A Story of the Earthshaker Series
By Adrianne Lemke
My ears rang with the laughter and taunting of the children I’d seen at the playground. I had been hiding behind a tree watching for a long time before I’d gotten up enough courage to see if I could join them for a game of basketball. Before I’d even gotten a word out, they began throwing insults. I’d hoped—despite my appearance—that kids would be kinder than the adults who ignored my presence on the streets. But only one of the boys seemed inclined to ignore my uncombed and greasy hair, and the clothes I’d been stuck wearing for the better part of the month.
His protests were mild in the face of the larger boys’ torments, and I began my retreat. “You’re nothing but a stray, and you should be put down like one!” The biggest bully had yelled before stooping to pick up a stone. I was behind the tree when he threw it, but the message was clear: I did not fit in. Something I should have been aware of after almost two years on the street, but still remained oddly hopeful would change.
I made my way out of the park, keeping behind trees to prevent the bully throwing more rocks, and keeping my senses aware of any approaching footsteps. If they chose to follow me, I would know. Their game had been going long enough that I had all four boys’ footsteps memorized and locked away for future use. They were to be avoided at all costs. With the possible exception of the one who had tried to defend my right to play.
When I reached my current home—a space behind a recently abandoned house—I slouched on the torn cushion I used as a bed and felt sorry for myself. Since my friend Ally and her family had moved over a year ago, I hadn’t found anyone I could talk to. And they had moved so soon after she had been snatched from her house that I had hardly been able to speak to her once she’d been rescued.
I could talk to Detective Alice, but she was an authority figure. Someone who wanted to make sure I stayed safe but wasn’t around enough to ensure that safety. I couldn’t trust her enough to live in her home, and I wasn’t telling her more about my father than I absolutely had to. I’d been avoiding her because eventually she’d have to ask questions I had no desire to answer. If she decided to look into my past, there was a good chance my father would re-enter the picture, and I would not risk that for anything.
My thoughts were interrupted by a whine, and my head shot up in surprise. So far I’d been the only person to discover this location, and if that had changed I might need to leave. The whining continued and I cautiously moved toward the shed, ready to bolt if someone was hiding inside.
The lock was still intact, and my face crinkled in confusion. If it was still locked, who, or what, was inside? I dropped to my knees, prepared to practice something I’d only done once before. Plunging my hand into the dirt I concentrated and pushed my energy, letting it flow through my hand into the dirt under the door. There was some vibration and the ground pushed up into the crack between the door and the frame. I kept the flow of energy going, and poured more dirt into the space, little by little pushing the door and frame further apart until the door swung open.
My breath let out in a sigh, and I raised my hands triumphantly. It had worked! The whining had paused while I worked on the door, but seconds after the door opened there was a pile of fur jumping on me, attacking me with a wet tongue. After the shock wore off, I laughed. The previous owners of this house had left a dog! I had a friend!
I reached up and scratched his neck. “Hiya fella!” There was a collar, but only a tag that showed the name ‘Buster’ was attached. “Did they leave any food?” I asked, wrinkling my nose at the smell as I entered what had been the dog’s prison. There was an old mildew covered dog bed and a big bowl with a little water. A big rubber garbage can was in the corner and I peered into it, happy to see a bag of dog food inside. As long as that food lasted, my new friend and I could stay together. “We’re alike, Buster. Nobody wants us. We’re both strays,” my voice held a wistful tone I couldn’t help. I’d been an outsider my entire life, and it was unlikely that would change anytime soon. The black and white dog whined and stuck his head under my hand so I’d pet him.
“Don’t worry, boy. You can stay with me, and when I can’t take care of you anymore, I’ll find someone who can,” I promised. I knelt and gave the dog a hug around the neck, feeling the mats from a lack of grooming.
“Another thing we have in common,” I said with a wry smile, patting my own tangled hair. A brush caught my eye, and I grabbed it from the old shelf. “Looks like we can get cleaned up a little,” I said eying the water that was left in the dish. “But not with that,” I grimaced at the idea of trying to wash with drool infested water.
However, I did not hesitate to use the old dog brush to work through the tangles, first on me and then on Buster. I’d only found this place the previous night, so I decided to look around and was thrilled to discover the water hadn’t been shut off. The outside faucet still worked and I was able to run the water over my hair until it no longer felt gritty and greasy. Removing my stained and dirty shirt, I cleaned it as best I could before laying it on the grass to dry. The afternoon passed with as much cleaning as I could take with the cold water, and I finally felt more human again.
I was human. I was a person. And those boys in the park had treated me like something…less. “You deserve better, and you’re a dog,” I said to Buster. “I’m a person, don’t I deserve some fun in my life too?” he cocked his head as if trying to figure out what I was saying, his ears flopping awkwardly and I laughed at his confused expression.
Dogs don’t judge. He didn’t look at me and my scars—self-inflicted and otherwise—and determine that I wasn’t worthwhile. Instead he saw me as…what? His liberator? His friend? All I knew was he liked me, and wasn’t rushing off to someone else or attacking me as if I were a threat.
Hours passed and he still remained by my side as I snuck out of the yard to search for my evening meal. It was the first time in my two years on the street that I hadn’t felt alone. “Hey kid!” my body stiffened and I slowly turned to face the bully from the park.
“What?” I asked, trying to sound tough, but failing when my voice came out barely above a whisper. Clearing my throat I tried again, my voice stronger the second time.
“Nice mutt,” he sneered. “You strays gotta stick together…”
“You’re right about that,” another voice broke in. “Leave him alone!” A boy, probably about a year or two younger than my fifteen years, had appeared out of an alley. His anger was plain, as was the bruise on his face and the scrape on his elbow.
“Paul,” the bully sneered. “Didn’t get enough yesterday huh? Beat it, or I beat you.” Buster growled at the bully, the fur along his back prickling up in anger.
I glanced between the bully, the new boy and the dog. This was getting out of control. “Look,” I addressed the bully, no longer afraid of him for some reason. “I don’t know who you are, or what your problem is, but you need to go. I don’t know this kid, and I don’t know you, but I do know this dog is about two seconds from ripping your face off, and I don’t know if I can stop him.”
The bully warily eyed the dog that was slowly approaching him, growling all along. “Fine,” he said. “You aren’t worth it anyway.” He backed away and Buster stopped growling, only relaxing his aggressive posture when he was out of sight.
“Nicely handled,” the newcomer said, no sign of his earlier anger. “I’m Paul.”
I wanted to leave, but there was fear and suspicion in the boy’s eyes that matched my own and I felt an instant connection. “I’m Jason,” I felt no guilt at the lie. It had been my name for the last two years, and would be until my father discovered it. “You know, you should learn to back off when the bullies attack, or you’re just going to get hurt.”
Paul glared at me for several seconds before responding, “Yeah? Why do you care? I don’t even know you.”
Why did I care? It was the first time I’d ever seen this boy, but for some reason I felt the urge to protect him. “Maybe because no one else does,” I said. “Everyone needs someone to care about what happens to them, right?”
The other boy looked confused. “You’re like me, right?” he asked. “You don’t have a family either, do you?” I shook my head. “So how can you care? Everyone else I’ve met have been mostly out for themselves. Even if they acted like they cared, it was to benefit themselves somehow.”
My desire to keep this boy safe was growing. “You haven’t done anything…illegal, since you’ve been on the streets, have you?”
“Just stole some food. Mostly I’ve been trying to avoid everyone, but that jerk from the park…well, he just needs someone to teach him a lesson. And I think you and your dog may have helped,” he smiled, probably thinking of the look on the bully’s face when Buster had growled at him.
“His name is Buster, I found him earlier today. We have a place, at least for now. You could come and stay with us for a while. I can keep you safe.”
“How?” for the first time Paul allowed some vulnerability to show through his tough exterior and I wondered what had happened to land him in the streets.
Still, I was a bit hesitant to trust him with all of my secrets. “That’s something I can explain to you when we trust each other a little more. But for now, that bully was right.”
Paul’s vulnerability transformed to confusion and a little anger, “About what?”
I gestured at the three of us; Paul, Buster, and myself and said, “We strays need to stick together.”