Joshua picked up his pace and left Lucinda back in Dreamer’s Garden. He ignored her question.
I’ll find a way, he told himself.
Every step he took he became more worried. They had months to find shelter before the winter came, but without food they might not last the week. His worry was so big it took over his whole brain and left nothing to work out how to solve the matter.
I’ll make this all right. I’ll fix this somehow.
His heart pounded. His stomach churned. He barely noticed where he stepped; his feet followed the route to the kitchen out of habit.
I have to. We need food.
And then he was at the Charity Kitchen.
Now what do I do?
He thought about Lucinda crying and Dina sitting hungry in the alley.
Joshua had never been in a fight before.
Just make a fist and swing. How hard can it be?
The squat square kitchen sat in front of him with oily grime covered windows. Shabby men and women made their way up the concrete steps to the rotting wooden doors. Joshua knew what lay behind those doors, a dining area with a floor black from all the dirt pressed in, wooden benches and tables full of splinters and the gray attendants crowded around the gruel pots at the end.
He saw no gang of boys. Everything was the same as yesterday. For a fleeting moment Joshua thought they had left.
He took a step forward.
And then they appeared.
Five of them came around the corner. Four were smaller and a year or two younger than Joshua. The one in the middle was a head taller than him, broad in the shoulders and at least his age if not older. He had a sharp chin and a pair of mean slits for eyes.
Still with no clear plan in his head, he started forward.
The tall boy took two steps out to meet him and smiled arrogantly. The boy had bright white teeth.
“I’m Benjamin Bastion,” he announced proudly.
Joshua stared dumbly at the boy in front of him.
He won’t stop me.
Pressure blotted out all feeling. He felt like his head floated just a few feet off the ground without any body connected to it.
Benjamin Bastion prattled on.
“There’s a toll to eat at this kitchen. Yes, I know. You thought it was free, but you were wrong. Nothing’s for free.”
Hit him now. Smack him in the mouth while he’s busy yammering.
His arms wouldn’t move.
“It doesn’t have to be much,” Benjamin went on.
“A single penny is all it takes for some. Others have to pay a little more because they are able to. I am very fair.”
Benjamin took two steps back.
Joshua’s fist sailed harmlessly in front of Benjamin’s wide white smile.
“So, it’s fisticuffs is it?” the tall boy taunted.
He brought up both fists and bounced around on both feet.
“Come on! Come on!”
Not having any idea what he was doing, Joshua brought up his fists as well.
Just then a man and a woman came towards the kitchen with their two children in tow. Benjamin stopped hopping around and put his hands to his side. His gang parted to let the family by.
Joshua stood there with his fists up, a moment behind everyone else.
Then he recognized the man. It was Mr. Mudd and his family. They squatted in a board and canvass shack in Dreamer’s Garden just a block away from the alley. Mrs. Mudd would sometimes drop by to see how they were. Their children, Nan and Georgie, would play with Dina and the twins.
Oh thank goodness. Now I don’t have to fight. Mr. Mudd will help me.
Mr. Mudd paused at the top of the stairs and glanced back at Joshua.
He waved at Mr. Mudd.
His mind shot ahead.
Once I’m inside, I’ll either smuggle a few bowls of gruel back to the alley or have Mr. Mudd wait a few moments near the door and run back for Lucinda and the others.
But Mr. Mudd turned his back to Joshua and trudged into the kitchen door with his family.
Where’s he going?
He tried to call out. His mouth dropped and a strangled sound came out.
Mr. Mudd didn’t look at him. He left him to face his troubles alone.
“Now where were we?” Benjamin asked.
His fists flew at Joshua.
Two quick jabs landed on his face. His head snapped back. He tasted blood in his mouth.
Joshua threw another clumsy punch.
Benjamin stepped aside as smooth as a dancer.
The kitchen doors opened. A gray suited attendant lumbered out with a sack of meal under his arm. His lazy eyes gazed out of a puffy gray face.
He has to help me. You can’t keep somebody out of the kitchens. It’s against the rules.
“Sir!” He called through a bloody lip.
“They’re trying to keep me out of the kitchen!”
The attendant blinked at him but said nothing.
“You have to let me in!”
The attendant made a groaning sound then put his head down and trundled back up the steps with his meal bag.
Joshua opened his mouth for one last shout; one last desperate attempt to secure the aid he needed but that no one wanted to give.
Benjamin’s fist crashed right on his jaw.
It hurt only for a second then his body went numb. He collapsed to the cobblestones.
On the ground he saw the attendant walk back into the Charity Kitchen and shut the door behind him. Benjamin took a few steps back.
“So you have some fight in you? Well, that means you’re one of the ones who has to pay extra.”
He pulled himself back to his feet. His legs wobbled badly.
Stand up! Stand up!
“You’re very stubborn,” Benjamin warned.
He lurched forward. He put his whole body behind his next blow.
Benjamin caught his arm.
Joshua’s momentum came to a sudden halt as if his arm had snagged on a branch or an iron fence.
Benjamin leaned in close to him so he could whisper.
“Stay down, you fool. You’re beat.”
He threw a wild punch. It caught Benjamin on the cheek.
Pain shot through his knuckles and hand.
Benjamin tossed him to the ground then turned away.
“All right. He’s yours,” Benjamin shouted.
The four other boys sprang at Joshua.
The first kick hit him in the stomach.
The next one hit his head.
Punches and kicks rained hard on his belly and ribs. He curled up in a ball on the ground as the blows fell on him.
“That’s enough!” Benjamin ordered.
The boys stopped and pulled away.
Benjamin bent down over him. Joshua saw a small red welt on the bully’s cheek. It gave him no satisfaction.
“That was stupid. You could have really gotten hurt. Don’t try that again.”
The tall boy led his gang back behind the corner to wait for the next unlucky urchin.
Joshua got up and walked away from the Charity Kitchen.
He wasn’t coming back.
He didn’t return to the alley. He needed to find someplace quiet first where he could cry. He couldn’t let the others see him like that. They depended on him. He had to make things right.
He would, somehow.
But first he had to cry. He found a small trash filled alcove and sat down.
It wasn’t his bruises that he cried over although they did hurt. It was something else.
I failed Dina.
I failed the twins.
I failed Lucinda.
I’m going to have to look them in the face and tell them there’s no dinner tonight.
And it wasn’t just that he had failed his friends.
I’m twelve years old. I shouldn’t have to feed five other kids. Mr. Mudd could have helped me. The grey man could have helped me. Why didn’t they? Why does Benjamin Bastion get to starve me and my friends? Why doesn’t somebody stop him? I shouldn’t even be here. I need…I need someone to help! Is no one going to help me?
He already knew no one would come to help him, ever.
He cried and howled and got it out of him.