An excerpt in honor of #walktoschoolday

Piper Houdini: Apprentice of Coney Island

Chapter 6—The Zombie’s Brother

The first thing that Sal noticed was the girl’s hair. It looked like it belonged on a Raggedy Ann doll. She wore a brand-new houndstooth jacket and a black panne velvet skirt that gathered at her knees. Sal could tell by the way the girl fidgeted that she was as comfortable in her clothes as a baby in burlap. But at least her clothes were more flattering than the flapper duds most of the girls in school were trying to get away with.

The redhead was holding a Grape Nehi in one hand and twirling a familiar charm by its leather cord in the other.

“The amulet!” Sal and Rand exclaimed as one.

“Is this what you boys were fighting over?” she asked.

Sal rolled off Rand and both boys jumped to their feet.

“It’s mine!” Rand proclaimed. “The spade stole it from me!”

“That’s exactly what I figured,” the girl said, giving Sal a dirty look. She palmed the amulet and handed it to Rand. The boy stuck his tongue out at Sal.

“No, wait! It’s mine!” Sal protested.

The girl ignored him and pressed the object into Rand’s palm, closing his fingers around it. She held the blond boy’s eyes with her own.

“The cord’s ripped. So put it in your pocket and keep it there until you get to wherever it is you’re going.”

Rand nodded and stuck his fist into his pocket. He turned and scampered down the ladder, giving Sal a wink on his way down.

“So long, sucker!” he taunted before disappearing beneath the edge of the marquee’s roof.

Sal groaned.

“Are you all right?” the girl asked.

“Of course I’m not all right!” he replied.

His chest hurt like hell and his nose was bleeding. He touched the tip of his tongue to a cut on his lip and winced. Speaking only aggravated it.

The girl scooped up a bit of snow and pressed it to Sal’s swollen lip.

“Ow!” he yelled, knocking her hand away. “Whadja do that for?”

“I thought it might help the swelling. And stop the bleeding.”

Sal didn’t reply. He was too busy trying to catch his breath. Rand had been right about one thing—he was definitely out of shape.

“Well, at least wash your face with it,” the girl said.

She snatched his wrist, turned his hand up, and plopped the snow into his open palm.

“Stop pretending you care,” Sal said with a scowl. “You gave that cake-eater my pendant! Us colored boys are always the bad guy, right?”

The girl smiled and opened her hand.

“Not always. Sometimes pale-skinned redheads make better thieves.”

Sal’s pendant dangled from her finger on its leather thong like a yo-yo on a string.

“My amulet!” Sal cried out. “How did you…?”

“A little sleight-of-hand my uncle taught me,” she boasted.

“If that’s the amulet then what’s in Rand’s pocket?”

The girl took a swig of her Nehi. She drained the last drop of the bubbly refreshment, wiped her mouth with her sleeve, and turned the empty bottle upside down.

“They should really come up with a way to make these things re-sealable,” she said, circling the bottle tip with her finger. “Otherwise you gotta finish the whole darn thing.”

“The cap!” Sal beamed. “But then, how’d you know the pendant was mine and not his?”

“I’ve seen lots of fights in the places I grew up,” the redhead replied. “I can tell when someone’s fighting to take something and when someone’s fighting to keep it.”

She handed the amulet to Sal.

“Thank you,” he smiled gratefully.

“What’s so valuable about it anyway?” the girl asked. “Looks like a cheap trinket to me.”

“It belongs to my brother,” Sal replied, tying a knot in the severed cord. “He’s in the hospital—coma. I like to…I like to carry a piece of him with me.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the girl said with doleful eyes. “But why did that other jerk want it so badly?”

“I’m not really sure,” Sal said, half-truthfully. “I don’t know him very well. He doesn’t go to my school.”

“Oh? What school is that?”

“The Flatbush School,” Sal replied, and then added, “P.S. 90 down the road.”

“Ducky!” said the girl. It looked to Sal as though she intentionally bit her tongue as soon as she said it. “That’s where I go! I mean, that’s where I’m supposed to go. It’s my first day. Walk with me?”

“That would be…ducky,” Sal smirked.

The girl blushed.

“I’m Piper,” she said, extending her hand. “Piper Weiss.”

Sal took her hand and shook it. “Salvador. Friends call me Sal. And people too lazy to pronounce Salvador.”

Piper grinned at his remark. Sal then crouched to gather his fallen books. Piper knelt beside him and helped put them back in his satchel.

“Wow! How much do you carry in this thing?” she asked.

“How do you think I maintain this Charles Atlas physique?” Sal teased, striking a pose like the famous bodybuilder.

Piper giggled. But she was right, of course. Sal kept his books with him at all times like they were his best friends. In addition to his school texts, he carried works of science fiction like The Island of Doctor Moreau, some dime novels by authors like Zane Grey and Bram Stoker, among others.

Mystery of Space by Robert T Browne

The Mystery of Space, by Robert T. Browne, is a synthesis of mathematics, hyperspace, Eastern religious philosophy, theosophy, and mysticism. Fearing rejection if the publishers knew its author was black, Browne concealed his race when he submitted the manuscript.

Piper thumbed through one book called The Mystery of Space by Robert T. Browne.

“Science fiction?” she asked.

“Some people think so,” Sal winked.

The redhead returned it to his satchel. Then she leaned over to pick up the book that had piqued Rand’s curiosity. It had fallen open during the melee and one of its pages caught her attention.

“What’s this?” she asked.

“Oh, that’s the Book of the Dead,” he replied, avoiding her gaze. “Just some mumbo jumbo the ancient Egyptians used to protect dead guys from the creatures they might meet in the afterlife.”

“No, I mean this.” Piper pointed to a crude illustration of four jars with lids that looked like the heads of different animals.

Sal scrunched his nose and took a deep breath.

“All these people ever thought about was death. Death, dying, and more death. They actually believed that the body would come back to life! So they mummified it and preserved all the vital organs in these four jars.”

He pointed to the illustration.

“They’re called canopic jars and were used to preserve internal organs so their owners could use them in the afterlife. The jars had wooden lids that were carved and painted to look like the heads of the four sons of Horus.”

Sal moved his index finger across the page pointing to each of the jars in succession.

“Duamutef the jackal protected the stomach. Qebehsenuef, the falcon, protected the intestines. Hapi, the baboon protected the lungs.”

His finger tarried on the final jar.

“And this one, Imseti, has a human head. He protected the liver. It was his job to reanimate the corpse.”

“My uncle owns the falcon one and the jackal one,” Piper said with a smug expression.

Sal narrowed his eyes.

“Well, I’m sure they’re just replicas.”

“Oh, you don’t know my uncle,” she chuckled. “He doesn’t tolerate fakes.”

Then she closed the book and placed it neatly in Sal’s knapsack.

“We should get going,” Sal said, securing the bag’s rusty buckles and slinging it over his shoulder. “First bell’s gonna ring soon, and you don’t want to be late for your first day.”

Sal went down first because he thought Piper looked a bit unsteady in her new shoes. He figured he’d catch her if she slipped on the ladder—or at least cushion her fall. But when he looked up to see how she was doing, Piper clocked him on the forehead with her heel.

P.S. 90 in the 1920s

Public School 90 (a.k.a. the Flatbush School) as it looked in the 1920s.

“Stop looking up my dress, you cad!” she barked at him.

At the bottom of the ladder, Sal was pressing his hand to the growing lump on his forehead when Piper jumped from the fourth rung and landed beside him.

“You look a mess,” she said.

“No thanks to you,” he grumbled. “So much for chivalry.”

“Oh, quit your bellyaching,” Piper said.

She tossed a snowball at him and ran off.

Sal followed in hot pursuit, but his own snowball missed its mark. Then they took turns skidding down the slushy sidewalk all the way to the Flatbush School.

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