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The Cloud Chamber

Maynard, Joyce

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In 1966, when his father's attempted suicide causes the ostracism of the family in their small Montana community, fourteen-year-old Nate copes with his sadness and anger by trying to win the school science fair.

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About the Author:

Joyce Maynard started her writing career when she was fourteen. Her books include the memoirs At Home in the World and Looking Back and the novels To Die For (which was made into a movie starring Nicole Kidman) and, most recently, The Usual Rules (an ALA Best Book for Young Adults). The mother of three grown children, she lives in northern California. Visit her Web site at

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

Even in the pitch dark, Nate figured he could walk this particular stretch of gravel road from the two-lane blacktop to his family's farm, he knew it that well: the barn, the implement shed, the pond where his sister, Junie, liked to launch her little homemade boats, and beyond it, the four hundred acres that made up Chance's Dairy Farm. Their land--just a small piece, compared to the ranches on all sides--stretched out almost perfectly flat as far as the eye could see, except for a single rise, at the far corner, where a stand of poplar trees marked the spot his father called the animal burial ground. Off at the farthest end of the property, the skeleton of a long-abandoned windmill pierced the otherwise-unbroken sky.

A long time ago, when he was little, Nate and his dad hiked to the edge of their land together to watch the total eclipse of the sun. They'd buried a time capsule under the poplars that day, with a Matchbox car inside, along with the wrapper from the Mounds bar they'd shared, a handful of plastic Indians, and his dad's old baseball cap.

Today, as the school bus made its way along the dirt road that curved around the barn to where his family's house came into view, an unfamiliar sight greeted him. A police cruiser was parked out front, and in the yard stood two officers in uniform. One he recognized as the umpire from last summer's Little League games. The other was the dad of somebody from school, a kid a few years younger than he was--sixth grade, maybe. He was one of those regular-looking dads you sometimes saw, manning the grill at the annual baseball picnic, that Nate used to wish, guiltily, his own father resembled--his father, as everyone knew, being different from the others.

Nate's best friend, Larry, sitting next to him, spotted the cruiser too. "Man oh man," he said. "You think your family got robbed or something?"

"Maybe some convict's on the loose," said a girl named Susan, who was always recounting the plots of TV shows like Dr. Kildare and Perry Mason. "And they took your mom hostage."

Across the aisle from Nate, his little sister, Junie, looked suddenly anxious. "It's probably nothing, J," he told her. "I bet they're just collecting for some fund-raiser. More than likely, they want Mom to make her lemon bars again."

By the time he stepped off the bus, Nate knew something was wrong. He could see it in the face of his mother, standing outside in her old blue dress and a cardigan, though the February air was cold enough to sting.

"Take your sister in the house, Nathan," she said, her voice tight and low, as he surveyed the snow-covered yard: the officers, the cruiser, and a second cruiser he hadn't noticed before. Over by the barn a third policeman held tightly to the leashes of a couple of bloodhounds, barking like they'd caught the scent of a dead animal. Rufus, their farmhand, would normally be heading out to the barn for the late-afternoon milking right about now, but he had set his bucket down and was talking with rare animation while another officer--number four--wrote in a notebook.

Before Nate could ask what was going on, one of the officers took hold of his shoulder and pushed him toward the house. "Mom--," he started, but she just stood there, motionless, as if she couldn't hear.

He could make out Larry, staring through a window of the bus. Henry, the driver, was just backing up to turn around. Out the back more kids craned to see as they pointed toward the barking dogs.

"Go on inside, son," the officer said again. Only it was too late. Nate had spotted them. Two other officers moved slowly toward the farmhouse, with a third figure, bent over and staggering, supported between the uniformed men. It took a moment to realize who this other person was: Nate's father.

Junie saw too. She started running toward her father, running as hard as she could, until one of the policemen grabbed hold and held her back.

"This isn't the time to see your dad, honey," he said. "You'd best go inside with your brother."

Nate stared at the figure, slumped between the officers, moving toward them. He recognized the work boots and the old blue jeans, the mop of sandy hair. The part that was new was the blood, pouring down his face, and the terrible, crumpled expression. It looked as if the weight of the whole world were pressing down on his shoulders, as if something had broken inside him that could not be fixed. He must have put his hands to his face at some point, because they were bloody too, and on his work pants were splotches of deep red.

"What's going on?" Nate called out, his voice as choked as if a pair of hands clutched his throat. The officer was holding him by the shoulders.

His mom was there too, putting her arms around him, or trying to. "It's going to be okay," she said, but she didn't sound like she believed it.

"I need to see my dad," Nate yelled, louder this time.

From one of the cruisers, Nate could make out the crackling sound of the dispatcher on the radio and one of the policemen answering in the clipped tone Nate had heard on Dragnet, where whatever terrible thing was going on that week on the show was boiled down to a few flat syllables.

"Victim of a gunshot wound over at the Chance farm," the policeman said into the microphone. "Guy's been missing since this morning, but the dogs finally located him, wandering the back forty. From where the bullet entered his head, you'd never think he could've survived."

"I have to see him," Nate yelled. More desperate now.

"Daddy!" It was Junie this time. They were putting her father in the back of an ambulance that had pulled up, and she was wriggling and crying, trying to get free of the police officer's grasp.

"Bullet must've missed his brain," the officer said into the transmitter. "That's the miracle of it. Unclear exactly what happened. The guy isn't making any sense."

For a long minute Nate didn't move. He heard one of the officers, calling again to get the kids in the house; the barking of the bloodhounds; the police car idling out front; Aunt Sal's car pulling onto the gravel drive next to them. He could hear the faint, muffled weeping of Junie--who seemed to have gotten the impression the blood came from the dogs biting their dad. He heard the cows, overdue to be milked, lowing in the barn and Rufus muttering, "See what I mean? Crazy."

From his mother, no sound.

Nate smelled sweat and realized it was his own. He could feel the thick arms of the police officer, wrapping around his waist and lifting him off the ground, as he bucked to free himself.

"Get your hands off me," he yelled. "Just leave me alone."

"Easy, honey." Aunt Sal this time, her cool hand pressing hard on his jacket, like she was easing an ornery bull back into the stall.

"Let go of me! I want my dad."

He flung his whole body down, scrabbling his fingers in the frozen ground. Hands pulled at him--Aunt Sal and two of the policemen. He could see the feet of the dogs as they pawed against the sides of the police van, hear the scratchy sound of the dispatcher on the radio and, quieter, the voice of his father as he was eased into the ambulance. Not words, just a low moaning.

He tried crawling on his belly. He had to get to his dad, but the hands kept him back. The door slammed and the ambulance pulled away.

One of the officers lifted him up. "Easy, kid. You don't need to be seeing this."

"That's my dad inside. I have to see my dad."

"Your dad's in no shape, son. We're bringing him to the hospital. Your mother's coming along to answer some questions. You'd best let the adults take charge and go on in the house."

Nate kept kicking, so hard one of his shoes came off. He watched the boot sail past the tire swing their father had put up for them and land in a mud-encrusted snowdrift along the gravel.

"Come on now, honey," Aunt Sal was saying. "Let's you and me and Junie go in the house and fix ourselves some hot chocolate."

As he watched the ambulance disappear down the driveway Nate took a last look at the figure in the back--his father. By the time he reached the back door, he was quiet. He even knew to take off his one remaining boot, along with the wet sock, so he wouldn't track mud onto the linoleum.

Copyright (c) 2005 by Joyce Maynard

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