Zak poured himself a second glass of orange juice and forked a couple more pancakes onto his plate. Boy, was he hungry this morning. The sunshine cascaded through the window across Zak's favorite seat. He loved sitting in the sun, feeling the warm rays. He pretended he was a cat whose only job was to find new patches of sunbeams. Wouldn't that be the life?
He poured another layer of syrup on the pancakes, then shoveled a fork full into his mouth. As he did so, he glanced at the front page of the morning paper, a habit acquired from his father. His father seldom ate breakfast with them anymore although that didn't stop Calida from setting the paper next to his empty plate since it was his dad who insisted on continuing to subscribe to it, even though you could get all the latest news online.
At best Zak would see his dad tear through the kitchen, gulp down a glass of juice, snatch the crispest bacon, grab a cup of black coffee from Calida – along with a peck on the cheek– and out the door he'd fly, leaving the paper for Zak and Calida. Since Calida preferred reading it after Zak had left for school, it gave him plenty of time to look through it.
Today, the headlines caught Zak's attention:
Environmental Summit to Address Global Warming
He normally didn't spend much time on the front page, preferring the comics or entertainment section, but it seemed like everywhere he turned lately, there was something about global warming and its effect on the planet. As the owner of a zoo — even a very small one — it felt like the responsible thing to do to stay informed. Zak decided to read the whole article about the Environmental Summit. He was half way through it when Calida walked back over with another pancake.
“What's so interesting in the paper?” she asked as she placed it on his plate.
“It's about the summit on global warming.”
Calida sat down at the table with her cup of coffee. “Oh, that. It's part of the reason your dad is away from home so much lately. It's driving his bosses crazy. According to him it's all a political move to make the public think the politicians and world leaders are interested in doing something about global warming. It's a lot of hot air, he says. I think he meant that as a pun, but for being only hot air, it sure has a lot of people at Consolidated Enterprises nervous.”
“Why are people at C. E. so nervous?” Zak asked as he drained the last of his juice.
“I'm not sure why they're nervous. You know C. E. has their hands in so many different things, it's almost impossible to keep it all straight. They've got energy plants, and factories along with their food division, just to mention a few. I think they're afraid the U. N. might pass tighter international regulations that could cost them more money. In business it's always about the money.”
Zak pushed himself away from the table but didn't get up. He looked back at the paper. “But if tighter laws are necessary to reduce CO2 levels and reverse global warming, why wouldn't they be for them?”
“Oh Zak-dear, it's not the way the world of business works. I'm afraid most business owners are a short-sighted. They can only see as far as their next quarterly profit statement.”
Zak wasn't sure what Calida meant by that last comment, but he decided if he didn't want to be late for his first day of school, he'd better not ask any more questions. He tore the front page of the paper out and tucked it in his notebook. Maybe he could finish reading it during the announcements.
As they walked to the front door, the phone rang. “It must be the vet. She promised to call this morning,” Zak shouted, as he raced for the phone, repeating the little prayer, only slightly altered. Please, God, let him be all right this morning.
“Hello. Yes, this is the Bates. Is this the vet? How's my dog?” After a short pause, Zak held the phone out for Calida. “It's the receptionist. She wants to speak to you,” he said, his voice shaking. He was suddenly afraid something had gone wrong during the night. There had been a magic cat, hadn't there? It hadn't been a dream, but what if her magic hadn't worked?
Calida took the phone, a worried look on her face. She listened for a few seconds, then gave Zak a thumbs up sign.
“Yeeesss!” Zak shouted as he gave a hand pump in the air. “Angus is all right. She did it! She did it!”
Calida smiled at him but motioned him to pipe down. “Okay. Thanks for calling us. We'll be in this afternoon to visit right after school.”
She hung up the phone. “She says Angus has made a remarkable recovery. They're planning to take some x-rays later this morning. They think he has a broken pelvis and a concussion, but he's out of shock and sitting up this morning. They feel confident he will be okay.”
“Can we go see him now? Please,” Zak pleaded.
“You have school young man, and we're not starting off with your being late the first day. I told the vet we'd be in this afternoon. I'll pick you up and we'll go straight over. Now let's go or you'll be late.”
It no longer mattered to Zak if he was late. Nothing mattered now that Angus was going to be all right. The promise he had made to Ra-Kit didn't even bother him… well, not much.
Zak was so excited about the news from the vet that the customary queasy feeling didn't start until they had turned into the parking lot of the school, but as soon as he saw the single-story brick building with the hundreds of kids swarming around it like ants around an anthill, his stomach back-flipped and for a moment Zak was afraid he was going to lose his breakfast.
God, how he hated going to another new school. Page Middle School would be the third school in less than four years. It seemed to get harder with each one. He felt like a big black ant trying to sneak into the red ants' anthill. As Calida pulled the Buick up to the curb, Zak could feel all the heads turning.
“WARNING! WARNING! Intruder in the nest!”
To make it worse, Calida stopped the car right next to a gang of boys that looked like nothing but trouble. His radar had gotten good through the years picking up the signs.
“Pull up a little farther, will you?” Zak asked with a little quaver to his voice.
“What's with you all of a sudden? Do you think I'm your maid? I've got errands to run this morning. Now out with you,” Calida said with a laugh. “And have a good first day. I'll pick you up here promptly at 3:15 and we'll go see Angus.”
She leaned over to give Zak a kiss on the cheek but he slipped out of the car before she could reach him. He slammed the door harder than he had intended and smiled back at his stepmother apologetically. She apparently hadn't noticed anything was wrong, already turning to look over her shoulder to check for traffic.
Zak walked briskly towards the entrance of the school, hoping to get inside before the gang saw him, but luck was not in Zak's favor. He was still twenty feet from the front door when a hand caught him by the shoulder and spun him around. The tallest boy of the group stood with his hand still on Zak's shoulder, his long, dirty fingernails digging painfully into Zak's skin. He stood a good head taller than Zak and several inches taller than anyone in his gang.
“Why, who is this? Do we have a new kid trying to sneak by our welcoming committee?” The boy said with a sneer, then waited for his gang members to snicker at his bad joke.
“Why in such a hurry? I want to welcome you on your first day of school. My friends here call me Ratt, and this is my school, if you get my drift?” Ratt patted Zak hard on his shoulder emphasizing each word. Zak tried unsuccessfully not to winch from the sharp blows.
“I don't want any trouble,” Zak said softly, wondering how he could be so unlucky to attract the school's bully within minutes of his arrival. “It's your school. I got it. You can have it for all I care.” Zak knew at once it was the wrong thing to say but he had a knack for sticking his foot in his mouth around bullies.
“That's good. We understand each other just fine. So, what's your name?”
“Bates? Bates? That sounds familiar? Where does your ol' man work?”
“Consolidated Enterprises,” Zak replied reluctantly. “They just transferred us here.”
“I knew it,” Ratt said, finally removing his hand from Zak's shoulder but not before using it to give him a less than playful shove. “My ol' man is your ol' man's boss. Small world, isn't it?”
Zak groaned. Small world and an unfair one at that.
“Oh, just one more thing. Consider this your last lesson in today's orientation. See that girl over there with her hair tied back in a ponytail?” Ratt pointed over to a group of girls welcoming each other back to another year.
“Stay away from her, you hear? I don't want you so much as looking at her straight. If I hear you're messing around with her, my friends here won't take it too kindly.”
Zak nodded again. It would be an easy request to follow. Girls and he didn't get along well. For some reason, whenever he was around girls his own age, the connection between his brain and his mouth seemed to short circuit.
“You understand?” Ratt asked again. “Let me hear you say it.”
I understand, Oh High and Mighty Ratt, Zak thought but said, “I understand,” so soft that he wasn't sure he'd actually said it. Evidently, it was loud enough for Ratt, for with one last shove, he and his gang turned to find the next person to hassle.
Welcome to a new school year, Zak thought, as he turned to enter the school. He went straight to his homeroom. As he sat there waiting for the first bell, his anger began to boil.
It wasn't fair to be treated like this. He hadn't done anything to Ratt to provoke him. It was like he walked around with a big L tattooed on his forehead, or there was some international association of bullies that informed each other whenever someone they deemed as a loser moved to a new location.
To make matters worse, Ratt's dad also worked at C. E. If bullying was a genetic disorder, his dad was probably receiving the same unfair abuse at this very minute… which meant that his dad had just leapt from the frying pan into the fire, with his new position likely to be at least as stressful as his previous one… which meant, he'd probably see very little of his dad, except late at night when he could be found in his study drinking his favorite scotch.
A light touch on his shoulder brought Zak back to the classroom. He turned around to find a familiar face smiling at him as she leaned across the aisle.
“Aren't you Angus's owner?” she whispered as she glanced from Zak to the teacher in front of the room and back.
Zak's throat immediately dried up and he found it hard to catch his breath, so instead of answering, he just nodded.
“I'm Allison George, but everyone calls me Allie around here,” she said as she held out her hand.
Zak stared at it for an interminable length of time, then just as Allie was about to draw it back, reached out and lightly shook it. He felt his throat close tighter, and his heart rate climb.
“I stopped by the clinic before coming to school. Angus is looking so much better.” She glanced back to the front of the room.
“Ms. Runyon is about to call role. Maybe we can talk later. How about lunch?”
Zak managed to nod once more. As Allie turned back to face the front of the room, he noticed the flip of an all too familiar pony tail. Oh no! Had he just made lunch plans with Ratt's girlfriend?
Zak turned his attention back to the front of the room as well, and caught Mrs. Runyon staring at him. Maybe she'll make me come back at lunch for talking in class, he thought hopefully, but she only smiled at him and went back to her paper work.
He didn't remember much about the morning classes. His mind kept flitting from Allie and Ratt, to Angus and Ra-Kit and back again. I wonder why Allie asked him to lunch? Maybe it was a practical joke and she wouldn't show. He wasn't sure what would be worse — her showing or her standing him up. If Ratt finds out, he'll pulverize me. I hope Angus's x-rays are ok. What in the world could Ra-Kit expect of me?
All morning his thoughts played havoc with his attention, but he managed to make it through his classes without getting into trouble. With just one more class to go before lunch, Zak contemplated skipping lunch and hiding out in one of the boy's bathrooms, but the pancakes from breakfast were long gone and his stomach kept growling to let him know what a bad idea it was.
He walked into Mrs. Runyon's biology class just as the final bell rung.
“Ahh, good,” Mrs. Runyon said from the front of the room. “You're just in time and you'll make our class count an even number, which is important because in biology you'll each be assigned a buddy. Let's see, you must be Zachery Bates, is that correct?”
Several of the kids chuckled at his full name. “Zak, just Zak, and yes, that's me.”
“Okay, Zak. Please take your seat next to Allison over there. She's without a lab partner.”
Oh no, this can't be happening. How would he ever get through biology with a girl as a lab partner, especially one that was sure to get him creamed by the biggest bully in school. Well, Allie was sure to be one of the smartest ones in the class, if the other day at the veterinary hospital was any indication.
“Zak Bates, hello there. Are you listening?” Mrs. Runyon asked. Everyone in the class stared at him, his face flushed as he listened to their giggles.
“Yes ma'am, I heard you,” Zak replied as his legs finally found the energy to move him towards the empty seat next to Allie.
“Now, class, I know having biology just before lunch may appear to be a huge scheduling error, but that's the way the courses fell this year, so we'll make the most of it. Let's start by taking out your books and looking at what we have to cover this semester…”
Zak was already gone again at the word “lunch”. How could he possibly get out of having lunch with Allie now that they were in the same class? And what if Ratt or one of his gang members saw them walking to the lunchroom together. Today was turning out to be one of the worst first days of school ever.
Truth be told, he really wanted to have lunch with her. He could use a friend, especially a smart one that shared his interest and love for animals. If he stood her up, she'd probably tell all her friends what a heartless, conceited boy he was. He'd be an outcast in the school before the New Year had hardly started. The only kid that would ever talk to him would be Ratt and that would be a short conversation, just before Ratt knocked his lights out for being Allie's lab partner.
The period zipped by way too fast, and as the bell rung ending the period, Zak knew he'd keep his lunch date. Make a choice and then make it the right one. He remembered Luc's advice. How come his brother had never told him how?
“I'll meet you in the lunch room,” Allie said, as they filed out of the room. “I've got to get something out of my locker.” She turned and strolled away.
This was his chance. He could just disappear for an hour, and tell her next time he see her that he'd not been able to find the lunchroom. But he followed the flow of students and before he knew it, he was inside the cafeteria, walking through the line. He was startled to find when he sat down he had three oranges and two bananas on his plate. That was it for lunch? He didn't even like bananas. He thought about going through the line again but the embarrassment of being caught going through the line a second time curbed his appetite. The oranges would have to do.
As he sat there peeling one of the oranges, he glanced around to see if he saw Ratt or any of his cronies. Perhaps he'd get lucky for once and they'd be scheduled to eat the following period. As he looked around, he saw Allie coming through the line, just as she saw him. She paid for her meal, one that was clearly more balanced and nutritious than his mindless selection, then strolled over to his table.
He felt his throat tighten up and his mouth go suddenly dry, despite the slice of orange he'd just put in his mouth. Suddenly, the prospect of being beat up by Ratt didn't look so unappealing, compared to having to try to spend the next thirty minutes carrying on an intelligent conversation with a girl.
As Allie sat down across from him, she glanced down at his tray. “Are you vegetarian?”
Afraid his voice would crack if he spoke too soon, he simply shook his head and popped another orange slice in his mouth.
“Well, I'm not either, least not yet. I've thought about becoming one though, and the more I learn about how the animals that are raised for food are treated, the better I like the idea. So, I try to stay with fish or occasionally chicken, though the fish sticks they serve here are close to inedible.” Allie smiled at him as she placed a bit of fish into her mouth.
They ate in silence for a while, and slowly Zak found he could breathe and swallow again. Slowly, his heart rate returned to almost normal.
“That Angus sure is a cute dog,” Allie said as she pushed her plate away and opened her carton of milk. “And such a fighter too. I don't think I've ever seen a dog come back so strong after having been so deeply in shock. How long have you had him?”
“All his life,” Zak replied, thankful that his voice sounded fairly normal, so he decided to risk a further reply. “That's about seven years.”
As they continued to talk, first about Angus then about some of the other animals at the clinic, Zak found himself slowly growing more at ease. It was fairly easy to talk to Allie. Since she was comfortable carrying the conversation, his main job was to listen and to occasionally ask another question. Besides, they had something in common to talk about — their love for animals.
Towards the end of lunch, Allie reached into her notebook and pulled out a flowered scarf. She asked Zak to clear a place on the table and, as he did so, she laid the scarf out flat on the table. As she started waving her hands over the flattened scarf, several other kids around them turned to watch which made Zak uncomfortable. What if the commotion drew Ratt's attention? Although he hadn't seen the gang leader, he felt certain he wasn't far away.
“Pay attention, Zak.” Allison's voice pulled him back. “I have a little trick for you.”
Are you kidding? A girl who not only loved animals but also liked magic and knew how to do it? This was turning out to be a pretty good day after all.
She continued waving her hands over the colorful scarf, whispering a soft incantation. Then with a flurry, she lifted the scarf from the table. To Zak's amazement, on the table lay an envelope with his name on it. The other kids applauded then returned to their lunches.
“It's actually for Angus.”
Zak opened the envelope to find a get well card inside. The front of the card showed a fair likeness of a Cairn terrier chasing a ball. As he opened the card, a small object fell out on the table.
Zak picked it up.
“It's a small horseshoe charm,” Allie said. “I figure they're good luck for people so why not for our pets? I thought you might want to put it on Angus's collar when you see him this afternoon.”
“Yea, that would be great,” Zak finally said. He was surprised to find a lump in his throat making it even harder to talk. “You can't ever have too much good luck, I guess.”
On the inside was the same dog laid up in bed with his leg in a sling. It said, “Sometimes it's a ruff life. Get well soon, Angus. Love, Allie.”
Zak looked up, a silly grin on his face. “These are great! Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
The bell ending the lunch period sounded and Allie stood up to leave. As she did, she leaned over and gave Zak a light peck on the cheek. “Give this to him as well,” she whispered in his ear then hurried off, leaving a flushed-faced Zak behind.
When Zak finally refocused his attention on the lunch room, his eyes fell on “Stuey” Dickerson, one of Ratt's gang members. It was obvious from the look on Stuey's face, he'd witnessed the whole scene.
“Oh no. It's not what you think, Stuey,” Zak muttered under his breath but he knew it didn't matter what he said. His fate had been sealed. This must be how Jesus felt when that Judas fellow kissed him in that garden, Zak thought as he lightly touched the spot on his cheek.
Zak spent the rest of the afternoon in his own brand of misery. Between each class, he felt certain he would run into Ratt in the hall. Zak prided himself on having a great imagination and it could really run wild. He imagined hands reaching out of the lockers as he passed by, pulling him into one and locking the door behind him. There he'd be face to face with Ratt, both crammed into the tiny locker together. Somehow, Ratt's gang would be in there with him, all of them laughing at Zak. But Ratt wasn't laughing. No, he took the meeting seriously. Zak heard the sound of a switchblade opening but couldn't see Ratt's hands. He tried to bend his head down to find the blade, but the locker was too cramped. He groped around with his own hands, trying to find the hand that carried the blade, tried to stop it before it slid neatly between his ribs or into his groin. He couldn't find it, couldn't stop Ratt's revenge. Holy cow, Ratt! It was only a kiss on the cheek and it was for my dog, not me.
He felt the jab in his rib, but it was only an elbow of a kid he had bumped into in the hall. “Hey, watch where you're walking, Stoneface.” Zak was relieved to find he was still in the hall and so far, no Ratt. He figured he had sweated off three pounds before the final bell. He rushed out of the classroom and down the hall before they filled with other students. He flew by his locker, ignoring the additional books he needed for his homework and out the door.
Outside, in the afternoon sunshine, Zak felt like a convict freed after twenty years in the slammer. But he wasn't safe yet. Ratt could be anywhere, behind any bush or tree. He would only be safe once he was in his own car.
But where was Calida? Dog gonnit, she's setting me up. She's not coming. She's in this with Ratt. Going to teach me a lesson for not being nicer to her. Oh, please, Calida, come on, will you? Please.
He ran to the road and as he reached the sidewalk, the gray Buick pulled around the corner and stopped in front of him. Calida opened the window on the passenger side and smiled. “Hey there my little friend. Would you care to go visit a doggie?”
Zak hopped into the car, finally able to catch his breath.
“You must be excited to see Angus.” Calida laughed as she pulled the car away from the curb.
She turned around in the parking lot and as they passed by the school, Zak saw Ratt and Stuey run out of the building. Ratt spied him through the tinted glass of the automobile. He raised his hand in a fist, shaking it at Zak. Zak was too far away to make out Ratt's words but he got the jest of the conversation. He wondered if it was too early in the school year to pretend to be sick. The way he felt at the moment, he'd probably not need to pretend.
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