Ari Paz could not remember anything about his real parents. Nor did he know why they had abandoned him when he was only a small boy. For the past six years, he had been forced to live with his foster mother, a very cruel and bad-tempered old lady named Ms. Bock. Ms. Bock was very fond of cats, but not very fond of children. She was always angry with Ari about one thing or another, no matter how hard Ari tried to be quiet and obedient.
For example, one day, after one of Ms. Bock’s mangy cats attacked Ari and left several jagged scrapes on his legs, Ms. Bock yelled at Ari. “How dare you mistreat my babies!” she said, then made Ari scoop the litter boxes and feed the cats. This was nothing new. Ari was almost used to being yelled at and being made to clean the house while lazy Ms. Bock sat around watching television, surrounded by her precious cats.
When Ms. Bock was feeling especially cantankerous, Ari would run away for a few hours. Sometimes, he dug through piles of trash at the nearby junkyard, hoping to find hidden treasure. Once, he found a rusty old bicycle that actually worked. He kept it hidden in an abandoned shed and sometimes rode it around town, relishing the peace and quiet, and the fresh country air which did not stink of cats.
The only other highlight of Ari’s life was school. He was a good student and worked very hard to earn top grades and the praise of his teachers. He was not very popular at school. Other kids giggled about his ill-fitting clothes, which were often covered with cat hairs or smeared with grime from the junkyard.
“He’s weird,” kids would whisper as he walked past. “And he makes up lies,” they began to whisper, after Ari tried to tell some kids about how his foster mother had nearly burned down their kitchen one evening.
Luckily, Ari did have one friend – a very kind and sensitive girl, named Isabelle Shores. Isabelle was very rich, but she did not seem to mind that Ari was dirt poor.
“It’s not your fault,” she reassured him. “We were just born into different circumstances. But things will get better for you. I just know it.”
Ari hoped that his friend was right.