One day in class, Mr. Birkway reads Longfellow's "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls," which tells the story of a man traveling at night by the sea who mysteriously disappears. The students discuss their interpretations of the poem: Sal, for one, is sure the man died, and Phoebe follows her lead, arguing that the man was murdered. When Ben suggests that the man died normally, Sal retorts that death is never normal. Ben responds by suggesting that terrible things can be normal as well. Upset by the poem, Sal and Phoebe race to the police station after school. Phoebe shows the skeptical Sergeant Bickle the evidence she has collected. Mr. Bickle calls Mr. Winterbottom, who takes the girls home. Phoebe insists to Mr. Winterbottom that Mrs. Winterbottom is the victim of foul play, explaining that Mrs. Winterbottom loves Phoebe too much to leave her without any explanation. At this, to the girls' shock, Mr. Winterbottom begins to cry.
One night, after Mrs. Cadaver has left to work the late shift, Phoebe and Sal sneak into Mrs. Cadaver's darkened house. Inside, they find Mrs. Partridge, reading in the dark. When they turn on the lights, the girls are taken aback by the room's unusual furnishings. Phoebe observes the room intently, cataloguing suspicious items. As the girls are leaving, Mrs. Partridge tells them that she has met Phoebe's brother, but Phoebe, perplexed, insists that she does not have a brother.
On their way home, Sal, remembering her own mother, tries to tell Phoebe that Mrs. Winterbottom may have wanted to leave, but had not been able to explain why she wanted to leave to Phoebe. She goes so far as to suggest that Mrs. Winterbottom might not come back, and Phoebe silences her vehemently. Sal lays awake that night, thinking of how she used gifts and objects to remember her mother after she was gone, and musing on the Longfellow poem and Mr. Winterbottom's tears.
The next day, another note, bearing the message, "We never know the worth of water until the well runs dry" appears on Phoebe's doorstep. Before school, Sal and Ben are talking at Ben's locker, and Sal almost kisses him, but misses him and ends up kissing the locker. In English class that day, the students discover, much to their horror, that Mr. Birkway intends to read excerpts from everyone's journals to the rest of the class. He changes the names used in the journals and hides their covers, but everyone can tell who is writing and about whom he or she is writing by the writer's language and topic. One by one, students burst out in anger at each other, as Mr. Birkway, enjoying the "honesty" or "conflictual emotions" of the passages, reads out from journal after journal.
After school, Phoebe and Sal run to the police station once again with the new message and the "clues" in Mrs. Cadaver's house. Sergeant Bickle leads Phoebe out of his office, and Sal idly glances over the pictures on his desk. To her shock, she sees a photo of Sergeant Bickle, his wife, and the lunatic.
Sal and her grandparents reach Yellowstone National Park in the evening and find a motel, planning to see Old Faithful in the morning. Before they go to sleep, she continues Phoebe's story. On her way home from the police station, Sal walks past Mrs. Cadaver's house. To her surprise, Mr. Birkway appears, ready to escort Mrs. Partridge to an event. She soon learns that Mr. Birkway and Mrs. Cadaver are twins, and Mrs. Partridge is their mother. Sal tries to find Phoebe and tell her, but cannot find or contact her at all that night. The next day at school, Phoebe refuses to tell Sal where she was the night before. Sal's perplexity with Phoebe dissipates as Mr. Birkway resumes reading from journals. One writer expresses frustration with English class and its obsession with text and symbols, which causes Mr. Birkway to use an optical illusion to demonstrate how amazing it is to be able to see one thing in two—or more—ways. Then he reads from Sal's journal. The class titters at Sal's tree-kissing proclivities, but is quickly distracted from their amusement when Mr. Birkway, to his increasing chagrin, reads aloud Phoebe's journal entry, which contains her suspicions about Mrs. Cadaver. Chaos breaks out in the class as the bell rings.
The Longfellow poem, the journals, and the mysterious messages illustrate the relationship between the written word and lived experiences. When the students read "The Tide Rises, the Tide Falls" in class, the students project their own experiences onto the poem: Sal, familiar with death and loss, states adamantly that the traveler has drowned in the sea. Phoebe, obsessed and paranoid with Mrs. Winterbottom's disappearance, insists that the man was murdered. Ben holds that the man died "normally." As the students defend their views and follow their assertions to their logical conclusions, the poem becomes a starting point for a discussion of the nature of death. Sal asserts that death is terrible, while Ben argues that perhaps it is both normal and terrible. Thus, literature acts as a mirror onto which individuals can project their experiences and ideas, or a lens through which they can examine, explore and better understand their own stories.
Mr. Birkway further develops the question of literature's relation to life when he reads from and reacts to the journal of a student who dislikes English class. The student objects to literature's indeterminacy, the way in which it can mean almost anything. Mr. Birkway quickly points out that each individual interpretation is valid, simply because that interpretation has meaning for that person. He enthusiastically suggests that being able to see numerous interpretations for one text brings both pleasure and wisdom to a reader. Mr. Birkway's assertion resonates with Sal's emotional undertaking. She must learn to interpret her mother's departure and the ensuing tragedy from more than one point of view in order to reconcile herself with the loss. People, like texts, act and develop according to ambiguous, complex, and often self- contradicting internal compasses. As Sal comes to understand both her mother and herself, she learns that she can and must interpret her mother's actions from a different point of view.
Mr. Birkway, an adult and an English teacher is used to savoring text purely for its aesthetic value, however, he forgets the ways in which the written word can have a direct, and not merely metaphorical, impact on people's lives. He enjoys reading journal excerpts, seemingly oblivious to the havoc they are wreaking upon the friendships of his students, until he finds his own sister, Margaret Cadaver, implicated in Phoebe's journal. Flustered and with a weakening voice, he finds himself compelled to read to the class about Phoebe's suspicions of his own sister. Suddenly, the written word becomes not just a medium for discussion and reflection on personal experience, it becomes a medium for communicating information and ideas that perhaps should not have been shared with the general public.
The events in the novel's internal narrative, Phoebe's story, up until this point have taken place mainly in Phoebe's or Sal's home. As the novel progresses and the two girls draw nearer to their confrontations, Creech sets more events outside of the home: in classrooms, school hallways, and the police station. This gradual shift of setting indicates that Phoebe and Sal have committed themselves to the first stage of their quest, their separation from family, and are preparing for the test of courage that ensues. Sal is involved in a double quest. She will face a test of courage and reconciliation within Phoebe's narrative, and will face and even greater test when she reaches Lewiston in the framing narrative.