NEW YORK CITY, 1999
About two hours before midnight on a busy street in Manhattan, a man in a raincoat appeared out of nowhere. His sudden presence should have been startling, but no one took notice of him. That particular part of New York bustled with cars and people at all hours, so much so that nobody really saw each other in the crowds. Everyone had other business to attend to, and a stranger lingering in the shadows—even one who had quite literally materialized from thin air—did not capture their interest that October evening.
The man in the raincoat walked several blocks until the path broke off to reveal a cobblestone side street leading to a quieter patch of neighborhood. He stood at its edge and silently observed the area with a smile.
If anyone had bothered to take a glance at him that night, they might’ve found it slightly odd that the man’s raincoat was dripping wet when it hadn’t rained any- where nearby that day.
They might’ve found it odder still that he carried what looked like a snow globe in his hands, with the care of someone cradling a cherished pet.
But New York City was full of oddballs, so again, no one bothered with him.
Which is unfortunate, because had these passersby stopped to ask who he was and what he was doing there, they would’ve found the answer the oddest of all.
Because our friend in the raincoat wasn’t supposed to exist yet.
THE VISITOR IN THE RAINCOAT
The same cobblestone street had a tiny bakery on the corner called the Biscuit Basket.
Ask anyone in the neighborhood, and they would tell you the Biscuit Basket was a “perfectly adequate bakery, now please get out of my way”—which was a sore understatement, because the bakery’s goods were far above average.
In the early mornings, when the sun had barely tinted the glassy skyscrapers along the East River, the aroma of freshly baked breads and chocolate croissants wafted from the tiny brick building and filled every inch of the street.
Despite its enticing smells and first-rate offerings, however, the bakery had only a scarcely adequate share of customers. On good days, mornings saw one or two adults who stopped by for a quick sugar doughnut before work. In the afternoons came the neighborhood kids fresh from school, their pockets jingling with allowance money as they gathered around the colorful array of cupcakes along the counter. And of course there were the occasional weary ladies in large, fancy hats who needed two orders of peach cobbler, immediately if you please, for their evening book club every third Tuesday of the month.
But on bad days, the Biscuit Basket had hardly any visitors at all. On those days, the baker—a stocky and balding man named Henry—could be seen waiting behind the counter anxiously, or else rearranging the cakes at the display window for the thousandth time, or else trying to attract customers by offering free samples of strawberry-and-almond tarts to passersby.
It wasn’t Henry’s fault. No matter how hard he pounded the dough, no matter how fast he mixed the cream and sugar, the Biscuit Basket never seemed to entice quite enough customers to its corner of the street. Not when an enormous candy shop, a coffee shop, and two other bakeries sat just two streets over.
So on those lonely days, Henry would look wistfully at the untouched pastries that had grown stale and hope he had enough money to pay the rent.
It was such a day on that Saturday evening when our story begins. A few hours before the mysterious man in the raincoat appeared, the streets were cold and dreary and darkening with October gloom. Not a single customer had stopped by the bakery, where Henry had sat behind the counter for the better part of the day.
Finally, it was closing time. Henry sighed and looked up from the dollar bills he was counting. Money had been tight that week as always, but at least this time he could afford to donate most of the leftovers instead of saving them for the next day’s discount shelf. Baked goods are never as tasty the day after.
“Adam,” the baker called to his nephew, “do you mind delivering the leftover breakfast pastries to the Hole?”
Henry had one helper in the shop—his twelve-year-old nephew, Adam. Adam was small for his age, with pale skin and eyes the color of charcoal. One could occasionally glimpse the top of the boy’s tousled dark hair behind the kitchen window. Or, if you were to watch carefully, you might see him slip your order of lemon custard on the counter before disappearing to the back without a peep.
Because of his uncle’s job, Adam spent his time either at school or at the bakery. Adam didn’t mind. He didn’t have too many friends. Adam was, by all accounts, a peculiar boy. But we shall get to that later.
“Sure, Uncle Henry,” Adam answered. He closed the pages of Self-Guide to Caring for Mice he was reading and collected the unsold pastries from that day into a large paper bag. He lugged the bag outside.
The stars were hidden in the cloudy night sky, the moon barely visible. Adam cautiously made his way down the sidewalk, taking care to stay in the parts lit by streetlights as he approached the Hole.
Most things don’t belong in holes. Holes are damp and dark, and ideal for dog bones, trash, and pesky night critters that dig up people’s vegetable gardens. In the same way, the Hole was what most people called the local homeless shelter and, with it, the city’s unwanted inhabitants.
As usual, the Hole’s tired brick walls and murky windows greeted Adam. Several disheveled folks stood out- side the scratched door, their worn faces half-hidden in the shadows, their hands stuffed in their pockets. None of them seemed to have smiled in a long time. Adam sometimes wondered if they’d forgotten how.
He passed them silently and went inside the battered building to the kitchen. A skinny, elderly man in a wheelchair sat stirring a large pot of what smelled like cabbage stew. Upon hearing Adam’s footsteps, he turned his tanned and weathered face to the boy and broke into a nearly toothless grin.
“Hello, fellow!” said the old man.
“Hi, Victor. Special delivery,” Adam murmured. He placed the bag of muffins and croissants in the man’s out- stretched hands. “Extras from today.”
Victor was a resident of the homeless shelter. He spent his mornings on the streets, chatting with the other homeless folks or telling entertaining tales to children. He spent his evenings cooking for the hungry. Victor was one of the few people Adam didn’t mind talking to. The old man never made fun of Adam for his eyes or size.
Victor gratefully took the pastries and held the bag close to his scruffy beard. “They smell wonderful,” he sighed, and put the crinkled bag in the basket attached to his wheelchair. Rumor had it that he lost his leg in a street fight against a bulldog. Or was it an alligator? Victor changed the story every time he told it.
Adam mumbled something in reply. Victor leaned forward with his ear cupped. “Sorry, sonny, my hearing isn’t as good as it once was.”
The twelve-year-old said louder, “There’s a blueberry muffin in there. Your favorite.”
“Excellent. I’ll make sure to save that for myself. Did you know, just this morning, I met a lady who grows blueberries for a living? Right in a little garden on the roof of her apartment building. Just imagine the mathematical probability of a blueberry patch’s existence on a rooftop like that . . .”
Normally, Adam would stay longer to listen to Victor recount his day’s adventures and conversations. The old man had a way of telling stories that instantly capti- vated listeners, even if the story was about something as simple as going to the grocery store for milk.
But that evening, something particular was weighing on Adam’s mind, and he itched to return home as soon as possible.
Victor seemed to read his thoughts. “How is Speedy?” the old man asked.
Speedy was Adam’s pet mouse, rescued from the confines of the Biscuit Basket’s kitchen cabinet one fateful evening two months ago. Uncle Henry had been pre- paring a batch of vanilla cupcakes and was searching the cabinet for a box of rainbow sprinkles when the white mouse peeked out from behind a jar of flour. Before Uncle Henry could react, the mouse had zoomed down the baker’s outstretched arm onto the counter. Uncle Henry, who liked rodents as much as he liked moldy cupcakes, didn’t hesitate to grab his bread knife. It was Adam’s dismayed “Wait, don’t hurt it!” that stopped what would have been a disastrous evening for Speedy.
Speedy was a big reason Adam didn’t need friends at school. The mouse did what any boy could do: eat, run, sleep, listen. What’s more, Speedy could do tricks. He could climb onto Adam’s hand when his name was called, and wiggle his pink nose and soft whiskers against Adam’s fingers. He could stand up on his tiny hind legs when directed. He had once even crawled across a pencil Adam held in midair. Adam was very fond of the dear mouse, though he wisely avoided letting Uncle Henry know he’d adopted it.
“Speedy’s fine.” Adam avoided Victor’s eyes and cleared the catch in his throat. “I have to get back home. See you later.”
“Goodbye! Say hello to your uncle for me.”
Adam and his uncle lived in the small apartment above the Biscuit Basket. It had one bedroom the size of a normal closet, a narrow kitchen, a tight bathroom, and a living room that might have been spacious had it not doubled as Uncle Henry’s bedroom and a storage space for baking utensils. The one good thing about a cramped apartment above a bakery was that every nook and cranny smelled of baked goods.
After returning home, Adam raced to his bedroom. He stepped over the animal care brochures and half-finished library books he’d borrowed, and reached under his narrow mattress to retrieve the old shoebox where Speedy slept. He gently prodded the white mouse, but it didn’t budge. The mouse hadn’t moved in a day, and its breaths were faint.
“Come on, buddy,” Adam whispered. “I brought you something.” He placed a smashed blueberry inside the box next to Speedy. Blueberries, according to Self-Guide to Caring for Mice, had “antioxidants”—nutritious energy that supposedly boosted the body. It should make Speedy move again.
Adam waited, but nothing happened.
“Adam?” Uncle Henry peered inside the room. Adam shoved the box behind him, but not before his uncle had caught a glimpse. His uncle sighed.
“Adam, we’ve talked about this,” he said. “Mice are not household pets.” “I know . . .”
“They spoil the flour and ruin everything.”
“Not Speedy. He only eats the lettuce and fruits I feed him.”
Uncle Henry gave another sigh and shook his head.
Some people said the baker looked just like Adam’s father. This made sense, since siblings tend to look alike, although from what Adam could remember, his father had been leaner and taller, with fair hair and tanner skin, whereas Uncle Henry stayed pale from a lack of sunlight due to working many hours indoors. Adam took after his mother more, who had dark hair like Adam and had also been short for her age.
Uncle Henry opened his mouth to say something— likely a lecture about how mice are the reason exterminators have secure jobs—but before he could launch into his spiel, the doorbell chimed downstairs. Adam and his uncle exchanged a puzzled look. The bakery was closed.
“It’s probably the landlord,” said Uncle Henry with a slightly worried expression.
Adam followed his uncle downstairs. Visits from the dreaded landlord, especially at night, were never a good sign. The last time the landlord had arrived, Uncle Henry had gotten a warning letter for being late on the rent.
It was not the landlord. Instead, a cheerful stranger in a raincoat stood outside the door, waving to Adam and his uncle through the glass. He held a map in one hand, and ran his other hand through his wet, graying wheat-colored hair.
“I’m terribly sorry, I know it’s late,” the man called through the door. “But I was passing by, and, well, may I say your cakes look fabulous? I simply must buy one. Or five. I hope you’re not closed?”
After the long, empty day of no customers, Uncle Henry was so giddy at the potential business that he threw open the door and practically kissed the stranger’s hand. The stranger had barely finished introducing himself as J.C. Walsh before the baker started speaking a mile a minute about the goods available.
“We have every kind of cake imaginable,” said Uncle Henry. “Carrot cake, coffee cake, a red velvet cake that I can frost for you right now with the most scrumptious whipped cream you’ve ever tasted . . .”
“Excellent,” said the man in the raincoat. “I’ll have that red velvet cake, please.” Then he added, “Make it with buttercream frosting—my favorite—and I’ll pay double what you’d normally charge.”
This was more than Uncle Henry could bear. He stammered a “Y-yes, of c-course,” and stumbled into the kitchen in a daze. There followed a clanging of pots and bowls, and the sound of Uncle Henry’s humming was soon accompanied by the soothing whir of the mixer.
Adam was about to head back upstairs when, to his surprise, the man in the raincoat turned to address him.
“You must be Adam Lee Tripp.”
Growing up in a city as large as New York had taught Adam not to share personal information with strangers. He didn’t answer, but stared blankly at the man, who stared back with a big smile.
“It’s been a while,” said the stranger, his voice softening.
The man reached into his pocket and held up a snow globe. Inside the glass sphere was a miniature cityscape that looked just like Manhattan, sprinkled with bright snow confetti. The man gazed at the snow globe in a sort of admiration.
“The one in which past days unfold,” he murmured. Then, as if he suddenly remembered Adam was there, he raised his head and said, “Speedy is sick and dying, but great things are in store for you.”
Adam gaped at the man. He had no idea how the stranger knew about Speedy. Could he be a fortune-teller? Adam wondered. Uncle Henry always said that fortune-tellers were con artists wrapped in glitzy shawls who charged twenty dollars per reading, and whose predictions were most of the time as wrong as two left feet.
“Speedy’s not dead yet,” Adam said hoarsely, but he said it so quietly he doubted the man heard.
“Hear me, Adam?” the man persisted. “Great things await you. Fantastic things. You will find new friends in new places, and go on journeys more magical than you could have ever imagined.”
From the kitchen in the back, Uncle Henry shouted, “Do you want fondant roses on the cake?”
“Yes, that would be delightful!” the man in the rain- coat called back. He put the snow globe back in his pocket and winked at Adam. “Tonight, go up to the attic,” he instructed with a mysterious smile. “Your adventures await you there.”
Adam decided this character was not to be trusted. “Um, okay, sir,” he said, taking a step back. “Bye.”
He ran upstairs before the man could say another word. As soon as Adam was alone, he checked on Speedy again. The blueberry lay untouched. The mouse still didn’t move.
Adam felt sick. His throat burning, he gently placed the cardboard box back under the bed. He then angrily kicked his copy of Self-Guide to Caring for Mice across the floor before crawling under the covers and turning off the lights.
He spent a long time thinking about the man in the raincoat. The stranger was a weirdo; he’d known it as soon as the man said Adam’s name. And then the man mentioned the attic, of all places, which was by far Adam’s least favorite room in the building.
It was a long time before he finally drifted uncomfortably to sleep.
Little did Adam know, the stranger was right. Things were about to change in ways he couldn’t begin to imagine.