Middle Grade – Revision #2
Charlie held his breath. He opened the door of the reading room just wide enough to check that the immediate area was empty. Seeing no one, he squeezed his head out; peering past the gas lights to both ends of the hallway. The coast was clear. Easy as pie.
Knowing the door never squeaked once it was partly open, Charlie pushed it wide and headed to the staircase. This part of the building was the original structure and after 26 years, the wood floor was old and worn. But the building had been well-made and a boy could easily walk down the hallway with no detectable noise if he was careful.
“Get off my bed!”
“I can sit here if I want to!”
Charlie grimaced knowing it was the twins arguing in the dormitory but kept a sharp lookout for the nuns. The noises would help cover his escape.
New Boy. The other boys hadn’t even bothered to learn his name yet. One of them might tell on him; if they even noticed him gone. His chin quivered. Better not to think about it.
The nine o’clock morning bells rang for Terse as he moved along one wall. He’d spent the last few days watching the nuns take turns going to prayers so that the children were supervised at all times. Learning the routines of the nuns kept him from dwelling on memories.
Charlie had watched Sister Elizabeth leave at first light just like the prior Saturday. Taking the orphanage’s horse drawn wagon, she picked up supplies in Galveston. That left six nuns to patrol both the girls’ and boys’ dormitory wings. Still, Charlie couldn’t afford to lose the opportunity to solve a part of the riddle today. It was the last link to his parents and the birthday gift his father had hidden for him. His heart swelled as he thought how proud his pa would’ve been to see him solve the riddle.
Reaching the staircase, Charlie started down the steps. Eight, nine and ten were the tricky ones. They groaned under any weight and Sister Hildegarde’s office extended under the stairs, so any sound would alert her. Charlie lightly pushed off with his left foot. His cotton britches slid easily in the indention of the wooden handrail past the noisy planks. He slid off onto the eleventh one and his small, wiry frame landed softly. From there he moved quickly down the last steps.
The back stairs ended near the doorway to the kitchen in one direction, the hallway to Sister Hildegarde’s office in another and a doorway to the garden in the last. Charlie grabbed his straw hat off a peg, thumbed his suspenders back on his shoulders and glanced in all directions. He ran the short distance to the outside door. Without a second glance, Charlie opened it and navigated through the turnips and potato patch. He dashed through the outside wrought iron gate onto the beach.
Charlie looked around and didn’t see anyone. With a three mile walk ahead, he moved briskly forward. Seagulls screamed and fought for the sea’s leavings along the narrow beach. The waves crashed and threw their salty crests high in the air, closer than Charlie remembered for this time of the morning. Hearty wind gusts blew and Charlie swiped his sandy brown hair from his green eyes. He thought it might storm but the sky was a clear blue with no clouds. Anxious to get to town, Charlie half walked, half ran. He needed to talk to Arne and find some answers. Charlie ran the first stanza of the riddle in his head again:
“One and the same
of each other
but not the same.
The father of those who roam the open spaces
And the father of us all.”
It seemed so simple. Charlie slowed and kicked at the sand. He spotted a piece of driftwood that was slender and long. He picked it up and swung it, feeling its weight. Never knew when you might need a sword. Nearing the edge of town, Charlie searched for any sign of Arne. Or Weasel or Wart. The two dockrats seemed to be everywhere he went these days.
Charlie whirled around, swinging his stick. Where had Arne come from?
Smack! Charlie’s sword smacked into Arne’s.
Slash. Bang. Clap. The swords clashed as the boys danced around each other, parrying for a better angle. Slivers of wood flew in the air.
Crack. Charlie’s sword broke in two.
“Do you yield?” Arne shouted.
“No,” Charlie said.
Poof! Charlie turned to find the sound. “Look at that,” Charlie said as he pointed behind Arne.
Laughing, Arne said, “I’m not falling for that one.”
“No, really. You have to see this.”
Arne frowned for a minute and then half turned to look, keeping one eye on Charlie.
Fascinated, Charlie moved closer to where the wind churned along the top of the sand. A small funnel of swirling sand formed, growing in strength. It spun for a moment and then exploded in a final burst of energy – the sand falling back to the ground. Charlie and Arne looked at each other.
“Have you ever seen anything like that,” Charlie asked.
“It’s like a miniature tornado,” Arne said. “I didn’t think there was such a thing.”
The boys watched another funnel form and explode. They ran up the beach chasing after a third one forming.
“Any word from your uncle,” Arne asked.
“Nah. It’s only been eight days. It’s more ‘n likely he’ll just show up,” Charlie said. “He’s always been more of a talker.”
“Yeah, I guess you don’t need much writing as a traveling man. The home any better?” Arne asked.
“It’s not so bad. There’s some still scared I’ll give ‘em the yellow fever, but mostly they leave me alone.”
Charlie’s face turned to stone. “Don’t matter when he comes. I’m not leaving ‘til I solve the riddle. Got any new ideas?”
“Nah. It’s hard and it’s really long.”
“I know but we’ve got to solve it. We just need to work on the first part.”
“I still think it’s one thing with more than one part.” Charlie frowned. “It’s not a chicken and egg. And it’s not a library and its books. What else is there?”
“I don’t know,” said Arne. “Why didn’t your pa make it easier?”
Charlie stared down at the sand as dug his foot in the ground. “I think he thought he’d be here to help. But he’s not.” Charlie screwed his eyes closed at the thought of how much fun it would have been to share the search with his father. He wouldn’t cry in front of Arne. Charlie sucked in a deep breath.
“ I know he would’ve made it something I’d know,” Charlie said. “It must be something we use every day.
“I don’t know,” Arne said. “There must be other things like that but what?”
“What about a house with people?” Arne asked. “That might relate to the father part.”
“No. How would we know which house?” Charlie shook his head. “We must be missing something.”
Charlie’s stomach grumbled. “Your ma didn’t send a snack, did she?”
“No. We could try the docks. See if anyone would give us something.”
“Fat chance. We’d need money…. Wait a minute. What about coins?”
“What do you mean? We don’t have coins.”