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The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline, Page 1

Lois Lowry

  The One Hundredth Thing About Caroline

  Lois Lowry

  * * *

  Houghton Mifflin Company Boston

  * * *

  Library of Congress Cataloging in Publication Data

  Lowry, Lois.

  The one hundredth thing about Caroline.

  Summary: When their mother starts to date the

  mystery man on the fifth floor who has been instructed

  by his agent to "eliminate the children" by the first

  of May, eleven-year-old Caroline and her older

  brother figure they're targeted to be the victims

  of a savage crime.

  [1. Single-parent family—Fiction. 2. Brothers

  and sisters—Fiction] I. Title.

  PZ7.L96730n 1983 [Fic] 83-12629

  ISBN 0-395-34829-3

  Copyright © 1983 by Lois Lowry

  All rights reserved. For information about permission

  to reproduce selections from this book, write to

  Permissions, Houghton Mifflin Company, 215 Park Avenue

  South, New York, New York 10003.

  Printed in the United States of America

  EB 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20

  * * *


  good sport from People magazine


  "Can't I even have dessert?" called Caroline Tate through her bedroom door.

  "If you'd just try a bite of your dinner, Caroline. You wouldn't have to eat all of it," her mother called back.

  "Just a bite," called her brother, "of this delicious, gray, cold squishy eggplant!"

  "I wasn't talking to you, Beastly!"

  Caroline's brother was named James Priestly Tate. Most people called him J.P. Caroline called him Beastly, and she really thought he was: beastly beastly beastly. J.P. was thirteen, and even her mother admitted that thirteen was a beastly age.

  Eleven felt pretty beastly too, Caroline decided, when you were sent to your room at half-past eight on a Friday night, just because you wouldn't taste your dinner.

  Her mother opened her bedroom door and poked her head inside.

  "Caroline, if you'd just try one bite. It's the principle of the thing."

  "I hate it. I hate the way it looks, and I hate the way it smells. It's too horrible to talk about. Horrible horrible horrible. Anyway, Mom, psychologists all say that you should never force children to eat. Especially eggplant."

  Her mother sighed. "Well, maybe psychologists can all afford steak every night. I, however, had to pay the dentist's bill out of this week's paycheck. And eggplant was on sale at the supermarket."

  "What's dessert?"


  "What color?"


  Caroline made a face. Red Jell-O wasn't worth eating eggplant for. Green Jell-O, maybe. But not red.

  "Tell Beastly he can have mine. And I hope he chokes."

  Her mother sighed again. "Well, good night then, Caroline. Be sure to brush your teeth."

  The door closed. Caroline flopped on her bed and groaned. Eight-thirty on a Friday night, and she couldn't even watch television. Usually she was allowed to stay up until ten, if it wasn't a school night—sometimes even later, if there was an especially good movie on TV.

  Well, at least tomorrow was Saturday, and Saturdays were always interesting. There was so much to do. Caroline reached for the calendar on her desk; she always listed her plans on the calendar.

  At the top of the space under Saturday's date she had written: HW. She wrote that in every Saturday's space; it meant Housework. Her mother worked all week at the bank, so on Saturday mornings Caroline and J.P. helped her clean the apartment. It wasn't so bad. It was a small apartment. Beastly J.P. always ran the vacuum cleaner, because he liked machinery. And he was responsible for household repairs. Even Caroline had to admit that Beastly was something of a genius when it came to taking apart toasters and faucets and mixers.

  Her mother cleaned the oven, which no one else wanted to do because the oven-cleaning stuff smelled terrible and stung your hands. Joanna Tate also did the marketing, which was why they sometimes had things like eggplant for dinner. Caroline and J.P. weren't allowed to do the marketing, because they would buy frozen pizza and chocolate eclairs, which cost too much and also, their mother said, weren't healthy.

  Caroline always did the laundry. No one else liked, doing the laundry, but Caroline loved it. Every Saturday morning she loaded all the dirty clothes into pillowcases, put them into the shopping cart, and went off to the Laundromat on the corner with a pocketful of quarters.

  The Laundromat smelled of bleach, and a gray and white cat lived there. Interesting people came into the place. An old woman who had once been an opera singer came in sometimes on Saturday mornings, and sang arias while her wash was in the machine. Once a pair of grown-up identical twin men came in, wearing matching clothes; when they folded their clean laundry, Caroline could see that all of their clothes matched, even their pajamas and undershorts.

  It took an hour and a half to get the laundry done, and you couldn't leave while it was in the machines, because someone might steal it. Laundry theft was one of the hazards of living in New York City. Caroline's father, who lived in Des Moines, said it would never happen there—but how the heck would he know, Caroline wondered, when he and his wife had a washer and drier right in their dumb split-level house, and never set foot in a Laundromat at all?

  Next on her calendar, under HW, it said MNH. That stood for the Museum of Natural History. Caroline went there every Saturday, as regularly as she went to the laundry; it was her favorite place in the whole city. Her mother had given her a membership in the Museum of Natural History for her birthday several years ago and had renewed it every year. So Caroline had a special membership card, which she carried in her wallet, and when she showed it to the guard at the entrance, she didn't have to pay an admission fee. She got all of their special mailings for members, telling her of each new exhibit. And when she had enough money, which was not often, she could eat lunch in the special members' cafeteria. J.P. had thought it was a dumb birthday present. But it wasn't. It was the best birthday present Caroline had ever had. She had made friends with every single guard in the Museum of Natural History; they all knew her name and said, "Good morning, Caroline," when she came in. Mr. Erwitt, who had an office just inside the front door, called her "Unofficial Assistant Curator of Dinosaurs" and said she should apply for a job there when she got older. And upstairs, Gregor Keretsky, world-renowned vertebrate paleontologist, was her very best adult friend.

  Stacy Baurichter was her best eleven-year-old friend, and "Call Stacy" was written on her calendar as well. Stacy was in Caroline's class at the Burke-Thaxter School. Sometimes they saw each other on weekends, but not often, because Stacy lived on the other side of the city and you had to change buses twice.

  Stacy Baurichter wanted to be an investigative reporter when she grew up. Caroline intended to be a vertebrate paleontologist, specializing in dinosaurs of the Mesozoic Era, but she was interested in investigative reporting, and sometimes she and Stacy worked on projects together.

  Right now they were doing investigative studies of their apartment buildings. Caroline's investigation was easier than Stacy's for a couple of reasons. One, Caroline's building was smaller. It was a tall, thin house with five floors. Caroline's family lived on the third floor. So she was investigating the other four floors and making notes about the people who lived there. It was pretty easy, because she knew all of the other people quite well, except for the mystery man who had moved into the fifth floor in the fall.

  Stacy lived in a very large building with
twenty-six apartments, a doorman, and an electronic security system. So Stacy's job was much harder. But then Stacy was the one who had thought up the project to begin with.

  The other reason that Caroline's investigation was easier was that Caroline's family was not rich. The other people in her building were not rich either. But Stacy's father was a senior partner in Bentley, Baurichter, and Bernstein, Attorneys-at-Law. Her family was quite rich, and all of the people in their apartment building were quite rich, and some of them were even famous, like Harrison Ledyard, the author who lived in 8-B and had won a Pulitzer Prize last year.

  Rich people seemed to be a little suspicious of Stacy's investigative questions. So she was having a bit of trouble compiling information and was starting to use stealthier methods than simple conversations. But she said that was a challenge, and investigative reporters welcomed challenges.

  Caroline understood that, because there would be a lot of challenges in dinosaur work as well.

  On Caroline's calendar, she had written, finally, IMM. Investigate Mystery Man. She wasn't at all sure how she would go about that; sometimes she passed him on the stairs, hurrying up to his fifth-floor apartment, and sometimes he would nod at her, bobbing his head up and down in an awkward way. But he never spoke to her. Maybe tomorrow she could start a conversation about whether the hall light bulbs needed changing, and then she could casually ask him about his past, his future, his hopes, his dreams, his fears.

  Caroline set her calendar on the table beside her bed. She stood by the window and looked down into the back yard behind their building. It wasn't much of a back yard, really; it was simply a small fenced area surrounded by other buildings, and now, at night, lights from the downstairs apartments cast illuminated rectangles across the bare earth and the straggly bushes that were trying hard to acknowledge April by growing a green leaf here and there.

  Someone once, long ago, had tried to create a real yard, and had planted the few bushes and set out some wrought-iron chairs. But now most of the bushes had died and the others had grown out of control; the chairs had been tipped over and never righted again. A workman had once left behind a paper bag filled with lunch; cats had come in over the fence and eaten the sandwich, but the remains of the forgotten lunch were still there: the faded bag, torn waxed paper, and a rusty thermos on its side.

  Caroline sighed. It wasn't a yard that would ever be photographed for Apartment Life magazine. But there were hints there of other people's lives, lives that had moved on someplace else. She wondered if deep down, under the scruffy yard, under the tunnels of the New York subway system, which rumbled beneath the streets and buildings and yards, under the sewers and the buried electrical lines, there might be bones and fossils, hints of the life that had existed long ago in time.

  She took off her clothes, dropped them on the floor—tomorrow was laundry day, after all—and put on her pajamas. She thought about brushing her teeth, but going to the bathroom meant walking through the living room of the apartment, and that meant walking past Beastly, who had eaten the eggplant without complaint and was now watching TV. She decided to brush her teeth twice in the morning to make up for skipping tonight.

  Caroline got her stuffed Stegosaurus down from her closet shelf. She was careful never to let anyone—particularly her brother—know that she still slept with a stuffed animal. Not even Stacy Baurichter, Investigative Reporter, knew that.

  Not that it was just any stuffed animal. Stegosaurus was Caroline's favorite of all the dinosaurs. She felt sorry for him, because he was ugly and dumb. Scientists like Caroline knew that, although the Stegosaurus had weighed two tons, his teeny brain was no bigger than a golf ball. And even though he had had a hundred teeth, they weren't very sharp ones, so he hadn't been able to eat other animals. He was just a clumsy and gentle plant-eater.

  But, thought Caroline, as she curled up with her arms around her Stegosaurus to go to sleep, even though he was a plant-eater with a two-ounce brain, he was probably smart enough to hate eggplant.


  "Don't put this blue blouse in with the white things, Caroline."

  "Mother, for heaven's sake. I'm the laundry expert, remember? Of course I won't put the blue blouse in with the white things. Here, give it to me. It goes in this pile, with the jeans."

  Joanna Tate chuckled. "That's the thirty-eighth thing I love about you, Caroline," she said. "Your laundry expertise."

  "You're positive it isn't the thirty-seventh?"

  "Nope. Thirty-seventh is your perpetual ability to wake up cheerful on Saturday mornings. Very few people have that ability."

  "I love Saturdays," said Caroline. "There's so much stuff to do."

  Together they sorted the dirty clothes, put them into pillowcases, and loaded them into the wheeled shopping cart. Caroline thumped it down the stairs of their building—sometimes she wished they had an elevator, the way Stacy's building did—and stopped on the first floor to check the mail.

  Most eleven-year-old people didn't get mail very often. But Caroline did, because she always sent away for free catalogues. Then her name was on mailing lists: Ms. C. Tate. There was always mail for Ms. C. Tate.

  In addition, of course, her membership in the Museum of Natural History brought mail. Today there was a notice about a lecture on spiders; she saved that, even though she wouldn't be able to go because it was a school night. But she would write a note to the lecturer, Dr. Morton Schultz from the University of New Mexico, telling him that she was sorry she couldn't make it. She was moderately interested in spiders. Caroline had a subscription to the National Geographic, which her father renewed every year as a Christmas gift, and she always read the articles about spiders, bees, and ants. Mountain-climbing expeditions didn't interest her much, because she didn't like being cold; and sailboat trips around the world didn't interest her much, because she didn't like being wet. But there was almost always an article about insects or archaeological projects. So she was able every year to write an honest and enthusiastic thank-you note to her father, in Des Moines, for the National Geographic.

  Her father didn't interest Caroline much, because he had moved to Des Moines when she was two years old and never wrote her any letters. She went to visit him now and then, and she liked his wife okay, but they made her baby-sit with their little boy. If Caroline wanted to baby-sit, she didn't need to go all the way to Des Moines.

  Also in the mail for Ms. C. Tate was a catalogue from Publishers Central Bureau, which she would read later. Reading the descriptions of books was always interesting, even though she never had the money to buy any.

  And there was something telling her "Congratulations C. Tate you may have won the Reader's Digest Sweepstakes." When she was younger, she used to believe that. Now she just tossed it into the wastebasket by the mail slot. Some of the other people in the building had already picked up their mail, apparently, because there were two other Reader's Digest letters in the wastebasket.

  Caroline leaned over and looked at the wastebasket more closely. It could be a good source for investigative reporting. Stacy spent a lot of time in the basement of her building, wearing rubber gloves so that she wouldn't leave fingerprints, going through the trash.

  Sure enough, there were two crumpled pieces of mail addressed to Frederick Fiske.

  She left her mother's mail—all bills, addressed to Ms. J. Tate—on the hall table. But she stuffed Frederick Fiske's two letters into a pocket of her jeans. Frederick Fiske was the Mystery Man who lived on the fifth floor.

  Caroline thumped the laundry down the front steps and out to the sidewalk. Billy DeVito was playing on the sidewalk with two stones and a piece of string. Billy DeVito was five and lived on the first floor.

  "Hi, Billy. How's it going?"

  Billy wrinkled his nose and thought for a minute. Caroline liked Billy because he always took things very seriously, even things like "How's it going?"

  "Good," he said, finally. "I got me this string. It busted last night when it was playing 'L
ady of Spain.'"

  Most people wouldn't have understood what Billy DeVito was talking about. But Caroline did, because she knew a lot about the DeVito family. Investigating them had been easy; Mrs. DeVito liked to talk. Her husband played the violin in a Hungarian restaurant. He gave his broken violin strings to Billy.

  Mr. DeVito's violin had cost four thousand dollars, and they had insurance on it. Mrs. DeVito had told Caroline once that she wished her husband's violin would be stolen; then the insurance company would pay them four thousand dollars, and they could buy a new living room set, and Mr. DeVito could get a job in the post office or something, like a normal person.

  She didn't really mean that, though. She liked it that Billy's father played the violin in the Little Hungary Café. Some nights he brought home leftover food and they would light candles and pretend they were eating in a restaurant themselves, and he would play "Night and Day" on his violin, just for her. Someone who worked in the post office could never do that for his wife.

  Caroline walked on down to the Laundromat on the corner. She loaded three machines, added detergent, put three quarters into each machine, and turned them on. The gray and white cat jumped down from the top of the drier where he'd been sleeping, and rubbed against her leg, purring.

  "Hi, Cheery," said Caroline and scratched behind his ears.

  No one knew whom the cat belonged to, or who fed him, or what his name really was. But the people who did their laundry at the Laundromat all called him Cheery, because he liked to roll in the little piles of spilled detergent on the floor; then he would jump on top of the drier and clean the detergent out of his whiskers and sneeze.

  He didn't care what kind of detergent he rolled in. But it would have sounded stupid to call him All or Tide. So everybody called him New Blue Cheer. Cheery, for short.

  Caroline glanced around to see who else was in the place this morning.

  "Hello, Mrs. Kokolis," she called. "Are you starting to pack yet?"