~*~ The Wrong Path ~*~
With head lowered and arms wrapped firmly about her waist, Laurie hurried blindly through the park; night's cold breath scratching at the nape of her neck, like a demon readying himself to savour sweet flesh. Shuddering, she tightened her embrace and quickened her footsteps, wanting to be free of past and present and of the tears that spilled silently from her aching soul.
When someone bumped against her, hurrying in the opposite direction, she heatedly cursed under her breath but did not look up to see who it was. She was on a mission to set herself free from times once favoured. There was no time for any distractions. However, when a second person bumped into her, then a third, and a forth, she stomped her foot hard on the path and spun about to see what madness had overtaken the world she had learned to despise.
"What on earth is going on here?!" she growled, loudly, as one giggling soul after another all but skipped on by. Not one person seemed to note her existence, neither did any seem to be going in her direction. What nonsense was this?!
As a fifth person collided with her, giggling as he went, she grabbed the young man by the arm, demanding he stop and feed her curiosity. "What is going on? Where is everyone going?"
"Have you not heard?" he called as he broke free of her grip, with ease, laughing as he went. "The Trader has come!"
"Who?" Shaking her head, Laurie espied a happy couple run on by and instantly clutched hold of her pained heart. On being reminded of her inner torture, she turned to hurry on her way, but the crowd grew thicker, barely giving her room to breathe, let alone move. "Leave me be!" she yelled into the crazed horde, her arms aching as they sought to help her break through. "For goodness sake, get out of my way!" But no one seemed to hear her. No one paid her any attention. No one seemed to note or care that her heart was broken and her grief was more than she could handle. All everyone seemed to be focused on was joy and whatever it was that lay at the end of their present journey.
As the crowd all but crushed her, Laurie gave up the fight, stood still, buried her head in folded arms and groaned through clenched teeth, yearning to be free.
"Would it hurt for you to go and see what all the fuss it about?" came an aged voice.
Laurie looked up through her folded arms, daring to lower them only when she realised the crowd had moved on. And there, standing alone in the shadows of night's firm grip, smiling at her, was an elderly woman donned in an old dusty coat and knotted grey hair. Laurie assumed the woman was a homeless soul, seeking food or shelter of some sort.
Although she knew her mission lay beyond what her eye could see, and she so longed to hurry on her way, Laurie found wonder would not allow her feet to move, even though she believed what she said. "I have to go."
The woman nodded her head once, keeping her eyes lowered as she wearily stepped to one side, giving Laurie the right of way. "Do not let me stop you, lady. Yours seems a path set in stone. God forbid I should think myself important enough to try and alter it."
"No one can alter the path I have chosen..." Laurie replied, her voice weakened with bafflement. Why was this woman bothering with her if she didn't want anything...? She put one foot in front of the other but took no more than two very small steps before stopping and, over her shoulder, asking, "Why do I feel as though I know you?"
The woman offered a feeble laugh, waving a lazy hand and shaking her head as she did. "Do you think me clever enough to know your mind, girl...?"
Laurie tried to look into the woman's eyes, but could not see beyond the shadow that now fell heavily upon the aged face. "I feel it in my heart... Why?"
"Your heart is not mine to know. My eyes have not seen the visions yours still focus on. Your path is not one that I am fit to travel... But look and see," the woman directed, waving a gloved hand towards the ground ahead of Laurie. "Footsteps of so many shapes and sizes have left their mark as they crossed over the path you so desperately follow. Perhaps you sense the hearts that have been before you. Perhaps I once was where you now are."
Laurie wasn't sure what the woman was trying to tell her, but she knew a message lay hidden within each breath given. "Where are you going?" she asked, suddenly feeling the need to know.
"I go where many others have gone before me. I go, as they do, to find hope."
Inwardly cringing, Laurie looked back, wondering where the crowd had disappeared to. Remembering the troubled past she left back there somewhere, she shook her head, closing her tear-filled eyes as she did; misery clawing at her soul. Her voice trembled with deep emotion as she spoke. "I..." She shook her head once more, lowering it at the same time, daring to share the weighty truth she had collected along the way. "There is no hope back there."
"And yet so many seem to believe otherwise."
A silent tear pushed its way forth, aching to find mercy. With thickened breath, Laurie replied, "I have looked for hope and found nothing but misery..." She wasn't sure why she found it easy to pour out her soul to this woman - this stranger, but, deep inside, where no other soul could venture, she had to confess that it felt so good to have someone hear her heart again... With a strained whimper, she relayed, "Love called, I responded, and it knocked me down... hard... striking me over and over until I could barely breathe, let alone see straight."
As emotion nipped at her nose, and more to herself than to the woman standing by her, she confessed, "I lost all reason... I succumb to intense grief at love's hand. I..." she faltered, struggling to retain a sob; the ache in her chest threatening to crush her as one memory after another threw itself on the jagged edges of her broken heart, "I begged love to set me free, but it would not. I was bound to misery, then cast aside." Convinced life had taught her well, she firmly stated, "There is no hope to be found."
When the woman stepped forth and placed her hand lightly on Laurie's shoulder, saying, "If this is how your heart was treated, lady, then t'was not love that held you," Laurie instantly crumbled beneath the woman's tenderness; falling to her knees as intense grief shot through her wounded soul, vehemently hacking at the pieces of her heart that were yet to grow numb.
How long she remained on her knees, weeping, trembling, inwardly screaming out for mercy, Laurie did not know, but the woman stayed with her the entire time, crouching before her and taking her in her arms and holding Laurie until every last tear had been drawn from her, saying not a word.
Feeling the fool, Laurie swiped her tears away and moved out of the woman's reach, stumbling to her feet as she did. "I...I..." she hiccuped... regretting her actions. To herself, she cursed... "My burden is my own. I am sorry to have forced it upon you."
"You have forced nothing upon me that I did not wish to take."
Laurie wasn't sure what the woman was talking about, and her half-hearted grin made this known. Standing tall, Laurie put on a brave face once more and announced, "I have to go."
The elderly woman brushed the dust from her knees as she also rose to stand. Watching her own hands as she wiped one against the other, she said, "There is nothing for you down that road."
"There is nothing for me back there," Laurie corrected.
"Walk with me to see the Trader, and if he does not possess what you desire, then continue on your way."
Growing somewhat irritated, Laurie started to back away. "No."
The woman groaned and clutched her stomach. Her obvious pain instantly drew Laurie to her side.
Taking some of the woman's weight on herself, Laurie asked, "Are you sick?"
The woman breathed deeply; her head still lowered. "I desperately need to see the Trader."
"Then go. I can take care of myself."
"I..." the woman moaned, her pain appearing to come from deep within as she clutched her stomach even tighter. "You may be able to take care of yourself, my dear, but I fear I cannot..."
Figuring the woman was in need of someone to help her make the journey to see the Trader - whoever he was - Laurie, still holding the woman and fearing the woman was about to collapse, looked around the park and into dark shadows for someone to help... They were alone. "I'll find a phone and call you a taxi."
The woman shook the head. "If you must go, my dear, then please, go..."
"I can't leave you here on your own."
The woman tried to stand straight once more, inhaling deeply as she did; appearing to use her breath to steady the ache within. "My dear, please, you are free to go on your journey. I will try to make it alone."
It was the word 'alone' that instantly bound Laurie's heart to that of her new companion. While she yearned to go to the end of her road, she knew what is was to be alone, to suffer loneliness, and she did not wish that upon anyone... especially not on someone so ill. "I will take you, but as soon as you have reached your destination, I must go to mine."
But as soon as they started back towards the direction Laurie had come, bitter regret fell heavily upon her soul....
(To be continued...)