Let’s See You Dance!
Sammy sat motionless, or as near to motionless as it was possible for her. Her eyes hardly left the house phone sitting on the kitchen counter. Eleven minutes before her mom came home. If the call didn’t come before then, Sammy was dead…or maybe worse than dead.
Impatiently Sammy shoved her bangs out of her eyes. The movement made the bruise on her shoulder ache a little more, but she didn’t care. She glanced at the clock. Nine minutes. Maybe the traffic would be bad. Maybe her mom would be delayed. Mrs. Martinez didn’t have her mom’s cell phone number, so the call would come here. Maybe this time Sammy would be lucky.
Then, shattering the silence, the phone rang. Holding her breath, Sammy waited, counting the rings…one…two…three…four…. The answering machine picked up. “Hi there. Sammy and Linda are dying to talk to you, but we aren’t here! Leave a message. Leave a number. We’ll call back!”
“Hello, this is Tony from the Take a Stand Foundation. We’re calling today…”
Sammy grabbed the receiver, held it at arms length for about three seconds and then slammed it down again. Silence. She looked at the clock.
Four minutes. Sammy drummed her fingers on the side of the table, and then lifted her head like a dog catching a distant sound.
“Oh no,” she whispered. The painful rumble of her mom’s old car turned into the long gravel drive.
“Oh, dirty dog, call now,’ she whispered, “Mrs. Martinez, call now…call now…!”
The phone rang. One…two…three…four….
“Hi there. Sammy and Linda are dying to talk to you, but we aren’t here! Leave a message. Leave a number. We’ll call back!”
The rumbling engine suddenly stopped. The car door squealed open….
“Hello Ms. Connor. This is Jeanne Martinez, principal at Samantha’s school. I’m afraid that Samantha was involved in another incident today. I’d like to schedule a meeting with you and your daughter to see what we can do to help Samantha improve her behavior. I know there have been a lot of changes in your lives recently, but we can’t allow her to continue to make such inappropriate choices. Please call me to schedule a time.”
The message machine beeped. Sammy jabbed the erase button as Linda Connor pushed open the kitchen door.
“Hi Sammy, how was school?” her mom asked. “Can you help me with these bags? I can’t believe how much I saved at the consignment store. I found the cutest top! I told you I had a date Saturday with a guy I met at the pottery sale, didn’t I?”
When Sammy took the largest bag, her mom pulled a bright pink blouse from the other stuffed plastic bag and held it up to her chin. “What do you think?”
“It’s great, mom,” Sammy said. “Really a good color on you.”
Her mom grinned. “Thanks, kiddo. I’m going to get cleaned up and get some work done in my studio. What are you up to?”
“Erin got back from Japan on Tuesday, so we’re going to hang out,” Sammy said. “Is that okay?”
Her mom was already pulling off her outer clothes before heading to the shower, but she stopped and gave Sammy a squeeze. “I’m really glad she’s back. This has been a tough time for you to be by yourself, without your best friend.”
Sammy hugged back. “You too.”
Her mom laughed a little shakily, and ran her fingers through her hair. “That’s life,” she said. “It just keeps on happening whether you’re ready or not. I need to get cleaned up.”
Sammy smiled like the good kid she used to be, until her mom was out of sight. Then she took the house phone off its cradle, turned it on, and dropped it to the floor. In a smooth motion, she nudged it behind and under the counter.
“And stay there,” Sammy said.
Problem dealt with, Sammy ran out back to get her bike. She and Erin were meeting at the convenience store. When Sammy had puffed her way up the long hill, Erin was waiting for her outside the store with two big freezies in her hands. When she tried to wave with the cups in her hand, it looked so funny, Sammy started to laugh.
Jumping off, Sammy propped her bike against the wall and took a long frozen slurp, so cold it almost burned. “Oh,” she sighed blissfully, “you will be my best friend forever.”
Erin giggled, took a long swallow herself, and then looked at her friend seriously.
“Did your mom understand that you couldn’t help that fight?” she demanded. “That the girls were making that little kid cry by teasing him?”
“Sure,” Sammy said jerking the straw up and down. “My mom’s great that way.”
Erin frowned. “She didn’t used to be,” she said slowly. “You used to always go to your grandpa.”
“Well,” Sammy’s voice had a weird scratch to it, “he’s not here so I guess she just picked it up instead.”
“Oh Sammy,” Erin cried. “I am such a bad friend. I am so sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. Don’t be sad!”
Her eyes held such pleading that Sammy forced herself to laugh. “It’s okay,” she said. “Come on – let’s ride somewhere.”
“Your house,” Erin said. “I haven’t seen it.”
“Yes, you have,” Sammy said.
“But not when you lived there,” Erin said earnestly. “I’ll bet it’s entirely different now. And special because you’re there.”
“You’re going to be disappointed,” Sammy said, getting back on her bike. She didn’t want to go home, but then she thought of the phone under the cupboard. Her mom would be out of the shower by now, and might notice it wasn’t there. And Sammy really wanted to stay out of trouble for awhile. Last week her mom had been so mad when Sammy got blamed for wrecking the class field trip – she just hadn’t realized everyone had already gotten on the bus.
Glumly, Sammy leaned back on the bike, pushed off and slowly coasted away from the store letting gravity do all the work while she sipped her drink and lightly steered with one hand.
Sammy must have imagined the noise – it didn’t belong in the trim suburb by the convenience store.
Aaw-oooo-oooo. A dog howl, mournful and low. Alone. Lonely.
Sammy jerked her head around, nearly lost her balance and just in time, swerved out of the way of a car. Her freezie spun across the road in a fizzing whirl.
Honk! The woman glared as she sped past.
“You don’t own the road!” Sammy shouted. She smacked her hands on the handlebars. Erin, completely unaware, coasted down the hill.
Weird. This was weird. Sammy pushed back her helmet, trying to hear better. Animal cries, whimpering. And then....
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bangbangbang!
A dog yelped and cried. Laughter exploded through the air.
Sammy dropped her bike on the grass curb. The noises came from the yard that backed onto the sidewalk. A chain link fence, thick with vines, blocked her view.
The dog’s cry rose again then trailed away.
Without hesitating, Sammy toe-climbed to the top of the fence. In a weedy back yard, two teenage boys were laughing so hard they could hardly stand up. A black and white dog, long-legged and shaggy, was nearly strangling himself trying to escape the chain that held him to a tree. A litter of red paper fluttered across the beaten dirt. The smell of gunpowder snagged Sammy’s nostrils.
“Hey, dummy!” the tallest boy yelled to the dog. “Let’s see you dance.”
He held up a string of red firecrackers, struck a match, and lit the fuse. He boy threw them at the dog. The animal whimpered, leaped frantically into the air, then fell heavily as the chain nearly choked him. The crackers hissed and sputtered near his face.
“Stop!” Sammy screamed.
She leapt down from the fence and raced across the yard. The fuse was almost gone when Sammy kicked.
The first cracker went off as her toe hit the pack. She felt the smack and heard the pop. But the rest of the string flew in smooth arc back toward the boys.
“Hey!” they howled as the firecrackers popped and banged at their feet.
“How do you like dancing!” Sammy tore over to them. Firecrackers, big ones, were going off in her brain. “How could you do that? You are wicked and cruel and you deserve to die!”
“Ah shut up, you little witch!” the shorter boy snarled.
The biggest one leaned against the wall and grinned. “We weren’t hurting it. But that was a good move, kid. Real good kick.”
“Get off our property!” The first one glared.
“Not a chance!” Sammy jabbed her fists into her hips. “I’m going to call the police and they’re going to arrest you for cruelty to animals. You were torturing that dog!”
“What torture,” the tallest teenager demanded. “We’re training our dog to be a watchdog. And a watchdog is no good unless it’s mean.”
“You’re just hurting it. You can’t do that!”
“Yes we can – it’s our dog.”
Sammy narrowed her eyes and tried to decide if she had any chance of survival if she smacked that superior grin right off his face. What would Papa Jack have done?
“Sammy?” Erin was hanging onto the fence, peering over the top. “What’s going on? Are you okay?”
“Yes, but those jerks were throwing fire crackers at him.” Sammy turned to the animal. The dog was trying to hide behind the tree, pulling on his chain, making soft yelping noises. “Oh, you poor thing...”
She walked slowly toward it, holding out her hand. “He’s just a puppy!” At the sound of her voice, the dog swiveled so that it crouched, nose pointing toward her.
“Oh you beautiful thing,” Sammy crooned. The sun shone on the dog’s rich black coat and gleamed on the long white diamond on his forehead. His two front paws and the thick ruff on his chest were clean white too. Sammy crouched and held out her hand. The dog sprang at her.
Sammy leaped back, tripped and fell. The dog stood over her, snarling. Black eyes ringed with white; black lips curled above white fangs. Sammy couldn’t move, didn’t dare move.
And then another boy ran past, grabbed the dog’s chain and hauled him off. The dog barked and snapped.
“Shut up!” The boy smacked the dog on the head. The dog whimpered again and dropped down, head on its too-big puppy paws. The wild black eyes warmed to brown. The edge of a soft pink tongue peeked between its lips.
Sammy sat up. “Brian? Brian Haydon? What are you doing here?”
“I live here, stupid.”
Sammy scrambled to her feet. “Here? I thought you lived in the apartments.”
Brian shrugged. “We moved. That’s why I got a dog. But he isn’t any good.”
Sammy took a deep breath, making the world look normal again. The pup’s white-tipped tail thumped once.
“Do you know what they were doing to him?” Sammy demanded.
Brian looked up at the teenagers leaning against the wall. His face got hard. “Joe, I’m training the dog. You probably ruined him.”
“Aah, what a shame,” the big one, Joe, said. “You’re such a woos, Brian. Besides we didn’t hurt him – much. Com’on Kyle. Play you, Die Again Sucka, on the computer.”
They banged into the house. Brian swore under his breath.
“Who are they?” Erin hopped down from the fence, careful to keep a long way from the dog. She pushed her helmet more securely onto her dark hair.
“My brothers.” Brian’s voice had a snarl in it, kind of like the dog.
“It’s against the law to abuse a dog,” Erin told him. “You can’t do that.”
“I don’t abuse him,” Brian muttered.
“You just hit him on the head,” Sammy retorted.
Brian scowled. “You have to be strict with a dog or he won’t know who his master is.”
“No! Not that strict,” Sammy insisted.
She walked as close as she dared to the dog. He lifted his head and growled deep in his throat. “It’s okay,” she said softly. “Can’t you tell I’m your friend?” The dog stared at her. His tail thumped again. He cocked his head.
“What kind of dog is he?” Sammy asked.
“Mutt,” Brian said. “Got him from a guy down the street when he was a puppy.”
The kids studied the dog who stared back at them. “I think he’s part lab,” Erin said. “He’s black like a lab.”
“He’s too big,” Brian scoffed.
“And his fur is too long,” Sammy agreed. “And he has white on his chest.”
The dog’s head lifted a little more, and this time his tail really thumped.
She crouched down, flipped her hair from her eyes, and leaned toward the dog. “You want to be friendly, don’t you boy?” She held out her hand, back first, fingers curled down.
The dog stood up. His tail straightened behind him.
“Good boy,” she whispered.
Quicker than she could see, he leaped. She felt his hot breath, heard the snarl in his throat and glimpsed his sharp white teeth as they closed on her bare arm.
“No!” Sammy cried. “Bad dog!”
In the background she was aware of Erin shrieking. Furious, Sammy leaned closer to the dog’s face. His teeth pressed painfully on her arm and his growl was low and steady.
“You let go,” she said. “You be a good dog and let go.”
She felt as though her eyes had a thin line of energy connecting directly to the dog’s deep brown ones. The growl rumbled slowly. The jaws tightened a little, teeth not yet breaking the skin but soon…
“I’m not the bad guy,” she whispered through gritted teeth. “I’m nice. You don’t have to bite me and we can be friends. You need a friend.”
The dog blinked, then suddenly yelped. Brian hauled him back roughly by the collar, and smacked him on the head again. The dog growled and bared his teeth.
“You stupid, no good dog,” the boy berated him. “Drop it!” Whack. He smacked the dog again.
The dog backed up, lips curled and teeth gleaming in a deep snarl.
“Stop it!” Sammy yelled. “Don’t you hit that dog again!”
Brian shook his head. “You got to be tough with a dog. Look how big and strong he is already. And he’s only five months old. My Dad says he’s a real devil. If I don’t make him scared of me, what’s going to make him do what I say?”
“Dogs do what you tell them because they love you!” Erin protested tearfully. “My golden retriever, Casey, does everything I tell her and she doesn’t growl at me either. She loves me. She’d die for me.”
Brian shrugged. “Jack was a real cute puppy. He slept with me until Dad said he had to be chained up out here and get turned into a watch dog.”
Sammy thrust her chin forward. “If you hurt this dog again we’ll report it to the police and you’ll all get fined and go to jail.”
Brian got a hard look on his face. “Ooh, I’m scared.”
“I’ve warned you.” Sammy headed to the fence, rubbing her arm. Bluish-purple tooth marks indented her skin and a line of pain crept past her elbow. The dog stared at her unblinking. “So long, boy,” she said.
It took about two seconds to scramble over the fence. She rubbed her arm again. There was going to be a bruise but the dog hadn’t broken the skin. He could have, couldn’t he, if he wanted to? Maybe the dog didn’t really want to hurt her.
“Do you think we should call the police?” Erin interrupted her thoughts.
“Maybe.” Sammy picked up her bike from the grass. “Brian will beat us up at school.”
“Oh, he wouldn’t, because we’re girls,” Erin insisted.
“That’s never stopped him before,” Sammy said.
Brian was about six inches taller, twice as heavy and three times as strong as any other kid at Carr Elementary. When anyone, any age or size bugged him, he punched them out. Once, he’d shoved the PE teacher and pulled a five days suspension.
“Brian is disgusting – disgusting and weird.” Erin tightened her helmet strap and pushed off, gliding smoothly down the bike lane.
Sammy looked back at the fence, wondering what the dog was doing now. What had Brian called him? She froze. Jack! The dog’s name was Jack. Sammy bit her lip and pedaled slowly after her friend.
“How could Brian name his dog Jack?” she demanded.