Enjoy this excerpt from Opulence, Kansas, by Julie Stielstra. (Or scroll to the bottom to hear the author reading this excerpt and a bit more!) Readers of all ages love this story. Don't forget to check out our specials in the Meadowlark Bookstore.
So that, in a way, is how I ended up getting off a plane at the Wichita airport, lugging shoulder bags with my laptop and my camera stuff. Len and Maggie were picking me up—they said they’d meet me at the baggage claim.
“Which one?” I’d asked.
Maggie had laughed. “Don’t worry, we’ll find you.”
I live in Chicago, okay? Which means the airport I’m used to is O’Hare. Five terminals, like a hundred and fifty gates, and banks of screens with lists and lists of planes arriving and departing. Mobs of people, all in a hurry, lines into the restrooms, six dollar coffee and no place to sit. You have to look at more screens to figure out which baggage area your luggage will be at (hopefully), where you pay a buck to use a cart because it’s like a mile to where your car is (if you can find it). So I get off in Wichita—with a dozen people—and walk out into this empty concourse. There were only two. We stroll along past a couple fast food places, down some stairs and there’s the baggage claim. Just one. And there are Maggie and Len, and we wait about five minutes and there’s my big suitcase.
Maggie already had a cart.
“I wasn’t sure how much stuff you’d have,” she said. We trundled out the door, across the drive, and there’s the parking lot (just one) and a big, red, dusty crew-cab pickup. Len set the suitcase in the back and held out a hand for my other bags.
“Um, this is my computer and camera stuff,” I said. “Can I just keep it with me? You know, so it doesn’t bounce around too much?”
“Sure,” he said.
“You okay back there?” asked Maggie into the rear-view mirror. “Len needs to shove his seat back so far he’d squish you.” She was driving.
“Oh, sure, I’m fine,” I said. It was kind of cozy, curled up behind her as the truck rumbled along.
“Your flight was okay?”
“Yes, no problem.”
Silence. We passed a Kmart and Walgreens and tire dealers and demolition companies and liquor stores. About like Roosevelt Road out in the suburbs. Flat. Bright. Sun ricocheting off windshields and chrome bum-pers. I put on my sunglasses and was glad I had them.
“How’s your mom doing?”
“Just . . . just getting along, I guess,” I said. And thought, what have I done? Why am I driving along in a pickup truck with two total strangers, to go stay in their farmhouse in God-knows-where-Kansas? Didn’t that whole In Cold Blood thing happen in Kansas? Why did this seem like a good idea?
But I knew why.
Anything to get out of that house, away from my furious, miserable, confused mother. Who was only too glad to be rid of me so she could do or be or say whatever she had to in the wreckage.
“We’re glad to have you, hon,” said Maggie. “I hope it’s a good thing for both of you. Let’s take 96,” she said to Len. “Show her something besides the interstate.”
“How far is it to your house?” I asked.
“Couple hours,” said Len. “Hundred miles or so.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “A hundred miles to pick me up at the airport?”
“Everything’s farther apart out here!” said Maggie. Her eyes in the mirror were smiling. “From what I heard, it can take that long to get across town in Chicago.”
Well, that’s true.
“It’s okay,” she said. “Len had a doctor’s appointment in Wichita this morning, so we came down last night, saw some old friends, got the doc seen, then came and got you. All worked out nicely. Scissor-tailed flycatcher!”
Len smiled. “You and your birds.”
Maggie pulled the truck over on the shoulder. I craned around, looking behind for the traffic to back up . . . there wasn’t any.
“There!” she said, pointing. A huge empty green field stretched away, with barbed wire tacked to fenceposts made of tree branches and a gateway with a bar across tall posts, like out on the range. On the high cross rail there was a bird sitting, about robin-size, maybe, with a long, long tail.
“My favorite bird,” she said. “They have the most beautiful peach-colored breast, and when they fly, that tail opens and closes and swirls. Must be a good sign, to see one when you’ve just come.” She pulled the truck back onto the blacktop, and we rumbled off again.
A few more miles of quiet.
“Did you say you had a computer with you?” Maggie said.
“My laptop and my iPad,” I said. Oh my God. What if they didn’t have internet access? I’d have no email, no access to my photo stream . . . Maggie’s eyes slid sideways to Len and crinkled.
“See,” she said to him. “I told you that fiber optic connection was a good idea.”
“She’s the computer expert,” said Len.
I smiled. Whew.
“Cellphone service can be a problem, though, just to warn you,” said Maggie. “But if you stand right next to the window in your room upstairs, sometimes you can get a signal.”
“Or out by the mailbox,” offered Len.
I must have looked a little shocked because Maggie said, “Don’t worry, there’s a landline. In case somebody falls off the windmill or something.”
We hadn’t had a landline in, like, years. It might actually be better. I could just email Mom. And not have to actually talk to her . . . I got out my cellphone, and there was a signal. I texted Mom.
All OK. On way to farm
OK Then, ping: Be good guest
Okay, well, so much for that.
I sat back in the seat. Len and Maggie seemed to be people not bothered by silence. We just rolled quietly along, past emerald green expanses cut through with little creeks and streams, lined with shaggy trees. I’d thought Kansas would be flat and gray—too much Wizard of Oz, I guess. But it wasn’t, not here anyway. The land had a shape, sort of bones and muscles under the grass, sloping here and valleys there. Red and gold clouds were bunching and rising up in the distance.
“Supposed to storm tonight,” said Len.
“May in Kansas,” said Maggie.
I mean, I didn’t expect exciting conversation. But it was, I don’t know, restful in the back seat of the red truck, big thick tires gripping the road, facing the towering colored clouds.
You could see a long way out here. From the ground.