Authors: Dan Elish
To my insanely terrific wife and kids:
Andrea, Cassie, and John
ike most of the students at the Blatt School for the Insanely Gifted, Daphna Whispers had her share of quirks. Before she sat at the piano to write music, she wolfed three Oreos and drank a glass of cold milk in a single swallow. After that, she cranked the air conditionerâeven in the winterâto block out the New York City street noise. Though Daphna no longer sucked her thumb for inspiration, at age eleven and three-quarters she found that her best musical ideas came while she was twirling her hair.
Which was precisely what she was doing one breezy night in late May a few weeks before the end of sixth grade. Hair in hand, she stared down at the slightly yellowed keys of her family's old upright. It was the very same piano she had used to compose all her best piecesâfrom her first sonata, “The Sad Sandbox,” to
Who Needs Thneeds?
, an opera based on Dr. Seuss's
. Now she was working on her first piano rhapsody.
Hearing a rippling arpeggio in her head, Daphna reached for a fountain pen and scribbled a line of notes across the manuscript book before her.
Baa! Baa! Ba, daaah!
Daphna smiled. It felt good to be writing music again. For the past two months, trips to the keyboard had ended in tearsâevery time she sat down to play, Daphna attacked the keys as if the energy she poured into the notes might bring her mother back. But it never worked. The more furiously Daphna played, the faster the unanswered questions spun through her mind.
Why had her mother flown her single-cockpit World War I B-2 biplane toward Europe?
Baa, da, daaah!
Had she been on assignment as assistant director of the national climate change foundation, or was she pursuing something of her own?
Daa, dee, dee, brrring!
What had she been looking for?
Why had she crashed into the Atlantic Ocean?
DUM, DAAAAAAAAAÂ .Â .Â . CRASH!
Most important, had she survived?
“Let it go, princess. Just let it all go.”
That's what Ron said. The building handyman, he had been Daphna's next-door neighbor for as long as she could remember. Now he was her legal guardian. He and his wife, Jazmine, were a caring couple with a loud, lovable three-year-old boy. Best of all, Daphna had convinced them to let her stay across the hall in the one-room apartment she had shared with her mother.
“We're here for you,” Jazmine would say. “You know that.”
Daphna did know. She enjoyed having a family to call on right across the hall. Most nights, she joined them for dinner, then did her homework at their dining room table. But facts remained facts. Her mother had been missing for two months nowâshe still didn't have the heart to use the word
âand since her father had died a month before she was born, after drinking a cup of sour yak milk while trekking through western Nepal (or so the story went), Daphna was an orphan. A real-life Oliver Twist.
Daphna wrote another flurry of notes. She gave her hair another good twirl and squinted at the keys, waiting to hear the next phrase in her head. When nothing came, she popped a fourth Oreo into her mouth and closed her eyes. But instead of hearing music, she heard a voice.
Daphna looked at the grandfather clock that stood by her front door. As she expected, the face of the clock had already disappeared. In its place was a hologram of the face of her friend Harkin Thunkenreiser. Known to classmates by his preferred nickname, the Thunk, Harkin sported long blond hair, which he wore in a thick ponytail. A few months earlier he had rigged Daphna's clock to show his face whenever he spoke into his homemade wristwatch computer.
“I'm running thirty-two seconds behind,” Harkin's image said. “Meet you outside the theater.”
Just like that, the boy's face disappeared and the face of the clock returned. Daphna drew in a sharp breath. Harkin wasn't the only one who was running late. It was 7:36. As was often the case when Daphna was composing, time had gotten away from her. She had exactly twenty-four minutes to get all the way down to Times Square. True, her friend Cynthia Trustwell had already starred in six Broadway shows, but that didn't mean Daphna could skip the opening night of her seventh.
In a flash, Daphna straightened her music, recapped her fountain pen, then ran to the front hall closet. Her preferred school attire was a pair of jeans, a simple T-shirt (with a picture of a famous composer), and a pair of Velcro sneakers, but tonight she had no choice but to get a little bit fancy. She threw on a red dress, blue leggings, and light green dress shoes. At her bathroom mirror, she brushed out her dark auburn hair, frowned at her nose freckles, and glanced back at the clock. The time was 7:41. Nineteen minutes to get forty blocks downtown to the theater.
Daphna had one more thing she had to do before she could sprint out the door.
She turned to a metal control panel beside the front door. Next to the four silver buttons were these words:
Daphna took a final glance around the room, grabbed a piece of music paper off the middle of the floor, then pressed the button next to Living Room. As the hum of the central motor sounded from the ceiling, the piano glided on a track of rollers to the far wall. A small desk and an armchair slid back to the window. With the room cleared, a panel opened on the adjacent wall, and a sofa and love seat moved silently to the center of the room to form an L. Finally, a marble coffee table lowered from the ceiling. In ten seconds, it was done. Music room gone. Living room in place, ready for her return, in case she wanted to watch TV or read a book before bed.
After Harkin had adjusted her old clock to receive his holographic messages, it had taken him only two more days to convert her small studio into a four-room apartment. Yes, there were certainly advantages to going to a school for the insanely gifted.
Taking the steps three at a time, Daphna was soon sprinting through the lobby, where Ron was seeing to his nightly sweep of the entranceway.
“Not so fast,” he said. “Isn't it a school night?”
“Yeah,” Daphna said. “But a special school night, remember? Cynthia's opening in another show.”
Ron rubbed a hand through the girl's hair and forced a smile. “That's right,” he said. “But come back right after it's over.”
“I won't be late. Promise!”
Daphna ran for the door. A moment later, she was unlocking her scooter from the streetlight in front of her building and pushing herself along 100th Street. At the corner, she stopped for a red light and glanced back in her side-view mirror. Ron was out front, sweeping the last of the day's trash into his dustpan. He waved a final time, then disappeared into the building for the night.
Which was when Daphna noticed a tall man with dark hair and a sharp chin moving quickly up the block. At first she thought nothing of it. But just as she was about to look away, the man stopped outside her apartment building. He peered up and down the block, then trotted up the front steps and looked through the small window on the door. Perhaps he was visiting a neighbor? Or maybe he was just an oddly dressed deliveryman? To Daphna's surprise, instead of ringing the front buzzer, the man took another quick look up and down the block, then scurried off the way he had come.
Daphna considered doubling back to her apartment to make sure everything was all right. But just as she was about to scoot back down the block, she stopped herself. Ever since her mom had gone missing, she had been jumpy. The man was probably just lost. Most likely, he had wandered up the wrong street, then hurried off to find the right address.
With Cynthia's show soon to start, Daphna quickly maneuvered her scooter onto Central Park West and pressed the yellow button on her handlebars. A small motor that was attached to her back wheel roared, and Daphna was soon moving at thirty miles an hour, keeping pace with the cars, buses, and cabs. And the strange man? In the excitement of the coming evening, Daphna forgot all about him. With an eight- o'clock curtain to make, she followed a fast-moving taxi past Columbus Circle and cruised excitedly into the heart of the theater district.
ven after a lifetime of city living, Daphna never ceased to be delighted by Times Square. Looming above the crowds were neon lights and giant billboards advertising some of Broadway's longest-running shows.
But staring down at Daphna from the largest billboard of them allâa full forty feet tallâwas a photograph of someone who had absolutely nothing to do with show business. Looming high above Times Square was none other than Ignatious Peabody Blatt.
Daphna took in the gargantuan photograph and felt a flush of pride. After all, Ignatious Blatt was the founder of her special school. He was also the undisputed greatest computer wizard of the age. For years, his products had dominated the market.
There was the Blatt-Phone, a cell phone with internet access that could fit in a user's wallet.
There was Blatt-Global, computer software that allowed its user to see satellite pictures of the inside of any home in the world.
There was Peabody-Pitch, a stereo system that changed music automatically, depending on the user's mood.
Then there was Ignatious's most extraordinary, thrilling invention of all: the Hat-Top computer. A small laptop that attached to a specialized hat, the Hat-Top allowed its user to read emails and write documents while strolling down the street. The day it was released, the lines outside the world's computer stores stretched for blocks.
As a wave of pedestrians crossed the busy street before her, Daphna took another look at the giant billboard. There was no doubt about it: Ignatious Peabody Blatt was as unusual looking as he was brilliant.
His suit was bright turquoise.
His shirt was pink.
His tie was sea green, and his suspenders were orange.
Ignatious's goatee was a smattering of gray and black, but his eyebrows were blondish gold.
His sideburns were red.
His left eyetooth was silver.
Most important of all was the message written in bright purple underneath the enormous picture.
Of course, Daphna and her friends knew precisely what Ignatious meant by those simple words. In fact,
in the world knew what Ignatious Peabody Blatt meant by those words. He was about to release his latest product. In chat rooms around the globe, an excited public speculated wildly.
“It's the Blatt-Bath! A computer that works in the shower!”
“No, it's a Blatt-Soap! The first computer that does the dishes!”
One reporter had written a front-page story for the
New York Times
claiming that Ignatious was about to release a four-legged laptop that danced hip-hop.
“Hey, girl! Move it along!”
Daphna blinked. While her eyes were lost in the giant billboard, the light had changed. Behind her, the driver of a tour bus was honking. Daphna rolled quickly down Broadway and took a right onto 45th Street. A row of marquees filled the street side by side, bearing the names of more of the season's shows:
Before long, Daphna caught a glimpse of the marquee she was looking for:
The Dancing Doberman
. Even from halfway down the block, she could see a row of paparazzi and reporters behind a rope, primed to photograph and interview arriving celebrities. The crowd of opening-night theatergoers, dressed in gowns and suits, moved steadily toward the doors, eagerly clutching tickets. A handful of police officers stood at the curb.
Daphna locked her scooter to a lamppost, then walked into the thick of the crowd. She checked her cell phone. It was eight o'clock sharp. She had made it without a second to spare. Now where was her date?
Exactly thirty-two seconds later, a strange yellow vehicle came rumbling down the street. The front wheels were twice the size of the ones in the rear. A swirl of intertwining pipes rose out of the trunk, then bent forward to make a large figure eight over the top. The contraption seemed to be made out of discarded pieces of yellow scrap metal. The crowd turned from the theater doors to watch as the vehicle glided past the entrance and pulled to a halt just beyond the marquee. Seconds later, the strange car released a stream of blue smoke. The door pushed open, and a short boy with a thick blond ponytail stepped out. He wore a black tuxedo and a pair of white high-tops.
“Harkin!” Daphna called.
“Daph, dude!” the boy said, stepping out onto the street. “My parentals made me finish my engineering work sheet before they let me out.”
Daphna wasn't really listening. Her focus was on Harkin's unique mode of transportation. She knew that he had once constructed a working one-man helicopter on his roof, but this vehicle was downright bizarre, even for him.
“What do I call this?” she asked, looking it up and down. “Your Thunkmobile?”
Harkin wagged his head. “That works! I found four or five rusted taxicabs at a garbage dump last weekend and made this heap.” He kicked one of the tires. “It'll be cool once I repaint and add a few special features.”
“It's cool now,” Daphna said. “I was just wondering where you're going to park.”
A policeman with an ample potbelly and a thin mustache had the exact same question.
“You are going to have to move this thing,” he said, not unkindly. He took a closer look at Harkin. Despite the boy's natural self-confidence, there was no denying that he was no more than twelve. In fact, due to his diminutive stature, he was sometimes mistaken for a boy of eight or nine. Occasionally, his ponytail led some strangers to think he was a girl. “And I don't imagine you have a driver's license?”
“No license required, my man,” Harkin said. “Look! This isn't a car at all. It's a go-kart.”
The policeman blinked. “A go-kart?”
At that precise moment, Harkin's vehicle seemed to sigh, this time emitting a plume of pink smoke.
“Better watch it,” an onlooker said. “That contraption is gonna blow!”
“It's perfectly safe!” Harkin said.
“It's blocking traffic,” the policeman said. “Find a place to park it, or I'm going to have to give you a ticket.”
Daphna watched Harkin roll up the sleeve of his tuxedo, revealing a small black wristband with a miniature screen and several rows of multicolored buttons. He pressed an orange one, and the car began to whir. Green smoke wafted from under its bottom. Then the car began to shake back and forth wildly.
As the crowd took a fearful step back, the photographers turned their cameras from the entrance of the theater to Harkin's contraption.
“Okay, buddy,” the policeman said, waving away the green smoke. “Enough funny business.”
Daphna could tell that Harkin wasn't finishedânot yet. He pressed a final buttonâthis one purple. Then it happened:
Just like that, the car scrunched together like an accordion, so quickly photographers weren't even able to get the shot. A second later it rolled sideways, fitting perfectly into a three-foot-wide parking space. The crowd broke into wild applause. Harkin waved to the crowd and bowed.
“Thank you!” he cried.
“Not bad, kid,” the policeman said. He winked. “I guess you don't need a license for a go-kart.”
An usher stepped out of the theater. “The show's about to start! Anyone with tickets, time to take your seat!”