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About the Author
Dale Peck is an acclaimed author of many books for adults as well as a reviewer and critic. This is his second book for young readers. He lives in New York City.
Dale Peck is the author of Drift House and The Lost Cities for middle grade readers; for adults he's written award-winning novels including the highly acclaimed Martin and John, a book of essays and a memoir. This is his first book for teens. www.dalepeck.com
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The Lost CitiesA Drift House Voyage
By Dale Peck
Bloomsbury USACopyright © 2007 Dale Peck
All right reserved.
Chapter OneVia Messenger
Eduardo Ramirez was the senior doorman of the large apartment building on the corner of 81st Street and Park Avenue. He'd taken the position after returning from the Korean War and recently celebrated his fiftieth year on the job. This gave him leeway to prop the lobby doors open to let in the warm spring air, despite the fact that regulations said the front doors should be "kept closed at all times" so the building's climate-control system could work most efficiently.
Aside from the spring air, the open doors let in the combative voices of a pair of children whose squabbles were as well known to the elderly man as the squeals and honks of traffic.
"You did too," the male voice insisted now. "Don't tell me you didn't!"
"I will tell you I didn't," the female voice retorted, her voice tinged by a somewhat stilted British accent, "because I did, in fact, not do it. And don't tell me not to tell you I didn't!"
"I can tell you not to tell me you didn't," the boy shot back a little unsteadily. "And don't tell me not to tell you not to, to-whatever! You didn't do it!"
The children appeared in the doorway, a brown-haired, bespectacled boy, somewhat smallfor his age, and his darker-haired older sister, somewhat tall for hers (ten and almost thirteen, in case you're wondering). Both children wore bulging backpacks, and the girl carried a bag besides: it was the last day of school, and they were bringing their supplies home for the summer.
"I did too!" the girl maintained. "I've been telling you all the way home I did."
"Did what?" the doorman interjected.
"Did ... What?" The girl looked up with a confused, slightly embarrassed expression. "Good afternoon, Mr. Ramirez," she said in the politest voice she could muster.
"Susan, Charles," the doorman responded, trying hard to suppress a grin. "I was just wondering what it was you did-or didn't-do." He nodded at Charles.
Charles averted his eyes to the floor.
"Well, I, um, that is ..."
"I'm sure it was nothing." The doorman reached beneath the counter where he sat. "A package came for you."
"A package!" Susan exclaimed. "For me?"
"Both of you's actually," the doorman said. He pointed to the handwritten label that had been affixed to the brown-paper bundle with a length of twine:
Susie and Charlie-o-o-Oakenfeld!
"Just in time for your big trip, yes?"
The moment Charles saw the package he couldn't take his eyes from it.
"See," he said, cutting in front of his sister. "It's for both of us."
As soon as the thick square object was in his hands, Charles knew there was something unusual about it. For one thing, it wasn't wrapped in paper at all, but in some kind of waxy fabric Charles had never felt before. But it was more than that. The package felt warm in Charles's hands, seemed almost to vibrate. It was as if there were a motor inside, or-well, Charles was going to say, as if it were alive, but he had never seen a living thing that was roughly the size and shape of a small pizza box. Maybe it was a pizza?
The coarse twine quartered the package like windowpanes, and Charles had the funny sensation that he wasn't looking at it but into it. "This wrapping isn't paper," he said without looking up. "It's sort of like leather."
The doorman watched Charles intently. "I believe it's called oilskin," he suggested quietly.
"And, Charles," Susan said, "there's no address. Just our names." She nudged the package up to look at the bottom. "No return address either." She turned back to the doorman. "Are you sure this came in the mail?"
"Never said it came in the mail. Hand-delivered, this was. By someone who looked enough like you"-he nodded at Charles-"to be your cousin. Dressed kind of funny, like Aladdin. You know, from the movie. Purple vest, funny slippers. Even had a little turban."
"A turban! Susan, do you think it could have been Mar-"
"Why, I'm sure it was M-M-Marco. He must have been coming from rehearsals for the summer play." Susan flashed Charles an older-sister look that could have only one meaning: shut up! "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves."
Now she nudged Charles down the carpeted lobby. Her younger brother let himself be pulled along like a puppy on a leash, his eyes transfixed on the package in his hands. When they were in the elevator, Susan stabbed the button for the 14th floor. "Do you know if Murray's home?" she called to the doorman, who stared at them with a placid, almost wistful expression on his face.
"Murray?" he said, as if the name were unfamiliar to him.
The doors slid closed.
If Susan had been less intent on escaping-or if Charles had been able to look up from the warm package he was clutching to his chest-one of them might have noticed the doorman rubbing a thin gold chain that hung around his neck. When the elevator was safely closed, he pulled on the chain, and a heart-shaped locket slid from beneath his vest. Sighing slightly, the old man snapped it open.
A pair of young, determined faces peered up at him, and the man in the doorman's uniform stared down at them for a long moment, then looked at the closed doors of the elevator. His wrinkled eyes were misty, his smile thin and pale.
"Goodbye, Susan," he said in a quiet voice. "Goodbye, Charles."
A half hour later, when Vera Abramowicz came in with her trio of Pekingeses-all four creatures white haired, lilac scented, and adorned with matching blue ribbons-she found the lobby strangely deserted for 4:30 in the afternoon. Following the sound of snores, she located Mr. Ramirez fast asleep in the mailroom, clad only in his socks, boxer shorts, and T-shirt. There was a wedding band on his left hand and a signet ring on his right, a knotted bracelet bearing the names of his three children on his left wrist and a matching watchband on his right. On his neck hung three thick chains, one of which supported an ornate cross. His doorman's uniform was neatly folded on a chair beside him. For weeks after the incident, Mr. Ramirez claimed not to know how he had come to be asleep in the mailroom, and a physical examination at his doctor's office confirmed he was as healthy as a horse. The doorman himself said his drowsiness must have been caused by the heavy lunch he'd eaten that day-arroz con puerco y frijoles negros-but for the next several weeks he added a scapular medal of Saint Francis di Girolamo to the assortment of necklaces around his throat. Proof against sorcery, he said to anyone who asked. Sorcery-and disguises.
Chapter TwoLost Cities
Charles hadn't managed to undo the knot that bound the oilskin package by the time the elevator opened. As they walked down the hall, Susan hissed at him,
"I cannot believe you, Charles Oakenfeld! You almost gave everything away!"
"Oh relax, Susan." Charles tugged at the string. "You don't think our hundred-year-old doorman is actually going to believe we discovered the Sea of-"
At just that moment, the door to their apartment swung halfway open. Charles's head snapped up. Some impulse made him want to hide the mysterious package, but there was neither place nor time.
"I thought I heard your precious voices," their mother said sarcastically. "My dears, if there were a medal for bickering, I would be the proudest parent in the whole building."
"Mum!" Susan said. "What are you doing home so early?"
Mrs. Oakenfeld smiled wanly.
"Brace yourselves. You're in for a bit of a shock." She pushed the door all the way open, revealing the diminutive form of Susan and Charles's younger brother. Murray's visible skin-his forearms and ankles and all of his face and neck-was spotted with angry pink dots.
"Murray!" Charles exclaimed. "Have you got chicken pox?"
"I'm afraid he has. He went for a play date with Davey Peterson on twelve. Apparently they don't vaccinate in South Africa, where he's from. And Murray was supposed to get his vaccination last year when you went up to your uncle's." Their mother shook her head. "Of course, Mrs. Peterson didn't let him stay, but I'm afraid opening the door was all it took-it's so contagious."
Susan looked curiously at her youngest brother. "Davey Peterson? Isn't he the first grader who spends all his time playing with that ant farm? I thought you didn't even like him."
Murray didn't meet his sister's gaze. He was too busy staring at the parcel in Charles's hands. Now Mrs. Oakenfeld noticed it too.
"My goodness, Charles, whatever is that enormous package? Is it some sort of end-of-school thing?"
"It is the end of school!" Susan said before Charles could answer. "And he did receive it today." She chose her words carefully so that, technically at least, she wasn't lying.
"It looks quite impressive. Let's see what it is."
Their mother ushered them into the living room, where she fetched a pair of scissors from the credenza. Before she could snip the twine around the oilskin, however, her phone rang. Frowning at the caller ID, Mrs. Oakenfeld said, "Can't those people get along without me for five minutes?" She handed the scissors to Susan and walked into the study.
Susan couldn't help gloating just the tiniest little bit that her mother had handed the scissors to her. When Charles reached for them, she eluded his hand and deftly slipped the blade under the string and snipped it.
"Voilá," she said. She had gotten an A on her French final that day, the fact of which she looked forward to announcing at dinner.
Charles was about to unfold the oilskin when Murray spoke for the first time.
"I won't be going to Drift House with you."
Susan and Charles looked up with horror.
"Murray, no!" Susan said.
"You have to go," Charles said.
"Mum says it's not safe for me to fly when I'm sick-and I could infect other people."
"We'll wait a week or two," Susan said. "It-it just wouldn't be the same without you."
With a gesture the two older Oakenfelds had become very familiar with over the course of the past nine months, Murray reached a hand to his throat and pulled a small golden locket from inside his shirt. He began rubbing it idly as he always did, but then his pockmarked hand strayed to his equally spotted neck and began scratching that instead.
"I'm sorry. I just don't think it's wise." Though he was only five, Murray sounded as though he were the eldest child explaining things to his much younger brother and sister-another circumstance the two older Oakenfeld children had grown used to in the eight months since their first trip to Drift House.
"Murray!" Susan exclaimed. "Did you-did you go to Davey Peterson's on purpose? To get chicken pox, so you wouldn't be able to go to Uncle Farley's?"
Murray half smiled, half shuddered. "That ant farm is the creepiest thing I've ever seen. Davey keeps it on his bedside table, right next to his jaw expander. It makes me have nightmares of ants crawling in and out of my mouth." Still rubbing the locket, he added, "Let's just call it intuition. I think I should stay off the Sea of Time-something I know the two of you will be unable to do."
At the mention of the Sea of Time, a thrill of anticipation ran down Charles's spine. But go without Murray? It just didn't seem right. "Do you-do you remember something?" he asked his little brother now. "A warning from the future?"
As a boy with a scientific bent, it was hard for Charles to make a statement that was so obviously contradictory. Yet as far as he and Susan knew, Murray had somehow journeyed into the future last fall, returning with the golden locket he never took off, along with a haze of memories of things that might-and then again, might not-come to pass. Charles had even crossed paths with an older version of his little brother, who had been sporting a purple vest and turban like the one Mr. Ramirez had described, not to mention a new name: Mario.
Which reminded Charles:
"Murray," he said as he unfolded layer upon layer of oilskin. "Mr. Ramirez said the person who gave this to him was wearing a purple vest and a turban. Do you think it was-"
"Me?" Murray said, as if he'd anticipated the question. "Mario, delivering a message from the future?" He shrugged. "It could have been. There's certainly something about this book that has me all jittery."
"Book!" Susan said. "How did you-oh!"
For Charles had pulled back the last flap of oilskin, revealing the elaborately tooled red leather cover of the biggest book either Oakenfeld had ever seen. Thirteen gold letters had been stamped into the cover:
THE LOST CITIES
"The ... Lost ... Cities."
The words came out in a whisper. Susan wasn't sure why she whispered. It just seemed like the kind of thing to say in a respectfully hushed voice. "And look," she went on. "There was some kind of seal or insignia here, but it's been pried off."
It was true: below the title, seven horizontal lines, each shorter than the one above it, had been scored deeply into the cover. They floated in the middle of a guitar pick-shaped patch of leather that was darker than the rest of the cover, as if it had been protected from the elements for many years.
Susan allowed her finger to trace the grooves. Charles almost jerked the book away before Susan could touch it, but he was curious to see how she'd react when she put her finger on it. He studied her face carefully, but she showed no signs of experiencing the warm pulse on his lap. The fact that Susan didn't seem to be feeling what he did filled him with elation, because he was convinced the book really was intended for him, no matter whose names had been on the label.
"Also?" Susan pointed out, since Charles was sitting there with a glazed look on his face. "There's a note." And she plucked a card from a fold of the oilskin.
This is all I can give you now. I look forward to seeing you again.
Susan turned to Murray. He turned his palms up.
"I dunno. I could have sent it. I just don't remember."
Susan turned back to Charles, who stroked the book's cover as though it were a half-tame buffalo. "Well, what are you waiting for? Open it!"
Charles was torn. He was aching to see what lay beneath those strangely empty lines. But he also wanted to have that experience all to himself. He was the one who felt the tingling, after all. He was the one the book was calling. He should have the privilege of seeing what was inside first.
He reached for a corner, but just as he did Mrs. Oakenfeld walked out of the study. Charles quickly slapped the oilskin back over the book.
"Dr. Amy beeped in," Mrs. Oakenfeld said, sifting through a stack of mail. "She phoned in a prescription for an ointment to help the itching. I'm going to run out and get it-I'll only be a minute." As she picked up her purse, she added four words that struck a pit of terror in Charles's stomach.
"Susan," she said, "you're in charge."
An hour later, when Mrs. Oakenfeld returned, the book had disappeared, and Susan and Charles sat on opposite sides of the living room glaring at each other. Murray sat on a chair between them, playing Game Boy and scratching idly at his rash.
"You'll never guess what happened downstairs," Mrs. Oakenfeld said as she pulled a narrow white drugstore bag from her purse. "Apparently Mr. Ramirez took a nap in the mailroom. He got undressed and-" Mrs. Oakenfeld noticed her children's stony silence for the first time. "Oh dear. Dare I ask?"
"You said I was in charge-"
"Susan was being a bossy-"
Mrs. Oakenfeld held up a hand.
"I don't know what's gotten into you two. Lately you've done nothing but bicker and compete with each other. It's not too late to sign you up for camp, you know. Hiking and swimming and singalongs and all that."
It is a particular sort of child who finds the idea of hiking and swimming-and singalongs!-so unappealing that he or she wants to shriek in horror. As it happens, Susan and Charles were both that sort of child.
"No!" Susan exclaimed.
"Please!" Charles begged.
"We're sorry. We promise to get along better."
"Please please please let us go to Uncle Farley's for the summer."
Excerpted from The Lost Cities by Dale Peck Copyright © 2007 by Dale Peck. Excerpted by permission.
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