Alcatraz Island in the 1930s isn't the most normal place to grow up, but it's home for Moose Flanagan, his autistic sister, Natalie, and all the families of the guards. When Moose's dad gets promoted to Associate Warden, despite being an unlikely candidate, it's a big deal. But the cons have a point system for targeting prison employees, and his dad is now in serious danger. After a fire starts in the Flanagan's apartment, Natalie is blamed, and Moose bands with the other kids to track down the possible arsonist. Then Moose gets a cryptic note from the notorious Al Capone himself. Is Capone trying to protect Moose's dad too? If Moose can't figure out what Capone's note means, it may be too late.
The last heart-pounding installment in the New York Times bestselling, Newbery Honor-winning Alcatraz trilogy is not to be missed!
"Superlative historical fiction." School Library Journal (starred review for Al Capone Shines My Shoes)
About the Author
Gennifer Choldenko is the New York Times bestselling and Newbery Honor Award-winning author of ten children's books, including Notes From a Liar and Her Dog, If a Tree Falls at Lunch Period, No Passengers Beyond this Point, Al Capone Does My Shirts, Al Capone Shines My Shoes, and Al Capone Does My Homework. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her family.
Read an Excerpt
1. The Warden’s Son
Sunday, January 19, 1936
Today is my dad’s first official day as associate warden on Alcatraz Island, home to anyone who is anyone in the criminal world. On our island we have world-famous robbers, thieves, swindlers, sharpshooters, second-story burglars, mad-dog murderers, plus a whole lot of ordinary criminals—vicious but not well-known.
No one ever believes I live on Alcatraz. Even my eighth-grade history teacher made me write on the chalkboard I do not live on Alcatraz two hundred times. She didn’t even apologize when she found out I wasn’t lying.
My mother couldn’t buy stockings at O’Connor and Moffat’s. They wouldn’t take her check, on account of it said: Helen Flanagan, Alcatraz Island, California. My father had trouble getting his driver’s license. They thought he was an escaped prisoner too stupid to fake his address, instead of an officer at the most notorious prison in North America.
My friend Annie was kicked out of Sunday school for saying she lived on Alcatraz. They sent her to confession. She confessed she didn’t live on Alcatraz and the next day she confessed she’d lied in confession.
Of course, Piper, the warden’s daughter, never gets in trouble for anything. Nothing sticks to her. She’s as slippery as a bar of soap.
I’m betting a guard like Darby Trixle—also known as Double Tough—doesn’t have these kinds of problems either. Darby was born in a uniform, one size too tight. My dad, on the other hand, looks like a middle-age dance instructor. You’d never expect him to carry a firearm. An accordion maybe, but not a rifle. Not that there are firearms everywhere on Alcatraz. Only up in the guard towers and the catwalks. At any given moment you are in the crosshairs down at the dock, but not up on the parade grounds.
My dad may not look the part, but as of today, he’s the number two guy on the island. Piper lords it over all the kids that she’s the warden’s daughter, but now I’m the warden’s son. Okay, the associate warden . . . but still.
In the kitchen, Dixieland band music is playing on the radio and my father is dressed in his crisp blue uniform. My mom is patiently trying to brush my sixteen-year-old sister Natalie’s hair, which she really hates.
From a distance Nat seems normal, but when you get close you start to notice things are a bit off. She rocks from side to side. She drags her chin along her chest. She won’t ever look in your eyes, and sometimes stares straight at your privates. My dad says Natalie views the world through her own personal kaleidoscope and it’s our job to see from her perspective. That sounds good until she’s counting every hairpin in the bathroom when my bladder is about to explode, or she’s lying flat on the ground in the middle of the train station when the cutest girl in school walks by.
Today, Mom and Nat are waiting for Mrs. Kelly to arrive. Mrs. Kelly is the teacher who helps her learn the social graces.
“You nervous?” I ask my father as he sits on the edge of his bed, giving his shoes a last buff. His face is newly shaved, his skin smells of soap, and his shoes are as shiny as good silver spoons, but still he keeps shining them.
“He’s fine,” my mother calls.
My father smiles as he slips his stocking feet into his shoes. “See, I’m fine,” he says, smoothing down his hair and placing his officer’s cap squarely on his head.
“You’re nervous,” I say.
“Could be,” he answers.
“You want one of Nat’s buttons . . . for luck?” Natalie collects buttons. She loves them the way I love baseball.
“Think she could spare one?”
I head back to the kitchen. “Nat, Dad needs a button. Can you let him have one?”
Nat’s head is down, inches from her plate, her eyes focused on chasing the slippery whites of her egg. My mother glares at me. “I just got her to sit down for breakfast.”
Nat wiggles out of her chair and heads into the living room. A minute later she comes back with her hand tightly closed.
She walks up to my dad, who is gulping the last of his coffee, and opens her fist to reveal one flat, four-hole button.
My father beams at her. “That’s a beaut, sweet pea,” he says, sliding it into his pocket.
“Ninety-seven,” Nat says.
“I’ll take good care of ninety-seven. You betcha. Guess I’m all set now, except for one thing.” He gives my mother an embarrassingly long kiss.
My mom smiles. “Good luck,” she says.
I follow him outside. He grins at me. “Where do you think you’re going? Think I can’t handle the job on my own, do you?”
“Of course you can handle it,” I say, though I am worried. My dad is too nice to be a warden.
I watch as he walks across the connecting balconies and turns the corner to the stairs. A minute later, he’s down below, where eight cons are sweeping the dock. Darby Trixle’s got his eye on them, barking orders through his bullhorn. He loves that bullhorn, sleeps with it under his pillow. Probably takes it to the bathroom with him too. I can just hear him: “Bowel movement approaching.”
I follow along after my dad down the stairs. Not close enough for him to notice. I don’t want him to send me back home.
“Good morning, Darby.” My father walks over for a chat.
Darby sucks his belly in and pokes his chest out. “Good morning, boss,” he says.
Will Darby be nice to me now that my dad is his boss?
My dad looks at all the prisoners as he talks to Darby. I know the names of some. There’s #227, Lizard, a big woolly mammoth of a guy with a puffy face and spindly legs. Annie says he ate a lizard in the rec yard once—that’s how he got his name. There’s #300, Count Lustig, a world-famous con man. And there’s #141, Indiana, who has no chin and no eyebrows. Indiana waves at me when Darby isn’t looking. But having a chinless, eyebrow-less felon wave at you is not fun, believe me.
I’m not the only guy watching all of this either. Donny Caconi is on the 64 building phone, but his eyes are tracking the cons. Donny is the grown son of Mrs. Caconi, the lady who knocks on your door if the phone is for you. Since she weighs more than a river barge, and there are a lot of steps in 64 building, this is impressive. Mrs. Caconi’s husband used to be a guard here, but he got transferred and she didn’t go with him. Nobody knows why.
Donny is tall, thin, and graceful as a girl—the opposite of his mother—and he dresses snappy like he has loads of girlfriends. He nods his head at me as if I’m his long-lost friend. Donny is everybody’s long-lost friend. We all really like him.
Dad finishes his conversation and heads up the switchback.
Then I see Count Lustig motion to Darby. Darby rolls his eyes at the Count but walks his way. With Darby’s back turned, Indiana spits on the dock behind my father. Lizard and another con with red hair laugh.
My father glances back at them, his brow furrowed. He knows something happened, but he’s not sure what. He’s too far up the road to do anything anyway . . . but I’m not.
A little voice in my head tells me this is not my business and I should stay out of it. But that little voice doesn’t understand how I’m the warden’s son now, and I have to start acting like it.
My feet step over the white painted line that we’re not supposed to cross when the cons are down here.
“Don’t do that!” I tell Indiana in my most threatening voice, but I’m so nervous, it comes out wibbly-wobbly.
Indiana looks at me with his chinless, eyebrow-less face. Lizard cocks his head toward Indiana as if to say Take a look at that kid.
Darby half walks, half runs toward me, his tight blue officer’s jacket bristling. “Get outta here.” He waves me back in short angry motions.
“He spit at my father,” I say. But when I look at Indiana, his face is perfectly blank, like he doesn’t speak our language.
“Your father needs his kid to take care of him?” Trixle barks.
“He didn’t see it. I did.”
Trixle shakes his head, then waggles his finger at me. “I don’t care what you see. You stay out of the dock area when the cons are down here, because I sure as heck don’t need your help.”
My arms are shaking and my legs feel like tapioca pudding. I retreat back across the line as fast as my shaky legs will take me.
Sunday, January 19, 1936
“Darby’s a blowhard. Just ignore him,” Donny says when he catches up to me on the parade grounds—a big cement area in the middle level of the island where we play ball and roller skate and stuff.
Donny came up here just to talk to me?
Donny hasn’t forgotten what it’s like to be a kid, the way most grown-ups have. I wish he lived here all the time, but at least he visits a couple of days a week to get his laundry done. On Alcatraz, the convicts do our laundry, except for Mrs. Caconi’s. She doesn’t want convicts touching her clothes. But Donny doesn’t care. He doesn’t mind who does his laundry, so long as it isn’t him.
“Darby bugs me,” I say.
Donny nods. “Darby’s a piece of work. He’s got his sights on your dad. He was sure that job was his.”
This is what I think too, but having an adult tell me in so many words . . . that’s another thing entirely.
“You keep an eye out. He’s a good man, your father, and I wouldn’t want anything to happen to him.”
“Wh-what are you worried will happen?”
“He’s in a tight spot is all. He’s got the cons on one side testing him. And Darby on the other hankering for his job.” Donny angles his hat over one eye. If my father tried that, he’d look silly. Donny Caconi never looks silly.
“Moose.” My mom waves me down, half running toward us from the back side of 64 building. “I need you home.”
“Now? I’ve only been gone for five minutes.”
Donny gives me a sly smile. “I got a mother like that. Drives you crazy, doesn’t it?”
It’s so good to hear him say this. He knows just how I feel.
“Better step to it. You know she isn’t going to give up until she has you where she wants you.”
When I get back to #2E, Nat is in the bathroom flushing the toilet once, twice, three times. Natalie goes to the Esther P. Marinoff, a boarding school for kids who are unusual the way she is. But, most weekends she gets to come home, and then I’m responsible for her.
“Natalie,” I yell, “quit it.”
The flushing stops and she moves to her favorite part of every room: the light switch. On-off, on-off. She’ll stand there until next Christmas if you let her.
“No funny business,” Mrs. Kelly says. Mrs. Kelly is the size of a gnome compared to my mom, who is tall and graceful. Nat comes out of the bathroom and begins to rock from one foot to the other, exploring her lip with her teeth.
“We need your help with the eye contact situation,” Mrs. Kelly informs me. She never says hello or how are you. She just launches right in with what she wants you to do. For a person who is supposed to teach the social graces, she is pretty darn abrupt.
Just once I wish she’d ask about me and not only about Natalie. It’s like I have Natalie’s brother tattooed to my forehead.
“We have to work twice as hard now, Moose. Natalie’s the warden’s daughter. She can’t call attention to herself. She has to learn to blend in,” my mom says.
Natalie blend in? Is she joking? “Doesn’t Nat work on eye contact at school?” I offer.
“She’s off this week, so I thought we could use this opportunity to work on this at home. You are such a nice young man. I knew you’d help us.” Mrs. Kelly smiles as if I’ve already agreed.
Donny Caconi just got through telling me I need to watch out for my dad. How am I supposed to take care of him and Natalie too?
My mom’s eyes are drilling into me. Clearly I’m not leaving here until I do what they want.
“Something with math,” I suggest. “We could make flash cards with long numbers written on them and hold them above our eyes. Natalie would have to look at the numbers while we’re talking. She’d get used to looking at people’s eyes rather than at their shoes.”
Mrs. Kelly nods at my mother, then looks back to me. “Get her in the habit . . . is that it?”
“Yeah, maybe we can, you know, get her interested in counting eyebrow hairs or something.”
Mrs. Kelly doesn’t crack a smile. She has the sense of humor of a fire hydrant. “Flash cards might work.” She nods. “Want to give it a go?”
Mrs. Kelly nods emphatically. “You’ve got a way with her, Moose.”
“Yeah, but . . .”
Mrs. Kelly’s nostrils flare. “Unless you can’t be bothered.”
“It might not work,” I respond lamely.
“Listen to me, you are more important to Natalie than anyone else. . . you know that, don’t you?”
“No, I’m not,” I say.
My mother is avoiding my eyes. Maybe I should put a card on my forehead for her.
DON’T DO THIS TO ME it would say.
“How old are you?” Mrs. Kelly asks.
“I’m sixty-two. Your mother is what?” Mrs. Kelly turns to my mother.
“You do the math, Moose. You’re going to know Natalie her whole life. We won’t.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” I mumble as I watch Natalie. She’s rolled up in her favorite purple blanket, which is what she does when she gets upset.
“It means you’ll be around when we’re not,” Mrs. Kelly says in a voice tough as gristle.
“Look. I’ll do my best, but Natalie has to try. I can’t make her.”
“This is important for her. She has to learn this.” Mrs. Kelly doesn’t even seem to hear me.
“I said I’d try,” I say. “Could I be excused now?” I pounce on the door like it’s a piece of chocolate cake.
My mom barely moves her head, but I take it as a yes. The door bangs behind me and I scoot across the balconies, up the stairs, to the switchback.
I’m headed for the warden’s house. Piper isn’t my favorite person on the island, but her father’s been a warden her whole life. He was at San Quentin before this and some other prison before that. She’ll know what I should do to watch my dad’s back.
The warden’s house is a twenty-two-room mansion at the tip-top of the island. It smells like roses, and I can hear the sound of a violin concerto coming through the open window—as if it’s on Broadway Street in Pacific Heights instead of thirty feet from the most notorious cell house in North America. I take a deep breath to calm down before knocking.
“Moose!” The warden answers the door in the three-piece suit that he wears like a uniform, his baby Walter in his arms. Even with a blue baby blanket wrapped over his shoulder, the warden is his own kind of scary.
“Why, if it isn’t young Mr. Flanagan, Walty.” The warden waves the baby’s hand at me. “Say hi to Mr. Flanagan.”
“Umm hi, Walty.” I wave back stupidly.
“Big day for the Flanagan family,” the warden says. “Think you can handle the responsibility?”
“Me?” My voice comes out strange, like I’ve sucked the air out of a balloon.
“Who else would I mean, Mr. Flanagan?” the warden asks.
“Yes, sir,” I mumble.
“Your dad is going to make a good warden, you know why?” The warden taps the side of his skull. “He’s a thinker. You take a page from his book and you’ll be fine. Piper can give you a few tips,” he says as Piper comes down the stairs like she’s the queen or something. Her long dark hair is in a ponytail tied with a red bow. She has on a red blouse with her old overalls. There’s just something about Piper . . . She makes other girls look like yesterday’s tuna fish. I think I’m over her and then I see her and I know I’m not.
We go through the large dining room to their huge kitchen with the brand-spanking-new stuff like an electric icebox and an electric mixer. Rich people don’t even need to mix their own cake batter. It’s amazing.
Piper motions for me to sit down at the kitchen table, then follows suit, sighing dramatically. “So you need something, is that it?”
My cheeks flush. She’s kind of right. I do only come up here when I need something. The trouble with Piper is I like her outsides, but not her insides.
“Just looking for some advice on how to keep an eye on my dad.”
“Well . . . I don’t know if you’re ready to hear about that,” she says.
“Of course I’m ready.”
She shrugs. “I’ve noticed that your priorities are confused.”
“Which means?” I ask.
“All you want to do is play baseball with Annie.”
“You don’t play baseball.”
“I’m just saying if you want to be friends with me, you have to act like it.”
“What about you? At school, you never even give me the time of day,” I say.
“I’m not talking about at school.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Here on the island. A little gift here and there, like flowers, say . . .” She holds her index finger in the air, like I should wait, trots out the kitchen door, then comes back with a gold gift box.
She lifts off the box top. “This is from my secret admirer.”
Inside is a fuzzy turquoise sweater.
“Who gave you that?”
She snorts. “I just told you. It’s from my secret admirer.”
“But you must have some idea who it is.”
“Secret. Don’t you get it?” She rubs the sweater. “I’m only showing you as an example of the kind of thing that gets a girl’s attention.”
“Oh, I see. This is to help me,” I say sarcastically.
“Some people know how to treat girls, that’s all. I mean, something like this makes you loyal. How do you think Al Capone does it?”
Alphonse Capone, Alcatraz #85, is the most famous gangster in America—maybe even the world. Anybody who finds out I live on Alcatraz always wants to know if I’ve met Al Capone. Warden Williams calls him our star boarder.
“First off, how can you be loyal to your secret admirer if you don’t even know who he is?”
“When I find out, I will be.”
“Why are you modeling yourself after Al Capone, anyway?” I ask.
“People love him. They’ll do anything for him.”
“He buys them,” I say.
“You should see the letters he gets.”
I roll my eyes.
“Look, it’s tricky business being the warden’s kid. And I’m the only one who can show you how it’s done. So I would be a lot nicer to me if I were you.”
“Fine.” My hands fly up. “I get it.”
She smiles. “All right then. I’ll tell you. Chudley . . . you’re familiar with Chudley, aren’t you?”
Man, I hate when she does this. She knows I know the latest gossip about former Associate Warden Chudley. “Yes,” I say.
“If your father cooperates with the cons, like Chudley did, he’ll get fired.”
“Are you kidding me? My father would never do that. How is being a warden any different than being a guard? The guards could cooperate with the cons too, you know.”
“A guard can only do so much. Wardens have power. I mean, who’s going to stop a warden?”
“How does your father handle it?”
“He’s been tested. They know he can’t be broken. But your dad . . .”
“They know my dad too.”
“Men behave differently when they’re in charge. Will he be fair or play favorites?” She nods, then breathes in like she’s about to swim a long distance underwater. “How will he deal with the games?”
“Games? What are you talking about?”
She has a piece of paper in her hand, which she sets down in front of me like it’s the Declaration of Independence. I read the neat printing.
Spitting on a guard = 5
“These are the points the cons get. And how do you get the most points?” She thumps the page.
“Kill a warden.”
“How many wardens are there?” She holds up two fingers like she’s my nursery school teacher. “Two. Your dad and mine.”
I’m about to tell Piper what Indiana did, but I stop myself. I don’t want her to know that Indiana got twenty points off my father on his first morning. “What do they get if they win?”
“A title. The toughest guy at the roughest hard-time prison in America. You know, like America’s heavyweight champion.”
“That’s nothing to be proud of.”
“That’s what I think. That’s what you think. It’s not what they think.”
I squint at her. “You made this up.”
“No.” She smoothes the page. “This showed up on the steam table in the convict cafeteria.”
“Can’t your dad do anything?”
“What’s he going to do . . . this is the end of the line. Alcatraz is the prison other wardens send their troublemakers to.”
“Does my dad know about this?”
“Of course. Look . . .” She takes a deep theatrical breath. “All I’m saying is . . . this is way more important than baseball.”
“Yeah, okay, but I can’t follow my dad around all the time.”
“I’ll know what’s going on. Stick close”—she shakes her finger at me—“and you’ll know too.”
“How do you find out?”
“I have ears. My father doesn’t like his cell house office. He prefers working here.”
I know what she’s saying is crucial. I need to protect my father. That is more important than anything else. But there’s something about Piper that always makes me feel like I have a fishhook in my belly and she has the pole in her hand.
Sunday, January 19, 1936
It’s lucky I finished my paper on President Roosevelt, because it’s due tomorrow and now I have to babysit. It’s pretty unusual that I finished early. The last time I did anything early was when I was born and I came out three weeks before I was due.
I even did a good job on the paper. My thesis is Overcoming polio helped President Roosevelt become the man he is today. It wasn’t that bad to write, either. I enjoyed my homework? Okay, now I’m starting to sound scary. Pretty soon I’ll be talking about the wonders of Brussels sprouts and how hygiene is fun, fun, fun!
Tonight my parents are going out with Warden Williams and his wife to celebrate my father’s first day as associate warden. I can hear Nat in the kitchen, opening the icebox. She likes to make sandwiches, but when she’s done the kitchen looks like theTitanic after the iceberg. Now she takes her sandwich into my room and gets the light switch plate all sticky from her jammy hands as she stands there turning the lights on and off, on and off.
I head for the kitchen to assess the damage, just as Theresa Mattaman knocks and then comes in the front door. At eight years old, Theresa doesn’t get the part about asking permission. Her knock lets you know she’s about to barge in.
Theresa’s black curly hair is messy as usual, and she’s wearing her pajamas. She never takes them off—not for school, not for church, not for anything—she just piles her clothes over the top. If you look closely, you can always see a little pajama sticking out somewhere. Theresa lives with her two brothers—Baby Rocky and my buddy Jimmy, who is almost thirteen.
I’m blasting cold water and rubbing a chip of ice on my itchy skin. I get hives when I get anxious. Apparently being the warden’s son makes me nervous.
“Where’s Nat?” Theresa asks.
“In my room.”
She nods and trots off to find her.
I put the ice chip on the counter and open the bread box. Nothing like a sandwich to make me feel better. I’ll clean up the kitchen later. I’m spreading the mayo when Theresa hops into the kitchen again.
“I have a message from Piper,” she announces.
Normally, Theresa and Piper get along like a pocket full of firecrackers. “Since when are you Piper’s messenger girl?” I ask.
Theresa wiggles her finger like I should come closer. “She pays me. I do whatever she wants now.”
Theresa responds with a bouncy-curls nod. “Sometimes she buys me things. Really good stuff too, like licorice and root beer . . . You should get on her payroll.”
“There’s an idea . . . What’s the message?” I ask.
“Don’t forget the flowers.” Theresa’s voice drops to a whisper. “Are you sweet on her, Moose? Are you? Or is it Annie? I won’t tell. I promise.” She motions like she’s buttoning her lips.
“I’m not sweet on anybody,” I say.
“That’s what I told them.”
“Who is them?”
“Annie and Jimmy. They said while I was delivering my message I should find out.” Theresa beckons with her finger. “But mostly they want to know if you’re going to be different now that you’re a warden’s kid.”
“Annie says you’ll worry more. And Jimmy says you might get bossy.”
I open the butter dish, but there are teeth marks where Nat has taken a bite out of the cube. I cover the butter so Theresa won’t see.
“Is Theresa in there?” Annie calls through the screen door.
“Yes,” I answer.
Theresa gives me a sour look, like I’m a cell house snitch, but I’m not going to lie to Annie. Annie’s my best friend who is a girl.
“Come on in, Annie. And by the way, I’m not going to be any different.”
Annie’s face turns emergency red. Since her hair is white blond and her skin is so light, when she blushes, you can see from a mile away. She’s gotten a lot taller the last few months and more, you know, girlish. And her arm is stronger. She’s always been a great pitcher, but I swear she pitches even faster now.
“I know you’re not,” she says. “I just don’t want your dad’s new job to interfere with baseball.”
“Nothing interferes with baseball.”
“Glad to hear it. C’mon, Theresa, your mom says it’s time for bed.”
Theresa’s shoulders droop.
“You can’t stay? You just got here,” I tell Annie.
“I know, I’m sorry. Mrs. Mattaman sent me to get Theresa. It’s past her bedtime.”
“You’ve been at the Mattamans’?”
Annie nods. “But I have to go home now.”
“Sure I’m sure.”
I stand watching as Annie and Theresa walk down the balcony to the Mattamans’. I’m still watching after they go inside.
Natalie brings her blankets into my room and sets up her buttons, my books, and my toothbrush. She loves my toothbrush. Who knows why? Then she goes back to work on the light switch. On-off. On-off.
I’m tired, but I don’t like to fall asleep when I’m babysitting Natalie. I rearrange the pillows to get my head in a comfortable position. Then I prop a pillow against the wall and scoot myself up, but I keep slipping down again. The next thing I know, I’m dreaming of a campfire. The fire is crackling. My marshmallows are a golden brown sagging off the stick.
I’m trying to think if I’ve ever had a dream so vivid I could smell it, when my hand bumps against the edge of the pillow and touches something hot. Wait, the wall is hot! I bolt out of bed, then fly to the bedroom door. Didn’t I leave that open? Are my parents home? I wrap my fingers around the burning hot doorknob.
The smoke billows in.
“Natalie!” I shout, “Come on!” She’s burrowed into her blankets on my floor. I grab her arm, but she forces her hands farther underneath her, jamming her face deep into the pillow.
“Natalie!” The smoke burns my eyes. My throat stings like pins pricking it.
I cough, trying to snatch the pillow.
“I don’t like the smell,” she mumbles, her voice muffled by bedclothes.
I try to hoist her over my shoulder. She’s older than I am but a good thirty pounds lighter. I’ve carried her before, only now her body is stiff as a stadium bleacher.
“Buttons,” Natalie says.
I grip her beloved button box and push through the doorway.
The smoke is getting blacker, denser. I suck it down my throat and up my nostrils as I half carry, half drag Natalie clutching her pillow, her legs bumping behind us. Through the living room we go, dodging licks of fire. My eyes smart, I can hardly see, but now that Nat has her buttons, she’s letting me move her.
The flames have engulfed the front door. How do we get out?
Maybe I can use the side table to break the window, but I’ll need to let go of Natalie.
“Natalie . . . don’t move!” Her legs are so stiff, it’s as if rigor mortis has set in. She lies on the ground as she did on my floor, her head face-first in the pillow.
Wait . . . this isn’t stupid, it’s smart. She’s protecting herself from the smoke. It’s less dense down low. The thoughts spin in my brain as I hammer the side table against the glass. The windows are thick, they won’t break. But something is cracking. The other window. The fire must have popped the glass, but the flames are too hot over there. We can’t get out that way.
I batter the window with the table, pummel it as hard as I can and then a splintering snap and the glass shatters around me, leaving a jagged sharp-sided hole.
I still have hold of the table leg, reeling it back through the broken glass and setting the table down in front of the window. “Natalie, climb!” I shout.
She freezes—won’t move at all. Her head is burrowed in the pillow, her arms clutching her button box. I snatch the pillow from her.
“Come on!” With more strength than I thought I had, I pick her up and put her on the table.
But this isn’t going to work. How can I get her through the window? The smoke is slowing my brain. It takes a long time to reason this out.
The flames bust out of the kitchen, creating a wall of heat behind us. A hot rush of fire-fueled air whirls around us, sparks shooting, singeing my arm.
Then all of a sudden she dives through the jagged glass and I’m on her tail. I jump through, landing in a jumble on top of her.
“Fire!” somebody cries.
“Fire! Fire!” More yells from all around.
“Moose!” Mrs. Mattaman appears out of the smoke, her apron soaking wet, her dark eyes black with fear. She grasps my arm. “You okay?”
“Yes,” I tell her, but I’m not sure the word makes it out of my throat, though it must have, because she nods.
“Jesus, what happened?” Donny Caconi’s voice rings in from the night as a sudden shock of cold water blasts from below.
Natalie shudders until it finally registers in my brain that I’m holding on to her and I should let go. Nat hates to be touched.
I stare stupidly at the flames exploding out of our apartment. I can’t believe this is happening.
Excerpted from "Al Capone Does My Homework"
Copyright © 2014 Gennifer Choldenko.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Young Readers Group.
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