Authors: John Bellairs
Johnny edged forward on his seat. "So what happened then?"
The professor smiled. "What happened? Why, the first pitch came in so fast that Klemm couldn't see it. He swung at the second one, but he was way too late. And the third one was a cannon shot that darned near knocked the catcher down. Klemm swung at where he thought the ball was, but he was way too late. So the big lug won the contest, and he collected his hundred bucks, and he just walked away over the fields and vanished. No one ever saw him again. And now I'll tell you something very strange, John: Several of the people who watched the strange man pitch claimed that he was Sloane's robot!"
Johnny was startled. "The
How the heck could that be possible, professor?"
The professor shrugged. "You've got me. All I'm telling you is what people said after the strikeout contest was over. Folks sometimes get peculiar ideas into their headsâthough I will have to admit that this idea was more peculiar than most. How could a living man be a robot, or vice versa? Even if Sloane had dressed his robot up in street clothes... well, even then, the figure was mounted on a little platform that rolled along on iron wheels, and it had a shiny metal face. No, it would never be mistaken for a living, breathing human being, unless... unless ..."
Johnny leaned forward eagerly. "Yeah? Unless what, professor?"
The professor sighed and shook his head. "Unless nothing, John. As usual, I don't know what I'm talking about. Look, my rear end is getting cold from sitting on this bench, and besides, I promised your grandmother that I'd try to get you home before dark. Let's get a move on."
The professor got up, stretched, and started walking toward the car. Johnny followed, but as he went he turned and looked at the grassy hump that had once been the pitcher's mound. His grandfather had been out there pitching once upon a time. It was strange to think about. The story of the Man from Nowhere was also pretty strange, and it really fascinated Johnny. What did the professor mean by saying
at the end of his tale? Was he just being silly, or was there really some way that a robot could pose as a human being? Johnny thought about this problem for a long timeâas they rode on home, and while he ate his late supper, and as he lay in bed that night, waiting for sleep to come. But he didn't come up with any answers.
The next morning, Johnny decided that he would ask Grampa about Evaristus Sloane and his robot. Grampa Dixon was a tall, slightly stooped old man with a high, domed forehead and a saggy, friendly face. He was standing at the kitchen stove pouring a cup of coffee when Johnny popped his question.
"The... the professor was telling me about old Evaristus Sloane yesterday," said Johnny, hesitantly. "Is it all true? I mean, about the robot with the glass eyes?"
Grampa Dixon set the coffeepot down and turned around slowly. The look in his eyes showed that he was surprised and a bit upset. "My gosh!" he said. "What the heck got into Rod, anyway? Why'd he drag that old story outa the closet?"
"It's true, then, isn't it?" said Johnny excitedly. Then he added uncertainly, "I mean, did it really happen?"
Grampa nodded and sipped his coffee. "Oh, yeah, it's true all right!" he muttered. "Only... well, I don't like t'think about Sloane very much. He must be dead by now, but I still can't get him outa my mind. He was a bad one, a real rotten egg, an' I still remember what he said to me that day, when I made the ball club turn him an' his robot down."
Johnny was extremely curious now. "Why, Grampa? What did he say?"
Grampa's mouth curled into a grim frown. "He said he'd get even with me, if it was the last thing he did. I dunno why, but I really took him seriously. I mean, what he said scared me, an' I had bad dreams about him later."
Johnny stared. "Did... did anything bad ever happen to you later?" he asked. "Did Sloane ever come to your house and try toâ"
Grampa cut him off with a shake of his head. "Nope. He never did nothin' to me. But the trouble is, I still think about him every so often, an' I really wish Rod hadn't told you about him. Now, if y' don't mind, I got t'go out an' cut the grass. See ya later, Johnny."
And with that, Grampa set his coffee cup down on the kitchen table and left the room. With a bewildered look on his face, Johnny watched him go. He had figured that Grampa would be amused by the old story, and maybe even proud of the part he had played in it. Instead he seemed to be irritated and frightened. But what was there to be scared of? Evaristus Sloane was dead, and the incident with the robot had happened over fifty years ago. Johnny thought about Grampa's strange reaction as he munched his cornflakes. Maybe he should run upstairs and ask Gramma, who was making the beds and dusting the bedroom furniture. She always enjoyed gossiping about the old days, and she might know something about Sloane. But for some reason, Johnny didn't want to find out what Gramma knew. He was getting a little scared himself, and he decided that maybe he'd better let the whole thing drop.
A few days later, Johnny and his friend Fergie were out hiking, not far from Duston Heights. Fergie was a gangly, droopy-faced kid with big ears and a long, blunt-ended nose. He was a smart-alecky, wisecracking type, and he was the only kid Johnny really enjoyed hanging around with. The two of them had met one year at Boy Scout camp, and they had gotten to be good friends. Now that it was summer, and school was out, Fergie and Johnny spent a lot of time going on long walks together. On this particular day they were swinging along on a dusty gravel road that wound past cornfields and farmhouses. As they walked, they sang marching songs and told jokes and tried to stump each other with questions about weird historical facts. They rounded a corner and started down a hill, and Johnny happened to glance to his left. What he saw made him stop suddenlyâthere, not far away, stood the old half-ruined grandstand that he had visited not long ago, when the professor first told him the story of Evaristus Sloane and his robot.
"Hey!" Johnny exclaimed as he reached out and grabbed Fergie's arm. "Hey, Fergie! Over there!"
Fergie looked, and he smiled sourly. Johnny had told him the professor's story, and Fergie had not believed one word of it. Fergie was a pretty skeptical kid, and he was always making fun of Johnny for being gullible. "Yeah, I see it," he muttered in a bored voice. "I've seen the place beforeâI live around here, remember? An' I have heard everything that I want to hear about the guy with the electric whizmagiggy, or whatever it was. C'mon, I'll race you to the bottom o' this hill."
"Can't we just go over there and poke around for a minute?" asked Johnny plaintively. "It'd only take a minute or two."
Fergie gave Johnny an irritated glance, but then he grinned and shrugged. "Oh, well, why not?" he said carelessly. "We haven't got anything better to do. Let's go."
The two of them left the road, plodded up a short steep bank, and clambered over a sagging wire fence. As they tramped across the dry stubble, clouds of midges hovered about them. The long level rays of the setting sun fell on the splintered wood of the old grandstand and the weedy overgrown baseball diamond. It occurred to Johnny that this was the same time of day that it had been when he and the professor had been here.
Maybe I was meant to come here again,
he thought. This was a weird idea, and he would never have spoken it out loud. But he believed in things that were "meant to be," no matter how hard he tried not to.
For a while Johnny and Fergie just fooled around. Fergie had a small rubber ball in his pocket, and Johnny found a fairly straight branch in a pile of dry brush by the roadside, so they were able to play stickball. But Johnny had trouble seeing the ball in the fading light, and after a little while they just went over to the grandstand, sat down, and drank from the canteen of water they had brought with them. In the hollow space under the sagging roof, shadows were gathering. The sun was gone now, and a faint orange afterglow hung in the sky. Johnny fell into a thoughtful mood. He had the odd feeling that something was going to happen, though he didn't have any idea of what it might be. Suddenly he was startled by a sound that seemed to come from inside the grandstand.
"Huh?" he said, glancing quickly over his shoulder. "Did you hear that? What was it?"
Fergie snickered. "It was the mullygrubs. They're comin' to carry us off an' turn us into Baby Ruth candy bars. What a horrible fate for two innocent youngsters like us."
Johnny gave Fergie a dirty look. "You think I'm just a nervous nit, don't you?" he grumbled.
"Yeah, I do," said Fergie cheerfully as he scrambled to his feet. "Tell ya what, John baby. I'm gonna run down to that bent-over tree an' back an' you can time me with your watch. Then we're gonna have to hit the road; it's gettin' dark. Ready? Here I go!"
Johnny opened his mouth to say that he couldn't read his watch face in the darkness under the grandstand roof. But it was no use: Fergie was off like a cannon shot, elbows and knees pumping madly. With a sigh, Johnny sank back into his seat. He sat very still watching his friend run, and then a strange feeling began to steal over him. He felt cold and alone, as if he were the last person left on the face of the earth. Gripping his knees hard with his hands, he stared rigidly ahead, and then he heard a voice behind him. A hollow disembodied voice that said,
"They took my eyes... . They took my eyes."
When Fergie got back, puffing and panting, he found Johnny sitting perfectly still. "Hey, John baby, how'd I do?" he gasped. "Break any records, did I?"
No response. Johnny sat stiff as a statue, and suddenly it dawned on Fergie that Johnny was scared half out of his mind. For once Fergie did not feel like kidding. He stood silent for a second, and then he reached down and gently tapped Johnny on the shoulder.
"Hey, John," he said softly. "Are... are you okay?"
Johnny swallowed hard, but he still didn't move. When he spoke, his lips just barely fluttered. "There's something up in the dark behind me. I heard it. We gotta get out of here." Johnny's voice was lifeless and flat, like a recording.
Now it was Fergie's turn to be scared. He had heard of people who went crazy all of a sudden, for no reason. On the other hand, there might really be something to be scared of. Fergie peered up into the well of darkness that hung over their heads. If there was some smart-aleck kid or some old bum hiding up there, Byron Q. Ferguson could handle him.
"You stay here a minute," he said quietly as he gave Johnny another reassuring pat on the shoulder. "I'll be back in a minute."
Fergie started climbing. A little light seeped in through chinks and cracks in the back of the grandstand, so it was not quite as dark as it had seemed at first. Nimbly he vaulted up over the rows of split and sagging seats, and as he went he turned his head from side to side, squinting into the moldy-smelling gloom. But he saw no one, no one at all. When he had almost reached the top of the stands, his hand struck something small and hard that was sitting on one of the benches. It flew off onto the wooden floor with a tiny clink and clatter. Quickly Fergie reached down and picked up the object: it was a small, oval box made of metal. With a puzzled frown, he stuffed the box into his pants pocket. Then he turned and began picking his way back down to the place where Johnny was sitting. When he got to the bottom, Fergie was glad to see Johnny standing there and peering up at himâat least he wasn't paralyzed any more.
"Hi, Fergie," said Johnny weakly. He felt ashamed, like someone who has been caught doing something cowardly. "I... I'm sorry I got so scared, but I heard this voice andâhey, did you see anybody?"
Fergie shook his head. "Nope. But I found this." He reached into his pocket and pulled out the small, oval box. "Here," he said as he handed it to Johnny. "Do you know what the heck this is?"
Johnny took the box from Fergie and turned it over in his hands. Motioning for Fergie to follow him, he walked out to the center of the baseball field, where some dim light still lingered. Now he could see that there was an enameled picture on the hinged lid of the box: it showed a beggar with a staff picking his way along a country road. Tilting the lid up, Johnny reached inside the box and pulled out a folded scrap of paper. As he opened it, Fergie crowded in to have a look. At the top of the paper the number 896 was scrawled in ink, and below it a name was stamped in ornate Victorian letters: CHIGWELL'S PAWN SHOP.
"What the devil ..." said Fergie quietly. At first Johnny said nothing. He threw a nervous glance over his shoulder at the dark grandstand, and then he closed his fist tight around the little box.
"We'd better go show this to the professor," he said. "He knows all about old-fashioned things, and maybe he can help us."
Later that evening, the professor sat at his kitchen table and peered owlishly at the box. Nearby on the scarred white tabletop lay the piece of paper, and behind the professor stood Johnny and Fergie. Their arms were folded, and they both looked puzzled.
"Well, to end your suspense, gentlemen, this is a snuffbox," said the professor, and he set the thing down with a loud rap. "Eighteenth-century gentlemen used to carry them around, though I'm not sure this one is really that old. As for the paper, it is a very old pawn ticket. You know how these things work, don't you? Somebody goes into a pawn shop and gives the man a guitar or a gold watch or something and gets money for it. With the money you get a pawn ticket, and that allows you to buy back the object that you pawned within sixty days or whatever length of time is decided on by the pawnbroker. But all this is beside the point. What I want to know is this: What were this box and this note doing on a seat in that old ruined grandstand? And that voice you heard, John. What was it that the voice said?"
Johnny looked solemn. "It said
They took my eyes.
The voice said it twice, and that was all."
The professor twisted around in his chair and glared up at Johnny. "Was it a man's voice or a woman's?"