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Rex's uninvited ghostly guests are a chatty, messy bunch. And they need Rex to solve their mysterious deadly departures from the Middling Falls Zoo before it happens again. But how?
My story starts with a dream. We all have dreams, right? A fire in the belly that drives our spirit toward accomplishment.
George Washington dreamed of being the first president with wooden teeth.
Albert Einstein dreamed of having fluffier hair than any other scientist in history.
Pepto Bismol dreamed of a world without diarrhea.
The first thing you should know about me is this: More than anything else in the world, I’ve always dreamed of owning a dog. A real-live pet of my own.
I know what you’re thinking. Why a dog? How about a cat? Or a gerbil?
In my mind, a dog is the only true pet.
A cat? No.
A ferret? Cool, but no.
A gerbil? Please.
Of all the household animals, a dog is the pinnacle. No other animal can compare. And the best of the best? My greatest wish? My most fervent dream? A chocolate Labrador. That’s a proper pet.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m open to other possibilities.
A yellow Labrador would be fine.
A black Labrador, also fine.
Even a golden retriever would be okay. Not perfect, but certainly acceptable.
As you can see, I am not picky.
I was practically born to have a dog. After all, my name is Rex. Rex Dexter. It’s a dog’s name, for crying out loud. It’s one step away from being named Fido. Or Bandit. Or Spot.
With a name like mine, I should obviously own a dog. But I don’t.
See this empty backyard? It is devoid of canine.
See the foot of my bed? It suffers from absence of pooch.
See this kitchen floor? It is without dog dish.
It is a sad state of affairs.
My cruel situation is made even worse by a cold and ruthless reality: Everyone I know has a pet.
For example, there’s Sami Mulpepper. Sami Mulpepper is the smartest kid in my class. She has wavy hair and smells of soup. She also has an English setter named Sarsaparilla. You can tell she’s smart by her choice of pet.
This does not mean I like her. I do not.
Edwin Willoughby sits three rows behind me at school. He has a pit bull named Alfred. I respect his life choices.
Even Holly Creskin has two cats named Tiger and Sardine. Cats don’t really count, but it still supports my point. Two cats. And I don’t think she even likes animals. She wrinkles her nose every time I bring them up.
My own best friend has four dogs, if you can believe it. Four. It is greedy in the extreme. Here is a list of the pets living at Darvish’s house:
1. A pug named Rascal
2. A dalmatian named Tikka
3. A schnauzer named Hong Kong Fooey
4. A boxer named Sir Barks-a-Lot
5. A fat raccoon (nameless) that resides in Darvish’s yard because his mom leaves dog food on the back porch.
Darvish insists that the raccoon does not count. But even without the raccoon, I think we can all agree: Darvish is a pet hoarder.
One time Darvish let me pretend that Rascal was mine and take him for a walk. He is a thoughtful friend, despite his pet-hogging tendencies.
Five minutes into our walk, Rascal threw up on my shoe.
So I could tell his heart wasn’t in it.
The closest I’ve come to the dog of my dreams was Bub. Bub was not the dog of my dreams. That is mostly because he was a fish.
A fish does not count as a real-live pet. But I suppose it is better than nothing.
I had Bub for exactly twenty-seven minutes. His name was supposed to be Bubbles. However, he suffered a very unfortunate mishap just prior to receiving his full legal name.
It wasn’t technically my fault.
I was following directions given to me by a licensed professional. The guy at PetPlanet said to put him in water as soon as possible.
Where was I supposed to put him in water?
Do we own a swimming pool? Of course not; my parents are cheap.
Is there a large aquarium in my house that is currently vacant? Don’t be ludicrous.
Do I reside on beachfront property? I wish.
There is only one place in our house that is filled with water. So that’s where I put him. It was just supposed to be for a second or two.
I was dutifully filling Bub’s little fishbowl at the sink. I was saying, “I think I’ll call him Bub—” That’s when I heard the flush.
Can I help it that my dad doesn’t look for fish before he takes care of his business?
After that, my parents decided I was “a little under-responsible” to have a pet. Which is ironic because I might be one of the most mature, responsible, rational people I’ve ever met.
“What if you had flushed a dog?” my dad said. Which is silly.
First, I did not flush Bub. Any jury of my peers would see this.
Second, it is practically impossible to flush a dog down the toilet.
Unless it’s a corgi.
Or a Chihuahua.
I’m pretty sure those are known in the business as the “flushable” breeds.
Ms. Yardley is taking attendance.
She is my sixth-grade teacher.
She has a voice that is roughly the same pitch and decibel level as a dead car battery trying to start. I feel for her. For all of us, really.
But, happily, I can’t hear it at the moment because Darvish is talking to me.
“I smell chowder,” he says. “Do you smell chowder?”
“Of course I smell it,” I say. “It’s coming from our soup-scented neighbor to the north.”
“No,” I explain. “I don’t like to be rude, so I will talk in code. Her name rhymes with Clammy Dullpepper.”
“Well, whatever it is, it smells good,” he says. “Tomatoey.”
I refuse to dignify such talk with a response. Everyone knows a true chowder does not contain tomatoes.
Plus, his assertion that Sami smells good is preposterous. Some might say she smells wonderful. Some might say she is highly attractive. Some might say her hair is the magical color of autumn leaves kissed by early morning sunlight. But not me.
“So, are you having a birthday party?” Darvish asks. As my best friend, Darvish is well aware that my birthday is looming. I think this might finally be it: the year of the dog. After all, it has been a couple of years since the Bub fiasco. I am hoping the stink of that unfortunate incident has been washed away by the loofah sponge of time.
“Darvish, birthday parties are for children,” I say, shaking my head sadly. “Do I look like a children?”
“Yes,” he says. “We both look like children.”
“Well, I’m not. And neither are you.”
“But you are welcome to come over after I get my presents so I can gloat.”
Ms. Yardley’s unmistakable voice has reached my row. “Darvish?” calls Ms. Yardley.
We have been in school nearly two months, yet this poor woman still insists on calling daily attendance. I worry there may be something wrong with her memory functions. For her own well-being, I should bring this to the attention of the school board at their next meeting.
“Here, Ms. Yardley!” says Darvish from in front of me.
I do not answer. It is a little game we play.
“Rex, please say Here when I call your name,” she says.
“Ms. Yardley,” I say, addressing her with the deference due her station. “Please refer to me as ‘The Dogless Rex Dexter.’” We’ve talked about this and she full well knows it.
“I’m not doing that,” she says.
I have the feeling my civil liberties are being infringed upon.
“How about ‘His Royal Petlessness’?”
This proposal has also been repeatedly met with resistance. “I’m not doing that, either.”
“It’s not for much longer,” I inform her. “I expect to receive that dog any time now.”
“My birthday is in a few days,” I explain helpfully. “My parents do not realize it, but I have been cutting out pictures of dogs from magazines and leaving them around the house. They have no idea that I’m secretly manipulating them. It’s adorable.”
“Rex…” She sighs, rubbing her eyes.
This tug-of-war has been raging since the start of the school year. “Allow me to suggest a compromise. You may feel free to come up with a name of your own invention, as long as it reflects my ill-treated and petless state and the general unfairness of the world we live in.”
“Just think, Ms. Yardley. I’ve allowed you carte blanche. The only limit is your own creativity.”
“Rex Dexter…” she says through gritted teeth.
“Here.” I yield. I cannot fight her forever.
The big day has arrived.
My birthday jubilee.
The glorious anniversary of my birth.
B-Day for Me-Day.
I may be too old for a party, but you can never be too old to have cake and ice cream for breakfast. The cake is shaped like a chocolate Labrador (my request). It is also chocolate cake (also my request). With chocolate ice cream.
That’s right. A chocolate chocolate chocolate Labrador.
If the thought of that makes your heart take flight, you are not alone. The whole idea is poetic and speaks to the soul as well as the taste buds. If Emily Dickinson had created chocolate chocolate chocolate Labrador cakes instead of books, she probably would have made a few more sales.
As tasty as this poetic concoction is, the main event beckons.
My mom emerges from the kitchen, heavy laden with my present. She carries a box with a big red ribbon. It has holes on the side.
Holes in a box mean one thing and one thing only.
From within the box comes the glorious sound of muffled scratching. My suspicions are confirmed.
There’s something alive in that box.
And that something is a living, breathing-air-through-holes-in-a-box DOG!
Clearly, my subtle manipulation of their brain waves these past weeks has paid off.
The size of the box could indicate a small breed. Terrier. Dachshund. Not as big and impressive as one would hope, but I pride myself on being Mr. Flexible. Besides, a small box might also mean a chocolate Labrador puppy.
I put my ear to the box and I hear it. Breathing. And an odd little clucking bark. Perhaps some exotic and rare breed? My mom and dad have outdone themselves. Have I mentioned lately that I have the best parents in the known universe?
My anticipation has been pushed past its limits. I cannot wait a moment longer to meet my new lifelong pal and bosom companion.
I rip off the ribbon.
I untie the strings.
I take a deep breath.
Then, at long last, I yank off the box lid to gaze joyfully upon my very own pet…
Please disregard my previous statement about having the best parents in the known universe. It is not their fault. My parents and I are clearly suffering from a failure to communicate.
Perhaps I’ve been too subtle with my hinting. I try to express myself in simple, easy-to-follow terms. “Guys, this is a chicken.”
“Exactly!” says my mom.
“What do I do with it?” I ask.
“It’s a pet!” says my dad.
“A chicken isn’t a pet, Dad. A chicken is a Happy Meal.”
“It’s a practice pet.”
“This will give you a chance to practice your maturity,” says my mom.
“Take good care of the chicken. Then we can see about getting a dog,” says my dad.
There is one thing in the world that I wanted for my birthday more than a real-live dog: a lesson in responsibility.
That’s sarcasm, by the way.
Bitter birthday sarcasm. Which is the most sarcastic kind of sarcasm known to mankind.
“That’s definitely not a dog,” says Darvish.
“I know it’s not a dog.”
“I have four dogs,” he points out. “So I’m kind of an expert on them.”
This greedy kid is forever rubbing his brood of pets in my face.
“And that’s definitely not a dog.”
We are sitting in my room. Darvish is on my bed, eating a bag of chocolate chips he has produced from his backpack. Just chocolate chips. Who eats a bag of chocolate chips? Darvish, that’s who. The kid always has some random snack on him, which is a handy skill set to have available when the munchies kick in.
I, however, am not eating a bag of chocolate chips. I am busy staring at my new “pet.” I suppose it is attractive, as far as poultry goes. It has reddish feathers and a sassy black tail. And that weird red flap on the top of its head. Which probably makes this a rooster, technically speaking.
But despite its regal bearing, this rooster has done nothing but cluck.
Cluck, cluck, cluck.
It has loads to say but nothing of real substance. I think its eyes are even pointing in different directions.
I don’t blame my parents. If anything, I blame myself. I really thought I was raising them better than this.
“Do you have any chicken supplies?” asks Darvish.
Up until this exact moment, I have been blissfully unaware of the existence of chicken supplies. I shake my head. “You mean chicken food?”
“Yeah. And a chicken food dish. And a chicken water dish. And a chicken litter box. Whatever chicken stuff that chickens need.”
He’s right. My parents have given me a practice pet and tossed me into the deep end with no chicken supplies. Those two are wily. But I am onto their games. If I’m going to show the depths of my common sense and responsible nature, I clearly require chicken-related accessories.
It’s time for a trip to PetPlanet.
I love PetPlanet because you can bring your own pets into the store with you. Of course, I have never had a pet to bring into PetPlanet before. Bub left this world too soon. I tried to take Rascal there one time, but we all know how that little caper turned out.
But now I have…
… a chicken. I am going to have to get used to saying that.
“I just realized something,” I tell Darvish. “I’m going to walk into PetPlanet with an animal of my very own for the first time ever.”
“Your own pet!” he says. “That’s kind of exciting for you.”
“Well, not a real pet,” I clarify. “But a living, breathing animal-shaped companion.”
“I’ve done it loads of times with Rascal. It’s no big deal.”
“Life holds so few perks,” I say. “Quit ruining this for me.”
“Sorry,” he says. “How are you going to get your chicken there?”
He’s right again. I have no chicken collar. (Item #1 on the shopping list: chicken collar.)
And I have no chicken leash. (Item #2.) So I tie a piece of rope around my chicken’s neck.
Well, I try. This chicken is having none of it. It jumps up on the bed and pecks at Darvish violently until my best friend flees to the safety of my beanbag chair.
“Hey!” Darvish cries. “That bird has problems!”
Despite Darvish’s experience with animals, I do not think my practice pet likes him. Maybe it senses some character flaw I have not yet discovered.
Having claimed my bed as its own, the chicken nuzzles in next to me and does the chicken version of purring.
“Aw,” says Darvish. “I think it likes you!”
If this were a dog, my heart would be melting. If this were a puppy, I would cherish this moment forever. But it is a chicken. So instead of having an emotional moment, I take advantage of its misplaced trust. I quickly lasso its neck with my makeshift leash and we take our first walk to PetPlanet.
Only this bird seems to resent being plucked from its roost on my bed. Either that, or chickens just don’t like to walk. So we take more of a drag to PetPlanet.
My chicken clucks loudly the entire way. Perhaps it is excited.
Who can blame it? Being my gift AND getting to go to the store? This chicken is having a big day.
There is not much to do in Middling Falls. We have a library. A small zoo. A bowling alley. We are also the albino squirrel capital of the northwest, so that’s a big deal if you are into really pale rodents.
Otherwise, this town is a wad of lint in the belly button of the modern world. Which means Buy-Buy Plaza is usually crowded.
Because of that, the parking lot is always under construction.
It stinks of fresh asphalt and sweaty construction workers.
And all manner of people hover on the sidewalk outside the stores begging for signatures and charitable donations.
Darvish’s bookish demeanor makes him an easy mark. The poor guy has sucker written all over him.
The Pixie Scout girls attack first, hawking their baked goods. “’Scuse me, sir!” they say, assaulting my personal space bubble with their perkiness. “Wanna buy some Pixie Scout cookies? Only three dollars a box!”
Darvish starts to slow down. “But, Rex, I LOVE Pixie Scout cookies! Especially the ones with the chocolate and coconut!”
See? He’s a wounded gazelle among these predators, waiting to be devoured. I grab his shirt and keep walking.
A teenager waves a clipboard in our faces. He’s wearing a tie and a big button that says PUPAE. “Join PUPAE, guys! The animals need you!”
“No thanks.” Keep walking. That’s the key.
“Donate to the Loyal Order of the Wombat!” screeches a guy in a fuzzy hat.
Praise for The Incredibly Dead Pets of Rex Dexter:
- On Sale
- Apr 28, 2020
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers