Nikki Van Wyck knows everything about Central Park. She can tell you how many benches it has, how many acres it is—and exactly where to find an adventure after dark. When she teams up with a few new friends to track down a treasure in the park, her expert knowledge comes in handy. But the place she thought she knew is transformed before her eyes as the statues begin to come to life!
It turns out that Central Park has secrets that can’t be found in any guidebook. Magical secrets. And what Nikki thought was just a scavenger hunt is actually much more. Now she’s about to embark on an incredible adventure that will uncover the hidden enchantments in the park she loves—and reveal surprising things about herself, as well.
|Publisher:||Open Road Media|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||2 MB|
|Age Range:||8 - 12 Years|
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The Explorers' Gate
By Chris Grabenstein
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2012 Chris Grabenstein
All rights reserved.
You could say I'm obsessed with Central Park.
It's okay if you do.
Other people already have. My dad, my teachers, the one or two kids at school who actually talk to me. Even Mrs. Grimaldi, a tour guide in Central Park who, every now and then, I have to correct when she gets stuff wrong, says I am "far too fanatical for a normal twelve-year-old girl."
Of course, I never correct Mrs. Grimaldi's mistakes in front of her tour groups. That would be rude and, even when you're right, there's really no reason to be rude.
Why do I have a fanatical obsession with New York City's communal backyard?
Well, I figure the world is full of people who know a lot of stuff about a lot of different things. They usually end up as college professors or contestants on Jeopardy, and can be really annoying—especially on long car rides. I decided it would be way cooler to know everything about just one thing instead.
So I chose Central Park, just like my mom did when she was young.
She knew more about the park than anybody, even me. How many acres (843), how many bridges and arches (36), how many benches (over 9,000).
When I was little, she gave me this neat charm to wear on a chain as a necklace. It's like a wooden jigsaw puzzle piece—a two-inch square with a half-moon section cut out of the bottom—that shows the top third of the original "Guide Map of the Central Park" from the 1870s.
I wear it every day.
My mom also said, "Learn everything you can about the Park, Nikki, because, one day, that knowledge will prove very, very important."
Oh, I forgot to tell you: my mom died two years ago. Nothing dramatic. She just went into the hospital and never came back.
I still live with my dad in a basement apartment at 14 West 77th Street, where he's the resident superintendent. That basically means he's the live-in janitor.
Okay, this is where the weird "I-never-knew-that" stuff starts.
One Friday night in early May, around ten, my dad was sound asleep on the couch in front of the TV. An empty beer can was rising up and down on his belly in time with his snoring. I saw three other empties scattered on the floor near his balled-up socks and work boots.
Ever since mom died, this is what my dad does on Friday nights. He drinks beer and falls asleep in front of some kind of sporting event on television.
While he snored, I tiptoed out the front door. Not that I had to be quiet. My dad was so zonked out, I could've tap-danced.
Our apartment is conveniently located less than one hundred yards from the Explorers' Gate entrance to Central Park.
So why was I off on a nature hike in the middle of the night (even though I know it's dangerous to go into the park after dark)?
I guess I was nervous. The next day, Saturday, the Friends of Central Park were holding this big "Park Smarts" trivia contest for kids. The winner would take home a ten-thousand-dollar check from Mr. David Drake, the famous billionaire tycoon who headed up the Friends. They'd also win a bunch of neat stuff like Central Park T-shirts, water bottles, and baseball caps, plus, best of all, a summer internship with the Parks Department as—drum roll please—a Tour Guide!
In other words, I could win money to help out at home plus score my dream job!
This had to be that important opportunity my mom always talked about when she told me to learn everything I could about Central Park.
When I was younger, whenever my mom and I needed to chat, we'd head to our favorite spot in the entire park: an outcropping of bedrock on the northwestern rim of the Lake on a wooded peninsula called Hernshead. So that's where I was headed.
The light changed at 77th Street and I crossed Central Park West, a wide boulevard that, as you probably already guessed, runs up and down the west side of Central Park for fifty-one blocks.
"Hey, Mr. Humboldt," I said to the bronze bust of Friedrich Heinrich Alexander von Humboldt, who, in addition to having all those names, was a famous explorer. That's why his pedestal is right outside the Explorers' Gate. As to why I said "hey" to a statue, well, that's just something my mom used to do every time she walked past it.
The park at night can be pretty spooky. There's just a little bit of light: dim circles underneath old-fashioned street lamps. But mostly it's dark.
Except for the one homeless man who was snoring loudly on a split-log bench tucked up against the rocks. It looked like he had planned on sleeping underneath a quilted moving blanket but the blanket had slipped off. I picked it up, fluffed it out, and gently laid it back on top of him.
Then I scooted around his shopping cart, which was loaded down with all his earthly possessions: a bent umbrella, a roll of Christmas wrapping paper, some jumbled junk, and a couple clear bags stuffed with nickel deposit bottles.
When you wind your way around the giant rocks down at the lip of the Lake, you step into a space with this incredible view of midtown Manhattan—all those skyscrapers twinkling in front of you like stacks of stars. It makes you feel like you're the queen of the universe.
"Big day tomorrow, mom," I said as I sat down on the boulder and gazed at the city's reflection in the glassy surface of the Lake. "This could be that thing you always ..."
Suddenly, off in the distance, I heard wooden oars slapping against the water. This was extremely weird because they stop renting rowboats at 5 p.m. every day and you have to be back to the dock by 6:30 or they come after you in a gondola.
I squinted hard and saw three rowboats sliding across the water, laying in a course for Hernshead.
Three empty rowboats.
The oars were stroking but nobody was manning the paddles!
"Choose your weapon!"
I wheeled around.
The homeless guy was up and offering me a choice: the bent umbrella or the roll of wrapping paper.
"What's going on?"
"Swing low!" he said, tossing me the hard cardboard tube. "Swing hard!"
"The nasty no-see-ums in those boats!"CHAPTER 2
"The nasty whatzits?"
"No-see-ums! They come at night to tie my shoelaces together. They laugh when I trip and fall on my face!"
"Retreat!" the man shouted. "To the fort!"
He dashed up the path. I dashed after him.
Behind us, I heard metal hulls scraping against gravel.
We rounded the rocks and bounded up a pathway.
We ducked into the Ladies Pavilion, a Victorian kiosk with all sorts of fancy gewgaws that was originally built to be a classy shelter for trolley car passengers. Of course that was before it was moved into Central Park so it could become a shelter from invisible pirates row-boating across the Lake to tie your shoelaces together.
My protector cocked the umbrella over his shoulder like a baseball bat. I stood beside him, my roll of Santa-and-reindeer wrap at the ready.
Then things got even weirder.
I swear I heard tiny feet scampering across the bluestone terrace just outside the pavilion.
But since the flat slabs were solid stone, I didn't see any footprints, which made me wonder if all I was hearing was a battalion of squirrels shuffling through the underbrush on their nightly nut-relocation maneuvers.
"We got lucky," the man whispered when the sound of pitter-pattering feet melted away. "It's not us they're after!"
"And who, exactly, are they?"
"Don't know. Never seen 'em."
Off in the distance, I heard a dog barking.
That settled it. The stampeding feet were squirrels. Now I just had to figure out what was up with those rowboats without any rowers.
My thoughts were interrupted when the homeless man belched so loudly you could smell it.
"My name's Martin," he said when the oniony cloud cleared. "What's yours?"
Martin arched a grungy eyebrow.
"It's short for Nicolette. My mom told me it's Dutch for 'victory of the people.'"
Martin stuck out his hand. It was filthy but I shook it anyway. After all, during the squirrel/boat attack, he had been my knight in not-so-shining armor.
"I gotta go, Nikki," he said, adding another burp for emphasis.
I gave Martin his roll of wrapping paper. He quickly jammed it down inside of his cart.
"I'm gonna need every weapon I can scrape together," he mumbled. "Another civil war is coming. Soon!" He grabbed hold of his shopping cart and clumped off into the darkness.
Since there are several Civil War statues and memorials inside Central Park, I figured that's what Martin was talking about.
I had no idea how wrong I was.
By morning, I had actually rationalized away the no-see-ums.
Someone forgot to tie off the rowboats at the dock.
They slipped free and drifted across the Lake in a stiff breeze.
The oars rowing themselves in the water?
An optical illusion. Shadows and reflections. Tricks of light.
Frankly, I had enough to worry about without adding things I couldn't actually see.
Worry number one? My dad.
He was so sad so much of the time.
Early Saturday, when I came into the kitchen, he was already seated at the fold-up card table we use for breakfast, stirring his black coffee, staring at the swirls.
"Morning, Dad. Did you eat anything?"
He shook his head.
"You should at least have some toast."
"I'll fix it for you."
I dropped two slices of bread into the toaster slots.
"I'm going to the park today," I said. "There's this contest."
This time, I got a grunt and a nod.
My father was dressed in his dark-green work shirt and matching dark-green work pants. A cluttered key ring was hooked to his belt and sort of buried beneath his muffin-top belly.
If I showed you pictures of my dad from when my mother was alive, you wouldn't recognize him. Back then he was buff. He had swagger and a sly grin. He was the handsomest prince in the whole kingdom, my mother used to say.
Well, let's just say he took mom's death even harder than I did.
I slathered gobs of peanut butter on top of his toast, figuring it might be the only solid food he ate all day. Then I sat down to make sure he ate it.
By eleven-thirty, I was at the Naumburg Bandshell at the northern end of the elm-lined Mall, a long, shady stretch in the middle of Central Park.
The Bandshell—which looks like a small capitol rotunda cut in half so it can bounce back sound—has been the stage for all sorts of famous performers over the years. Today, it would be the setting for the Park Smarts trivia contest.
I was dressed to win in my cleanest jeans, high-top sneakers, and official "Imagine" T-shirt decorated with the mosaic you'll find in a patch of Central Park called Strawberry Fields. It was named in honor of John Lennon, who used to live in an apartment building right across the street from the park.
On the side flaps of the tent where trivia contestants were already signing up, the Friends of Central Park had hung two huge vinyl banners. One was a pretty cheesy shot of Mr. Drake, the bald billionaire with the squinty eyes. The other was a blowup of the historic 1870 Guide Map. I dug under my collar and pulled out my necklace charm to compare it to the map.
"Huh," said a tall boy standing beside me. "I have one of those, too."
He reached under his sports jersey and pulled out a two-inch square with a rounded knob at the top and a curved notch at the bottom.
"Mine shows the middle part," he said with a shy smile. "Which one did you get?"
The boy, who had to be at least six feet tall, pulled his necklace chain up and over his head.
I did the same.
"You think?" he said.
He handed me his puzzle piece and I lined it up with mine.
They fit perfectly.CHAPTER 3
"Where did you get this?" I asked.
"My mom gave it to me when I was little," he said.
"Wow. My brother, Willem, has the third piece. By the way, I'm Garrett Vanderdonk."
"Nikki Van Wyck."
"Of course! You're Nikki! My grandfather always says, 'Nikki Van Wyck has the missing piece.'"
"Wait. Your grandfather knows my name?"
"And when, exactly, does your grandfather say that thing about how I have the missing piece?"
"Whenever I ask, 'Hey, where's the third piece, Grandpa?'"
"Did your grandfather know my mother?"
Garrett shrugged. "Don't know. We never talked about that. But Grandpa did say we might need to find you. Fast."
"For the Crown Quest."
"It's this thing that might be happening real soon."
"What kind of thing?"
"A very important, super-serious kind of thing."
I looked at Garrett's sports-team jersey. His holiday ham–sized arms. His neck that reminded me of a thick stump.
"So, um, do you play football, Garrett?"
"Nah. Football is for babies. I wrestle."
"I see." I realized Garrett Vanderdonk, sweet and strong as he was, would never be the one to answer life's big, important questions. "So, is your brother here?"
"Willem? I don't think so. But we're going to do a practice run. Tonight. Are you free at nine?"
He wiggled his puzzle piece. "You're the third leg of our team!"
"Um, are we talking wrestling, because ..."
"No, Nikki," he said with a laugh. "The Crown Quest! Do you know how to find the Explorers' Gate?"
"Sure, but ..."
"Well that's where we'll meet for our first official full-team training session. Tonight. Nine o'clock."
"Yeah. Grandpa will hide a pretend crown and we'll have to go find it following clues and junk."
"Is this some kind of scavenger hunt?"
"No, it's a Crown Quest!"
I nodded so I could escape. "Oh-kay. Great." Then I changed the subject. "So, are you signing up for the trivia contest?"
"No way. I don't want him to win."
Garrett nudged his huge head at the blow-up of David Drake. "Him."
"Mr. Drake? He's not competing. He's the judge."
"Whatever. I gotta run. I can't wait to tell Willem I found you! Woo-hoo!"
The big guy bustled off, happier than anybody I think I have ever seen—except maybe Homer Simpson when he finds a dozen free doughnuts.
Of course, I was extremely curious about our interlocking puzzle pieces, not to mention Garrett Vanderdonk's grandfather, who knew my name and maybe knew my mom. But before I could think about these strange new Vanderdonk people who had suddenly leapt into my life, I had to go win the Park Smarts trivia contest.
Forget the Crown Quest (whatever it might be); this was the contest I had been training for my whole life.
A long stretch limo crawled up the wide, tree-lined Mall, a promenade the guys who designed the park called "an open-air hall of reception."
(I hoped that would be one of the trivia questions!)
The chauffeur held open a door and out stepped Mr. David Drake himself. He was dressed in a classy business suit, crinkly alligator shoes, and a slick silk tie. His bald head was so shiny it looked like he had just had it buffed.
If the judge had arrived, that meant the contest was about to begin. I needed to sign in. Now!
I hustled around to the registration line. My heart was racing.
I smiled when I realized that the lady handing out contestant numbers was Mrs. Grimaldi, the tour guide I helped out sometimes.
"Hello, Mrs. Grimaldi!" I said. "Remember me?"
She made a face like I do when I sniff a carton of Chinese takeout food my dad has left in the fridge way too long.
"Good morning, Miss Van Wyck. Do you wish to compete in today's trivia contest?"
I was so excited I think my cheeks were glowing. "Yep, I sure do!"
Mrs. Grimaldi slowly fingered the pile of official number cards stacked in front of her. Once you were registered, you were supposed to pin your number to the front of your shirt like you would if you were running around Central Park in one of the races sponsored by the New York Road Runners club.
I held out my hand.
Mrs. Grimaldi did not give me a number.
"Did you know that Jonas Blauvelt will be competing today?" she asked, smiling and fluttering her eyelashes.
"Really? The Jonas Blauvelt? The man who wrote The Definitive & Exhaustive Ultimate Guidebook to Central Park?"
"Yes. That one."
"But," I said with a smile, "I thought this contest was for kids."
"That's right. Eight to eighteen."
"So how come Mr. Blauvelt is competing?"
My jaw flew open so wide Mrs. Grimaldi could've given me a dental exam.
"Wow," I mumbled. Then I gulped. "Sixteen?"
Now Mrs. Grimaldi was the one beaming. "Yes. The young man is a genius. A true savant! His guidebook is the definitive source for all the information we use in our tours."
I just nodded.
Excerpted from The Explorers' Gate by Chris Grabenstein. Copyright © 2012 Chris Grabenstein. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I am a big Grabenstein fan. Just loved this book. Read it in a morning. Reminded me of a childhood favorite ....A Wrinkle in Time ....and adulthood favorite ....Time and Again. It takes place in NYC but you do not have to be familiar with the city to enjoy it. Hoping that Chris Grabenstein will write a sequel.