Before reading, watch this video for the setting: .com/watch?v=JUpSR9fhQDM

The first time Cameron Quillen set foot inside Mercury Books was the summer he turned nine. He was skinny and freckled and toughened by the city, wearing his dirty tan band-aids with a rugged sort of pride. He was, as my mother would say, a little prince.

"Holy cow..." he mouthed silently, trying to take in the sheer size of my mother's dusty bookstore. His eyes darted from the floor-to-ceiling books to the rich, dark wood of the shelves, from the occasional cot-like bed stashed throughout the store to the occasional tousle-headed artist sleeping in them.

"Holy cow..." I copied quietly to myself, frowning at the pink hula-hoop he was carrying and at the fact that, except for one grey sock, he was completely barefoot.

The hula-hoop was one of the ones weighted down with water, so it sloshed as he dragged it across the store, heading straight for the comic-book section. I dashed behind the counter, afraid that he might see me, that he might somehow read my mind and discover how interesting I thought he was.

From then on, without any explanation, Cameron Quillen was in Mercury Books almost every day. We had regular customers, sure, but those were grown-ups: big people with shiny teeth and large hands who would kneel down and talk to me as if I were a baby; as if I hadn't lived my entire life above a bookstore. As if I hadn't named my favorite blanket Captain Ahab and my stuffed giraffe Mercutio.

I was fascinated with Cameron Quillen, our only regular who was the same age as his shoe size. I took to spying on him whenever he came into the store, casually stealing glances from behind shelves and, occasionally, staring for hours at a time from the loft, which offered a perfect view of him when he decided to sit on the bed next to to the wall of biographies.

I had often seen my mother eyeing him, remaining silent despite the fact that he never bought anything. She seemed to be developing the same kind of fascination with the strange new boy as I was, but to an almost maternal degree. It was with astounding will power that she did not try to smudge the dirt off his nose when, one day, months later, he marched up to the front counter and stood on his tip-toes to ding the small silver bell near the register. I ducked behind my mother's legs, inexplicably terrified.

"Hello," he said in a very fierce voice. It was the first time I'd ever heard him speak. "My name is Cameron Quillen."
"Hello, Cameron Quillen," my mother replied. "I'm Nina Perkowski."
"You own this place." It was more of a challenge than anything else, as if he was daring her to correct him.
"Yes, I believe I do. Can I help you?"

He hesitated for a second, wriggling his first finger under the non-adhesive part of one of his band-aids to scratch at a scab on his chin. His resolve seemed to have wavered over the course of their short conversation but, nevertheless, he reached into the front pocket of his cargo shorts, pulled out thirty-four dollars and twenty-nine cents (mostly in ones and pennies), and meekly set it down on the counter.

"I want to live here," he said loudly, trying to mask his embarrassment.

I didn't mean to draw attention to myself, but the laugh somehow escaped. It came out as a muffled snort, pressed into the back of my mother's knees, but Cameron Quillen had heard. He leaned over the counter to look at me, blushing furiously and scowling.

"Mr. Quillen," my mother said, quite seriously. "Don't you have a home already?"
He opened his mouth, ready to give a hot reply but, after a moment, snapped it shut. "Yes, Ma'am," he finally muttered, red-faced. "But I don't want to live there anymore, I want to live here."

For a second, my mother looked very sad. I clung to her leg and felt a rush of hatred toward this Cameron Quillen, this boy who had made my mother's eyebrows knit together like when she reads articles in the paper or when some bad news comes on the telephone.

"I'm sorry," she said honestly, pushing his money back across the counter. "I can only rent out my beds to people who don't have homes."

Like Uncle Wallace, I instantly thought, but decidedly kept my mouth shut. Wallace Holiday lives here at Mercury Books with us -- in the non-fiction section, in fact. He's not my real uncle, but I still like him very much. He says that it's not normal for bookstores to have beds on the inside, and that my mother is awesome because she lets people sleep in them. Wallace Holiday sometimes restocks shelves and stands behind the cash register so that he can continue to sleep in the non-fiction section. That's one of the rules. In order to sleep at Mercury Books you have to work, you have to be an artist, and you have to have nowhere else to go. That's all there is to it. Those are the rules.

But as my mother explained these rules (which I thought were quite reasonable, thank you very much), Cameron Quillen's face started to get very mad. His eyes squinted and his nose scrunched. He looked like an inflated raisin.

"But you're welcome to come in whenever you like," my mother offered as Cameron Quillen shoved his life's savings back into his pocket. "You can read all day long." She lowered her voice, as if imparting a great secret. "I don't even care if you never buy anything!"

He was not amused. I half-expected him to throw a tantrum, to knock something over or kick at a shelf of books. It was obvious, however, that he was trying to be mature. He frowned and nodded instead.

"This is my daughter, Pearl."

For some ungodly reason, my mother decided to push me out in front of her. I looked wildly to Wallace Holiday for help as she picked me up up and plopped me down in the center of the counter, but he was probably in the back going through a box of donated books, the skinny, inattentive, good-for-nothing.

"She starts Kindergarten at PS 118 this fall," she said kindly, completely ignoring my squeaks of protest.
"Daughter?" Cameron Quillen asked her, suddenly looking quite wicked.
"Yes, she's just about to turn six."
"Daughter?" he repeated, cocking a devilish eyebrow.
"Yes."
"Oh."

My heart fluttered in terror as I realized I was close enough to count the smattering of freckles across Cameron Quillen's nose. (Twelve.) His hair was this strange reddish color that I had come to associate with old, leather-bound books and Peter Pan. He grinned evilly.

"I thought you were a boy."

And those were the first words Cameron Quillen ever said to me.