A Measure of Disorder
Book One of the Mother-Earth Series
by Alan Tucker ©2010
Jenni woke and stretched, feeling refreshed. Around her, others did the same while some continued to nap. She saw wisps of mist dissipating around the picnic area as she sat up. Some of her classmates and Ms. Pap looked perplexed, as if they hadn't intended to sleep, but had anyway.
Sara and Tori woke and sat up with surprised looks on their faces. Jenni shrugged. "Weird, huh?"
"Very," Sara said.
"Class!" Ms. Pap announced, checking her watch. "You have some time to finish up before we need to leave, but don't stray too far. I have a horn," she said, holding up a canister air horn, "that I'll sound when it's time to head back to the bus. Please come straight in when you hear it."
"Let's get our last two clippings and maybe we’ll have time to explore a little bit before we have to leave," Jenni said while she stretched once more and picked up her bag.
The three girls headed to the north side of the lake to find their final samples.
Tori stopped and pointed. "Doesn't that cloud look like a dinosaur?" she asked in a quiet voice.
"Cool!" Sara said. "It really does."
That's strange, Jenni thought, noticing more clouds besides Tori’s dinosaur, the sky was clear before. It hadn't been that long — had it?
They continued walking along the edge of the lake. As Jenni looked around, everything seemed brighter, the colors more vivid, than before.
"Whoa," Jenni heard Sara say off to her right. "Guys, come look at this"
Sara had moved a few yards away from the shore and stood before a large leafy bush. As Jenni and Tori jogged over, Sara pointed to some fruit that dangled from its branches. They were the size of big plums, deep blue in color, and grew in clusters of three or four. Leaning in closer, Jenni saw the skin also had swirls of dark red and maroon.
"Have you ever seen anything like that before?" Sara asked.
Tori shook her head and Jenni answered, "No. Never."
Jenni took her camera out and snapped a couple of pictures. Sara found her clippers and snipped a branch with a few leaves and the fruit, while Tori made notes on their map about the plant and its location. Sara placed the sample in an empty sandwich bag, like the others they’d collected, and carefully put everything back in her pack.
"I'm sure Ms. Pap will know what it is," Jenni said. "Let's go find one more then we can go back and show it to her."
Sara and Tori nodded and they resumed walking.
Jenni untied the sweater she had around her waist and stopped to put it in her bag. A flash of orange and red caught her eye on the ground and she crept over for a closer look. A flower stood by itself in a patch of dark green grass. It was a vibrant orange with red and pink blotches on the petals and shaped like a daffodil, only bigger than any she'd ever seen. She stared at it for a few seconds, then called Sara and Tori over to look.
"It's beautiful," Tori said, wide-eyed.
Jenni brought her camera out again and snapped a shot. "Do you think we should take it? I haven't seen any others."
"Me either," Sara said, shooing a large fly away from her face, "I don't want to clip it if it's the only one around."
The fly buzzed lazily toward the flower. Suddenly, the petals expanded and a small red tendril shot out from the center of the bloom and snatched the fly out of the air. Tendril and fly disappeared into the flower.
Jenni yelped and jumped away from the plant, her friends following suit. The three took a few more steps back and huddled together, staring at the beautiful, seemingly innocent flora.
"You guys saw that, right?" Jenni asked with a tremor in her voice. Sara and Tori both nodded. "Okay, so I'm not insane, but what the heck is going on here?"
A sound blared in the distance from the direction of the picnic site. Ms. Pap was blowing the air horn for everyone to return. The girls took one more look at the fly-eating flower, then grabbed their things and hustled back to the group.
Ms. Pap blew the horn several more times before they made it back. Everyone looked nervous or upset, and many, including Jenni, Sara, and Tori, were out of breath.
"Head count please, Mr. Kain," Ms. Pap said. She was wrapping a bandage around the forearm of Deena Martz, another girl from the class. Deena’s hazel eyes were wide with fear, and she was pale beneath her long dark hair. She sniffled a couple of times and took big, shuddering breaths, trying to calm herself down.
"What happened?" Jenni asked, looking at Deena’s arm. The wrap was already seeping blood from a nasty wound.
"Something bit her in the forest behind us," Ms. Pap answered. Then she said louder to the group, "Everyone pack up, we’re heading back to the bus."
"Looks like we're all here," Mr. Kain reported. "No other injuries." Jenni thought he was going to say something more, but he didn't.
Ms. Pap adjusted Deena’s dressing, "Roger, check your cell phone and see if you have coverage; mine didn’t earlier."
Mr. Kain pulled his phone from a small pocket on the side of his pack and flipped it open. "No, nothing."
They helped Deena to her feet, and Ms. Pap folded up the first aid kit and slung her pack over one shoulder. "Let's get moving — quickly, but don't run. Also, if you have a cell phone, please check to see if you have any signal. If you do, come see me or Mr. Kain. Head south along the shore here and we'll cross the stream and get back to the trail."
Jenni found her phone and turned it on as they followed the edge of the lake. It chirped through its startup and then flashed a "No Signal" message. No one else had anything either.
"Too far up in the mountains," Sara said as she put away her phone. "We never get anything when we go camping in the summer either."
"Does the other side of the valley seem farther away than before?" Tori asked, looking across the lake.
It did. Jenni shivered slightly when she gazed across the water. The mountains in the distance looked bigger, menacing in her imagination. Something very strange was going on, and she had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.
The class moved rapidly around the lake, except for Mrs. Minch who twisted her ankle and nearly fell when the heel of her shoe got caught between some rocks. She refused to walk barefoot, so Mr. Kain had to take her arm and help her along.
They stopped short at the stream.
What had been a small, babbling brook, no more than six feet across, was now more accurately called a river. It was at least forty feet to the other side, though it didn’t look very deep. Because of some rocks and a couple of large tree branches stuck in the middle, it looked passable, but not without some work.
Ms. Pap, still helping Deena, was the last to join them and stare at the transformed waterway. Her mouth fell open in amazement.
Mrs. Minch babbled something about being lost in the wilderness and plopped down on a small boulder by the edge of the river. Carrie sighed and went over to quiet her.
Mr. Kain walked back to where Ms. Pap stood and said, "I don't understand. There was no other outlet from the lake. This wasn't here this morning!"
"I know," Ms. Pap said, worried, "but whatever's going on, we need to get Deena to a doctor." She looked around at the class, "Take Brandon and one of the other boys with you, cross the river and find the trail to the campground. The bus driver should be able to reach someone on his radio and call for help. If not, maybe there's something in the bus we can use as a litter to get Deena back down there."
Jenni looked at Deena, whose brow was wet with sweat and she shivered now and then. She certainly didn't look up to crossing the river without help.
Mr. Kain nodded and turned to the group. "Brandon, you and Todd are coming with me down to the bus."
"What about the rest of us?" Mrs. Minch piped up. "What are we supposed to do?"
"Just wait here until we get back. The three of us can go quicker than the whole group and Deena needs attention as soon as possible." Mr. Kain stepped into the river, testing rocks as he went. Brandon and Todd secured their packs and followed him.
Mrs. Minch took a breath for a retort but Carrie cut her short. "Mom! Would you relax? You're not helping." Mrs. Osorio moved over to calm Mrs. Minch and they talked quietly.
Jenni guided Sara a couple steps away from the others and said, "This is crazy. What's going on?"
"I don’t know, but Deena doesn’t look too good. My dad said there aren't any poisonous snakes up here, what do you think bit her?"
"Maybe there's worse things out here than snakes … or carnivorous flowers."
Mr. Kain, Brandon and Todd reached the far side of the river, each dripping to various degrees, but safe. They then headed for the trail to the campground.
Ms. Pap helped Deena sit down and pulled a water bottle out of her pack. Deena sipped gratefully and then lay on the sand at the river’s edge. The rest of the group found places to sit and collect their thoughts. Mr. Kain returned to the far side of the river a couple of minutes later and called across.
"The trail is gone!"
Ms. Pap digested this information before replying, "Follow the river down the hillside! You shouldn't be able to miss the campground!"
Mr. Kain gave her a thumbs up and jogged back to where Brandon and Todd were waiting in the trees. Once again, the three disappeared from view.
Jenni looked back at her friends. Sara had pulled out her MP3 player and was listening to music with her eyes closed. Tori had her back to the group and stared out at the lake. Jenni got up and stepped to where Ms. Pap sat with Deena's head cradled in her lap.
"Is there anything I can do to help?" Jenni asked, crouching near her teacher.
Ms. Pap exhaled and said, "Deena's resting quietly for now. Why don't you go around and take an inventory of what we have available from everyone? Food, water, tools — anything else you think useful. I don’t know what's going on here but we'd best be prepared.”
"We found some fruit earlier — from a bush," Jenni offered.
Ms. Pap's eyes widened. "Did you eat any of it?"
"Good. Make sure you don't. Some wild fruits and berries can be poisonous.”
Jenni nodded. "Got it. I'll go work on a list of supplies," she said and went back to where her bag lay. She found her notebook and a pen. Turning to a blank page, she drew three columns, and labeled them: Food, Water, and Other. After digging through her bag, she wrote down two cereal bars, one bag of red licorice, one banana and half a bottle of water on her list. Jenni got up and worked her way through the class while they waited for Mr. Kain and the others to return.
They had a decent amount of food and water, Jenni thought, at least enough to last until tomorrow, but she didn't come up with many other useful items. Matt Durston had a small GPS device that was supposed to work anywhere in the world, but it wasn't displaying any information. That hadn't helped Jenni's anxiety in the least. Charles, Will, Zoe, and several others had portable communication devices of one type or another: mini laptops, video games, cell phones — all of which worked, but had no signals from an outside source. The twins, Nate and Ethan, each had pocket utility knives, which Jenni added to her list. Mrs. Osorio had packed a small camping cookware kit. It folded out into a miniature pot and frying pan, and had a single set of silverware.
Her last stop brought her to Alisha, Maggie, and Lori. They had set themselves up on a fallen tree that had been stripped of its bark, making it a comfortable bench compared to the rocks and other logs that were available. The three girls sat with their heads together, whispering and giggling occasionally.
Jenni steeled herself and stepped up to them. "Alisha, I'm making a list of our food and water and stuff. What do you guys have?"
Alisha glanced up briefly. "Buzz off, Kershaw." Maggie and Lori tittered.
Jenni suppressed a growl. "Alisha, Ms. Pap asked me to take an inventory of our —"
"I don't care if she crowned you Queen of the Geeks,” Alisha snapped. "What's mine is mine. Not yours or anyone else's. Go away." Alisha turned away and put her over-priced MP3 player’s buds in her ears.
Jenni didn’t bother asking Maggie or Lori — Alisha had just stated their opinion for them and they were too shallow to form their own. Jenni spun on a heel and walked back to Ms. Pap.
Deena was still sleeping, her head in Ms. Pap's lap. Jenni sat down quietly next to them.
"Okay, I've got a list," she said. "Alisha and her pals wouldn't tell me what they had though."
Ms. Pap briefly looked over the items and nodded. "Thank you, Jenni. I'll have a talk with Alisha later, but this will do for now." She glanced at her watch. "The boys should be back soon I would think."
"Okay, but I still don’t understand why the GPSes and stuff don't work. It doesn't make sense. I mean, this is what they're for, right?"
"Yes. My understanding is they should work, even out here. We're not that far from —"
They noticed movement across the river. Mr. Kain and the boys ran to the bank and picked their way back across to the group. Todd slipped on a mossy rock about halfway and fell into the cold water. Brandon and Mr. Kain grabbed his arms and helped him up. Any other time, Jenni would have laughed at his misfortune — he was soaked head to toe and shivering — but she was too anxious about their predicament.
The three made it across and sat down near Ms. Pap and Deena. Mr. Kain and the boys were breathing hard and had a few cuts and scrapes on their arms and faces.
"It's gone," Mr. Kain said, trying to catch his breath. "We followed the river for a few hundred yards. It ends in a waterfall with a drop of at least a couple hundred feet down into a gorge … with another river at the bottom." He paused, and Ms. Pap stared in shock. "We scouted west along the edge of the gorge for at least a quarter-mile and it just keeps going. The bus, the campground, the road — everything's gone."