Note: This is the second in a series that starts with Long Fiction for Middle Grades: Cross-Country Mystery Chapter 1.
Eleven-year-old Nathan crouched on the stairs in the dark. He strained his ears trying to hear every word of the conversation in the living room. The Hales’ oldest son wasn’t supposed to be eavesdropping on adult conversations, but somehow it just kept happening.
Time and again Nathan had been reprimanded for spying on family members. Most of the time he felt like it wasn’t his fault. He was small for his age, and easily fit between the couch and the wall, under the end table, and behind the drapes. Could he help it if people didn’t make sure the room was empty before they started talking? Besides, anything done in the living room should be public information. What business does anyone have keeping secrets in the living room?
Bedrooms were another matter. He agreed that he probably deserved the scolding he got for hiding in his sister’s closet and listening to Ashley and her friends playing dolls. On the other hand, their game was totally boring, and he thought that listening to them for half an hour should have been punishment enough.
This time he wasn’t hiding, and he didn’t intend to sneak. He was coming downstairs to get a book. He was allowed to read when he had trouble falling asleep, and taking time to choose a new book was a good way to procrastinate on going to bed.
He hadn’t known there was company downstairs. He didn’t mean to eavesdrop. As he rounded the landing, he also couldn’t help hearing a sentence that stopped him in his tracks:
“I don’t expect you to believe me right away, but I am a time traveler,” a strange voice said.
Nathan furrowed his brow. Just the TV, he thought, and he took another step. Then he froze as he heard his mom exclaim, “That’s just what I thought! It’s impossible, but would explain so much!”
Ok, Mom often talks back to the TV. Sometimes it’s annoying, Nathan thought. Then he heard the strange voice answer.
“I wish I didn’t have to tell you. I’m afraid this knowledge may put you in grave danger. But I know you can keep a secret, and I need your help. You know how much the Pirate’s Medallion meant to me. This means even more.”
Whoa! Nathan thought. Tell me more! He sat down on the stairs and scrunched himself next to the bannister to listen, completely forgetting to feel guilty.
In the living room, Tim Trave was pacing. Frank had asked him to sit and Nanette had offered him some water, but he was too agitated to relax. The Hales were watching him closely. His story seemed fantastic, but had the ring of truth. Their detective senses were on the alert as they waited for him to continue.
“I’m from the past. I am a scientist who studied many things and traveled many places. My home time is the American west in the 1860s. My life’s story I won’t share with you here and now.” He gave a rueful smile of one who has seen much, not all of it good. “The short story is that I invented a time machine. At first I was elated. I expected that the freedom of time travel would change the world and all of history for good.” Tim paused.
“It didn’t?” Nanette asked.
“Not as I expected,” Tim replied. “I learned that time travel has rules. Rules as hard and fast as the laws of gravity or motion. This should have been no surprise, but I had only experiment and experience to teach me what those rules are. I made many mistakes.
“But I’m getting off the subject.” Tim cleared his throat. “I made two time machines—in case one was destroyed somehow. I thought I had hidden it well in my cabin. I thought I would be able to retrieve it in the future should I need it.” Tim paused, a pained expression on his face. “The second time machine has been stolen. I know you are retired from the detecting business. I know you don’t want danger in your lives, but…”
Frank interrupted, “This sounds complicated. Please sit down and tell us more about it.”
Nanette smiled reassuringly, “We’ll help you if we can. I think we know you well enough to believe you wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t important. We went through some really difficult times together in our search for the Pirate’s Medallion.” Inwardly, Nanette was wondering if Tim was insane. She had no doubt he believed his story, but could she?
Tim sat and the three of them talked for some time. The story Tim told was that the time machine was stolen by some desperate criminals in the 1860s. They had robbed a stagecoach of a shipment of gold going from San Francisco to New York. Perhaps they had robbed many others, Tim wasn’t sure, but he had firsthand knowledge of this one.
Then the outlaws stole the time machine and decided to hide in the future. Tim didn’t know for sure how they found out about the machine, but when he found it missing, he also found that his friend and neighbor, Curt Hopewell, was also missing. Curt had accompanied Tim on several trips, and was the only other person who knew about the machines.
“I’m worried about Curt. I’m worried about the activities of the thieves in the present time. I’m worried about my machine ending up in the wrong hands at the wrong time.”
“How can we help?” Nanette finally asked. “And why did you come to us now? At this time?
“My equipment readings lead me to believe the thieves are here in this time, arriving between 2001 and late 2002. You are starting a cross country trip soon, you told me. By good fortune, you are traveling through many places where we might find clues to the thieves’ whereabouts. But I must warn you, if the thieves have any hint that we’re looking for them we will be in serious danger. They are not shy about getting rid of anyone who gets in their way.”
Tim paused. In the quiet they could hear the tick of the clock and the buzz of katydids in the yard. Nanette and Frank were thinking of the past, and the many narrow escapes they had experienced.
Suddenly a scream pierced the night. A toddler scream.
Nathan, sitting breathless on the stairs, nearly hit his head on the bannister as he jumped up. With a rush, he ran to his room and pulled the covers up to his chin. He tried to slow his breathing and look asleep.
“Oh dear, Charlie must be having night terrors again.” Nanette jumped up from the couch. “Let me see if I can calm him down, though it probably won’t do any good.”
Upstairs she peeked in the rooms of her other sleeping children as she walked past. Something about Nathan didn’t look quite right, but she didn’t take the time to investigate. She picked up screaming Charlie and comforted him. He never woke up, but finished his screaming fit and went back to sleep.
Nathan turned over in his bed and smiled to himself. Cool! He thought. A time machine! Robbers! Danger! Cool!
End of Chapter 2
Chapter 3 can be found at Chapter 3: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)