Chapter 1—Miss Anderson
“Johnny Drake, are you paying attention?” Miss Anderson scolded. She had a hint of a smile, as if she’d seen the likes of me before.
But I knew she hadn’t.
I sat up and tried to look alert. Truth was, I had been paying attention—just not to what she’d been teaching. I’d been focused on the way she limped to the blackboard, on the cane she used. I’d heard the stories: she’d gotten injured when she was fifteen, only two years older than me.
What I’d been thinking about was preventing the accident that hurt her leg.
What I’d been thinking about was time travel.
Sam Rizzo, my best friend, shot a spitball at me, bringing me back to reality: English class with Miss Anderson, lunch period next with him and Amy. I looked at him and he made an eating motion with his hand, as if he were furiously forking food into his mouth. This was his daily routine; the faster he shoveled the hungrier he was.
“Ten minutes,” I whispered. He slumped in his seat like he would die before then.
I went back to thinking about Miss Anderson’s right leg. Rumors go around a schoolyard like flu germs, getting stronger with each new kid. These rumors have been around for as long as Miss Anderson has been teaching at Lincoln Middle School. Depending on who you asked, she A) was in a car crash, B) was hit by a truck and dragged fifty feet, C) broke her leg skiing, or D) was hit by a truck while skiing and dragged fifty feet.
Miss Anderson grew up here in Mt. Vernon, just like my dad. I could probably get the true story from him. Could it be that easy? Maybe, but I guess it’s more fun to just make up rumors. Imagine how exaggerated the story will be twenty years from now!
The bell rang and Sam popped out of his seat like he’d been ejected. After dropping our books off at my locker (he shared mine), we made our way to the cafeteria. He bought a bologna sandwich with potato chips and an apple juice, and I got a murder burger with fries and a bottled water. We called them murder burgers for obvious reasons: they’d kill you. We assumed the school bought the cheapest meat, fried it beyond recognition, then melted American cheese on top in an attempt to disguise the evidence. But they tasted so good we didn’t care. We sat at our usual table and kept an eye out for Amy.
“What are you doing after school?” Sam asked.
“Homework, dinner, TV.” I shrugged. “The usual.”
“Yeah, me too,” he said. “One day I wish something exciting would happen.” Then he whispered, “Look out, here comes Amy.”
I quickly wiped catsup off my mouth and tried to look intelligent and mature. Or at least not like a slob. She slid onto the chair next to Sam and said, “Hey, losers.”
“Takes one to know one,” Sam said.
“Hi Amy,” I mumbled nervously. I wished I could talk to her as easily as Sam did.
“You gonna eat that apple?” Sam asked her.
“Keep your paws off, Rizzo,” she said.
Sam stuck his index finger out and barely touched her apple. They both cracked up laughing.
After a hearty bite of my burger I said, “So what do you guys think really happened to Miss Anderson’s leg?”
“Why, what’s wrong with it?” Sam said.
“Which leg?” Amy said, smiling.
“You guys are hilarious!” I said. “No, really, what do you think happened?”
Sam shrugged, “Wasn’t she run over by a truck while skiing or something?”
“I heard it was a car accident when she was ten,” Amy said.
“It’s scary, isn’t it?” I said. “Something that probably took five seconds to happen—”
“Could change your life forever,” Amy finished.
“Why don’t you just ask her what happened?” Sam said.
I said, “Yeah, right. How would I bring that up? Nice weather we’re having. When is the book report due? Were you ever dragged fifty feet by a truck?”
“I thought it was a hundred feet,” Sam said.
I glared at him.
“Why do you want to know anyway?” Amy asked.
Sam said, “Yeah, you’re not a doctor. It’s not like you can fix it.”
“I guess you’re right,” I said.
We went back to eating, but all I could think about was one day after class, when I’d forgotten my notebook. I’d gone back to get it and heard her crying and sniffling into her cellphone. I’d stopped just outside the door and poked my head around the doorframe. Miss Anderson sat at her desk with her head resting on her hand. It was hard to understand every word, but it sounded like someone had made fun of her disability. “I expect it from the kids,” she said. “But a colleague? I may not get the promotion because of him.” I wanted to punch whoever had made fun of her—even if it meant detention. Miss Anderson was so nice, and a great teacher. It’d be worth detention.
I didn’t know what promotion she had been talking about, but I did know Sam was wrong—I could fix Miss Anderson’s leg. How could I do that?
I have a time machine!
Chapter 2—An Amazing Discovery
What I really wanted to do with my time machine was help my dad. He was missing the ring and pinky fingers on his right hand, lost to a fireworks accident when he was a teen. He got along fine without them, but he had been an excellent high school baseball player before the accident—some big league scouts had even watched him play. I always wondered if he would have made it to the Majors. I really did want to help Miss Anderson; plus helping her would give me good experience at time travel. If I could fix her, then I’d know I could go and fix my dad’s fingers too.
But first, let me tell you how I got my hands on a time machine.
I was still a baby when my parents bought our house after the previous owner, Mr. Wilkens, passed away. He’d been an old, eccentric high school science teacher with a workroom in the basement of the house. According to my parents, there’d been a lot of strange looking “inventions” down there. No one could figure out what they were supposed to be. There was so much stuff that his family needed a few extra days to clean before we could move in. They removed all of his inventions—except one. And that’s because it was disguised as a furnace. Well, I shouldn’t say disguised, because it actually was a furnace...at least most of the time.
One night I went down to the furnace room with my cat, Rockford (my dad named him after some old TV character). I’d always hoped to find a cool invention hidden somewhere that the Wilkens family had missed. My favorite fantasy was finding a jet pack, and how cool it would be to fly to school and come in for a landing while everyone watched in awe—especially Amy. I’d never found anything, but it didn’t stop me from trying.
While I searched for secret panels and hiding spots, Rockford stood in front of the furnace and looked back at me. Cats always seem to be chasing things that aren’t there or scratching at walls, like they see things we don’t. He meowed loudly to tell me, the stupid human, how urgent it was.
“What is it, boy?”
He’d gone around to the back of the furnace and meowed a second time; usually one loud meow is all he needed to say what he had to say. Finally I got the hint.
“Okay, okay, I’m coming.”
Behind the furnace was a lever with a faded yellow arrow painted on it. Above it hung a small chalkboard, with a piece of chalk attached with string. 8/15/1958 was written on the board. I hadn’t known what that meant, but I was pretty sure the lever didn’t control the temperature. There were other dials for that in front. Maybe Mr. Wilkens had souped up the furnace somehow.
Rockford rubbed against my leg and looked up at me. Without thinking about the consequences, I did what any kid would’ve done: I slid the lever to the right.
Immediately the room started to shake. Then I’d realized it was me that was shaking. I regretted touching the lever. Rockford leapt into my arms. It got really cold suddenly, and I worried that I had broken the furnace. Then I worried about how long I’d be grounded. Just as quick as the shaking started it stopped, and it no longer felt cold. In fact, it was hot and humid. Rockford jumped to the floor. The furnace room looked completely different.
First of all, now there was all different stuff: wooden boxes, an old-fashioned bicycle hanging on the wall, a metal cabinet, a winter storm door, and a work bench with tools and half-built contraptions. Rockford sniffed around the boxes. I walked to the small window and stood on tiptoes to look outside. A very old but shiny gray car was parked there. It was huge and had the biggest chrome bumper I’d ever seen. Giant letters above the grill said CHRYSLER. I heard voices coming from the back porch. Two men were talking.
“Looks like the Yanks will play the Braves in the World Series again,” the first man said.
“Yup,” the second man agreed. “We’ll beat ’em this time.”
Neither voice sounded familiar.
The first guy said, “We need Mantle’s knees to hold up.”
“At least one of them,” the second guy said with a laugh.
Mantle? Mickey Mantle? He’d played for the Yankees in ancient times; I’d seen the old grainy black and white videos. By now I’d gone from being confused to getting freaked out.
“Rockford, come here boy.” He trotted over and jumped into my arms. I raced behind the furnace and yanked the lever back to the left. The shaking began, the temperature went from hot to cold, then everything settled down. All of my family’s familiar junk was back in the room, where it was supposed to be. Rockford jumped down and took off for the stairs while I went to the window. My mom’s blue Toyota was parked in her usual spot. No gray car with a ginormous bumper. I sighed in relief.
What had just happened?
Maybe I’d gone crazy. Or had a dream. Or was a crazy person who had a dream. I tried to get ahold of myself. My next thought was that I had a brain tumor. One that caused hallucinations. Is that even how it worked? I had no idea, but it sounded possible. I began to frantically feel my head, looking for lumps or bumps or whatever.
“Johnny! Dinner!” my mom called. Relieved, I bolted upstairs. Crazy or not, I realized how hungry I was. Eating with my parents made me feel normal. Obviously, there’d just been an old car parked in my driveway, someone who’d been visiting my parents maybe. And the weird boxes, the half-built contraptions, the strange voices? Just my empty stomach making me light-headed. I shoveled more food into my mouth, like Sam pretends before lunch.
By the time we’d finished dessert, I’d forgotten about the strange experience. Well...almost.
That night in bed I thought of the strange experience again. I still couldn’t come up with an explanation, and kept coming back to the only idea that did make any kind of sense: the furnace was a time machine. And that didn’t make any sense at all. Maybe I’d seen one too many time travel movies.
I pushed it out of my mind and, eventually, fell asleep. When I woke the next morning the sun was shining and Rockford was pouncing on me wanting to be fed, and the strange event seem even more like a dream. At school that day I didn’t even mention it to Sam or Amy. But no matter how much I told myself that it didn’t really happen, when I got home I couldn’t stop myself from trying the lever again. I had to know for sure.
With Rockford in my arms, I went behind the furnace, reached out, and—before I could change my mind—quickly yanked the lever to the right. This time I’d be more observant. Make sure it was really happening and not a dream. The shaking began and I held tighter to Rockford. The shaking stopped and I was in the furnace room with all the strange stuff.
Rockford jumped from my arms. I placed my hands on my chest; I was solid, breathing, my heart was beating. My clothes were the same. As I stepped out from behind the furnace, I ran my hand over the metal. It was sturdy, real. I lifted one of the wooden boxes. It was heavy, and I strained to put it back in place. I spun the back wheel of the old bicycle, hearing it click as it revolved. I took a deep breath, trying to get all my senses involved. Even though I was in the basement, I could still smell the scent of fresh-cut grass outside, a summer smell. Not winter, like it should’ve been.
At the small window I placed my palm to the glass; it was warm from the sun. The Chrysler sat there, its ginormous bumper gleaming in the sun. The men had finished talking about baseball and moved on to politics. I didn’t know anything about politics, so I was pretty sure I couldn’t have come up with it myself if I’d been dreaming.
Rockford was scratching at the door that led to the backyard, wanting to go outside, but when I went behind the furnace he followed. I picked him up and slid the lever. After the shaking and hot and cold flashes, I stepped out from behind the furnace. I took a deep breath. No grass smell. At the window I put my hand on the glass. It felt cold. Looking out, I saw my mom’s car, which still had some snow on its roof. I was no scientist, but the evidence was pretty strong.
I was not dreaming. Mr. Wilkens had invented a time machine!
Man, I couldn’t wait to tell Sam!
What I knew about time travel I’d gotten from movies. Most of them followed the same “rules.” Like you can’t go back in time and kill your own grandfather. Otherwise how would you have been born? This rule was called a conundrum. Just the word made my brain hurt. Where did these rules come from? Science? Random guesses? Totally made up?
My father always said the best way to learn was by doing. Like if you want to be an auto mechanic, you have to actually work on a car, and not just read about it in a book. With that in mind I went back behind the furnace. I wiped the blackboard clean with the palm of my hand and grabbed the chalk. Would it work if I wrote any date? Was it just able to travel backward in time, or could I go forward too? See myself at my own college graduation, or my wedding? Could I meet my own kids? My grandkids?
I needed less thinking and more action.
I moved the chalk closer to the board, hesitated. I could choose a day when I knew something specific had happened, a significant day in history. July 4, 1776 maybe! Or maybe just write a random date. I just had to test it out, see if a different date would work. My heart thumped as I touched the chalk to the blackboard.
“Johnny! Dinner!” my mom called from upstairs.
Relieved, I dropped the chalk and bolted upstairs. But I knew it was only a matter of time before I’d go back down there again.
I had a new toy and wanted to play with it.
Chapter 3—Another Amazing Discovery
I was still thinking about Miss Anderson’s leg when I got home from school. On the way to my bedroom I passed the basement door. I stopped and stared at it. If I only knew the exact date and details of Miss Anderson’s accident, I could go back and change things, prevent the car crash. If that’s what happened.
Rockford came up to me and brushed against my leg. I petted his head. “Good boy.”
He gave one loud meow, which probably meant, Come on, let’s time travel! Or maybe he was just hungry.
“Soon,” I said, and scratched under his chin, which is his all-time favorite thing.
Despite the two successful trips, I was still scared to try the time machine again. What if I got stuck somewhere? Then I thought of the old scientist who’d invented the machine. He’d died right here in this house of old age, in his own bed, not of anything related to time travel. Also, I’d returned okay from my two trips. Right?
I had to remember exactly what I’d done. The date had already been written. All I did was slide the lever. That was easy. Picking the right day must be the hard part. I had to make sure I did everything the same as before, but this time I’d explore a little further. Rockford had been with me, so I’d need to bring him along too.
I tried to do homework, but only accomplished doodling the furnace time machine about ten times until I smelled the dinner my mother was making.
Dinner! On my other trips, I’d gone just before dinner. Like it was now. Before I could change my mind, I got up and went to the basement door with Rockford following.
“Let’s do it, boy,” I whispered. We went downstairs and into the furnace room. Behind the furnace, everything was how I’d left it. I picked up the chalk and quickly wrote 8/15/1958. I held Rockford and moved the lever. The shaking started and stopped.
I came out from behind the furnace, Rockford at my side. I looked through the window at the same gray car with the gigantic bumper. Then I heard the men talking about Mickey Mantle. The furnace room has a door that leads outside, underneath the back porch. I quietly opened the door. There were a few concrete steps that led up to the backyard. But the yard looked different. Mostly, the trees looked different. There was a huge maple that I’d never seen, and a bunch of smaller ones that hadn’t yet grown into the big trees that I knew in my time.
I was at the top of the steps, but still hidden under the porch. The two men were right above—I could see their feet through the spaces of the wood planks. Rockford was on the top step, ready to explore the yard. “No, Rockford,” I whispered, “Come back.”
He looked at me as if to say, Yeah, right, and stepped out onto the grass. I held my breath. He’d have to come back by himself. I wasn’t about to go out there and be seen.
“We need Mantle’s knees to hold up,” the first man said.
“At least one of them,” the second guy said.
The first man laughed right on cue.
“They’ll rest Mick at the end of the year so he’ll be ready for the Series,” the second man said.
The men didn’t have to worry. I’d looked it up: Mantle had played in all seven World Series games that year, and the Yankees had beaten the Braves four games to three.
It suddenly occurred to me one of the men might be a young Mr. Wilkens.
Rockford continued to investigate the yard, sniffing at a garden hose and then stopping dead in his tracks to watch a bird. We never let him out of the house, so this was all new to him. I was afraid he’d never want to come back inside. Finally, he sauntered back and leapt into my outstretched arms. I kissed him quietly on the head.
“Let’s go,” I whispered, anxious to get back now. The men had moved to another subject, the expensive price of gas (24¢ gallon!).
I carried Rockford over to the furnace and looked at the date 8/15/1958. It must’ve had some significance. Or maybe it was just the last date that Mr. Wilkens visited. Either way, I was ready to see a different day, now that I had proven to myself that the furnace in my house was actually a time machine. I moved the lever to the left and the shaking began. Hot, cold, then I was home.
I now had a taste for time travel. More importantly, I wanted to see more than just what my basement and backyard looked like in 1958. I had to tell Sam, but would he believe me?
When Mom called, “Johnny, dinner’s ready!” Rockford and I bolted upstairs. One thing I’d already learned—time traveling makes you hungry!
My mom’s a great cook, but I was glad she didn’t make anything spicy, because my stomach wasn’t up for it. I was too excited about the time machine—and also scared I was getting in over my head. Maybe that was how the old-time explorers felt, people like Columbus, or Lewis and Clark. Nervous and excited at the same time.
“How was school today?” my dad asked.
“Good.” I laughed. “Sam tripped down some steps and dropped all his books!”
“That’s horrible!” my mom said. “Was he hurt?”
“Uh...no,” I said. “He scraped his arm, that’s all.” Mothers and their thirteen year-old sons don’t find the same things funny, I guess.
“Well, you boys should be more careful,” she scolded.
I looked at my dad for some support, but he knew better. “Yes, you boys should watch where you’re going,” he said, trying not to laugh.
I needed to change the subject. “Hey, Dad, do you know how Miss Anderson hurt her leg?” My dad’s fork hand stopped midway to his mouth. He looked at my mom, then back at me.
“Uh,” he said. “I believe she was in a car crash.” Then he moved his eyes back to my mother, who was looking down at her food, moving it around with her fork.
“Okay...” I said. “How old was she? Who was driving?”
“It was a long time ago,” my mother said softly.
“I know,” I said, disappointed at the vague answers.
My mother changed gears. “I need you to do a favor for me later. Will you go up to the attic and get the Christmas decorations?”
We finished dinner without much more conversation. I had the feeling I had said something I shouldn’t have. When we were done eating, I cleaned off the table and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Then I went up to the attic, Rockford running excitedly ahead of me.
There wasn’t too much stuff stored there, just some boxes of my mom’s and dad’s that had old photos, letters and scrapbooks. The Christmas decorations were in back against the wall. I went over and opened the boxes. Seeing all the old ornaments made me feel like a little kid again. I took one out that had my name and the year I was born painted on it. Suddenly it slipped out of my hand and rolled away. Rockford bolted after it.
I gave chase too and grabbed it before Rockford could start batting it around. I let out a sigh of relief—it hadn’t broken. Then I noticed something sticking up from below the floorboards, where they met the open beams of the wall. I knelt down and saw the spine of an old dark brown leather-covered book. It poked out just enough for me to grab with my fingertips. I pulled and it came free. The word “Journal” was part of the design of the leather cover. The letters were raised and worn-looking. I opened to the first page and found two words handwritten in faded blue ink: “Harvey Wilkens.”
The inventor’s journal? Oh my god!
I quickly turned the page. On top in the same script it said, “Notes on Time Travel.” I tilted the book toward the bare light bulb hanging from the ceiling and began to read.
May 22, 1967
I don’t know what I’m doing wrong. It should work. Frustrated.
May 27, 1967
I fixed the transition enabler, but now the initiator won’t engage. Don’t understand. Doesn’t make sense. It worked that one time in February.
June 13, 1967
I give up! It’s something simple, I’m sure. Just not seeing the obvious.
June 17, 1967
Will continue experiments when school resumes. Summer away will give me time to ponder the problem.
Sept 1, 1967
Back from vacation. T.M. still not engaging. Same as before vacation.
Sept 30, 1967
Nothing new to report. Almost ready to give up.
Oct. 14, 1967
Getting cold at night now. At least I know T.M. still works as a furnace! Ha ha.
Oct. 15 1967
Success!! Traveled back to Feb 9, 1964 and watched the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Returned to ’67 with no problem. Maybe something to do with heat? Furnace needs to be running?
“Johnny! What’s taking you so long?” my mom called. I snapped the book closed and shoved it back in its hiding spot. Rockford sniffed then patted the spine, as if to make sure the book was secure.
“Coming!” I yelled. As I carried the decorations downstairs my mind was still on Mr. Wilkens’ notes. I didn’t know what he meant by “transition enabler” and “initiator won’t engage,” but I guessed it was technical stuff I didn’t need to worry about.
“Carry those boxes into the living room,” my mother said. “Right below the window.”
I put the boxes down and wanted to immediately go back up and read more, but my mom knew it was time for me to do my homework. I went to my room, sat at my desk, and tried to concentrate on my math problems. I could practically hear the journal calling my name. I was dying to read about Mr. Wilkens’ time travel adventures! Rockford meowed.
“Soon,” I said, petting him on the head. “Soon!”
Chapter 4—Mr. Wilkens’ Journal
I didn’t get a chance to get back to the journal that night, or the next morning either. It had to wait till I got home from school. It was hard to concentrate, especially in Miss Anderson’s class. While doing my homework the night before, I had Googled her name to see if any old news articles about her accident would pop up, but nothing did. It must have been too long ago—pre-internet and computers. The Dark Ages, as Sam and I called it.
Sam did his usual countdown to lunch, including throwing spitballs at me until I acknowledged that yes, lunch was close, and would actually happen soon. Later in the cafeteria Sam asked, “You guys wanna come over tonight and play Wii?”
“Oui,” Amy said.
“Yeah, Wii,” Sam said.
“No, stupid. Oui is French for yes.”
“Just ’cause you take French doesn’t mean you have to actually, you know, use it,” Sam said.
“You’re so pedestrian,” Amy said.
“What do you mean? I’m not walking, I’m sitting right here.”
“Hello? Pedestrian? Boring?”
“Geez,” I said.
“Well, what about you,” Sam said to me. “You in?”
“Can’t make it tonight,” I lied. “We might get a Christmas tree.” For all I knew, it could’ve been true. Not that I didn’t want to hang out with Sam and Amy—I just wanted to read more from Mr. Wilkens’ journal. I needed to understand what I was getting into. Like, do I come out in the furnace room every time? Or would I find myself somewhere like China if I changed the date? I needed to have more facts before I could tell Sam (and I really wanted to tell him). But if I told him now, he’d just want to start using the time machine immediately. It wasn’t a video game; I had to make sure it was safe.
I decided to read more of the journal, give the time machine another test run, then tell Sam. I wanted someone else to know, just in case something happened while I was on a trip. Plus, how cool is it to have a time machine? I was busting to share the news.