Yearling by Random House Publishing Group

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Gemini Summer
Excerpt

one

The sheriff leaned back with his feet on the desk, watching the blond-haired boy. He was a little man with a sunburned face, with white eyebrows that looked strange on all the redness of his forehead. His cowboy boots had shiny snakeskin tops, and he sat tapping the toes together. There was a blob of blue bubble gum squashed onto one of the soles.

He watched the boy for a long time before he said, quite suddenly, "You ever heard of fingerprints, kid?"

The boy looked up.

"I could take you into the back there and print you," said the sheriff, "and I'd get what I want like that." He snapped his fingers. "I'd know your whole name and your address and everything."

The blond-haired boy had a dog beside him. He was petting the dog as he sat in front of the sheriff's desk, in a wooden chair with arms. The ceiling fan that turned slowly above him trailed shreds of cobwebs round and round.

"Now, is that the route you want to take?" said the sheriff.

"How could you know my name and address from fingerprints?" asked the boy. He looked at his fingers. "I don't think you can do that."

"Oh, you don't think I can do that," said the sheriff. "A real little Perry Mason, aren't you?"

The boy said nothing. He had said hardly a word in an hour and twenty minutes.

The sheriff sighed. He tapped the toes of his boots together. "Say, that's a nice dog you got," he said. "What do you call him, sonny?"

The blond-haired boy didn't answer.

"Aw, come on!" The sheriff swung his feet to the floor and slammed a hand on the desk. "Holy moley, what's the harm in telling me the name of your dog?"

The boy shrugged. "Maybe you should fingerprint him."

"Oh, that's funny. Yeah, that's just hysterical." The sheriff opened a drawer in his desk and took out a key. "You want to sit in the cage and tell jokes to yourself? Is that what you want?"

"I don't care," said the boy.

"Then that's what you'll do."

When the sheriff stood up the boy stood up, and the dog stood up beside him. They walked in a line through the office, past the table where the lady had sat typing till dinnertime. There was a police radio there, and a teletype machine, and a shiny kettle that reflected the whole room and the turning fan.

The dog's claws ticked on the floor. The boy wished the lady would come back, because the lady had seemed nice. She had smiled at him all the time--just smiled and typed and talked on the radio.

"You had your chance, sonny," said the sheriff. He took the boy and the dog down a flight of concrete steps, down to a corridor with a jail cell on each side. He put his key in a lock and opened a cell, sliding the bars across with a rattle of metal. There was a bed in there, and a toilet, and that was all.

"Empty out your pockets," said the sheriff.

The boy did as he was told, embarrassed by the things that came out. There was a rubber band and a bit of string, a bottle cap, an old penny, a plastic man without a head. The sheriff took it all in one hand. "In you go," he said.

The boy went into the cell. The dog followed behind him.

The sheriff drew the bars into place, then turned his key and pulled it out. "When you're ready to tell me where your home is, just holler," he said. He went up the stairs in his snakeskin boots.

The boy stretched out on the bed. His dog climbed up beside him, settling down with its head on his chest.

"Don't worry," said the boy. His hand touched the dog's neck, and his fingers buried themselves in the black fur. "We'll get to the Cape, and it'll be okay. It'll all work out when we get to the Cape."

The dog fell asleep. But the blond-haired boy lay awake, staring at the bars and the bricks. "We gotta keep going," he told the sleeping dog. " 'Cause we can't go back. That's the thing--we can't ever go home again."

He looked at the lightbulb on the ceiling. Then he squinted and tried to imagine that it was the sun, and that he was lying outside on the grass with his dog. He thought about his home.

two

The Rivers lived in an old gray house in a valley named Hog's Hollow. All around, in every direction, the city stretched for miles and miles. To the west was an airport, to the north an industrial park. To the south were glass towers and skyscrapers and freeways choked with cars. But down in the Hollow, it was quiet and calm.

There was a single street laid out like a worm on the valley floor, and only nine houses, all sturdy and aged like the great nests of American eagles. There were seventeen people, but only three children. There were six cats and one dog.

A narrow stream called Highland Creek flowed southward through the Hollow, creeping past the cottonwoods. Danny River liked to play there, building dams of sticks and mud. Beau, his brother, sometimes helped him smash them.

Their father's name was Charlie. But the boys and their friends talked of him as Old Man River. They imagined that he never knew, though Charlie had used the same name for his own father when he was the age of his sons.

For a living, Old Man River pumped out septic tanks. He owned a black truck with a huge tank on its back and a little cab at the front, and he wore green clothes and brown boots, and carried his keys on a jangling hoop at his waist. He could peer into a septic tank, like a wizard into a crystal ball, and see the lives of people. He could divine, in a glimpse, what they ate, and what they tried to flush away, and what colors they were painting their walls. "There are no secrets from the septic man," he'd say.

Then there was Mrs. River. It was as though she had slept through the early sixties. While other ladies were trying to dress like Jackie Kennedy, she looked like Eleanor Roosevelt. Florence was her name, but Flo she was called. Little Flo River, barely five feet high, talking sometimes like Scarlett O'Hara.

Altogether, the Rivers seemed a bit odd to the people of the Hollow, who saw that big truck parked in the yard, and the Old Man always tugging at his filthy cap, and Flo in her cotton dresses, and Danny wading barefoot through the creek. "The hillbillies of Hog's Hollow"; that's what the Rivers were called.

In the whole family, it was said, Beau was the only normal one. He did well at school, and he read books and he wondered about things like pollution and the Cold War. Only Beau, it was whispered, would ever amount to anything. "But that Danny," women would add, "oh, that Danny--isn't he a sweetheart?"

From the Hardcover edition.

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No Castles Here
Excerpt

Crossing the River

Augie Boretski snuck out.

“Stay in,” Mom had said before leaving for work. “I’ll be home by six.”

Stay in? On a super muggy, one-hundred-degree day in August? Their second-floor apartment had to be at least one hundred and twenty, even with the rickety fan going full blast.

The old lady downstairs stopped him as he opened the front door.

“Your mama, she worry.”

Augie shrugged. What did Mrs. Lorentushki know, wearing her long-sleeved dress and flowery apron on a day like today?

“I’ll be okay,” he said before letting the screen door slam shut.

Besides, Mom didn’t have to worry. He wasn’t sticking around this neighborhood.

He counted the change in his bulging shorts pockets, checking one last time that he had enough to make it to Philly and back. He was getting out of here. Out of Camden. The armpit of the world, he thought, home to losers and drug dealers. Philadelphia sparkled across the Delaware River from the Camden waterfront. The buildings looked like castles, with spires and promise.

He walked the ten blocks to the Ferry Street station. At eleven in the morning, Augie didn’t fear the gangs. He fed his coins to the ticket machine and boarded the train. He had escaped! Within minutes, he climbed out of the 13th Street station, ready to explore the big city without his mom there, fussing.

Walking down Locust Street, Augie passed one tall building after another, each looming above him like a fortress with its drawbridge up. Cars zoomed past, but except for one man in a business suit and one woman in a crisp dress, the sidewalks were empty. The buildings became shorter and turned to brick. Waves of heat rose from the concrete. Then he noticed the side streets.

Unlike the wide avenues he’d been crossing, these side streets were narrow, with small gardens, gnarled trees, and sometimes a barbecue grill. He turned into one full of shade. Shiny white teeth peeked out from a store window.

White teeth?

He stared at the display. The teeth belonged to a large toy donkey, with round eyes and a red-and-gold blanket on its back. The animal brayed at a doll dressed like a princess, who crouched to pick flowers. Curiosity pulled him into the shop.

After the door closed behind him with a tinkling of bells, Augie realized that he should have paid more attention to the books he had seen at the princess’s feet. What was he going to do in a bookstore?

He spun around, lifted his arm to pull the door open, and paused. He felt his wet T-shirt unpeel from his back. His neck prickled as beads of sweat cooled in the air-conditioning. Nice. He could use a break from the sun. He let his arm drop and turned back around. What was he going to do in a bookstore?

He’d never been in a bookstore before. There were none in his Camden neighborhood. The closest shop was a bodega two blocks away that cashed checks and sold milk and bread. Aspirin and razor blades were kept behind bulletproof Plexiglas, along with cigarettes. Augie never hung around there—the owner rushed people in and out, saying, “This ain’t no museum.”

This bookstore was entirely different.

It had an unhurried quiet that Augie liked. The quiet wasn’t awful, like in the classroom when everyone prayed someone else was going to be called upon. There was no edge to this quiet. People moved about, minding their own business, at ease with each other.

“Thank you, Louisa,” a customer said to a tall, African American woman with her dark hair pulled into a knot. She smiled, and her gray eyes shifted for a second and focused on Augie.

Augie ducked into an aisle. He didn’t want to be noticed. He had gone only a few paces when he saw a deep chair with enormous cushions in faded black leather. On its seat lay a dark green book with gold letters etched into the cover. He lifted the book, sank into the chair, and pushed his glasses back up his nose. Aaah . . . He looked up. On the wall next to him hung a yellowed picture of a dignified African American gentleman in a three-piece suit with a straw hat and a cane. He sat under a tree next to a stately white woman in a long, pale lace dress, her hair piled up high with a tiny hat perched forward on top of her head. They stared at him, as if amused by his presence.

“What are you looking at?” Augie asked them.

The shopkeeper seemed to answer him: “I have several volumes covering mollusks over here.”

She was leading a customer in Augie’s direction. He opened the book he still held, as if he were interested. Maybe she wouldn’t notice him with his nose buried in a book.

Augie didn’t like to read. He read whatever he was told to read at school—most of the time. At home, he watched the few TV channels they could catch, or sang along with music on the radio. They didn’t own any real books—none that he remembered.

But something odd happened when he cracked open that green spine. The very first page had a picture of the braying donkey from the store window, but this time it held its tail high. It pooped golden coins into a silver bowl held by a king in crimson robes. The princess was nowhere to be seen.

Awesome!

He turned the page. The first letter of the first word was an elaborate L with green vines all around it and a donkey head peeking out from behind it. The words were crisp black on a creamy white. He touched them with the tips of his fingers. It made no sense. They almost felt alive.

Augie was eleven and a half. This was his time for adventure. He hadn’t figured it would begin in a bookstore.

He started reading.

From the Hardcover edition.

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The Seance
Excerpt

WEDNESDAY, JUNE 2, 1926

ADMIRAL BYRD CIRCLES NORTH POLE
FLAGPOLE SITTER TOPS FIFTEEN DAYS
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN TESTS
     LOCAL MEDIUM

At five minutes to midnight, a stranger arrived for the seance. He came out of the hot summer darkness and tapped three times on the door.
The sitters were at their places, all four around the table. My mother was dressing in her bedroom. So I was the one who answered the knock. Scooter King, thirteen, I saw the Stranger in.
He was standing under the porch light, like a big moth in a rumpled overcoat, holding his hat and a bamboo cane. His hair was silver, his mustache gray, his spectacles thick and round. Behind the lenses of those cheaters, his eyes were almost yellow.
He spoke in a soft and mumbly voice. "I'm not too late, I hope. For the sitting, I mean." From the bowl of his hat he pulled out a scrap of newspaper. He showed me the advertisement that he'd circled in black.
"This is the proper place, isn't it?" asked the Stranger.
"Sure. Come in," I said.
The guy was a chump. He tried to take off his coat without putting down his cane, so he got himself in such a tangle that I had to unhook him from his own clothes. Then he gave me his things, and I led him into the tiny room that my mother called the vestibule but was really a closet with the shelves ripped out. Inside was a lamp, a wicker chair, and a spindly table that would shake if someone looked at it too hard. Piled on the tabletop were a stack of books, a candle and matches, and an ashtray shaped like a turtle. Under all that stuff, the table looked more crowded than Noah's ark, but the widgets were there for a reason.
"Madam King is waiting," I said. "If you could write out a question for the spirits, I-"
"That's not necessary," said the Stranger. He patted his mustache, smoothing its ends. "I have only one wish, and that's to hear from my poor Annie."
"Of course." I turned away and dumped the Stranger's stuff on the chair. His eyes had changed color in the lamplight, reflecting the red from the roses that sprawled on the wallpaper. It gave me the heebie-jeebies to look at them. "Please follow me," I said.
We went down the hall and into the seance room. Mr. Stevenson twisted round in his chair to squint at us over his narrow bifocals. That week he'd turned seventy-one. He had been a drummer boy in the Civil War; he had met President Lincoln. But he was still the youngest at the table. If their ages had been added together, it would have been more than three hundred years. After every seance, I had to open the windows to blow out the old-people smell.
I got a chair for the Stranger and sat him at the end of the table. Of course I made sure that his back was toward the huge wardrobe that stood against the wall. Mr. Stevenson leaned forward and shouted at him, "Are you a believer, sir?"
"I believe what I see," said the Stranger.
"Well, see this," said Mr. Stevenson, bristling like a porcupine. But his wife calmed him down. She patted his hand and told the Stranger, "Henry's hoping to contact Paul Revere tonight. You see, Henry's a bug about Paul Revere, and-"
"I'm not a bug," said Mr. Stevenson. "I'm interested."
"Oh, he only knows more about Paul Revere than anyone alive." Mrs. Stevenson smiled at her husband. "He's frightened that a nonbeliever might block the spirits. They do that, you know."
"I assure you, I will block no spirits," said the Stranger.
I left them at the table, went out, and shut the door. Then I sprinted down the hall to the vestibule and snatched the Stranger's hat from the chair.
The sweatband was still warm. I peeled it away with my thumb, bending it back to look for a name underneath. When I found it, I smiled. The first initial was blurry from sweat, but the rest was easy to read.

J. Brown

I turned to the overcoat next. I rifled every pocket, but all I got was a hat-check stub from the Limelight Club and a Chuckles candy wrapped in lint. But there was a hole in the right-hand pocket, so I groped through the lining and found two curious things. The first was a small metal ring, the second a sticky ball of lint and mold.
Now, this was the sort of puzzle that I liked to solve. By itself, the ring didn't seem important. But I figured if the green stuff was an old biscuit, then maybe the ring came from a dog tag. I imagined Mr. Brown stuffing his pockets with Chuckles and biscuits, picking up a leash, whistling for Annie. He wouldn't have been the first person to come to Madam King about a dead dog. It happened nearly every month, someone showing up to speak to a dog or cat-or even a budgie-that had gone along to Summerland.

From the Hardcover edition.

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Come Fall
Excerpt

1--Salman Page    

Rule number one: never be noticed    

Salman Page chose a table in the far corner of the Springfalls Junior High cafeteria, next to a mural of brown and purple swirls--ugly, but he'd be harder to see against it. He kept his back to the wall and his head down, letting his shoulder-length hair hide most of his brown face. He wanted to be, to the casual observer, a kid intent on his meal of meat loaf and mashed potatoes. A few kids sat two tables away, not talking much. This part of the cafeteria was for losers. Salman thought that was just fine.  

He glanced around once before he unscrewed the silver cap from his juice bottle, wiped it with his napkin, and slid it into his breast pocket. A skinny girl approached. She was midsized with short, light brown hair and a friendly face. Salman concentrated on his mashed potatoes. The kids at the other table must know her.  

"Hi," she said.  

She was talking to Salman. He raised his head slowly. She smiled and pushed her glasses up her nose.  

"Are you Salman Page?"  

Who was this kid?  

"Salman," he said, emphasizing the L. He wasn't some kind of fish.  

"Sorry." She paused. "I'm Lu Zimmer, your designated buddy."  

She sat down and placed her lunch bag and a box of chocolate milk on the table.  

Salman frowned. Because of a mix-up with his state files, his transfer here for seventh grade didn't happen until two days before school started. No one had assigned him a designated buddy. When Ms. R, his homeroom teacher, had asked him whether he got along with his d.b., he had no idea what she was talking about.  

"Deebee?" he said.  

"It's short for designated buddy," Ms. R said. "An eighth-grade mentor."  

"Don't have one," he said.   Ms. R radiated disapproval.  

"I'll make the arrangements."  

Salman didn't need a designated buddy. He wished Ms. R had never asked him about it.  

Lu Zimmer plowed ahead.  

"I'm supposed to meet with you, walk you around the school, show you how things work. That kind of stuff."   "I've walked around already."  

School had started a week and a half ago. What did she expect? Lu hesitated.  

"Maybe we can talk about your teachers."  

Salman was about to tell her that he didn't need to talk about his teachers when they were interrupted.  

"Hey, Lu!"  

A gangly white boy with wiry orange hair and a face full of pimples lurched over, carrying an oversized lunch bag. He towered above them.  

"May I join you?" he said.  

Before either Lu or Salman could answer, the boy sat down next to Lu and emptied the contents of his sack onto the table.  

"I heard Ms. R made you a d.b.," the boy continued in his too-loud voice.  

Lu reddened, and her smile strained.  

"Salman Page," she said, "this is Blos Pease."  

Blos turned to Lu.  

"You are his d.b., right?"  

"Yes, Blos," Lu said.  

Her smile was fading. Blos focused on Salman.  

"Did you know Lu and I had the same d.b. last year?"  

Salman gave only the slightest shake of his head.  

"It is true. We used to have lunch with her, all the time."  

This last statement refocused Blos onto his own lunch. He removed the items from each of the four separate sandwich bags and lined them up in front of him.  

Blos took a deep breath, hands hovering over the sandwich. He blinked at Salman and let his hands drop.  

What now? Salman wondered.  

Blos's lower lip covered his upper. He stared hard at Salman. His hands kept approaching his sandwich and then retreating. Salman almost looked forward to what was going to happen next.

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The Smugglers
Excerpt

I fetched a lantern and went right to the depths of the ship, where water, brown and fetid, slurped among the timbers. I went through the darkness in a circle of light, frightening cockroaches into shelter, hearing the groans and creaks of the hull as it worked. The places where I had to go were small and cramped, and I slithered through them as the lantern made the shadows zoom and tilt.

And someone came behind me.

When I stopped, he was silent. When I moved, so did he. I heard a faint creaking of wood as he crept up, closing the distance. He was quiet as a cat. And suddenly I felt a hand touch my shoulder. I cried out, startled, as he pushed me down against the hull.

"You're in danger, boy," said he.

I tried to lift myself, to turn and see him, but the sailor held me down.

"Watch yourself," he said. "There's one aboard who'll kill you."

"Who?"

For a moment I only heard him breathing. He said, "The one who seems least likely."

"But who?" I asked again.

He pressed harder on my shoulder. "He'll want the dead man's secrets. See you keep them safe."

"Who are you?" I asked.

"A man you never saw." And then the hand was gone.

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The Buccaneers
Excerpt

Chapter 1

The Lifeboat

I was steering the Dragon when the lifeboat came into view.

It appeared ahead, a tattered sail on a sea that blazed with the evening sun. Its canvas bleached to white, its hull bearded with weeds, it looked as ancient as Moses. But it drove into the teeth of the trade winds, beating toward a land so distant that there might have been no land at all.

I felt a shiver to see such a tiny craft in such an endless waste of sea and sky. We were twenty-one days out of England, a thousand miles from any shore. But even our schooner—a little world for the eight of us aboard—seemed almost too small for the ocean.

"Sail!" I shouted, and turned the wheel. "Sail ho!"

The Dragon leaned under her press of canvas. With a boom and a shudder she swallowed a wave in the huge carved mouth of her figurehead. Men stirred from the deck, rising to tend the sails, and the sounds of stomping feet and squealing rope brought Captain Butterfield up from below.

The sun glinted through his graying hair and onto the pink of his scalp as he stooped through the companionway. "What's the matter, John?" he asked.

"A boat, sir." I pointed forward.

He'd brought his spyglass, and he aimed it at the distant lifeboat.

"How many people?" I asked.

He took a moment to answer. "None," he said.

"That's impossible," I told him.

He lowered the glass, wiped his eye, and looked again. The long lens stayed perfectly still as his arms and his knees bent with the roll of the ship. Then he brought it down and shook his head. "Look for yourself."

He traded the glass for the wheel, and it was all I could do to keep that glass aimed at the lifeboat. But I had to agree: there seemed to be no one aboard.

"Can we fire a gun?" I asked.

"Good thinking, John." He shouted for the gunner. "Mr. Abbey! A signal, please."

For the first time in our voyage, I was glad we had our four little guns and the little man who worked them, as strange as he was. He stripped the crisp tarpaulin jacket from the nearest cannon, and had it ready to fire so quickly that I realized only then that he'd kept it loaded all the way from London.

A cloud of smoke barked from the gun. The Dragon shook from stem to stern, and the lifeboat flew from the circle of sea in my spyglass. Then I found it again, and there was a man staring at me, peering past the edge of the sail. He had been sitting to leeward, with that tattered rag of a sail as a shelter from the spray and sun.

"There, he's seen us," I shouted.

"And look!" cried Captain Butterfield. "Good heavens, he's turning away."

It was true. The man had put up the helm of his little boat and it now spun toward the south. As we watched, he eased the sheets and ducked his head as the sail billowed out above him. Then off he went, fleeing as fast as he could from the only bit of help that he had in all the world.

"Confound him," said Butterfield. "Is he mad?"

I thought he must have been. I saw his head looking back, turning on shoulders as broad as a bull's. Then, just as quickly, he put his helm over again, and came racing toward us.

"Heave to!" shouted Butterfield. "Best we let the devil come to us."

We turned the Dragon into the wind and lashed her wheel. She lay almost dead in the water, scudding sideways as the swells rolled underneath her. The captain and I—like every man aboard—stood by the rail and watched that lifeboat crawl up to weather.

Its paint long gone, its seams plugged by scraps of cloth, it looked like a feast for the sea worms. Tangles of weeds trailed in its wake; water slopped in its bilge. But the man who sailed it was bronzed and strong, as though he'd set out just the day before to sail across an ocean. An enormous sea chest of polished wood was jammed between the thwarts.

He brought his boat alongside, cast off his sheet, and dropped the tiller. Then he hoisted that great box onto his shoulder and climbed up to the deck of the

Dragon.

"Help him below," said Butterfield. "Give him a meal and a hammock."

"Aye, sir," I said.

The men scattered as I went forward, the hands to the sails, Abbey to his gun. Only the stranger was left, sitting astride his chest and looking very much at home. His hair was tarred in a pigtail, and though his skin was deeply tanned, his eyes were a very clear blue.

"Where have you come from?" I asked.

"From the sea," he said. And that was all. He came to his feet, towering above me, and glanced up at the topsail, aft to the stern—everywhere but down at his boat, which wallowed in the swells as we left it behind.

I bent to take the man's sea chest, the finest one I'd ever seen. The rope beckets—the handles—were so elaborately knotted that months of work must have passed in their making. The wood glowed with its warm finish of oil. But I grunted at the weight of it. Though stronger than most boys of seventeen, I couldn't hope to lift that enormous box.

The stranger laughed and put it up to his shoulder again. The sound that came from inside it—a rumbling and a clinking—made me think that coins and jewels were nested there. Then he followed me down to the fo'c's'le, where I hung a hammock that he climbed into without a word of thanks.

"Would you like some food?" I asked. "Some water?"

He shook his head, his eyes already closed. In another moment he was sound asleep, swinging in the canvas as though in the great cocoon of some enormous insect.

I found a blanket and covered him, then went up to help Mr. Abbey secure the gun. We stretched the tarpaulin jacket in place and lashed it down.

"There you go," said Abbey, stroking at the cloth, smoothing it over the muzzle. "You rest awhile." He had a habit of talking to his guns, and it always unnerved me. "That will keep you dry, my handsome little man-eater," he said.

He loved his guns, but I despised them. Their weight made the Dragon roll badly at times, and only batter through waves she would have hurdled without them. But my father had insisted on arming the Dragon, and whether or not to carry guns was the only decision he hadn't left to me. "You're going to the Indies," he'd said. "There's pirates in the Indies."

I laughed now, to think of that. What a dreadful place the West Indies had seemed from the way Father had described them. He'd filled the waters with sharks and wood-eating worms, the sky with hurricanes that blew all the year round, and the islands with swarms of cannibals. "Yes, cannibals," he'd said. "They cook you alive, or so I've heard. They shrink your head to the size of a walnut."

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The Winter Pony
Excerpt

Chapter One

I was born in the forest, at the foot of the mountains, in a meadow I knew as the grassy place. The first thing I saw was the sun shining red through the trees, and seven shaggy animals grazing on their shadows.

They were ponies. And I was a pony, my legs as weak as saplings. My mother had to nudge me to my feet the first time she fed me. But within a day, our little band was on the move. I skipped along at my mother's side, thinking I was already as fast and strong as any other pony, not knowing that the others had slowed to keep me near.

Our leader was a silvery stallion, as wary as an owl. We never crossed an open slope without him going first, standing dead still at the edge while he watched for wolves and mountain lions. He was always last to drink and last to graze, keeping guard until we'd finished. Except for one dark patch on his chest, his whole body was the color of snow. I loved to see him in the wind and the sun, with his white mane blown into shimmering streamers.

We had a route that took a year to travel, from the snow-filled valleys of winter to summer's high meadows. It brought us back every spring to a stony creek that we crossed single file. Our hooves made a lovely chuckling sound on the rocks as the water gurgled round our ankles. We climbed the bank on the other side, passed through a fringe of forest, and came to the grassy place, which I imagined to be the center of the world.

I thought everything would stay the same forever, that I would always be young and free, that day would follow day and the summers would pass by the thousands.

But even in my first year, I saw the young ponies growing older, and I saw an old one die. She was a big strong mare in the spring. But quite suddenly in the fall, she began to walk very slowly, to lag behind the herd. She didn't complain, and she didn't cry out for the rest of us to wait. She just eased herself away, and one night she wandered off to a watering place, all by herself in the darkness, and she lay down and didn't get up. I saw her in the morning, her nose just touching the frozen water, her legs splayed out like an insect's. I nudged her with my lips and found her cold and stiff, as though her body had become a stone. At that moment, I knew that nothing lived forever, that one day even I would die.

That was hard to understand. What did it mean to die? The grass didn't mind to be eaten, and the water didn't care if I drank it. But rabbits screamed when foxes pounced, and tiny mice shrieked for help as they dangled in eagles' talons. So why did the mare lie down so quietly, with no more grief or struggle than a fallen tree?

It scared me to think about it, and I was glad when the leader called me away. Across the valley, wolves were already howling the news of a fresh meal. So we hurried from there, off at a gallop through the forest. When wolves came hunting, ponies fled. We went on across a hillside, through a valley and up again, and we didn't stop until we reached the grassy place.

The next morning was exactly like my very first on earth. The sun was red again, throwing shafts of light between the branches. The ponies were scattered across the meadow, their shaggy manes hanging round their ears as they grazed on the sweet grass.

When we heard the clatter of hooves in the stream, we all looked up together. My mother had green stems drooping from each side of her mouth. The leader turned his head, his ears twitching.

At the edge of the meadow, a crow suddenly burst from a tree. I stared at the place, wondering what had frightened the bird. And out from the forest, with a shout and a cry, came four black horses with men on their backs. They came at a gallop, bounding across the clearing, hooves making thunderous beats that shook through the ground.

I had never seen a man. I had never seen a horse. I thought each pair was a single animal, a two-headed monster charging toward me.

My mother called out as she bolted. She reached the forest in two long bounds and vanished among the trees, still shrieking for me to follow. But I was too afraid to move, and the other ponies nearly bowled me over in their rush for the forest. Only the stallion stayed. He faced the four horses and reared up on his hind legs, seeming to me as tall as a tree. He flailed with his hooves, ready to take on all of the monsters at once.

They closed around him. The riders shouted. The black horses whinnied and snorted. They pranced through the grass in high, skittish steps, as though trampling foxes. And the stallion towered above them all with his silvery mane tossing this way and that.

Then one of the riders whirled away and came tearing toward me. His horse was running flat out, flinging up mud and grass from its hooves.

I cried for my mother, but she couldn't help me. I raced for the trees faster than I'd ever run before. I left the stallion to his dreadful battle and fled blindly for the forest. I heard the strange shouts of the men, the snorts of their horses, and thought that each monster had two voices. Amid their babble were the shrill cries of the stallion, full of anger and fear, and the frantic calls of my mother fading into the forest.

I followed her cries. I crashed through the bushes and wove between the trees, dashing through a hollow, hurdling a fallen pine. I stumbled, got up, and ran again. I dodged to the left; I dodged to the right, aware all the time that the monster was behind me. I could hear its deep panting and its weird cries, and the crack-crack-crack of a leather whip.

I came to the foot of a long hill. For a moment, I saw the herd of ponies above me, my mother among them, their white shapes galloping ghostly between the trees. And then a loop of rope fell over my head, and it snapped tight around my neck. I tumbled forward, my head wrenched right around until I thought my neck was broken. I lay on the ground, half strangled and breathless, as the monster glared at me with its four eyes.

I couldn't make sense of what I was seeing as the creature seemed to break in two. The man heaved himself up, then down from the saddle, and I realized the horse was much like a pony, just bigger and blacker. Without a word from the man--all by itself--the horse stepped backward to keep the rope taut around my neck. It kept staring right at me with a cold look, unconcerned by my pain. I didn't struggle; it was all I could do to keep breathing. I watched the man come walking toward me, and I wondered what sort of creature he was, that he could turn horse against pony so completely.

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Dragons in a Bag
Excerpt

Mama strokes my cheek with her finger before pressing the doorbell. I feel tears pooling behind my eyes, but I will them not to fall. Mama has enough to worry about right now.

 

“It’s only for a little while, Jaxon. I’ll be back before you know it.”

 

I nod and look up at the peephole in the door. If I look down at my feet, the tears will fall and my nose will start to run and Mama will know I don’t want her to leave me here.

 

Mama’s biting her lip and tapping her toe nervously. She presses the doorbell again, letting it ring longer this time. We both hear someone stirring--and cursing--inside the apartment. Mama laughs nervously and says, “Ma curses like a sailor sometimes, but she’s a harmless old lady. She’s fun, too--you’ll like her, Jax.”

 

I never even knew I had a grandmother living in Brooklyn. Mama never mentioned her before. Sometimes Mama hides things from me--or that’s what I let her believe. Mama thinks I don’t know our landlord’s trying to get rid of us. She takes down the eviction notices he pins to our front door, but I still know what’s going on. Today Mama has to go to court. I want to go with her, but Mama wants to leave me here instead.

 

A heavy body shuffles toward the door. Mama and I wait patiently as at least three locks are turned. The chain stays on and lets the door open just a crack. I cringe as a raspy voice asks, “What you want?”

 

Mama smiles sweetly and places her palm against the door. She speaks slowly and politely. “It’s just us, Ma. I called this morning and told you we were coming. Remember?”

 

The woman behind the door barks at Mama, “Course I remember. You called and asked if you could leave the boy with me and I said NO!”

 

The sweet smile on Mama’s face doesn’t budge. If anything, it hardens. Mama tries to push the door open, but the chain’s still on and my mysterious grandmother doesn’t seem ready to move out of the way.

 

Mama puts her other hand on the doorframe and leans in so that the woman on the other side of the door can see and hear just how desperate she is. “It’s only for a few hours. Please, Ma. You’re all he has.”

 

I step back and wonder if that’s really true. I’m sure Vikram would let me stay at his house for a while. His parents like me and don’t mind having me around. Mrs. Patel calls me a good influence. That’s what the grown-ups who know me always say. But this mean lady won’t even open the door and give me a chance. If she doesn’t want me around, that’s fine by me.

 

But it’s not okay with Mama. She’s whispering to the woman behind the door, but her smile is gone now, and there are tears shining on her cheeks. I want to hold Mama’s hand, but instead I take another step back and hold on to the straps of my book bag. Mama’s saying one word over and over again: please.

 

I have never seen my mother beg anyone for anything. But it doesn’t work, because the door finally closes. Mama rests her forehead against it before wiping her eyes and turning to me. “Let’s go, Jax,” she says wearily.

 

I sigh with relief and take Mama’s hand. Just as we start to walk down the stairs, I hear the chain slide, and the door opens once more.

 

“One day. Give me your word, Alicia. One day.”

 

Mama says, “I promise, Ma.” Then she pulls me back over to my grandmother’s apartment. The door is open, but the lights are off and I can’t see anyone inside. Mama gives me a quick hug and pushes me through the doorway. Before I can ask her when she’ll be back, Mama rushes down the stairs and is gone.

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The Dragon Thief
Excerpt

Kavita
 
 
“Thief!”
 
The word whistles through the air and pricks the back of my neck. I turn to find Aunty’s black eyes fixed on me. She was snoring loudly when I crept into her room just a moment ago. That gave me the courage to pull a chair over to the mountain of boxes and stuffed plastic bags she keeps in the corner. At the very top of the mound of junk is a wire birdcage that’s shaped sort of like the Taj Mahal. I need it--and I need it now.
 
I inch up on my tippy-toes and reach for the birdcage. My other hand sinks into the soft, squishy contents of a yellow plastic bag that’s wedged between two boxes. I don’t know what’s inside the bag, and I don’t care. Mummy would never let me keep my room like this, but no one ever criticizes Aunty--Papa won’t allow it. She’s the oldest person in our family and spends almost every day buried under the heavy, colorful quilt that covers her bed. Sometimes she hums to herself and stares out the window. Other times she watches game shows on the little black-and-white TV that sits next to her bed. Now I see her pointing a wrinkled brown finger at me.
 
“Thief!”
 
She says it louder this time. I feel my cheeks burn with shame.
 
“No, Aunty--I--I . . .” By pressing my hand deeper into the squishy plastic bag, I manage to steady myself and turn all the way around to face her. “I just need to borrow-- Whoa!”
 
I was so close to reaching my prize, but then I lose my balance. I fall off the chair, bounce off the foot of the bed, and land on the floor with a thud. My fall brings down an avalanche of boxes, and so I cover my head with my hands. When I open my eyes, the empty birdcage is rolling on its side next to me.
 
“Tut-tut-tut.” Aunty makes the strange sound without opening her mouth. “What a mess you’ve made.”
 
“Aunty? Is everything all right?”
 
My eyes open wide. If Mummy comes upstairs, she’ll want to know why I’m in Aunty’s room. And if I tell her the truth, she’ll want to know why I need an old birdcage. I can’t tell her that there’s a dragon in my bedroom. I can’t tell anyone that I’m a dragon thief!
 
Aunty watches me with a slight smile on her face. Against her dark skin, her black eyes sparkle with amusement. I don’t think she’s angry with me, so I decide to plead for help.
 
“Please don’t tell on me, Aunty! I’ll clean everything up--I promise.”
 
We both know Mummy’s standing at the foot of the stairs. Her hand is probably on the railing, and she’s wondering whether she needs to come upstairs to check on Aunty. My heart is pounding fast and hard, but I don’t yet hear Mummy’s slippered feet climbing the stairs. “Please, Aunty,” I whisper.
 
Aunty clears her throat and calls, “I’m fine, dear. I just knocked over some boxes. Kavita’s here to help me.”
 
We wait, frozen and silent, until we hear Mummy’s voice floating upstairs. “Okay, Aunty. I’ll be up soon with your lunch.”
 
Because she’s an elder, Aunty doesn’t have to do much around the house. She really only leaves her room to use the toilet and take two-hour baths. Aunty doesn’t even come downstairs to eat with us unless we have company over on special occasions. Mummy brings Aunty’s meals up on a tray. I scan the messy room for a clock and find one on the nightstand next to the bed. It’s a square digital clock that Vik and I gave to Aunty last Christmas. Its giant blue display reads 11:38.
 
I hop to my feet and scramble to pick up all the things I’ve just knocked down. Aunty waves her hand at me and says, “Leave it, child. It makes no difference to me whether they are up against the wall or on the floor. What is it you came to borrow?”
 
I feel guilty, so I set the chair back on its legs and stack a couple of boxes on its seat. Then I point to the pink wire cage and say, “I came to borrow your birdcage, Aunty.”
 
Her dark eyes narrow as she squints at me. “You don’t have a bird.”
 
My cheeks burn again, and I dig my toes into the thick green carpet. “No, Aunty.”
 
After studying me for a moment, she says, “Do you have some other kind of pet?”
 
I nod without looking up. How much should I tell her?
 
“I put it in a box, but . . .” I stop and decide not to tell Aunty that the dragon set the cardboard box on fire. “I need something stronger.”
 
Aunty leans back against her pillows and smooths the quilt with her hands. “I see. And your mother doesn’t know about this new pet of yours.”
 
It’s not a question. I nod again and dare to glance at Aunty’s face.
 
“Then you’d better take it,” Aunty says with a nod at the cage on the floor. “I had a songbird once, but I set it free before I left India. I only keep the cage to remind me. . . .”
 
I pick up the cage and hold it to my chest. “Remind you of what, Aunty?”
 
She sighs and closes her eyes. “That every living thing wants to be free.”
 
I look down at the cage in my arms. It might be shaped like the Taj Mahal, but it’s not a palace and certainly not a good home for a baby dragon. My cheeks burn again, and this time tears spill from my eyes.
 

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