps you'd lend me your finger, Myron," he suggested.
Before Myron could object, Uncle Hugo grabbed his wrist. Myron pointed a finger, and with it Hugo pushed the control lever forward. They both jumped back when the big wheel began to turn.
As the wheel spun faster and started to whine, the room shook as if somebody were ringing the doorbell again. H.G. woke up and looked over the edge of the desk at the machine. She climbed onto the desk and sat down sphinx-like; through narrow eyes she watched with the rest of them while it swiveled around once, grew indistinct, and with a rising whistle disappeared entirely. It left behind only the smell of ozone and an orange glow that quickly faded.
"Wow," Princess said.
Myron could only agree with her. Apparently, dandelions were the secret ingredient, just as Uncle Hugo had guessed.
Uncle Hugo seemed very excited. "I'll be back," he cried as he ran from the room.
"Where are you going?" Myron asked.
Uncle Hugo yelled over his shoulder. "I'm going to harvest the dandelions that are growing in my time jars." He waved his sample in the air and laughed. "Just think! I've been throwing them away!" He pushed through the swinging door into the kitchen.
"Uncle Hugo's gone sane," Myron said.
"True, wanting to preserve food seems pretty normal, but you have to admit that doing it by draining time from dinosaur skulls is definitely worthy of your uncle Hugo."
"Maybe," Myron said. "Either way, the whole project doesn't interest me much. Uncle Hugo has actually achieved the impossible. He's succeeded in making time travel boring." He picked up H.G., stroked her a time or two, and set her back on the desk. She sniffed at the spot where the time machine had disappeared.
"This cat is going to need some food and a litter box," Princess said.
"What about her previous owner?"
"If any. We can watch for posted notices, but until then, I'd say that she's your responsibility."
"Mine?" Myron had never owned a live thing before, and the prospect seemed daunting.
"You're the one she likes. See?"
H.G. was rubbing up against his legs again.
"Come on," Princess said, "I'll help you look around the kitchen."
They had no cat food, of course, but they did find some canned chicken which H.G. seemed to like.
"I don't know what to do about a litter box," Myron said while they watched H.G. chomp on the chicken. "Maybe she can do what she needs to do outside."
"As your uncle Hugo said, 'if we knew the answer, we wouldn't have to do the experiment.'"
"I'm willing if the cat is." He remembered his new Spartans were still on the main staircase. "But I'm not going to stand around waiting for it. I'm going to sort my comics," he said.
"Can I help?" Princess asked.
"You have to be careful," Myron said. "I don't want you bending covers or tearing anything. These comics are for the ages."
Princess laughed. "You don't have a thing to worry about Myron. You're still an accountant at heart."
"You can laugh all you want, Princess, as long as you're careful. And you have to wash your hands." He walked back to the foyer with H.G. Wells trotting after him.