Chapter One: How It Started

Sometimes extraordinary things begin in ordinary places. A fancy-dancy butterfly starts out in a plain little cocoon. A great big apple tree grows from a tiny brown speck of a seed. And the Wonders started right on our own front porch on a hot summer night I would have forgotten on the spot if it hadn't been for what got started then and kept on going.

Who knows, maybe Columbus decided to look for a New World one hot summer night when he got tired of staring at the same old barn. Or maybe one evening after supper, Balboa stood up and said, "Excuse me now, folks. I'm going to search for the Pacific Ocean."

There was no chance of seeing an ocean in Sassafras Springs, which is set smack dab in the center of the country. Though a dip in Liberty Creek was welcome on a boiling hot day, to my mind it was a poor excuse for a body of water. Shoot, it wasn't even a dribble on the big map of the United States that hung on the schoolhouse wall.

Red Hawk, Coy, and Iron Valley all had dots on the map, but not Sassafras Springs, Missouri. We might as well have been invisible, yet there I was, sitting on the front porch with Pa and Aunt Pretty. The chores were done, our bellies were full, and the mosquitoes hadn't worked up much of an appetite yet.

Aunt Pretty sat in her high-back rocker, crocheting some lacy thing as usual, though for the life of me I couldn't make out what it was meant to be. I hoped it wasn't intended for me. Pa whittled on a stick and I was staring hard at a drawing in a book. It was a first-rate book with lots of pictures in it. Miss Collins, the schoolteacher, gave it to me on the last day of school for getting the best marks in geography.

My mind was a million miles away when suddenly my aunt said, "Eben McAllister, you've had your nose in that book so long, I forgot what you look like! Wake up and see the world."

I gazed out at the familiar white fence, the faded red barn, and the yellow clay road. A pair of fireflies blinked over Aunt Pretty's peony bed. Our horses, Pat and Murph, were in the barn, Mabel and Myrt were milked, and the chickens had gone to bed long ago. My dog, Sal, thumped her tail, most likely hoping I would stir up some excitement. She should have known better.

"Nothing to see," I said and went back to my book. Sal rolled on her side and yawned.

"You'd think someone would have something interesting to say about something," Aunt Pretty said. "Living with the two of you is like living alone. I might as well talk to myself."

Although I didn't say it, Aunt Pretty did talk to herself, all day long. It was no picnic taking care of Pa and me. She moved in when Ma died four years ago and did all she could. Still, it was lonely for her because Aunt Pretty could talk your arm off, while Pa and I weren't ones to waste words.

"What's so interesting about that book, anyway?" Aunt Pretty asked.

"It's about the Seven Wonders of the World," I told her. "They built these amazing things way back in ancient Greece and Egypt and places."

Pa blew the shavings off his stick. "What things?" he asked.

I showed him the book, and he took his time studying the drawings. He read the names out loud, and they sounded fine. The Great Pyramid at Giza. The Colossus of Rhodes. The Statue of Zeus. The giant Lighthouse at Alexandria. The Mausoleum at Halicarnassus. The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Big things. Wonderful things.

"We don't have anything like that around Sassafras Springs," I pointed out.

"We do have the wash hanging on the line every Monday," Aunt Pretty chuckled. "Call it the Hanging Laundry of Sassafras Springs and put it in a book. There's your Wonder."

I tried to make her understand. "These were important things. In faraway lands."

Aunt Pretty sniffed loudly. "Seems to me we have lighthouses right here in the U.S.A."

"Not like this one. This light could be seen for thirty miles. Fires burned behind the eyes. See?" I held up the page with a drawing of the Lighthouse at Alexandria, but my aunt barely glanced at it.

Pa calmly scraped away at his stick of wood. "I guess I could put some eyes up on the side of the barn, but I'm afraid the fires would scare the horses."

I didn't give him the satisfaction of a comeback.

"I suppose we all have notions that others might find peculiar," Aunt Pretty said.

"Everyone except you, Pretty." Pa's voice was teasinglike.

"You hush up, Cole, or I'll bake up a batch of Aunt Dessy's biscuits for breakfast."

They both chuckled. "What are they?" I asked.

"Your great-aunt Dessy always got her recipes all mixed-up. She could never remember whether it was a cup of flour and a pinch of salt, or a pinch of flour and a cup of salt. So her biscuits were hard as rocks," Aunt Pretty explained.

"No wonder Uncle Jonah didn't have a tooth left in his head," Pa said, and they exploded into laughter, though going without teeth didn't seem too funny to me. "Yep, Dessy's biscuits were downright Wonders," Pa added, and he and my aunt laughed even harder.

"That's not what I mean!" I was getting seriously annoyed. "I'm talking about things so special, folks would travel all around the world to see them!"

Aunt Pretty put down her crocheting and sighed. "Eben, why do you spend so much time thinking about those foreign places?"

"Because someday I'm going to see them," I told her. "I'm going round the world on a tramp steamer, like the fellow who wrote this book."

Aunt Pretty huffed and started crocheting with a vengeance. "Wouldn't that be a scandal! Leaving your pa alone with all this work. Leaving the farm to go to rack and ruin."

"Eben's free to lead his own life, once he's grown up," Pa said. "If the farm doesn't suit him."

I stared at the barn for a spell. "Why do all the barns in Sassafras Springs look the same?" To this day, I don't know why I was in such a complaining frame of mind, but I was. "Why isn't there a round one? Or a blue one? Or one with a tower?"

Aunt Pretty's crochet hook hung in midair. "A round blue barn with a tower. Now I've heard everything. What would people think?"

"Maybe they'd think Sassafras Springs is a place worth seeing, instead of just passing us by," I told her.

"Sassafras Springs is as good a place to live as any I've heard of." Aunt Pretty's voice was firm. "We'd look silly with a pyramid out in our cornfield."

"Just think, Pretty, we could charge folks to see it," Pa joked. "You could sell the tourists lemonade and your good apple pie."

My aunt laughed. I did not.

Pa eyeballed his whittling stick again. "That Egypt looks to be a mighty dry place. I wonder how they grow the crops to live on."

"They've done fine for all these years," I snapped back.

A lopsided moon popped up in the dusky sky, but it didn't shed light on any Wonders.

"Maybe our buildings are lacking in originality," Pa admitted. "Still, I can't believe there aren't a few Wonders around here somewhere. Maybe a little smaller than that pyramid, so's you haven't noticed yet."

I didn't mean to sigh as giant a sigh as I did right then. The light was fading fast, and Aunt Pretty's crochet hook was flying like fury.

Pa stared out at the farm with a faraway look in his eyes. "Annie May always wanted to go up to Silver Peak, Colorado, to see Cousin Molly and her husband, Eli. She wanted to see a real, honest-to-goodness tall mountain, the kind with snow on top. I sure wish I'd have taken her."

I swallowed the lump of sorrow I felt whenever Ma's name came up. Sal got up and pressed her chin on my knee.

We all sat silent, even Aunt Pretty, until Pa asked, "Does that book tell what a Wonder really is?"

I thumbed through the pages, back to the introduction. "Here it is. It says, 'a marvel; that which arouses awe, astonishment, surprise, or admiration.'"

Pa scratched his cheek with the dull side of his knife. "I've seen one or two things to admire around here. Maybe if you put out a little effort, you would too."

I closed the book and leaned back on both elbows. "But what's the point?"

"I just think there's no use searching the world for Wonders when you can't see the marvels right under your own nose."

"Amen," said Aunt Pretty.

It wasn't enough to satisfy me, not in the mood I was in. "Just what marvels are you talking about?"

Pa stood up and started pacing around, rubbing the back of his neck the way he always did when he was pondering something important.

"Eben, I have a deal for you," he finally announced. "You find yourself Seven Wonders right here in Sassafras Springs, and I'll buy you a ticket to go see Molly and Eli and that mountain!"

I almost fell off the porch. So did Aunt Pretty.

"All by himself?" she asked, rolling her eyes. "An eleven-year-old boy staying with folks who are practically strangers out there in the wilderness?"

Pa ignored her. "Of course, like you say, you probably can't find seven amazing things in all of Sassafras Springs, but you could try."

My mind was racing. "A train ticket? When?"

"Reckon there's time right before harvest."

"Can I enter this contest?" Aunt Pretty asked.

"The deal's between me and the boy." Pa rose from his chair and disappeared into the house.

"Colorado." Aunt Pretty shook her head. "Why, I would have been tickled pink just to go over to St. Clair when I was a girl."

I've never been able to picture my aunt as a girl. Her real name, Purity, got shortened to "Pretty" years ago. The name stuck, though she'd added a few pounds over the years. Pleasingly plump, as she said. Pa always told her she was still in her prime. "You're a fine figure of a woman, little sister," he'd say. That made Aunt Pretty blush every time.

The door squealed as Pa came back outside and handed me a pad of paper. "You can keep track of your Wonders here."

"How long do I have?"

"Seven days seems fair," said Pa, settling back down. "Long as it took for God to create this world and take a day off."

"A Wonder a day? I don't know." At that moment, seven of anything sounded like a lot. Especially since if Sassafras Springs had Wonders, they hadn't showed up so far.

Still, I could already hear that train whistle calling, could already see those tracks pointing toward the white-capped mountains of Colorado.

"I'll start tomorrow." I guess Columbus said something like that once, only he said it in Italian.