Rachael survived her adventures on The Floating Menagerie and went back to her normal life…except that her mom is still missing. Now she’s coming down with the Exotics virus herself and is changing into a half-human, half-animal Exotic, just like her friends. As a new Exotic, Rachael can’t control the change, so she travels to a safe place for Exotics in danger—Xanadu House. The house is owned by an aunt that Rachael never knew she had, and who will protect any Exotic, no matter which side they’re on. But is Xanadu House as safe as it seems?
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.
“Go on!” Rachael’s dad yelled. “Get out of here!” The front door slammed.
Rachael rubbed her eyes and blinked a few times; they were all dried out.
Second grade had been a really weird school year so far. At least it was almost over.
First her mom had disappeared, and then she and her friend Raul had been kidnapped and taken to The Floating Menagerie, a strange ship in the middle of the ocean.
The ship had been run by the Shadow Dogs, a group of…well, she didn’t know what to think about them anymore. At first, she’d thought they were people who kidnapped and smuggled Exotics. (Exotics were humans who had been infected with a magical virus that turned them into magical half-animal creatures.) Some of the Shadow Dogs, like Mr. Hightower and Tapeworm, were pretty awful. But some, like Captain Monn and Dr. Menney and maybe even Ken and Sponge and Bob, were pretty nice, and they weren’t trying to smuggle Exotics at all, but protect them.
The bad Shadow Dogs had wanted to make Rachael tell them her mom’s password, because they wanted the secrets on her computer…her mom was an Exotic, a bee (the Queen Bee was her name, and she was a spy for another group of Exotics, the Animal Lovers’ Club).
Rachael finally told them the password to keep them from hurting her and Raul, but the password had been changed.
Her mom hadn’t come back. Nobody knew what happened to her.
And nobody would explain anything to her. Her dad didn’t know, and nobody else would talk to her about it.
So now she was spending a lot of time searching on the Internet for weird stories about animals, trying to find anything that might tell her more about the Exotics or where her mother was, and sometimes she forgot to blink, and it felt like her eyes were dry all the time.
She yelled, “Who was it?”
“Kids from that club of your mother’s,” her father said. “Just because you’re back doesn’t mean they can start having their meetings here again. It’s not like you’re part of their club.”
Of course Rachael wasn’t part of the Animal Lovers’ Club; the club was a fake club. It was really only for Exotics, and Rachael was just a normal second-grader.
But maybe they wanted to tell her something about her mom.
“What did they want?” she said.
Her father said a bad word and stomped out of her hearing. Rachael tiptoed into her bedroom, where she could look out the window over the front door.
She’d taken down all the pictures of princesses and put up glow-in-the-dark stars and pictures of panthers, horses, and falcons. Secretly, she hoped she’d be infected by the Exotics virus, and she was trying to decide what kind of animal she wanted to be. The stars were there because she just liked them.
To her surprise, she didn’t see anybody from the Animal Lovers’ Club out of her window. Instead, the twin Shadow Dog boys who had helped kidnap her and Raul hid behind a tree in the front yard. They weren’t doing a very good job of hiding.
They saw her face at the window at waved her to come down to them.
She opened the window and hissed, “What do you want? Are you going to break down my door and kidnap me again?”
The two boys looked at each other. One of them said, “We wanted to apologize.”
Rachael wrinkled up her face. She wanted to yell at them and call the cops to make them arrest them—but then the truth about the Exotics might be revealed, and everyone would freak out, so she couldn’t.
“I don’t forgive you.” She had to get them to shut up as soon as possible, before her dad came over to find out what was going on. “Go away.”
“Wait,” the other boy said. “It’s about your mom.”
Rachael snorted. “I know, I know, you want her password so you can break into her computer and steal all her secrets. But it’s too late. The password is changed; nobody can get in.”
The second boy shrugged. “I’m just supposed to tell you she’s safe in a castle in Hungary.”
The first boy elbowed the second boy. “You weren’t supposed to say what country.”
“Sor-reeeee,” the second one muttered. “I told you to do the talking.”
Both boys turned around and started walking away from Rachael’s house.
“Wait!” she whispered as loud as she dared.
The first boy stopped, looked up at her, and said, “Sorry, Baby Bee. That’s all we can say.” Then both boys ran down the street.
She closed the window. Baby Bee was the nickname the members of the Animal Lovers’ Club had called her…it was weird that the Shadow Dog boys knew it, too.
She tried to ask Raul about her mom the next day at school, but, as usual, he wasn’t talking to her. He wasn’t grateful that she’d rescued him on The Floating Menagerie; in fact, he still blamed her for getting them captured by the Shadow Dogs in the first place.
She found him out on the playground, playing with his friends on the jungle gym.
“Go away,” he said.
“I have to ask you something.”
“I don’t want to be your boyfriend. Now go away.”
Raul’s friends laughed, and Rachael felt her face get hot. “I don’t want to be your girlfriend,” she yelled. “You’re so stupid.” She ran across the playground and behind a wall to hide.
Nobody followed her; her so-called friends, swinging and sliding and picking dandelions out of the grass, had been ignoring her lately. She wiped her face on her shirt and waited for the teacher to call them in.
During class, she was doodling bees and castles and the word “hungry” on the back of her assignment when Raul grabbed the paper out from under her pen.
Raul glared at her and walked back to his desk.
Rachael raised her hand to get the teacher’s attention, then noticed that Raul was holding a finger up to his lips.
“Yes, Rachael?” the teacher said.
She quickly thought of an excuse for raising her hand. “May I use the bathroom?”
Her teacher sighed and said, “Yes, Rachael. Next time, please use the toilet before you come back to class from recess.”
“I will, Miss Sorensen.”
Rachael went into the bathroom. When she came back, her homework was back on her desk, with the word “Visegrad” under the word “hungry.”
When Rachael got home, the first thing she did was look up “Visegrad Hungry.” She found out the country was spelled H-U-N-G-A-R-Y. But there was a castle in Visegrad. The castle was mostly in ruins, which would make it the perfect place to imprison someone secretly. Maybe the castle even had dungeons.
By the time her dad called her down to supper, Rachael’s eyes were so dry they clicked when she blinked. She felt like she could barely see, and when she rubbed her eyes, she rubbed off all kinds of crusty junk.
Once her mom had gone missing, Rachael and her dad had stopped eating in the dining room and started eating in the kitchen next to the counter, sitting on tall chairs that spun in circles. Rachael liked it; it meant she could swing the seat back and forth as she ate. Her dad had made sandwiches on toast with weird stuff on top of the meat and cheese. “What’s this?”
“Sauerkraut,” he said. “Pickled cabbage.”
She poked it with her finger. It looked like slimy worms made out of jelly. It smelled bad, too. “Yuck.”
“Just try it,” he said.
She picked a single oozing worm out of the mess, stuck it in her mouth, then spat it out. “It’s gross.”
Her dad sighed and said, “Enough with the faces. Just scrape it off if you don’t like it.”
Rachael carefully scraped off the sauerkraut and used paper towels to wipe off the meat and cheese. There was pink sauce with chopped up pickles on the sandwich that wasn’t too bad; she wiped off the parts that had touched the sauerkraut, stuck the sandwich back together, and ate it.
Her mom’s rule was no TV or computer during meals, because they were supposed to talk to each other. But since her mother had disappeared, she and her dad didn’t really talk to each other. He was too upset most of the time.
“Are you feeling all right?” he asked, surprising her.
Rachael’s mouth was full, so she shrugged.
“Your eyes are really red.”
“They feel sticky,” she mumbled.
“Are you coming down with something?”
“I don’t know.” She went back to eating her sandwich.
Rachael drank the last of her milk, scrubbed her face with her napkin, and put her dishes in the dishwasher.
“All done with homework?” her dad asked.
“Not yet,” she said, meaning she hadn’t started it yet. “I’ll do it right now.”
“Good,” he said. “Let me know if you feel too sick to go to school in the morning.”
Rachael wasn’t going to miss her opportunity tomorrow to ask Raul how he knew where her mom was. “I feel fine.” She skipped up the stairs to show her father that she felt fine, but her head started to hurt as she bounced along, so she stopped.
The next morning she felt worse but went to school anyway.
One of the Shadow Dog boys was standing outside the school. He looked at her funny.
“What?” Rachael demanded. “Why are you staring at me?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“I found out where the castle is,” Rachael said.
The boy shrugged. “So?”
She stumbled as she went through the school door, and the boy grabbed her arm.
“You look sick. You should go home. Or to the nurse.” He dragged her inside and through all the kids in the front entrance, despite her twisting her arm and trying to get away from him. He shoved her through the nurse’s door.
Mr. Wooster, the nurse, looked up from his desk. “Yes?”
“I am not,” Rachael said.
But Mr. Wooster took her temperature and announced that she had a fever of a hundred and three, and he was going to call her father. The Shadow Dog boy left. Mr. Wooster made her lie down on one of the beds in the sick area and closed the door behind her.
The first bell rang, and the sound of kids waiting in the front entrance went away.
A few minutes later, there was yelling outside the nurse’s office. Rachael jerked awake (which was weird, because she hadn’t known she’d fallen asleep) and opened the door.
The Shadow Dog boy, Mr. Wooster, and Raul were in the nurse’s office, yelling at each other.
“I didn’t do anything!” Raul said.
“Carl! Raul!” Mr. Wooster yelled. “Sit down this instant!”
They didn’t. Instead, the Shadow Dog boy, Carl, pushed Raul.
Mr. Wooster said, “Carl! You—”
Her was interrupted by the opening of the door.
On The Floating Menagerie, one of the crew members running the ship had looked familiar, but she hadn’t been able to figure out why. Now she knew. He’d looked familiar because he was really Bob the janitor at her school.
“What’s the matter, Rachael?” Mr. Wooster asked.
Bob winked at her.
Carl said, “He gave it to her, sir—”
Bob shook his head. “Carl, Carl, Carl. Your teacher sent me to tell you he wants you in class right now.”
Carl opened his mouth, shut it, then walked out of the office with his arms gripping each other across his chest. His fingernails looked like they were starting to turn into claws, so it was probably a good thing Bob had chased him out.
Raul said, “I’m going back to class, too.”
“Raul,” Rachael said, surprised to hear her voice come out in a froggy croak. “Wait.”
But he didn’t look at her as he left the office, too.
Mr. Wooster said, “What was that all about?”
Bob shrugged and jingled his keys.
Rachael felt like her head was about to explode. “Tell Raul to wait,” she tried to say, but all that came out were grunting and squeaking noises.
Mr. Wooster said, “Go back to the sick area and lie down until your father gets here, Rachael. He’s on his way.”
Rachael turned around. For some reason, she couldn’t stop turning around and bonked into the door, which bonked into the wall so loud it made her ears hurt. She slid onto the floor, hitting her head on the door.
“Ow,” she said, then fell asleep.
Ray woke up in the ambulance on the way to the hospital, strapped onto a table with orange straps. The inside of the ambulance was white and silver; there was a long light over her head, but it was off. The ambulance slowed, and the sirens yelled weee-oooh woop! Then the ambulance sped up and the sirens stopped again.
The ambulance turned, which made her want to throw up. Rachael moaned.
“You all right?” someone asked.
“No,” Rachael said. She felt like there was something wrong with her bones; they were twisting around in circles. “No, no, no.” Every time she said the word “no,” she felt worse.
The ambulance stopped, and the guy and the lady in the ambulance took her inside the hospital while she was still on the table with orange straps, which made her feel sick to her stomach. Rachael tried closing her eyes, but it made things worse. She kept her eyes open and looked at all the hospital lights she was passing.
Then she heard her dad talking and fell asleep.
When she woke, her dad was holding her hand; she’d know his hand anywhere, even with her eyes closed. She gripped his hand a little harder.
“Rachael? Are you awake?”
She nodded. She was kind of scared to open her eyes; she had a feeling it would hurt.
“Are you feeling any better?”
She shook her head, but that was a mistake: she almost barfed in her mouth. “No.”
“The doctors don’t know what’s going on,” he said. “But I guess I do. You’re coming down with the same virus that your mom has. I guess you must know about it already. Just nod if you do.”
She was surprised. Her dad knew about this stuff? She nodded.
“She promised me this wouldn’t happen,” he said.
She risked opening her eyes for a second. It hurt, all right. “Can you close the curtains?” she whispered.
Her dad let go of her hand, which she didn’t like, but he held her hand again when he came back, which was good. He had also shut off the lights in the room, so now it was dark enough for her to open her eyes and look at him. She sniffed, honking loudly. He held a tissue to her nose, but it hurt too much to blow, so he dabbed at the end of her nose and threw the tissue in the trash can.
“What did you mean, she promised?” Rachael whispered.
“She promised that being around her wasn’t enough to make you sick,” her dad said. “Even if you catch the virus, there would be some kind of ritual someone has to perform over you, too.” He glared at her. “You didn’t let someone perform a ritual on you, did you?”
Rachael shook her head and winced. “What’s a ritual look like?”
Her dad gave her half a smile. “No idea. I should have asked your mother. At any rate, I called your Aunt Kitty.”
“I have an aunt?” Rachael said.
Rachael’s dad was quiet for a few minutes, holding her hand tighter and tighter the entire time. Rachael pulled her hand away from his and wiggled her fingers.
“Sorry,” he said. “Yes, you do. You have two aunts. Your mother has two sisters, but she hasn’t spoken to them in years. I think they all hate each other. I’ve only met one of them, your Aunt Kitty Longren. She came to our wedding, even though she wasn’t invited. Bea made her leave, but first Kitty told me to call her if I ever needed anything and gave me her phone number.”
“So you called her,” Rachael whispered.
“I didn’t know what else to do.” Her father looked down at her. “We talked. She wants you to live at her house for a year.”
Rachael didn’t understand. It felt like all the sounds in the room stopped and ice was pouring down her ears. “At her house?”
“To keep anyone at the hospital or at school from finding out about you. Soon, you’re going to start changing into…an animal of some kind, and you’re not going to be able to control it at first. She can teach you how to control it.”
“She’s one, too,” Rachael whispered.
“I wish mom were here instead.”
Rachael’s dad looked mad.
“Why do you look mad?” she asked.
“Why did she leave us?” he asked. “Why won’t she talk to us?”
“She was kidnapped,” Rachael whispered.
“No,” her dad said. “Your Aunt Kitty said she ran away.”
Rachael closed her eyes again; it hurt too much to look at her dad. If her mom came back when he was in this mad mood, they’d have to get a divorce or something. “Maybe she’s lying. You said they hate each other.”
“I trust her,” her dad said.
“Because.” And then he wouldn’t say any more.
Someone knocked on the door, and Rachael turned her head toward it. It was bright in the hallway, and all she could see of the person was a black shape.
Raul said, “May I come in, Mr. Baptiste?”
Rachael’s dad said, “Yeah, go ahead.” He stood up, stretched, and said, “I’m going for a walk. I’ll be back in a few minutes.” He let Raul in and closed the door behind him.
Raul had a bunch of flowers with him. They were the same kind of flowers that grew in the tall grass in front of the school, and they were tied together with a rubber band. He dumped them on a side table and sat down in the chair where her dad had been sitting.
“You’re turning into an Exotic,” he announced.
“That’s what dad said.”
“Your dad knows?”
“Mom told him.”
Raul shook his head. “She told us he didn’t know.” The patterns his short, short hair made on the top of his head seemed to swirl as they went by, making her dizzy. She closed her eyes and swallowed back another tiny bit of vomit.
“You have to get out of the hospital before you start to change,” Raul said.
“I’m going to my Aunt Kitty’s house.”
Raul sighed. “Good. I’ve heard of her. Her house is called Xanadu House—” he pronounced it zan-a-doo— “It’s a safe place to go, if you’re an Exotic. Doesn’t matter whether you’re part of the Animal Lovers’ Club or a Shadow Dog. It’s safe. She’ll take anyone.”
“She and my mom hate each other, dad says,” she whispered.
Raul shrugged. His arms were skinny under his school uniform shirt. She tried to remember what he had looked like as a wolf, but it was hard.
“You’ll probably be at least this sick for a couple of months,” Raul said. “It takes a long time, and it doesn’t really get better until the end. It’s pretty bad when your bones start moving around. Your mom said she was sick for a whole year. I guess turning into an insect is pretty hard.”
“I hope I turn into a wolf like you,” she said. Actually, she really wanted to turn into a panther, so she could be beautiful and sneaky at the same time.
Raul looked down at his hands. “It’s not that great. I have to go now.” He stood up.
“Thanks for the flowers,” she whispered.
“Yeah.” He walked toward the door but stopped before he opened it. “I’m sorry I’m so mean to you.”
“It’s okay,” Rachael said. She was used to boys being mean to her; it wasn’t like she was a kindergartener anymore.
“I don’t want to be your boyfriend.”
She wished he would stop saying that. “Okay.”
“Can we be friends when you get back? Not boyfriend girlfriend. Just regular friends? But secret. Because you’re a girl.”
“Okay. No matter what my mom says when she gets back.”
Raul looked at his feet. “Maybe she’ll be back soon.”
Rachael coughed; it sounded like tiny things were popping inside her. Suddenly she couldn’t stop coughing. Raul left. Her dad came back, sat in the chair, and read a magazine. Rachael went back to sleep.
The next time she woke up, her dad was gone, it was night out, and the window curtains were open. The rubber band had been taken off Raul’s flowers, and they were in a vase with some water. The rubber band was on the table next to the vase.
Rachael tried to reach the table. There were tubes of clear liquid taped to her arms; the tubes seemed to make her arms too heavy to lift. She touched a tube. It hurt; something under the tape was poking her. She’d seen movies where people in hospitals had stuff taped to their arms, so she left them alone. Eventually, she reached the rubber band. She put it around her left wrist, where it wouldn’t touch the tubes.
There was a bright orange flower with curling petals and black spots in the vase now. She was sure she would have noticed it if had been there before; the rest of the flowers were all white or purple, except for a dandelion that had curled up and turned brown.
Who had brought the extra flower?