The next day the meal preparation was the quickest and easiest yet. Everyone pitched in and knew their roles. The bread was ready and so were the lentils and greens.
But when they opened the side door they found only a handful of children inside the roofless hall.
“Where is everyone?” Lucinda wondered.
“Where are Mina, Nina and Christina?” Dina asked urgently.
Joshua didn’t see Peter or his brother and sister.
The children who did enter were a downcast and joyless lot. They trudged forward and took their food with their heads bowed. Joshua and the others asked them what was wrong and got only low mutters as a response.
“I’ll see what’s happening,” Joshua said.
He stepped out of the hall.
There were the children, camped out all around Dreamer’s Garden. As he stepped out of the eating hall, every small head turned towards Joshua. Their faces were hungry and full of betrayal. He spotted Peter amongst the crowd. The boy looked back at him accusingly with two black eyes. Joshua saw the reason for all this misery in the middle of the broken street.
Benjamin Bastion and his gang of boys stood on top of a pile of rubble surveying the neighborhood like a king in his castle.
Benjamin saw him and exclaimed, “It’s you!”
Benjamin leapt off his tiny hill and walked towards him. Joshua remembered every punch and kick from that day at the Charity Kitchen. He didn’t say a word as Benjamin slapped him on the shoulder.
“Yes, I remember you. You were impressive. You fought back more than any of the others. I admired you for that. I hope there are no hard feelings.”
He stared at the bully with his jaw clenched. Benjamin smiled and showed off his bright white teeth.
“So my regular customers all left the old Charity Kitchen. I followed them here. I never would have guessed you’d be running this establishment.”
“So same as before? Anyone who wants in has to pay me. Obviously that excludes you and your friends. I can’t charge you a toll for entering your own hall. But these others, well, nothing is free.”
Joshua looked at the crowd of hungry children all around Dreamer’s Garden. They’d come all this way in search of food only now to be turned away.
Benjamin went on.
“Don’t worry, if they’re hungry enough, they’ll pay. And those who can’t will look elsewhere. You know you should be thanking me. Without so many mouths to feed you’ll have some extra left over that you can sell. Make a tidy profit. That’s what the attendants do down at the Charities.”
Joshua said nothing in reply. Benjamin gently punched him in the shoulder.
“You can even let a few in for free if it’ll help your conscience. Not too many. Anyone out there you want to let in, free of charge?”
Joshua looked over at Peter and his family. He saw Dina’s little friends. He could let them in if he told Benjamin to.
He didn’t say anything. He went back into the hall and left Benjamin on the street.
He walked all the way back to the side door and into the alley. He slammed both his fists on the table hard. Ollie and Rollie ran to check that their knots held together.
“What is it?” Heathcliff asked.
The knife waited there on the table. Joshua reached for it then pulled his hand back.
He went back to face Bastion without it.
Just as before he felt the pressure build inside his head until he could barely feel anything else.
Benjamin still stood in the middle of the street on top of a pile of old bricks. Joshua climbed to the top until he was face to face with the bully.
Benjamin greeted him with his bright white smile.
“So what’s your answer?”
Joshua’s hand wasn’t slow this time. He slapped Benjamin across the face so fast and so hard his fingers burned. Benjamin’s eye watered and a red welt formed on his cheek.
“Clear out!” Joshua shouted.
Every child camped around the hall stood straight up. Benjamin’s gang whirled around like a pack of dogs.
“This is my kitchen and you’re not welcome here!”
Benjamin laughed. He reared up and looked down on Joshua.
“You want to try again?” he dared.
Just then Mr. Mudd stepped out of the hall.
“Away with you!” he shouted.
Heathcliff and Lucinda came out and stood beside him.
Benjamin’s gang froze then retreated from the small hill leaving their leader alone with Joshua.
Joshua saw Peter and the children camped around the hall get up and move towards the mound. Mr. Mudd was already halfway to the pile. Benjamin half stumbled down looking for a way out.
“It’s all right, Mr. Mudd,” Joshua said.
He strode towards the retreating Benjamin.
“Yes, I do want to go again Benjamin. Do you?”
Benjamin looked the circle of children closing in on him and his gang. He shrank. The smile vanished from his face replaced with a pleading look. He mumbled to Joshua.
“I did you a favor that day, I…”
Joshua came forward and slapped him again. Benjamin stumbled. Joshua shoved him. Benjamin fell backwards off the pile of bricks. He got up and saw that he and his gang were surrounded. In moments the other children were on them. They may have been bigger than any one of them but now a dozens of arms and legs hit them from all angles. Benjamin and his gang squealed with every blow.
“Don’t hurt them!” Joshua shouted. “If they want to leave, let them!”
The crowd parted and the gang raced away from the hall as fast as they could run. Benjamin led the way. In moments they were distant dots far down the streets. A moment after that and they were gone from Dreamer’s Garden.
Joshua and the children watched for a moment. They waited to see if the gang came back. They didn’t. Then Dina appeared at the hall entrance.
“Aren’t you going to come in?” she asked.
“Food’s getting cold,” Joshua said.
With that the children poured into the hall with a loud cheer that rang through the broken alleys.