Chapter 3: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Note: This is the third in a series that starts with Long Fiction for Middle Grades: Cross-Country Mystery Chapter 1.

Chapter 3 is the first of many chapters that illustrates how obviously this book is stuck in 2003. Sure we had computers, the Internet, Google and cell phones, but they weren’t as ubiquitous as they are now. Internet speeds were slower, middle class homes rarely had more than one computer, cell phones weren’t “smart”, and books were still the “go-to” resource for research. Charlie will grow up in a very different world than Nathan, even though he is only 8 years younger.

Chapter 3

The alarm clock went off with an annoying buzz.  Nine-year-old Peter, in the top bunk, opened his eyes sleepily. He fumbled for a string hanging by his bed, pulled it, and closed his eyes.

The string was looped over the curtain rod, ran behind the bookcase, through a hook in the wall (which used to hold a picture) and was connected to the door of his bug house. At the moment, the bug house was not housing bugs, but a two-inch diameter super ball.  The bug house was at a slant on a shelf above the desk. When the string pulled the door open, the super ball rolled out and fell on the snooze button of the alarm clock. Ingenious.

Unfortunately for big brother Nathan, the ball bounced off at a crazy angle, flew toward the lower bunk, and bopped him hard on the head.

“Hey! You did that on purpose!” Nathan yelled at Peter. Peter, still half asleep, ignored him.

“Mo-ommm! Peter hit me on the head with a super ball!” Nathan yelled.

“Did not,” Peter mumbled into his pillow.

Nanette, who was taking a shower, didn’t answer.  It was just the beginning of another day in the Hale household.

“Why don’t you just get up and turn off your old alarm clock” Nathan argued as he got out of bed.

“It’s too far down.”

“Well, switch bunks with me then. It’s my turn for the top anyway!”

“I like the top.”

“AAAAAA,” Nathan finally yelled in frustration and went to the bathroom to brush his teeth.

Peter waited for the alarm to go off again before dragging himself out of the top bunk. He wished he could invent a machine to get himself ready in the morning without any work, like George Jetson in the old cartoons.

Peter loved gadgets, especially the ones he made himself. Unfortunately, many of his homemade gadgets were thrown away by accident by his parents who mistook them for junk.  He planned to be an inventor someday, if only he could remember not to leave his creations lying around the house.  He brushed his teeth with the electric toothbrush he got for Christmas, combed his hair with the comb on his pocket knife, and got dressed.

At breakfast, Peter used his pocket knife to slice open the top of the cereal box and then used the spoon on the pocket knife to eat his cereal. No one got more use out of their multipurpose knife than Peter.

Nathan, who had been sitting on the other side of the table, moved his bowl to sit next to Peter. This was sufficiently out of character that Peter became suspicious.

“I’m reading the cereal box. You can’t have it,” Peter said through a mouthful of crunchy cereal.

Nathan whispered, “I don’t want your stupid cereal box. I want your help.”

Peter, who was still annoyed with Nathan for yelling at him earlier, answered with a “What?” in a regular voice.

“Shhh. I want you to do a favor for me.”

Peter still wasn’t whispering, but he had swallowed. “Why is this so secret?”

“I just don’t want anyone making fun of me.” Nathan was only telling a half truth. It was true that he didn’t want Ashley to make fun of him, but he really didn’t want his parents to know he had been eavesdropping last night.  “I want you to find out about time machines for me. How are they made? How do they work? You know. Anything.”

“There’s no such thing as a time machine.” Peter was still talking in a regular voice to annoy Nathan.

“Shhh. Please, Peter. There’s another reason I want this kept quiet. I can’t tell you now. Just see what you can find out in the library today and we’ll talk after school.”

“OK, I won’t tell anyone.” Peter was still not whispering.

Nanette breezed into the room with a basket of laundry and said, “Won’t tell anyone what?”

Peter grinned.  “Oh, just about something Nathan wants me to do.”

Nathan squirmed. It was uncanny the way his mother always seemed to show up when he had secret stuff going on. Peter was trying to annoy him, but he thought—he hoped—Peter wouldn’t really give away his secret.

Nathan breathed a sigh of relief when his mom seemed uninterested in further investigation. “All right, your secret is safe. Remember, we need to shop for Jason’s birthday party after school. Try to think of something he would like.” Then she moved to the laundry room.

Upstairs, seven-year-old Ashley was taking her time picking out a necklace, a ring, and a hair clip for the day. She kept getting distracted by three-year-old Charlie, who was pulling dolls off her shelves.

“No, Charlie! That’s Colorado Cora. She has all her riding gear just right. I don’t want it messed up. And that’s Texas Tess. I don’t want her hair messed up. Here, you can play with Nevada Nell. I haven’t read about her yet.”

Nathan poked his head in the room. “Ashley, I want to ask you a favor.”

She looked up at him expectantly. Behind her, Charlie pulled the boots off Colorado Cora.

“Can I borrow some of your Historical Miss novels? I’m interested in some information on the Old West.”

“OK.” Ashley turned around to get a book off the shelf and yelled. “Charlie, NO!” She picked Charlie up and plopped him in the hallway. Charlie started screaming. “He always messes up my things!” Ashley yelled in frustration.

“Just give me some books quick,” Nathan said with a worried glance at Charlie. Mom would be here any minute. He always had plenty of time to read at school during “drop everything and read” time, but he needed the books.

“Which one?”  Ashley asked.

“I don’t care. Here just give me some.” He grabbed the books about Wyoming Willa, Colorado Cora, and Utah Una and headed for the door.

“Wait! Don’t wrinkle the covers! Here, let me keep the dust jackets.” Ashley called after him as he sprinted down the hall. She followed him but got waylaid by Nanette.

“What’s wrong with Charlie?” Nanette demanded, holding on to Ashley’s arm so she couldn’t get away.

“I just made him leave my room. He messes up my stuff all the time.”

“Are you sure he didn’t get hurt?”

“No! He’s just mad that I took Colorado Cora’s boots away from him. I have to go. Nathan’s borrowing some of my books, and he’s going to mess up the covers.”

“Why would Nathan borrow your books?” Nanette couldn’t help asking. Ashley’s books were mostly pink and mostly about girls.

“Why shouldn’t he?” Ashley responded with annoyance. “They’re just as good as boy books. The only difference is the main characters are girls.”

“I guess,” Nanette said as Ashley ran after Nathan. Something strange is going on with Nathan, she thought. Then again, something strange is always going on around here.

And the strangest was last night. She had to figure out what she could about Tim Trave’s mystery before the trip. As soon as the kids are in school, I’ll start to work on it, she thought. Tim was supposed to come over around lunchtime and give them some more information. That is, IF he could. This time travel stuff was too weird.

End of Chapter 3

Chapter 4 can be found at Chapter 4: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders).

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