The Little Engineer That Could

by Karen Donley-Hayes

I don't want to go back," Al said. "They're mean to me. I hate school." His lips quivered and the corners of his mouth curved down around his chin. The edge of the chair's seat pressed against the backs of his knees. Although his feet dangled above the floor, he sat bolt upright, right where Uncle Joe had propped him on the chair so they could have a serious man-to-man conversation.

"Look, Al," Uncle Joe said, glancing over his shoulder and leaning in slightly toward where his nephew tilted at an angle on his chair. "I'm gonna tell you something, but you cannot tell anyone else, okay?" The boy sat, arms crossed, struggling against tears just squirming to get out. He shot a sideways glance at his uncle, who maintained a serious gaze. The boy shifted his eyes from his uncle to his mother; she had glanced up from her computer screen, and the rapid-fire click of typing had ceased. Her eyes flicked from her son to her brother. She cocked an eyebrow. The older man narrowed his eyes, considered his nephew, pursed his lips, but didn't say anything.

It didn't take long for Al's curiosity to put a damper on the impending salt-water tsunami. "Well, what?" he asked, still only looking sidelong at his uncle. That was all he could do unless he struggled up off the chair and turned to face the man head-on, because the halo cast screwed into his skull and gripping his torso rendered him entirely immobile.

Uncle Joe leaned back in his chair, frowning, and exhaled through his nose. "I dunno. Maybe I shouldn't say anything..."

"No! What? I won't tell!" Al squirmed and shimmied himself to the edge of his seat so he could turn more toward his uncle, really look at him.

Uncle Joe rubbed his chin, vacillated, gave his nephew a long slow look. "You sure I can trust you?"

"Honest Uncle Joe; I won't tell anyone." Sometimes Uncle Joe showed Al some of the neat gadgets he made at MIT--but not very often.

"'Cause it's top secret, you know. I could get in big trouble."

"Cross my heart and hope to die!"

Uncle Joe looked over at his sister. She raised her eyebrow again, but said nothing.

"Alright," the man said. "I'm gonna tell you this, and you gotta listen carefully. It's very complex. Most people wouldn't understand it. Okay?"

"Uh-huh." Al would have nodded--he would have nodded with his whole body--if he could move it.

Uncle Joe reached out and very lightly tapped the metal ring circling his nephew's head; the boy's eyes followed his uncle's hand. "This is very special," Uncle Joe started. "And I don't mean just so your bones can heal. There's something else. But nobody knows about it because it's top secret and part of the federal medical communication cortical lobe stimulation project, okay?" He looked sternly down at the child.

The boy stared back. "Uh-huh."

Uncle Joe nodded, and sat up straight, resolute now, committed. "Alright. Now. I don't have to tell you you're a smart boy. You already know that. What you don't know--what nobody knows--is how much smarter you're about to get." He tapped the halo again. "Because of this."

Al's eyes got wider. Across the room, his mother's eyes narrowed. "Joe..." she started, but he held up his hand to stop her.

"No, Louise, I'm gonna to tell him. He has a right to know." Uncle Joe looked down at his nephew again, grave and stern. "You're lucky to have this halo, Al. The screws--the ones going into here on this side..." he brushed a finger where the silver metal disappeared into the boy's scalp--"these are made of a special alloy, milled in the FBI CYA top secret lab in the PMS underground bunker." The boy's eyes got wider still, and his mouth dropped open. Uncle Joe nodded wisely. "These screws conduct the electrical impulses in your brain--the ones that already make you so smart--and they feed them through the halo" he traced his fingers around the metallic brace circling the boy's head--"and then the patented dual-polarity flux capacitor triplicates those waves and discharges them back to your brain through the screws on this side..."

Louise stood up, her chair clattering on the linoleum floor. "Joe! That's not..."

"Louise, he has a right to know," Uncle Joe said, standing to face his sister. He pointed stiff-armed at the boy sitting slack-jawed and pop-eyed next to him. "This boy has an amazing device that no other kid in his school has. It will change his life. It will supercharge his brain so he can solve all kinds of problems. He knows what no one else does. He has something special and unique." He looked back down at his nephew, and tilted his head back, imperial. "Through this amazing device, he will be able to do anything he sets his mind to."

Louise leaned forward, palms flat on the table, and glared at her brother. "Joseph, stop filling his head with this..."

"No, Mom," Al said, and he turned his all-in-one-torso-and-head to face his mother, his eyes brilliant and his voice barely a whisper; he reached up and touched--no, caressed--the metal ring around his skull, and a smile spread across his face. "No! It's okay. I can already feel it working!"

Louise pressed her lips together and narrowed her eyes at her brother.

Al didn't see his Uncle Joe grin and give a little shrug toward his mother; he was focused on the amazing turbo flow of amplified brain waves pulsing through his halo.

"Wow..." he breathed.

BIO: Karen Donley-Hayes earned her B.A. in English and her M.A. in interdisciplinary studies from Hiram College, and is currently working toward her M.F.A. in creative writing at Ashland University. She is college editor at Hiram College, and is a freelance medical writer. She is nearly finished with her first novel, and is working on a narrative nonfiction book. "The Little Engineer That Could" is her first foray into publishing fiction.