The Order of the UnicornSuzanne Selfors
Table of Contents
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For unicorns everywhere
The first thing many people do after getting out of bed is put on a pair of slippers.
The first thing Pearl Petal did on that Friday morning was slip her feet into a pair of leprechaun shoes.
Shoes made by a real, living, breathing leprechaun.
They fit perfectly around her medium-sized feet. Pink was not her favorite color, but she wasn’t about to complain. She’d been told by the leprechaun that the shoes did something special. But he hadn’t told her what. This lack of information was keeping Pearl awake at night, and she found herself doing very strange things in an attempt to solve the mystery.
The shoes didn’t make her fly—that’s for sure. She’d tried wearing them while jumping off the kitchen counter and flapping her arms. She’d ended up with a twisted ankle and a scolding from her father. They didn’t make her invisible. She’d tried sneaking into the kitchen for a late-night helping of ice cream. Her mother had looked right at her and said, “It’s too late for sugar, young lady.” They certainly didn’t make Pearl strong. She’d tried lifting the car, but all she’d gotten were some weird looks from passersby.
Maybe Cobblestone the leprechaun was a big, fat liar. Or, in this case, a little, fat liar. Maybe the shoes did nothing at all.
Even if that proved to be true, no one else in Buttonville had shoes created by a cobbler from the Imaginary World. That fact in itself made Pearl smile.
After opening her bedroom window, Pearl stuck her head outside to see what the morning might bring. Across the street, a flock of pigeons preened their feathers as they perched on the Town Hall roof. The scent of sizzling bacon drifted up from the Buttonville Diner, and Mr. Wanamaker’s keys jingled as he opened his barbershop. The morning sky was cloudless, which made Pearl happy. It was also dragonless, which made Pearl extra happy. No clouds meant sunshine. No dragons meant that certain secrets were still… secret.
She closed the window. Then her gaze swept across her bedroom shelves, which she’d filled with some of her prized possessions. Her bird-nest collection included nests from a blue jay, a robin, and a hummingbird. But the pigeon’s was the most beautiful because pigeons liked to decorate with ribbons, bits of plastic, and buttons.
Pearl’s board game collection included Monopoly, Scrabble, and Pony Parade. The goal in Pony Parade was to move a plastic pony from the forest, where it was lost, to its home in the barn. Standing in the way were obstacles, such as a slippery banana peel, a pollywog pond, and a swarm of bees. If you landed on the golden square, you got to trade in your pony for a plastic unicorn. That was Pearl’s favorite part. Although she’d outgrown the game, she still longed for a pony. She’d spent a great deal of time trying to persuade her parents to buy one. She imagined braiding its mane and riding it around town. When her parents pointed out that they didn’t own a barn, Pearl said, “We can keep it in the alley.” Mr. and Mrs. Petal hadn’t liked that idea.
Pearl knelt on the carpet and opened the Pony Parade box. She’d hidden three very special pieces of paper inside: a certificate of merit in Sasquatch Catching, a certificate of merit in Curing Lake Monster Loneliness, and a certificate of merit in Rescuing a Rain Dragon. Each certificate was signed by Dr. Emerald Woo, a veterinarian for Imaginary creatures. Now that she’d been working as Dr. Woo’s apprentice, something as ordinary as a pony sounded boring. There were so many Imaginary creatures that could be kept in the alley!
“Pearl, Ben’s here,” her mom, Susan Petal, called from the kitchen.
“Okay. Coming!” As fast as she could, Pearl stuffed the certificates back in the box, then set the game on the shelf. She scrambled out of her pajamas and into her favorite clothes—a plain, well-worn T-shirt and a pair of shiny red basketball shorts. Then she pulled her blond hair into a ponytail and hurried to the kitchen.
Ben Silverstein was sitting at the table. Pearl had only known him for a week, but he’d become her very best friend in the whole world. After all, when two people travel together through interdimensional space, climb the face of a rain dragon, and seal up a hole in her head—not to mention stalk a sasquatch, save a dragon hatchling, and ride in a lake monster’s mouth—they can’t help but become best friends.
“So nice that you stopped by,” Mrs. Petal told Ben. She was standing at the kitchen sink, rinsing the coffeepot. “How’s your grandfather?”
“He’s fine,” Ben said, setting a napkin on his lap. “He’s doing some stuff at the senior center this morning.”
“Your grandfather’s a very nice man.” Mrs. Petal was already wearing her work apron, with its embroidered slogan: YOU GET MORE AT THE DOLLAR STORE. She dried her hands on a dish towel. “You kids eat as many pancakes as you like. I’ll be unpacking a shipment from China.” Then she walked down the stairs and disappeared into the Dollar Store, which the Petal family owned and operated.
Pearl sat down and grabbed two pancakes. She covered one with syrup, laid four strips of bacon across it, then set another pancake on top. Ben watched with wonder as she picked up her creation with both hands. “What?” she asked. “You’ve never made a pancake sandwich? It’s delicious.”
He looked around, as if making sure no one would scold him for bad manners. Then, with a shrug, Ben set aside his fork and grabbed two pancakes. His sandwich had jam in the middle.
“So, what kind of creatures do you think we’ll meet today?” Pearl asked. This had become one of her favorite questions.
“Naw deeah,” Ben said, which was really “no idea,” but his mouth was stuffed.
“I hope we meet a fairy. I really, really, REALLY want to meet one.” Pearl dipped her sandwich in more syrup. “What size do you think they are? Are they small like a housefly, or maybe big like a bat? Do you think they’re pretty? Do you think they can speak our language? Do you—”
Her stream of questions came to a stop. She’d spied something on the table.
Something that made her blood boil.
Pearl’s blood didn’t actually boil. That’s just a way of saying that she felt so angry she got hot all over.
The morning newspaper lay neatly folded on the corner of the table. Staring right at her, from the front page, was Pearl’s archenemy, Victoria Mulberry.
The photo showed Victoria’s smiling face, her braces looking like railroad tracks. Thick glasses were perched on the end of her nose, and her frizzy hair was pressed beneath a baseball cap embroidered with the words WELCOME WAGON.
It wasn’t unusual for Victoria to get her photo in the paper. She was always achieving one thing or another. She’d organized a search party when Mr. Mutt’s dog went missing. She’d picked up garbage in the park after the storm of the century. She’d even raised money to help the seniors buy pudding for pudding day. Those were nice things to do, but Pearl knew the truth. The real person behind those deeds was Victoria’s mother, Mrs. Mulberry, who’d made it her life’s work to get her daughter’s photo in the paper.
Pearl dropped her pancake sandwich and reached across the table. With sticky fingers, she unfolded the newspaper and read the following article aloud.
bsp; LOCAL GIRL WINS AWARD
The International Welcome Wagon Society has announced that Victoria Mulberry, age 10, is to become the newest member of the Red Wagon Club.
“This is a very important club,” Victoria’s mother, Martha Mulberry, said. “Only a few people are chosen each year. Victoria is a role model for kids everywhere.”
When asked why she was a role model, Victoria replied, “I don’t know,” and went back to reading her book.
“Victoria earned this honor because she gets straight A’s and she doesn’t get into trouble like a certain other girl in our town,” Mrs. Mulberry added.
The ceremony will be held at 6:00 PM Friday at Town Hall. A representative from the International Welcome Wagon Society will award Victoria with a special crown that is worn only by Red Wagon Club members. The entire town is invited to watch the ceremony. Cookies and punch will be served.
Pearl stared at the page. “ ‘She doesn’t get into trouble like a certain other girl,’ ” she repeated. “That’s so rude.”
“She probably wasn’t talking about you,” Ben said. He drank some orange juice.
“Of course she was talking about me.” Pearl had a reputation. She was the town troublemaker, and everyone knew it, even Ben. “Why are they giving her a crown? That’s crazy. Who wears a crown?”
“I don’t know. A princess?”
“Yeah, well, Victoria’s no princess.” Pearl pushed the newspaper aside, then sat back in her chair. A bad feeling washed over her, as if a gray rain cloud had settled on top of her head. “Victoria’s probably going to wear her crown all over town.”
“So what if she does?” Ben asked.
Pearl frowned. Ben clearly didn’t understand what it was like to grow up in a small town, with only a few kids in your grade. When you were labeled the local troublemaker, you couldn’t get rid of that title, no matter how hard you tried. Just once it would be nice to see her own name on the front page and not followed by the words mayhem, disaster, or trouble.
“Pearl,” Mrs. Petal called from downstairs. “Please take a pancake to your aunt Gladys before you leave.”
“Okay,” Pearl said. Then she glanced at the stove clock. “We’d better hurry or we’ll be late.”
While Pearl and her parents lived above the Dollar Store, her great-aunt Gladys lived in the apartment beneath. It wasn’t a typical damp, cold basement with spiders, cobwebs, and mice. Gladys’s place was warm, with a soft carpet, floral wallpaper, and two well-fed wiener dogs. The only thing odd was the smell.
“What is that?” Ben asked, scrunching his nose.
“Mentholated ointment,” Pearl explained. “She rubs it all over because she has arthritis.”
Aunt Gladys sat in a comfy chair, working a pair of knitting needles. The joints in her fingers were swollen and knotted. A ball of yellow yarn lay on her lap. Another waited at her feet. In fact, balls of yarn were scattered everywhere, as if a yarn factory had exploded in her living room. A soft click-clack arose from her wooden needles.
“Hi, Aunt Gladys. I brought your breakfast,” Pearl announced. She pushed some yarn aside and set the plate on a TV tray.
“Thank you.” Aunt Gladys looked up from her project, which appeared to be a hat. “Who is this nice young man?”
“This is my friend Ben,” Pearl said.
“Hello,” Ben said. Then he looked around. “Wow.” Gladys had knitted practically everything in the apartment—the sofa cover, the wall hangings, the pillows, her clothes, and her slippers. She’d even covered her eyeglasses in yarn. The two rotund wiener dogs, who were snoozing on the couch, wore matching knitted sweaters. “You sure like to knit,” Ben said, giving each dog a little pat on the head.
“I am the Queen of Knitting,” Gladys told him. Then she reached under her chair and pulled out a small silver crown. She plopped it on top of her white curls. QUEEN OF THE KNITTING GUILD was engraved across the front. “Isn’t it pretty?”
“Yes,” Pearl said. “It’s very pretty.” As she wondered what Victoria’s crown would look like, she got that rain cloud feeling again.
Aunt Gladys slid her project off the needles, tied a knot, and snipped the yarn with a pair of scissors. Then she handed it to Ben. “A gentleman should always have a nice hat.”
“Thank you,” Ben said. He politely pulled the hat onto his head. Pearl wanted to giggle. The hat did not match Ben’s fancy clothes. When she first met him, his sneakers had been brand-new, his pants perfectly pressed, and his shirt spotless. He was looking a bit wrinkly after a few days with his grandfather, but his clothes were still nicer than the stuff she got from the Dollar Store.
“We gotta go,” Pearl said. She kissed her great-aunt’s forehead. “Remember to eat your pancake.”
“Bye-bye,” Aunt Gladys said with a little wave. The wiener dogs raised their heads, shifted position, and went right back to sleep.
Pearl led the way up the stairs and through the store, where her parents were unpacking boxes.
“Did you see the article about Victoria?” Mr. Petal asked. His box was full of pencils.
“The ceremony is tonight,” Mrs. Petal said. Her box contained sunglasses. “I think we should all go.”
“Do we have to?” Pearl asked with a groan.
“Yes, we do,” Mrs. Petal said. “It’s nice to support our fellow Buttonvillers. If you’d done something special, you’d want people to support you.”
But I have done something special, Pearl thought. She glanced at Ben. They’d both done tons of special things, thanks to Dr. Woo. Unfortunately, no one could ever know.
“Thanks for breakfast,” Ben said just before he and Pearl headed out the door.
“Have fun at the worm hospital,” Mr. Petal called.
Pearl smiled, revealing the big gap between her teeth. So what if Victoria got to be in the Red Wagon Club? Nobody but Ben and Pearl got to work as apprentices in a secret hospital for Imaginary creatures.
But deep inside, Pearl still thought it would be nice if the people in town thought she was more than just a troublemaker.
It might have been a short walk to Dr. Woo’s hospital had it not been for a bright red obstruction.
“Stop right there.” The bossy voice belonged to Mrs. Mulberry, who stood directly in their path. She wore red overalls and a matching red baseball cap with the words WELCOME WAGON printed on it. This was her uniform, for she was the president of Buttonville’s Welcome Wagon Committee, a group dedicated to welcoming newcomers. But ever since the old button factory closed down, people rarely moved to Buttonville. So Mrs. Mulberry found other things to do—like spying on everyone who already lived there. She was a professional busybody. “I suppose you two are on your way to Dr. Woo’s Worm Hospital,” she said.
“We can’t talk right now,” Pearl said. What she really meant was, We don’t want to talk to you, but that would be a rude thing to say. “We’re in a hurry.”
“We don’t want to be late,” Ben added.
Mrs. Mulberry was an expert at blocking people’s paths. She stood, legs wide apart, in the center of the sidewalk, holding out her arms like a traffic cop. A small red wagon was parked next to her. “Not so fast. I’ve got a few questions for you two.”
Drat! Pearl groaned. “Fine, but please make it quick.”
Ben stood at Pearl’s side. They’d dealt with Mrs. Mulberry before. Ever since Dr. Woo moved into the old button factory, Mrs. Mulberry had been trying to make an appointment to meet her. She was curious about Dr. Woo and desperate to snoop inside the hospital. So far, she hadn’t been successful, and the apprentices were determined to keep it that way.
Mrs. Mulberry narrowed her eyes. “How is the doctor?”
“Fine,” Pearl said.
“If she’s fine, how come nobody in town has ever seen her?”
“My grandfather met her,” Ben pointed out. “So did Pearl’s mom.”
“Well, I haven’t.” Mrs. Mulberry folded her arms and scowled. “I’m
mighty suspicious about this hospital of hers. I asked around. No one in Buttonville has a pet worm. So why would Dr. Woo come all the way from Iceland to open a worm hospital in a place where no one keeps worms?”
Pearl didn’t have a good answer. She looked at Ben. He was quite talented at making up stories on the spot. He cleared his throat, buying time. Then, with a smile, he said, “Iceland is full of volcanoes, and Dr. Woo got tired of shoveling lava off her front porch. That’s why she moved.”
Mrs. Mulberry scowled so hard a deep crease formed across her forehead. “But why would she only treat worms? Why not dogs and cats?”
“She…” Ben closed his eyes for a moment, as if conjuring the details for his story. “She only takes care of worms because…” His eyes popped open. “Because when she was young, her father was a fisherman, and you know what fishermen do to worms, don’t you? They stab a hook right through them, then dangle them into the water. Dr. Woo thought this was unfair, so she decided to dedicate her life to undoing all the wrongs done to worms.”
“Wow,” Pearl said, snickering. “That’s a great story.” Then she looked at Mrs. Mulberry and added in a serious tone, “And totally true.”
Mrs. Mulberry reached into her wagon and picked up a catalog for gardening supplies. “Well, Dr. Woo won’t see me unless I have a worm, so I’ve ordered an entire box of red compost worms. It’s coming special order.”
“Uh…” Pearl started to fidget. On the one hand, she was worried about being late to the apprenticeship. On the other hand, Mrs. Mulberry had to be stopped! If she got into the hospital and saw the creatures that were hidden inside, the secret would be out and Dr. Woo would have to leave Buttonville. How could Pearl stop this from happening? “Uh…”