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Jennifer Murdley's Toad (Magic Shop Books)by Bruce Coville
Her heart still pounding from the chase, Jennifer walked on. It was only when she was halfway to the end of the street that she noticed the little shop. ELIVES' MAGIC SUPPLIES S. H. ELIVES, PROP. read the old-fashioned letters on the window.
Jennifer felt a tickle of nervousness. She had a sense that something strange was about to happen. Something special. Maybe something she could write about. Not for Mrs. Hopwell, but for herself, just because she wanted to — which was the best kind of writing, anyway.
She looked around. The street was deserted. After a moment of hesitation, she slipped into the shop.
It was wonderful; a fascinating display of Chinese rings, top hats, oversized cards, and other magician's equipment hung from the walls, lay scattered on the shelves, and sat crammed in big display cases.
Moving aside a chain of jewel-colored silk scarves, Jennifer ran her fingers over a dark wooden box that had a dragon carved deep into its surface. She was turning to examine the much bigger box nearby — clearly made for sawing people in half — when she noticed the wall lined with cages.
Most of the cages held doves and rabbits — for pulling out of hats, she guessed. But some of the cages had far more interesting animals: lizards, snakes, toads, and bats. Beyond the wall of cages was one more animal, a stuffed owl that sat perched on the huge, old-fashioned cash register at the back of the room.
Maybe I can get a pet for my essay, thought Jennifer, trying to imagine what her mother would say if she came home with a bat.
Wondering if there was a bell next to the cash register to call for a clerk, she began walking toward the counter. As she did, the owl twisted its head and looked straight at her. It uttered a low, eerie hoot, blinked, and returned to its original motionless position — so precisely that Jennifer still wasn't sure whether it was alive or some mechanical gadget.
"Peace, Uwila," snapped an impatient voice from the back of the shop. "I know she's there."
Moments later an old man shuffled through the beaded curtain that covered the doorway behind the counter. As he stepped through, the strings of beads blew outward, and Jennifer caught the scent of an ocean breeze — which surprised her, since the ocean was hundreds of miles away. But any thoughts about the ocean were washed away by her interest in the old man himself, who was so wrinkled he made her think of the apple dolls at the Folk Museum. Stopping directly in front of her, he peered at her intensely, paused for a moment, then said, "Well?"
Jennifer realized she had been staring. Blushing a bit, she replied, "I'd like to buy one of your animals."
"I don't know yet." Glancing at the unmoving owl, she asked hopefully, "Is he real?"
The owl shook its feathers and squawked. The old man frowned. "Uwila is very real, but not for sale."
Jennifer sighed. An owl would have been nice. On the other hand, it would have been hard to care for. Probably she should go for something simple.
"What about the toads?" she asked.
The old man shook his head. "I doubt you want one of them. They're a hundred dollars. Each."
It was Jennifer's turn to squawk. "A hundred dollars?"
"That's what I said," the old man replied, his voice testy.
"But they're only toads."
"I am well aware that they are toads. I would not call them 'only' toads; that offends them. And the price is as I said."
"I'm not going to pay a hundred dollars for an old toad!"
"I wouldn't expect you to. Nor would I sell you one if you were willing to. They are strictly for magicians, and I don't think you qualify." He paused, then cocked his head, almost as if he were listening to something. After a moment he said, "I do have one toad — only one — that I can let you have for a somewhat lower price."
"How much?" asked Jennifer suspiciously.
Jennifer scowled. "What's wrong with it?"
"There is nothing wrong with him. He simply does not suit my needs. He will, however, provide you with a great deal of — amusement. It may, indeed, be a perfect match."
Something about the way the old man said this struck Jennifer as odd. She had an uneasy feeling that he was making fun of her. Yet there was no trace of a smile on his face.
"What do you mean?" she asked. "Why will he be perfect for me?"
The old man shrugged. "No one comes into this shop by accident," he said, as if that explained things.
Jennifer hesitated. The old man — Mr. Elives, she assumed — was clearly a wacko. But the toad might be just right for her essay. And she could always get rid of him after she was done writing. "Okay," she said, "I'll take him."
"Don't you want to see him first?"
"Why? A toad is a toad, right?"
Now the old man did smile. "That's why I wouldn't sell you one of the others." Then he looked her straight in the eye and said, "Stay here. I'll be back in a moment."
Turning, he shuffled back through the strings of beads. Jennifer tried to move, but her legs felt as if they had-been frozen to the floor. She was about to yell for help when the old man returned. He was carrying a small cage in his wrinkled hands. Inside the cage was a huge toad.
Mr. Elives put the cage on the counter. "This is Bufo."
Jennifer found she could shift her feet again. "Bufo?"
Mr. Elives scowled. "Yes, Bufo. Do you want him or not?"
Something about the old man's voice told Jennifer that if she knew what was good for her, she would want the toad. Digging her change purse out of her backpack, she extracted three quarters and handed them to the old man.
"Good," said Mr. Elives. He rang up the sale on the ancient cash register, then took a cardboard box from beneath the counter. Lifting Bufo from his cage, he deposited him in the box. He locked the box's top flaps together. Air holes had already been cut in the top and sides.
Jennifer expected him to hand her the box. Instead, he held out a carefully folded piece of paper. Hesitantly, Jennifer took hold of it. The old man didn't let go; he just stared directly into her eyes. Jennifer wanted to turn her gaze away, but her eyes seemed to be locked in place.
"Read this paper carefully," said Mr. Elives, his voice low but intense. "Pay close attention to what it says. And take good care of this toad. If you don't, you'll have me to answer to."
Jennifer shivered. She tried to take the paper but Mr. Elives still wouldn't let go of it. "Did you hear me?"
Wide-eyed, Jennifer nodded.
"Good." Releasing his hold on the paper, he pushed the box toward her. "Take the side door. It will get you home more quickly."
Grabbing the box. Jennifer shot out the side door. To her astonishment, she found herself back on High Street.
For a moment, she wondered if it had all been a dream. Then she realized that she was still carrying the box and the paper. So it was no dream. "What's going on here?" she asked aloud.
"You got me, kid," croaked a gravelly voice from inside the box.
Copyright © 1992 by Bruce Coville
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