Chapter 15: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)

Note: After the last couple long chapters, it’s time for a short one.

Chapter 15

The Hales spent the night in Wheaton with the Martins. After a dinner of grilled hamburgers and hot dogs they watched an animated movie and the kids fell asleep in their sleeping bags on the floor of the living room. For once no one had trouble falling asleep quickly.

Frank, Nanette, Liz and Jorge stayed up late in the kitchen talking about the mystery.  Some disagreement arose between them as to the next step of the investigation.

“I think we should stay for a day or two longer,” Nanette argued. “We know the crooks are in Chicago, and we nearly caught them today. If we leave, I feel like we are just giving up.”

Frank disagreed. “We have no guarantee they are staying in the city. Now that they have the motorcycle, there’s no reason for them to return to the shop—you said so yourself. We found their stash by the lake, and we don’t have any more clues as to where they are staying or what they plan to do next.”

Liz looked determined.  “Honestly, I would love to have you stay here longer, but if you change your plan it will mess up the rest of your itinerary—including any reservations you made.  Remember, your part in solving this mystery was to find clues ON YOUR VACATION, not to side track. You might miss something if you DON’T stick to your schedule.”

Nanette did not easily change her mind, but she grudgingly agreed with the majority to stick with their original plan. Everyone was tired, but as the four of them stood up from the table to head to their rooms, Nanette suddenly remembered something.

“Frank, what was that paper Tim gave you this afternoon?”

“I almost forgot,” Frank said sheepishly. “All of that ‘unphasing’ weirdness must have given us amnesia or something.” Frank pulled the envelope out of his pocket and took out the paper inside.

Only a few sentences were scrawled in Tim’s spidery handwriting:  “Leave Chicago as planned and don’t worry about the consequences. Don’t second guess yourselves. You’re on the right track.”

“I thought Tim promised ‘no fortunes,’” Frank said.

“He did,” Nanette replied. “But we already decided to leave on our own. I’m glad we didn’t open this sooner.”

“Maybe he knew you were going to be unhappy about leaving and wanted to reassure us.”

“Maybe,” Nanette answered. “But somehow this worries me even more.”

Monday morning dawned bright and clear—perfect traveling weather.  The Hales woke up refreshed and ready for a “boring” day of travel after all the excitement of Sunday.

After breakfast, Nathan was the first to pack up his stuff and take it to the car. He set  his suitcase by the back of the car, and then went to the side and flung open the back passenger door to arrange his travel backpack and water bottle just where he wanted them. As he reached forward to put his water bottle in the cup holder, he was startled to see something unexpected in his peripheral vision.  Something big was on the front seat!

It was a box. An unmarked, plain brown box sat on the front passenger seat. Where did that come from? Who put it there? What’s in it? All kinds of scenarios raced through Nathan’s brain. He ran into the house calling, “Dad! Dad!”

“What is it?” Frank asked.

Nathan switched to a whisper, “I think there’s a bomb in the car!”

Peter was close enough to overhear, “What did you say?”

“Nothing, Mr. Nosy!” Nathan shot back.

“Boys, stop it!” Frank said. “Show me what’s bothering you Nathan.”

“I’m coming too,” Peter said, following closely. Nathan decided not to argue.  Maybe it would be good to have Peter’s mechanical mind along to see if this really was a bomb.

Nathan led them to the car and pointed to the front seat. “That box wasn’t there before.”

“Hmmm, no it wasn’t,” Frank said. He was puzzled but didn’t really believe the box was dangerous. “I’m not sure how it got there. Was the car locked when you came out, Nathan?”

“No! Who forgot to lock it? Do you think it’s a bomb, Dad?”

“That seems unlikely. Why would you think that?”

“Remember the explosion in our yard before we left? Maybe the crooks did it again!”

“I picked up your cell phone, Dad,” Peter said. “ Does 911 work on cell phones?”

“It’s probably nothing,” Frank said, ignoring Peter for the moment. “Let me open it and see.”

“But what if it blows up in your face? I think we should call the police!”

“Don’t call the police,” Frank said.  “You’re being silly.” Frank believed what he said, but nevertheless he felt a thrill of nervousness as he looked at the box. “I promise to be extra-extra careful.”

Frank opened the front passenger car door, and without touching the box, examined it carefully. Nathan and Peter stepped back and held their breath. Peter fingered the cell phone. Will I be sorry I didn’t call? He wondered. But no, Dad would never do anything really dangerous, would he?

The box was blank except for a white smudge where the shipping label had been removed. Only a little bit of the label was left. Frank read: “errillville, Indi.” He jumped back a little, reading words that were similar to the ones Nanette had found among the bomb fragments.

“What is it,  Dad?” Nathan asked anxiously.

“Nothing,” Frank replied. “The box isn’t taped shut. I don’t see any wires or anything peeking out under the flaps. It’s not making any noise.”

He looked at it for another few seconds. “I’m just going to lift the flap a bit and get a better peek inside.”

“Here’s a stick, Dad,” Nathan said helpfully, handing him a stick from the yard. “Use this, so you don’t have to get so close.”

Frank took Nathan’s advice (and his stick) and stood behind the front car door.  Slowly, he reached his hand around the door.  With patience and care he slowly moved the stick under one of the flaps. He raised the flap by about a centimeter and held it there, looking for wires and listening for sounds.  Frank, Nathan, and Peter were barely breathing.

Frank lifted the flap another centimeter and nothing happened. He started to raise it some more when the door to the house opened and Nanette came out yelling, “Don’t open that box!”

Frank jumped, Nathan stifled a scream, and Peter opened the cell phone, ready to dial 911 at a moment’s notice.

Nanette strode quickly to the car and swept up the box in her hands. “I don’t want this opened until everyone is here. Can we call Ashley and Charlie?”

Liz, who was behind Nanette, turned around and went back inside to get them. Nanette looked back at Frank, Nathan and Peter and realized something was up. They were trying to look calm, but their fast breathing and sheepish looks betrayed them. “What’s wrong guys? You look like you saw a ghost.”

“So,” Frank cleared his throat. “It’s not a bomb then?”

“A bomb?” Nanette said and laughed. “I’m sorry, considering how things have been going this shouldn’t be laughing matter, but I can’t help it.” The other three started to laugh, too, in relief.

“I forgot to tell you last night, Frank, and I wanted it to be a surprise for the kids,” Nanette said. “Oh good, here’s Ashley and Charlie.” Nanette stifled another laugh. “I’m so sorry. Of course this must have looked terribly suspicious, but it’s from Uncle Carl and Robin! After leaving us yesterday, they went back to the gift shop at the museum to get you some surprises. We left so quickly, we never got a chance to get souvenirs. They put the packages in a box and left it in Liz and Jorge’s car last night when we were at the Sears’ Tower, and then I put in our car this morning so we wouldn’t forget it.”

Inside the box they found a T-shirt for Nathan featuring the submarine from the museum, a book about Edison for Peter, a fanny pack featuring ‘Historical Miss’ characters (along with the museum’s logo) for Ashley and a coloring book for Charlie.  Plus some cookies for the whole family.

Everyone’s mood was upbeat and happy as they pulled out of the Martin’s driveway and on to the next leg of the journey.  They had a very long day planned—hoping to drive a distance of over 900 miles to the Badlands of South Dakota.

End of Chapter 15

The next chapter can be found here: Chapter 16: Cross-Country Mystery (Long Fiction for Middle Graders)



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