The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World, by E. L. Konigsburg, hardcover, 256 pages, list price: $16.99
Amedeo 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 green — dry to wet — and 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 Kaplan — Jake — was 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 communications, 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. He wanted 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 found — by 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.
But St. Malo was not Orlando, and it was not Miami. St. Malo was in the north, in the part of Florida that had once been settled by the French. In the 1500's, the French had built a fort near the mouth of the St. Malo River.
French was good.
And so was the place on Mandarin Road.
The grounds around their house were shabby. Worn-out, 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 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 lawn — front and back — was 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, lovely 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 sparkled — they all did — resented 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.
Excerpted from The Mysterious Edge of the Heroic World by E.L. Konigsburg. Copyright 2007 by E.L. Konigsburg. Used by permission of Simon and Schuster. All rights reserved.