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.
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.
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.
Excerpted from No Castles Here by A.C.E. Bauer. Copyright © 2007 by A.C.E. Bauer. Excerpted by permission of Yearling, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.