Mystery on Church HillChapter 1: The Field Trip

Below is the first chapter from my new middle grade children’s book, Mystery on Church Hill. It follows another adventure with young brothers, Sam and Derek. Mystery on Church Hill will be released in early December – hope you enjoy!

***

The line inched forward one millimeter at a time. Sam’s stomach growled so loudly he thought everyone around him could hear it. “What’s taking so long?” he moaned.

He peered over the counter at the lunch ladies. With robot-like efficiency, they refilled shiny metal containers with stalks of green broccoli and a few hundred over-processed chicken nuggets. It looked kind of gross, but at this point Sam was so hungry, he’d eat just about anything.

Grrrowwllll his stomach cried out again. He glanced up the line at Caitlin Murphy to see if she noticed. She had a smirk on her face like she knew something, but that was how she always looked, so he couldn’t tell if it was because of him.

“Is that organic broccoli?” Caitlin asked one of the lunch ladies through a cloud of steam rising into the air.

Good grief. Caitlin was always acting like she was too good for everything and smarter than everybody.

The lunch lady ignored her and turned to load more of what the school tried to pass off as food. Sam wasn’t so sure it was. He suspected they mixed up dirt and sawdust in the kitchen and pretended it was nutritious. At least that’s how it tasted most of the time.

“Let’s move, Jackson!”

Sam felt a tray jab him in the back and looked over his shoulder. Billy Maxwell was about to run him over. The lunch line was moving again, and the hungry third graders were getting restless. Perhaps there would be a revolt.

Sam crept forward and held his tray out for the lunch lady to fill his plate. One of the steaming broccoli spears spilled off his tray and onto the floor. It rolled smack onto Caitlin’s shoe.

“Eww!” she shrieked. “Sam Jackson, get your food off of me!”

“Sorry,” said Sam. He reached down to grab the broccoli, but she kicked it across the floor before he could do anything.

“It’s organic now, Caitlin!” laughed Billy.

Sam picked up a milk carton from the rack at the end of the line and headed over to his class’s third grade table. Lunch was already more than halfway over. His friends Michael Harmon and Brandon Perth were almost finished with their lunches they’d brought from home. Sam sat at the end of the table and scarfed his food down.

The kids were raising a racket. The cafeteria grew louder and louder. Maybe it was the bad food. Or the weather. Ever since last week when the late February days were unseasonably warm, everyone seemed to be acting nuts. Sam’s mom said the weather was giving all the kids “spring fever,” whatever that was. Maybe if Sam went to the nurse she would give him some real food.

As Sam finished off his second chicken nugget, a voice blasted from the cafeteria PA system. “Third grade! QUIET DOWN!”

It was Ms. Saltwater, the cafeteria monitor. She ruled the cafeteria with an iron fist, the microphone being her weapon of choice.

“It is entirely too LOUD in here, students!”

Since she talked with the microphone so close to her mouth, it sounded more like “RAH RAH RAHHH!”

Sam thought the mic might actually be in her mouth. Maybe she had swallowed it and sounded like that even when she was away from school. He shuddered just thinking about running into Ms. Saltwater in town. Her name was actually Ms. Salwalter, but everyone called her ‘Saltwater’ because she was so mean. Like a shark. Maybe she’d eaten too many of the chicken nuggets – or a kid.

The third grade did not quiet down enough to please Ms. Saltwater. Everyone had to finish their lunch period with their heads down on the tables while she walked up and down the aisles like a prison guard. She swung the microphone back and forth in her hands like one of those batons used for beating people.

Sam peeked up from his arms once when she walked by and he swore she was growling. Brandon was making faces at him from across the table until Ms. Saltwater came up behind him, smacking her hand down on the lunch table. Bang!

“QUIET!” she yelled.

Yikes.

Eventually the bell rang. Much to Ms. Saltwater’s disappointment, the students were released to their classrooms. When Sam’s class got back to their desks, his teacher, Mrs. Haperwink, had written something on the whiteboard in big block letters.

“RICHMOND’S HISTORY.”

Before she could begin speaking, a hand went up in the back of the room. It was Billy Maxwell.

“Yes, Billy, what is it? I haven’t even asked a question yet.”

“Are we all going to die?” he shouted.

Everyone burst out laughing.

Billy gave a high five to Brandon Perth who was sitting next to him like they’d just scored a goal.

“Billy, what on earth are you talking about?” Mrs. Haperwink sighed.

“Well, the board says ‘Richmond’s History,’ so I figured we’ll all be goners since we live in Richmond!”

More laughter ensued. Brandon clutched his stomach and acted like he was going to roll out of his seat. Mrs. Haperwink, whom everyone but Caitlin called ‘Mrs. H,’ looked exasperated. She glanced up at the clock like she was counting the minutes left until summer vacation.

In the seat next to Sam, Caitlin raised her hand until Mrs. H gave her a weary nod. “Mrs. Haperwink, are we going to talk about our field trip now? I’ve been reading about Richmond’s history online and in the book I checked out of the library. I’m very excited to learn more about it on our trip.”

“Thank you, Caitlin, for being so interested in what we’re learning,” beamed Mrs. H.

Caitlin turned around and gave Billy a look. It was the same one that she’d given Sam in the lunch line.

“Tomorrow,” the teacher continued, “we will be visiting St. John’s Church in the historic Church Hill section of Richmond. Can anyone tell me what is so special about Church Hill?”

“There’s a church there?” shouted Tommy Banks to a shower of chuckles from the class.

Caitlin’s hand shot up once again. Thankfully Mrs. H ignored it this time. Sam didn’t know if he could bear to hear her superior voice give yet another snotty answer today. He tried to think about the question. For some reason St. John’s Church sounded very familiar to him, but he couldn’t remember why.

“I’ll give you a hint, boys and girls. It has to do with a very famous speech given around the time of the American Revolution.”

Sam’s thoughts came together all at once. That’s it! He raised his hand.

“Sam, do you know the answer?” Mrs. H asked, sounding a bit surprised. Sam and his family had just moved to Virginia the previous summer. As a result, he hadn’t learned as much about the local history and places as the rest of the class.

Caitlin squirmed in her seat. She raised her hand higher, not wanting to miss out on the opportunity to show off more of her knowledge.

Sam cleared his throat. “That’s where Patrick Henry gave his speech about liberty.” Out of the corner of his eye he saw Caitlin lower her hand and sink into her seat like a deflated balloon. “He said ‘Give me liberty or give me death!’”

“See – death! We’re all going to die!” Billy yelled again. “We’re doomed!” The class busted out laughing again.

“Out in the hallway, Billy!” Mrs. H ordered. “NOW!”

Billy sauntered out of the room with his head held high like he had won the jackpot. Caitlin stuck her tongue out at him as he walked by her desk. Sam just shook his head.

Billy was funny sometimes, but he always went too far. It was just like his older brother, Derek, who was almost eleven and down the hall in fourth grade. He always tried to be a comedian and thought he was God’s gift to the world.

Mrs. H turned back to Sam. “That’s correct, Sam. Very impressive! Patrick Henry delivered a passionate plea for Virginia to provide troops for the American Revolution against England. It took place during the Second Virginia Convention in 1775. They met in St. John’s Church, because at the time, it was the only building in Richmond big enough to hold everyone.

“Tomorrow we will take buses to the church, and there may even be a short reenactment of that famous speech. I’d like everyone to read the chapter in your textbook about the Revolution, beginning on page 249. To make our trip more meaningful, you’ll want to know about several other important people and events that started the Revolution.”

Sam thought back to why he remembered Patrick Henry. Right after his family had moved to Virginia from up north last summer, he and Derek made an amazing discovery. They found an old coin collection that had been stolen from the Virginia museum sixty years earlier. Some of the rarest and most valuable coins were the 1877 Indian Head cents. Since they had a picture of Lady Liberty wearing a feather headdress, it had reminded their mom of Patrick Henry’s famous liberty speech given nearby.

Maybe some history does come in handy, decided Sam, as Mrs. H went over the details of the trip. Most of the history they learned in school seemed so boring, but it might be pretty cool to see the actual place where Patrick Henry gave his speech.

***

As they got off the bus that afternoon, Sam told Derek about the plans for his class trip the next day.

“No way!” said his brother. “That sounds cool. I wonder if Patrick Henry’s ghost haunts the place.”

“I don’t think he was buried there, Derek. It’s just where he gave the speech.”

“Well, keep a look out for his ghost just in case. It’s an old church, and you know what they have at old churches.”

Derek looked at Sam with a spooky grin.

“What? What do they have at old churches?” Sam couldn’t help asking.

Derek leaned into Sam’s face, opening his eyes wide. “Graveyards,” he whispered, followed by a loud “Boo!”

Sam jumped and Derek ran down the driveway, laughing like a maniac all the way to their house where Mom was waiting on the porch.

Even though Sam knew Derek was just messing with him, he didn’t like talking about ghosts or graveyards. They scared him. He tried to think about Patrick Henry giving his speech and not about whether he was now a ghost. He was thankful the field trip was during the daytime. Nothing creepy could happen then.

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