Martin McMillan turned off his Gameboy and gazed out the airplane window.  It was hard to believe that two weeks ago life had seemed perfect.  He’d been hanging out with the guys skateboarding and talking about their first week in seventh grade.  What a day!  He finally landed that jump after trying all summer.  He remembered the vibration of the wheels spinning faster and faster as his left foot propelled the skateboard, how he held his breath, leaned to the right to avoid the bulging crack in the sidewalk, and headed straight up the sloping side of Mrs. Harris’s one-foot cement wall.  The trucks scraped noisily along the edge as he bent his knees and threw his weight into the jump.  For a few fleeting seconds he sailed four feet into the air.  The wheels hit the cement with a thud; the board rocked and twisted until he found his balance and finished with a 180. 

“Sweet,” Charlie said, rushing over to give him a high five.  Ryan and Trevor gave him thumbs up.

Only an hour later, still flushed with success, he raced back to the house to tell his parents.  Then his world turned upside down.

Dad met him on the porch.  “Martin,” he said, “I have the most exciting news.”

Martin put his skateboard down and held his breath.  He’d heard that one before.  “What?” 

“Your mother and I have been invited on a very important dig.  We leave for Peru in two weeks.”  Dad had grinned and looked at him like he should be thrilled.  Martin had run to his room and slammed the door.  

Now he pounded the armrest with a fist as his jaw tensed.  Every time he thought about what his parents were doing to him his stomach curdled.  It was so unfair!  How could they make him leave his friends and miss his first year of junior high school, and for what, one of their stupid archaeological excavations?   They made such a big deal about this amazing discovery that was so secret.  Like he cared. 

The family had left Chicago early that morning for Miami and a second flight to Lima, Peru.  Just his luck to get parents who dragged him off to bug-infested jungles and barren deserts.  Egypt had been the worst, but Thailand had sucked too.  In Peru there’d be another dirty camp with those disgusting smelly outhouses and no other kids, or at least none that spoke English.   

Martin’s life had never been normal until his family moved home to Silverton, Illinois when he was ten.  The last two years had been so cool living with Grandma and having friends he didn’t have to leave, or so he’d thought.  Finally his parents had real jobs.  Mom loved teaching at the University of Illinois and Dad had been thrilled to get the curator position at the Museum of Natural History. 

The same futile questions kept running over and over in his mind.  Why this?  Why Peru?  Had Mom and Dad even thought about consulting him, or his sister, Jenny?  No!  All they had cared about were themselves. 

He hoped his skateboard was okay.  The airline had made him check it with the baggage at the last minute.  If his new trucks and wheels got damaged, he’d be lost.  What would he do in the middle of nowhere without his board?

Jenny, fifteen years old, slept in the seat next to him, her headphones pounding out the beat of Everclear.  At least she wasn’t throwing a tantrum.  Martin had spent the past few weeks sulking and slamming doors.  He’d even refused to pack his suitcase.  But Jenny had screamed and sobbed nonstop, swearing that her parents were ruining her life.  A lot of good any of it had done either one of them.   

The captain of the plane announced their descent into Lima.  Martin looked for the ground, but a sea of gray clouds blocked the view.  Dad’s head popped over the seat in front of Martin, and Mom stood in the aisle next to Jenny.

“Jenny.  Wake up, honey.”  Mom gently shook Jenny’s shoulder.  “We’re going to be landing soon.”  Jenny opened her eyes and groaned as Mom took the headphones off her ears and pushed Jenny’s tray back into the seat in front.  

“Anyone need to use the bathroom before we land?”

“Oh, Mother,” Jenny snapped as she tried to turn away.  There was nowhere to turn but into Martin’s face.  “Don’t say anything, Stupid.”

Jenny was such a pain.  She always took everything out on him. When he was little she used to call him Spot, making fun of the freckles laced across his nose and cheeks.  He looked like his dad, blond hair, blue eyes, and freckles, while Jenny inherited Mom’s auburn hair and brown eyes.  Jenny used to make him so mad, but lately he’d found a way to turn the tables.

“Look who’s talking, Spot!”  Martin smiled, knowing how embarrassed she was about the zits that turned her face into a connect-the-dots puzzle. 

“Stop it, you two,” Dad said frowning.

Mom seemed kind of excited and worried all at the same time.  She kept playing with her hair and straightening her jacket.  Dad’s face looked pale. 

It took forty-five minutes to negotiate four suitcases and a large trunk through customs.  They wound their way among anxiously waiting crowds who pushed and pulled in total chaos.  Spanish and English announcements blared from the loud speakers, Senor Martinez, please come to the Aero Perú counter.  Families called out excitedly as passengers emerged from the gate. 

 “Hold on to your backpacks.  You don’t want to lose anything,” Mom warned Jenny and Martin for the third time.  Her face relaxed when she caught site of a man standing beyond the crowd holding up a yellow sign--Wells Expedition.  

A small rotund man with a bushy beard and rosy cheeks waved and smiled.  Martin thought he looked like Santa Claus only with brown hair.  Dr. Wells, the director of the expedition, had been Mom’s advisor in graduate school. 

“Amelia, my dear, how delightful to see you again,” Dr. Wells said, pumping Mom’s hand vigorously.  “You remember my wife, Edna.”  Mrs. Wells stood two inches taller than her husband.  Her auburn hair, streaked with gray, formed a loose bun at the nape of her neck.  Something about her smile reminded Martin of Grandma.

“And this is your husband, Harvey, of course,” Dr. Wells continued.

“Yes.  Very pleased to see you again,” Dad said.  “And these are our children, Jenny and Martin,”

Jenny barely nodded and surveyed the terminal as if searching for someone. 

Martin mumbled, “Hi.”

“I can’t wait for you to meet the other young people, eight of you in all, quite a group,” Dr. Wells said.  Martin looked up surprised.  Maybe there would be someone his age. 

“As you probably know,” Dr. Wells continued, “Mrs. Wells will be your teacher.”  She smiled reassuringly.

“I’m sure once we get settled they’ll be very happy,” Mom said, sharply directing her voice toward Jenny.

“One more family arrives this afternoon from Spain,” Dr. Wells explained.   “Tomorrow we have a slide presentation and the dinner with the Peruvian Ministry.  Tuesday we’re off to Cajamarco and our camp.”

“You must be exhausted,” Mrs. Wells said, patting Mom’s arm.  “We have a van out front to take you to the hotel.  We’ll leave you on your own this evening.”

Martin peered out the van windows into the fading light of day as they sped to the center of Lima.  The outskirts of town appeared flat and gray.  Dilapidated shacks peppered abandoned lots overgrown with weeds.  Barefooted children played by the side of the road.  As they entered the downtown traffic slowed to a crawl, and the crowded streets bustled with activity.  Dark skinned men and women in brightly colored clothes packed the sidewalks with their wares--candy, papers, toys, and jewelry--arrayed on makeshift stands.  The air hung thick with brown smog, turning the sky an eerie orange as the last rays of sunlight peaked through clouds.  Martin thought it looked like the foreign cities he had seen before--Istanbul, Bangkok, Cairo--too many people living in one place and most of them poor.  What would life be like in this strange land?