This is one of the alkali lakes the characters want to minimize. Last week Before being stranded by an alkali storm, they were heading to Helena to present their experiments in hopes of gaining attention and assistance in implementing their experiments on a wider scale. At the end of the chapter, they were stuck in the middle of nowhere and their teacher and bus driver disappeared. And the story takes off from there.
“Use your thumb,” her grandfather told her. “Hold it up against the mountain. When one side of the mountain is a hands measure to your right and the summit lines up with your thumb, you’re heading in the right direction for home.”
Out of habit, Caitlin held out her hand. The summit met her thumb. “We can always walk to my farm to get some help,” Caitlin offered. “It’s not far from here.”
Trying to make a decision without speaking, her classmates looked amongst each other, their eyes searching for the nonverbal cues of agreement or lack thereof. Hesitance gave way to the understanding of the lack of an alternative solution. Caitlin’s house was closer than the school. At least they’d have the ability to call for help and potentially salvage the day.
Selene, the only one who found a problem with the proposal, asked, “What about the alkali flat?”
The mentioning of the alkali drew Caitlin’s attention to the absence of it. A vibrant green field of prairie grass stretched for miles ahead of them. Caitlin scoured the scenery for the milky gray soil everyone dreaded seeing.
One time when she was younger, Caitlin made the mistake of walking through the field to come to the other end of the ordeal less one of her favorite pink paisley muck boots. Her father left it there as a reminder for Caitlin to keep her eyes open for hazardous situations.
“It’s on the edge of our land. If we walk the perimeter, we can get to our house safely.”
“How far it that?” Marjorie asked.
Caitlin pointed in the direction of her farm. “Honestly, a little less than two miles.” Everyone’s eyes followed the direction of her pointing until they fell on several small structures in the horizon that dotted the otherwise all gold and green landscape. Caitlin’s nose wrinkled, and she took a second look. “I’ve never seen it from this perspective after an alkali storm. I guess the alkali storm makes it harder to see the trees.” A sense of foreboding crept into her stomach. Why did her farm look so different?
“Or we can wait until someone drives by and wave them down,” Demetrius suggested.
Brian’s impatience bled through his usually calm voice. “We have been here for roughly an hour and I haven’t seen one vehicle drive by. I vote for walking.”
“Have you ever walked that far?” Peter taunted.
Brian rolled his eyes. The only reason he didn’t move around so much at school was because he worked an hour before school and an hour before dinner. Most of the time, he was too tired to keep up with Peter who bounced around from activity to activity like he was a character in a video game. Being the first to offer support to Caitlin’s idea, he knew his voice needed to be resolute. He turned to Caitlin. “Let’s do this.”
His confidence in her brightened Caitlin’s perspective. The Osterholt farm was three miles from the Christiansen’s farm. Apparently, Brian recognized landmark clues Caitlin missed.
For as long as she could remember, Caitlin’s mother warned her about the town kid farm kid competition and urged Caitlin to keep the specifics about their home quiet. As a result of her silence, Caitlin endured Selene’s incessant bragging about town homes being better than farm homes. An insult Selene made in fourth grade still hung in the air between them. “My home smells like flowers and baked bread. Yours smells like cow poop.” It wasn’t true. At the time, Caitlin didn’t have the words to describe the continually pleasant scent Lewis and Clark ultimately used to describe, and eventually name, the area where they lived. Its mixture of lightly floral and freshly mowed lawn fragrance triggered comments of agreement with Lewis and Clark naming the mountain and the area around it the Sweet Grass Hills.
Now the time had come for Selene to eat crow. Caitlin tossed her backpack over one shoulder, and Brian bounded down the stairs, keeping pace right behind her. It was the first time she earned and owned the right to be at the front of the group. By the time they were at the rear of the bus, the rest of the class was behind them.
“I’m glad I packed a lot of snacks.” A blue-eyed Nicholas waved a package of beef jerky and a water bottle. Over the years, the friends read Nicholas’s moods by his eye color. The darker the color the fouler the mood. Blue eyes meant he was comfortable.
“Only you would think of food at a time like this.” Selene’s tone softened. “Which is why I choose to stick by you in a time of crisis.” She held out her hand.
Nicholas made a face while breaking his beef jerky in half. “Remember this when I need a date for prom next year.”
“If we make it there, you have a deal.” Selene nodded and took a bite of the jerky.
Caitlin stole a glance at Eugene to gauge his reaction over the conversation. Her heart smiled at his grin of delight with the scene in front of them. He didn’t seem jealous or say anything to make himself look better to win Selene’s favor. Finally, one of the boys had broken free of the spell Selene seemed to cast on them thus giving the other girls in the class a chance to get noticed. In spite of the harrowing circumstances, the day was getting better and better.
~ ~ ~ ~
If anyone had driven by, they’d have taken a second look at the motley crew of 11 middle school students, who had been friends and enemies for longer than they’d ever be able to remember. Set out for an unexpected adventure, they walked in the opposite direction of where they were headed before the storm.
The unsuspecting passerby would also tell about the different variations of red and black jackets and coats accented with denim, camo, and khaki cargo pants. The winter prior, the school fundraiser sold a variety of coats with the logo and school mascot stitched on the left lapel. A normally bland side of the road looked more like a fashion show for the school than a group of kids stranded in the middle of the prairie.
Making sure to stay to the left of the road, they divided into groups of three. The first of many soon to come revelations came with Caitlin’s passing comment about the state of the highway. “Granted I’d never walked on it until now, but I would have sworn this part of the road was paved.”
Eugene added his concern, “I thought you said your house was on the perimeter of the alkali.” He lifted his hand to his eyebrow to scan the landscape in front of them. “This soil looks pretty good to me. Are you sure that’s your house over there?”
Caitlin answered with a look that stopped any further questions.
The wind from the storm died down into a breeze that hissed as it blew between the blades prairie grass. Sensing things were a little off, the groups once fairly spread out, huddled closer together. Caitlin silently thanked her mother for her insistence about Caitlin’s clothes. Her heart warmed at recognizing the accurate description her mother made about the dress she originally wanted to wear. The wind would have blown the thing over her head. Her warm jeans and layers of a long sleeve t-shirts under her school shirt provided better protection from the elements.
Andrea, on the other hand, wasn’t as well suited for the elements. Most of the time Caitlin envied Andrea’s ability to manipulate situations so well. Seeing how the cold affected Andrea in her camo leggings and black knit skirt changed her perspective into questioning Andrea’s logic.
“Did you bring your jeans in your backpack?”
Andrea moved her position to being between Caitlin and Brian. They weren’t much of a shield, but they were better than facing the elements straight on. “I left them on the bus.”
The mentioning of the bus made Brian look back to see how far they traveled. The bus was the size of his thumb, and from the size of Caitlin’s house, he knew they were at least twenty minutes away from a phone line. “I think it’s safe to say we lost the science fair this year.”
“It’ll be the first time we lost in like ever,” Damien said. “To say my dad is going to be upset is an understatement. For the rest of my life, I’ll have to hear about being the only one in the family who didn’t get a ribbon from the science fair.”
Everyone knew Damien was right. Every year his father bragged about his older brother’s accomplishments. They sympathetically watched Damien silently endure the comparison. “When Arthur was in sixth grade he read a book a week. When Arthur was in seventh grade he won the spelling bee.” The comparison changed from year to year, but the theme remained the same. Damien’s father believed Arthur to be the golden child and Damien, regardless of how he tried, was silver.
“Maybe you can make up for it another way,” Marjorie encouraged.
“Yes,” Angelica added. “Maybe you’ve been going about it the wrong way all this time. What if you go your own way, and do your own thing? You know try something different than your brother, your father will be happy.”
“If there was something different,” he moaned. “It’s not like we have a lot of choices living in a town of 500 people.”
Marjorie and Angelica nodded their understanding. Marjorie raised her cell phone in the air as if the change in position from her waist to above her head changed its ability to catch a signal. “I would think you were a god, if you invented a way for us to catch a signal.”
“I second that motion.” Peter snatched the phone from Marjorie and raced to the front of the group before she had any time to retaliate. Selene stuck her foot out just as he passed by her causing Peter to stumble forward. His stride lengthened and his arms waved in the air in an attempt to regain his balance. Neither worked and Peter ultimately fell on the ground which sent the phone flying into the field.
Caitlin rushed to help Peter get up. Brian ran to the edge of the road to see if he could find Marjorie’s phone. The prairie grass shielded the phone from the sun reducing its ability to cast a glare from the screen.
“That is my second phone since school started.” She groaned. “I don’t think mom will get me another one.”
Eugene ran towards the fence that separated the field from the road.
“What are you doing?” Andrea moved quickly to follow him. Brian pulled her back to the pavement. “He can’t go into the alkali alone!”
“I’m not.” Eugene’s prior statement still held true. There was no alkali anywhere. Eugene stopped in front of a fence post and bent to reach into a tuft of tall grass. “The screen is still intact even.” He pulled out the phone to show his find.
Everyone exhaled a collective sigh of relief, which made Eugene smile even brighter.
Author note: Please leave a comment or send me an email to let me know what you think of the story so far.