"My mother and father are--"
"You eat your cookies and drink your milk," ordered his grandmother. "We know. That Mr. Brennan sent us a telegram."
It was slightly more than twenty-four hours since Jimmy Holden had blown out the five proud candles on his birthday cake and begun to open his fine presents. Now it all came back with a rush, and when it came back, nothing could stop it.
Jimmy never knew how very like a little boy of five he sounded that night. His speech was clear enough, but his troubled mind was too full to take the time to form his headlong thoughts into proper sentences. He could not pause to collect his thoughts into any chronology, so it came out going back and forth all in a single line, punctuated only by necessary pauses for the intake of breath. He was close to tears before he was halfway through, and by the time he came to the end he stopped in a sob and broke out crying.
His grandfather said, "Jimmy, aren't you exaggerating? Mr. Brennan isn't that sort of a man."
"He is too!" exploded Jimmy through his tears. "I saw him!"
"Donald, this is no time to start cross-examining a child." She crossed the room and lifted him onto her lap; she stroked his head and held his cheek against her shoulder. His open crying subsided into deep sobs; from somewhere she found a handkerchief and made him blow his nose--once, twice, and then a deep thrice. "Get me a warm washcloth," she told her husband, and with it she wiped away his tears. The warmth soothed Jimmy more.
"Now," she said firmly, "before we go into this any more we'll have a good night's sleep."
The featherbed was soft and cozy. Like protecting mother-wings, it folded Jimmy into its bosom, and the warm softness drew out of Jimmy whatever remained of his stamina. Tonight he slept of weariness and exhaustion, not of the sedation given last night. Here he felt at home, and it was good.
And as tomorrows always had, tomorrow would take care of itself.
Jimmy Holden's father and mother first met over an operating table, dressed in the white sterility that leaves only the eyes visible. She wielded the trephine that laid the patient's brain bare, he kept track of the patient's life by observing the squiggles on the roll of graph paper that emerged from his encephalograph. She knew nothing of the craft of the delicate instrument-creator, and he knew even less of the craft of surgery. There had been a near-argument during the cleaning-up session after the operation; the near-argument ended when they both realized that neither of them understood a word of what the other was saying. So the near-argument became an animated discussion, the general meaning of which became clear: Brain surgeons should know more about the intricacies of electromechanics, and the designers of delicate, precision instrumentation should know more about the mass of human gray matter they were trying to measure.
They pooled their intellects and plunged into the problem of creating an encephalograph that would record the infinitesimal irregularities that were superimposed upon the great waves. Their operation became large; they bought the old structure on top of the hill and moved in, bag and baggage. They cohabited but did not live together for almost a year; Paul Brennan finally pointed out that Organized Society might permit a couple of geniuses to become research hermits, but Organized Society still took a dim view of cohabitation without a license. Besides, such messy arrangements always cluttered up the legal clarity of chattels, titles, and estates.
They married in a quiet ceremony about two years prior to the date that Louis Holden first identified the fine-line wave-shapes that went with determined ideas. When he recorded them and played them back, his brain re-traced its original line of thought, and he could not even make a mental revision of the way his thoughts were arranged. For two years Louis and Laura Holden picked their way slowly through this field; stumped at one point for several months because the machine was strictly a personal proposition. Recorded by one of them, the playback was clear to that one, but to the other it was wild gibberish--an inexplicable tangle of noise and colored shapes, odors and tastes both pleasant and nasty, and mingled sensations. It was five years after their marriage before they found success by engraving information in the brain by sitting, connected to the machine, and reading aloud, word for word, the information that they wanted.
It went by rote, as they had learned in childhood. It was the tiresome repetition of going over and over and over the lines of a poem or the numbers of the multiplication table until the pathway was a deeply trodden furrow in the brain. Forever imprinted, it was retained until death. Knowledge is stored by rote.
To accomplish this end, Louis Holden succeeded in violating all of the theories of instrumentation by developing a circuit that acted as a sort of reverberation chamber which returned the wave-shape played into it back to the same terminals without interference, and this single circuit became the very heart of the Holden Electromechanical Educator.
With success under way, the Holdens needed an intellectual guinea pig, a virgin mind, an empty store-house to fill with knowledge. They planned a twenty-year program of research, to end by handing their machine to the world complete with its product and instructions for its use and a list of pitfalls to avoid.
The conception of James Quincy Holden was a most carefully-planned parenthood. It was not accomplished without love or passion. Love had come quietly, locking them together physically as they had been bonded intellectually. The passion had been deliberately provoked during the proper moment of Laura Holden's cycle of ovulation. This scientific approach to procreation was no experiment, it was the foregone-conclusive act to produce a component absolutely necessary for the completion of their long program of research. They happily left to Nature's Choice the one factor they could not control, and planned to accept an infant of either sex with equal welcome. They loved their little boy as they loved one another, rejoiced with him, despaired with him, and made their own way with success and mistake, and succeeded in bringing Jimmy to five years of age quite normal except for his education.
Now, proficiency in brain surgery does not come at an early age, nor does world-wide fame in the field of delicate instrumentation. Jimmy's parents were over forty-five on the date of his birth.
Jimmy's grandparents were, then, understandably aged seventy-eight and eighty-one.
The old couple had seen their life, and they knew it for what it was. They arose each morning and faced the day knowing that there would be no new problem, only recurrence of some problem long solved. Theirs was a comfortable routine, long gone was their spirit of adventure, the pleasant notions of trying something a new and different way. At their age, they were content to take the easiest and the simplest way of doing what they thought to be Right. Furthermore, they had lived long enough to know that no equitable decision can be made by listening to only one side of any argument.
While young Jimmy was polishing off a platter of scrambled eggs the following morning, Paul Brennan arrived. Jimmy's fork stopped in midair at the sound of Brennan's voice in the parlor.
"You called him," he said accusingly.
Grandmother Holden said, "He's your legal guardian, James."
"Now, James, your father and mother knew best."
"But they didn't know about Paul Brennan. I won't go!"
"James," said Grandmother Holden quietly, "you can't stay here."
"We're not prepared to keep you."
Grandmother Holden despaired. How could she make this youngster understand that eighty is not an age at which to embark upon the process of raising a five-year-old to maturity?
From the other room, Paul Brennan was explaining his side as he'd given it to the police. "--Forgot the land option that had to be signed. So I took off after them and drove fast enough to catch up. I was only a couple of hundred yards behind when it happened."
"He's a liar!" cried Jimmy Holden.
"That's not a nice thing to say."
"Jimmy!" came the reproachful tone.
"It's true!" he cried.
His grandfather and Paul Brennan came into the kitchen. "Ah, Jimmy," said Paul in a soothing voice, "why did you run off? You had everybody worried."
"You did! You lie! You--"
"James!" snapped his grandfather. "Stop that talk at once!"
"Be easy with him, Mr. Holden. He's upset. Jimmy, let's get this settled right now. What did I do and how do I lie?"
"Oh, please Mr. Brennan," said his grandmother. "This isn't necessary."
"Oh, but it is. It is very important. As the legal guardian of young James, I can't have him harboring some suspicion as deep as this. Come on, Jimmy. Let's talk it out right now. What did I do and how am I lying?"
"You weren't behind. You forced us off the road."
"How could he, young man?" demanded Grandfather Holden.
"I don't know, but he did."
"Wait a moment, sir," said Brennan quietly. "It isn't going to be enough to force him into agreement. He's got to see the truth for itself, of his own construction from the facts. Now, Jimmy, where was I when you left my apartment?"
"You--you were there."
"And didn't I say--"
"One moment," said Grandfather Holden. "Don't lead the witness."
"Sorry. James, what did I do?"
"You--" then a long pause.
"Come on, Jimmy."
"You shook hands with my father."
"Then you--kissed my mother on the cheek."
"And then, again?"
"And then you carried my birthday presents down and put them in the car."
"Now, Jimmy, how does your father drive? Fast or slow?"
"So now, young man, you tell me how I could go back up to my apartment, get my coat and hat, get my car out of the garage, and race to the top of that hill so that I could turn around and come at you around that curve? Just tell me that, young man."
"I--don't know--how you did it."
"It doesn't make sense, does it?"
"Jimmy, I'm trying to help you. Your father and I were fraternity brothers in college. I was best man at your parents' wedding. I am your godfather. Your folks were taken away from both of us--and I'm hoping to take care of you as if you were mine." He turned to Jimmy's grandparents. "I wish to God that I could find the driver of that other car. He didn't hit anybody, but he's as guilty of a hit-and-run offence as the man who does. If I ever find him, I'll have him in jail until he rots!"
"Jimmy," pleaded his grandmother, "can't you see? Mr. Brennan is only trying to help. Why would he do the evil thing you say he did?"
"Because--" and Jimmy started to cry. The utter futility of trying to make people believe was too much to bear.
"Jimmy, please stop it and be a man," said Brennan. He put a hand on Jimmy's shoulder. Jimmy flung it aside with a quick twist and a turn. "Please, Jimmy," pleaded Brennan. Jimmy left his chair and buried his face in a corner of the wall.
"Jimmy, believe me," pleaded Brennan. "I'm going to take you to live in your old house, among your own things. I can't replace your folks, but I can try to be as close to your father as I know how. I'll see you through everything, just as your mother and father want me to."
"No!" exploded Jimmy through a burst of tears.
Grandfather Holden grunted. "This is getting close to the tantrum stage," he said. "And the only way to deal with a tantrum is to apply the flat of the hand to the round of the bottom."
"Please," smiled Brennan. "He's a pretty shaken youngster. He's emotionally hurt and frightened, and he wants to strike out and hurt something back."
"I think he's done enough of that," said Grandfather Holden. "When Louis tossed one of these fits of temper where he wouldn't listen to any reason, we did as we saw fit anyway and let him kick and scream until he got tired of the noise he made."
"Let's not be rough," pleaded Jimmy's grandmother. "He's just a little boy, you know."
"If he weren't so little he'd have better sense," snapped Grandfather.
"James," said Paul Brennan quietly, "do you see you're making trouble for your grandparents? Haven't we enough trouble as it is? Now, young man, for the last time, will you walk or will you be carried? Whichever, Jimmy, we're going back home!"
James Holden gave up. "I'll go," he said bitterly, "but I hate you."
"He'll be all right," promised Brennan. "I swear it!"
"Please, Jimmy, be good for Mr. Brennan," pleaded his grandmother. "After all, it's for your own good." Jimmy turned away, bewildered, hurt and silent. He stubbornly refused to say goodbye to his grandparents.
He was trapped in the world of grown-ups that believed a lying adult before they would even consider the truth of a child.
The drive home was a bitter experience. Jimmy was sullen, and very quiet. He refused to answer any question and he made no reply to any statement. Paul Brennan kept up a running chatter of pleasantries, of promises and plans for their future, and just enough grief to make it sound honest. Had Paul Brennan actually been as honest as his honeyed tones said he was, no one could have continued to accuse him. But no one is more difficult to fool than a child--even a normal child. Paul Brennan's protestations simply made Jimmy Holden bitter.
He sat silent and unhappy in the far corner of the front seat all the way home. In his mind was a nameless threat, a dread of what would come once they were inside--either inside of Paul Brennan's apartment or inside of his own home--with the door locked against the outside world.
But when they arrived, Paul Brennan continued his sympathetic attitude. To Jimmy it was sheer hypocrisy; he was not experienced enough to know that a person can commit an act and then convince himself that he hadn't.
"Jimmy," said Brennan softly, "I have not the faintest notion of punishment. None whatsoever. You ruined your father's great invention. You did that because you thought it was right. Someday when you change your mind and come to believe in me, I'll ask you to replace it because I know you can. But understand me, young man, I shall not ask you until you make the first suggestion yourself!"
Jimmy remained silent.
"One more thing," said Brennan firmly. "Don't try that stunt with the letter to the station agent again. It won't work twice. Not in this town nor any other for a long, long time. I've made a sort of family-news item out of it which hit a lot of daily papers. It'll also be in the company papers of all the railroads and buslines, how Mr. What's-his-name at the Midland Railroad got suckered by a five-year-old running away from home. Understand?"
Jimmy understood but made no sign.
"Then in September we'll start you in school," said Brennan.
This statement made no impression upon young James Holden whatsoever. He had no intention of enduring this smothering by overkindness any longer than it took him to figure out how to run away, and where to run to. It was going to be a difficult thing. Cruel treatment, torture, physical harm were one thing; this act of being a deeply-concerned guardian was something else. A twisted arm he could complain about, a bruise he could show, the scars of lashing would give credence to his tale. But who would listen to any complaint about too much kindness?
Six months of this sort of treatment and Jimmy Holden himself would begin to believe that his parents were monsters, coldly stuffing information in the head of an infant instead of letting him grow through a normal childhood. A year, and Jimmy Holden would be re-creating his father's reverberation circuit out of sheer gratitude. He'd be cajoled into signing his own death-warrant.
But where can a five-year-old hide? There was no appeal to the forces of law and order. They would merely pop him into a squad car and deliver him to his guardian.