THE PHOENIX blended in with the staggered group of people waiting for the bus. He held a paper cup in a gloved hand and checked his watch. Any eyes skimming past would judge him as average, unexceptional. That’s how it was and how it had always been. People underestimated him.
That was a mistake.
The 41 rounded the corner and eased to a stop in front of Washington Square. Before joining the line that assembled to board, the Phoenix raised his cup to his lips and took his last pretend sip. Then he removed a gum wrapper from his pocket, dropped it inside the cup, and left them behind on the park bench next to a green zippered pouch.
He was the last person to board the bus. With two leaping steps up the stairs and a flash of his card to the driver, who barely looked his way, he headed down the aisle past people too absorbed in their cell phones, their paperbacks, their newspapers, their tablets, the static beats that pulsed in their ears, to pay him any attention. People were so willing to not pay attention.
He sat in the back by a window so he could glimpse the distant bay as they slugged up the hill. A deep smoky blue had taken over the sky and pushed the dying embers of sunset below the horizon. Alcatraz was a black lump on the shimmering water.
As he took in the view, he thought about the litter he’d left behind. His paper cup that had held water, not the dregs of coffee. The gum wrapper that hadn’t been crushed flat but held a small silvery-white cube. He thought about the water soaking the piece of paper, working its way through the waxy coating until it reached the cube.
And then it would explode.
It wouldn’t be sensational like in the movies. It shouldn’t be, at least. He couldn’t be responsible for what somebody else left behind. The explosion would make a noise—a pop loud enough to startle nearby people, dogs. The fire would start small. Flames would eat away at the cup, then spread quickly, crawling across the zippered pouch beside it.
Someday he might stop and watch. He’d never done that before. But not tonight. Tonight he was running late for a book party.
“THE CLOCK’S TICKING!” Emily called down the empty hallway. She drummed the heels of her boots and adjusted the Book Scavenger pin on her dress. She wasn’t really a dress person, but tonight was a special occasion. Her mom had found her a knit one with a hood, so it didn’t feel too far off from her typical hoodie and jeans, and the boots were flat. Good for walking the hills of San Francisco.
“C’mon!” she urged her absent family.
Matthew’s door opened. It was a long, narrow apartment so he only had to take two steps across the hallway before he joined her at the top of their interior entry stairs. Her older brother wore jeans and a T-shirt designed to look like the front of a tux. His hair had been dyed jet-black and was styled straight up. Emily pointed to his head with a questioning look, and he replied, “Modern-day top hat.”
At the opposite end of the hallway, their dad hopped out of their parents’ bedroom and into the kitchen, all while pulling on a sock.
“Do I need a tie?” His voice came around the corner and down the hall.
“Dad has ties?” Matthew asked.
“He keeps them in the kitchen?” Emily replied. She stepped backward down a stair, inching herself closer to their front door, as if that would hurry her parents along. Her best friend, James, who lived upstairs, would be there any minute with his family to walk with them to Hollister’s bookstore.
Emily’s dad carried out a cardboard box that still hadn’t been unpacked, even though the Cranes had lived in San Francisco for three months. He set it in the hall and pulled out a colander, an art book about Diego Rivera, and a wad of fabric that unrolled itself to reveal two ties. He stood in the hallway outside the tiny bathroom and looked at his reflection in the mirror, holding up first the blue tie and then the red one. “These are kind of wrinkly.”
Emily’s mom strode out of her bedroom, a long skirt swishing around her ankles and her camera draped over her sweater like a necklace. “You’ll want a jacket, Matthew,” she said. “It’ll be chilly on our way back.”
Matthew returned to his room, and the doorbell rang. Emily flexed her hands in exasperation.
“The Lees are here,” she said, taking another step down the stairs and toward the door. “Forget the tie, Dad. You look great.”
His concerned expression melted into a smile. “Thanks, sweetheart.” He tossed the ties back in the direction of the cardboard box. “I’m ready, then.”
Matthew rejoined the family just as the bell rang a second time.
“Finally,” Emily said.
Her mom snapped her fingers. “The camera battery. I left it in the charger.” She hurried down the hall.
* * *
The Cranes and the Lees made quite a procession as they tromped down the hill. James’s grandmother led the way, a petite force marching with swinging arms, sidestepping brown-needled Christmas trees left out for curbside pickup. Emily, James, and Matthew followed behind. When they walked under a street lamp, Matthew’s “top hat” cast a shadow that made him look like Frankenstein. The mothers were next, deep in discussion about photographing food. James’s mother ran a Chinese cuisine catering business with his grandmother, and Emily’s mom was a graphic designer and photographer on the side. James’s father, whom Emily had only ever met one time before, and her dad brought up the rear.
Night settled onto the city as they walked, but it never seemed to truly get dark in their neighborhood. When Emily lived in New Mexico, the night sky was inky black, and more and more stars appeared the longer you stared, like an invisible hand pricking new holes to let light shine through. In San Francisco, windows glowed warm amber in the three- and four-story residences that huddled along the street, lighting their way, along with street lamps and headlights. Stars, when you could spot them, were an afterthought.
The families turned onto Polk Street, and the jitters in Emily’s stomach amped up. She couldn’t tell if they were from nerves or excitement. They were headed to a book party thrown by Bayside Press in celebration of a previously unknown Edgar Allan Poe manuscript that Emily, James, and Matthew had found—rescued, really—a couple of months earlier. The three of them were going to be honored.
In the brightness of restaurant and shop windows, Emily noticed sparkles in James’s hair.
“Is Steve wearing glitter?” Emily asked. Steve was what James called his cowlick, a piece of his hair with a mind of its own. Steve was most often found in a “ta-da!” stance on top of James’s head, and the sparkles suited him well.
“He wanted to look dressy, too,” James replied. Matthew nodded with understanding.
The group reached Hollister’s. The view through the large picture window was normally that of a cozy, tranquil bookstore, but for this event the bookcases had been moved aside and the open space was filled with people. As Emily imagined each of those heads swiveling to stare when she walked through the door, her dress shrank seven sizes. Was she going to be expected to say something in front of all those people?
James’s grandmother pushed open the door. The buzzing conversations drowned out the bells that normally jingled. Most of the people in the bookstore were grown-ups, the bland everyday sort, which made the ones dressed up as Edgar Allan Poe stand out all the more in their old-fashioned suits, scarves knotted at the neck, and tiny mustaches. One man had a fake raven on his shoulder, and another—with blood-spotted, bandaged fingers—carried a birdcage with a real raven inside, in honor of one of Poe’s most famous poems.
There were kids, too, some very little, in their parents’ arms or holding on to a hand. Older ones bent over a table to solve puzzle challenges or rubbed temporary tattoos of gold-bugs on each other. Matthew nodded to a group of teenagers lingering near the food and drinks and crossed the room to greet his friends.
As Emily scanned the crowd, she noticed one thing that united nearly everyone: the small gold Book Scavenger pin. The same pin Emily herself wore every day. Book Scavenger was a book-hunting game that she had played for the past few years. People hid used books in public places and posted clues about how to find the books on the website. The pin wasn’t really a part of the game; it was just a trinket people sometimes wore, like a secret symbol so you could recognize fellow players without having to ask. Emily had never seen so many pins displayed prominently at one time. The glints of gold should have relaxed her, knowing she was surrounded by Book Scavenger fans like herself, but it wasn’t as if she recognized anyone. If people could wear their Book Scavenger avatars, that might be a different story.
Emily craned her neck, trying to spot Mr. Griswold, the creator of Book Scavenger and the publisher of the new Poe book. With his great height and habit of dressing in the Bayside Press colors of wine and silver blue, he had a way of being noticeable. She saw a flash of those colors and thought she’d spotted him, but it was only Jack, Mr. Griswold’s assistant, talking with someone across the room.
On the edge of the party, a man fiddled with a large video camera and a woman in a dress suit did neck rolls and what Emily could only describe as kissy-face gymnastics. This woman held a microphone loosely at her side. Emily’s stomach flip-flopped as she realized the pair must be from one of the news outlets Hollister had said would be at the party.
Where was Hollister? Emily finally spotted his back across the crowded room. He was speaking to someone in an animated way that made his gathered ponytail of dreadlocks hop across his sports coat. Someone tapped him on the shoulder and pointed in Emily and James’s direction. Hollister turned, and a smile split his face. He threw his arms wide like he was sending them a hug and crowed, “The kids of the hour!”
The voices in the room dulled. Just as she’d imagined, every face turned and stared. Her cheeks warmed at the collective cooing. She fiddled with her Book Scavenger pin. James held up his hand in a hesitant wave. Matthew came back to join them, raising a power fist to the crowd. When Hollister reached them, he pulled Emily, James, and Matthew into a group bear hug.
“You excited?” he asked.
Terrified, she thought to herself, but for Hollister she nodded. “Is Mr. Griswold here yet?”
Something washed over Hollister’s face—concern or guilt?—and he shook his head. “Couldn’t make it. I’m sure he wanted to be here, though. Jack is stepping in to be master of ceremonies.”
Hollister turned to greet their parents, and James raised an eyebrow at Emily. Hollister and Mr. Griswold had been the best of friends a long time ago, but then they’d had a falling out. When they had learned Mr. Griswold was throwing a party for the new Poe book at Hollister’s store, Emily and James had hoped that meant the two old friends had made up. But if Mr. Griswold wasn’t here, maybe that hadn’t been the case after all.
“Point us to the books, Hollister,” Emily’s dad said. “The proud parents want some extra copies.”
“You do?” Emily asked.
Because of her family’s frequent moving in the past, her parents weren’t big on material possessions, books included, even though they loved to read. “That’s what the library is for!” her dad always said. For most of her lifetime, her parents had been consumed with their quest to live once in each state. It was only recently that Emily had persuaded them to call San Francisco their home indefinitely, instead of looking ahead to where they would move next. So it was a small but significant gesture that her dad wanted to buy a second copy of the new Poe book.
“I’ll have Charlie bring you some,” Hollister said.
“Who’s Charlie?” James asked.
“You haven’t met him yet?” Hollister looked around the room, trying to spot this person. “He’s been here a few weeks. New employee. I saw him come in not long ago, so I know he’s here.…” Hollister shook his head. “Ah, well. I’ll grab extra copies.”
As Hollister stepped away, Jack stepped through a trio of Edgar Allan Poes. His burgundy and silver-blue sweater vest and the backdrop of Poes made him look like the lead singer of a very bizarre band. He gestured to the blown-up cover of The Cathedral Murders that hung above the front counter.
“This book wouldn’t exist without these kids—I hope you know that,” Jack said to Emily’s and James’s families.
Mr. Lee pressed his hands onto James’s shoulders. “I wish I’d been so lucky when I was young. But I wouldn’t have had time to hunt for something like that anyway—my mother kept me too busy doing serious things.”
Emily looked curiously at Mr. Lee. His face emanated pride, but his words sounded mocking. It wasn’t luck at all that had led her and James to the undiscovered Poe manuscript.
James noticed Emily’s expression and tossed his shoulders in a Grown-ups—what can you do? kind of shrug.
“Well, we should get started.” Jack rubbed his palms together. “All these people are eager to hear more about your adventures and meet you.”
Emily and James took a step closer to each other, but her brother straightened his posture, ready for duty. Matthew was always up for the task of entertaining potential fans.
Jack leaped onto a platform at the front of the store that normally served as the base for window displays but tonight was a small stage. A white screen on an easel stood next to him. He tapped the microphone, which squealed, and spoke into it. “Hello, everybody!” Jack’s enthusiasm, and his tall, slender build reminded Emily of a younger Mr. Griswold. She felt a pang of disappointment that made her forget her nerves for a second. She’d been looking forward to seeing him tonight—she’d met her idol only once before.
“Welcome to Hollister’s magnificent bookstore!” Jack said. “Thank you for hosting us, Hollister!”
The crowd erupted in cheers, and Hollister waved them away good-naturedly.
“While Mr. Griswold couldn’t be here in person, he did want to make an appearance. So without further ado…” Jack gestured to the screen next to him, and Hollister flipped off the bookstore lights. The screen lit up, and there was Griswold’s face. He leaned closer, closer to the camera filming him until his frameless glasses, bulbous nose, and bushy mustache were all that filled the screen. Then he sat back and smiled.
“Greetings, scavengers!” Mr. Griswold said, and the room filled with cheers.
Text copyright © 2017 by Jennifer Chambliss Bertman
Illustrations copyright © 2017 by Sarah Watts