“Run!” Sean yelled, “or you’ll be sorry!”
Tyler ran. How long would Sean’s gang give him this time before they caught up and pounded him?
He didn’t dare look back, didn’t dare do anything that would slow him down. Instead he stared straight ahead and concentrated on pumping his legs, ignoring the pain slicing through his side, tried to gasp in enough air to keep his body moving…running.
Not fast enough.
Sean grabbed the hood of Tyler’s sweatshirt and yanked him backwards. With a sound between a shout and a sob, Tyler’s legs buckled and he hit the broken pavement of the abandoned shopping mall. With long experience he curled into a protective ball and tried not to cry as the older boys’ feet slammed into his back, his legs, his neck.
When they were finally done, Sean kicked one more time, laughed and leaned over Tyler’s head. “I don’t know why we even let you stay alive, you little mouse turd.”
Then he and the other boys sauntered away, leaving Tyler painfully uncurling on the rough cement, his bruises and scrapes making him slow and stiff.
“I hate this place,” Tyler yelled. But there was no one around to hear him.
He stood up gingerly, stretching, making sure his trophies were only bruises and scrapes. Why had he been so dumb as to try and take the short cut home? If he’d stayed on the longer route through the houses, the other boys would probably have left him alone. But it was a mile and a half that way, and only half a mile through the old parking lot.
“Dumb,” Tyler told himself furiously.
And he still had to go past the dog.
On his route home, there was a big mutt, never tied up, running loose in a yard full of flowers. The dog barked and barked, hackles up, with his big paws on the picket fence and his big teeth glistening while he yapped and snarled every time Tyler went by.
He terrified Tyler. The dog raced up and down the fence line, fangs bared, barking like he wanted to attack him. Tyler hated Sean more, but was most afraid of the dog. At least he knew what Sean would do to him – the bully had had it in for him ever since the start of sixth grade. Tyler didn’t get why – he’d never done anything to Sean. Except Sean was bigger, a year older, and liked to pick on kids weaker than himself.
And Tyler’s busy parents and over-worked teachers didn’t care much.
“You need to learn how to stick up for yourself,” his dad told him. “No one else in this world will.”
You sure won’t, Tyler had thought bitterly. And because Sean executed his beatings away from school property, no one at the school did anything either.
Walking slowly, trying not to limp, Tyler headed toward his home. Both his mom and dad would be at work so he could clean up, change his clothes, and wash everything before they showed up. That way he could avoid the exasperated pity and the lecture.
They so didn’t get it.
But there was still the dog house to pass. Sure enough, the animal was out there, barking, snarling, slavering.
Tyler had had enough. The rage pounded through him. He picked up a stone and winged it, hitting the dog on the leg. He yelped, then went at the fence with greater fury.
“Dog! Stupid dog! If you bark at me again, I’ll kill you!” Tyler screamed. “I’ll slice you with a knife and pound you with stones! Don’t you bark at me!!!”
He stood panting, hoping he was safe on the other side of the fence, too scared and angry and hurt to care.
Then a voice fell on him like cold water. An old woman stood up awkwardly from where she had been working, hidden by the bushes. “Stop that!” she ordered.
Their eyes met, hers blue and cold, his wet with the tears he couldn’t hold any longer.
“Bruce, sit!” she said.
Miraculously, with a woof of reluctance at the command, the dog sat.
“That’s no way to treat a dog,” the woman said severely. “Best case for you, he’ll be scared and run away. Worst case,” she eyed him sternly with hands on her hips, “he’ll jump over the fence and bite you.”
Tyler glared. “Well, then. Maybe someone will shoot him because he’s a bad dog.”
The woman looked over Tyler’s dirty and bloody clothes. “Now, that’s where you’re wrong. He’s a very good dog. I’m not convinced that you’re a good boy. What’s your name?”
“Tyler,” he spat out and was suddenly terrified she’d complain about him to his parents. Then they would be even more disappointed in him for teasing the dog. Tyler scowled; he wouldn’t cry. Wouldn’t cry at all. He hated this woman and he hated her dog and he hated his disappointed parents and he hated Sean. Most of all he hated himself.
“Okay, Tyler,” she said. “Time to end this feud. Come up to the fence and meet Bruce.”
“Come on. I don’t want to have to go down and talk to your parents about it. I do know which house you live in.” The woman was relentless.
Caught, Tyler stepped forward hesitantly. Bruce barked and Tyler recoiled.
“Bruce, behave yourself,” the woman snapped. “He doesn’t bite…or at least he never has.” She laughed but Tyler didn’t think it was funny at all.
Swallowing, he edged up to the fence and stood there, looking at the dog. Bruce’s eyes were a warm brown and he was panting softly.
“Give him one of these and make friends,” the woman ordered. She fished in her pocket and handed Tyler a dog treat.
His breathing was coming in gasps, he realized, but Tyler gingerly held the treat over the fence. To his surprise, Bruce didn’t lunge but leaned his big head forward and lipped the morsel into his mouth.
Tyler could have sworn the dog smiled. He let his breath out slowly and felt a matching smile begin on his own face. “Can I give him another?”
The woman handed over two more treats. “Come inside the fence now.”
Tyler nodded and walked slowly through the gate. He froze when Bruce barked, but the woman touched the dog’s head and murmured, “It’s okay.”
Reaching out slowly, Tyler offered another treat. Bruce took it happily.
“You can pat him,” she said.
Tyler ran his hand over the smooth fur of the dog’s head. He’d asked his parents for a dog so many times, but they always said it was too much trouble, that he wouldn’t really take care of it. “I would take care of it,” he muttered. He slid his hand over Bruce’s head again and rubbed behind the dog’s ears.
“Do you want a job?” the woman asked.
“I had hip replacement surgery last month, and Bruce isn’t getting the walks he needs,” she explained. “That’s one of the reasons he’s so barky. I’ll pay you to walk him every day.”
Tyler looked into the dog’s brown eyes. “Yeah,” he said. “Sure. I can do that.”
And they arranged it right then. Under the woman’s eyes, Tyler practiced snapping on Bruce’s leash and walking him up and down the sidewalk in front of her house. She gave Tyler handfuls of treats to ensure the big dog was eager to follow commands.
At the end of half an hour, she gave Tyler five dollars and told him to come back the next afternoon.
All through his classes the following day, Tyler daydreamed about the dog, about the warm brown eyes and panting smile. No one else ever smiled at him any more.
After school, he took the long way, running part of it so as not to be late. The woman was waiting for him with the leash out and another handful of treats.
And the walk was amazing. Tyler trotted along with Bruce at his side. They went to the park and Tyler laughed when Bruce sniffed out a frog and then jumped back when the frog jumped forward. Tyler told Bruce about his school and how much he hated Sean. Bruce listened to every word and then nosed him for a treat.
For three weeks, Tyler managed to avoid the bullies. Life was as close to perfect as he had ever experienced it.
The day was unseasonably hot, and in the glare of the sun, Tyler was trying to pull off his sweatshirt. His hand loosened on the leash and a squawking crow roused Bruce to a frenzied hunt. The dog yanked the leash from Tyler’s hold and took off toward the abandoned shopping mall.
“Bruce!” Tyler screamed. The dog kept running.
Frantic, Tyler tore after him. First Bruce and then Tyler wove between honking cars to reach the vast expanse of the empty parking lot. Bruce let out a joyous bark and began to run, scattering flocks of crows, careening around empty dumpsters. In barely a minute he was practically out of Tyler’s sight.
“Bruce!” Tyler yelled again. In the distance he could see the dog check his headlong flight. But the joy of free running overcame any desire for a treat.
In despair, Tyler slowed to a walk. He could never catch Bruce this way. His chest was heaving and he felt like letting his own tongue hang out. Now what?
“Hey, mouse turd!” A hated voice pierced through his worry. Sean and his stupid gang had seen him; their eyes were alight with cruel glee and Tyler knew their was no escape for him.
And Bruce…what if the dog got lost?
“Back off, Sean,” Tyler said desperately. “I have to go find my dog.”
“Ooooh, like we care.” The morons all laughed.
Tyler put up his fists. Maybe he could fight his way out, and then go after Bruce.
The pack circled him, practically slavering in their meanness. Tyler tried to circle, to keep facing them but it was hopeless.
In a moment they were on him, hitting, kicking.
“I hate you!” Tyler screamed.
And then a growl. Ferocious. Wild. Bruce launched at Sean, fangs wide, snarling. His teeth tore open Sean’s shirt. The bully howled and jerked uselessly as his friends backed away, turned and ran.
His ripped shirt tightly clamped in Bruce’s mouth, Sean’s eyes were wide and terrified.
Breathing hard, Tyler dropped his hand onto Bruce’s head. “Let it go,” he ordered.
Miraculously, Bruce spat out the fabric, and still growling low in his throat pressed against Tyler’s leg.
Tyler leaned over, picked up Bruce’s leash and holding it fast, turned to Sean.
“Run,” he said.
And while Tyler laughed and stroked his dog, Sean ran.
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Not Yet Summer