A Traveller Family Mystery

by Lint Hatcher

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Chapter 3
The Menu and the Microphone

First stop: McDonald's.

They drove slowly round the parking lot, everyone staring dutifully at the original Fifties-style golden arches that straddled the front and back of this particular McDonalds. The giant arches stretched upward from the ground instead of from the roof and, despite their age, they still gleamed bright canary yellow. They gave the restaurant a pleasing, space-age outrageousness and Max wondered aloud why McDonalds had changed such a cool design. Mr. Traveller admitted that he had no idea, pointing out that Krystal restaurants also inexplicably changed from a Fifties-style design in their interiors to a plainer "fast food restaurant"/Hardees look just when classic diners began to get popular again. "Sometimes people who have neat stuff just don't realize what they've got," was all Mr. Traveller could offer. "I've talked with the fellow who runs this place though. He knows what he's got and he's an independent owner. He says everybody around here would chew him out if he even mentioned 'modernizing.' So that's good to know." As Mr. Traveller spoke, the Squire pulled in behind a line of cars at the drive-thru. "Well, except for this drive-thru window, I guess."

"I have to go to the bathroom," Dabney replied from behind a copy of Professor Weirdwolf's Ghastly Tales.

"Take off, Sport," Mr. Traveller said. "But if you're not back in the car by the time we get our food and pay the bill, you're gonna have to hitch-hike home." They were now three cars away from the menu and the microphone.

Dabney slapped the comic book down on the seat and belted out, "Two quarter pounders, large fries, large Coke!" and took off out the door.

"One quarter pounder," Abbey corrected. "He's gonna get fat. He's already chubby and all he does is eat and read."

"They don't serve hamburgers this early, anyway," Mr. Traveller snickered.

Max leaned forward as they drew one more car length closer to the gargantuan plasti-coated menu. "When do we read our reports?" he said.

"Let's get down the road a little more," Mr. Traveller replied through his pipe as he fished in his pockets for money. "We're too close to our usual haunts. Let's get out into the woods, first."

Abbey turned to face the backseat. Once again, she hadn't realized Max had leaned forward and they almost cracked foreheads.

She laughed and said, "I worked on my report for three hours in the library yesterday."

"You didn't go over the word limit did you?" Mr. Traveler cautioned. "Remember. Brevity is the soul of wit."

Max grimaced.

"No," Abbey said. "I didn't."

Max settled down into the backseat and began looking about for Dabney's return.

Abbey went on. "I had to spend most of my time on research. I couldn't find a whole lot about Edgar Rice Burroughs that we don't already have at home. And there wasn't much at all in the library about Arthur Conan Doyle's 'Lost World' story and that Professor Challenger character. People seem to care more about his Sherlock Holmes stories... "

"Don't give us the report, yet," Mr. Traveller interrupted. He glanced up at the rear view mirror where Max's typically silent face was framed. "Did you have any trouble getting your research materials together, Max?"

"Yes and no," Max said. Despite his hatred of writing reports for school, Max actually enjoyed this aspect of roadtripping with the Travellers. Mr. Traveller always required his children, and Max, to write a small report on some aspect of the place they were visiting. Mr. Traveller said he deplored people who lead an "unexamined life" and that, if you research your destination, you always end up getting a lot more out of your visit.

"What do you mean 'yes and no'?"

"Well, there was enough written on Willy Leonard, but not much about him. I mean, they all said pretty much the same details about his life, and then they always ended on a mysterious sort of note... What I mean is, there was just a lot of facts; there wasn't much about what he was like as a person."

"Willy Leonard is a pretty mysterious man," Mr. Traveller said. "He's gotten more mysterious every year since he disappeared -- almost seven years ago now."

"Yeah," Max replied, casting his eyes about for Dabney again. "'Uncle Willy.' Whenever you're ready, I'll read my report. I wonder where Dabney is?"

Actually, it hadn't been that long since Dabney left and Max wasn't all that concerned. Rather, he was a little mystified by a strange jolt of excitement he had felt both of the times when Abbey's face had come so close to his own. She hadn't smelled the same, for one thing. He couldn't really recall her smelling like anything before, but now she was wearing some wispy, fragrant perfume -- something like honeysuckle. And then having her so close had been sudden, but also -- nice, pleasant, more than that... But he didn't feel like putting a name on the feeling. So he was trying to expend that sudden jolt of excitement on a somewhat fake worry about Dabney.

Everyone sat in silence for a few minutes. There was an unspoken, communal sense that each of them was quietly appreciating the morning sunlight and the coolness that still hung in the air.

"Here he comes," Abbey said. She had apparently caught sight of him in her side mirror. Turning round, she stood up on her knees in the front seat and faced the back of the car, leaning over the backrest of her seat and craning her neck a little as she stared out the rear windows of the Squire.

As Abbey leaned into his space, Max looked up at her and began to wonder if she hadn't been trying to collide with him on purpose all morning. Max saw she was wearing a slender sun dress of thin white cotton with a subtle pattern of tiny roses scattered over it. It was the same dress she had worn when they had a dirt rock fight in a newly plowed field about five weeks ago. Then, as now, Max had noticed that Abbey's body was "growing up". He wondered if she realized he was staring at her.

"What has he got now?!" Abbey said in a loud crass voice.

Dabney suddenly pulled open his door and leaped into the back seat. There was a brown paper bag in his hand. "Well, you haven't moved an inch since I left," he said, panting.

"Yeah, well, we have moved an inch," Mr. Traveller replied. "But I think we have a family of ten ahead of us. What did you get into with you ever-decreasing travel allowance?"

"Well," Dabney replied, still catching his breath. "I came out of the wrong door of the restaurant -- on the other side, not this one. And I saw a bookstore in the shops next door."

"That's amazing," Abbey said. "He goes into the bathroom at McDonald's and finds a way to buy more books. What did you get this time?"

She was still standing up on her knees in the front seat, facing the back of the car. Abbey leaned down closer to Max and Dabney as she tried to peer into the paper bag. Again, Max noticed that Abbey was definitely "growing up". She was filling out the top of her sundress where it normally fell flat and boyishly across her chest. His view of Abbey's new cleavage was pretty dramatic so much so that Max couldn't help wondering if she was showing off. Max wondered if this was directed especially at him or if it was the kind of thing that all girls do if they're proud of what's been happening.

"Well... " Dabney said with a theatrical lilt in his voice. "They had a darn good supply of books you would be interested in." He was directing his voice toward Mr. Traveller as he fished through the bag's contents. "They had several old comics they were trying to get rid of. And one of them was this." He lifted a comic out of the bag. It's corners were dog-eared, and Max caught a whiff of the yellowing, acid-eaten newsprint.

"All right!!" Mr. Traveller exclaimed, watching through the rear-view mirror. "Tarzan At The Earth's Core! It looks like one of those stories that William Stout did the art for. Good job, Dabney. Wait a minute. That's our cue." The car ahead had begun to move. "Get ready to tell them what you want, everybody. And Max, you switch places with me. I'm going to have to get you to drive the rest of the way so I can look at these cool books."

For a crazy moment, Max grabbed his door handle and started to move. Then he settled back into his seat. "You guys are nuts," he mumbled.

"Even me?" Abbey said with a smile in Max's direction. She was sliding down into her seat again.

"Yeah, even you," he said with a smile.

Some minutes later, after they finally pulled away from the Pick-Up Window, Mr. Traveller maneuvered the car into a parking space -- ostensibly, to pass out the Egg McMuffins and Breakfast Biscuits and get everyone's drinks in the proper spots so they didn't find themselves running off the road later on. But, rather predictably, that wasn't all he had in mind...

"Hand me that Tarzan comic, if you don't mind," he said to Dabney.

"Here. Don't get anything on it," Dabney said.

Traveller studied the cover of the comic. Tarzan was fighting with a sabre-toothed tiger at the edge of a cliff overlooking a tar pit from which a mastodon and an allosaurus fought to escape. "You know," Mr. Traveller said, organizing his Egg McMuffin with his free hand. "This is something you can enjoy with real relish." He chuckled as he caught Dabney's baleful glance in the mirror. "No, I didn't get any relish on it. But, seriously, this is right up our alley this trip. It was a great idea Edgar Rice Burroughs had -- putting Tarzan in a 'lost world' inside the earth inhabited by creatures from every past era, plus... Well, just look at the cover."

Mr. Traveller held it up for everyone and they each mumbled "Uh, huh" over eager mouthfuls of fast food. Obviously, the idea of fighting for survival against giant prehistoric lizards and three hundred pound cats with foot-long fangs was more appealing to Mr. Traveller at the moment than to his children. He stared at the cover a second more, then shrugged and handed it back to Dabney. "You going to help me eat while I drive, Abigail?" he said then.

"Yeah," she managed to say through another mouthful. "Just give me a chance to get ahead of you a little."

"Okay." Mr. Traveller placed his soft drink in a little plastic holder that was hooked onto his door. Pulling out of the parking space, he guided the car slowly back onto the highway, sighing with satisfaction as their acceleration leveled off at 65 miles per hour. "Well, breakfast is taken care of. Next stop: The Destination Reports."

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