Some fun reading for the holiday week, a new passage from my novel in progress, The Big Aha.
A half hour later, the five of us were riding up a curving nurb-grass driveway in Glenview—me, Dad, Loulou, Joey and Rikki—with our spooked roadspiders staring up towards the Roller mansion. Unlike its half-timbered, white-brick, or columned plantation-style neighbors, the Roller home was modeled on a Norman castle, with immensely high battlements of yellowish stone. The walls were pierced by diamond-paned windows and corniced slits. Decorative turrets sprang from each turning of the walls, and a substantial master tower rose beside the arched entrance. Besotted by old movies, Mr. Roller’s father had built the place in the 2020s.
A great, jellyfish-like nurb hovered above the mansion, tethered to the pointed peak of the high tower. The flying jellyfish was what we called a laputa—iridescent and the size of a small house, with well-appointed staterooms on the lower level. The jellyfish nurb had hydrogen-filled bladders on its upper level, and dangling tentacles below. A cluster of the tentacles led to the tower.
“Kenny lives in the laputa,” said Joey.
“I know all about it,” I said. “Kenny had Jane and me up there for dinner a few months back. Him and his boyfriend Kristo. Kenny got wasted and pretended he was going to push me out through a porthole. Only he wasn’t really pretending. He’s always been a jerk. I don’t know how Kristo puts up with him.”
“I’ve seen Kenny,” interposed Loulou. “He’s handsome. That counts for a lot. If you’re a handsome jerk, you’re romantic and damned. If you’re an ugly jerk—forget it.”
A rock thudded into the ground beside us, then another and another. The roadspiders made herky-jerky evasive moves. Joey lost his seat and fell to the ground. The seeming rocks uncurled to become many-legged gray scuttlers—overgrown versions of those woodlice or pillbugs you find in rotting leaves. A hundred meters above us, a maniac laughed.
“I hate you, Kenny!” screamed Joey, shaking his fist. The pillbug nurbs were staring at us with bright eyes—sending our images to Kenny.
“Come on up!” called Kenny from above. His head was a small dot in one the jiggling laputa’s windows. “Brunch time! Bloody Marys! I see Joey, Loulou, Zad, Mr. Plant, and—who’s the geek girl?”
We left our roadspiders in the stable beside the mansion. Dad walked back down the hill to visit with Weezie Roller in the gate house, a solid red-brick affair with a gray slate roof. I led the others up the steps to the manor. The nurb lock on the great doors recognized me.
In my boyhood the Roller castle’s interior had been pure old-school, with walnut wainscoting, ornately patterened glass panels, hanging brass lamps, tile or parquet wood floors, and oriental carpets. Over the years Mr. Roller had added a mad hodgepodge of upgrades. Given that he’d expanded his business from producing nurb chow to marketing actual nurbs, he had access to the latest and greatest nurbs being made. And so, over wife Weezie’s and daughter Jane’s objections, Mr. Roller had evolved the mansion’s interior into a bizarre and bustling nurb habitat. Son Kenny had been all for it.
Right in the front hall, a large leathery nurb armchair had given birth to a litter of four-footed baby chairs. They scampered away from us into the parlor, their woody legs pattering on the yielding flesh of a living rug. A nurb chandelier thrust a pair of brassy stalks around a corner, peering at us with dim eyebulbs.
At the far end of the hall lay a mound of busted-open Roller nurb chow bags. I supposed Kenny and Kristo—or their choreboy nurbs—were hauling in chow to keep the menagerie alive. Our three pillbug nurbs scooted past us towards the food. Their overly numerous feet made an unpleasant skritchy sound.
I saw a hungry nurb teapot on the mound of chow, rooting with its spout. A bendy grandfather clock used its pendulum like a tongue. The newborn leather chairs were rooting into the food, as were a clutch of slithering rugs. A fat couch had bellied up beside them, gobbling chow with a toothy mouth beneath its plump arm. A weathered pair of pants was feeding as well, and a pair of table lamps fluttered over, their shades pulsating against the air.
“Like jungle animals at a watering hole,” said Rikki. “And look at the tendrils running down from the ceiling. It’s covered with some nurby growth up there. Colored fungus?”
“Old Weezie was mad when they put on that stuff,” I said. “Mr. Roller had always wanted a fancy coffered ceiling like in the lobby of the Brown Hotel downtown. A 1920s movie theater look, you wave, with embossed squares and polychrome flowers and cartouche scenes of dancing nymphs. He got some hairball at United Mutations to design a nurb lichen that was supposed to emulate all that. But it’s not even close.”
“Qrude,” said Joey, his head thrown back. “The shapes are layered onto each other in sequences—like the motion trails you see when you’re really high. Like a 3D scribble.”
“I wave the pungent colors,” added Loulou. “Looking at them hurts my sinuses almost. For sure I’d wear a dress like that.”
“Mrs. Roller got all worried that spores were drifting down from the ceiling and poisoning her food,” I said. “That’s when she moved down to the gate house. And a year after that out, Mr. Roller died. So maybe she was right about the spores. Jane said Mr. Roller had this sick rash on his back. She said daffodils and shamrocks?”
“Don’t want to think about that,” said Rikki. “If we move in here, I’ll slap together some annihilator nurbs to clear off that crap. Banzai beetles and cannibal squid. Meanwhile let’s climb that tower. I mean—if you guys really do want to visit with Kenny?”
“Might as well get it over with,” I said. “He’s a key player here.”
Leaving the spying pillbugs behind, we ascended three flights of stairs. Each of the manor’s levels had its own peculiar fauna.
The second floor had held the bedrooms, and was now a dimly lit jungle of wiry bedspring vines, with hairbrushes and hankies flitting through the tangled thickets like little birds. Rabbity pillows foraged in the undergrowth, and beds lolled like cows. A pair of tattered humanoid sex nurbs were back there as well, their faces frozen in vegetal leers.
In pre-nurb days the third floor had held Jane and Kenny’s play rooms. Weezie Roller had tended an eccentric vegetable garden up there as well. I saw some of the expected horror-movie-type talking toys, also two competing tribes of nurb vegetables: the carrots versus the beets. The carrots sped about like hyperactive inchworms; the beets ricocheted off the walls. They bore healthy tufts of leaves, and vied at pressing their foliage to the sunny windows. They rooted in some old troughs of dirt as well.
Nurb disks were buffing the wooden floors, and long-legged feather-dusters cleaned the wandering tables and chairs. A steady stream of toy soldiers were using a little planes to ferry in nurb chow from below.
The final flight of stairs led into the small tower room—only a few yards across and crowded by the slimy roots of the hovering laputa. The tendrils writhed like a dish of living spaghetti, feeding on yet another stash of Roller nurb chow. Several of the strands displayed eyestalks. Kenny’s laputa was observing our arrival.
“Hop on,” blubbered a slit mouth in one of the laputa’s thicker tentacles. “Free ride.” The thick tentacle’s flesh flowed and formed holes in itself, making a column of four seats just inside one of the tower’s large open windows. Not letting ourselves think about it too much, Loulou, Joey, Rikki and I hopped aboard.
As if on a carnival ride, we were drawn out the window and up into the sky.