RAMPA WORST WAS old and dying of something old people die of, which was just fine with everyone and, surprisingly, even fine with him. What was not fine with everyone was that he had something he wanted to tell his grandchildren, and he was determined to tell them if it was the last thing he ever did… which it probably would be.
He had been very successful in his long life and made a great deal of money. Scads of money. In fact, by the 2060s he was considered one of the richest men in Northern California. He lived in an enormous house with a long, sweeping driveway, tons of rooms and bathrooms, even a wine cellar that he had converted to a beer cellar. But few people knew anything about him—anything important that is—least of all, the people closest to him, like his wife, who wasn’t around anymore because she was dead. Or his daughter, who wasn’t dead but didn’t care to be around because he had always been such a sour and disagreeable old man. That one could always have been an old man might seem odd, but in Grampa Worst’s case, even when he was young, he was old.
“Oh my,” said his daughter, when he insisted she bring her three children to his bedside so that he could tell them about the Wheel of Nuldoid. “The wheel of what?” his daughter asked with grave concern because she was beginning to suspect that her father was not as in touch with reality as perhaps he once was.
“The Wheel of Nuldoid!” he said a little louder than he needed to, and then started coughing and hacking and, well, flatulating, all at the same time. It was a rather unpleasant sight.
And sound. And smell.
“The wheel of what?” the daughter’s husband asked in the car on the way home from Grampa’s house.
“Nuldoid,” she said. “He says he wants to tell the children the story of Nuldoid.”
“What’s a Nuldoid?”
“I don’t know. But he wants to tell them about it before he dies.”
“So, he’s lost his mind?”
“Well, he’s getting near the end. It’s possible he’s not thinking as clearly as he once did.”
Neither the old man’s daughter nor her husband knew for sure if Grampa had truly slipped off the tether that binds us to what’s real, but an argument was made that he was indeed the children’s grandfather, and therefore deserved an audience with his grandchildren before, well, before the end.
THE NEXT DAY, the three children stood like frozen chickens beside their grandfather’s enormous bed, where they looked down with dread at his shriveled and creaky frame, at the lonely strands of thin white hair that swept aimlessly over the crest of his naked dome, the dark veins that wiggled along his forehead, the loose turkey skin beneath his chin. Their biggest fear, of course, was that he would, at any moment, draw his last breath, that his mouth would flop open like its hinge was busted, that his eyes would roll back in his head and that he would make some ghastly ghostly noise that would sound like someone opening a rusted door. And then he would be dead. Right there in front of them. Dead.
“Sit down,” he said abruptly before they stiffly obliged.
“What’s your name, son?”
“You know my name, Grampa. It’s Joe,” Joe said, pushing his blond hair away from the ridge of his eyebrow.
“I thought you were Henry.”
“I’m Henry, Grampa,” said Henry, who was sitting next to Joe and was the oldest of the three children. He had a full mop of dull red hair that curled in bunches and shot out in any direction it pleased. And though he was not quite twelve, his face was losing its boyish roundness and his voice cracked on occasion.
“Well, I’m not going to argue with you,” the grumpy old man said. “Francie? You’re still Francie, right?”
“Yes, Grampa,” Francie said, and smiled, displaying a gap where her front tooth had been a few days earlier.
Grampa drew back at the sight of the empty space between her teeth. “What the hell happened to you?”
“Nothing, Grampa,” Francie said, and probably would have laughed if she’d not been so scared of him. “My baby tooth fell out.”
“Ah. Well, I suppose that’s good.” He moved a scraggy finger to his eye, scrunched his face and scraped a hunk of something out of its corner, briefly examined the hunk and then flicked it out into the room. Then he turned back to the children. “Anyways, I’m gonna tell you kids a story about a place that’s far, far away. It’s a story I’ve never told any—“
“How far?” Joe asked.
“How far away is this place?”
“I don’t know. Far, far. It happened back in—“
“What, like a million miles?”
“I said I don’t know.”
“Well, it would help to know,” Joe said.
“Fine. Four thousand miles! Is that what you want?”
“Which way?” Joe asked, mostly just to prove to his brother and little sister that he was not afraid of the old man. “North, east, west, south?”
“Of course it matters,” Henry said, deciding to jump into the fray.
“Fine then. None of them.”
“How can it be none of them?” This was Joe again.
“Can I tell this story or not?” their grandfather barked.
The children all nodded and sat quietly like a row of condemned convicts, their fresh faces full and wide-eyed at the shock of their grandfather’s blunt outburst. Francie moved her chair a little closer to Henry’s.
“Now then… it started right here in San Francisco, 1989—the year before I was born. There was a huge earthquake. Go ahead, look it up if you think I’m lying. Huge earthquake, 1989. Look it up!” he said, challenging them to actually look it up, not because he thought they didn’t believe him, but because he was just that disagreeable.
The children, though, had no way of looking up anything: no computer, no e-Zapp, and certainly no books or encyclopedias, those having all but disappeared in the mid-21st century. Henry finally ventured, “We can’t look it up, Grampa.”
“Well then, you’re just gonna have to believe me, aren’t you? There was an earthquake in 1989—whether you think there was or not—and it was huge and a lotta people died. And that’s a bona fide fact! Bridges collapsed, buildings crumbled, tragic, horrible, everybody got very upset and wah, wah, wahk, wahk, wahak, kack, kack…” He was suddenly coughing and hacking like a hairless old cat trying to rid itself of a hairball. Finally, up
came a large wad of greenish-black something or other, and it plopped down on the bed beside him like a blob of wet cookie dough. The children stared at it in horror, while Grampa squinted curiously at it and then poked it with his index finger. “Humph,” he said after a moment and then put his head back on the pillow, closed his eyes and stopped breathing. When the children realized he’d stopped breathing, they too stopped breathing, but for a completely different reason. They were afraid to move. It appeared that Grampa had died right there in front of them. Just like that. Just like they’d feared. And there they sat. Waiting. While Grampa continued to be dead. And still they did not know what to do.
Except sit there.
Then Grampa made a noise. But not a mouth noise. Apparently, when someone dies, the body often releases pent-up gas. And that’s what Grampa’s body was doing. And while the situation for the children was certainly awful and awkward, it was also funny. Francie couldn’t help it; she started to laugh.
When she did, Henry and Joe started laughing too.
Then Grampa started laughing.
When Francie realized Grampa was laughing and not dead, she started screaming. When she started screaming, Grampa started screaming because her screaming startled him. Then his screaming startled Joe, who started screaming too, and it all became very noisy and disconcerting and it took a few moments for Henry to calm everyone down.
“I thought you were dead, Grampa,” Francie finally said to him.
“Well, you were wrong, weren’t you? I can’t be dead. Not until I tell you about the Wheel of Nuldoid.”
“What’s Nuldoid?” Joe asked.
“The place that’s far, far away. The place that my father had to go to right after the earthquake here in San Francisco, whether you believe me or not.”
“Why did he have to go there?” Henry asked.
“Because, if he didn’t, millions of people would die,” Grampa said, as if it were obvious. “He was trying to stop a boy namedLeo, who was just about Joe’s age,” he said, pointing at Henry.
“I’m Henry,” Henry said, starting to get a little exasperated.
“That’s what I said,” the old man insisted.
“No, you called him Joe,” Joe said.
“You,” he said to Joe, “you’re a smart aleck! Now, if my father hadn’t gone after this kid, Leo, the earth would have kack, kack, hahkack, haaahkack…” and again Grampa was coughing and wheezing and hacking. When he was through, he leaned back on the bed, closed his eyes and said to Henry, “Go lock the door.”
Henry looked over at the bedroom door, then back at his grandfather. “How come?”
“Because no one else can see what I’m about to show you.”
Henry considered this for a moment and then moved to the door and locked it. Grampa had Joe help him sit up and move his thin, bony legs over the side of the bed so that he could sit on the edge of it. The children watched then with growing concern as the old man leaned over and addressed the nightstand beside his bed. He moved close to the top of it and whispered something very curious. He whispered, “Hib nobb del noid.”
But nothing happened.
He whispered the strange expression again, but still nothing happened. Then he said it in his regular voice. “Hib nobb del noid.” But still there was no reaction whatsoever from the nightstand. The children exchanged concerned looks as their grandfather grew angry and started yelling, “Hib nobb del noid! Hib nobb del noid, ya stinkin’ nightstand!” It was yet another very disturbing and uncomfortable thing for them to have to watch. Finally, out of frustration, Grampa whacked the top of thenightstand with his scrawny fist and said, “Hib nobb del noid!” The bottom drawer popped open, and Grampa smiled. But, when the children looked into the drawer, they did not see anything spectacular. Certainly there wasn’t anything worth making into a big secret. The drawer was full of marbles.
Grampa smiled as though he’d accomplished something significant and then reached down into the marbles and dug out a large tattered notebook that he held with great reverence. There were perhaps a hundred worn and dog-eared pages within its cracked and peeling black leather cover. It was, he explained, his father’s. In it, his father had made many notes about Nuldoid, about the young boy named Leo, and about the trip to Nuldoid in the fall of 1989. Grampa’s father had written dates and times and many explanations of things, though much of his writing was sloppy to the point of being indecipherable. He had even made some drawings, though he was not at all a very good artist. Henry exchanged another concerned look with Joe. The book was not small and would no doubt take Grampa a considerable amount of time to read and explain, having, of course, to stop periodically to wheeze and hack and cough things up.
So, as Grampa leaned back with his father’s old notebook and began to tell the story of Nuldoid, the children prepared themselves for what they were sure would be a long and excruciating experience.
This is the gist of the story Grampa told them.