Fiction by Keir Graff
Illustrations by Eda Kaban
“What is it?”
My cousin Nora was staring at a cube-shaped gadget about the size of a dishwasher. It had so many parts packed so closely together that it was hard to see how it worked or what it would do.
“I don’t know,” said our friend Cosmo, walking a slow circle around it. “I’ve never seen it before. But I don’t think I’ve been in this room before, either.”
We were in the south wing of The Matchstick Castle. Technically, it wasn’t a castle — that’s just what everyone called the huge wooden house where Cosmo lived with his mom, dad and four uncles. Cosmo’s great-grandfather had built it to show the woman he loved he’d struck it rich — unfortunately, he wasn’t a very good builder, so she didn’t believe him. It was now old and dangerously dilapidated, but the van Dashes were too busy inventing things or having adventures to make repairs. They’re what you might call “eccentric.”
“Maybe we should ask your dad what it does, Cosmo,” I suggested, putting my hand on the thing and trying to figure out how the wires, gears and hydraulic arms worked together. The metal was cool to the touch, and I guessed it probably weighed a ton.
Cosmo was flicking switches, trying to turn it on. “It probably doesn’t do anything. The grown-ups in this house are always bringing back useless things from their travels.”
There was a long metal lever with a cracked rubber handle on my side. Wondering if it did anything, I wrapped my fingers around it and pulled down. It felt like arm-wrestling a construction worker but, using both hands, I finally brought it down with a KA-CHUNK.
Cosmo’s face popped up over the machine. “What did you do, Brian?” he asked excitedly.
With a low hum, the machine began to vibrate, shaking the floor so hard we could hardly stand up. The walls quivered, the lamps jiggled and my insides felt like a milkshake.
“What did you do, Brian?” shouted Nora accusingly.
When I answered her, my voice sounded like someone was wiggling my Adam’s apple. “I-I-I’d b-b-better t-t-turn it off-f-f!”
I grabbed the metal arm and yanked upward as hard as I could, then stared in horror as it broke off in my hands.
We staggered out of the bouncing room and slammed the door behind us.
Picking up steam, the machine sounded like a thousand elves banging their hammers to make deadline on Christmas Eve. Dust poured from the ceiling and, across the hallway, books inched out of their shelves and started falling to the floor.
“I take no responsibility for this unmitigated disaster,” announced Nora. “I didn’t even touch that thing.”
“Well, it’s not our fault — who leaves something that tempting just lying around?” asked Cosmo.
“There’s no point blaming anyone,” I told them. “If we don’t get it turned off soon, it’s going to shake The Matchstick Castle until it falls down — with all of us in it.”
Cosmo’s Uncle Montague appeared with a spatula in his hand, his face white with alarm. “I was making us all a nice cheese soufflé for lunch, and now it’s flat as a pancake! The house is trembling from top to bottom!”
Uncle Kingsley, a famous author, was right behind him, holding a golf ball-sized rock and rubbing his head. “I was writing in the mushroom garden when this conked my noggin!”
Imagine a room full of people shouting while wiggling their Adam’s apples, and that will give you an idea of what we sounded like.
“Brian and Cosmo turned on some kind of machine!” said Nora.
“That’s the Destabilizer,” said Uncle Ivar proudly as he rounded the corner with Uncle Roald on his heels. “My finest invention.”
“Your only invention,” retorted Roald.
If the two of them started arguing, we were doomed.
“But what does it do?” I asked.
“It destabilizes things, obviously,” said Ivar. “Buildings, geological formations, national economies. At one point, I even wondered whether it could be used to shake change loose from people’s pockets.”
“And why did you store something with the potential of destroying The Matchstick Castle within the castle itself?” asked Kingsley.
“I was going to move it,” said Ivar defensively. “Don’t tell me you’ve never forgotten to move some invention of yours.”
Montague stomped his foot, missing the floor on his first try because the vibrations were getting even stronger.
“Well, let’s just turn it off.”
“I tried,” I said, “but the switch broke off in my hands.”
“Defective workmanship!” roared Roald.
“One hundred percent intentional!” said Ivar hotly. “A fail-safe in case anyone tries to turn it off.”
“But what if we actually need to shut it down?” asked Kingsley.
“It’s a weapon of war, not a toaster,” shrugged Ivar.
Uncle Montague waved his spatula. “I convene a family council!”
Kingsley shook his head. “There’s no time — we have minutes, not hours, before our home collapses around our ears.”
“Are you sure there’s no way to stop it?” Nora asked Ivar.
“Certainly not. Its whole purpose is complete destabilization.”
I stared at the door, which was rattling so hard I thought its hinges would split. We had to do something, but the van Dash grownups were doing a better job of causing problems than fixing them.
“If we can’t stop it, we have to move it,” I said. “Through the tunnels and down to the river.”
“The boy’s right,” cried Uncle Kingsley. “But how?”
Just then there was a sound like the world’s biggest cracker snapping in half. Montague wrenched the door open, and we all stared at the hole in the floor where the Destabilizer used to be.
“It’s broken clean through,” said Roald, astonished.
We have to catch it!” yelled Cosmo.
Nora and I followed as he sprinted up the hall, slid down a fire pole, and crawled through a passageway so short a dog wouldn’t have been able to stand up straight. Cosmo opened another door, and we tumbled in behind him.
There, in a room barely larger than it was, sat an old Model T Ford.
“How did this car get into this room?” asked Nora. “And why?”
Cosmo had to shout above the Destabilizer, which now sounded like it was above us. “As a practical joke. Uncle Montague took Great-Grandpa van Dash’s car apart, piece by piece, and reassembled it here.”
He slid behind the wheel. “Turn the front crank clockwise, Brian — use your left hand. That way, if it backfires, you probably won’t break your arm.”
“Break my what?” I asked, thinking I’d heard him wrong.
“Your arm,” repeated Nora, sliding onto the seat beside Cosmo and telling him, “You’re not old enough to drive.”
Above us, the ceiling sagged.
I crouched in front of the car. “We’re not going to get very far, Cosmo. This car won’t fit through the door.”
Cosmo looked up. “Crank it now!”
I gave it a half turn and the engine sputtered to life without breaking my arm. There was a sound like a cannonball hitting a cracker factory, and the Destabilizer crashed through the ceiling and landed in the backseat of the Model T, lifting its front wheels off the floor.
It was either get in or get run over, so I squeezed in next to Nora with my teeth rattling and the whole car sounding like an unbalanced washing machine.
“W-w-will th-this th-thing h-h-hold t-together?” I asked.
“W-w-we’ll f-f-f-fi nd out!” chattered Cosmo.
The car surged forward and the wall in front fell down, making a ramp into a longer, wider room.
We careened though stacks of crates marked FRAGILE and HANDLE WITH CARE. Cosmo could barely hold the wheel due to the pounding of the Destabilizer.
Nora pointed at two wide wooden doors. “That way!”
The Model T’s bumper opened the doors, and we found ourselves in first a cavern and then a steeply sloping mine shaft. Cosmo turned on the headlights, which flickered on wet, rocky walls as gravel hailed from the roof of the mine.
Suddenly, the car sprang forward as the Destabilizer bounced out — but now the jackhammering cube was tumbling toward us, threatening to smash into the back of the car.
“Faster, Cosmo!” urged Nora, as daylight glimmered ahead.
Just as the engine of destruction touched our back bumper, Cosmo turned sharply out of the tunnel and skidded to a halt on the bank of the river that ran past The Matchstick Castle. The Destabilizer bounced along the wooden dock, pulverizing every plank before splashing into the water. Fish jumped as if electrocuted while waves crashed on shore — then, slowly, majestically, something large, gray and big as a whale rose to the surface and bobbed gently to the beach.
“It’s the Domitable, my submarine!” cheered Roald, as the grownups jogged out of the tunnel. “I was wondering whether I’d see her again.”
Under our feet, the ground slowly stopped pulsing as the Destabilizer short-circuited underwater.
“Well, I think we all learned our lesson,” said Nora.
“Teach kids how to drive?” I asked.
“I think it’s, ‘Always look for the on-switch,’ ” said Cosmo. “Because I wouldn’t have missed that adventure for anything!”
Keir Graff is the author of The Matchstick Castle, The Other Felix and The Phantom Tower, as well as the co-founder of the 90-Second Newbery Film Festival.