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The Key to the Golden Firebird

Firebird, golden
(largous automobilus yellowish)

  1. A car manufactured by Pontiac. In this particular case, a car painted a color called Signet Gold and built in Lordstown, Ohio, in 1967. Almost sixteen feet long, with extremely poor gas mileage and no modern amenities. Has a cream-colored interior and a black convertible top and belches noxious clouds of instant-cancer fumes whenever started. Attracts an unreasonable amount of attention from car buffs (for its collectability) and others (because it's brightly colored, noisy, and as big as a battleship).
  2. A mythical creature prominently featured in Russian folktales. Possesses magical powers. Wherever the Firebird goes, princes, princesses, kings, and mad wizards are sure to follow.
  3. Presumably, any golden bird that's on fire.



"Chome on," Palmer said, her words dulled from numb-tongue syndrome caused by the Icee she was slurping. "You haff to admit it wash funny."

May, who was sweating profusely and peering longingly through the bottom of the screened window at a swimming pool, turned and stared at her little sister. "No, I don't," she said.

"It wash . . . ambhishious."

"Ambitious?" May repeated. "Looks like you got a new vocabulary word." "It wash."

"They didn't play ‘Wind Beneath My Wings' for you," May said. "Just be quiet for a minute, okay? I'm trying to listen."

She turned back to the window.

"I shtill can't believf the Oriole pickhed you up," Palmer went on, grinning at the thought. The Icee had turned her teeth a faint blue, which looked even creepier against her braces. It was as if the disguise was being dropped and thirteen-year-old Palmer was revealing herself to be a monster with blue metal teeth.

May wasn't smiling, because the memory wasn't funny to her. She was here for a reason. She was getting revenge—revenge that had been a long time coming. Peter Camp was going down.

Pete was the son of her father's best friend and had been eleven months old when May was born. There were pictures of him lurking above her as she was swaddled in baby blankets, unable to move. He looked surprisingly the same—brown curly hair, body covered in head-to-toe freckles, a slightly goofy, yet predatory expression as he reached for her stuffed duck.

Right from the beginning, May had been the unwilling straight man in Pete's ever-evolving comedy routine. There was the lick-and-replace sandwich gag from kindergarten. The yo-yo spit trick at the bus stop in third grade. The terrifying "lawn sprinkler" (don't ask) from fifth grade. The dribble holes in her milk, the lab worms in her lunch, the bike-by Supersoaker attacks . . . There was nothing too low, too stupid, too disgusting for him to try. Then Pete had moved on to Grant High, and they'd been separated. The next year May had ended up going to a different high school—to Girls' Academy, in downtown Philadelphia. Aside from the occasional whoopie cushion at holiday gatherings, she believed the menace had ended.

Until last weekend, when the Golds and the Camps had taken their annual trip to Camden Yards.

The Camden Yards trip was one of the major events of the year. Even May, who didn't like baseball, was able to work up some enthusiasm for it—if only because her father and sisters were practically humming with excitement. Also, May's dad always saw to it that she was entertained in one way or another. He'd let her choose some of the music in the car. (Along with the obligatory Bruce Springsteen. Her dad had to blast "Out in the Street" and "Thunder Road" as he tore down I-95 in the Firebird. Had to. As if the earth would explode if he didn't—or worse yet, it might rain and the game would be a washout.) He'd glance at her through the rearview mirror and make his "big tooth" face, pulling his lips back in a horselike grimace that always made her laugh. As a reward for sitting through the game, her dad would slip her some cash (he had developed a very slick move, which even Palmer couldn't detect) so that she could buy herself an extra snack from the concessions. So May had come to peace with the event.

On this last trip she had been biding her time during the seventh-inning stretch, staring absently into the depths of her cup of lemonade. The next thing she knew, a pair of huge and fuzzy black wings embraced her. Suddenly she was being lifted out of her seat by someone in a black bird costume and was on her way down to the field. Once there, she was immediately set upon by five members of the Baltimore Orioles, all of whom shook her hand. One gave her a signed ball. The crowd began to cheer her. Then, just when things couldn't get any weirder, she looked up and saw her own face—big as a building—stretched across the Jumbotron.

Underneath it was the caption May Gold, formerly blind fan.

She didn't even have time to react before she was escorted back to her seat. It had taken over an hour to get an explanation because that was how long it had taken for Peter Camp to stop laughing. He revealed at last that he had told one of the public relations staff that May had been born blind, had just been cured by surgery, and was fulfilling her lifelong dream of seeing a live baseball game. It was an incredibly weird story—so weird that they'd actually believed him.

The audacity of the stunt had kept Pete from getting into any trouble; in fact, the Gold-Camp contingent now ranked Pete among mankind's greatest thinkers. May's father had immediately claimed the baseball and held it carefully with both hands for the remainder of the game, as though it were his very own egg that he was protecting until it hatched.


Excerpted from THE KEY TO THE GOLDEN FIREBIRD © Copyright 2004 by Maureen Johnson. Reprinted with permission by HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

The Key to the Golden Firebird
by by Maureen Johnson

  • Genres: Fiction
  • hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0060541385
  • ISBN-13: 9780060541385