“Cook us some waffles, boy,” Mrs. Bock had demanded. Ari sighed. He didn’t particularly care for waffles, but they were one of his foster mother’s favorite meals. Just as he had done at least a dozen times, he mixed up the ingredients, then put the food into the oven to cook. Then he noticed that Mrs. Bock’s favorite cat, Snowball, was happily destroying a houseplant across the room.
“Shoo, cat!” He raced across the room, chasing Snowball away from the mangled plant. Snowball turned and hissed at Ari, who shrank away. He had been clawed by Mrs. Bock’s stupid cats too many times to count.
“Ari Paz, what is the meaning of this!” Ari whirled around in time to see Mrs. Bock removing a platter of very burnt waffles from the oven. Her face was twisted into a furious scowl. “Can’t you do anything right, you idiot child?” Mrs. Bock stomped across the room to Ari, her face deep red with rage.
Ari took a step back. “I-I didn’t mean to burn them,” he said, his voice quavering. “It was just — the cats — I mean…”
Mrs. Bock sucked in her breath and straightened her back. “How dare you blame my cats for your stupidity?” She lifted one thick, strong arm, then struck Ari across the face. The blow knocked Ari to the kitchen floor. His ears rang so loudly, he could barely hear whatever Mrs. Bock was continuing to yell at him. He had to get out of here. He scrambled to his feet and raced for the front door, ignoring his foster mother’s outraged cries behind him.
He ran to the subway station down the road. He would go to Isabelle’s house. He and Isabelle hadn’t hung out much lately – she was so busy all the time with all her afterschool activities and other friends. But maybe tonight, they could hang out like they used to, and talk until he felt better. His heart sank when he approached the Shores family mansion and saw the darkened windows. There was no one home, except for Isabelle’s horse, Zoe. For a while, Ari petted Zoe and told her his troubles, while Zoe nickered softly and nuzzled him.
“I should put you in the yard, Zoe,” Ari told the horse. He unlatched the gate, which Isabelle’s family had forgotten to lock, and let the horse, and himself, into the garden. Ari walked around to the back of the house, to where Isabelle’s playground waited under the pale light of the moon. Playing here with his friend had brought him so much happiness when he was younger. He swung for a while, enjoying the cool silence of the empty yard. Then he jumped into the pool and swam for a while, floating on his back and staring up at the star-studded black sky. He missed Isabelle. He wished he had other friends to hang out with, but popularity just didn’t come easily for him.
At last, Ari climbed out of the pool. His hungry stomach made a revving noise, like an old engine. He had not eaten since breakfast, many hours ago. He wandered over to the family’s garden and began to look for vegetables to nibble. He had just discovered a head of cabbage and was trying to twist it off the plant when someone cleared his throat.
“Who are you, and what are you doing in my garden?” growled an old man whom Ari had never seen before.
Ari leaped to his feet, his heart hammering against his chest. “I’m nobody,” he said. “Just – just a friend of…” He stumbled backwards, away from the old man, and nearly fell into the pool. He snatched up his clothes from the ground, then fled Isabelle’s yard as quickly as possible. Unfortunately for Ari, the old man had already called the police about an intruder in the yard. A patrol car was parked next to the street, where an officer was waiting for Ari to emerge.