Clara Poole and the Long Way Round
Chapter 1: The Accident That Started Everything
Clara watched from her plastic lawn chair as the news vans sped below. There were more now, fifteen by her count, jockeying for position among the flashing lights and blaring sirens of an endless string of police cars. She had been in the air for over six hours, long enough for every news outlet within a hundred miles to scramble a team of reporters, locate her, and join the hunt. Finding her hadn’t been difficult. After all, how many twelve-year-old girls were hurtling through the skies of Michigan in a plastic lawn chair tied to hundreds of colorful balloons?
Clara closed her eyes as the wind whipped her face. She felt more like her old self than the version she’d become after her mother’s accident—the girl her father wanted her to be.
Still, as freeing as the heights were, she knew it was only a matter of time until she needed to land. Soon the pinks and purples of the evening sky would be replaced with the black of night. She would reach the coast soon, and then once over the Great Lake, things would turn very serious very quickly.
A symphony of honks blared from the convoy below as another van swerved madly to the head of the pack. But this vehicle was not a news van. It was a family minivan—her family’s minivan. She knew this not because of its powder-blue color or the large cargo carrier on top, but from the panic-stricken face of her grandmother screaming through its moonroof. As sorry as she was for causing her grandmother such fright, it was the person driving whose emotional state concerned her the most. Underneath his signature red baseball cap, Clara knew her father’s face must be equally red with anger.
None of it was new, of course. His face was always like that these days—fed up and angry at one of her countless poor choices. Nevertheless, the idea chilled her. Or was that the temperature dropping?
Clara gave a sheepish wave, hoping to calm her grandmother’s nerves, and retreated back in her chair as pop-pop sounded from above, and she dropped altitude. Soon she would be on the ground, and without a doubt, grounded.
Just say it was an accident, she thought.
Pop-pop! The chair lurched left, and she grabbed onto one of the white plastic arms, clenching it with even whiter knuckles. Clara imagined she heard her grandmother’s shriek, though this time she chose not to look down for confirmation. Instead, she looked up.
A rainbow of colorful balloons flew as happily as a caged bird's newfound freedom. They bumped together, screeching and thwacking, casting oblong shadows of color as they traded places in the wind, a kaleidoscope gone mad.
Flying over Western Michigan in a homemade balloon was not Clara’s intention. It was not even her creation, rather that of her sixth-grade class. Each year at Gerald Ford Middle School, Mrs. Chelsea’s class devised a grand experiment to be unveiled at the end-of-the-year fair. This spring’s focus had been on the principles of gravity and atmosphere, and the kids elected to create an experiment to demonstrate how many balloons it would take to lift a person airborne. They spent the better part of three days inflating hundreds of balloons that were then tied to a white plastic lawn chair. The kids took turns to see who could be lifted into the air, the chair anchored to the ground by a rope tether.
Most were too heavy, but a small group, including Clara, floated with ease. These lucky students were assigned to sit in the chair at different times throughout the fair to demonstrate the experiment.
Clara’s was the last spot of the day. At 2 p.m., she climbed in, buckled the crude safety harness, and began letting out the rope, one crank at a time. She continued until she reached a piece of tape on the cord labeled Stop! 10 feet. Then, she sat.
Being it was the end of the day, most people had already seen the experiment and turned their attention on getting one more bounce in the bounce house or devouring one more funnel cake before the fair ended. Even Mrs. Chelsea had wandered off to chat with the other teachers. That was fine with Clara, who frankly preferred being alone. But after a while, even she was bored by the quiet.
Maybe I’ll crank myself back down and be done with it, she thought.
Or ... I could go higher.
So she did, and with each revolution of the crank, she floated until she was twenty feet in the air. The wind tugged at the balloons. Still, no one was watching. She let out more rope, going even higher.
The tether sang in a high-pitched hum as the wind tugged at the chair. But there was something else tugging, something inside her, something that demanded attention—a need.
Clara looked down at the pin securing the tether to the chair, and before knowing why, pulled it free. The balloons caught the wind in an instant, and she hurtled into the sky.
Jump! she thought.
But in that brief instant, she was pulled higher. No, jumping would undoubtedly result in a broken leg, or worse.
Cries rang out below as Mrs. Chelsea and the other teachers ran across the fairgrounds, waving their hands as if it might do something to stop her from flying away. Of course, it didn’t, and a split second later, their panicked faces were gone, the school ground disappeared, and she rocketed west.
Thwack! Pop! The noise jogged Clara back to earth, or rather, back to air. Of the hundreds of balloons, she couldn’t count how many remained, but she knew there were not enough to keep her airborne much longer. These were not the type of balloons meant for long-distance flight, or short distance, for that matter. Clara doubted whether they were strong enough to last a birthday party.
This was good or bad, depending on how you looked at it. Landing meant she’d live to see another day. On the other hand, landing also meant confronting her father, and she was confident that, accident or not, her punishment for this escapade would be legendary. Still, on yet another hand, if one could have more than two hands, what appeared in front of her only meant bad news. After an entire day of crossing over farmland and foothills, the vast silver mirror of Lake Michigan emerged. Once she left land behind, there would be nothing but water beneath her until she reached Wisconsin—if she even made it that far. She decided not to try.
Clara pulled a bobby pin from her hair and started hauling down balloons string by string. She stabbed at them feverishly, popping one after another, until she started to descend—maybe too quickly. She closed her eyes and braced for impact.