Charlotte peeled back one flap of the box, Hannah the other. Ellie reached in, fishing through a sea of packing peanuts, pulling something out with a squeal and spray of styrofoam.
“What is it?” Jack asked.
Ellie turned it over in her hands. “A movie! He sent us a movie!”
Charlotte snatched the video tape from the girl’s hands.
“It says to watch it,” she said. She slid the tape from its case, and turned around to switch on the TV. Once the screen warmed up, she pushed the cassette into the VCR.
“Your dad is so Old School,” she said, looking over her shoulder at Beth.
There was a flicker of snow on the screen, and then the picture resolved into blobs of greens and browns. The focus slipped back and forth, and the greens and browns resolved into lush rainforest plants and the huddled remains of stonework.
A somewhat short, stocky man huffed into view from the left. He bent down, his eye filling the screen as he peered at the camera.
“Oh, I hope this thing is on,” he said, straightening. He squared his shoulders and waved. “Greetings! From the Egypt of the Americas!” He stared for a moment, then patted at various pockets along his vest, and produced some multicolored note cards.
“Good morning, or afternoon, if that’s what it is there. I sent this along with some more gifts that I hope you will all enjoy. It’s the least I can do to show the gratitude for all that you have done for myself and especially for Beth.” He waved again. “Hi, Beth!
“I wish we’d had more time to get to know each other before I got called away on this expedition, but I hope this finds you all well and in good spirits. I thought you might all like to see just what all it is that I’ve been up to. So…”
He huffed around out of sight of the camera, and it jiggled, the scenery jolting and swimming in and out of focus.
“Darn thing won’t— There!” With a lurch, the view settled down again, and began panning slowly left and right at a little higher level.
“We’re at an unnamed ruin site in a rather secluded valley. Rather than being a city, like Machu Pichu, this area seems similar to the Valley of the Kings, in Egypt.”
The camera zoomed down a slope, and they could see the top of a great stone pyramid poking out from among the fog-shrouded treetops.
“That is the taller of three pyramids in the valley below. The others are covered by the trees, but are no less spectacular. There appears to be an entire necropolis down there. We’re busy sifting through lots of dirt and jungle, and turning up a remarkable amount of artifacts. It’s all so exciting!”
The camera shuddered, and the zoom crawled back, and the professor panned up and down the length of the valley below.
“All right. Lunch break is nearly over. Thought you all might like to see where I’m working! Again, Bill, Margaret, kids, thank you all. I hope to be back soon! Merry Christmas!”
They got a remarkable view of the professor’s boots before the picture went blank.
“It’s like a nature show!” Ellie said, bouncing where she sat.
“Wow, Beth. I don’t mean to be rude, but… your dad is a bit of a dork, isn’t he?”
Beth laughed. “Well…. Maybe a little bit.”
* * * * *
Wrapped in bundles of newspapers, spaced between layers of blankets, the Jacobs found their gifts, each with an index card. In the professor’s small but neat handwriting was a brief explanation of what the gift was, or how it had been made.
Ellie got a mostly-pink blanket, and another family of hand-carved horses, each of a different type of wood.
Hannah got a blanket of deep blue, and a necklace of deep red stone and beads of multiple hues of green.
Charlotte’s blanket was a rich pattern of purples and lavender, and accompanied a brooch of silver and aquamarine.
Jack’s parents got a double-wide blanket of orange and cream color, the bottom of it lined with the same colors used in their children’s blankets. A set of hand-blown wine glasses survived the trip from Peru, along with a note apologizing that customs wouldn’t let the professor ship them a bottle of the fine wine.
Jack’s blanket was done in multiple shades of grays, gradually deepening along the blanket’s length. A leather portfolio was folded in with the blanket, and it contained about a dozen crinkly, folded pages. Rubbings from tablets, the professor’s note explained, from one of the kings’ burial chambers, telling the story of the Sun King and the Jade Feather.
Beth’s blanket was a riot of colors, and her gift was a long wooden box filled with feathers.
“Feathers? Are you making a pillow?” Charlotte asked. “Why else would a box of feathers get you so tickled?”
“What? C’mon, that was a good one!”
Beth giggled. She held one up. It was long, easily as long as the girl’s thumb and pinky-finger, spread out.
“These are the wrong kind of feathers for pillows,” she said.
“That’s a big one!” Ellie said. “Like birdies have on their wings!”
Beth nodded. “That’s right. Flight feathers. And they make for the best pens.”
“When did you enroll in wizard school?” Charlotte asked.