"What happened?" asked the uninvited volunteer.
Brennan, whatever his thoughts, said in a voice filled with standard concern: "Blowout. Then everything went blooey."
"Anyone--I mean how many--?"
"Two dead," said Brennan, and then added because he had to, "and a little boy lost."
The stranger eyed the flames and shuddered. "In there?"
"Parents were tossed out. Boy's missing."
"Bad," said the stranger. "God, what a mess. Know 'em?"
"Holdens. Folks that live in the big old house on the hill. My best friend and his wife. I was following them home," lied Brennan glibly. "C'mon let's see if we can find the kid. What about the police?"
"Sent my wife. Telephone down the road."
Paul Brennan's reply carried no sound of disappointment over being interrupted. "Okay. Let's take a look. You take it that way, and I'll cover this side."
The little-boy mind did not need its extensive education to understand that Paul Brennan needed no more than a few seconds of unobserved activity, after which he could announce the discovery of the third death in a voice cracked with false grief.
Animal instinct took over where intelligence failed. The same force that caused Jimmy Holden to curl within himself now caused him to relax; help that could be trusted was now at hand. The muscles of his throat relaxed. He whimpered. The icy paralysis left his arms and legs; he kicked and flailed. And finally his nervous system succeeded in making their contact with his brain; the nerves carried the pain of his bumps and scratches, and Jimmy Holden began to hurt. His stifled whimper broke into a shuddering cry, which swiftly turned into sobbing hysteria.
He went out of control. Nothing, not even violence, would shake him back until his accumulation of shock upon shock had been washed away in tears.
The sound attracted both men. Side by side they beat through the underbrush. They reached for him and Jimmy turned toward the stranger. The man picked the lad out of the bed of soft rotting leaves, cradled him and stroked his head. Jimmy wrapped his small arms around the stranger's neck and held on for life.
"I'll take him," said Brennan, reaching out.
Jimmy's clutch on the stranger tightened.
"You won't pry him loose easily," chuckled the man. "I know. I've got a couple of these myself."
Brennan shrugged. "I thought perhaps--"
"Forget it," said the stranger. "Kid's had trouble. I'll carry him to the road, you take him from there."
Getting up the ravine was a job of work for the man who carried Jimmy Holden. Brennan gave a hand, aided with a lift, broke down brush, and offered to take Jimmy now and again. Jimmy only clung tighter, and the stranger waved Brennan away with a quick shake of his head.
By the time they reached the road, sirens were wailing on the road up the hill. Police, firemen, and an ambulance swarmed over the scene. The firemen went to work on the flaming car with practiced efficiency; the police clustered around Paul Brennan and extracted from him a story that had enough truth in it to sound completely convincing. The doctors from the ambulance took charge of Jimmy Holden. Lacking any other accident victim, they went to work on him with everything they could do.
They gave him mild sedation, wrapped him in a warm blanket, and put him to bed on the cot in the ambulance with two of them watching over him. In the presence of so many solicitous strangers, Jimmy's shock and fright diminished. The sedation took hold. He dropped off in a light doze that grew less fitful as time went on. By the time the official accident report program was over, Jimmy Holden was fast asleep and resting comfortably.
He did not hear Paul Brennan's suggestion that Jimmy go home with him, to Paul Brennan's personal physician, nor did Jimmy hear the ambulance attendants turn away Brennan's suggestion with hard-headed medical opinion. Brennan could hardly argue with the fact that an accident victim would be better off in a hospital under close observation. Shock demanded it, and there was the hidden possibility of internal injury or concussion to consider.
So Jimmy Holden awoke with his accident ten hours behind him, and the good sleep had completed the standard recuperative powers of the healthy child. He looked around, collecting himself, and then remembered the accident. He cringed a bit and took another look and identified his surroundings as some sort of a children's ward or dormitory.
He was in a crib.
He sat up angrily and rattled the gate of the crib. Putting James Quincy Holden in a baby's crib was an insult.
He stopped, because the noise echoed through the room and one of the younger patients stirred in sleep and moaned. Jimmy Holden sat back and remembered. The vacuum that was to follow the loss of his parents was not yet in evidence. They were gone and the knowledge made him unhappy, but he was not cognizant of the real meaning or emotion of grief. With almost the same feeling of loss he thought of the Jungle Book he would never read and the Spitz Planetarium he would never see casting its little star images on his bedroom ceiling. Burned and ruined, with the atomic energy kit--and he had hoped that he could use the kit to tease his father into giving him some education in radioactivity. He was old enough to learn-- Learn--?
No more, now that his father and mother were dead.
Some of the real meaning of his loss came to him then, and the growing knowledge that this first shocking loss meant the ultimate loss of everything was beginning to sink in.
He broke down and cried in the misery of his loss and his helplessness; ultimately his emotion began to cry itself out, and he began to feel resentment against his position. The animal desire to bite back at anything that moved did not last long, it focused properly upon the person of his tormentor. Then for a time, Jimmy Holden's imagination indulged in a series of little vignettes in which he scored his victory over Paul Brennan. These little playlets went through their own evolution, starting with physical victory reminiscent of his Jack-and-the-Beanstalk days to a more advanced triumph of watching Paul Brennan led away in handcuffs whilst the District Attorney scanned the sheaf of indisputable evidence provided by James Quincy Holden.
Somewhere along about this point in his fantasy, a breath of the practical entered, and Jimmy began to consider the more sensible problem of what sort of information this sheaf of evidence would contain.
Still identifying himself with the books he knew, Jimmy Holden had progressed from the fairy story--where the villain was evil for no more motive than to provide menace to the hero--to his more advanced books, where the villain did his evil deeds for the logical motive of personal gain.
Well, what had Paul Brennan to gain?
Money, for one thing--he would be executor of the Holden Estate. But there wasn't enough to justify killing. Revenge? For what? Jealousy? For whom? Hate? Envy? Jimmy Holden glossed the words quickly, for they were no more than words that carried definitions that did not really explain them. He could read with the facility of an adult, but a book written for a sophisticated audience went over his head.
No, there was only one possible thing of appreciable value; the one thing that Paul Brennan hoped to gain was the device over which they had worked through all the long years to perfect: The Holden Electromechanical Educator! Brennan wanted it badly enough to murder for its possession!
And with a mind and ingenuity far beyond his years, Jimmy Holden knew that he alone was the most active operator in this vicious drama. It was not without shock that he realized that he himself could still be killed to gain possession of his fabulous machine. For only with all three Holdens dead could Paul Brennan take full and unquestioned possession.
With daylight clarity he knew what he had to do. In a single act of destruction he could simultaneously foil Paul Brennan's plan and ensure his own life.
Permanently installed in Jimmy Holden's brain by the machine itself were the full details of how to recreate it. Indelibly he knew each wire and link, lever and coil, section by section and piece by piece. It was incomprehensible information, about in the same way that the printing press "knows" the context of its metal plate. Step by step he could rebuild it once he had the means of procuring the parts, and it would work even though he had not the foggiest notion (now) of what the various parts did.
So if the delicate heart of his father's machine were utterly destroyed, Paul Brennan would be extremely careful about preserving the life of James Quincy Holden.
He considered his position and what he knew: Physically, he was a five-year-old. He stood forty-one inches tall and weighed thirty-nine pounds. A machinist's hammer was a two-handed tool and a five-pound sack of sugar was a burden. Doorknobs and latches were a problem in manipulation. The negotiation of a swinging door was a feat of muscular engineering. Electric light switches were placed at a tiptoe reach because, naturally, everything in the adult world is designed by the adults for the convenience of adults. This makes it difficult for the child who has no adult to do his bidding.
Intellectually, Jimmy Holden was something else.
Reverting to a curriculum considered sound prior to Mr. Dewey's often-questionable and more often misused programs of schooling, Jimmy's parents had trained and educated their young man quite well in the primary informations of fact. He read with facility and spoke with a fine vocabulary--although no amount of intellectual training could make his voice change until his glands did. His knowledge of history, geography and literature were good, because he'd used them to study reading. He was well into plane geometry and had a smattering of algebra, and there had been a pause due to a parental argument as to the advisability of his memorizing a table of six-place logarithms via the Holden machine.
Extra-curricularly, Jimmy Holden had acquired snippets, bits, and wholesale chunks of a number of the arts and sciences and other aggregations of information both pertinent and trivial for one reason or another. As an instance, he had absorbed an entire bridge book by Charles Goren just to provide a fourth to sit in with his parents and Paul Brennan.
Consequently, James Holden had in data the education of a boy of about sixteen, and in other respects, much more.
He escaped from the hospital simply because no one ever thought that a five-year-old boy would have enough get-up-and-go to climb out of his crib, rummage a nearby closet, dress himself, and then calmly walk out. The clothing of a cocky teen-ager would have been impounded and his behavior watched.
They did not miss him for hours. He went, taking the little identification card from its frame at the foot of his bed--and that ruined the correlation between tag and patient.
By the time an overworked nurse stopped to think and finally asked, "Kitty, are you taking care of the little boy in Bed 6 over in 219?" and received the answer, "No, aren't you?" Jimmy Holden was trudging up the hill towards his home. Another hour went by with the two worried nurses surreptitiously searching the rest of the hospital in the simple hope that he had wandered away and could be restored before it came to the attention of the officials. By the time they gave up and called in other nurses (who helped them in their anxiety to conceal) Jimmy was entering his home.
Each succeeding level of authority was loath to report the truth to the next higher up.
By the time the general manager of the hospital forced himself to call Paul Brennan, Jimmy Holden was demolishing the last broken bits of disassembled subassemblies he had smashed from the heart-circuit of the Holden Electromechanical Educator. He was most thorough. Broken glass went into the refuse buckets, bent metal was buried in the garden, inflammables were incinerated, and meltables and fusibles slagged down in ashes that held glass, bottle, and empty tin-can in an unrecognizable mass. He left a gaping hole in the machine that Brennan could not fill--nor could any living man fill it now but James Quincy Holden.
And only when this destruction was complete did Jimmy Holden first begin to understand his father's statement about the few men who see what has to be done, do it, and then look to the next inevitable problem created by their own act.
It was late afternoon by the time Jimmy had his next moves figured out. He left the home he'd grown up in, the home of his parents, of his own babyhood. He'd wandered through it for the last time, touching this and saying goodbye to that. He was certain that he would never see his things again, nor the house itself, but the real vacuum of his loss hadn't yet started to form. The concepts of "never" and "forever" were merely words that had no real impact.
So was the word "Farewell."
But once his words were said, Jimmy Holden made his small but confident way to the window of a railroad ticket agent.
You are a ticket agent, settled in the routine of your job. From nine to five-thirty, five days a week, you see one face after another. There are cheerful faces, sullen faces, faces that breathe garlic, whiskey, chewing gum, toothpaste and tobacco fumes. Old faces, young faces, dull faces, scarred faces, clear faces, plain faces and faces so plastered with makeup that their nature can't be seen at all. They bark place-names at you, or ask pleasantly about the cost of round-trip versus one-way tickets to Chicago or East Burlap. You deal with them and then you wait for the next.
Then one afternoon, about four o'clock, a face barely visible over the edge of the marble counter looks up at you with a boy's cheerful freckled smile. You have to stand up in order to see him. You smile, and he grins at you. Among his belongings is a little leather suitcase, kid's size, but not a toy. He is standing on it. Under his arm is a collection of comic books, in one small fist is the remains of a candy bar and in the other the string of a floating balloon.
"Well, young man, where to? Paris? London? Maybe Mars?"
"No, sir," comes the piping voice, "Roun-tree."
"Roundtree? Yes, I've heard of that metropolis," you reply. You look over his head, there aren't any other customers in line behind him so you don't mind passing the time of day. "Round-trip or one-way?"
"One-way," comes the quick reply.
This brings you to a slow stop. He does not giggle nor prattle, nor launch into a long and involved explanation with halting, dependent clauses. This one knows what he wants and how to ask for it. Quite a little man!
"How old are you, young fellow?"
"I was five years old yesterday."
"What's your name?"
"I'm James Holden."
The name does not ring any bells--because the morning newspaper is purchased for its comic strips, the bridge column, the crossword puzzle, and the latest dope on love-nest slayings, peccadilloes of the famous, the cheesecake photo of the inevitable actress-leaving-for-somewhere, and the full page photograph of the latest death-on-the-highway debacle. You look at the picture but you don't read the names in the caption, so you don't recognize the name, and you haven't been out of your little cage since lunchtime and Jimmy Holden was not missing then. So you go on: "So you're going to go to Roundtree."
"That costs a lot of money, young Mister Holden."
"Yessir." Then this young man hands you an envelope; the cover says, typewritten: Ticket Clerk, Midland Railroad.
A bit puzzled, you open the envelope and find a five-dollar bill folded in a sheet of manuscript paper. The note says: Ticket Clerk Midland Railroad Dear Sir: This will introduce my son, James Holden. As a birthday present, I am sending him for a visit to his grandparents in Roundtree, and to make the adventure complete, he will travel alone. Pass the word along to keep an eye on him but don't step in unless he gets into trouble. Ask the dining car steward to see that he eats dinner on something better than candy bars.
Otherwise, he is to believe that he is making this trip completely on his own.
Sincerely, Louis Holden.
PS: Divide the change from this five dollars among you as tips. L.H.
And so you look down at young Mister Holden and get a feeling of vicarious pleasure. You stamp his ticket and hand it to him with a gesture. You point out the train-gate he is to go through, and you tell him that he is to sit in the third railroad car. As he leaves, you pick up the telephone and call the station-master, the conductor, and since you can't get the dining-car steward directly, you charge the conductor with passing the word along.
Then you divide the change. Of the two-fifty, you extract a dollar, feeling that the Senior Holden is a cheapskate. You slip the other buck and a half into an envelope, ready for the conductor's hand. He'll think Holden Senior is more of a cheapskate, and by the time he extracts his cut, the dining car steward will know that Holden Senior is a cheapskate. But-- Then a face appears at your window and barks, "Holyoke, Mass.," and your normal day falls back into shape.
The response of the people you tell about it varies all the way from outrage that anybody would let a kid of five go alone on such a dangerous mission to loud bragging that he, too, once went on such a journey, at four and a half, and didn't need a note.
But Jimmy Holden is gone from your window, and you won't know for at least another day that you've been suckered by a note painstakingly typewritten, letter by letter, by a five-year-old boy who has a most remarkable vocabulary.
Jimmy's trip to Roundtree was without incident. Actually, it was easy once he had hurdled the ticket-seller with his forged note and the five-dollar bill from the cashbox in his father's desk. His error in not making it a ten was minor; a larger tip would not have provided him with better service, because the train crew were happy to keep an eye on the adventurous youngster for his own small sake. Their mild resentment against the small tip was directed against the boy's father, not the young passenger himself.
He had one problem. The train was hardly out of the station before everybody on it knew that there was a five-year-old making a trip all by himself. Of course, he was not to be bothered, but everybody wanted to talk to him, to ask him how he was, to chatter endlessly at him. Jimmy did not want to talk. His experience in addressing adults was exasperating. That he spoke lucid English instead of babygab did not compel a rational response. Those who heard him speak made over him with the same effusive superiority that they used in applauding a golden-haired tot in high heels and a strapless evening gown sitting on a piano and singing, Why Was I Born? in a piping, uncertain-toned voice. It infuriated him.
So he immersed himself in his comic books. He gave his name politely every five minutes for the first fifty miles. He turned down offers of candy with, "Mommy says I mustn't before supper." And when dinnertime came he allowed himself to be escorted through the train by the conductor, because Jimmy knew that he couldn't handle the doors without help.
The steward placed a menu in front of him, and then asked carefully, "How much money do you want to spend, young man?"
Jimmy had the contents of his father's cashbox pinned to the inside of his shirt, and a five-dollar bill folded in a snap-top purse with some change in his shirt pocket. He could add with the best of them, but he did not want any more attention than he was absolutely forced to attract. So he fished out the snap-top purse and opened it to show the steward his five-dollar bill. The steward relaxed; he'd had a moment of apprehension that Holden Senior might have slipped the kid a half-dollar for dinner. (The steward had received a quarter for his share of the original two-fifty.) Jimmy looked at the "Child's Dinner" menu and pointed out a plate: lamb chop and mashed potatoes. After that, dinner progressed without incident. Jimmy topped it off with a dish of ice cream.
The steward made change. Jimmy watched him carefully, and then said, "Daddy says I'm supposed to give you a tip. How much?"
The steward looked down, wondering how he could explain the standard dining car tip of fifteen or twenty percent of the bill. He took a swallow of air and picked out a quarter. "This will do nicely," he said and went off thankful that all people do not ask waiters how much they think they deserve for the service rendered.
Thus Jimmy Holden arrived in Roundtree and was observed and convoyed--but not bothered--off the train.
It is deplorable that adults are not as friendly and helpful to one another as they are to children; it might make for a more pleasant world. As Jimmy walked along the station platform at Roundtree, one of his former fellow-passengers walked beside him. "Where are you going, young man? Someone going to meet you, of course?"
"No, sir," said Jimmy. "I'm supposed to take a cab--"
"I'm going your way, why not ride along with me?"
"Sure it's all right?"
"Sure thing. Come along." Jimmy never knew that this man felt good for a week after he'd done his good turn for the year.
His grandfather opened the door and looked down at him in complete surprise. "Why, Jimmy! What are you doing here? Who brought--"
His grandmother interrupted, "Come in! Come in! Don't just stand there with the door open!"
Grandfather closed the door firmly, grandmother knelt and folded Jimmy in her arms and crooned over him, "You poor darling. You brave little fellow. Donald," she said firmly to her husband, "go get a glass of warm milk and some cookies." She led Jimmy to the old-fashioned parlor and seated him on the sofa. "Now, Jimmy, you relax a moment and then you can tell me what happened."
Jimmy sighed and looked around. The house was old, and comfortably sturdy. It gave him a sense of refuge, of having reached a safe haven at last. The house was over-warm, and there was a musty smell of over-aged furniture, old leather, and the pungence of mothballs. It seemed to generate a feeling of firm stability. Even the slightly stale air--there probably hadn't been a wide open window since the storm sashes were installed last autumn--provided a locked-in feeling that conversely meant that the world was locked out.
Grandfather brought in the glass of warmed milk and a plate of cookies. He sat down and asked, "What happened, Jimmy?"