Authors: E.L. Konigsburg
But as he was leaving for the airport, she handed him a gray metal lockbox and asked him to take it back to Sheboygan with him.
“What is this?” he asked.
“An archive of your father's life. Take it, dear. It should go back to Wisconsin with you. On the plane.”
Peter was dreading the two flights plus the hour-and-fifteen-minute layover in Detroit, and since he had carried on a briefcase in addition to his overnight bag, he would have to check his bag and be burdened with the care and keep of an awkward carry-on if he took the gray box. “Mother,” he said kindly, “can't this wait? Please. Can't you bring it up with you when you come to the opening?”
“I would like you to take it with you, dear.”
“Taking it will mean that I'll have to check my suitcase.”
“Yes, dear.” She held the box out to him.
Peter took the box from her and felt its heft. “How will this ever get through security?” he asked.
“That won't be a problem, dear. When they open it, they'll find nothing in there but papers. And the box will fit in the overhead or under your seat.”
“I think this ought to wait until you come up for the opening of the new show.” Peter knew his mother hated to “bother him with things,” so he thought that his reluctance would be enough to make her reconsider. However, she was not to be put off.
“Take it with you, dear,” she said. “I think you need to have it with you.”
“I can provide archival storage if that's what you mean.”
“That, too, dear. But more than that. I think you need what is in there.”
“Yes, dear. Need.”
Peter took the box.
MEDEO CUT ACROSS THE GROUNDS
between his house and Mrs. Zender's. He ran as fast as he could, but the property was dense with live oaks and pines, so the soil was spongy from fallen leaves and pine needles laid down in descending degrees of decay. On Mrs. Zender's side of the line, fallen branches and ropey kudzu vines cluttered the way. On Amedeo's side, the path was clear. The pines didn't branch for miles up, and the bark on the long stilts of their trunks was loosely attached in patches of a sloppy collage. The live oaks were as old as history; their trunks were blotched with lichen, their branches draped with Spanish moss. The lichen and the moss were like barometers, inching from gray to greenâdry to wetâand the sunlight that came through was refracted by air so moist it draped small rainbowed droplets on the horizontal limbs.
Running across spongy earth to get home was new to
Amedeo. In his former life, he had always been a city child. He had ridden city buses to get to school and an elevator to get home.
Amedeo was a late-in-life child. His mother had had a whole life and a whole other marriage before he had come along. Her first marriage was short-lived and childless and she referred to it as “training wheels.” Although Amedeo bore his father's surname, Kaplan, his mother continued to use not her first married name but her maiden name, Loretta Bevilaqua, professionally. His mother was an attorney by training, an executive by temperament. She described herself as a navigator. At work or home it was Loretta who determined direction, altitude, and speed. She was and always had been the principal breadwinner and decision maker in the family.
Jacob KaplanâJakeâwas the pretty one. He was an artist. Laid back and younger than his wife, he made a lot less money, so Jake was the family steward: He checked safety and offered comfort.
Being an only child and the sole passenger, Amedeo spent a lot of time in the company of adults, safely buckled in.
After her divorce from Jake, Infinitel offered Loretta Bevilaqua another promotion. This one involved relocating. Cell phones were on the cusp of becoming a major
means of telephone communication, and Infinitel wanted Loretta Bevilaqua to transfer to Florida to buy land so that the company could build towers that would allow them to blanket the state with cell phone signals.
When Amedeo learned that his mother was moving them to Florida, he thought he would have to give up his major dream: to discover something.
He didn't expect to be a star explorer like Columbus or Magellan, men who set out with a mission and who had sponsors and whose names are as important as their discoveries. He simply wanted to find something that had been lost, something that people didn't even know was lost until it was foundâby him.
When Amedeo was in the fourth grade, the owner of a farm near his mother's hometown of Epiphany, New York, was draining a swamp and discovered a mastodon tusk sticking out of the ground. The farmer immediately cordoned off the area and invited scholars from nearby Clarion State University to help with the excavation. By the time they finished, they had uncovered the complete skeleton of a fifteen-thousand-year-old mastodon. With that discovery only two hundred miles away, Amedeo wondered if any Ice Age wonders could be concealed beneath the skyscrapers of his hometown, New York City.
And that is when he joined the Backyard Explorers, an after-school club. There were not many backyards to explore in his neighborhood, but his group went on field trips to the American Museum of Natural History twice a year, and in between they learned about real backyard explorers.
Some of the stories involved boys who were not much older than he was. There was a famous true story of a young Bedouin shepherd who followed a stray goat into a cave in the Judean desert, where he found clay jars filled with ancient writings that turned out to be copies of the Bible that had not been seen for two thousand years. Those were the famous Dead Sea Scrolls. There was also the story of the four French boys who went for a walk one day and fell into a hole in the ground and found that the hole was the opening to a cave that had walls covered with paintings not seen for seventeen thousand years. That hole was the famous cave of Lascaux.
To find mysterious writings would be even more wonderful than finding a mastodon tusk, but when Amedeo learned that his mother was moving them to Florida, he thought he would have to give up his dream. What chance was there of discovering something in a state that has in its geographic center a Disney-designated Discovery Island that is itself in the middle of a designated Adventureland
with a ticket booth at its entrance and a gift shop at its exit? What chance was there of discovering something in a state where every square inch of real estate has been explored and/or exploited or was soon to be purchased by his mother for cell phone towers?
Amedeo's mother explained that St. Malo was not Disney-Orlando, and it was not condo-Miami. St. Malo was in the north, in the part of Florida that had once been settled by the French. Amedeo decided that French was good.
And so was the place on Mandarin Road.
There were only two houses on their side of the street. Both properties reached from the river to the road, and the length of two football fields separated them. Built at the same time, the houses were fraternal twins. Theirs was Mediterranean, the other Italianate. Both houses had been built on the bank of a scenic curve of the St. Malo River, and the surrounding untamed natural wilderness kept them hidden from public view.
The grounds around their house were shabby. Wornout, overgrown shabby. The driveway had broken chunks of concrete that had levered up like tectonic plates, and the lawn was a camouflage pattern of brown, black, and green: chinch bugs, fungus, and weeds. The house itself was hidden behind overgrown shrubs. Within the house, the walls
were damp, and the floor warped. In one of the bedrooms, the mildew behind the wallpaper had seeped through in a mysterious pattern that Amedeo thought of as hieroglyphs. Cobwebs in the laundry room hung like hammocks, and even they had accumulated dust. The glass in the windows facing the river was as wavy as the lens of a cheap telescope and as pitted as a shower door.
The house stood close to the spot where the French had built a fort in the 1500s.
Amedeo remembered that it was a French soldier in Napoleon's army who found the Rosetta Stone while digging in an old fort in Egypt. And the boys who discovered the cave of Lascaux were French.
St. Malo could be all right.
As soon as she bought the property, Loretta hired an array of architects, contractors, and interior designers, and for a full year their place on Mandarin Road became a construction site complete with not one but two portable toilets in the front yard.
By the time Amedeo and his mother moved in, every square foot of the lawnâfront and backâwas manicured. Every shrub was pruned, every tree coifed, and every corner of the house was endlessly decorated. The house sparkled. The pool, enlarged and retiled, sparkled too.
There were no sidewalks. Except for the occasional
UPS or FedEx truck, the neighborhood streets were empty. There was an occasional runner, but no one seemed to walk anywhere.
Theirs was a pristine, lovely house in a pristine, lonely neighborhood.
Maybe because St. Malo was flat instead of vertical, maybe because Mrs. Zender had been part of the neighborhood for a long time, or maybe because the neighbors whose houses sparkledâthey all didâresented the fact that Mrs. Zender's house did not, people talked. Between the time Amedeo Kaplan used her turquoise princess dial-up phone and the time he stepped off the bus into a cloud of lovebugs, Amedeo had heard enough of Mrs. Zender's story to know he wanted to know more.
Aida Lily Tull had once been the richest girl in town. Her father, Aloysius Harding Tull the Third, and his father before him, Aloysius Harding Tull the Second, had owned hundreds of acres of timberland all over north Florida and south Georgia. They also owned the paper mill. They were called the AlTulls, and until just after World War II, half the people in St. Malo worked for the AlTulls.
AlTull the Third married Vittoria de Capua. She was
from Italy. No one asked from where in Italy. It could have been Rome, or it could have been Rimini. It didn't matter. She was Italian, and she was beautiful, and she spoke three of the Romance languages. Rumors were started that she was a duchess. The rumors were never substantiated nor denied.
AlTull built the big house on the river for her. It was the biggest and fanciest, most up-to-date house in St. Malo, and Mrs. AlTull the Third soon became a town legend. She was extravagant. People whispered that she had the undersides of her shoes polished and couldn't abide sleeping on sheets that had been folded. Contour sheets had not yet been invented, so the maids would iron her sheets flat and carry them like a tarpaulin to the bed and tuck them in with hospital corners. But she was beautiful, and she spoke three Romance languages.
In St. Malo, Vittoria de Capua Tull
No one saw much of Aida Lily as she was growing up. She went to a private school in St. Malo for only a few years, and a chauffeur drove her there and back. After school she had private lessonsâvoice and piano and Italianâso she never played with other kids. It was the era of the notorious Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and Aida Lily's mother, the duchess, said that she was guarding her daughter for fear of kidnappers.
Aida Lily became a mystery; famous but hidden.
When Aida Lily was about ten, she was sent to boarding school in New England and spent her summers with the duchess in Europe until World War II put an end to leisure travel.
Meanwhile, AlTull was making a fortune. The mills were manufacturing corrugated cardboard for boxes, and during the war, everything from food rations to toilet paper needed a box. Plastic for packaging did not come in until after the war.
Aida Lily Tull graduated from boarding school, but she was never presented to St. Malo society even though generations of AlTull women had always been prime debutante material. Her mother was Italian, and it was rumored that the duchess once said that the
debutantes never did much besides entertain each other at luncheons of iced tea and avocado salad, and everyone in St. Malo knew that Vittoria de Capua Tull served wine at luncheons even if the guests were young and debutantes.