Nobody knows what really happened when Rachael Baptiste’s mom disappeared a week ago. So when Rachael’s second-grade classmate Raul tries to break into her mom’s computer only to be chased away by giant talking dogs, she follows him into the night and discovers that Raul—and her mom—have caught a magical sickness that lets them turn into magical animals, or Exotics.
A group of evil Exotics, the Shadow Dogs, kidnap Rachael and Raul to a mysterious ship and try to force them to tell them her mother’s secrets…but Rachael’s not talking. Instead, she’s trying to find a way to escape the ship and rescue the Exotic kids trapped on board, waiting to be sold as pets…or are they?
These chapters of Exotics #1: The Floating Menagerie will be here permanently. You can find a full copy of the ebook online at B&N, Amazon, Smashwords, Apple, Kobo, Powell’s and more. The print book will be available at Amazon.com and more.
Rachael, who had just brushed her teeth and changed into green spotted pajamas and fuzzy pink slippers, was almost ready to kill the final wave of zombies on her video game when the doorbell rang.
From the kitchen where he was washing dishes after supper, her dad yelled, “Rachael! Will you check the door?”
“I’m on the last wave, dad!” she yelled back.
“Just push the pause button.”
“It’s your turn!”
That was true. Rachael pushed pause on the game, annoyed because it was never the same when you had to push pause all the time. Meanwhile, the person at the front door had started pushing the doorbell button over and over again and pounding on the door.
Rachael peeked out of the glass beside the door. Even though it was dark out and he should have been getting ready for bed, Raul was outside their door. He looked mad and scared at the same time.
“Open the door!” he yelled.
Rachael liked Raul, but he wouldn’t talk to her at school. They were both in Mrs. Sorensen’s second-grade class. Sometimes they played tag at recess, and she’d let him catch her. He was part of a club, the Animal Lovers’ Club, that met with Rachael’s mom at their house once a week (Tuesdays). Sometimes he would talk to her after the meeting, but mostly not.
Rachael unlocked the door. Raul rushed in, slammed the door behind him, and locked it.
“Your mom—” he said, too out of breath to say anything else.
“Nobody’s found her yet,” Rachael said. Rachael’s mom had disappeared a week ago, but Rachael was an ordinary girl who couldn’t do anything about it. So she tried not to think about it too much.
“Your mom’s computer. Hurry.”
Rachael said, “Why?”
“Just come on.” Raul led her upstairs to her mom’s office.
“What’s the matter?”
Raul still had his uniform on from school, and it was dirty, with bits of leaves stuck to his back. “Nothing,” he said.
Somebody banged into the front door like they had run right into it. Raul said a bad word and ran up the stairs really fast, leaving Rachael behind.
“Rachael,” her dad called. “Would you get that? Please?”
“Don’t open the door,” Raul said. He went inside the office.
The front door thudded again, and Rachael heard a cracking sound as the wood started to break.
“Rachael,” her dad whined.
She ignored her dad and followed Raul into her mom’s office; she really didn’t want to open the door.
Raul was sitting at the computer desk, jiggling the mouse and saying more bad words. Rachael knew her mom’s password (she’d looked over her shoulder), but she wasn’t sure that she should give it to Raul.
Then the front door broke open and slammed against the wall. Rachael started to scream, but clapped her hands over her mouth to stop herself.
Raul jumped out of the chair. “I have to get out of here.”
“I’m coming, too,” Rachael said.
Raul almost growled at her. “Stay here. Hide in the closet, and they’ll leave you alone.”
“I said I’m coming too.”
Something barked loudly from downstairs like a really, really big dog.
Rachael’s dad said, “What is going on, Rachael? Are you messing around again?” Then he said, “Who broke the door? What are these dogs doing in here? Out! Out!”
Rachael opened the window into the back yard, where their gigantic dog, Ox, was barking and growling. “Go down the trellis,” she said. “Dad made it really strong in case of storms. Then jump onto the shed. There’s a big trash can on the other side.”
Rachael pulled out the window screen, and Raul slid out the window. She started to follow him.
“Go back,” he yelled.
Rachael stuck her slippers in the trellis, reached up, and slid the window shut the rest of the way, as quietly as she could. “Shh,” she said. “They’ll hear you.”
Raul banged down onto the shed, then jumped down to the trash can, knocking it over. Rachael followed him, quiet as a snake, then pointed toward the back gate. The gate led to a gap between Rachael’s back yard and their neighbor’s back yard. The gap, which was full of weeds and trees and stuff, ran all the way to the end of the block.
They tiptoed through the garden. The streetlights were so bright they almost covered up the stars.
Ox licked Rachael’s hand, then walked to stand under the office window, woofing to himself very quietly. Inside the house, Rachael’s dad yelled, and something crashed and broke.
Rachael reached the gate and opened it, and she and Raul left just as the upstairs window slammed open.
Rachael expected Ox to bark, but he went perfectly quiet and stood in the shadow of the shed.
Something stuck its head out the window. “I smell him,” it growled. There was something weird about its head.
Raul grabbed her arm. “If you’re going to come, then hurry up.”
Rachael followed Raul through the weeds I juas something thumped in the back yard. Suddenly, Rachael heard a big, angry bark from Ox as he attacked whatever had jumped out of the window. Raul pulled her arm even harder, so hard that she had a hard time following him and not tripping in the weeds.
Rachael heard another thump, and the sound of dogs fighting got even louder. Rachael’s dad screamed her name, but she and Raul kept running until they reached the sidewalk.
Raul started to head right, but Rachael grabbed his arm and jerked him back the other way. “We can cut across the dead end,” she whispered. She whispered because the crickets and leaves sounded too loud, like they were spying on them.
Raul ran with her up the street. Running uphill is always the worst, she thought. I always feel like I’m running through glue.
Ox yipped with pain then whimpered, and the back gate broke with a crash. A police siren started howling, far away. The wind blew harder for a second, making the leaves rustle all the way down the street, and Rachael ran even faster, passing Raul.
She was almost at the dead end when the animals reached the other end the street. They howled so loud that it drowned out the police siren, and Rachael couldn’t help but look, even though she knew it was a bad idea to slow down.
There were two black dogs—not quite as big as Ox, who was part Mastiff—at the bottom of the hill. A white truck with the words “Animal Control” stopped by the two black dogs. One of the dogs wagged its tail when it saw the truck.
Then Raul grabbed her again. “Which way? You stay here. Just tell me which way.”
Rachael pointed between two white houses. “Go that way. It comes out behind the school.”
Raul shoved through the bushes in front of one of the houses, making a lot of noise.
The two dogs started running up the street. It took them a lot less time than it had taken her and Raul. The dogs raced like two motorcycles speeding under the streetlights, they were zooming up the street so fast.
Rachael had been almost ready to give up the adventure—her dad would be scared out of his mind; he’d think she’d been kidnapped, just like her mom—but the way those dogs ran up the hill made her panic, so she ran after Raul.
She was a lot quieter, though.
Raul hissed at her from behind a tree. “Go home!”
They ducked under branches, climbed low fences, and got prickly plants stuck in their socks. It sounded like the two dogs were right behind them.
“No!” Rachael whispered. “They’ll eat me. What’s going on? Do you know where my mom is?”
“Shut up,” Raul said.
One of the dogs growled—but not from behind them, from in front of them.
“Oh, no,” Rachael whispered.
The other dog was behind them; Rachael could tell, because he growled, too.
“We’re going to have to turn left,” Raul said.
“Don’t,” Rachael whispered. “We’ll just come out on the football field. They’ll catch us for sure.”
“They’ll catch me,” Raul said. “You go home.”
Raul sighed. “Close your eyes for a second.”
“Okay,” she said, but she didn’t.
It was even darker under the trees, and they were in the middle of a bunch of bushes, so she couldn’t see much. But she did see Raul bend over. He grunted, shook off his clothes, and changed into something else.
“You looked,” he growled.
“Wow. You’re a werewolf. But it’s not a full moon.”
“I’m not a werewolf,” Raul said. His voice sounded growly, but more like a puppy trying to sound tough than a scary monster noise. “Grab on.”
Rachael sat on Raul’s back, grabbed the fur on the back of his shoulders, and leaned forward. Raul started running so fast that she almost slid off. She grabbed on tighter and squeezed her legs together around Raul’s belly.
Raul turned to the right, running toward the playground behind the school and right past the big dog, which yipped in surprise. Raul ducked between the swings, under the monkey bars, over the teeter totters, and out the other side of the playground.
Even though Raul was carrying Rachael, the other dogs were falling behind, because they were too big to jump through the playground equipment. Raul, who was much more graceful as a wolf than as a kid, turned around the corner, almost spilling Rachael onto the sidewalk. She was feeling a little sick to her stomach, to tell the truth.
Raul ran onto the school’s front lawn, toward more houses. The two big dogs started to catch up to them.
Raul ran across a couple of empty lots and turned onto a narrow side street. The houses on this side of the school were packed together, with tall fences everywhere, so Raul couldn’t hide.
The white Animal Control van pulled into the street, blocking the way out. Behind them, the two dogs were almost close enough to knock her and Raul onto the ground.
Suddenly, Raul stopped, and the two dogs ran past him, unable to stop as fast as he had. Raul was panting so hard it sounded like he couldn’t breathe, and Rachael realized that carrying her had exhausted him. She should have let him go without her—he was going to get caught because of her. The two big dogs stopped and ran back toward Raul, guarding him.
Rachael rolled off his back and onto the street. Her whole body hurt from hanging on so hard. “I’m sorry, Raul,” she said. “I only followed you because I thought you might know what happened to my mom. I didn’t mean to get you caught.”
A man got out of the truck. He was wearing a blue-and-white shirt with what looked like a picture of a black dog on the pocket.
“Here, boy,” the man said, whistling at Raul. “Miss? You should stay back. That animal is dangerous. He might have rabies. Do you know what rabies is?” He pulled a long gun out of the van. “Don’t worry. This is a tranquilizer gun. It won’t hurt him; it’ll just put him to sleep.”
Rachael looked at Raul. Now that she could see him, he looked just like a really big wolf, only kind of skinny. The streetlights made his gray fur shine orange.
The man aimed the gun at Raul.
“Don’t shoot!” Rachael shouted.
The man ignored her and kept aiming the tranquilizer gun at Raul.
Rachael made up her mind to do something to help Raul, because it was mostly her fault that he hadn’t been able to escape.
Rachael ran straight toward the man. “Help!” she yelled. She ran right in front of the man, waving her arms, then followed him when he tried to step to the side, staying between him and Raul. “Help me, mister! I was almost eaten by that wolf. He picked me up and dragged me all the way here!”
“I’ll help you, miss,” the man said, “if you’ll just get out of the way.”
“I don’t know what happened to my friend Raul,” Rachael said. “One minute he was there, the next minute, he had run away!” She yelled the last two words really loud, hoping Raul would get the hint. “Yeah, he must have run away!”
“Get out of the way!” the man shouted. He snapped his fingers twice.
Rachael heard something moving behind her. She looked around and saw the two dogs starting to circle her.
Rachael screamed. Where was everybody? Couldn’t anybody hear her?
A few lights went on in the houses nearby. The man said a bad word and waved his hand toward her while he aimed the gun at Raul.
Rachael screamed again and ran toward the man. “Help me, help me,” she sobbed. She didn’t have to try too hard to sound scared. “Now there are three big dogs attacking me.”
She heard the click of claws on the street behind her, then Raul was knocking her out of the way, charging the man, jumping onto his chest, and knocking him to the ground.
The two big dogs grabbed Raul with their teeth and tried to pull him off the man, who was moaning. Raul tried to bite the dogs, but they were both bigger than he was and knocked him to the side.
Rachael didn’t dare jump into that dogpile.
Then Rachael heard more barking as the sound of sirens got a lot louder and closer.
Suddenly, Ox rushed into the dogs and dragged one of them off Raul, shaking the bigger dog back and forth with his jaws.
“Ox!” Rachael yelled.
Raul and the other dog rolled off the man and attacked. Now that Raul wasn’t outnumbered, he was beating the bigger dog.
The man sat up and reached for his tranquilizer gun again.
Rachael heard a bark of pain and saw Ox cowering in front of the other dog. It looked like he was hurt, one paw held off the ground. The other dog was walking slowly toward Ox and growling.
Rachael was getting really, really mad. Ox was hurt, Raul was in trouble, her mom had disappeared a week ago and nobody knew where she was, and nobody would tell her why any of this was happening.
Rachael ran at the man, grabbing the long part of his gun. “Your dog is attacking my dog! Make him stop! Make him stop!”
The man tried to push her away, but she grabbed his gun and twisted it around like she’d learned in karate class. He was a lot stronger than she was, but Rachael could tell she was hurting him. She twisted harder. Her heart was beating so hard that she thought she was going to die—then the man finally dropped the gun, yelling and grabbing his hand.
Rachael felt something sting her leg. It hurt a lot—then stopped hurting. She looked down and saw something sticking out of her leg, probably one of the tranquilizer darts from the gun, full of sleepy medicine.
Shoot, she thought.
Suddenly, all she could see was the man’s face, which looked scared for some reason. Rachael tried to stay standing up, but she couldn’t. She was falling asleep, whether she liked it or not.