The boy in the garage is trying to make something happen by cranking and pumping at a homemade electrical contraption. It is a box with tubes snaking in all directions, and with each crank and pump the device emits a whooshing sound, and then a sudden crack. Sparks fly into the boy’s face, singeing his nose hairs and eyebrows. His face buzzes. The charge spreads through his body. He enjoys the feeling.
His mother peeks into the garage and sees her son glowing and sparking. “It’s my science project, Mom! I’m famous!” the boy cries. The mother backs away from her son, who opens his arms in invitation.
She runs into the backyard where her husband stands in front of a flaming grill. “He’s pumping in the garage!” she yells at him.
“He’s what?” her husband says, turning the family’s hot dogs with a pair of metal tongs.
“He’s cranking something,” she says, “pumping something. I don’t know. I don’t like it.”
The boy’s father strides to the garage with the metal tongs in hand.
“You’re upsetting your mother,” he tells the boy.
“You and mommy always wanted me to do something big,” the boy says, “and now I have.”
“We didn’t mean this,” the father says. He receives an electric jolt through the tongs and drops them, and they clatter on the garage floor.
The neighbors gather. “This looks dangerous,” one says. “He could light the whole neighborhood on fire.” The others mutter and exclaim, and a chorus of panic rises.
One of the neighbors is a scientist and a teacher at the local elementary school. He steps forward. “Hold it a sec, folks,” he says. “Hey now, calm down. This is interesting to me, as a scientist.” He squints at the garage, at the glowing boy inside.
* * *
The boy is only in first grade, but he ends up winning the fifth-grade science fair. The fifth-graders are furious. What can they do? There are the judges—the scientist and the principal—shaking the boy’s hand in the photograph that travels the world’s electronic networks.
The boy travels, too, accompanied by the scientist, to the major conventions of Europe and Asia, where he exhibits slides of himself cranking and pumping as a prelude to the final demonstration, the whooshing box with the snaking tubes, the boy’s hair standing on end, his body glowing, his hands raised amid a shower of sparks. Eminent men and women congratulate him on his prize. “It’s only a little thing,” the boy says, quietly proud of the attention. The scientist beams. By escorting the boy, his reputation has risen in the eyes of the scientific community.
But after a month of such demonstrations, and another month of talk shows and one slickly produced, high-profile viral internet video, the scientist grows despondent. It is all spectacle without discovery, illusion divorced from fact. What they are doing, he tells himself in the lonely dark of hotel room after hotel room, is nothing more than a magic show in which not even the magician knows the trick, just a black curtain draped over nothing and a few blinding lights. Every morning the inert box sits in the corner of the gray dawn like the partial skeleton of some faceless, extinct creature.
Plus, the boy is really beginning to irritate him. Night after night the boy responds to the scientist’s queries about the origins of the project and any insights he might have into its scientific implications with monosyllables and vague gestures. “But why, I’m asking,” the scientist says, “why did you do it?” The boy’s face is a blank. “It just went that way, I don’t know,” the boy says. “I just liked it.” The boy pauses, as if about to reveal the secret. “I liked the way it felt,” he says.
The scientist has always wanted a son. I would gladly have adopted you, he thought once, sitting across from the boy at the fast-food lunch table in a minor European city.
The scientist shoves the pillow in his mouth and stares at the foreign dawn slicing its way through the hotel curtains. I have made a grave mistake, he thinks.
* * *
It is summer and several months have passed since the boy visited with the great scientists of the world. The boy’s mother still thinks she can see an electric shimmer coming off him, and every kiss to the top of his head makes a little shock on her lips.
They have invited the scientist over for what the boy’s mother described to her husband as a long-overdue, thank-you Sunday dinner. But the boy’s father seems wary of the scientist when he arrives late, nervous and unshaven, and he places an odd emphasis on the word doctor whenever he addresses him. The scientist refuses to look directly at the boy. “His contribution to science!” he screeches at the boy’s parents, wiping his brow with a table napkin. “The amazing properties of his discovery!” The boy’s mother brings out dish after dish, uncertain of the scientist’s taste and wishing to impress him. The boy is embarrassed and anxious at the whole scene. He watches his mother steady the fork in the scientist’s shaking hand while his father glares.
The boy retains a great fondness for the box in the garage that started the whole thing. He slips away from the dinner table unnoticed and considers turning the crank, pumping the tubes, revving it all up again. Will it feel the same? he wonders.
Back in the house the lights dim and the boy’s mother screams and drops a casserole on the floor. The boy’s father rises to his feet. They stare up at the flickering hum of the fixtures. A burning smell grows stronger. The scientist waves his hands at them. “I can explain this,” he tells them. “I can explain everything that’s happening.”