Terms:

acuita– from the Taino words meaning “eye” and “did not know”

acuita celt– a small knife, hand-carved from bone, that allows the holder to teleport

acuit– to teleport

acuitor – someone who teleports using an acuita celt

 

Alli
The present, Western North Carolina, September 

I wake up and open my eyes, then squeeze them shut and count to ten.  Next time, there’ll be light, and I’ll remember where I am.

No good.  It’s still pitch black, and I can’t wipe away my tears because my arms are behind my back, wrists mashed together.  I try to scream, but my mouth won’t open.  I tell myself, Crying stuffs up your nose, Alli.  Breathe! I do it, nice and steady.  In and out.  My ankles won’t move, but I can wiggle my toes.

“Okay, girl,” my best friend, Pilar, would say if she were here, “what elsecan you feel?  Smell?  Hear?”

Hmm… I’m on my side, lying on a carpet that’s vibrating.  My knees are bent, but I can straighten them and find one edge of the space with my feet.  Before I stretch out to my full five feet three inches, my head touches the other side.

The carpet smells of mold and cigarette smoke, and I scoot backwards until my stuck-out bottom hits something hard.  There’s music playing somewhere, but the sound is muffled.

Maybe now it’s time to panic, like an average kid would.  I’m tied up, stuffed in the trunk of a moving car.

Then I remember how I got here, and my bladder lets go.

***

Prologue

Diego
Off the coast of Sanlucar, Spain: April, 1538

 

Thirteen-year-old Diego Vargas caught the splintery bucket and struggled to keep his balance.  “Down you go,” growled the old sailor who’d tossed it.  He heaved a grate from the caravel deck’s square hole and pointed, saying in a gentler tone, “I’m Perez, the bosun.  Mind what I say, and you’ll get by.”  

Diego picked his way down the ladder into the Princesa’s clammy hold as she eased away from the dock, bound for Santiago de Cuba and led by the latest Spaniard making a name for himself in the New World: Hernando de Soto. He bit his lower lip to keep it from trembling and wondered if Perez had noticed. 

Back on deck minutes later, Diego dragged the bucket to the side and poured sepia-colored bilge water into the sea, while the date palms and stone towers of his hometown shrank in the distance.

***

The present, Western North Carolina: Saturday afternoon, six weeks before September

Diego steered his car onto the highway shoulder and squinted at his GPS. Sighing, he pulled a pair of reading glasses from the glove compartment and slid the earpieces across his graying temples.  A hundred years ago, or even fifty, he could have memorized the route before he left.

Something in the landscape moved, and Diego turned to see a scraggly-tailed coyote emerging from a storm drain onto the grassy roadside.  He put the car in gear and coasted along the shoulder, lowered the front passenger window, and tossed half of the ham sandwich he’d packed for lunch.  He eased onto the road and watched the coyote in his rear view mirror as it warily approached the food.

“The world’s changing, boy,” Diego whispered to the animal. “Gotta keep up.”

The words caught in four-hundred-ninety-five-year-old Diego Vargas’s throat.  Everything was changing, and he wasn’t keeping up.  He was finally growing old.

***

 Chapter One

Alli

Arrowood Glade Picnic Area, the same day, 2:00 P.M.

I see it in the sun-baked dirt, like a dragon’s tooth fossil, yellow and worn, with a metal band circling the top.  The man who just dropped it is heading for the woods.

I chew a bite of hot dog, wondering if he’ll come back.  Corey, my older brother, wolfs down potato salad and baked beans while my little sister, Maisie, trails a plastic fork through her coleslaw.  Mom’s busy at the grill.  “Gotta eat some of everything,” I whisper to Maisie, “or Mom won’t let you have dessert.”  I scoop half her slaw onto my plate.  “I’ll be right back.  Get some peach cobbler for me?”

“Okay, Alli.  Where are you going?”

I finger-wave over my shoulder, already on my way.

Beyond a covered pavilion, a dirt trail leads into the forest.  To catch up with the man means following a stranger. But I’m almost thirteen – old enough to make my own decisions.  I stoop and pick up the object with a thumb and first finger.  It’s about four inches long – maybe a knife carved from animal bone, though the blade part feels dull.  I stand to slip it into a pocket of my cutoffs, and a sweet, musky smell hits my nose.

A dark-haired lady with lipstick matching her flamingo pink tank top brushes past me onto the path.  Her heavy silver jewelry clinks like armor.  I hang back until she disappears, then pad along into the forest with the knife, tasting her perfume when I swallow.

In the filtered sunlight, I see Tank Top Lady stopped along the trail.  There’s probably no reason to hide from her, but I dodge behind a cluster of shrubs anyway, just in time to see a man slip out of the shadows.

His skin is the color of an old penny, and the braid hanging down his back rests on a shirt fringed with ribbons.  Worn jeans and Teva sandals complete a look that’s off-beat but cool.  He squints at the woman and says, “Tracking me, Mercedez?”

One made-up eyebrow rises.   “And you, Gawonni?  Trying to play savior of the world?”  She doesn’t seem very nice, but I like her accent.  She rolls her rs like ls.

Gawonni opens his mouth, but she cuts him off.  “Stop spying on me, if you know what’s good for you and that old fool, Diego.”  She grabs him by the arm.

Gawonni stares at something in her other hand, and he shakes her off so hard I nearly cry out.   One blink, and she’s gone.  No sound – just gone.  I’m wishing I could disappear, too, when the guy who dropped the little knife comes trotting back along the trail and runs to Gawonni’s side.  “There you are!  Was that…?”

“Mercedez?  Yes, Diego.” Gawonni frowns and rubs his arm.

“What does she want?”

“You should follow her on Twitter,” he begins, and pulls a cell phone from his shirt pocket. “She’s a celebrity in Puerto Rico these days.  Has her own TV talk show, Punto de Vista, broadcast all over the island.”

“Mercedez Calderon’s viewpoint?  The little orphan we pulled from the rubble of a church in San Juan has come a long way.”

“What you wouldn’t know,” Gawonni goes on, “unless you did some digging and a little creative cyber-peeking—“

Diego narrows his eyes.  “You mean hacking.”

Gawonni shrugs.  “The thing is, there’s also a paper trail that goes way back – it just doesn’t occur to the average person to look for it.  She and her brothers have worked for the same guy for the last hundred years. That means he must have an acuitacelt, just like they do.  They’re trying to break away from him.”  He reaches again in his pocket and pulls out what looks like an ordinary jump drive.  “I slipped into Mercedez’s office at the TV studio and plugged this into her computer. Then I sent her an email, pretending to be one of her fans.  When she opened the email, a virus copied everything on her machine to mine.  Guess she doesn’t know that, since she didn’t kill me just now.  But I wonder how she knew I was shadowing her in San Juan.”

My brain keeps replaying the words afraid and kill.  And this Gawonni guy confessed to computer spying.  Never mind the weird remark about people working for a hundred years, or an “acuitacelt” – whatever that is.  My heartbeat’s pounding in my ears.  What was I thinking, following a stranger?

Diego crosses his arms.  “Okay, Mercedez doesn’t like being stalked. Why do it?”

“Because she’s trouble, Diego. I saw her in these woods about a month ago, walking the river bank, making notes.  I can’t find those notes on any of her devices.

“What I can do is read her texts and emails, listen to phone conversations.” He shakes his head.  “This boss owns businesses that make only a decent amount of money, yet he’s worth more than a billion dollars.  Lately, some funds have disappeared, and he’s accused the brothers of cheating.”  If he’s an acuitor,maybe you know him: Antonio Gonzalez.”

Diego shudders and runs a hand across his wavy salt-and-pepper hair.  “Back in 1780…  Could it be the same?”

The Diego guy doesn’t look crazy, but that’s more than twohundred years ago.  And what’s an acuitor?

Gawonni continues, “The brothers are complaining about Antonio’s temper and some things he’s made them do lately.  He kidnapped and resold slaves during the Civil War, and the brothers helped him work for the Nazis.  If whatever he’s into now violates thosestandards, it must be bad.”

Diego seems to have stopped listening and peers in my direction.  I will myself to be invisible, not even blinking.   “When I first met Antonio,” he says, “he was barely old enough to shave.”

Gawonni’s fingers dance across the screen of his cell phone.  He holds it out to Diego, who waves him off.  “Just tell me.”

“According to Wikipedia,” says Gawonni, “Antonio Gonzalez was a free agent during the Revolution, working for both sides.  Another Antonio Gonzalez fought under General Santa Anna sixty years later at the Alamo, but no one has considered it could be the same person.  There’s an 1830s picture reprinted in the article.   Says he turned to the side to have his portrait painted because his ear was deformed.”

Diego grins.  “Don’t believe everything you read.  Sometime I’ll tell you the story of how he lost that earlobe at the battle of King’s Mountain.”  His smile fades.  “So it’s him. What about Mercedez?  She seemed cross.”

“Stalking me to accuse me of stalking her – no big deal.  But why was she here last month?   And she tried to grab me just now, with her celt in her hand. We’re on someone’s radar – probably Antonio’s.”  He pries open his phone and removes the battery.  “I’ll get disposables for both of us, and let’s keep the conversations short.”

“Perhaps I should have killed her when she killed my wife,” says Diego.

Gawonni frowns.  “She didn’t kill her, my friend.  She just didn’t save her.”

“I’d hoped never to see Mercedez again.”

“Well, now she’s up to something and if we don’t look into it, who will? And what about Antonio?”

Diego has nothing to say about that, and they go silent.  As bizarre as it sounds, they seem like good guys to me.  For now, all I know is that the knife isn’t mine.  I hold it out, take two shaky steps from my hiding place, and clear my throat.

Gawonni stares at me while Diego searches his pockets.  Gawonni leaps to my side, snatches the knife, and runs back to Diego.  They link arms and vanish like the lady – only this time I’m looking right at them as they disappear.

My legs freeze for a second, then start to move on their own.  Faster and faster, back to my family, where everything’s normal and maybe none of this ever happened.  When I reach the picnic area, it takes more effort to slow down than it did to run.

They’re packing up.  Mom calls, without looking my way, “Alli, can you wipe down the tablecloth?”  She hasn’t even thought of me until she needed something. Being the middle child is like that sometimes.

“Where’ve you been?” Corey whispers in my ear.  He eats a hamburger patty in two bites and waits for my answer.  When he straightens up, I have to tilt my head to face him – he’s grown four inches in the last year.

“Uh, nowhere.”

He shakes his head.  “I’ve got your back, Noodleface – I’m not into tattling.  But you disappeared for nearly twenty minutes – not safe.”

At least Corey noticed, in spite of calling me the annoying nickname he’s used since I was a toddler and noodles were a finger food that wound up on my face a lot.   “I wandered up the trail a little,” I say.

“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”  He puts a hand on my shoulder.  “Just be careful.”

I scrub the vinyl cloth and think about how I’ll explain all this to Pilar, my best friend.  If I had a cellphone, I could text her.  But Mom says I have to wait until eighth grade – a week away.  Maisie runs over and lays a fistful of clover blossoms on  the table, her face sticky with orange goo.  “Where were you?”

I change the subject.  “Where’s my peach cobbler, kiddo?”

“My hand got tired of keeping the flies away.”

“So you ate it to keep the flies from getting it,” I say.

“Uh-huh.”

That makes me smile.  I clean her face and promise to make a clover chain necklace for her.

 

Chapter Two

Mercedez

San Juan, 3:00 P.M. the same day

Mercedez pressed the ignition in her poppy-red Jaguar and turned the air conditioner to the coldest setting.  She leaned back and let the smell of luxurious leather soothe her.  Antonio’s order had been clear: bring Gawonni to San Juan.  Instead, she’d tracked the Cherokee and his Spanish friend most of the day, hoping to follow them to a buried fortune in conquistadors’ gold.

She would have to make up a convincing story before she called Antonio.  And no mention of how she’d finally tried to acuit Gawonni and failed.  Inside the polished wood console, her phone buzzed.  Grimacing, she reached for it and pressed Talk.

“I wait for your call, yet it does not come, Mercedez.”  The raspy voice sounded conversational, almost friendly.

She swallowed and focused on keeping her voice steady.  “I was about to call you.  That miserable Gawonni was surrounded by crowds of tourists all day.  I’ll bring him tomorrow.”

“If he should cause trouble, I’ll blame you, my dear.”  In spite of the cool breeze from the car’s vents, Mercedez felt trickles of sweat on her back.  “I had another job for you tomorrow, Mercedez, but never mind. Someone else can do it.”  An edge crept into Antonio’s voice.  “It distresses me that one of my trusted followers is chasing fairy tales.  This obsession of yours, the myth of buried treasure: I order you to drop it at once.”

Mercedez’s mind was reeling.  She’d expected him to rant about the talk show, not this.  How had he learned of her quest?  Marcos and Ricardo, probably.  She would always be their little sister, unworthy of the privacy and respect they demanded from her.  Irritating.  But Antonio had a habit of getting rid of people no longer useful to him.

“If you’ve attracted Gawonni’s attention,” he continued, “I must assume he’ll pry further into our business – maybe even call on the old Spaniard, Diego.  Bring both of them here.”

“I can find them,” said Mercedez, making an effort to sound calm and efficient.  “But having two people disappear, without arousing suspicion?  I’ll need a few days to set things up.”

“Then get started.”  Antonio’s voice was nothing but edge now.  “And I want their arieto celt.  Steal that first, then catch one of them alone, so the other doesn’t suspect anything.”

Mercedez leaned back on the headrest to ward off the headache developing at the base of her skull.  Did he think she wasn’t smart enough to plan a theft and kidnapping?

“And speaking of cars, get one that doesn’t turn heads everywhere you go. We’ve survived this long by not calling attention to ourselves.”

“Of course,” she answered.  The phone went dead and she slipped it back into the console, tapping her fingers on the gold-trimmed edge.  Antonio couldn’t tell her what to do if she had her own fortune.  She’d wait a bit longer.  If Diego and Gawonni led her to the treasure, it would be worth the risk.

***

Alli

Arrowood Glade Parking Lot, 4:00 P.M.

We pile into our van to begin the drive home, with the smells of mosquito repellant, sunscreen, and sweat mingling in the heat while the air conditioner wheezes into life.  I feel a flutter of nerves.  Maisie might let something slip about my going into the woods.  I wish we had a DVD player to distract her.  Mom always says, “With no screen to watch, the McKenna kids have to look out windows and see the real world – or have conversations with each other.”  I wonder how long she’d keep thinking that if we could actually afford a DVD player – or a new van with air conditioning that works.

Corey disproves Mom’s theory anyway, by stretching his legs and leaning back. He’s snoring before we leave the parking lot.

Maisie whines, “There’s nothing to do,” but five minutes later, she’s asleep, too, leaving me alone with my thoughts.  The men never came back out of the forest – I glanced at the trail entrance so many times that Mom asked me if anything was wrong.

I’m going back over it all in my mind, exactly like I’ll say it to Pilar, when I spot Diego and Gawonni.  They’re sitting at a picnic table by the side of the road, at least ten miles from Arrowood Glade’s parking area and ivy-covered iron gates.  Too far away to have walked so quickly, and no car in sight. But there they are.

***

Diego

4:30 P.M.

Leaving their picnic table at the side of Highway 441, Diego and Gawonni climbed onto a boulder and watched tourists drift past the fern-covered banks of the Oconaluftee River on giant inner tubes.

“I loved this river when I was little,” said Gawonni, talking around a mouthful of dandelion leaves he’d pulled from the side of the road.  “In the 1780s, you didn’t need a license to catch fish — just a sharp stick and patience.”

Diego said, “I remember moving through here with Soto in the old days. We made it to where Asheville is now, and your people very cleverly sent us west.  Want to know how?”

Gawonni cocked his head and waited.

“They brought mulberries.  We were starved for something besides game, and they were a wondrous thing to us. Governor Soto took it as a sign of good will from the Cherokee, who assured us we’d find gold if we traveled west. The ‘gold’ turned out to be copper and zinc, and the conquest was a disaster.  Still, we traveled on – much further than the history books have a clue about.  Maybe someday the world will find out.”

Gawonni reached, snatched a fly that had been buzzing lazily around them, then shook his fist before releasing the insect.  In a blur, the grass moved and the fly disappeared into a wolf spider’s clutches.  “They won’t hear it from the Cherokee.  We hated de Soto – or so I heard from family stories.  Mostly, we never spoke of conquistadors and tried to wipe our memories clear.”

“But there was gold,” said Diego.

“Yeah,” admitted Gawonni, “Even I know that.  Almost a ton of it, melted and shaped into bars.  Silver, too, and furs, left behind by the Spanish.  That was the legend when I was a kid.”  He raised an eyebrow.  “I figured since you were there at the time and never mentioned it to me, that’s all it is – a legend.”

Diego swept a hand through the heavy afternoon air.  “I didn’t want this place crawling with greedy people, tearing up the land.  The treasure didn’t belong to me anyway – a lowly ship’s boy.  Years later, anyone who had seen it was long dead, but I didn’t need a fortune.  I’d worked hard and saved – even with the expense of raising a pup like you.”  He gave Gawonni’s arm an awkward pat.

Gawonni chuckled.  “You didn’t take me on until I was twelve, old man, and after working for over two hundred years you should have been able to afford to adopt a kid.  Besides, you used me as free labor on your farm, after you made me learn to read and write.”  He smiled, and the skin around his eyes crinkled into a network of fine lines. “Have I told you lately I appreciate it?”

Diego shrugged.  “I hoped the education would be useful.  You could teach your tribe white ways – help them become ‘Americans’.  Who would have guessed how it would all turn out?”

“Still, you shared the celt with me, and I’ve enjoyed a long life.” Gawonni sighed.  “I wish you’d had more joy all these years, after losing Angeline.”

“Hmm.  And how many wives have you outlived?  How many children?”

Gawonni appeared to study the crowns of the poplar trees as he silently tallied.   “Ten wives so far,” he said.   “Ramona died last spring – she was ninety seven and still living in her own house. She remarried twice after I’d disappeared and she’d had me declared dead.  I always stayed as long as I dared – ten or twelve years – depending on how suspicious they became about my aging so slowly.  I left each wife with a paid-for house and enough money to live.  As for the children…”

His eyes misted, but his voice was steady.  “After Sarah and Samuel — my oldest — died, I made a rule for myself: no more tracking my kids.  The world shines brighter because they were in it, but knowing when they died would make me sad.”

A group of teenagers passed on the river, laughing and bouncing against each other in their inner tubes.  Diego said, “I’m proud of you for not telling your families about the celt.”

“Well, since it belongs to you, my choice wasn’t so hard.  Still, it’s kept me younger, hasn’t it?”

“To a point,” agreed Diego.  “I’ve kept notes for nearly four hundred years.  We’re stronger, healthier – aging more slowly.  The travel distance doesn’t seem to matter – it’s how often we use it. Those first few years, I used it nearly every day and grew tall and strong very quickly.

“It would have been dangerous to let you do the same.  Parents dead, settlers all around holding a grudge against the Cherokee for siding with the British during the Revolution – it was safer to keep you close to home and tell you very little.  I wanted you to have a more normal life than mine, so I shared it mostly when I needed your help with rescues.” He studied Gawonni for a moment, looking him up and down.  “So here we are, looking about the same age, though I have more than two hundred years on you.”

Gawonni said, “Mercedez and her crowd probably use their celts all the time – though not for good, like you.”

Diego shook his head.  “I could have done more.  For the Indians and so many others.  I saved only those I thought could keep a secret.  Hundreds – maybe a thousand.”  He uncrossed his legs and let out a quiet groan as he straightened them.  “And now I’m tired.   I want to stop using it, let nature take its course.  That’s why I wanted to meet – to turn it over to you.  Or put our heads together and find someone younger to take it on, maybe even hide it where it could never be found.”

Gawonni sighed.  “First we learn old Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth wasn’t really a fountain.  Turns out it’s not eternal, either.”

Diego spat onto the grass.  “It’s a curse, that’s what it is.”

“Maybe,” admitted Gawonni.  “But before we give it up, I’d like to stop Antonio and his friends.  You say there really was a treasure.  Maybe that’s why Mercedez has been snooping around.”

Diego stood and adjusted the tuck of his pale blue knit shirt into gray slacks, his figure still trim.  “She should be more careful about leaving a trail.  Antonio’s been searching for that treasure for a long time, and I’m sure he’d happily let her find it for him, then get rid of her – another reason I’ve stayed away from the site.”

“Are you saying…?” asked Gawonni.

Diego nodded. “I know where it is.

***

Mercedez

Route 411

Mercedez startled, and the listening device’s earpiece fell into her lap and bounced off her designer jeans.  It dangled inches above the grass at the roadside table where she had settled, pretending to read a book.  She’d planted the tracker and bug on Gawonni earlier, then come back to North Carolina for the second time today.  And if Diego was telling Gawonni the treasure’s hiding place right now, she was missing out.  Muttering curses, she replaced the earpiece with shaking hands.  Diego was speaking.

“The furs were buried on top, though they’ve probably disintegrated by now.  I’d like to use the gold and silver to bring Antonio to justice. ”

“Think Mercedez might help us?” asked Gawonni.

“Of course not!  Even if I could endure the sight of her, why would she do anything for us?”

Mercedez took a tissue from her purse and dabbed at her face.  It wasn’t the humid North Carolina heat.  It was Gawonni’s suggestion – the kind of thing a loyal employee would report to her boss at once.  And yet… These two had no idea how wretched it was to work for Antonio, to be the brains behind his power.

“She’s made money for him,” Gawonni was saying, “but he’s the one with the mansions, the yacht, the private jet.”

Mercedez let a puff of air escape her lips.  All her hard work for Antonio, taking care to steal extra so she could cover what her brothers stole from him.  And if she were in need, would any of them lift a finger to help her?

“Where are the brothers these days?” asked Diego, “San Juan?”

“There, and in the hills – sometimes the small islands.”

“So, Mercedez could help us draw all of them out,” said Diego.  “I wonder what she’s been up to for the last eighty years.”

“Small stuff at first: shoplifting, cheating at cards, while pursuing a hobby: taking college classes.  She earned so many degrees – all under false names – that she could pose as almost anyone: investor, CEO, lawyer – even a doctor.  She made her way into organizations, stole money, then reappeared somewhere else under a different name, in a new profession.  Her earnings used to make her indispensable to Antonio.”

And now, Mercedez thought, an incredibly well-informed talk show host.

“She still works for him sometimes—”

“But lately,” interrupted Diego, “she’s become expendable – or so we might convince her.”

Diego was old, but maybe he wasn’t such a fool after all, thought Mercedez.

“I have an idea,” Diego said to Gawonni.  “I’ll tell you about it when we get back to my car.”

Mercedez scrambled to find her car keys.  She’d acuited the convertible with her out of spite, just because Antonio would be furious if he knew she did it.  And though she’d exchanged her Puerto Rican license plate for a stolen American one, the car was in the Arrowood parking lot.  Best to move it before the two returned there.  She stood up, daring to listen for another moment.

“So,” said Gawonni, “you’ve moved to back to the area where you spent some of your youth.  What are you calling yourself these days?”

“Gregorio.  It means watchful, vigilant.”

“Ah, a fine choice.  Exactly what we need to be.  And your last name?”

“Perez,” answered Diego, “in honor of the old sailor who taught me how to take care of myself.”

“The bosun on your first ship – I remember your stories.  His first name was Hector, wasn’t it?  Which reminds me, how’s the other Hector doing these days? Your pet?”

Diego snorted.  “That wretched tortoise eats only organic lettuce and vegetables.  And strawberries – every day.  If I trick him with ordinary produce or forget to freshen his water, he waits by my car and bites me when I try to get in.  I hate him.”

Gawonni laughed.  “You’ve spoiled him for a hundred and fifty years.  What did you expect?  I hope you have a fence, so people don’t see that the middle school’s new vice principal can’t discipline his tortoise.”  His voice lowered to nearly a whisper. “Start your new job, lie low for a while.  I’ll fly to San Juan and see what I can find out.”

“When should we dig up the gold?”

“Give me a few weeks.  We can meet here while it’s still light, wait until the park clears out, and be ready to start digging after dark.”

Mercedez smiled as she pulled out her celt and prepared to acuitto her car, visualizing its shaded parking place. Diego’s new name, occupation, and plans to dig up the treasure –  all learned in the space of a few minutes.  She had earned the fortune.  Time to collect.

***

Chapter Three

Alli

Mountain Oak Middle School, three weeks later

I’m don’t normally go around looking for trouble, but today I can’t help myself.  Brooke Steinke is trudging across the eighth grade outdoor lunch pavilion, wiping away tears with the back of one shaky hand and holding her disposable lunch tray in the other.  Liquid streams from her hawk-like nose and strands of stringy hair stick to her cheeks.

I don’t really like Brooke, and there probably isn’t a single kid at Mountain Oak Middle School who doesn’t have at least five reasons to be fed up with her.  But I can’t walk away from this.

Two boys – Cameron Tison and Reece Gaskell – make a show of eating chicken nuggets while holding their noses when she passes by their table.  Cameron gets choked trying to wash down his nuggets with milk, and Brooke laughs.  I can’t hear what she says to him, but Reese’s voice is pure poison: “Yeah, and you stink, Steinke!”

Brooke yells, “I’m gonna tell!” but goes off to sit by herself on a bench, sniffling

as she squeezes ketchup onto her french fries.  She wipes her nose with the sleeve of her ruffled pink sweater – Brooke doesn’t seem to get that her strong features and sallow complexion fight a losing battle with the pastel color.  I glance around.  People who’d been watching a minute ago now seem fascinated with their food, their plastic utensils – anything but what just happened.

I can see why.   Cam and Reece push other kids around sometimes and right now, Cam’s ears are red. Reece’s jaws are clenched and one hand is balled into a fist.  I must be crazy, thinking of confronting them over someone who’s as much fun as athlete’s foot and twice as annoying.

I carry my tray to the outdoor garbage station, double back to the boys’ table, and keep it simple.  “Guys, that was bullying.  And it was mean.”

Cam gives a bark of laughter.  “What about her telling Gaskell she hopes he chokes and dies?”

I pause.  Brooke isn’t the easiest person to defend.

Reece jumps in, “Face it – nobody can stand her.”

“She’s an idiot,” says Cam.

I look over at Brooke, arms crossed and chin on her chest.  “I think she just wants everyone to like her.”

Cam’s face puckers as he rubs the back of his neck and studies his plastic cup of chocolate pudding.  Reece stares at me.

“If she tried a little harder,” I add.

“Like I said.”

I sigh.  “What if you let up a little, and everybody wins by not having to listen to her boo-hoo all afternoon?”

Reece purses his lower lip, thinking.  Cam points a finger in my face.  “You make her leaveus alone forever, and we’ll leave her alone, for now.”

“That’s kind of a lot to ask,” I say.

“She stays out of our way,” Reece answers with a shrug, “and we don’t complain to the principal that she threatened me.”  He pops the last nugget into his mouth and speaks while he chews. “Death by chicken could’ve been serious.”

I roll my eyes.  “Good grief.” I pluck unused paper napkins from their trays and mutter, “Wish me luck.”

***

“She cried through both napkins and a pack of tissues from my purse,” I tell Pilar later, when I describe calming down Brooke and walking her to the Guidance Office.  “Ms. Greene didn’t look all that happy to see her.  I think she goes there a lot.”

We move toward our last period class, the only one we share: Phys Ed.  Most of Pilar’s other classes are advanced, but in the gym, the tables are turned.  I can out-run, out-throw, and out-jump her.  It almost evens things up.

“Congratulations!” says Pilar.  “You brought her back from the edge – you should be Citizen of the Year.”

I flush with pride.  “I’m not really that special,” I protest.

“That’s why you could do it!”  Pilar nods, making her frizzy orange hair a moving halo around her caramel-colored face.  “You’re average: not super-popular, not weird.”  She pulls her thick-lensed glasses down on her nose and smiles, revealing teeth decorated with rainbow-colored braces.  “Not brainy or unusual, like me.”

Average height, average looks, average grades.  Couldn’t I be a little bit special?

“Brooke doesn’t get it,” Pilar is saying.  “Girls who aren’t traditionally pretty can’t get away with some things.” She grins.  “That’s why I kind of like her.  I love the idea of breaking the mold.  And as for you, my friend, there’s one way you are so not average.  You’ve got spunk.”

“Huh.  Well, I guess that’s something.”  I forget to be mad about the average remark and consider how she might be right about the spunk.  For the second time in two weeks, I’ve done something risky.  And following that Diego guy into the forest wasn’t just risky. More like insane.  I haven’t said a word about it to Pilar yet, mainly for that reason.  We stop at my locker, and I’m punching in the combination when a shadow falls over the lock.

“Way to go, Alli.  She told on us anyway.”

I turn around to face Cam and Reece.  They lean into my space, and they don’t look happy.

“We were nice to her for a wholehour, thanks to you,” Cam says.  “We still got busted.  Had to see Perez, the new vice principal.”

“I’m sorry,” I say, meaning it.

“Hold on,” interrupts Reece.  “We got out of Math, so it wasn’t all bad.”

Cameron steps a few paces over to his locker and bangs it with his fist until it falls open.  “True,” he admits.  “And there’s one other perk – Perez wants to see you in his office.”  He laughs and slams the locker door.

I watch them go and say, “Don’t leave school without me,” to Pilar, who’s looking as horrified as I feel.  Neither of us has ever seen the inside of a principal’s office.

Do I wait to get called out of class, or just show up?  I’m not even sure exactly where it is.  I guess kids go to the school secretary and announce, “The vice principal wants to see me,” to ensure maximum embarrassment.

But I have spunk, I tell myself.  And it’s late in the day, so if I wait for him to call me, I’ll just have more time to get nervous.  Ugh.  Pilar squeezes my shoulder and disappears into the gym.  I head down the hall.

Through the smudged glass, I spot a secretary sitting behind the counter, reaching for a Rice Krispies square from a half-eaten tray of snacks. She eats, holding it in one hand and typing with the other.  I open the door and walk in.

She looks up, smiles, and says, “Hi.  What can I do for you?”

I swallow before the words come spilling out.  “My name is Alli McKenna, and someone said Mr. Perez wants to see me.” Not very spunky-sounding.

“Down that hall.”  She waves the Krispie square over her shoulder.  “Second door on your right.”

She goes back to her work, and I hope Mr. Perez is staying put in his office, because I have no idea what he looks like.  He was supposed to speak at the eighth grade assembly on the first day of school, but “discipline issues” kept him away.  Apparently, being the new vice principal means you get stuck dealing with kids who would otherwise be getting on the principal’s nerves.

The door is open, and he’s turned away from me, talking on the phone. “No, Mrs. Kesterson,” he says, “your daughter’s being upset because the cat threw up on her favorite outfit is not a valid excuse for a full day’s absence.”  He glances my way and motions for me to come in.  I’m glad he’s busy listening and saying good-bye to the lady and glad there’s a handy chair for me to sink into, because I feel weak in the knees. The name plate on his desk says Greg Perez, but the man at the desk in front of me is Diego.

Up close, I can see that Mr. so-called Perez is old – forty or maybe even fifty – and his wavy black hair is shot through with gray streaks.   He takes off his glasses, cleans them with a hanky, and says he can’t get used to bifocals.  I wonder if he recognizes me and is stalling, trying to think how to handle the situation.

“I plan to learn the names of all twelve-hundred students at Mountain Oak, but it’ll take a little while,” he says with a smile.  “I’m Mr. Perez, and you are…”  He flips through several sticky notes piled up on his desk calendar. “…Alli McKenna?”

I nod.  He pauses. This freaks me out.  Is he giving me a chance to talk about myself?  Or is this standard vice-principal silent treatment, designed to make wrong-doers spill their guts, so he can punish me for whatever Cam and Reese told him I did?  I decide I don’t care.  He doesn’t seem to realize who I am, and that’s all that matters.

“You-you wouldn’t have a reason to know my name,” I stammer.  “I’m not a standout.”

He purses his lips like he’s really serious, but the laugh lines around his eyes get deeper.  “Since I’m in charge of discipline, not knowing you this early in the year isn’t a bad thing.”  I relax a little.  “Seems like you’ve had a rough day.  Why don’t you tell me what happened?”

Whether he’s Diego or Mr. Perez, he’s a good listener, and I surprise myself by telling him everything, from lunch all the way to what Pilar said about being average. “Average is just so boring. What I really want is to be special.”

This makes him frown for the first time.  Uh-oh.  Do I sound like a trouble-maker now?  But he says, “I think I get the picture.  I’ll deal with the boys and Brooke, too, but it appears you stuck up for someone you don’t know well and have no particular reason to like.  I’ve done that myself.”

I want to ask who the someone was and what happened, but I bite my lip instead.

“Well, Alli,” he says, getting up from his chair and reaching across the desk to shake my hand, “it’s a pleasure to meet you.  I hope you have a better day tomorrow, and I hope Brooke appreciates what you tried to do for her.”

“Thank you, Mr. Perez.”  He hands me a note that says, “ADMIT TO CLASS”, and I wait to see if he’s going to say goodbye or something, but he turns to his computer and seems to forget I’m there.

I make my way to the outer office and down the hall, grab shoes from my locker, and duck into the gym.  They’re running laps today, and Coach Saunders takes my admission note without even looking at it.  I change shoes and catch up with Pilar a second before the whistle blows.  Coach shouts, “Cool-down, people!  Everyone walk two laps.”

“Hey,” she gasps, holding her side.  “Next time, can I get in trouble instead of you?  You’re the one who likes all this running stuff.”  She looks at me.  “Sorry – that wasn’t funny.  Are you okay? Was it bad?”

“I’m not in trouble.  But there’s something I need to tell you, and you have to promise to tell me if you think I’ve lost my mind.”

Diego

The door closed.  His smile had left as soon as the girl did.  Greg Perez, as he’d been known for the last ten months, loosened his tie and fanned himself with a folder marked In-School Suspensions: Pending.  Being recognized was not how he had lived to be nearly five hundred years old.

And the McKenna girlhadrecognized him.  The way her brows drew together, the tilt of her head.  The carefully blank expression when she’d looked over his shoulder at his poster of an old map and sailing ship – a reproduction of an oil by Guillaume Le Testu, brilliant cartographer and not-so-brilliant pirate.  Should he be relieved or worried that she’d pretended not to know him?  How much had she overheard that day in the woods?

It might be time to vanish – disappear with no forwarding address.  Acuitto Puerto Rico and do whatever it took to stop Antonio, or die trying.   But he didn’t want to leave.

Just as he’d known he could learn to be a good sailor on that long-ago journey from San Lucar, he knew Mountain Oak Middle School was the place for him now.  When the students streamed past him each morning in the foyer, he could spot rebels and lost souls right away.  He’d been both himself, so long ago.  As his gaze blurred now, the ship in the poster seemed to emerge from its brush-stroke sea, enough like the Princesa to make him wonder if he might reach up, touch it and be a boy again.

***

 At sea, May 1538

Back home in Sanlucar, Diego had run with a gang of beggar boys, snatching sweets from open-air market merchants.  “What can we do, Marta?” he’d overheard his father ask his mother.  “He’s going to end up in prison.”

So Papa had arranged for Diego to join the crew of the Princesa, now part of the spectacle in Sanlucar harbor, along with seven more large and three small vessels, to be followed by the fleet of twenty-six Mexico-bound merchant ships.  Hernando de Soto and his beautiful wife  stood on the deck of the flagship, Cristobal, waving to the crowd.  “They’re well-equipped with provisions,” Papa had said, “so everyone loves Governor Soto – for now.  You’ll see a harder side of him soon enough.”  With a sigh, he’d given Diego a push toward the gangplank, wiping his eyes as he waved goodbye.

Diego fought the longing for home by working hard, aiming to prove his worth to Perez, the old bosun who’d befriended him.  Since most of the Princesa’s crew were soldiers, not sailors, Perez seemed glad to have a boy eager to learn the ship’s jobs, and he let Diego tag along when he supervised adjustments to the rigging and made the daily cargo check.  “Remember,” he ordered as they squeezed between the stacks in the hold, “any of it – nails, tools, seeds, weapons, trade goods – could mean the difference between life and death when we reach the New World.”

Diego emptied chamber pots and rat traps.  He shoveled manure from the live animals suspended in slings above the deck and tried not to think about the ones they would eat.

They sailed to Gomera, in the Canary Islands, taking on water and more supplies.  When a crew member was caught stealing a dram of brandy from the captain’s quarters, Diego hid behind a coil of rope and watched the punishment: the hiss of a live coal held against flesh, screams and the sickening smell of burned skin. He shuddered at the memory of the pranks he’d gotten away with before his sailing days and resolved to stay out of trouble.

He learned to tie knots and practiced until he mastered the difficult Spanish bowline, useful for holding sick or drunken sailors in place on a pitching ship.  His nimble fingers came to the attention of the ship’s doctor, Agassiz, who sometimes let him assist with pulling a tooth or applying a poultice to a wound before it became putrid, even praising him once for his quick mind and willingness to serve.  Diego had lowered his eyes.  Apparently the good doctor didn’t know that Senor Vargas sold off his disobedient younger son because he couldn’t seem to do much else with him.

***

Diego shook himself from his reverie. Perez and the doctor had taken an interest in him and helped him begin a new life.  Since then, he’d tried to pass on the favor, raising Gawonni, trying to help others.  Using the celt to rescue as many as he dared, starting with a few Tainos he’d helped hide in the Puerto Rican hills.  He’d transported slaves from the American South, taken refugees to safety in far-flung places all over the world – even pulled young Mercedez from the rubble of an earthquake.  But the modern world had grown complicated, with its computers and background checks.

False identities and records were expensive, and when he’d decided to teach, he needed degrees in education as well.  Then there were the applications and interviews.  But working with young people energized him, and he didn’t want to give up his new life.

His worlds had collided with the appearance of Antonio and Mercedez.  If he went on, would it mean putting young people at risk?

He pushed the thought from his mind and turned back to the computer, typing storage rentals and clicking a link to one not far from his newly-leased house.

***

Chapter 4

Alli

3:30 P.M.

During the cool-down laps, I told Pilar everything about that day in the mountains, talking non-stop.  She listened with no interruptions, but I know her.  She’s going to have questions, and hearing the answers will make her think of more, until I’ve remembered all kinds of things I’d forgotten about.  The first dismissal bell sounds.  On a normal day, we say goodbye and she goes with the car riders, while I head out the front to my bus.

Brooke passes us, avoiding my gaze.  “You’re welcome,” I say to her retreating back.

Cameron and Reese come along next, mouths turned down.

“Forget them,” says Pilar.  “Tell me what happened today with Mr. Perez!”

I answer with a question.  “Will Granny Jean give me a ride to your house?”

***

Pilar’s grandma, Granny Jean, cruises up to the end of the car pickup line, her favorite spot.  “At my age, I can’t waste time being early,” she told us once.

Granny Jean is a rock in Pilar’s life and mine, too:  a no-nonsense lady who wears her silver hair in a classic Afro, delivers meals to the elderly – even though she’s in her seventies – and laughs a lot.  Pilar goes to her house every day after school while her mom finishes work, then walks home next door.  Our house is a ten-minute walk from both of theirs.  When Corey hangs out with his friends and I’m facing an afternoon alone before Mom picks up Maisie at daycare on her way home, I usually end up at Granny Jean’s. Pilar and I do homework at her kitchen table, while she asks us about our day and really listens to our answers. But we rush through our work today, eager to get away from adult ears.

It’s hot outside, and we sit on Granny Jean’s front porch, drinking glasses of her sweet tea with lemon slices, while I tell Pilar about my office visit and watch her eyes widen.  I take a break to call Mom on my new cell phone and let her know where I am.  “Be home by five o’clock,” she says.  “I need your help getting dinner.”  I barely hit End before Pilar launches into full cross-examination mode.

“So, you think our new vice-principal is hundreds of years old, fights crime, and knows how to disappear.”

I take a long drink and fish out an ice cube to rub on the back of my neck. “Not exactly.  Well, okay: he did disappear right in front of my eyes.  I don’t know if he’s a very good crime-fighter, but the man who dropped the knife – Diego – was Mr. Perez.”

“Probably lots of older guys look like him,” says Pilar, kicking off her shoes and examining her sparkly blue toenails.  “I bet if you saw Mr. Perez and your Diego guy side by side, you could tell them apart.”

I shake my head.  “There’s a photo on his desk – a picture of himself and the Native American-looking guy, Gawonni.”

“Ooh!” says Pilar.  She takes a long drink of tea, swishing it around in her mouth and digesting this new information.  “Anything else?”

I try to visualize his office walls.  There were diplomas, a diagram of the school with all the exits marked, a picture of an old sailing ship.  I shake my head.  “Not really.”Pilar digs in her glass for a lemon.  “It’s not much to go on.”

I stare at her as she calmly squeezes juice onto her outstretched tongue. “Go?  I don’t plan on going anywhere.  I’m lucky nothing terrible happened, in spite of sticking my nose where it didn’t belong – twice.”

She turns to me.  “You mean like when you gave back something someone lost?  Or when you tried to help a girl who needs a friend, even if she doesn’t have a clue about how to be one?  I call that doing the right thing.”

“It feels more like jumping in without thinking.”  Suddenly, my eyes fill with tears.  Whoever he really is, Mr. Perez was right: I’ve had a tough day.

Pilar leans over and gives me a hug.  “Sorry, girlfriend,” she says.  “Look, most people stay on the fence – never get involved.  You stepped out.  Maybe Brooke needs to start taking care of herself, but this thing with Mr. Perez? I say we need to investigate.”

I shiver, and it’s not because the ice cube on my neck made me cold.  “I say we leave it alone.”

Pilar says, “Compromise, okay?  Put it on hold, but keep our eyes open.”

I don’t answer her.  I’m not ready to see our world turn upside down.

***

Chapter 5

Diego

Four fifty-seven P.M.

 Turning sharply into the Mountain Oak Storage lot, Diego headed for a parking place near the entrance and checked his watch.  According to their website, the office closed at five.  He hurried from his car to the door, found it unlocked, and stepped inside.

A lady with glossy brown hair was shouldering her purse and removing car keys and sunglasses from it at the same time.  Her eyes widened, and Diego noticed they were hazel with golden flecks.  A hint of a frown shadowed across her face, quickly replaced with a smile, though she couldn’t be pleased he’d shown up this late.

Gawonni had called him this morning, ready to meet tomorrow night to dig for the treasure.  That meant finding a place to pretend to store it, a place to throw Mercedez off the trail.

Diego tried to sound apologetic.  “Hi – Hope you’re not closed yet.  I just moved here.  New job, small house.”  He paused.

The woman tossed her car keys back in her purse, set it on the counter, and pulled open a drawer.  “This will get you started,” she said, handing him a pen and a form attached to a clipboard.  “Just fill in the information.  Pay the first month’s rent and the security deposit now, and I’ll give you an access code so you can visit your unit anytime from six A.M. to six P.M.  I’ll enter everything in the computer tomorrow.”

She picked up her sunglasses and settled them on her head.  A few tendrils of hair touched freckles high on her cheekbones.  There were tiny laugh lines around her eyes, and he put her age at about forty – a little young for him.  A few centuries too young.  But Gawonni’s comments about enjoying life had been on his mind.

“I can help you with the form.”

Diego realized he’d been staring.  “Sorry,” he said.  “Long day. And now I’m making yours longer.” He wrote furiously, pausing once to pull out his wallet and check the number on his newly-forged driver’s license.  “Sorry,” he said again.

“Don’t worry about it.  I know what it’s like to be in a new town – I’ve done it plenty of times.”  She crossed her arms and leaned back against the counter as he finished the form.  Diego noted there was no wedding ring on her left hand.

What should he say?  “Um, then… maybe you could tell me a good place to go out to dinner – I mean – maybe we could go to dinner somewhere.  Or meet for coffee – that is, if going out to dinner is too much.”  He offered the clipboard and she took it without saying a word.  He could feel a blush tingling his face.

“Well, Mr. Perez,” she answered slowly, reading from the form, “it’s nice to meet you.  I’m Lori McKenna.   I’m the very busy mother of three active children, and I don’t go out with men who haven’t asked my name or told me theirs.”

Diego said, “If writing my name counts as introducing myself, I’m only halfway stupid.”  She nodded absently, still reading the form.  Something was pecking away inside his brain – a thought trying to hatch.  He couldn’t have met her before, could he?

“Of course!” she said, putting down the clipboard.  “I’ve seen your name on some papers in my daughter’s back-to-school packet.”   She was smiling now.  “You’re the new vice-principal at Mountain Oak.”

Diego fought to keep his expression neutral.  The girl in his office this afternoon – Alli.  Looking at the mother again, he saw the resemblance. No good would come of letting her get to know him.  But he still needed a place to stash the treasure.

“Since it seems you’re a respectable working person, Mr. Perez, I suppose we could start over.”  She looked at him expectantly.

“Well, that would be fine.  I’m Greg Perez, and I’d like to rent a storage unit.”  She smiled, waiting.  How could he get out of this?  Play dumb, Perez – it won’t be muchof a stretch.  “What do I owe?  I can write a check or put it on a credit card.”

She stared, paused another beat, then shrugged.  “It depends on what size unit you rent, and whether you want climate control.  That’s more expensive, but it’s what I recommend for household furnishings. Smallest is a hundred square feet, then two hundred and three hundred.  The price list is on the wall behind me.”  She pointed backwards over her shoulder.

Diego avoided her gaze and looked at the choices.  Air conditioning was a waste, but he’d pay the extra money to avoid suspicion, bring in some furniture during business hours, and what else?  Acuitthe treasure to his house, then lug some of it to the storage unit in cardboard boxes, along with empty boxes?  It would be so much easier to acuit straight to the unit – late at night, of course.

“I’ll take a two-hundred square foot unit, climate controlled,” he said, pulling out his checkbook and writing.  “What about security at night – after hours?  Anyone watching the place?”

Lori McKenna smiled.  “This is a quiet town, and we’ve never had any trouble.  There’s an alarm system for the fence and the gate.  We have electronic motion detectors, plus these guys.” She whistled, and two of the largest German shepherds Diego had ever seen ambled in and stared at him.  A low growl rumbled from the throat of one dog.

Diego took a jerky step backward, and the dogs took moved forward, claws clacking on the tile floor.  Lori held up a hand.  “It’s okay – just stop looking them in the eye.”   Diego dropped his gaze and both dogs sat, panting.   “They’re retired police dogs,” she explained.  “They loaf around the office during the day, but their doggie door’s set to unlock at ten P.M., and they patrol the grounds after hours.  The boss gets here at five-thirty each morning to bring them back inside.”  She opened a file drawer and pulled out two dog treats, tossing them into two pairs of open jaws.  “Don’t worry – just remember what I said about eye contact and they’ll get to know you.

“To enter the storage area, you’ll swipe your card and punch in a code.  We have a choice of key or combination padlocks. What’ll it be?”

“Uhm, key, I guess.”

She handed him a plastic card, a slip of paper with his gate code, and a padlock with two keys. “Will this be enough to get me in right now?” Diego asked.

“Sure,” she answered, walking to the door and motioning for him to go out first. “I’ll leave you to it.  My younger daughter’s daycare closes in a few minutes.” She shut the door and locked it from the outside.  “See you around.  In the meantime, I’ll consider your invitation.”

Diego gave a weak smile, wondering how to get out of making a date, but thinking how nice it might be if he couldn’t get out of it.  He unlocked his car and got in, slamming the door.  Who was he kidding?  He was almost five hundred years old.  Lori McKenna was a normal lady who didn’t deserve to get mixed up with an acuitor.  No matter what he did, he’d never be normal.  He had set his path in 1539, a few months after boarding the Princesa.  That was when he’d first seen himself as he was.  Someone who could do as he was told, but wouldn’t be told what to think.

He steered his car to the security gate and swiped the plastic card. It took less than two minutes to find his unit, park, and try out his key on the padlock, which opened with a quiet click. The space was about ten feet wide and twenty feet deep.  Diego was six feet tall, and the ceiling height was easily twice that.  More than enough room for all the storage cartons.

Just one thing left to do. He peeked outside and checked to be sure the padlock was still hanging open.  He walked back to his car and stood beside it, fingering the acuita celt in his pants pocket and imagining the storage space.  In the blink of an eye, daylight changed to the musty dark of the unit’s interior. Good.  But the night of the digging would be stressful.  Should he practice more, or would that make him overthink everything?  Complex maneuvers, like sitting in the car and acuitingwithout accidentally bringing along the car, used to be second nature to him.  What about now?

He checked his rear-view mirror to be sure the gate had closed.  Later, he told himself that if he hadn’t been thinking of practicing with the celt, the memories of receiving it wouldn’t have flooded his mind.  And he might have noticed the small gray car that pulled out and joined the traffic behind him.

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