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Dr. Dolittle was busier than ever. At ten he had Mr. Carson coming in for a full checkup. At twelve he had Mr. Wennington scheduled for an EKG. And in between he had to squeeze in Mrs. Bloom and her itchy rash.
But that wasn't all. At twelve-thirty Buster was due for his worming. At one Misty was having her kennel cough looked at. And the rest of the afternoon . . . well, that was wall-to-wall neuterings.
Then there was the Rotary Club dinner that night, and the Kennel Club breakfast the next morning.
It was truly as much as Dr. Dolittle, his secretary, and his shaggy canine assistant, Lucky, could handle.
Ever since the doctor had discovered he could talk to animals—and understand what they were saying—he had devoted his life to helping them as well as helping people. He traveled all over the world rescuing animals in need. He led support groups for strays at neighborhood shelters. He settled feuds and lovers' quarrels at the most prestigious zoos. And naturally he made the rounds of all the nature shows: National Geographic Explorer, Emergency Vet, Crocodile Hunter—you name it, he was there.
In fact, Dr. Dolittle was becoming quite a celebrity. He couldn't even go home without being swarmed by furry and feathered groupies.
"There he is! It's him!" they screeched one night as he drove up to his apartment.
"He's so handsome! Sign my food dish!" they howled. "Touch my paw!"
With a modest nod, the doctor pushed past them toward his door.
"Thank you," he replied. "Thank you all very much!" He fumbled for his keys.
"Not again." He sighed as he searched his empty pockets. Brushing pet hair from his suit, he pressed a buzzer on the wall.
"Who is it?" a canine voice coyly barked from his apartment.
"It's me, Lucky," said Dr. Dolittle. "I forgot my keys."
"Well, then I guess you'll have to beg," the mutt inside teased.
Dr. Dolittle grumbled and leaned on the buzzer once again.
"Come on, boy, beg," Lucky went on. "Get it? Role reversal . . . 'Cause usually the human says to the dog . . . uh . . ."
"Oh, all right."
Lucky pressed a button with his paw and the outside door buzzed open.
Seconds later, an exhausted Dr. Dolittle walked into his apartment.
"Hey, sweetie," called his wife, Lisa. She worked long hours as an attorney but almost always made it home before the doctor did.
"Hey, baby." Dolittle smiled and kissed her warmly on the lips. Then he reached into his pocket and pulled out a gift-wrapped box. "A little present for you. From Paris."
Lisa dutifully took it and placed it on a table piled high with other tokens he had given her. Dolittle always brought his family gifts from the faraway places he visited.
"Thank you," she told him. "But you know what would be a nice present, John?" She nodded wearily toward the window. "Keeping your flock of the faithful away from our building."
Dolittle nodded. He loved helping animals, but sometimes the constant pressure was a bit much. He kissed his wife again. "I'll go down and talk to them later."
Suddenly his youngest daughter, Maya, dashed in.
"Daddy!" she yelled as she wrapped her arms around him.
"Hey, sweet girl!" He hugged her back. Then he pulled out another brightly wrapped present and gave it to her. "From Mexico."
"Gracias," said Maya with a grin. "I wonder what it is."
She held it up to her ear and gave it a little shake.
Dolittle's ears pricked at the sound of the voice hollering inside the box. He could understand the accented voice, but Maya could not.
"Eet's the big one!" the tiny voice cried.
"Er, honey," Dr. Dolittle warned his daughter, "I wouldn't do that."
Obediently Maya set down the box and opened it carefully. Inside she found a rattled-looking bright green lizard.
"Oh, he's so cute!" Maya exclaimed. "Thanks, Dad!"
"It's a chameleon," Dolittle told her. "His name is Pepito. He can change colors to blend into the background. Watch." Gently he picked Pepito up by his tail and placed him on the brown dining room table.
The lizard stood proudly at attention. "Now you see me . . . ," he announced, ". . . poof!" He squeezed his eyes shut. "Now you don't!"
Dr. Dolittle and Maya stared at the green creature and waited a moment. But he still stood out just as much as he had before.
"Um, we still see you," Dolittle whispered.
Just then Lisa walked up behind them. "You did remember it's Charisse's birthday?" she asked, cocking a wary eyebrow at him.
"Of course!" Dolittle nodded. Birthdays were always a big deal in the Dolittle household. "Did you get the cake from Stinson's?"
"Hey, ese." The little chameleon called out to him from below, still trying to camouflage himself. "How about now? Gone, right?"
Dolittle glanced down at the pesky creature, who was still bright green.
"No," he said. He turned back to his wife, who was shaking her head.
"Charisse doesn't want a family birthday party," she told him.
Dolittle frowned. "Nonsense! We always celebrate as a family."
"It's this table," Pepito meanwhile muttered. "I have trouble with brown. Do you have anything green?"
"She's got a date," Lisa went on, oblivious to the chameleon.
"A date?" Dolittle's frown deepened. "With who?"
"I didn't ask," his wife replied. "She's a big girl now, John."
"A date? Humph. We'll see about that."
By now Dr. Dolittle had forgotten about the plight of the Mexican guest on his dining room table.
"You know, something nice and green, like a head of lettuce," Pepito was saying. "Or some guacamole."
Dolittle rolled his eyes and turned to Maya. "Could you take him to your room, please?" he groaned with a wave toward the chameleon.
"You're so adorable," Maya crooned, cradling the chameleon in her palms as she hurried off. "I think I'm going to love you!"
The doctor took a step toward Lisa. "Now where's the birthday girl?"
"She's unreachable," his wife replied.
"She's in her room with the door locked and headphones on." Lisa shrugged. "You could try paging her."
"Paging her!" Dolittle exclaimed. "In my own house?" He turned and stomped off toward his older daughter's room. "I don't think so."
Faithfully the mutt Lucky followed him to Charisse's door.
"Charisse. Charisse!" Dolittle hollered as he knocked.
"Try her cell," the dog suggested.
The doctor shook his head and banged on the door once more, disgusted. "Call my own daughter in my own home on a cell phone? Ridiculous!"
Glaring, he glanced at the hall window, stepped up to it, and slid it open.
Moments later, fifty feet above the cold, hard ground, Dr. Dolittle inched his way along the fire escape toward Charisse's bedroom window.
Suddenly, a furry gray face dropped down in front of him.
"I have a message from the beaver," a wiry possum declared, swinging by his thin pink tail.
The doctor stared at him, confused. "The who?"
"The beaver. He needs to see you. It's life or death."
Dolittle frowned at the creature and impatiently brushed past him. "Tell whoever that is he's got to make an appointment. Just like everybody else."
"I can't tell him that," the possum squeaked. "I'll wind up part of a dam somewhere."
But Dolittle wasn't listening. He was too busy trying to get his teenage daughter's attention. He knocked on her window and shouted her name. But with her headphones on and her brown eyes glued to her dancing reflection in the mirror, she heard and saw nothing. It was useless.
Dolittle braced himself on the fire escape and gave the window a shove—only to find it was locked tight as a drum. He banged on the glass once more. Then finally, to his great chagrin, he gave up, pulled his cell phone from his pocket, and began to dial.
"Yeah?" Charisse cheerfully answered as she flipped open her own phone. "Daddy? Is that you? Slow down. I can't understand you. Where are you calling from? Daddy!"
Wide-eyed, Charisse spun around to see her dad's face pressed against her window.
"Daddy!" she cried as she raced over and let him in. "When did you get home?"
"What's this about not wanting to celebrate your birthday with your family?" Dolittle snapped, getting right to the point.
"Dad." Charisse groaned. "Having dinner with your family on your birthday is what you do when you're little. Not when you're sixteen. Besides, I have a date."
"You can invite your date," Dolittle told her generously.
Charisse rolled her eyes. "Oh, cool. So I'll say, 'Eric, these are my parents and my little sister, they'll be joining us on our date.' Please!"
"No," Dolittle corrected her. "He's joining us. This is a family event. We always— What's this?"
Dolittle's eyes drifted down to a sheet of paper on Charisse's bed.
"Hey, that's private!" Charisse shouted, lunging for the sheet.
But her father beat her to it.
"Your report card . ....