Nick was in the lab in the basement making a volcano with vinegar and dish-washing liquid.
Tesla was in the lab in the basement making a rocket with vinegar and baking soda.
Uncle Newt was in the lab in the basement making a compost-fueled vacuum cleaner out of a leaf blower and a bag of putrid bananas.
It was the vacuum cleaner that exploded.
Fortunately, the Banana Vac 8000 began sizzling and melting before exploding, giving Uncle Newt time to groan, “Aww, man. Not again.”
Nick and Tesla knew what that meant. They put down their beakers, test tubes, and tongs and hurried toward the rickety stairs. They had to do a lot of zigzagging, as the dimly lit basement was packed with old computers and grimy tools and abandoned inventions (a rocket-powered skateboard here, a gumball machine stocked with goldfish there) and, along the walls, mysterious contraptions that hummed and throbbed and occasionally went ping. Some of the machines were scorched. All were covered with soot.
“Come on, Uncle Newt!” Nick said as he and his sister began bounding up the steps.
Uncle Newt was the kind of man who needed to be reminded that it’s a good idea to leave when a vacuum cleaner is about to explode.
“I just don’t understand,” he said as he reluctantly rose from his cluttered worktable and followed his niece and nephew. “I had the oxygen/methane mix perfect this time.”
“That’s what you said last time,” Tesla pointed out.
“I know! It was perfect then, too.”
Nick and Tesla scrambled up to the landing at the top of the stairs and turned to find their uncle plodding along behind them.
“Uhh, Uncle Newt?” said Nick. “Maybe you want to move a little faster?”
Uncle Newt swiped a hand at him dismissively. “Oh, I’ve still got at least five more seconds to get away. Maybe even six. Well, four now.”
The kids retreated into the kitchen, and slowly, serenely, he followed them.
“Two,” he said. “One.”
Nick, Tesla, and Uncle Newt stood for a moment, staring at each other. Then there was a whomp that shook the whole house.
“See?” Uncle Newt said. “There was plenty of time.”
Smoke rose from the basement. It smelled like a hundred burned banana cream pies sitting in the sun at the county dump.
“Eewww,” said Uncle Newt, grimacing and pinching his nose. “That’s even worse than usual. Come on.”
He led the kids out to the backyard, leaving the door open so the smoke could swirl out instead of filling the house. Uncle Newt’s hairless cat, Eureka, trotted after them, curled up on the porch, and began licking ash off his wrinkled, bald butt.
It was a bright, warm summer day, and one of Uncle Newt’s neighbors—a genial old man Uncle Newt always called Mr. Blackwell, even though his name was Jones—was mowing his lawn nearby.
Mr. Jones stopped his mower and pointed his inch-thick glasses at Uncle Newt and Nick and Tesla.
“Need me to call the fire department again?” he said.
“No thanks, Mr. Blackwell,” Uncle Newt told him. “It’s just a methane-rich banana mash reacting to oxygen and putting out a lot of carbon dioxide and water vapor.”
“Oh,” Mr. Jones said, nodding and smiling and clearly not understanding a word. “All right, then.”
“Don’t worry about the smoke,” Uncle Newt went on. “That’ll probably stop in an hour or so.”
“An hour or so?” someone said.
Uncle Newt and the kids turned around to find another neighbor, Julie Casserly, glaring at them. She was crouched by the side of her house, planting a new bed of begonias to replace the one that Uncle Newt’s (supposedly) self-steering lawn mower had chewed through two weeks earlier.
Julie coughed melodramatically, then jabbed a trowel in the direction of the foul-smelling smoke billowing out of Uncle Newt’s back door.
“You expect me to put up with that for an hour?”
“Of course not, Julie,” Uncle Newt said. “You could always go inside.”
Julie shot to her feet and did just that. But there was something about the way she snorted and scowled before she stomped off that made it clear she wasn’t retreating from just the smoke.
“Who do you think she’s gonna call?” Tesla said. “The fire department or the police?”
“Both,” said Nick. “And probably the Pentagon and the White House, too.”
Mr. Jones started his mower again.
“I could modify that so it’d mow the lawn for you, Mr. Blackwell!” Uncle Newt bellowed at him.
Mr. Jones just waved and went back to cutting grass. He obviously knew better than to let Uncle Newt anywhere near his lawn-care equipment.
“Oh well,” Uncle Newt said. “Time for Italian, I guess.”
“What?” Nick and Tesla exclaimed.
Uncle Newt sucked a lungful of smoky air in through his nostrils.
“I don’t know about you,” he said, “but I’ve got a sudden craving for Ranalli’s chicken vesuvio.”
Nick and Tesla blinked at him. Neither had any idea what chicken vesuvio was, but they did know this: Ranalli’s Italian Kitchen had great pizza.
“Let’s go,” Tesla said.
It was 10 o’clock on a Sunday morning—not the time most people chose to go out for Italian food. But if there was one thing Nick and Tesla had learned since coming to live with their uncle two weeks before, it was that he wasn’t most people.
“Great!” Uncle Newt said. He pulled the lapel of his lab coat over his mouth like a mask. “You two pour a gallon of grease into the car. I’ll go get the electro bib. I’ve been meaning to try it out in a restaurant.”
He walked toward the smoke still roiling out the back door.
Tesla grabbed his right arm. Nick grabbed the left.
“Maybe you shouldn’t go back in there till you can see what you’re doing,” said Tesla.
“And, you know . . . breathe?” said Nick.
Uncle Newt mulled it over while Nick and Tesla watched him anxiously. Not only were they worried about him asphyxiating in the house, they didn’t want him bringing his electro bib—which was supposed to teach kids to eat neatly by giving off a shock
every time a crumb touched it—to the restaurant.
Uncle Newt was a messy eater, and it was no fun listening to him yelp all through dinner.
“All right. We’ll go without the electro bib,” he finally said. He looked down at Eureka the cat. “Stay.”
Eureka finished licking his butt and trotted off toward Julie’s begonias, looking like he was going to either eat them or fertilize them.
“To the Newtmobile!” Uncle Newt said.
The Newtmobile was a dent-dimpled green and brown monstrosity Uncle Newt claimed to have built by combining a broken-down Volvo, an army surplus Jeep, and a boat. As it putt-putt-putted up the street, Nick watched out for dogs behind them. Uncle Newt had converted the car’s diesel engine to run on cooking oil instead of gasoline, and because he often collected his fuel from fast-food joints—most of which were happy to have someone haul off the grease they’d otherwise need to dispose of themselves—the fumes that spewed from the muffler smelled more like extra-crunchy french fries than carbon monoxide. Which was why it wasn’t uncommon to look back and find a drooling collie or spaniel or Chihuahua charging after the car, a leash dragging behind it and no owner in sight.
There were no dogs today, though a determined squirrel kept pace with them for almost a block. Fortunately, it fell behind and presumably went back to gathering nuts by the time the Newtmobile reached the Pacific Coast Highway, the busy state road that cut between Uncle Newt’s neighborhood and downtown Half Moon Bay, California. Nick had been worried that he’d have to get out and chase the squirrel away before it could lock lips on the muffler and be dragged off to its doom.
These were the sorts of problems a person had when living with Newton Galileo Holt, a.k.a. Uncle Newt. Back home in Virginia, Nick hadn’t had any problems at all. (Or so it seemed to him now.) But then his parents, both scientists working for the U.S. government, had suddenly announced that they were being sent to Uzbekistan to study soybean irrigation, and Nick and Tesla were shipped off to California to spend the summer with an eccentric inventor uncle they barely knew.
Nick had never liked soybeans. Now he hated them.
There was a silver lining to living with a mad scientist, though. Nick and his sister had mad scientist leanings themselves, and they quickly made themselves at home in their uncle’s basement laboratory. But that didn’t make up for the friends they wouldn’t see for months, the home they missed, and the mom and dad in a land so distant and isolated it didn’t even seem to have telephone lines.
Nick and Tesla hadn’t heard their parents’ voices since the day they said goodbye two weeks earlier.
A pink blur flashed before Nick’s eyes, and he heard his sister say, “Call 911. He’s in a coma.”
Nick blinked, and the blur came into focus.
Tesla was waving a hand in front of his face.
They were parked in front of Ranalli’s Italian Kitchen, yet Nick was still staring blankly out the back of the Newtmobile.
“Hellll-loooooo?” Tesla said. “Anybody home?”
“No,” said Nick. “I’m not home. But I wish I were.”
Tesla took away her hand and gave her twin brother an understanding look. She was better at putting a brave face on things—better at being brave in general, actually—but Nick knew she was worried about their parents, too.
“Hey, look on the bright side,” she said. “We’re about to have pizza for breakfast.”
Nick turned and started to scoot out of the car.
“You know,” he said, “that’s not a bad bright side.”
But it was, actually.
Ranalli’s wasn’t open yet. If they wanted pizza and chicken vesuvio, they’d have to come back in an hour.
“Oh, well,” Tesla said. “It was too early for pizza anyway.”
“It’s never too early for pizza,” grumbled Nick.
Uncle Newt rarely offered them anything to eat that hadn’t come out of a can or a box, and Nick was getting sick of Beefaroni and Froot Loops.
As he stared forlornly at the CLOSED sign on the restaurant’s glass door, something inside the restaurant began moving.
“Hey,” said Nick, squinting. “What’s that?” Tesla and Uncle Newt crowded in to peer inside, too.
“Is that a—?” said Nick.
“Why, yes it is,” Uncle Newt cut in.
“Whoa,” said Nick and Tesla together.
Marching around the counter by the cash register was a small, silver shape.
It turned its glowing red eyes toward Nick and Tesla and Uncle Newt and stared back at them.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.