Chapter 42 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

Bert wandered downstairs, munching on a peanut butter and ham sandwich. He had used up the last of the bread in the Asylum to make it, a fact that he felt rather guilty about but which didn't keep him from thoroughly enjoying the sandwich.

Bill was showing the twins his new invention. It was a fairly large mechanical thing, constructed from all manner of old parts, notably including a variety of old clocks.

"What's that?" said Bert, through a mouthful of sandwich.

"Ah, Norman," said Bill, "You're just in time. I was just showing Norman here my new invention."

Paul looked at Bert's sandwich and said "What kind of sandwich is that?"

Bert said it was peanut butter and ham. Paul grimaced with disgust, and Bert tore a big bite out of the sandwich right in front of Paul's face, chewing it obnoxiously. "So," he said, again with his mouth full, "what's the invention?"

Bill leaned towards them, and, in a conspiratorial whisper, said "It's a Time Machine."

Peter, Paul and Bert all started yammering at once. "Does it really work? How'd you ever invent it? Can we use it?," that sort of thing.

Bill waved his hands to shut them up. "Well, I really should have said that it MIGHT be a Time Machine. I haven't tried it out yet. I think it will work-but I'm not entirely sure."

"Well, let's test it!"

Bill looked nervous, but also excited. "OK, you talked me into it," he announced, "I've been too afraid to try it up until now, but I guess I might as well."

He hunkered down and started fiddling with the thing. The device was composed of six wind up, analog clocks, of various sizes, bolted together and interconnected with many yards of gold wire. On the top was a gray steel box filled with electronics and covered with indicators, and also featuring a large green button marked "ENGAGE."

Bill was moving the hands on the various clocks, setting them to certain positions.

"I'm going to try to go forward to tomorrow. If this works, I'll come back with tomorrow's newspaper."

He stepped back and looked at the others and at his infernal machine. He took a deep breath. "Well," he said, "wish me luck!"

The others did so.

Bill reached out and grabbed onto the machine with his right hand, and pushed the green "ENGAGE" button with his left.

The machine made a buzzing sound, and there was a bright flash of light. However, Bill did not vanish away into the Future. He remained standing right were he was. A few wisps of smoke sailed up out of the machine, filling everyone's nostrils with a slightly charred smell.

Bert took a big bite of his banana and said "Guess it don't work."

Bill walked away from the device and sat down. "Another failure, I guess." Peter and Paul tried to comfort him. "Hang in there, you can't expect to get it right the first time! Keep trying! It'll work eventually!"

Bert finished off his banana and tossed the peel into the trash.

Bill looked at him. "Norman!" he shouted. "Was that a banana?"

"Yeah," he said, "but it was the last one."

"But weren't you eating a sandwich when you first came down here?"

Bert said "No," with total authority. Food was always something that he was sure about.

Paul looked at Bill strangely. "It was a banana, Bill. I saw it." He paused. "Did your machine do something to you?"

Bill squinted his eyes. "I don't know. I was sure he'd been eating a sandwich before."

"But I'm sure I was eating a banana," said Bert. "I couldn't have had a sandwich-there's no bread."

Peter said "Come on, guys, we'd better go, Bill has work to do."

Paul said "Are you getting enough sleep, Bill?"

Bert said "OK, we'll see you later, Bill. Hope you can make your invention work-but I wouldn't bother calling the Patent Office just yet!" He laughed as they went up stairs.

Bill sat there thinking, wondering. He was sure Bert had been eating a sandwich. It was as if something had shifted when he tested the machine. But how?

Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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