Authors: Mark Dunn
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Humorous Stories, #Science Fiction
In which the Professor puts his head out a window, Becky makes a mess in
the kitchen, and a lost child places an important telephone call from an undisclosed
ater that morning, Rodney and Wayne sat on the sofa
in the room which their aunt called “the den” and which the boys called “the
TV room,” and which their father had nicknamed his “bear cave.” Mr. McCall had
given the room this name because it was the place where he watched all of his
football games, roller derby matches, and championship boxing. This was the
room in which Mr. McCall allowed himself to growl at the television and to be
a grumbly bear when his favorite boxer or favorite football team did not perform
their best. (Or when one of his favorite female roller derby skaters took a
bad fall and eight other skaters skidded and tripped and landed right on top
of her. Then the growl and the grumble would be replaced by a very loud ‘OOOF!’
or ‘YOWCH!,’ or ‘MAN OH MAN, THAT HAS
Outside of this room Mr. McCall wasn’t much of a bear at all, but a soft-spoken
man who made a quiet living writing books. Mr. McCall wrote serious, scholarly
books about fairs and festivals and rodeos and circuses—any event in which people
gathered together to throw balls at cans or watch animals do amazing things
or observe people from other lands dressed in their native costumes.
When Mr. McCall was a young man, he attended the 1939-1940 New York World’s
Fair, at the time one of the largest world’s fairs that had ever been staged.
Mr. McCall later wrote a book about the New York World’s Fair, and one could
find within the den/TV room/bear cave many pictures and posters and souvenirs
from the fair. The souvenir Rodney and Wayne liked most from their father’s
collection was a tabletop model of the fair’s “Trylon and Perisphere.” The model
sat on a little table next to Mr. McCall’s easy chair. The actual Trylon was
a tall, pointy tower that rose into the sky like the Washington Monument. Its
companion, the Perisphere, was so large in actuality that fair visitors could
ride a long escalator right into the middle of it to find out what the “World
of Tomorrow” was going to look like.
Becky’s father, Mr. Craft, who sometimes came to the McCall home to watch boxing
matches with Mr. McCall and Mr. Lipe and Principal Kelsey, once picked up the
model of the Trylon and Perisphere and tossed it back and forth in his hands
in a disrespectful way, and made a funny comment about it. He said that the
real Trylon and Perisphere must have looked to people like a gigantic golf ball
that had fallen off its gigantic golf tee. Mr. McCall was not amused. He stopped
inviting Mr. Craft to the McCall home after that remark.
But this didn’t stop Mr. Craft from returning to the McCall home on
particular morning. Here he was standing in the den holding his baby-sized daughter Becky in his arms.
Mr. and Mrs. Ragsdale were also present. Mr. Ragsdale, looking very upset, kept running his trembling
hand over and over again through his thinning hair. (Yesterday Mr. Ragsdale had been totally bald but
now he had some hair.) Mrs. Ragsdale was wringing her hands and pacing alongside her husband. There
were other worried people in the room as well, each looking about eleven-and-a-half years younger,
and each of whom had come to crowd themselves into the small room to find out what was to be done.
They had followed Professor Johnson all the way from his house to the McCall residence, peppering
him with questions along the way: “What has happened to my little boy? Where did my little girl go?”
People often turned worriedly to the Professor when a new calamity struck the town, but this time they
were even more worried than usual, for there was the serious matter of lost children to be concerned about.
Mr. Craft had come on behalf of one of the salesmen at his appliance store,
a man named Armstrong, who had that morning gone into the room where his six-year-old
girl Daisy and his fouryear-old boy Darvin slept, and found their beds empty.
He was so upset that he went into the bathroom and climbed into the tub with
all of his clothes on and would not get out.
Mr. Dean, the newspaper editor, had also come to the house. He wanted to hear
the Professor’s opinion about what had happened so that he could put it in his
paper. Mr. Dean had already written the first few lines of his article about
the latest calamity and was waiting for the Professor’s comments so that he
could finish it. In the article Mr. Dean planned to remind his readers that
the most logical reason for the disappearance of Pitcherville’s youngest residents
was sunspots, pure and simple. But he had an obligation to give other possibilities,
even if those other possibilities pointed to a Pied Piper or bad milk. It is
the duty of a journalist to give all sides—even the ones that make no sense.
your theory, Professor?” prodded Mr. Dean. He rudely waved
his reporter’s pad in front of Professor Johnson’s face as if he expected the
Professor to write the theory down himself.
Professor Johnson pushed the pad away. He was feeling uncomfortable, because
he didn’t like being trapped in tight spaces with a lot of people. He didn’t
ride elevators for this reason, and he never played games in which the object
was to see how many people could fit into a broom closet or large crate.
“I do have a theory,” said the Professor in an uneven voice. “It is the same
theory as the one which my assistants Rodney and Wayne have come up with. Rodney,
my boy, why don’t you tell everyone our theory while I put my head out this
window for a breath of air?”
Rodney explained to all the people in the room how he believed that eleven-and-a-half-years
of instantaneous reverse aging had put those children under that age into a
pre-existing state. And that was why they were nowhere to be found—for there
were no bodies around for them to occupy.
they?” sobbed Mrs. Ragsdale. “What has happened to
them? Will I ever see my Petey again?”
Wayne stood up on the sofa, his legs bowing out like a baby’s and making him
a little unsteady on his feet. Both he and Rodney were now wearing the baby
jumpers Aunt Mildred had pulled out of the attic cedar chest. The jumpers had
a pattern of little ducklings and goslings on them. Wayne placed one of his
hands on his hip and raised the other into the air as Mighty Mike might have
done when he was a super-hero infant.
“The Professor is working on the problem,” he said. “You can be assured
that this problem will be corrected and all of your children will be returned
to you. Isn’t that right, Professor?”
The Professor did not hear the question. His head was still outside the window
and he was making a sucking noise, trying to draw more air into his lungs.
Mr. Craft stepped forward and addressed Rodney and Wayne: “How can you be so
sure that we will get the children back?”
Neither Rodney nor Wayne knew how to respond, and the Professor wasn’t being
very helpful. Before the boys could come up with an answer, the telephone in
the kitchen rang. Aunt Mildred, who had been serving coffee to people, set down
her coffeepot and went to answer it.
“You all must be patient,” said Becky from the envelope of her father’s arms.
“The Professor is working very hard. Even harder than usual.”
“No he’s not,” said Mr. Dean, the newspaper editor. “He’s sticking his head
out of the window.”
“Well, if there weren’t so many people in this room making things so difficult for him!”
Rodney and Wayne had never seen their little friend so upset before. It was even more unusual
to see her large baby eyes fired with anger and her rosy cheeks even rosier than they had been
earlier. It was usually Becky’s nature to be cheerful or at the very least, politely pleasant.
But Rodney and Wayne could certainly understand the reason for this change in behavior.
It wasn’t easy being a thirteen-year-old girl trapped inside the body of a rubber-limbed baby.
Becky had wanted to help Aunt Mildred make and serve the coffee to all of her guests, but there
was very little that she could do with her flimsy, nubby baby hands except stack sugar cubes
upon a saucer, and even then, some of the cubes wound up on the table and on the floor. Finally,
Aunt Mildred was compelled to return her helpless little helper to the arms of her father and
thank her politely while getting the whiskbroom and and dustpan.
Aunt Mildred had been gone hardly a minute when she returned to the den with
a puzzled look on her face. It was as if someone had told her the answer to
a funny riddle, but it made no sense.
“What is it? What’s the matter?” asked Mrs. Carter, whose tenyear-old daughter Lucinda had also
disappeared the previous night. Mrs. Carter was perhaps the most worried parent in the whole room,
because she had quarreled with her daughter before sending her up to bed without supper. They had
quarreled over the fact that Lucinda refused to eat her raisin and carrot salad. Lucinda had even
stuck her tongue out at it, and right in front of Mrs. Carter’s friend Mrs. Edwards, who had made
the salad herself and had tender feelings about it. Mrs. Carter was afraid that her daughter Lucinda
had run away from home. For this reason, she had spent part of the morning standing on her front porch
calling, “COME HOME, LUCINDA, MY LITTLE GIRL! YOU WILL NEVER HAVE TO EAT RAISIN AND CARROT SALAD EVER
AGAIN. YOU ARE RIGHT! IT TASTED JUST LIKE RABBIT FOOD!” This last part was said just as Mrs. Edwards
strolled by with her dog. It was a very awkward moment for both women who were already on delicate terms with one another after
the head-bumping incident.
“Petey is on the phone,” Aunt Mildred said.
is on the phone?
?” barked Mr. Dean, who had not heard
the first part of the one-sentence report. Like a good newspaperman, Mr. Dean
needed to know the “who,” the “what,” the “when,” the “where,” and the “why”
of everything newsworthy that happened in the town.
Mr. Dean’s raised voice drew the curious Professor’s head back into the room.
Aunt Mildred turned to Mr. and Mrs. Ragsdale and said, “Your missing boy Petey
is on the telephone!”
With that, the Ragsdales dashed out of the den and down the hall to the kitchen.
Mr. Ragsdale yanked up the phone receiver resting on the kitchen counter, and
Mrs. Ragsdale leaned in to listen alongside her husband.
“Where is your extension?” asked the Professor of Aunt Mildred as all the adults
in the den went scurrying down the hallway to join the Ragsdales in the kitchen.
“There is one upstairs in my nephew Mitch’s bedroom,” said Aunt Mildred pointing
to the staircase behind her and smiling because she could be helpful to the
“Thank you,” said the Professor with a nod of the head. With his now more youthful
legs, he was able to take the stairs two at a time.
In the den, Rodney and Wayne sat alone on the sofa thinking that they had been
forgotten in everyone’s mad rush to find out if it really was Petey Ragsdale
on the phone and from where on earth he might be calling.
“HEY!” yelled Wayne. “SOMEBODY! ANYBODY!”
In an instant, the normally absent-minded Principal Kelsey, who had shown up
at the McCall front door concerned about how his school children would be affected
by this most recent calamity, swept into the room and scooped Baby Rodney and
Baby Wayne into his arms. With a grunt, he said, “You might be eighteen-monthsold,
but you’re still just as heavy as two sacks of potatoes!” Carrying the boys,
one under each arm as if they were, indeed, potatoes, the school principal conveyed
them to the kitchen, which was now just as crowded as the den had been, and
for want of any better place, set them down in their old high chairs.
“Petey? Petey is that really you on the phone?” asked Mr. Ragsdale into the
“Yes, Dad. It’s me: Petey.”
“Well, I’ll have to admit that it certainly
like you. But how
can I be sure that it really
“I have a metal plate in my head and the little toe on my left foot doesn’t
have a toenail.”
“But everyone knows
, son. Tell me something that only Petey and
his mother and father would know.”
“I know!” offered Wayne from his high chair. “Ask him what he had for lunch
at school yesterday.”
Mr. Ragsdale nodded. “Petey, son, tell me what your mother put into your Hopalong
Cassidy lunch carrier yesterday.”
“I don’t have a Hopalong Cassidy lunch carrier, Dad. I have a Roy Rogers lunch
“Yes, yes, you’re right! A Roy Rogers lunch carrier. Now tell me what your mother
made you for lunch.”
“A round meat sandwich and a yellow monkey fruit and some root juice.”
“Oh, that’s right!” exclaimed Petey’s mother. “I packed him a bologna sandwich
and a banana and a bottle of root beer. It’s Petey! Only Petey would have said
it just that way without any ‘
’s!” Mr. Ragsdale held the phone receiver
out for his wife to speak into. “Where are you, honey? Tell us where you’re
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know where you are?”
“No, I don’t, Mom.”
“What does it look like?” asked the Professor, speaking on the upstairs telephone
“It doesn’t look like anything. Is that
“Yes, it’s me, Petey. Now try very hard to give us some kind of idea as to where
“Okay. It’s very foggy. And there are clouds.”
“And vapor. Is there vapor?” asked the Professor, jotting the facts down in
his pocket notepad.
“Yes sir. Vapor and clouds. Oh, and fog. And also some steam.”
Mrs. Carter could not help herself. She cried out, “Is my girl Lucinda with
him? Ask him if Lucinda is there!”
Mr. Ragsdale nodded. “Petey, Mrs. Carter would like to know if her daughter
Lucinda is there with you.”
“Well, it’s not easy to see everyone. There is too much vapor and clouds and
fog and steam. I
she’s here, though. Let me ask. LUCINDA? LUCINDA
CARTER, ARE YOU HERE?”
A tiny voice replied, “I’m over here!”
“Yes, Dad. Tell Mrs. Carter that she’s here.”
“What about Armstrong’s kids, Darvin and Daisy?” asked Mr. Craft. “Ask about
“Did you hear that, Petey?” said Mr. Ragsdale into the phone. “Are Darvin and
Daisy Armstrong there with you?”
“Gee, I don’t know, Dad. I’ll find out. DARVIN? DAISY? ARE YOU HERE?
“They’re right here!” replied Lucinda. “I’ve got them with me
“They’re here too, Dad,” said Petey. “Say, Professor, what’s going on? What
are we doing here? When do we get to go home?”
“We’re just starting to put all the pieces together, Petey. I’m afraid it will
take a little time to get everything figured out. Now, do you have the sense
that you are in a room, son? Or out-of-doors somewhere?”
“There are no walls that I can see, Professor,” answered Petey. “Not even a
ceiling or floor. It’s like we’re all sort of floating in
“Most curious,” said the Professor, making notes. “And how old are you, Petey?
How old are the other children?”
“The same age we were yesterday, I guess. I can’t see much of a difference in
the way we look except that you can kind of see through us like we’re ghosts
“Ghosts!” Mrs. Ragsdale shrieked. “That can only mean one thing!”
could have many possible causes,” said the Professor
in a calming voice. “Now, Petey, how did you find the telephone?”
“Gee, I don’t know, Professor. It just sort of appeared. Hey, are Rodney and
Wayne there? They’re not here with me.”
“Yes, Petey. They’re here,” answered Mr. Ragsdale. “But they’ve been turned
into infants and I don’t think they know how to talk on the phone.”
“Yes we do!” said Wayne, offended by the put-down.
Mr. Ragsdale made a shh sign with his finger and his lips, and then spoke into
the phone. “Thank goodness there are telephones wherever you are, son. Now you
take good care of yourself until the Professor can put everything back the way
“I will, Dad. In fact, I’m doing more than just taking care of
It looks like I’m the oldest one here.
the tallest. I’ve never been
in a place where I was the oldest
the tallest. I guess it’s up to
me to look after all these children until we get to go home.”
“That’s a fine thing, Petey. You make your mother and me very proud.”
Mrs. Ragsdale pulled the phone receiver over to her mouth so she could say something
else to her son: “Is there a number there where we can reach you?”
“I didn’t understand the first part of what you said, Mom.”
, Petey. A phone number.”
“Yes, there’s a phone here. I’m talking on it.”
“No, you don’t understand, honey.” Mrs. Ragsdale began to cry. “Oh Drew—I can’t
think of another way to say ‘phone number.’ Is there another way to say it so
that it doesn’t have a ‘b’ in it?”
“I’m thinking, I’m thinking,” said Mr. Ragsdale.
“I can hardly hear you, Mom.”
“You’re fading too, sweetie. But don’t go yet! Don’t go!”
“I love you, Mom! I love you, Dad!”
“We love you too, honey.”
“So long, son.”
Mr. Ragsdale handed the phone receiver back to Aunt Mildred and wiped a tear
from his cheek.
A moment or so later, the Professor returned to the kitchen. A somber quiet
had fallen over the room, with the exception of the scratchy sound Aunt Mildred
made sweeping sugar into her hand from the messy table.
“There is a name for the place where Petey and all the other little children
of the town are being kept,” he said softly. “But Petey wouldn’t have understood.
The place is called ‘limbo.’”