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Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher
Chapter One
Love Letter of Doom

Jeremy Thatcher crumpled his paper in disgust. The dragon he had been trying to draw looked like a dog with wings.

“Be right back,” he whispered to his friend, Specimen. But as he started toward the paper cupboard a sharp voice asked, “Something wrong, Mr. Thatcher?”

Jeremy froze. One of the problems with having Mr. Kravitz for art was that you never knew when it was safe to get a fresh sheet of paper. Clearly, this wasn't one of those days.

The tall, pudgy teacher lumbered over to stand in front of Jeremy. “Didn't you hear the school board has frozen spending?” he asked. “That means no new paper orders for the rest of the year. So tell me, is another sheet of paper needed because that drawing was so bad-or because your talent is so important?”

Mr. Kravitz gave Jeremy a smug, nasty smile and waited for him to answer.

Jeremy hesitated. He wanted to say that his talent was that important, but he knew that answer would only bring more scorn. He decided to say nothing. After a moment of uncomfortable silence, he turned and shambled back to his seat.

As Jeremy slid into his chair, Specimen pointed to a square of lavender paper tucked under the corner of Jeremy's books. “From Mary Lou Hutton,” he whispered. “Special Delivery.”

Jeremy resisted the urge to reach out and grab the note. No sense in giving Mr. Kravitz something else to complain about, he thought. But what am I supposed to do now? My paper is gone, Mr. Kravitz won't let me get more, and I've got fifteen minutes to go before art is over.

His eyes drifted back to the note. He found himself reaching toward the paper. Quickly, he drew his hand back. Where's Mr. Kravitz?

Looking around, Jeremy spotted the art teacher bending over Jymn Magon's desk.

Probably telling him in detail what's wrong with his picture, thought Jeremy. Pretending to look at something else, he tugged the lavender square from its hiding place, unfolded it, and began to read. Before Jeremy could finish, Mr. Kravitz came up and snatched the note from his fingers.

“Well, Mr. Thatcher,” he said gleefully. “I see you've forgotten my feeling about notes in the classroom.”

Jeremy's cheeks began to burn. “Give it back!” he said.

“I'm afraid I can't do that,” replied Mr. Kravitz, with mock sincerity. “It's against my rules. However, since you didn't have a chance to read it to yourself, I will read it aloud for you before I destroy it.”

“Don't!” cried Jeremy in terror.

But Mr. Kravitz had begun. “Dear Jeremy,” he read, in mincing tones. “I think you are incredibly cute, even if you are the shortest boy in the sixth grade. I am going to kiss you after school today if it's the last thing I ever do.”

Mr. Kravitz paused, then said, “Oh, yes-there's a P.S. According to this, you have beautiful eyes.”

The classroom rocked with laughter. Jeremy closed his “beautiful” eyes, his face so hot that even the tips of his ears were burning.

Mr. Kravitz folded the note and tucked it into his pocket. “No need to embarrass the person who wrote this by reading her signature,” he said. “Let's just remember that notes are not appreciated in this classroom.”

The injustice made Jeremy's head spin. For trying to read a note someone else had given him, he was made to suffer complete humiliation. Yet the person who sent the note was getting off with only a warning. What was going on here?

It didn't take him long to figure out the answer. Mary Lou's father was on the school board, so Mr. Kravitz wasn't going to embarrass her. Jeremy quivered with the unfairness of it.

“It stinks,” he said to Specimen that afternoon. “Stinks, stinks, stinks.”

“I agree,” said Specimen, pushing up his thick glasses with a long, grubby forefinger. “But then, everyone knows Kravitz hates you.”

Jeremy sighed. “All I ever wanted to be is an artist. And the only teacher who's ever really disliked me is my art teacher. I want to know why.”

Specimen shrugged. “Forget it. Just be glad he isn't judging the art contest.”

Jeremy nodded. He and Spess had been trying to win the spring art contest for years. First prize was the chance to paint the main window of Zambreno's Department Store. Jeremy believed he had had the best entry for the last two years. He hadn't won though, because top spot traditionally went to a sixth grader-whether or not they actually had the best work. Now he was a sixth grader, so this should be his year. He was the best artist in the school, and everyone except Mr. Kravitz knew it. The only person who might possibly beat him was Specimen, and they had already decided that whichever one of them won, the other would help with the painting.

However, that didn't take care of his current problem. The fact that everyone in sixth grade knew Mr. Kravitz was a creep had done nothing to protect Jeremy from the teasing that followed the public reading of Mary Lou's love note. Specimen was the only one who had shown him any sympathy. The other boys, particularly Howard Morton and Freddy the Frog Killer, had razzed him unmercifully.

Not that that was anything new.

“Maybe you should just tell everyone who sent the note,” suggested Specimen.

“Are you out of your mind?”

Before his friend could answer, Jeremy's stomach lurched with fear. “Spess,” he hissed. “It's Mary Lou! She's heading this way!”

“How did she find us?” asked Specimen. “I thought we did a brilliant job sneaking away after school.”

Jeremy didn't have time to worry about Mary Lou's tracking abilities. “Just hold her off,” he said desperately. Without waiting for an answer, he sprinted away.

“Jeremy Thatcher!” cried Mary Lou. “You get back here!”

Howard Morton and Freddy the Fog Killer were lingering at the end of the block. “Hey, lover boy!” called Howard. “What's the matter? Don't you want your kissy-poo?”

“Shut up, fathead!” yelled Jeremy, as he raced past.

He regretted the words immediately. “Come on, Freddy,” yelled Howard. “Let's hold the shrimp down so he can get his kiss!”

Whooping with delight, they joined the chase.

Jeremy pumped his short legs even harder. The thought of Mary Lou's puckering lips gave him new speed. Even so, he could hear Howard and Freddy gaining on him.

Taking a gamble, Jeremy left the sidewalk and began dodging through backyards. He could still hear the voices of his pursuers. Putting on an extra burst of speed, he shot past someone's laundry, down a long driveway, out to a street, then around a corner.

The shrieks and shouts began to fade, but Jeremy ran on until his aching lungs finally forced him to slow to a jog, then a walk. Bending over to hold his throbbing sides, he listened carefully.

Silence!

He stood to look around. A little prickle ran down his spine. I've never seen this street before.

That wouldn't have been so strange in a city. But Blodgett's Crossing was a small town.

I've lived here all my life. How can I be lost?

Feeling somewhat nervous, Jeremy followed the street until it came to a tee. He turned right, and entered what began to seem like a maze of unfamiliar streets.

Suddenly he noticed a trace of fog moving around his feet. The afternoon seemed darker than it had just a few moments before.

As he turned in a slow circle, trying to find the way home, he spotted an old-fashioned shop at the end of the street. Its large front window curved out to make a display space. Thin stripe of wood divided the window into many small panes of glass. Printed on the window were the words:

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

Forgetting his momentary panic, Jeremy walked toward the shop. Who could resist? Maybe I can find something to make Freddy, Howard, and Mary Lou disappear! he thought, feeling deliciously cranky.

He didn't really expect that, of course. But he was still excited as he approached the shop.

A large brass knocker hung in the center of the door. Jeremy hesitated. Should he knock?

You don't knock to go into a store,, he told himself with a shrug. He pressed on the door. It swung open. A small bell tinkled overhead.

Once inside, Jeremy began to smile. The shop was dark and mysterious. It smelled of some sort of incense-spicy and sharp, yet strangely pleasant.

Magician's equipment crowded the shelves, the display cases, even the floor. A section of one wall was given over to cages filled with rabbits and doves, as well as an odd selection of toads, lizards and-Jeremy squinted to be sure-yes, bats! He walked over to the cages and smiled in approval. The mild, musky smell told him the animals were well cared for.

After a moment he turned from the animals and wandered toward the back of the shop. To his left was a shelf lined with top hats. Chains of jewel-colored silk scarves stretched across the walls and dangled from the ceiling. Directly ahead of him, resting on a pair of dark red sawhorses, was an enormous box made for sawing people in half.

Jeremy spotted an old man-Mr. Elives?-polishing a glass countertop. The man's long white hair hung around his shoulders; his walnut-colored skin had more wrinkles than Jeremy's laundry pile.

Behind the man, a stuffed owl sat on top of the cash register. At least, Jeremy thought the owl was stuffed-until it turned its head, looked directly at him, and began to hoot.

Mr. Elives put down his cloth. “Peace, Uwila,” he said. “I know he's here.” He turned to Jeremy and frowned, as if the idea of a customer was truly annoying. “Well, what do you want?” he asked sharply.

Jeremy blinked. “I… I don't think I want anything,” he said. “I just came in to look around.”

“No one comes into this shop just to look around,” said the old man. “But you can start that way. Let me know when you've found what you need.”

Before Jeremy could say that he didn't need anything, the old man picked up his rag and returned his attention to the countertop.

“What an old fruitcake,” muttered Jeremy, turning his own attention back to the display cases.

In the first, he found a human skull that looked almost real. “The Skull of Truth,” read a hand-lettered label underneath it. Next to the skull was a collection of Chinese rings. And next to the rings, resting on a kind of pedestal was a shining, multicolored ball, almost the size of his fist. A thousand different hues seemed to shimmer across its glistening surface. Jeremy turned his head slightly and the colors shifted into a new pattern. He blinked and looked more closely. The colors were moving on their own.

“How much does this cost?” he asked.

Mr. Elives glanced up from his work. “You don't want that.”

“How do you know whether I want it?”

“That's my business.”

Jeremy wasn't sure if the old man meant knowing that sort of thing was his business, or if he was just saying not to be nosey.

Whatever he meant, he was wrong. Jeremy did want the beautiful, ever-changing sphere.

“How much is it?” he asked again.

Mr. Elives sighed and shuffled over to the display case. “Do you have any idea what this is?”

Jeremy shrugged. “Some kind of marble?”

“Don't be a fool. Look again.”

Jeremy stared at the strange sphere. “All right, it's too big for a marble. What is it?”

“Never mind.”

Jeremy swallowed. This old guy was even crazier than he looked. If he hadn't wanted to know more about the ball he might have fled the shop right then. Turning his attention back to the display case, he said, “Can I see it?”

“You're seeing it right now.”

Jeremy barely stopped himself from being truly rude. “I mean,” he said carefully, “may I look at it more closely?”

The old man hesitated. After a moment he knelt and opened a wooden drawer at the bottom of the cabinet. It was filled with boxes of all sizes and colors. The old man chose one lined with soft cotton.

Next he reached into this pocket and pulled out an enormous set of keys. He searched through them, muttering to himself, until he found the one he wanted. It was long and black. Unlocking the glass door on the front of the case, he slid it to the right, reached in a picked up the ball. Placing it gently in the box, he stood and put the box on the counter.

Jeremy swallowed nervously. Something strange seemed to be happening inside him. “It's beautiful,” he whispered, reaching out to pick it up.

The old man moved as if to stop him, hen dropped his hand and shrugged.

Jeremy lifted the sphere out of the cotton and smiled. It felt warm and comfortable in his hand. He wanted it more than ever.

The old man blinked. A puzzled expression wrinkled across his face. Muttering to himself, he reached out, took the ball from Jeremy, and stared at it. For a moment he seemed worried. Then he sighed and shook his head.

“Do you have a quarter?” he asked.

“What?”

“I said, do you have a quarter? You may have it for a quarter.”

Jeremy looked up in surprise. “I thought you said I didn't want it.”

The old man looked directly into Jeremy's eyes.

“You don't,” he said softly. “It wants you.”



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