This continues an excerpt from Mad Science Institute, a novel of calamities, creatures, and college matriculation. The novel will be available 12/16/2011, but you can read the beginning here first!
Not for the first time I wished I had an “undo” button for what I said.
The boy just looked at me for a moment. Then he went back to setting up his poster and ignoring me.
“Why do you have to say things like that, Soap?” My Dad was sitting in a folding chair by my project. He put his Popular Mechanics magazine under his arm and gazed up at me with dark, tired eyes. He seemed like a shrunken version of his former self, like one of those ancient Egyptian mummies. It was my fault he looked that way. It costs a bundle for a single father to raise a child in New York, even out where we lived in Flatbush, and I’m way worse than a normal child because of the expensive electronics I keep disassembled on the dining room table. And the fires I start in my bedroom whenever I overload a transformer. And the time I designed a robot that could make other robots out of whatever materials were at hand, which was great except that it mistook the neighbor’s Honda for scrap metal.
Actually, I’ve been worried about my Dad a lot lately. Even after my mom divorced him and moved to Chicago five years ago, he still got really excited about two things: electronic gizmos and basketball. But last time there was a game on tv, he just sat on the couch without even shouting at the refs like he usually does. And when we were shopping for the servos and circuit boards I needed for this science fair project, he just didn’t seem into it, and his face got really pale when it came time to pay for the order.
I sat down quietly and studied my hands for a while. I felt terrible because once again I had said something stupid and disappointed my Dad. There was nothing I could have done to make it better. The only option I thought I had to make it up to my Dad was to amaze the judges, get a scholarship, and move out after graduating high school in two years. To be honest, if the rest of the competition consisted of fantasies like antimatter reactors, I knew I had a decent chance of pulling it off.
After a very awkward hour of sitting between my disappointed father and my pissed-off neighbor, the judges showed up for their demonstration. The MIT professor was in that group, and he was kind of pudgy with wispy blonde hair. There were about ten other judges in boring suits that looked really uncomfortable in the heat of the lingering summer. There were a few spectators as well, mostly the parents of other exhibiters who followed the judges like pilot fish following sharks, probably hoping to pick up tidbits that indicate the current rankings. There was also one little girl with cute blond pig-tails who tagged along after her mother, playing with a Raggedy Ann doll the whole time.