Bright morning sunshine drifted through the windows of the red brownstone on 141st Street, filling the kitchen with a soft glow. Eight-year-old Hyacinth stood on a step stool, dipping thick slices of raisin bread purchased that morning at Castleman’s Bakery into an egg, milk, and cinnamon sugar mixture. She wore a floral bandana wrapped around her hair and a dress she had made from two of Papa’s old striped work shirts. Oliver, age eleven, was managing frying pans on three burners with measured concentration, flipping sizzling french toast. He hadn’t brushed his hair in two days, so it was even wilder than normal.
Mama had already left for work at the Treehouse Bakery and Cat Café, the cookie shop she owned and operated, and Papa sat on a stool by the stove supervising while drinking coffee, serving as fire warden and occasionally washing the dishes that piled up on the counter. Six-year-old Laney sat at his feet, brushing her rabbit Paganini’s ears with a sparkly doll comb. She wore pajamas, unicorn slippers, and six strands of beads around her neck.
“Hello!” called Orlando, their upstairs neighbors’ grandnephew, letting himself in through the building door on the first floor. He was built like a football player and was fourteen years old, the same age as Isa and Jessie; he wore one of the nerdy science T-shirts that Jessie liked to give him on birthdays. This one said, “Never Trust an Atom, They Make Up Everything.” In Orlando’s arms was Billie Holiday, formerly known as New Dog, a pup with long legs and big ears that the Vanderbeekers had found outside their door that previous spring. Mr. Jeet and Miss Josie had adopted her, but the Vanderbeekers took her out for walks daily since going up and down stairs hurt Miss Josie’s knees. Mr. Jeet used a wheelchair exclusively to get around these days; he rarely went out except to go to doctor’s appointments.
“You’re spoiling that dog,” Jessie said to Orlando.
He shrugged as he put Billie Holiday down. Franz ran to greet her with a low howl, and Tuxedo scampered up and batted at her ears.
“Billie Holiday doesn’t like the wood stairs,” Orlando said. “Too slippery.”
Jessie pushed her glasses higher on her nose and turned to Isa, pointing a thumb over her shoulder toward Orlando. “See? Spoiled.”
Isa gathered her long, straight hair over one shoulder and smiled. “Orlando is such a pushover when it comes to Billie Holiday.”
Isa leaned down to feed George Washington, their orange tabby, while Laney scooped out a can of cat food for Tuxedo, yet another animal that had been left on their doorstep the past spring. The black-and-white kitten had been Laney’s favorite of the five that had been abandoned, and she had campaigned relentlessly to keep him until her parents finally gave in. The rest of the kittens had been adopted by other families, including their friend Herman’s.
Because Herman’s parents did not allow pets in their home, the Vanderbeekers had coordinated for Herman’s cat, who he named Purl One, to live at the cat café. Purl One, who was named after knitting terminology, was the one permanent resident; eleven other adoptable cats lived there on a rotating basis. Herman took Purl One with him whenever he could, nestling her into a kangaroo-pouch cat carrier that strapped to his chest. Hyacinth had made the carrier for him, and the Vanderbeekers agreed that Purl One was the calmest cat they had ever met. There was no way George Washington or Tuxedo would put up with that treatment.
“Get your french toast while it’s hot!” Oliver called from the stove, expertly flipping a piece of perfectly browned toast onto a platter next to the burners.
Jessie grabbed the platter while Isa and Orlando set the table. As Laney waited, she pulled the fold of her turtleneck up and chewed on it, a habit she had recently acquired. Jessie hypothesized that this new habit had a direct relationship to their neighbor Mr. Jeet’s health decline over the last month. These days, Mr. Jeet spent most of his time in bed, and his periods of wakefulness had decreased significantly since the summer.
“We’re going to the garden after breakfast,” Jessie told Orlando. “Want to come?”
“We’ve got to leave food for the PM!” Laney said.
Two weeks ago, the Vanderbeekers had discovered signs that someone had been sleeping in the shed they used to store their gardening tools, soil, and seeds. They hadn’t yet spotted the Person of Mystery, or PM, but hidden in a corner of the shed behind a stack of soil bags was a pile of clothes, neatly folded, plus a toothbrush, a worn Bible, and a rolled-up blanket. Worried that the PM was hungry, the kids had been leaving food next to the clothes. Each day the food was gone, so they figured whoever was staying there needed it.
Mama and Papa had been on board with the plan as long as the kids visited the garden only when there was an adult they knew inside with them. This wasn’t difficult, because somebody they knew was always inside, tending their plot or taking a break from the city bustle. The gate wasn’t locked at night, so the person must have been coming after dark and leaving early in the morning.
“I’ve been making him a scarf!” Hyacinth called to Orlando from the stove.
“I wonder who he is,” Laney said. “I hope he finds a home soon.”
“Yeah,” Oliver agreed as he flipped another piece of french toast. “That shed is so creepy. He must be really desperate.”
“If you come,” Jessie said to Orlando, “you can help me record my findings.” Jessie had been working on a science experiment she had started earlier that month about the effectiveness of various fertilizers. She had lined up multiple pots of mums and marked them clearly with the varying amounts of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium in their soil. One of them was planted in soil that had been mixed with compost made from the Vanderbeekers’ food scraps and discarded hay from Paganini’s litter box.
Orlando shook his head. “I’ve got cross-country practice.”
“Is running your favorite thing to do?” Laney asked.
“Football is my favorite,” Orlando said. “But our high school doesn’t have a football team.”
Laney looked at Orlando. “Do you like watching football?”
“Which team are you voting for?” she asked him.
Orlando choked on a piece of french toast. “‘Voting for&rs...