It was only the second week of the summer holidays, and Peebles was a little bored. So one day he invented a contraption whilst tinkering around with some fractal physics equations. It was quite a sophisticated, high-tech contraption, but still basically a contraption. Peebles was a bright, lonely fourteen-year-old boy, the only child of a single father who had lost himself in work because his wife, Peebles’ mother, had abandoned them both when the boy was five. Yet Peebles now realised that this contraption could help make some money for him and his father. He was going to use it as a car park.
Parking was the bane of commuters to the city, Peebles knew that as much as anyone. His Dad, Jonah, was always moaning about congestion on the city streets and the downright brutal competition for reasonably-priced parking. So, being a bright boy, Peebles decided to do something about it.
As it was school holidays, he asked his Dad if he could catch a ride into town.
“What are you planning to do in town, son?” Jonah asked.
“Oh, just potter, you know,” said Peebles.
So the next morning, he placed the contraption in his backpack, along with a few other items, and his Dad took him into town.
“Don’t get into any trouble,” said Jonah as he dropped his son off at the curb next to his workplace. “You know I can’t afford to take any time off work to rescue you.”
“You don’t have to worry about me,” said Peebles, shooting his Dad a grin. “I’ll be fine.”
So Jonah watched his son through the rear-view mirror, knowing Peebles was a bright boy. In fact, he was an exceedingly bright boy. Peebles took after his mother, something reminded his Jonah almost every day of the cold abandonment he felt, even nine years later, gnawing like an open ulcer inside him. He watched as the boy walked around the corner and disappeared from view.
Peebles carried on walking, up to the vacant lot along the road, which was already full of cars parked, at very expensive rates, for the day.
He stood off to one side, watching. The parking sign now had a FULL banner hung across it, but there were still people slowing their cars to check just in case the banner was lying.
“We’re full,” said the security guard manning the booth.
The people scowled and drove on.
Peebles walked down the street. There was a small grassed area a little further along, a pleasant space dotted with trees where office workers could have their lunch. No room for parking cars though. The boy sat down on a bench and opened up his backpack. First he pulled out a marker pen and a long piece of folded-up cardboard. He straightened the cardboard and wrote on it in big, black, capital letters – CHEAP PARKING – then retrieved a hammer and nail from the backpack and hammered the sign into the tree behind the bench. Almost as soon as he had done so, a car stopped beside him.
“How much?” asked the man at the wheel.
“$10 all day,” said Peebles.
“Where do I park?” asked the man.
“Give me your keys,” said Peebles. “I’ll take it to my Dad’s private parking behind this green area.”
The man looked dubious.
“You for real, kid? You want me to trust you with my car keys? You’re not even old enough to drive!”
“Hey, I’m seventeen. I’m just small for my age.” Peebles looked suitably aggrieved. “Give me a break. I’m using my initiative to make a little money for the holidays.” The man still looked dubious and not about to part company with his car keys. “I’ll give you fifty bucks,” continued Peebles, “and you give me back sixty when you collect your car. Tell all your friends about me. I’m legit, you know.”
The man gave him a penetrating stare, then shrugged.
“OK, but I’ll get the cops on you if you do a runner,” he said.
He gave the boy his keys, Peebles handed him a fifty-dollar note, and he walked down the road to his place of work. Peebles got in the car with his backpack and pulled out the contraption, which fit neatly in one hand.
He pressed the button on top with his thumb.
On the street, the car disappeared.
Inside the car, Peebles felt the world around him disintegrating.
Beyond the windscreen, familiar scenery was replaced by multi-faceted landscapes of glowing hues, endless horizons of blended matter and light tapering up, down and away in all directions beyond the capacity of human senses to register.
Peebles had been here before, of course. Once he had found the formula for crossing over, constructing the key to unlock the door had been relatively easy. All the maths proved it. This place was a parallel universe.
Peebles got out of the car and pressed the button on the top of his contraption. It was a compression whistle-like device and emitted a specific burst of infrasound.
In an instant he was back on the street.
A second car stopped, and a third, and a fourth. All morning Peebles parked cars in the parallel universe.
By twelve-thirty there were fifty cars parked in Peebles’ alternative parking. He crossed over regularly to make sure everything was ok. For, to be sure, one could never quite tell what was going to happen when one parked cars in a parallel universe. The place was beautiful, seemingly unpopulated. Yet whenever Peebles tried to look into the distance of multiple horizons, his senses whirled in protest, so that he learned to avoid looking into the distance. He considered exploring a little, but quickly thought the better of it, and concentrated on arranging cars in an order that would make it easy for him to retrieve when the time came.
That evening, at half-past-four, the first of his customers returned.
“Can I have my car please?” the woman asked Peebles.
“What’s your registration number?”
The woman told him.
“Wait a minute,” he said, and walked around the corner.
He was gone for a while. Just as the customer glanced down at her watch, wondering where the boy had got to, her car appeared quite suddenly in front of her.
“Wow, I didn’t even see you pull up,” she said as Peebles got out of the car.
“I like to treat my clients’ vehicles with respect,” he said.
The woman was impressed.
“I’ll park here again tomorrow!”
For the next two hours, Peebles was very busy retrieving cars from the parallel universe.
“Where did you come from?” said one man as Peebles appeared out of thin air with his car.
“I drive all my customers’ cars with courtesy,” said Peebles.
“But you just appeared out of thin air!”
“It can seem like that sometimes,” said Peebles.
Another customer downright insisted that his car had just materialised before his very astounded eyes.
“I look after my clients’ cars and always drive them courteously,” said Peebles.
“But … no … you actually appeared out of thin air, young man!”
“It seems like that sometimes. It’s part of my customer service.”
The perplexed man let the matter drop and, although several other customers expressed surprise at Peebles’ ability to deliver their car with invisible swiftness and in utmost silence, all seemed pleased to have secured their day’s parking so reasonably.
Peebles phoned his Dad at six o’clock to inform him he would be making his own way home. Indeed, it had gone nine o’clock before the last of the cars was returned to their owners
Peebles was exhausted. There must be easier ways to make a buck, he thought.
He caught a bus home and slept the sleep of the dead.
The following morning Jonah asked whether he wanted to catch a lift into town again. Peebles groaned from his bed and waved his father away.
That afternoon he counted out the money he had made. Over $500. Not bad for a day’s work. Perhaps he could manage to go into town again tomorrow.
Sure enough, the next day Peebles deemed himself rested enough to make another excursion into town.
“Where were you yesterday?” asked one of his customers grumpily.
“I was tired,” said Peebles.
“You can’t just take a day off because you’re tired,” replied the man. “People are depending on you!”
Others said the same thing. Parking was scarce. Good reliable parking was at a premium. Peebles considered this throughout the afternoon as he arranged the cars into a grid pattern to take up less room in the parallel universe.
By eight o’clock he’d had 44 customers check in and out of his alternative parking scheme. $440. He would have to turn up tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day if he wanted to keep this thing going. People needed reliable parking every day of the week.
He was also going to need some help.
That night Peebles went home exhausted and spoke with his Dad. He demonstrated his contraption.
Jonah stood in the parallel universe, now devoid of parked cars. He had found the physical transition wrenching and, now that he was here, his senses were reeling in confusion. Colours swirled around him in clouds, occasionally coagulating into the ghosts of recognisable shapes, only to swiftly disperse and reveal a further landscape of light and colour and subtlety, and beyond that yet further landscapes, receding without end into the distance. His mind had trouble coping with not only the sensory overload, but the implications of what it all meant.
His son – HIS SON – had discovered … what exactly? Peebles insisted it was a parallel universe!
“Do you want to go back now?” asked Peebles, standing beside his father, watching him sway a little as he took it all in.
Jonah nodded and Peebles pushed the button of his contraption.
They were back in the dining room of their home.
Jonah caught his breath. “ … Peebles …”
He had always known that his son was bright. His mother was now one of the most respected astrophysicists in the world and on the board of MENSA. She had got a job at a top research establishment and emigrated to the United States when Peebles was five – had begged her husband to join her there with their son. Yet, out of some misplaced sense of pride, Jonah had refused. It would have broken her heart, he realised that. Yet, whilst he had fallen in love with her largely because of her intelligence, he now resented it. Peebles, though, was shaping up to be her intellectual equal. The boy always got top grades in school, especially in mathematical subjects.
“I know what you’re going to say, Dad. Think of the possibilities, you’re going to say …” He paused, waiting for some acknowledgement. When it didn’t come, he carried on. “… think of the applications to science, you’re going to say! Well, I’ve thought, Dad. I’ve thought long and I’ve thought hard.” He looked gravely at his father. “The best way we can use this discovery is to go into business together.” He shot Jonah one of his grins. “Peebles Parking! Think of the money we could make!”
For a moment, Jonah was stuck for a response.
“This is a big discovery, I know it is,” carried on the boy before his father could speak, “but if we tell people … if we let the establishment know, they’re going to corrupt it, aren’t they. This is a parallel universe, Dad! What do you think will happen when news of it gets out?”
Jonah opened and closed his mouth. “They’re … they’re going to … explore. Examine …”
“They’re going to prospect” replied the boy. “The scientists will examine, and then it’ll be the turn of politicians and businessmen, and they’re going to prospect. If they find anything worth having, they’re going to take it, mine it; destroy it one way or another. So I reckon the best thing we can do is to keep quiet and keep parking cars.”
“But …” Jonah’s mouth was flapping open like a fish’s.
“But what, Dad? We’re gonna be rich! I thought you always wanted to be rich?”
“But people are going to notice that we’re taking their cars and putting them … nowhere!”
Peebles grinned his cheeky little grin.
“People want cheap parking. I think you’ll find they overlook everything else. I’ve already seen it happen!”
Jonah looked disappointed for a moment. “You mean we’ve all become so superficial?”
Peebles nodded. “Look at it this way, Dad. We’ll probably get rich, the parallel universe will be safe …”
“But crowded with cars!”
His son nodded again. “Yes, but it’s better than the alternative.” He gave his Dad a plaintive look, willing him to understand. “I know I’m only fourteen, but I’m old enough to know what’s going to happen to it. It makes me sorry I can’t turn the clock back. I can’t undiscover this place, this … universe. One day we’ll have to share the knowledge – it’s inevitable, I s’pose. But, well,” his eyes shone with exhilaration and a little fear as he thought about the beauty of the place he had found – wishing somehow that he could keep it for them alone, “until then, we can keep the place safe, and make ourselves rich, can’t we?”
Jonah shrugged. “I suppose those cars need to be parked somewhere.” He paused for a moment, thinking. “Can you take me there again, Peebles?” He looked at his son almost coyly. “Let me have another look around?”
The boy smiled. “Of course! Get ready.”
He pushed the button and they were there amid an endless spectrum of colour and light, of rolling hills and crashing seas, of air and water and earth and minerals and energy. Jonah swooned and reached out for his son’s hand.
“We can’t, Peebles,” he whispered, feeling a tear roll the length of his cheek. “We can’t let this place be ruined by humans or their cars. You’re right, of course. It’ll be cars first, then excavators, then open-cast mining or something equally as evil.” His senses were flip-flopping from the enormity of it all and he stumbled against the boy, who was momentarily forced to bear his full weight. “Take me back, Peebles, please,” he said.
The next moment they were in the dining room once again.
Jonah sat down at the kitchen table as Peebles looked on.
“Even if we don’t use it, it will be discovered by someone someday, Dad.”
Jonah looked up from where he was hunched over the table.
“How much did you make from your foray in the parking business?”
“’Bout a thousand bucks.”
Jonah thought about that. He had always been the stoic one, the stubborn one. It had held him back his entire life, but he didn’t want to ruin his son’s future because of his own stupid pride.
He came to a decision he should have made a long time ago.
“I’ll multiply the money you made by ten, Peebles. I’m going to send you to your mother’s. You should be working for NASA – someone who can make proper use of your talent.”
Peebles stared dumbly at his father. He could barely believe his ears. He had always thought they were almost broke, and had not heard his father talk of his wife, Peebles’ own mother, for nearly two years.
“But … Dad …”
Jonah nodded, knowing what the boy must be thinking. He had never really wanted to talk to Peebles’ about his mother, mostly because of his own injured pride, but also partly from a fear that it would further isolate Peebles from his peers. Being very intelligent could be hard on an adolescent.
“Your mother will make sure your intellect is utilised properly, Peebles,” he said. “But I’ve got one condition, son.”
“I’m listening,” Peebles said quietly.
“You don’t speak of the parallel universe, to your mother or anyone else. And you don’t visit it any more.”
“That’s two conditions.”
“OK. Two conditions. And you throw away that contraption of yours.”
“That’s three conditions!”
Jonah scowled, but Peebles only grinned at his father and nodded.
“OK, it’s a deal.” He held out his hand, the contraption still there in his fist. “You keep it. I don’t think our world is ready for discoveries on this scale just yet.”
“Probably not, Peebles,” said Jonah, taking the innocuous object from his son.
“The city’s commuters will just have to carry on their search for reasonably-priced alternative parking, won’t they, Dad.”
Jonah looked down at the contraption in his hand, and sighed. Another lost opportunity? No. His son could go on to realise his limitless potential now.
“Yes, I suppose they will, Peebles,” he replied. “I suppose they will.”
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