Read an Excerpt
Through the Skylight
The Leather Bag
Jared figured it was now or never. They’d been in the old Italian church for an eternity. So the minute his mom was finally done talking about the painting of the saint with his hands tied behind his back and all the arrows sticking through his chest, he headed down the center aisle, hurried past the pews where old women were kneeling, and grabbed his skateboard from the entrance to the gloomy chiesa. The white-haired signora selling postcards at the entryway slid her glasses down her nose and squinted at him disapprovingly as he hopped onto the deck of his board, pushed through the velvet curtains, and burst out into the open space of the Venetian square.
It was a week till Carnevale, Venice’s huge costume party, and everywhere Jared looked, people were already wandering around in fancy getups.
“Whoa! Whoops! Sorry!” he called out to a woman in green face paint standing on a box, where German tourists dropped coins into a basket at her feet. The back wheels of his skateboard had knocked her basket flying. She glared at him, the Medusa-like lengths she’d woven her hair into quivering. Behind her, Jared could see his sister Shireen hurrying out of the shadowy entrance to the church and onto the square. She was about his size. They had the same brown eyes and thick black hair. Sometimes people mistook them for twins, and that drove him crazy—she wasn’t like him in any other way, and plus, he was a year older.
“Jared!” he could hear Shireen yelling as he whizzed past a café table ringed with girls in voluminous ball gowns drinking cappuccinos and texting on their cell phones. He crouched low on his board, ignored his sister, and sped toward the embankment fronting the deep waters of the Venetian lagoon.
“Jared!” Shireen shouted again. “Mom! Tell him to stop!”
But he’d had enough. They’d been in the church for an hour. And tomorrow they’d go to another one to look at more paintings. And the day after that, another. He dropped his heel and pushed again. Up ahead he saw a lumbering vaporetto force its way between crowds of bobbing gondolas.
“Ja-red! Stop! That’s the wrong boat!”
He glanced over his shoulder as the wheels of his board spattered a knot of pigeons with a spray of lagoon water that had spilled over at high tide. Shireen was forcing her way through the crush of people milling around. His mother and his youngest sister, Miranda, were a few steps behind, Miranda craning her neck back to get one last look at the Medusa lady on her box.
“The number eighty-two, Jared!” Shireen was pointing furiously at a vaporetto docking one platform farther down. The breeze had caught her dark hair, wrapping its ends around her face.
“We need to take the eighty-two! The number one takes forever!”
Jared turned his back on Shireen, pulled his ski cap lower, and eased his weight on the board. He’d reached the wooden ramp stretching out to the vaporetto stop. With one hard kick of his heel he popped his skateboard into the air, tucked it under his arm, and maneuvered through a thicket of luggage-toting grown-ups exiting the boat. “MOM!” He heard Shireen’s protest lifting through the air as he pushed through the doors of the vaporetto cabin and grabbed a seat, grinning to himself.
The drizzle started falling as the vaporetto crept down the curving length of the Grand Canal, pulling in at every stop. Now Shireen was really steaming.
“You’re such an idiot,” she hissed to Jared. “How long have we been here? And you still don’t know the difference between the number eighty-two and the number one?”
Jared looked up at the route board screwed above the cabin door. He hated to admit it, but Shireen was right. The number one did take forever. Eleven stops down. Seven more to go. He spun the wheels of his skateboard against his hand and gave her a sheepish “Sorry.”
“Not good enough!” Shireen frowned back. “What if it’s closed? It’s Wednesday, remember?”
It took him a second. Wednesday? Then it hit him. Wednesday in Italy wasn’t like Wednesday in America. Stores here closed at all sorts of weird hours. On Wednesdays they were barely open at all.
Miranda looked from Shireen to Jared. “Mom?” She leaned forward in her seat to catch her mother’s eye. “Is the bookstore closed already? It can’t be closed. It’s the only one in Venice.”
Meaning, Jared thought, the only English bookstore in Venice. Miranda and Shireen had been making lists for a week, ever since their mother told them about it. He couldn’t blame them. Italian TV was awful.
“We’ll see,” their mother answered, her lips pressed a bit tight. His sisters glared at him. He pulled his skateboard in to his chest and slunk down in his seat as the vaporetto went chugging down the canal.
Three-quarters of an hour later, no one was any happier. The vaporetto had finally let them off, and then there were fifteen minutes of turning down skinny little side alleys, climbing over canal bridges, and angling across tiny campos rimmed by shuttered stores. Jared couldn’t even skate. It was pointless. The drizzle had turned into a cold, hard winter rain, so it would be suicide to try to ollie up the steps of the bridges. Half an inch of water was sluicing across the alleyways. They were getting drenched.
Their mother pulled them up to shelter in the tunnel of a long covered alley running alongside a wide campo. Jared could just barely make out the name of the square painted on the wall of a building on the far side: GHETTO NUOVO.
“We’re here!” he announced happily. His sisters looked at their mother expectantly. She pointed wordlessly at a storefront off to the right. There were no lights on inside. A metal shutter had been drawn over the door. The English bookstore was closed.
A wind gust swirled down the sheltered calle, rushing freezing pages of rain over them. They scurried back.
“Thanks a lot!” Shireen fumed at Jared as she wiped the water off her face.
Then Miranda saw it. “Mom, look!” She pointed at a glimmer of light that was shining through the windows of the store next to the bookshop. “That one’s open. Maybe we can go in there while we wait for the rain to let up.”
Their mother sized up the distance across the exposed square. Another swirl of rain-chasing wind from the back of the calle made up her mind.
“Right,” she said, grabbing Miranda’s hand. “Let’s go.”
“Mi dispiace,” their mother apologized to the old man sitting behind the wooden counter of the shop as the bell-tinkling door closed behind them. Water was dripping from the ends of their scarves and pooling on the marble floor.
“Prego.” He smiled. “Welcome.” He had a white beard. A pair of little round glasses perched on the end of his nose. Behind the wire-rimmed lenses his blue eyes gleamed with pleasure at the sight of the children. A black cat curled at his feet blinked at them as they stood there awkwardly. The shopkeeper disappeared briefly into a back room and came back out holding a towel. “Please.” He smiled again, handing it to their mother. “For the children.” She took it from him and briskly toweled Shireen and Miranda off. Jared held his hand out for the towel before she could do him. He wiped his face and dried off his skateboard.
“Thank you,” their mother said, handing the towel back to the man. “You’re very kind.”
“No,” he responded, “it’s nothing. The rain is bad.” Jared noticed that he seemed to be studying them intently over the rims of his glasses, like he was trying to work something out. Well, it wasn’t the first time that had happened, though it still bugged Shireen if people were too obvious about it. “We’re adopted, okay?!” she’d blurted to a cashier in a Kroger Food and Drug at home when she caught the lady staring at them as they stood together in line: Miranda, a blond, blue-eyed, round-faced miniature version of their mother; she and Jared with their black hair, brown eyes, brown skin. “Me and him! We’re adopted. From India. Get it?” But it didn’t really bother Jared anymore. People got used to it. After a while, they forgot. And besides, no one at the skate park cared. So he just folded his wet ski cap into his coat pocket, propped his skateboard in a corner by the door, and was turning to check out the contents of the shop when he realized something.
The old man wasn’t looking at them as though he thought they were an odd grouping—it was more like he’d been waiting for someone exactly like them. Like he’d been expecting them.
The old man caught Jared eyeing him and gave him a quick wink, then turned back to their mother. “So, signora, can I help you with anything?”
“No,” she admitted, “we’re really just escaping from the rain.” She gestured out the window to the torrential downpour.
“Prego,” he said again. “Stay as long as you want.” With another welcoming nod of his head, he returned to the book he’d been reading at his counter.
It was one of those dark little shops they’d seen all around the back neighborhoods of Venice, jammed full of masks for a Carnevale of fifty or a hundred years ago: lion-faced masks, jesters’ masks, and simple black-ribboned masks for hiding your eyes. The shelves were stacked with brass candlesticks; embroidered scarves; velvet slippers; big blue bowls of mismatched, multicolored glass Murano beads; and really old portrait paintings of ancient bearded Venetian men in bright cloaks and red skullcaps. The doges of Venice, Mom had taught them, were like dukes, and were the only ones who wore those caps. Stacks of musty books were piled in every corner. The wall behind the old man’s desk was covered with framed maps of Venice drawn in black ink on yellowing parchment. At the opposite end there was a statue made of blue porcelain, almost life-size, holding a fraying leather bag.
“Marco Polo!” Miranda exclaimed, looking to their mother for confirmation. “Look, Mom, that’s Marco Polo, right?”
She studied the statue for a few seconds and nodded. It was Marco Polo, the thirteenth-century explorer who’d spent years crossing half the world from Venice to Asia until he’d finally arrived at the court of the Great Khan. He’d been the first person they had to study in their homeschool class on Venetian history when they’d arrived in Italy back in January. After Marco finally came home to Venice, he’d written a book about all the things he’d seen: the strange animals; the horse-riding warrior clans; the spicy, steaming food.
But what had captured Jared’s attention now wasn’t history—it was the leather bag clutched in the statue’s hand. Something was flashing inside it. He waited until their mom had wandered off to flip through a pile of maps, then crossed over to the statue. He quickly peeked over his shoulder to make sure no one was watching, then reached inside the leather pouch.
There! There it was again!
“Shireen, Miranda,” he whispered, “come on, take a look!” The coast was clear: The storekeeper was over with their mother, talking to her about the maps she was paging through.
“What is it?” Miranda asked, standing at his elbow.
“Treasure!” he answered. He widened the mouth of the bag to get a better look. It was full of rings, coins, oddly marked dice, gold-colored balls, little stoppered glass vials, writing nibs, and other stray things.
“Hey, cut that out,” Shireen whispered furiously, glancing back at their mother. “You’ll get us in trouble.”