The latest Al’s Book Club pick is the first book in the “100 Cupboards” series by N.D. Wilson. In this excerpt, 12-year-old Henry York discovers a wall of cupboards in his room and attempts to find out what is hiding behind them.
Henry jerked awake and squinted in the light. At first, he wasn’t sure why he was awake. He didn’t need to use the bathroom, his arms weren’t asleep, and he wasn’t hungry. He couldn’t have been asleep long.
He sat up. A piece of plaster rolled down his forehead, bounced on the tip of his nose, and landed on his chest. He ran one hand through his hair, and more bits of his wall dropped onto his lap. He looked up.
Above him, two small knobs protruded from the plaster of his wall. One of the knobs was turning, very slightly. A small scraping noise grew until a final thump rained fine plaster dust down on Henry and his bed.
For a few minutes, Henry simply stared — holding his breath, breathing heavily, and then holding it again. The knobs were so perfectly still that he began to wonder if one had actually moved. He had been sleeping. He could have dreamed it.
I didn’t dream it, he told himself. They’re right there, sticking through my wall. Henry knew what was on the other side of the wall — absolutely nothing. One floor down, the girls’ window looked out over the fields, and beneath that, there was the kitchen wall, a mudroom door, and the grass that ran down to the barn.
Henry turned around and carefully poked at the knobs, then began picking chunks of plaster off the wall. Leaving a pile of dust on his blanket, he cleared out the area around both knobs and discovered a square metal door no more than eight inches wide, tarnished and stained green and brown under the dust. He leaned forward to take a closer look at the knobs themselves. His shadow wouldn’t get out of the way, so he brought his lamp over onto the bed beside him.
The knobs were in the center of the door. They were a very old and dull brass, slender — hardly knobs at all — with filthy broad skirts. Henry took one in each hand and turned them. They spun easily and silently, but nothing happened. One large arrow stuck out of each skirt. Around the left-hand knob, symbols had been inlaid into the door, and around the knob on the right, numerals. The symbols on the left began with A, and ended — back beside the A — with something like a G. He didn’t recognize the others. The knob on the right was simpler. It was surrounded by letters that he knew were actually numbers: I to XXII in Roman numerals. He counted the strange alphabet on the left and found that there were nineteen letters.
Henry had never been terribly good at math, but he knew he would have to multiply nineteen by twenty-two to find out how many possible combinations there could be to open the door. But knowing what he needed to do and being able to do it were two different things. After several attempts to do the math in his head, he left his room and went as quietly as he could down his stairs, to the second-story landing, and down again. He was less careful once he was on the first floor and made his way quickly into the kitchen, where he began rooting through the junk drawer for a pencil. He found a pen and a small instruction manual for a blender. He tore the back page off and hurried upstairs.
Back in the attic, Henry ran on his toes straight to his small room and knelt on his bed. The knobs had not disappeared. He scratched out the math on his bit of paper: 22 times 19 was ... 418. Henry sat back and looked at the number: 418 was a lot.
“What are you doing?” a voice asked from behind him. Henrietta stood in his doorway. Her thick hair stuck out from her head and a pillow crease ran down her cheek, but her eyes were bright. “I heard you coming down the stairs.” She stepped into his room, looking past him. “What did you do to the wall?”
Henry coughed and unswallowed his Adam’s apple. “I didn’t do anything. It just cracked, and I was trying to see what was underneath the plaster.” Henry turned to the wall. “I found this little door. And it won’t open unless you know the combination, and I figured out that there are 418 possible combinations and only one of them will work, and I’m going to try all of them until I get it open.”
Henrietta knelt on the bed beside him. “What do you think’s inside?” she asked.
Henry sat quietly for a moment. “I don’t know yet,” he admitted.
“Yes, but what do you think?”
Henry searched his mind for anything that could be kept behind small, hidden doors.
“Somebody’s old things, maybe,” he said. “Socks or a pair of shoes. Some old fountain pens would be cool.”
“Oh,” Henrietta said. “I was thinking there might be an old map or a book explaining how to get to a secret city. Keys to a forgotten door or something. Maybe diamonds.”
“Well,” Henry said, “I think I should start trying to get it open. I’m going to start backward. I’ll put this arrow on the last letter and then try it with all of the Roman numerals. Then I’ll do the next letter with all the Roman numerals until I’ve done all 418.”
“Okay,” said Henrietta, and she plopped back onto the bed to watch as Henry began turning the knobs and pulling on them. “I hope it’s a map,” she added.
Henry had finished three and a half letters before she interrupted him for the first time.
“How many are left, Henry?”
Henry stopped and thought. “I’ve done 76. I can’t subtract 76 from 418 in my head, but there are more than 300 left.”
He was done with five letters when she interrupted again.
“Henry, what are those other marks on the knobs?”
“What marks?” he asked.
“Those ones,” Henrietta said, and she sat up on her knees and licked her thumbs. Henry moved out of her way and watched her rub the knobs clean. When Henrietta sat back down, Henry could see three more arrows on each knob. Much smaller and on the surface of the skirt only, they divided the knobs into quarters.
“They look like compasses,” Henrietta said. “See? The big arrow is how they do north on maps, and then there’s south, east, and west. I bet there is a map in there. What else would be behind compass knobs?”
Henry didn’t answer. He slumped.
“What’s wrong?” Henrietta asked.
Henry flopped all the way back on the bed and clicked his teeth. “We’ll never get it open.”
“We won’t? Why not?” she asked. “Stop grinding your teeth. There can’t be that many left.”
“There’s way more. I don’t even know how to find out how many more. With four pointers on each knob, there could be thousands of combinations.”
“Oh,” she said. “Maybe we should go to bed. We can figure it out tomorrow.”
“Yeah. We should go to bed.” He looked at his blanket. “But first I should clean this up.”
Henrietta stood and stretched. “Just take it downstairs and shake it outside.”
Henry pulled his blanket up by its four corners and slung it over his shoulder like a sack. Then the two of them left his room and crept carefully down the stairs. They reached the girls’ room, whispered good night, and Henrietta hurried to her bunk. Henry continued downstairs to the mudroom. Stepping outside, he decided to go a little ways from the house so nobody would see plaster on the lawn. Not that anyone was likely to. His bare feet were swallowed by the cool grass, but he didn’t notice. He was staring up at an enormous sky, heavily dusted with stars. A glaring two-thirds of a moon sat just above the horizon. He made his way down to the barn, went around the side, shook out his blanket, and sat down.
Henry had never heard of such a thing as a forgotten door. Back at school, he never would have believed such things existed. But here was different. There was something strange about here. He felt just like he had when he’d found out that kids his age don’t ride in car seats and that boys pee standing up. He remembered unpacking his bags at boarding school while his roommate watched. His roommate had asked him what the helmet was for, and Henry had suddenly had the suspicious sensation that he had been kept in the dark, that the world was off behaving in one way while he, Henry, wore a helmet. He had barely prevented himself from answering his roommate honestly. The words “It’s a helmet my mom bought me to wear in PE” were replaced with “It’s for racing. I don’t think I’ll need it here.”
Whatever was going on inside the wall in his room was much bigger than finding out that other boys didn’t have to wear helmets. If there really were forgotten doors and secret cities, and maps and books to tell you how to find them, then he needed to know. He looked around at the tall, dew-chilly grass and for a moment didn’t see grass. Instead, he saw millions of slender green blades of sunlight and air, thick on the ground and gently blowing, tickling his now-damp feet, and all the while silently pulling life up out of the earth. Each was another kid without a helmet, a kid who knew how things were actually done.
Above him, the stars twinkled with laughter. Galaxies looked. Nudged each other. Chuckled.
“He didn’t know about secret cities,” Orion said. “His mother never told him.”
The Great Bear smiled. “Did his dad tell him about forgotten doors?”
“Only having to do with science projects or bicycle trips.”
“Mostly topographic, or the kind that shade countries in different colors based on gross national product or primary exports.”
“Nothing with ‘Here be dragons’ on the edges?”
“Never. He found a hidden cupboard with compass locks, and do know what he thought was in it?”
“A unicorn’s horn?”
Henry sighed. “I don’t even know how to work compass locks,” he said. He stood and started back to the house with a familiar feeling, the feeling of Now I know. The feeling that means tonight you will sneak down to the dormitory Dumpster with your helmet, a stack of nightgowns, and your therapeutic bear. The feeling of Tomorrow I will have changed.
Henry walked into the kitchen and saw his knife on the counter. He picked it up and flipped it open. The blade’s proud new edge smiled at him. Pinning it open with his thumb, he climbed through the house to his room.
The wind scratched its back along the side of the barn. The stars swung slowly across the roof of this world, and the grass swayed and grew, content to be the world’s carpet, but still desiring to be taller.
Henry knelt on his bed upstairs and pried plaster off the wall with his knife. His thumb ached.
Excerpted from "100 Cupboards" by N.D. Wilson. Copyright (c) 2007, reprinted with permission from Random House Books for Young Readers.