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Jennifer Murdley’s Toad
Chapter One
The Kid in the Plain Brown Wrapper

If Jennifer Murdley hadn't been forced to wear her brother's underpants to school, the whole thing might never have happened. But when she walked into the laundry room on the morning of October 13th, she found her father pouring liquid detergent onto a load of clothes that included every pair of underwear she owned.

“Dad!” she screamed. “Wait!”

She was too late. The tub was filling, her underwear was soggy and soapy, and there was no chance of getting any of it dry before she had to leave for school.

“Don't worry,' said Mr. Murdley, holding up a stack of neatly folded underpants, “you can wear a pair of these!”

“You have got to be kidding! Those belong to Skippy!”

The conversation that followed wasn't pretty. The bottom line had been that Jennifer was going to school, and she was going to wear underwear, even if it did belong to her brother.

Although she promised Skippy to keep it a secret, Jennifer confided the embarrassing truth to one person-her best friend, Ellen.

Ellen, not unnaturally, thought it was funny.

So she told Annette.

Annette told Maya.

Maya told Sharra.

And Sharra, as could have been expected, told the world.

By recess every boy in the fifth grade knew Jennifer's secret. They chased her around the playground, chanting, “Jennifer Murdley went to France, wearing her brother's underpants,” while Sharra and her friends stood in a circle, giggling and pointing.

As if that weren't bad enough, when Jennifer passed Skippy in the hallway later that day, as her class was leaving art and his was entering he hissed, “You die, creepazoid.”

The day reached a new low when Jennifer's teacher, Mrs. Hopwell, assigned an essay on “My Favorite Pet.”

Jennifer had four problems wit the essay:

First, she still hadn't finished her last writing assignment, a report on Smokey Hollow's only tourist attraction, the Applegate Folk Museum. In fact, she was supposed to visit the museum that afternoon for some final research.

Second, the new topic just didn't interest her. It wasn't that she didn't like writing. Jennifer loved to write; she just hated wasting her time on stuff that didn't come from inside her.

Third, she didn't even have a pet, which was one of the things that made the topic so uninteresting.

Fourth, and most painful, was the fact that the topic itself had prompted Sharra to whisper loudly, “I bet Jennifer has a pet horse. Why else would she be wearing Jockey shorts?” which had led Jimmy Cortez to crack, “Jennifer doesn't own a horse, she just looks like one.

Jennifer hadn't cried; she hadn't let herself. By now she was used to remarks about her looks.

I'm just the kid in the plain brown wrapper, she told herself on good days. So ordinary, no one notice me at all. But on bad days, like today, she was convinced that everyone did notice the pudgy cheeks, small eyes, and clump of a nose that made her hate her own looks so much.

She couldn't wait for school to end so she could head for the Folk Museum-though the fact that the point of this visit was research for an overdue assignment made the trip less enjoyable than usual. Still, the museum was one of her favorite places. She loved the ever-changing displays of folk art, the huge collection of apple dolls, the handmade stick brooms, and, best of all, the collection of books that covered everything from local legends to folklore from around the world.

More than that, when Jennifer was at the Folk Museum she felt safe in a way she rarely did, as if it was a place removed from everyday worries and fears.

And this afternoon she wanted to feel safe.

When the final bell rang, Jennifer slipped away from school fast enough to avoid any more teasing, then ran the seven blocks to the museum. After a pause to catch her breath, she opened the door and stepped inside.

Once past the mirror in the foyer (Jennifer hated mirrors), it was easy to forget the outside world in the beautiful old house the Applegate family had donated to the people of Smokey Hollow.

The museum was still run by old Miss Applegate, the only living member of the family. Jennifer always felt kind of sorry for the woman. With her bulgy eyes and squat figure, she was truly unattractive. But she was also somewhat reassuring, since Jennifer was always able to look at her and think, At least I don't look that bad.

Except in her heart she suspected that she did.

“Hello, dear,” said Miss Applegate, when she spotted Jennifer. She smiled. Jennifer smiled back. Miss Applegate had become a special friend over the last year.

When Miss Applegate announced that it was closing time, Jennifer was shocked to realize that she was nowhere near finished with her research. Her problem was that the material was so interesting she kept getting carried away and reading far past the relevant sections.

“Don't worry, dear,” said Miss Applegate. “I'm coming in to do some extra work on Saturday morning. You can finish up then.”

Since the museum was closed on Saturdays, this was a real privilege. “Thanks!” said Jennifer as she tucked her pencils and notebooks into her backpack.

Jennifer was so pleased with her trip to the museum that she almost forgot the underwear fiasco-until she reached the corner of Oak and Main, where Sharra was hanging out with a group of her friends.

“Hey, it's Underwear Woman!” cried one of them.

“Oh, shut up,” said Jennifer, who had had all the teasing she could stand for one day. “At least I'm wearing some!”

“I bet she's not!” cried Sharra. “I bet she's lying. Let's find out.”

Immediately four girls lunged at Jennifer, who turned and ran for all she was worth. From a distance she could hear Sharra urging the others to chase her. Sharra was too dignified to run herself, of course. She would wait until the others caught Jennifer and then lead whatever torture came next.

I've got to get out of here, thought Jennifer desperately as she cut a sharp right onto Beech Street. Halfway down the street she shot into a driveway. Darting behind the house, she raced through several backyards, out past another house, and between a pair of small mountain ash trees.

When she stopped to catch her breath, she realized she was on a street she had never seen before. That made her slightly nervous, since she thought she knew all the streets in Smokey Hollow.

She listened to see if Sharra's gang was still after her.

Silence.

That was a relief.

Her heart still pounding from the chase, Jennifer walked on. It was only when she was halfway to the end of the street that she noticed the little shop.

ELIVES' MAGIC SUPPLIES
S. H. ELIVES, PROP.

read the old-fashioned letters on the window.

Jennifer felt a tickle of nervousness. She had a sense that something strange was about to happen. Something special. Maybe something she could write about. Not for Mrs. Hopwell, but for herself, just because she wanted to-which was the best kind of writing, anyway.

She looked around. The street was deserted. After a moment of hesitation, she slipped into the shop.

It was wonderful; a fascinating display of Chinese rings, top hats, oversized cards, and other magician's equipment hung from the walls, lay scattered on the shelves, and sat crammed in big display cases.

Moving aside a chain of jewel-colored silk scarves, Jennifer ran her fingers over a dark wooden box that had a dragon carved deep into its surface. She was turning to examine the much bigger box nearby-clearly made for sawing people in half-when she notice the wall lined with cages.

Most of the cages held doves or rabbits-for pulling out of hats, she guessed. But some of the cages had far more interesting animals: lizards, snakes, toads, and bats. Beyond the wall of cages was one more animal, a stuffed owl that sat perched on the huge, old-fashioned cash register at the back of the room.

Maybe I can get a pet for my essay, thought Jennifer, trying to imagine what her mother would say if she came home with a bat.

Wondering if there was a bell next to the cash register to call for a clerk, she began walking toward the counter. As she did, the owl twisted its head and looked straight at her. It uttered a low, eerie hoot, blinked, and returned to its original motionless position-so precisely that Jennifer still wasn't sure whether it was alive or some mechanical gadget.

“Peace. Uwila,” snapped an impatient voice from the back of the shop. “I know she's there.”

Moments later an old man shuffled through the beaded curtain that covered the doorway behind the counter. As he stepped through, the strings of beads blew outward, and Jennifer caught the scent of an ocean breeze-which surprised her, since the ocean was hundreds of miles away. But any thoughts about the ocean were washed away by her interest in the old man himself, who was so wrinkled he made her think of the apple dolls at the Folk Museum. Stopping directly in front of her, he peered at her intensely, paused for a moment, then said, “Well?”

Jennifer realized she had been staring. Blushing a bit, she replied, “I'd like to buy one of your animals.”

“Which one?”

“I don't know yet.” Glancing at the unmoving owl, she asked hopefully, “Is he real?”

The owl shook its feathers and squawked. The old man frowned. “Uwila is very real, but not for sale.”

Jennifer sighed. An owl would have been nice. On the other hand, it would have been hard to care for. Probably she should go for something simple.

“What about the toads?” she asked.

The old man shook his head. “I doubt you want one of them. They're a hundred dollars. Each.”

It was Jennifer's turn to squawk. “A hundred dollars?”

“That's what I said,” the old man replied, his voice testy.

“But they're only toads.”

“I am well aware that they are toads. I would not call them 'only' toads; that offends them. And the price is as I said.”

“I'm not going to pay a hundred dollars for an old toad!”

“I wouldn't expect you to. Nor would I sell you one if you were willing to. They are strictly for magicians, and I don't think you qualify.” He paused, then cocked his head, almost as if he were listening to something. After a moment he said, “I do have one toad-only one-that I can let you have for a somewhat lower price.

“How much?” asked Jennifer suspiciously.

“Seventy-five.”

“Dollars?”

“Cents.”

Jennifer scowled. “What's wrong with it?”

“There is nothing wrong with him. He simply does not suit my needs. He will, however, provide you with a great deal of-amusement. It may, indeed, be a perfect match.”

Something about the way the old man said this struck Jennifer as odd. She had an uneasy feeling that he was making fun of her. Yet there was no trace of a smile on his face.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Why will he be perfect for me?”

The old man shrugged. “No one comes into this shop by accident,” he said, as if that explained things.

Jennifer hesitated. The old man-Mr. Elives, she assumed-was clearly a wacko. But the toad might be just right for her essay. And she could always get rid of him after she was done writing. “Okay,” she said, “I'll take him.”

“Don't you want to see him first?”

“Why? A toad is a toad, right?”

Now the old man did smile. “That's why I wouldn't sell you one of the others.” Then he looked her straight in the eye and said, “Stay here. I'll be back in a moment.”

Turning, he shuffled back through the strings of beads. Jennifer tried to move, but her legs felt as if they had been frozen to the floor. She was about to yell for help when the old man returned. He was carrying a small cage in his wrinkled hands. Inside the cage was a huge toad.

Mr. Elives put the cage on the counter. “This is Bufo.”

Jennifer found she could shift her feet again. “Bufo?”

Mr. Elives scowled. “Yes, Bufo. Do you want him or not?”

Something about the old man's voice told Jennifer that if she knew what was good for her, she would want the toad. Digging her change purse out of her backpack, she extracted three quarters and handed them to the old man.

“Good,” said Mr. Elives. He rang up the sale on the ancient cash register, then took a cardboard box from beneath the counter. Lifting Bufo from his cage, he deposited him in the box. He locked the box's top flaps together. Air holes had already been cut in the top and sides.

Jennifer expected him to hand her the box. Instead, he held out a carefully folded piece of paper. Hesitantly, Jennifer took hold of it. The old man didn't let her go; he just stared directly into her eyes. Jennifer wanted to turn her gaze away, but her eyes seemed to be locked in place.

“Read this paper carefully,” said Mr. Elives, his voice low but intense. “Pay close attention to what it says. And take good care of this toad. If you don't, you'll have me to answer to.”

Jennifer shivered. She tried to take the paper, but Mr. Elives still wouldn't let go of it. “Did you hear me?”

Wide-eyed, Jennifer nodded.

“Good.” Releasing his hold on the paper, he pushed the box toward her. “Take the side door. It will get you home more quickly.”

Grabbing the box, Jennifer shot out the side door. To her astonishment, she found herself back on High Street.

For a moment, she wondered if it had all been a dream. Then she realized that she was still carrying the box and the paper. So it was no dream, “What's going on here?” she asked aloud.

“You got me, kid,” croaked a gravelly voice from inside the box.



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