~ The Wrong Path ~
The air about them seemed a little more sombre after Carol's latest statements, yet, despite doubt and fear of the unknown tapping her on the shoulder- which usually drove her to flea uncomfortable situations - Laurie felt the need to stay with Carol and the others, feeling, for the first time in her life, that she was really part of a family. She smiled as she viewed her ragged companions and thought, 'A broken and somewhat tattered family... but a family nonetheless.'
Something in her heart informed her that she would be saying goodbye to Carol soon, but she sucked in her breath, pulled back her shoulders, and determined to embrace the love that drew the unlikely four together; determined to face what may come later, later... For now, "now" was all that mattered.
"I will have a polar bear when I go..." Joy suddenly announced, with both Laurie and Carol aware of what the youngster was referring to. "A big fluffy, cuddly polar bear, all for my very self... And Benji will have a... a... a elephant," she laughed - receiving a broad grin from Benjamin.
"An elephant," he sniggered. "I don't want no elephant. That's silly." With exaggerated actions, Benjamin chuckled and stated, "They're big and clumsy. No elephant for Benji. Benji want bunnies..." But all humour fell from his eyes as he lowered his head once more and, with a mournful sigh, recalled, "No bunnies for Benji. Mother said. No bunnies," he echoed, sniffing back tears, his head falling a little lower until his chin rested on his chest. "No bunnies. No bunnies allowed..."
"Where is your family, Benjamin?" Carol dared to ask as Laurie tasted the sadness spilling from Benjamin's soul; the affection lacing Carol's words reflecting the tenderness of her heart.
"No family..." he relayed, shaking his head and failing to make eye-contact with the others. "They left. They all left. Benji's all alone..." He sniffed - hard. "No one loves Benji. No one. No one can..."
Though so very young, Joy did not miss the pain the man held. Frowning with obvious concern, she soberly declared, "We do. We love Benji. We can love..."
Laurie watched as the adult became the child and the child became the adult, quite aware of the depth of sorrow and emotion spilling forth before her. She watched as Joy hugged Benjamin about the hips and as Benjamin - quite hesitant at first - softened his entire stance and dared to touch the head of the affectionate youngster.
"Out of the mouth of babes," Carol said - more to herself than anyone, and somewhat emotionally. "So ready to forgive and to accept. If only the world could have such a spirit..."
Before Laurie could respond one way or another, her attention was instantly drawn back to Benjamin and Joy, and the strengthening of the bond they now shared.
"Benji loves Joy, too," he managed to choke out, pressing thin lips together and nodding as he found peace in the midst of love and acceptance. Only minutes ago he had moved to banish the child, now he humbled himself at her feet in order to ensure rejection wasn't the reward she received for the openness of her heart. "We must go on now," he said, moving to take Joy's hand, with Laurie staying by Carol's side. Taking the lead, with what appeared to be a new found confidence and purpose, he echoed, "We must go on..."
And on they went... together... side by side... four hearts beating as one...
Though, their peace and quiet did not last long, for a few yards down the road they came across a family of three: A middle aged man and woman with a teenage son, all dressed in their finest clothes and not a hair out of place. The teenage son looked as though he wished he could be anywhere but here. The man gave the impression that he didn't care one way or another. And the woman, with her nose in the air and her lips tightly pursed, looked as though she owned the place.
Clearing her throat, the woman made eye-contact with Laurie, and stated, "We're lost..." It was a statement, but the clumsily covered fear announced that it was a cry for help, to which Laurie responded.
"Where are you heading?"
Looking at Laurie as though she were a complete moron, the woman frowned. "To see the Trader, of course!
Sidestepping the other woman's arrogance, Laurie politely informed, "As are we. You can come along with us if you'd like."
The woman looked down from her pedestal, over the tip of her raised nose, and over at Benjamin and Joy. "You are going to see the Trader?" She glanced sideways at her husband, who presently seemed to be of the same mindset as she, then back at the man holding the child's hand. "Are you sure that's wise?"
Laurie couldn't answer that, for she did not know enough of the Trader to judge such a situation. She looked at Carol for help, who seemed to be holding back a touch of annoyance.
Carol nodded, once. "Very wise, I'd say. The Trader loves to trade beauty for ashes, dignity for shame..." she relayed, inhaling deeply before adding, "humility for arrogance... and so on..." Before the woman could spit forth the words obviously rising on her thinned lips, Carol nodded and started to walk on. "You may come with us if you wish..."
Laurie noted the woman's expressionof disapproval and figured the family of three wouldn't follow, but they did, whispering as they stayed their distance, with adjectives such as 'dirty' and 'disgusting' caught by Laurie's heart.
On sensing Carol's annoyance, Laurie softly asked, "Do you know these people? Have they upset you in the past?"
Carol inhaled deeply, then released as slow breath as they walked on. "Arrogance always angers me. What makes them think they're better than anyone else!"
"They are..." Benjamin threw at them, moving in close and looking over his shoulder at the family of three, as though he expected them to throw a fiery dart at him at any given moment. "People like that never liked my lot. We were never good enough for them. Never. They spit on folk like me. They call me names. Judge me. Condemn me... just because life doesn't give me a break. But that's not Benji's fault. Benji never asked to be like this..."
"You know them?" asked Laurie, receiving the wrapper from Joy's muesli bar and putting it in her pants' pocket until she could find a bin.
"I know lots of people like them... They judge everything. They're better than us. Always better. They spit on Benji..."
"People like that annoy me," groaned Carol.
It was Joy who frowned the deepest, turning back to glare at the trio following at a "safe" distance. She didn't say anything, but it was clear she was as displeased by the treatment of Benji as the rest of the group was.
Carol shook her head, as though emptying it out. "Ah, what am I saying...?! They are not for us to judge. I'm a foolish old woman who still struggles to hold her tongue. At my age," she smiled, half-heartedly, "I should know better. It's the Trader's job to judge who and what and why. Not mine. Not mine... If I judge them for judging others, then I instantly become like them. I become what I despise... Time to forgive," she seemed to be deciding, clutching her side as she did... "Yes, time to forgive..."
(to be continued.)