The Pepperpots are dead — the world’s most famous scientists have been poisoned by a radioactive duck. But even though Sam Ticky is little more than a tumbleweed from Oklahoma, he is convinced he is the Pepperpots’ long-lost son.
The Sun Star Radio Corporation starts a nationwide search for the missing “Radium Baby,” but Sam runs into trouble when two other teenagers also claim the title. The Radio Corporation drags the three teens into a race around the world, in which Sam must fend off hornets the size of cats, a cannibal bishop obsessed with playing hide and seek, and an insane Texan robot manufacturer.
But who is the real Radium Baby? And how many people will Sam hurt to find out?
Radium Baby is a strange and exciting adventure about ambition, failure, and radioactive bath-water.
“Throughout this adventure novel, Karp’s madcap imagination keeps readers hungering for the final outcome, and his prose sparkles with his flair for the absurd … A devilishly rich, satisfying scientific confection.”
“Much like a brilliant episode of The Simpsons, this story synthesizes a greedy fistful of whimsical elements to hypnotic effect … Karp throws historical elements in with robots and giant hornets, keeping it all fresh by writing with acrobatic aplomb.”
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Still not convinced? Preview the first two chapters below!
Chapter 1: The Man-Monkey
There aren’t that many jobs you can get in a Radium Town, and Sam was already late for his. He splashed some water on his face and decided that he didn’t have time to scrub his underpants and squeeze them through the mangle. Yesterday’s would do.
“And what should happen if you get run over by a horse and cart?” asked his mother. “The undertaker’s going to undress you and find out you’re living in a pig sty.”
Sam looked over to his bedroom, which his father had converted from the old pig sty when Sam was born. “Ma…”
“Don’t ‘Ma’ me.”
“I work in a bath house,” Sam said. “I can take a bath any time I like.”
“You’re supposed to be related to the Pepperpots and you work in a bath house. What kind of a job is that?”
“I am related to the Pepperpots,” said Sam, “and I like the bath house. It’s what they would have wanted. First thing in the morning you can see the radioactive steam on the water.” Sam’s eyes began to mist over. “It’s the best place in the world.”
“The Pepperpots spent all day playing with radium and you know what happened to them? They’re dead, that’s what. You want to be dead?”
“I wanna get to work on time! We gotta client from New York.”
“Well that’s different,” she said. Mrs. Ticky straightened up and started smoothing down her dress as if trying to impress someone who wasn’t there. “What’s a gentleman from New York doing in Oklahoma?”
“I dunno,” said Sam. “Same as anyone else, getting cured for smallpox. Anyhow, it’s no gentleman, it’s a lady.”
Gentleman or lady, Mrs. Ticky still despaired when she thought of Sam working another day in a bath house. She hadn’t come all the way to America for this. Her husband had hoped Sam would go to school and get a proper education – heck, that’s the only reason he’d even mentioned the Pepperpots in the first place. But Sam was so stuck on the local radioactive mud-pit that he didn’t bother trying to be a doctor or a scientist or even, God forbid, a lawyer.
Mrs. Ticky threw up her hands, brushed the gray hair away from her forehead and complained to the radio set. “‘Land of Opportunity’ my foot. This is the land of stubborn children.”
Seeing Sam work in a bath house would surely have broken Mr. Ticky, if he were still alive. But three years ago Mr. Ticky had gone to the toilet and when he came out he was pale and ghostly.
“Marta, it is terrible. I cannot tell you the horrors I have seen today.”
“What is it? Juliusz, what is the matter?”
Mr. Ticky trembled, holding out a pale, quivering hand as if to welcome death into his arms. “My poo – I never see anything like it. They are the least favorable I ever produce. Help me, Marta, I am afraid.”
He died twenty minutes later, having spent fifteen of those minutes inventing new words to describe the exact size, shape and color of what he’d done on the toilet. Since then Mrs. Ticky forbade Sam to use the word “splunchy” in her house – the memories were just too painful.
Sam didn’t know what a lady from New York would look like. Somehow, at the back of his mind, he imagined the beautiful and enigmatic princess from his favorite radio serial. It was the closest thing he knew to glamor, though he supposed, on reflection, he should also count Mrs. Mackay and her flying machine.
What Sam didn’t expect to see was a car. It was, after all, only 1927. Cars were expensive. Cars were glamorous. Cars were something for fancy folk. Sam thought it was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, outside of the radium baths.
The car was a symphony in black and chrome parked awkwardly in the middle of the dirt road. The paintwork was so glossy it shone in the sun, making the car look alive even though it was stock still. Sam tried to imagine the noise it made. The hood flared up to the windshield, the doors were long perfect arches and the grille snarled with polished silver fangs. A shiver ran down Sam’s spine. That engine must sound like a scream.
“What in the name of the Queen of Sheba is that smell? Do you seriously expect me to take a dip in that broth? I’ve smelled camels with dysentery that were more fragrant than your so-called baths.”
It was coming from inside the bath house – most clients didn’t realize how bad a radium bath smelled until they got there. It was a pungent, sulphurous smell that got into your clothes and churned around inside your stomach. Sam opened the door and saw the big New York client, a behemoth of a woman who looked like she had just swallowed a tank of marbles. Her neck was wider than her face and her ears had been pushed so far up the side of her head they looked like gargoyles perched on the edge of a flying buttress.
“I shall require your best facilities. You had better pray they meet my standards for size, cleanliness and holiness.”
Mrs. Everett, whose husband owned the baths, was clutching the counter for dear life. She was in danger of being drowned in spit from the fat woman’s shouting but she was too diplomatic to stop and wipe her face. “I assure you, ma’am, our facilities are God-fearin’ and devout.”
“I shall be the judge of that,” the fat woman announced. “Now how often do you clean this stench-ridden farm-festival?”
“Don’t interrupt! This place is filled with degenerates and parasites. I can feel your fleas attempting to jump onto me already. No doubt they have detected their chance to escape and are now jumping ship before this whole place descends into an orgy of itching and crawling and” – she paused for a moment before snarling – “eruptions.
“You haven’t answered my question, girl! How often do you clean your baths?”
Mrs. Everett clung to the hope of solid ground. “We allow the natural springs to clean themselves, ma’am. The water is always flowing up from underground.”
“You never clean them! My God, no wonder your face is so ugly. Very well then, you may take me to my radium bath. However if I suffer so much as one gassy attack or infected toenail I shall sue this den for all my future medical bills. ‘Salubrious infusion of radioactive salts’ indeed. More like salubrious spag-bucket.”
Sam smiled at Mrs. Everett and she waved him over. “Sam, this is Mrs. Cholmondeley. Spelled Cholmondeley but pronounced –”
“Chum-ley, woman! It’s pronounced Chum-ley!”
“Pronounced Chum-ley,” Mrs. Everett continued. “Can you show her to her bath?”
Mrs. Cholmondeley looked at Sam and made a face like something with wings and a beak just flew up her nose. This “Sam” was thirteen years old and male. As if that weren’t bad enough, he had ears that stuck out too far and a sunburn that betrayed the damning fact that he’d been outside at some point in the recent past. The barbarity of it was almost unthinkable.
“What is that?” she squawked. “I won’t have any man-monkey undressing me in a bath! The very notion.”
Sam hurried to fix the misunderstanding. “Oh no ma’am, it’s nothing like that. You can change in the changing room and then I’ll take you to the baths.”
“You’ll see me in my bathing suit! The perversity of it. I don’t know how I shall react to the leerings of a teenage hobbledehoy.” Mrs. Cholmondeley seemed quite excited at the idea. “You must promise to avert your eyes, boy, you must take a solemn oath not to find me attractive.”
“I swear on the Bible, ma’am.”
“Blasphemy! You shut your mouth, you filthy beast. I’ll teach you to take the Lord’s name in vain. It is clear to me that God forsook this rat’s-bottom town a long time ago. I demand you cure me so I can get out of here before I catch any more diseases. I can feel my constitution decaying as we speak. Your very presence is affecting my kidneys. And I’ll have no more of your back-chat,” she said with a poisonous look at Sam.
Mrs. Cholmondeley allowed herself to be led to the changing room. She changed into her bathing suit while Sam waited for her to emerge. It was quiet for a few moments, then a crashing noise, the grinding of something rusty, a cackle, a screech and a rotten squelch. Something was being whipped, then an enormous heave and a trumpeting noise Sam thought might be an attempt at “Dixie.” At last Mrs. Cholmondeley exited the changing room dressed in a circus tent. It was a huge, flapping muu-muu covering Mrs. Cholmondeley’s entire body with enough left over to set sail on a Spanish galleon. It looked like she was trying to smuggle twelve clowns, two bearded ladies and a troupe of dancing midgets underneath her swimsuit.
Sam led her, cursing and struggling, down the corridor and into a huge open courtyard lined with columns and pot plants. Sam held his breath and felt the happy sting of sulphur in his eyes. Mrs. Cholmondeley’s car might have been beautiful but this was something else entirely. The radium baths stretched out before them. The glorious mineral waters bubbled up from deep inside the Earth and swirled onto the surface, producing a veil of mist tinted bright green with the glow of healthy radioactivity. Sam couldn’t understand wanting to be anywhere else in the world.
Claremore was what they called a Radium Town. Some towns struck oil and some towns struck gold, but Claremore struck radium. Radium water came bubbling right up out of the ground. And the people of Claremore were no dummies – they knew how to sell it. Everyone knew radiation could cure anything from hookworm to gunshot wounds. People with the dropsy, gout and wambling trot, people suffering from incurable diseases like quavering kidneys, malodorous gizzard or the the dreaded hockogrockle, they all came to take a dip in the radium baths and they all walked away again in perfect health.
Mrs. Cholmondeley had fallen unusually silent, and Sam mistook this to mean she shared his awe. He began to give the guided tour: “We are now entering the peristyle, where the water is naturally –”
“What are you saying?” Mrs. Cholmondeley snapped.
“The baths are decorated with a copse of native flowers –”
“What’s the matter with you? Stop talking to me.”
Mrs. Cholmondeley made her way to the water’s edge and gazed apprehensively at the radioactive glow.
“Lord preserve me,” she groaned. “Valerie and Alexander Pepperpot used to dabble with this stuff all the time, and everyone in America knows what a ghastly couple they were.”
“Hey,” said Sam, “that’s not fair. I really like the Pepperpots.”
“You would,” snapped Mrs. Cholmondeley. “It’s because you have no taste.”
She dipped her toe in and seemed to like what she found. Sam lowered her into the water where she floundered for a moment. Her enormous bathing costume billowed around her before she stabilized herself and relaxed into the pool. To Sam’s enormous surprise, a smile crept across her face.
“This is really rather nice. How does the water stay so warm?”
“The water gets heated by the underground –”
“Never mind, you quaint little Oklahoma duckling. Your rustic charms and salubrious waters have won me over. I shall be recommending these wonderful baths to all the ladies at the Temperance Union.”
Sam smiled and left Mrs. Cholmondeley to her cure. She was eating her words about the Pepperpots now. All this was only possible because of their work – they were even more important than Marie and Pierre Curie. But then, Sam reflected, that was the great thing about radium baths. They could win over even the hardest customers.
If only Sam’s friends were more willing to try it. He knew they’d like the radium baths too, if they just gave them a chance. But for some reason they weren’t interested in baths that cured barnacles on the backside. And outside of fancy baths, what did Claremore have except a hotel and a prize-winning pig? It was a very nice pig, but after a while pigs and baths begin to lose their glamor. So Sam’s friends, one by one, began to get bored and run away with the circus. For the parents of Claremore taking their children to the circus was more than a way to spend quality time with the kids. It was a way to get rid of them and hope they’d never come back. But Sam refused to move away to the big cities, and no amount of circuses, pigs or guilt could budge him.
A scream from the peristyle interrupted his line of thought. He rushed in to find Mrs. Cholmondeley flapping and splashing about in the water. She was desperately trying to haul herself up out of the pool but couldn’t seem to get a grip. Sam ran over and helped her onto dry land, but she pushed him over as soon as she stood up.
“You’re mad, you beastly Reuben! The horror, the humanity! Never clean the baths. What’s wrong? There’s a corpse in the baths! A corpse, you hear?”
Sam tried to process the madwoman’s howling. “The copse is an arrangement of native flowers known as –”
“A corpse, you festering squab! There is a dead body in the water.”
Sam peered over and saw the body of Mrs. Mackay being nudged to and fro by the currents. Behind an outcrop of rocks he saw the wreck of Mrs. Mackay’s flying machine. Its rotor blades were sticking up out of the water and he could just about see the rudder twisted aside at an unnatural angle. The old woman must have flown in through the open roof last night and crashed into the baths.
“Poor Mrs. Mackay. She was nearly 90. She always said she wanted to die in the air.” Sam swallowed the lump in his throat. “Though come to think of it she probably died in the water.”
But Mrs. Cholmondeley was inconsolable. Nothing seemed to stop the tears and blubbering. She pushed Sam out of the way, shouting “Get me out of this place. You are all criminally deranged. I won’t spend another moment being molested in this mad house.”
Her car howled and roared away into the dust until it faded out of sight, out of hearing and out of Claremore forever.
Chapter 2: The Pepperpots
Sam kicked his way home through the dust and tire-tracks. The radium baths had been closed but full of people all day. First two farmhands came in from the saloon to fish Mrs. Mackay’s body out of the water. When they’d pulled her onto dry land they grappled with her flying machine and managed to hoist it up onto the rocks. Then Dr. Bixby came to pronounce her officially dead.
“Yip,” he said, standing over her with a pipe lodged somewhere underneath his mustache. “She daid.”
After Dr. Bixby came Mr. Bixby, the other half of the Bixby brothers’ combination first-aid-and-undertaking service. Over the years the two brothers had developed a truly symbiotic working relationship. Mr. Bixby boxed up the old woman and had her loaded onto the back of a hearse which clattered away across the main street.
All this time the sheriff looked on, tutting to himself, spitting onto the ground and muttering, “Shame. Damn shame.”
Sam could do little more than stand somewhere behind the sheriff, ducking out of people’s way and avoiding the sheriff’s brown, globulous loogies. It wasn’t until late in the evening that everyone finally went home and Sam trudged out onto the dirt streets.
When he got home Mrs. Ticky wrapped him in a bear hug.
“My poor boy. How did it happen?”
Sam shrugged. “They think she lost control of that contraption and had to crash land. Guess the only thing she could see at night was the glow from the radium.”
“That lovely old lady. What a horrible way to go.”
“Yeah,” sighed Sam. “Can I just go sleep and maybe eat dinner later? I ain’t real hungry just about now.”
“Of course, go lie down and I’ll make you something when you’re ready.”
Sam closed the door and lay down on his bed. He was exhausted but somehow couldn’t sleep. He didn’t know how to feel. The day had passed like a dream – Sam only had a dizziness in his head and a tightness in his heart. Now he was alone, the tightness gripped him like a fist and squeezed. His face belonged to someone else. It folded and twisted and finally, Sam cried.
When Sam was little and his father was still alive, they had gone to visit the World’s Fair in Tulsa. It boasted astounding, mysterious and exotic treasures from all around the world, even places as far away as St. Louis and Little Rock.
It had been the first time Sam ever got to ride the train out of Claremore. He sat glued to the windows staring at the houses and farms that flew past on their way into the big city. Mr. Ticky thought Sam didn’t blink once on the whole trip.
They saw the fair from the window long before they could smell the animals or hear the ringmaster powering up the electrics and swearing at small children. Sam ached for every second they weren’t at the fair. He could hardly stand to hold it all in until he was finally enveloped by the colorful, billowing tents, the music floating on the air and the powerful smell of food cooking on open grilles. Then he wanted to be everywhere at once. Mr. Ticky struggled to keep up with Sam as he ducked in and out of the crowd and joined in the screams of children on the rides.
Mr. Ticky was terrified. He’d sailed all the way from Poland and Sam had never even left Claremore, but somehow Sam had found his element. Every now and then Mr. Ticky insisted they stop to rest while he combed his mustache with a little comb he kept in his shirt pocket. Sam took a big gulp of milkshake to get a milk mustache of his own, and he pretended to comb it with something his father told him to put back in the trash immediately.
“Good mornin’, boys!” shouted a distant voice.
Something about the voice rang familiar. Mr. Ticky and Sam looked around the crowd but couldn’t see anyone calling them.
“Not down there! I’m up in the sky, flying like a little birdie.”
They looked up. It was almost too bright to see until the shadow of something huge moved across the Sun and threw them into shadow. They just about recognized a huge set of rotor blades chopping through the air.
“Mrs. Mackay,” exclaimed Mr. Ticky in a thick accent. “What is it you doing up there?”
“I took this little hush-puppy for a twirl! The world is young again and so am I! Yes, it’s a lovely day for it, a lovely, beautiful day! Enjoy the show, boys, it’s the greatest show on Earth.”
Sam could see Mrs. Mackay properly now. She was sitting in the cockpit of a flying machine with blades spinning above her head and a tail sticking out behind her. Where on earth did she get that? Sam was amazed anyone would let the old woman simply fly off with it. Little did he know the aviation pavilion was missing its main exhibit.
A big Spanish man came pushing past Sam and shouting up at Mrs. Mackay. “Hey! You come back, Mrs. Lady please. Come back, crazy lady, you steal my autogyro!”
But it was too late. She had already flown past them and sailed away over the big top. Her voice still carried over the babble of the crowd as she greeted everyone she knew.
Something tall and colorful bobbed above the crowd and caught Sam’s attention. It was a top hat sitting on top of an even taller man. It wasn’t until they got up close that they saw he was standing on stilts. He wore a vest and a big flashy jacket with tails – Sam thought he was dressed even better than anyone he’d seen in Claremore. But then he disappeared into a small stripy tent with a sign that said:
Neither Sam nor Mr. Ticky had any idea what it meant. All Sam knew was he wanted more.
They paid a nickel to a sly woman who handed them their tickets with a grin. “If I were you,” she said, “I wouldn’t sit too near the front.”
“I do not understand,” said Mr. Ticky. “Why is it I should not sit near the front?”
She dusted Mr. Ticky’s lapels like a cat toying with a mouse. “You don’t want to get blood on that nice suit.”
Ticky was about to go find something less life-threatening, but it was too late – Sam dashed into the tent and found a seat as close to the front as he dared. His father tip-toed in after him, afraid to disturb whoever was in the room and ready for murder. Then came a drum-roll. Sam sat glued to the seat, legs swinging under his chair and eyes clamped to the stage.
A curtain of smoke fell from the roof and an altar burst into flame on either side of the stage. From out of nowhere stepped Rodolfo Rex. He took off his top hat and flung it away. The hat suddenly flew at him from the other side of the stage as it if it had gone all the way around and come back to him. He took a deep bow.
“Ladies and gentlemen, are you ready to be entranced beyond all measure? Are you prepared to witness beauty and mystique from distant lands? If so then lend me your attention, but be warned that by staying you put yourselves into mortal danger, for the beauty I propose to reveal to you is a deadly one. Her father the Caliph of Baghdad has sworn, vowed and taken a blood oath to slaughter any man who looks upon her face. If you value your lives, you must leave the room at once, for I will not be responsible for the consequences if the caliph should ever find you.”
“That is us,” whispered Mr. Ticky, and tried to make a getaway. But Sam stayed put.
Rodolfo Rex dragged a huge Oriental cabinet from offstage and stood before the audience. He drew a deep breath and bellowed, “Allow me to introduce that exotic seductress of the East, Princess Shari el Medina!”
Rex pulled open the door to the cabinet and out stepped the princess. She had tanned skin that glistened all over, and there was a lot of all over to go around. She wore a jeweled costume that sparkled in the light of the flames and she held a ruby in her belly button. The Tickies gasped, but at the same time Sam couldn’t help noticing her chains. The princess was chained to the inside of the cabinet and couldn’t get much further than the door.
“The rumor amongst all the caliphs is that she is the most beautiful woman in the East, but beware this bounteous beauty has broken more than hearts. She has had five royal husbands, none of whom lived longer than a month after marrying their deadly bride! Princess Shari, will you share with these good people the secret of your dark history?”
She hissed at Rodolfo Rex and spat at his feet.
“What a lady!” he called out to the crowd. “None yet has tamed her fire. Now this feat of mesmeric dismemberment and decapitation is so painful that I must use a tincture of radium and snake’s venom. With this I dull the senses and put the subject into a trance in which she will feel none of the hideous agonies I am about to inflict.”
Rex reached into his cloak and withdrew a small bottle filled with glowing green liquid. Instead of giving it to the princess, Rex drank the bottle in one. Sam’s eyes shone the same color as the radium.
“Princess Shari, will you step back into the cabinet?”
She had little choice – her chains wouldn’t let her go anywhere else. She stepped into the cabinet and Rodolfo Rex shut the door.
“Now to tear the princess limb from limb I must employ some help. By the black powers of the East and the winds of fate tamed within a teacup, by the sun’s rays that pierce the eyes and boil the blood, by the whirlpools that foam and fester in the open sea…” Rex clapped twice. “Despero, I summon you!”
The audience gasped. From the side of the stage stepped the biggest man any of them had ever seen. He was tall and muscly, wearing billowy pants and no more than a waistcoat to cover his chest. He looked like he might tear your arm off first and ask for directions later.
“Despero is bound by sacred oath to protect his mistress, the Princess Shari el Medina, but when I captured him I cursed him forever to walk in a trance. He is totally hypnotized and under my power, and a good thing at that. If he regained control of himself for even a moment he would kill every one of us in this room for what we have done to his mistress.”
With the help of Despero, Rex dismantled the cabinet into cubes – one containing the princess’ head, one with her body, and one with her feet. Then he started to rearrange them. Every now and then they opened the door on one of the cubes to reveal the princess’ legs, or her body, or her head, but never all of them at once. When they showed her face the princess looked asleep. It was as if she couldn’t feel anything at all. Then they closed up the door again and kept rearranging the cubes.
Finally he set the cubes all back in place and opened the whole cabinet. Someone screamed. Despero and Princess Shari had switched places – now Despero was chained up inside the cabinet and the princess was helping the magician. Despero looked completely strange in the princess’s skimpy costume, right down to the ruby in his navel. The audience clapped wildly. Nobody had even noticed them swap places. Rodolfo Rex took a deep bow, but something seemed wrong with Despero. He clutched his head in pain and started to groan and shout.
“My God!” screamed Rodolfo Rex. “He has gone insane! He’s out of control! Ladies and gentlemen, run for your lives, I don’t know how long I can restrain him.”
Despero grabbed the chains that tied him to the cabinet and tore them with his bare hands. Rodolfo Rex pulled out a whip and started to lash Despero mercilessly. Despero tore the whip straight out of his hands and ate it. Rex pulled a gun on the giant and said, “Stand back, untamed brute of Araby, and return to your mesmeric trance! I will not hesitate to discharge this weapon.”
The giant snatched at the gun and it fired into the crowd. Everyone in the audience ran screaming out of the tent, pushing each other out of the way to save their lives and leaving the women and children to fend for themselves.
That day Mr. Ticky mentioned the Radium Baby for the first and last time. They had escaped the crush of the tent and were strolling through the rest of the fair. Sam was licking a lime popsicle. The color reminded him of the green glowing radium Rodolfo Rex had drunk. All afternoon he kept asking, “What is radium? How does it glow? Can it really make you invincible to pain?”
Mr. Ticky tried to answer as best he could, but Sam’s questions kept distracting him from examining the quality of the poo outside the elephant enclosure.
Poo has gone out of fashion but there was a time when you could tell everything you needed to know about a person from a good dropping. Mr. Ticky owned a small farm, and the first thing he checked every morning was the animals’ poo. Before he fed his livestock, before he even looked at them, Mr. Ticky checked their health by checking their dung. The squishiness, the color, even the shape of the poo told Mr. Ticky whether his animals were healthy, pregnant or dying – the only three states of mind he really cared about.
Juliusz Ticky’s philosophy of poo even extended beyond the farmyard. Mr. Ticky found a use for it in his personal life too. If he could, he would have inspected the poo of everyone he met. “Faces might lie,” he used to say, “but feces never do.” But Mr. Ticky had found out time and time again that asking perfect strangers for a sample was a very bad idea. He found himself restricted to his own family’s poo. Every morning he put an egg carton next to the toilet. Whenever his wife or his son spent a suspiciously long time in the outhouse, he would check the egg carton and determine whether his son had chicken pox or how well his wife had slept the night before. On a really good day, Mr. Ticky fancied he could predict the weather.
But now Mr. Ticky had gone oddly quiet. Sam was too absorbed to notice anything was on his father’s mind until Mr. Ticky said, “You know there is a reason you like the radium so much?”
Sam kept licking his popsicle.
Mr. Ticky continued: “You never ask who are your real parents.”
“You’re my real parents.”
Mr. Ticky looked hard done by. “I mean who are your birth parents, the people who could not raise you. I tell you something even your mother does not know, because it was me who sign the paperwork. And when we take you from the orphanage, the lady stops me and tells me who are your first parents. It was Valerie and Alexander Pepperpot.”
Sam dropped his popsicle and didn’t even care. He felt his own heart beating in his chest and his ears started to burn. He wasn’t even sure he’d heard right. “The Pepperpots? My parents were the Pepperpots?”
Mr. Ticky nodded and began to tell Sam how it all happened.
Valerie and Alexander Pepperpot were the most famous scientists in the world. They might even have been the most famous people in the world.
They met one night while flying kites in a thunderstorm. Alexander had attached a cockroach half-way along the string of his kite, while Valerie had tied a mouse to hers. The first Alexander ever saw of his future wife was an enormous kite in the shape of James K. Polk’s left leg soaring up over a hill with a live mouse tied half-way along the string. Huge bolts of lightning lit up Valerie’s face as she ran along after the leg-kite, tugging hard to keep it aloft and panting heavily in the rain. She caught sight of Alexander, standing underneath a kite in the shape of Benjamin Disraeli’s head with a live cockroach crawling up his chin. It was love at first sight.
Together Valerie and Alexander invented all kinds of things. They invented the hamster wheel, the hamster cage and the hamster feeder, then rounded off their list of achievements by inventing the hamster. This last one posed some difficulties, but eventually they struck success by breeding a horse and a wheel of Swiss cheese. They invented the one-armed guitar, the electric dime and the color orange. There was no problem they couldn’t solve, and nothing that ever held their interest for more than a couple of weeks.
Until they found out about radioactivity. It happened one night at a dinner party when Alexander Pepperpot was showing everyone his favorite trick. He took a drop of mercury and put it on his tongue, where he could roll it around with amazing skill while playing “La Marseillaise” on a harpsichord. At that moment his wife Valerie brought out the roast duck, which was cooked whole and sitting on a big silver dish. She had posed the duck so that it looked almost lifelike. At that moment the gas failed, all the lights in the house went out and the duck began to light up with a strange green glow. The guests screamed and backed away, but Valerie and Alexander could never stay away from a mystery. Alexander swallowed the mercury and examined the duck up close.
“My dear, what on earth have you done to this bird?”
The duck quacked in Alexander’s face and he fell over backwards. He got back up and saw that the duck hadn’t moved. In fact the whole thing was dead, cooked and smelled strongly of honey glaze, but it quacked as if it didn’t know better.
“That’s it!” Valerie cried. “I stuffed the duck with the chemical element radium. The Curies sent it to us with the delicious idea of stuffing a bird with it! Pierre said the radium reacts in the bird’s stomach and expels air from its throat – the duck quacks while it’s being carved. But now the element appears to be making our humble bird glow in the dark.” She waved their guests back over to the table. “It’s perfectly safe. We shall eat by the light of our food.”
And so they did. They ate the whole bird, and by the morning the Pepperpots’ party was the toast of the town. There wasn’t a single person in Boston who hadn’t heard about their miraculous glowing dinner.
The Pepperpots had finally found something worthy of their enormous ability. The study of radioactivity was more interesting than a talking wineglass, more rewarding than a barrel full of venomous spiders and more enchanting than a whole afternoon in Ambassador Ming’s Garden of Terrestrial Delights. It was their only obsession until the day they both died of a sudden illness that remained a mystery for many years to come.
But they did not die alone. They did not die without an heir. Valerie and Alexander Pepperpot had given birth to a child, and after they died the state had to find a place for their baby. The offspring of this extraordinary couple, the heir to limitless intelligence, creativity and a fortune in royalties, was given over to an orphanage. A short time later Mr. and Mrs. Ticky found their son.
Mr. Ticky crouched by the elephant enclosure and combed his mustache, being very careful not to get any poo on his face. “This is what the nurse tells me. Now I say it all, I do not think that nurse is a real woman. I think it is man in woman suit. But he is nice man in woman suit, and he tells me a favor.”
“Am I really the son of the Pepperpots?” Sam breathed.
“Oczywiście. How else do you have such a fascination with the radium? It is in your blood. You can do amazing things.”
Sam needed a few seconds to take it all in. Then he asked, “Pa? How do you know the nurse was a man?”
Mr. Ticky paused for a moment before replying. “He has hair on his bosoms. Only German women have hairy bosoms, and I do not think he is German.”
Radium Baby © St John Karp 2013, all rights reserved.