Illustrated by Dan Santat
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Table of Contents
A Sneak Peek of The Order of the Unicorn
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It sounded like claws scratching against the side of the house.
Ben's eyes flew open. Where am I? he wondered. The room was inky black, thanks to a pair of heavy curtains that blocked the moonlight. The mattress felt lumpy, and the quilt smelled like mothballs. Only one thing was recognizable—the soft gnawing sound of Snooze, Ben's hamster, as he chewed a toilet paper tube. It wasn't unusual for Snooze to be wide awake in the middle of the night. He was nocturnal, after all. But the other noise?
Had a window just opened?
Ben sat up and clutched the pillow to his chest. As his eyes adjusted, he remembered that this wasn't his regular bedroom. No glow-in-the-dark stars on the ceiling, no dinosaur-shaped nightlight in the corner, no mother or father down the hall to ask, "What's going on out there?" This was the cramped, extra bedroom right next to the kitchen at his grandfather's house.
And the noise had come from… the kitchen.
Back in Los Angeles, Ben's father had installed a high-tech home-security system. If anyone tried to break in, alarms would ring and guards would come running. But Grandpa Abe didn't have anything like that. The only alarm system was his black tomcat, Barnaby, who hissed when disturbed.
Ben froze. Maybe it would be best to stay in bed. If a burglar had decided to take something from Grandpa Abe's house, then so be it. What could Ben do? He wasn't any good at karate or judo, and he certainly didn't know how to use a lasso. The only time he'd gotten into a fight was when he wrestled Eli Finklebaum to the ground after Eli had cut in front of him, for the umpteenth time, in the snack line at school. It'd been bad enough having to wait ten minutes to get a bag of chips, but to have Eli snicker and push his way to the front every single day was totally unfair. And when he took the very last bag of Barbecue Curlies, the one Ben had been craving—well, it was an event that the students at Oakview Hebrew Academy still talked about.
A sudden burst of orange light glowed beneath the bedroom door, then disappeared. Ben sniffed. Smoke!
He scrambled out of bed. If there was a fire in the kitchen, the door would feel hot. But it was cool to his touch, so very carefully, he cracked it open.
Moonlight trickled in through the front windows. Barnaby stood on the table, surrounded by dirty dishes, his back arched, his fur sticking up as if someone had rubbed a balloon all over it. Tendrils of smoke rose from a singed hole in the tablecloth. Barnaby stared at the counter, hissing like a snake. Ben poked his head out of his bedroom just far enough to get a better view.
At Grandpa Abe's house, the kitchen window was always left halfway open so Barnaby could come and go as he pleased. But on this night it had been opened all the way. And someone was reaching through.
Correction—not someone. Something.
The intruder's arm was covered in black scales and was long enough to stretch down the counter. Its paw, which was bigger than a Frisbee, had four fingerlike claws.
If it hadn't been for all his adventures over the last few days, Ben might have thought he was going crazy. But he knew, without a doubt, that the creature reaching into his grandfather's house in the middle of the night was a dragon. A real, living, fire-breathing dragon. Ben had seen it before, but never up close. A brave person might have said hello. But Ben would never describe himself as brave. And talking to a dragon in the middle of the night felt risky. "You're a cautious boy," his mother always said. "There's nothing wrong with being cautious."
Ben pressed himself against the wall, his heart flip-flopping as the dragon's claws tapped along the counter. The dragon grabbed a bag of bagels, then tossed it to the floor. It shoved aside a roll of paper towels and a ratty old rag. It moved over plates, around coffee cups, then paused at the toaster. With a quick yank, it pulled the cord from the wall socket and whisked the toaster right out the window. Outside, a shape moved toward the lawn.
Ben ran to the living room, climbed onto the couch, and peered out the front window. Barnaby stopped hissing and scampered up next to Ben. They both watched as the massive dragon galloped across the grass and took to the sky. Moonlight glinted off the toaster as the creature rose above the rooftops and disappeared from view.
Ben turned and glared at Barnaby. "You saw nothing," he told the cat. "That dragon is our secret."
Breakfast with Grandpa Abe is so much better than breakfast back home, Ben thought as he settled into a wobbly kitchen chair. There were no vitamins, no whole-grain muffins, no fresh-squeezed wheatgrass juice. Sugar was the main ingredient. This morning's meal featured a box of rainbow-colored Sugar Loops, a couple of glazed doughnuts, and white bread with strawberry jam. There was just one problem.…
"Where's the toaster?" Grandpa Abe asked, pointing at the counter. A rectangle of left-behind crumbs filled the space where the toaster usually sat.
"I don't know," Ben said with a shrug. There was absolutely no way he could tell his grandfather the truth. A real dragon was difficult enough to explain. But why one would want a toaster—well, Ben was still trying to wrap his brain around that question. "Did you put it in a drawer?"
Grandpa Abe rubbed his bald head. "Why would I put my toaster in a drawer?"
"Did you take it to the senior center?" It seemed a reasonable question, since his grandfather spent most days at the Buttonville Senior Center. On Mondays the seniors played bingo, Tuesdays they played board games, and Wednesdays they took dance lessons. On Thursdays they listened to lectures, Fridays were for celebrating birthdays, and Saturdays were dedicated to eating pudding. Ben figured that in between all those activities, they might eat toast.
"I didn't take the toaster anywhere. Oy vey, what a mystery." Grandpa Abe sighed. "I need a lost toaster like I need a hole in my head." He poured coffee into a chipped mug, then joined Ben at the table.
"I'll help you look for it," Ben offered. Before sticking him on the airplane to Buttonville, Ben's parents had given him a small wad of cash, enough for emergencies. He could buy a new toaster at the Buttonville Hardware Store and his grandfather would never know. "I'm good at finding things."
Grandpa Abe's face got all crinkly as he smiled. "Okay by me, but eat your breakfast first."
As his grandfather sipped his coffee, Ben opened the top of Snooze's hamster cage and dropped in a yellow Sugar Loop. He'd set the cage next to his cereal bowl. This would have caused a fuss back home because Ben's mother was convinced that rodents, whether they were of the small hamster variety or the large rat variety, carried ghastly germs. "Wash your hands," she always said after Ben held Snooze. "Don't kiss it or let it get near your food. Those creatures aren't clean." But Grandpa Abe didn't say a word about germs, and he didn't seem to care if things were clean or not. In fact, the entire kitchen was a mess. The floor was sticky, thanks to spilled coffee and syrup. The stove was covered in splattered grease, and even though Ben had tried to help clean the dishes, the stack in the sink still looked like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Maybe the mess was why Grandpa Abe hadn't noticed the claw marks on the counter or the singed hole in the tablecloth.
Snooze poked his nose out of his chewed toilet paper tube and grabbed the piece of cereal. Squatting on his round haunches with his nose wiggling, he sank his little teeth into the yellow loop and munched.
"So, boychik," Grandpa Abe said as he added sugar to his coffee. "What are your plans on such a nice day? Are you going to play with Pearl?"
Ben didn't point out that playing was something little kids did. He was ten years old, and if he decided to call Pearl, they'd hang out. Pearl Petal was his only friend in the little town of Buttonville. They'd met each other thanks to a great adventure involving an injured dragon hatchling and an escaped sasquatch. Yep. That's right. After coming to Buttonville to stay with his grandfather for the summer, Ben Silverstein discovered that dragon hatchlings and sasquatches really, truly exist. As do leprechauns and lake monsters. And he'd discovered all this thanks to Dr. Emerald Woo, a veterinarian who'd set up her hospital in the old button factory.
The sign on the hospital gate read: DR. WOO'S WORM HOSPITAL. But that was meant to mislead. Dr. Woo didn't take care of worms. She was a veterinarian for Imaginary creatures, and everything that went on inside her hospital was a secret.
Because Ben and Pearl had brilliantly caught the escaped sasquatch, they were offered summer jobs as apprentices. And so, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Ben and Pearl worked from 8 AM to 3 PM, doing all sorts of things that were only supposed to happen in storybooks.
But because they'd each signed a contract of secrecy, they had to zip their lips. That was why Ben couldn't tell his grandfather about last night's intruder.
Today was Tuesday, Ben's day off, so other than buying his grandfather a new toaster and telling Pearl about the dragon sighting, he had no idea what he was going to do. Back home in Los Angeles, he might have invited friends over to swim in his pool. He might have played on his computer or watched television. But since Grandpa Abe didn't have a pool or a computer or a television, Ben was befuddled.
Grandpa Abe cleared his throat. "You gonna sit there all day or are you gonna answer my question? What are your plans?"
Ben fidgeted. If he didn't come up with a plan, his grandfather would make him go to the senior center to play old board games like Scrabble and Monopoly. "Uh, I think I should stay here and take care of Snooze because…" Ben tried to think of a reason. "Because he doesn't want to be left alone. He had a nightmare last night and he couldn't go back to sleep. I'm guessing he dreamed your cat was trying to eat him."
Right on cue, Barnaby leaped through the kitchen window, then lay on the counter, a small black object clutched in his paws. Normally, Barnaby would bring home a dead rodent of some sort, but this object was flat and shiny. The cat looked right at Ben with a satisfied smile.
He'd found a dragon scale!
"Did you say your mouse had a nightmare?" Grandpa Abe asked, his gray eyebrows rising to the top of his forehead. "How do you know this?"
"He's not a mouse—he's a hamster," Ben corrected, his gaze darting between Grandpa Abe and the cat. "And I can tell it was a nightmare because he was sleep-running. That's like sleepwalking, except faster. This morning he's practically a nervous wreck. He needs me to take care of him."
Snooze didn't look like a nervous wreck. He seemed content chewing his loop.
"Sleep-running?" Grandpa Abe folded his arms and stared over the top of the cereal box. "Benjamin Silverstein, is that one of your stories?"
Ben nodded sheepishly. He'd made up the story because he didn't want to hurt his grandfather's feelings about not wanting to go to the senior center.
Grandpa Abe chuckled. "My grandson, the storyteller." With a groan, he rose from the chair and headed for the coffeemaker. Then he stopped in front of the cat. "What's that thing Barnaby's chewing on?"
But before Ben could come up with another story, a loud voice hollered, "Attention, Buttonville residents! Attention, Buttonville residents! Emergency meeting at Town Hall! Emergency meeting at Town Hall!"
"Oy gevalt!" Grandpa Abe exclaimed. "First the toaster, now this. Can't a man drink his coffee in peace?"
Emergency meeting!" the voice hollered.
"What do you think's going on?" Ben asked.
"Martha Mulberry is at it again," his grandfather said. "She calls an emergency meeting about once a week."
Ben had met Mrs. Mulberry. She was the town's busiest busybody and president of the Welcome Wagon Committee. Though she made it her job to know everything about everyone in Buttonville, she hadn't been able to learn anything about the mysterious Dr. Woo, and Ben intended to keep it that way.
"We'd better go," Grandpa Abe said. "Martha takes roll call, and if you don't show up, she comes looking for you."
Ben returned Snooze's cage to his bedroom. When he left, he closed the door tight to keep out the cat. Barnaby lay across the counter, gnawing on the dragon scale. Ben, who wanted to avoid a nasty cat bite, didn't try to take the treasure away. "Leave my hamster alone," he whispered in Barnaby's ear. The cat growled softly.
Grandpa Abe put on his moth-eaten cardigan and his canvas hat. After grabbing his cane, he and Ben climbed into the old Cadillac and drove to Main Street.
Town Hall was the tallest building in Buttonville, thanks to its clock tower. Because a pigeon had built its nest on top of the tower, the clock's face was covered in droppings, making it nearly impossible to tell the time. Like most other buildings in Buttonville, Town Hall's paint was faded and chipped, and one of its windows was broken. Stray buttons, leftovers from the factory days, were wedged in the sidewalk cracks out front.
Praise for the Imaginary Veterinary series:"The best books are those in which imaginary creatures leap off the page and into our world -- just one of the reasons why this book is a ton of fun. I can't wait for more adventures!"—Wendy Mass, New York Times bestselling author of The Candymakers
- "An entertaining story that will pique readers' interest from the first dragon sighting...Santat's characteristically dynamic illustrations complement a story that will have readers eager for the next book in the Imaginary Veterinary series."—Publishers Weekly
- "A solid, entertaining opener. Ben and Pearl are Everykids that readers will relate to, and the adults of Buttonville are often delightfully weird and clueless....More hijinks-filled adventure than mystery, this is sure to win an audience."—Kirkus Reviews
- "Funny, touching, and sure to please, this title is full of charm. Kids will relate to Ben and his troubles, root for the amazing animals, and enjoy Santat's zany illustrations."—School Library Journal
- On Sale
- Jun 10, 2014
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Little, Brown Books for Young Readers