It was a beautiful morning. The sun was shining brightly. The wind was blowing over the fields. The birds were sitting on the branches of the trees singing and twittering with delight. The bees were buzzing around the garden sipping on the rich pollen of the flowers. The butterflies were flying in the wilderness while the frogs were croaking and the animals were romping and playing on the field.
Theo and Mary woke up before the crack of dawn to get ready for their big day. They were very excited because they had chosen that day to open their fruit and vegetable stall in the town. They loaded five baskets of fresh fruits and vegetables in the wooden cart. There were crisp and delicious apples, grapes, oranges, cucumber, mangoes, tomatoes, and papayas. They also had baskets full of coconuts, cartons of eggs, and vegetables, like string beans, carrots, onions, and cabbage.
Ray sat up on his bed, rubbing his eyes and yawning a few times, and then he stretched his arms high above his head. He looked at the warm blankets he had just left and felt the urge to dive back in and sleep through the rest of the day. As he was about to go back to sleep, he realized this was his parents big day. They had waited so long for this moment to happen, so Ray got dressed and went downstairs. A smile spread across his face when he found his parents eating breakfast while the dog ran around the kitchen table, excited. Ray picked up the dog and gave it a big hug. He took a quick bite and went straight to the barn to feed his animal friends. In a short time, the family was on their way to town to set up their stall at the farmer’s market before it opened.
St. Matilde was nestled at the foot of beautiful mountains, surrounded by a lush forest and flowerbeds. The marketplace was the center of all the activities in the small town. There was always a crowd of people searching for bargains in the rows of tents and booths of fruits and vegetables. Bins of pumpkins, squash, and jars of home-made jams, pickles, and salsa were everywhere. Food vendors sold snacks and drinks, and peddlers sold the finest quality of quilts. Some vendors even sold a few unwanted household items and used clothing.
The market was divided into three shopping sections. The first part of the building offered gift items, clothes, household items, and restaurants. In some fast food stalls, the owners with smiles on their faces were urging customers to eat at their places.
Next was the busy meat and fish section where residents and tourists alike flocked to shop for fresh seafood. A few men unloaded crates of fresh fish from trucks to take into the market to sell.
Theo and Mary’s fruit and vegetable stalls were in the last section of the market towards the lower end of the building. There were at least twenty rows of vendors selling different fruits, vegetables, and flowers and their wares overflowed from the market onto the street.
The sun was rising, and the market was crowded with a few vendors already open. As the family approached the entrance, aisles of makeshift stalls and pushcarts selling all kinds of traditional foods, handmade souvenirs, and potted plants welcomed them. Theo smiled at the familiar sights and sounds of a busy market while Mary was so excited to be a part of this town and to have a business of their own.
When they arrived at the last section of the market, they looked for their assigned stall and located it in the corner with a long hallway close to the back entrance, allowing enough space for the shoppers to walk. Theo knew the market would thrive with human activity soon. They cleaned their stall and the surrounding area while Ray helped by placing sale signs and displaying their items for sale on the table.
Before long, the market opened. Some were shopping, but there were also a few strolling around enjoying the scene. It was a perfect place to be on a Saturday morning. Local people flocked to see Theo and Mary’s fruits and vegetables stand, curious about what they were selling. Soon, it became the most popular and favorite stop for all the shoppers because of their freshness and unique taste and beauty, not to mention they offered the most reasonable prices.
After biting one of the fruit samples Mary had laid on the table, a customer remarked it was the sweetest fruit she had ever tasted. She encouraged shoppers to try a sample of Mary’s mango salad with tomato, cucumber, onions, and cilantro, and it was so good they ended up buying some and even picked up a few unusual things, such as Mary’s recipes.
Ray was busy outside calling out enticements, hoping to lure more people to buy their goods. Theo laughed when he saw his son trying to attract potential customers to their stall. Some passersby even stopped and listened to Ray calling out to customers, and they were so amused that it brought smiles to their faces. Before leaving, a few older people patted him on the head and took out their wallets. They handed Ray a few dollars for the entertainment and for giving them a good laugh of the day.
Ray was a little red-faced as people applauded him, and he bowed his head in appreciation. He tried to return the money, but the people told him he deserved it. Ray hesitated, and when he looked at his parents, they smiled at him and nodded that it was okay to take it. Ray put the money in his pocket, thanked everyone, and resumed the work of calling out for more customers.
Suddenly, Ray saw two young children scavenging for food by rummaging through the garbage cans. Ray thought nothing of it until he looked at them. The children were filthy and malnourished. They were staring at the trash cans as if they had won the lottery. Ray saw the girl pick up a dirty old doll and hug it. She danced and spun around with it. Meanwhile, the boy found an old fire truck and cried tears of joy. They were about to look deeper into the garbage can to see what else they could find when the children saw Ray looking at them, and they hid behind the barrels.
Concerned and a little bewildered, Ray walked towards them. He looked at the children and knew they were starving. He ran back to their stall and took fruit from the table and gave the kids some apples and grapes. The children took the fruits, giggling with delight.
They said, “Thank you,” and scarfed the apples and then the grapes. The boy rubbed his tummy and burped.
Theo, who was standing nearby, saw what Ray did, and he walked over to them and patted his son’s head. He looked around to see if anyone accompanied the children and to his surprise, they did not appear to be with an adult. He asked the children, “Where are your parents?”
The boy answered, “We only have a mother, and she is sick. We have no food, so we thought we could find something to take home.”
Theo looked at the children and nodded his head. He invited the kids to have lunch with them, and the children looked at each other.
The little girl was worried. She whispered to her brother asking why those people were kind to them. “I’m afraid they will call the police and turn us in.”
Her brother was worried, too, and looked forward to eating a free lunch. “Why do you have to say things like that?” the boy asked his sister. “Look what you’ve done! Now we have to get away from them.”
The children were about to make a run for it when the boy’s face broke into a broad smile. His eyes lit up after recognizing Theo, the most admired person in their town for his heroic qualities that got him through his adversities. He had looked up to him ever since the day when the town proclaimed him as their hero. He told his sister about Theo, and she recognized him as well. They knew Theo would protect them and not hurt them. The children accepted his invitation and held Theo’s hands as they walked to their fruit and vegetable stand, looking at him full of admiration.
Mary asked no questions but smiled when she saw the children walking with Theo and Ray. The brother and sister smiled when they recognized her, and they introduced themselves as Mario and Mirla. Mary was pleased to meet the children and invited them in. The brother and sister went inside, and Ray seated them on two wooden chairs that his dad had made. Mary took out the food she had prepared for their lunch and set it on the table. Mary apologized to the children they only had mixed vegetables and some eggs for lunch. The children were surprised to hear Mary apologizing since they had experienced no adult had been nice to them before. Theo handed them a wet towel, and while the children were wiping their hands, their stomachs growled.
“Just relax and eat!” Theo said with a grin.
Mario and Mirla gobbled up everything on their plates and when they finished, let out a contented burp.
“We feel full already!” they said and giggled.
Theo asked, “Do you go to school?”
Mario looked down at the ground, shuffled his feet, bit his bottom lip, and clenched his fists. As Theo glanced at the boy, he noticed it wasn’t sadness he saw in his eyes but anger. Mario had a weird expression on his face, almost as if he was choking. Then he burst out sobbing.
“Since our mother got sick, we went to school dirty and hungry. The other kids teased me relentlessly, and because of that, it was difficult to continue. Boys tripped me as I walked to my class, and they picked on me every day without fail. They shoved and pushed me, but I got away. The teachers never helped and treated me as though I deserved the bullying. They never gave the other kids any punishment for what they did to me. I walked to school and tried to ignore the staring and whispering that went on right in front of my eyes. I arrived at school with no friends and no one to talk to. My sister took the brunt of the bullying, too. I defended her, but we were outnumbered. I woke up every morning, hoping something would be different, but it never happened. I was good at singing, but no one took the time to hear me sing. It isn’t enough to just be talented,” said Mario with tears in his eyes. “It went on so long we stopped going to school. It was better at home. In fact, we were glad the teasing and bullying stopped.”
After listening to the children’s story, Theo and Mary had tears in their eyes. They knew how it felt to be an outsider. They sat down and motioned for the siblings to do the same.
“A long time ago, we were outside the social circle ourselves, and it haunted us each day. People did not accept us into society because of our looks, but we learned to accept and deal with it because that’s who we are.” Theo went on with difficulty. “Being different isn’t a hindrance to be successful, and finding a true friend is not impossible if you know how to conduct and carry yourself. The trick is confidence and being true to yourself. Things might not seem good to you, but in time, I know others will accept you and your sister, just as we were. Please do not be disheartened. Keep your heads high, and the cruel people will stop. I promise,” said Theo, patting the boy’s shoulder.
Somehow, everything Theo said had a huge impact on the brother and sister. It delighted them when Ray stated that they would visit them later on in the day to bring food and medicine for their ailing mother. The children told them where they lived, and before they left, Theo gave them bags of fruits and vegetables while Mary gave them a few dollars and told them to give it to their mother. Ray took out the money the people had given him earlier and gave it to the children. The brother and sister could not believe their luck, thanked everyone, and walked away hand in hand as they waved goodbye. Theo, Mary, and Ray watched them leave, and as soon as they were out of sight, they sat down to eat.
Lucy, the governor’s wife, was passing by. She stopped and asked, “What smells so good?”
Mary explained, “It’s our meal, a mixture of different vegetables I grew at home.”
Mary offered her a taste, and Lucy could not resist as she took a bite. Lucy never enjoyed eating vegetables before and could not believe how tasty they were. She had missed one of the good things in life. It was so good she asked Mary if she could order a tray for a party she would attend the following day. Mary agreed, bowing her head and nodding.
“It would be my honor. I will have it ready for you tomorrow,” Mary said.
Lucy was pleased, so she gave Mary $50 for her trouble. Mary could not believe such generosity and tried to give it back, but Lucy refused and told her, “I’m late for my appointment.” She left abruptly, leaving Mary standing there, shocked. She could not believe that the governor’s wife liked her cooking.
Theo, who was listening nearby, heard their conversation. “How could she not like it? My wife cooked it!”
Then Theo puts his arm around his wife’s shoulder and kissed her. Mary smiled while Theo laughed and watched her face turn red.
Ray laughed and said, “Yeah, Mom! You are the best cook ever!”
They all laughed.
Three naughty eleven and twelve-year-old boys from out of town running around interrupted their conversation, and their grandparents chased after them. Ray was curious, so he checked it out. He excused himself and told his parents he would be right back before running towards where the boys went.
Ray walked around the fruit and vegetable section but did not find the kids. He continued walking and found them in the fish and meat section. They were still yelling, laughing, and goofing around, and their grandparents were nowhere to be seen. Ray watched the kids as they made fun of people. When they passed him, they stopped and made fun of him, too. They messed up his hair and grinned as they grabbed Ray by the arm. They were about to put him in a bucket of fish when they realized where they were and complained about the smell.
“Eww, it smells gross in here!” said one boy.
They looked around the crowded and dingy space and saw fish guts and heads on the table. They were so gross they almost threw up. By that time, the market was buzzing with vendors selling almost every single fish in the sea. The boys felt like they were suffocating.
“This place looks like a swamp. Let’s get out of here!” said another boy.
“I’m with you. This place sucks. It is filthy and smells like a sewer!” said a third boy.
“This town and everyone here are nasty, so let’s go. Let’s leave this stinking place now!” said the first boy.
With that said, they pushed Ray down on the ground.
These rambunctious kids were Roger, Jason, and Chester. They were cousins. They were on a week vacation with their grandparents.
As the boys were leaving, they knocked over some fish buckets and coolers, annoying the vendors and customers, but the kids just laughed at them. The boys ran, but the ground was slippery. Their shoes had no grip, so they struggled to keep their balance. They stopped themselves for a moment, but then they lost their footing, crashing down and hurting themselves. They tried to get up a few times on their own with no success. A crowd formed, and a few people walked right by them offering no help. The boys felt helpless and humiliated as they laid on the ground. They could not believe a single person would not help them. The boys needed help, but the people passed them by. They knew they were mean to them, but they thought at least one person would assist them.
Roger, the oldest of the boys, was hurt. He opened his eyes, and as he did, intense pain assaulted him. His head was pounding, and he could not move his leg. He tried to breathe, but he found himself short of breath and gasping for air.
Meanwhile, Ray squeezed through the crowd and rushed to help the boys. Seeing them lying on the ground and injured, he whispered to the wind, and in an instant, it lifted the boys up as if it was some kind of acrobatic stunt. Their feet were back on the ground. Unbeknownst to the boys, Ray laid his hands on each of them and healed them. It was so fast that the kids did not notice what Ray was doing. The boys recovered from the fall and did not understand what happened.
“Are you all right?” Ray asked.
The boys checked themselves for any injuries, and when they realized they were okay, they smiled.
“Nothing bad ever happens to cool guys, huh?” Chester said, the mischievous one but sweet and fun-loving at the same time.
The boys boasted and high-fived each other, all except Roger, who was trying to make sense of what happened to them.
I remember falling and hurting, and some ‘thing’ pulled me up, Roger told himself, confused about suddenly being okay.
The boys looked at Ray standing beside them. They could not believe that he was the only one who stopped and that not a single adult helped them. They were mean boys, but they knew when to appreciate someone’s help. They shook Ray’s hand and thanked him for what he had done for them.
“You don’t have to thank me,” said Ray. “I didn’t do anything.”
The boys smiled at him as they nodded vigorously. After they introduced themselves to Ray, they felt the need to reward him.
“Do you want to come with us to the park so we can treat you to some hot dogs?” asked Roger.
Ray did not have to think twice. “How could I say no to free food?” he replied, laughing. “But let me tell my parents first, okay?”
The boys looked at one another. They had never asked their parents’ permission for anything.
“Why would you do that?” asked Jason.
“Do what?” Ray asked.
“Ask your parents’ permission?”
“I need to tell my parents where I’m going. I don’t want them to worry,” answered Ray.
“No offense, Ray. Be a little more like us. We get to go virtually anywhere we want to. Yes, parents can make your life miserable, but you get privileges when you learn to play their game. We learned how to thrive under our parents’ system, and they can’t wait to give us the nod to go until curfew time.”
Play the parents’ game? What’s that? Ray wondered.
Just then, Ray saw a group of elderly people walking down the streets, watching children twenty yards ahead, and playing tag on the playground, and they looked worried. Ray suspected that they were the boys’ grandparents.
“Are those your grandparents?” he asked.
The boys looked at the elderly people and shrugged their shoulders.
“Yes, they are,” Jason said with no concern.
“C’mon, let’s go get your parents’ permission already,” Roger said impatiently. They followed Ray as they walked back to the market.
The boys had to wait as people were flocking to Theo and Mary’s fruit and vegetable stand. Ray apologized to his friends and asked them to wait a few minutes while he helped his parents. The boys nodded, and they stood back and watched Theo and Mary as they worked. Their ugliness shocked them. They could not believe that Ray’s parents looked so hideous and felt repelled, but they controlled themselves and decided not to say anything because of their newly formed friendship with Ray.
When the customers were all gone, the boys heard Ray ask his parents’ permission to go with them. They saw Theo smile with dark spaces between his front teeth. Theo walked over to the boys, patted his son’s head, and told him, “Have fun.” Then he turned to the boys and told them in a nice soft voice, “Be careful while playing in the park.”
Mary waved at the boys as they left. The children were silent and kept looking back at Theo and Mary while they walked to the park. They were amazed at how good Ray’s parents were. They were meeting for the first time, but they treated them as if they were old friends.
“Your parents are awesome! They trusted you right away with us,” Jason said.
“My parents are great! Don’t your parents trust you?” asked Ray.
The boys shrugged their shoulders and said nothing more. But they had to admit, Ray had a better relationship with his parents than they had.
When they got to the park, they each bought a hot dog and sat on the bench. While they were eating, they saw one booth selling used bicycles.
“I remember my first bike,” said Jason.
“Me, too,” said Chester. “I must have been eight or nine when I got my first bike. The freedom, the exhilaration, the challenge, and the accomplishment of staying up on two wheels for the first time! I had so much confidence I did not wear a helmet or knee and elbow pads. When I hit the road, I was at the mercy of the gravel. It was awesome!”
The boys roared with laughter. Then they noticed Ray was silent.
“How about you, Ray? When did you first ride your bike?” Jason asked.
“I never rode a bike because I never had one.”
“What? You never had a bike before? That is so lame,” Chester said.
The boys thought about it for a minute and then whispered to each other.
“C’mon, let’s go,” Jason told Ray.
“Where are we going?”
“No question. Just come with us,” Jason said.
Ray followed the boys, and they went straight to the bicycle vendor. They bargained for an old bike for $10. The vendor hadn’t sold anything that day and wanted to go home early, so he agreed to the price.
“Pick one!” Roger said, pointing at the bicycles.
“What do you mean?” Ray asked with a twinkle in his eyes.
“We’re leaving this afternoon to go back home,” Roger answered. “We want to give you a bike to remember us. The next time we see you, you better be riding it.”
Ray lit up. “Are you sure? Are you kidding me?”
“Why would we joke around at a time like this?” Jason said.
Ray looked at the used bicycles lined up on the curb and picked an old red Schwinn Tornado, but the paint had its share of chips and dings. Roger tested it around the block, and even though it was old, it was still in good condition.
“Okay, let’s see how much damage you can do with this bike,” said Roger.
Ray looked at his friends and was embarrassed to tell them he could not ride a bike. He walked it across the street back to the park and attempted to ride it. Ray found it was hard to keep from falling, and whenever he tried to push the pedals, he fell over. He tried several times, and he still could not ride it. Ray stopped and stared at the bike.
“What’s wrong?” asked Chester.
“It’s just that. . . I can’t ride a bike!” said Ray, turning red in his face.
“You can’t ride a bike?” Chester asked, laughing. “We know that already. Why do you think we bought the bike? We are here to teach you how to ride it.”
“Really?” said Ray.
“You are our only friend in this tiny town, and before we leave, we want to see you ride it. We will help you learn!” Chester said.
Ray found himself overwhelmed with happiness for having such great new friends, and all he could do was say thank you.
The boys high-fived as they laughed and spent the whole morning teaching Ray how to ride the bike until he could ride it on his own. Moments later, the boys’ grandparents found them and said it was time for them to leave but not until they scolded them for running amok in the neighborhood. Ray and the boys hugged before saying goodbye. The grandparents were shocked when the boys held their hands as they walked back to their car. Ray smiled and knew the boys and their grandparents would get to spend some time together. The kids turned around and waved back at Ray once more. Ray acknowledged it by nodding his head and saluting. The kids saluted him back.
“How old are you, Ray?” Jason asked.
“I’m six,” Ray answered.
“Six years old?” Jason said.
The boys’ jaws dropped. They thought Ray was nine or ten!
Meanwhile, Theo and Mary sold everything they had earlier and were busy cleaning and packing up their things when Ray returned with his new bike.
“Where did you get that?” asked Theo with a bright smile on his face.
Much to his parents’ amazement and joy and instead of answering his father, Ray showed off what he had learned. Then he stopped, smiled at his parents, and told them, “It’s a gift from my new friends. It’s old, but it rides like the wind.”
The father and son looked at the bike and smiled. Theo checked it out. It was old and grimy, but he thought it had potential. He told Ray, “We’ll work on fixing the bike together.”
Ray was so happy that he could not wait to get home. He helped his dad clean their stall and haul away their garbage while Mary put their things in the cart. When they were ready to leave, the family agreed to stop by and check on the brother and sister before going home.
The children’s house was not far away from the market, so the family stopped by the store first to buy the things they needed at home: gas lamp, new pillows and blankets, plastic containers, and some herbs and spices for Mary. They also bought toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, and shampoo for the children and medicine for their mother. They also stopped at a clothing store, and the final stop was at a little fast food restaurant where they bought food for the children and their mother.
They walked to the children’s tiny house behind an abandoned building. As they walked towards the home, they thought it was not a good place for the children. They could not believe they lived in such filth.
“I think our tiny shack next to the landfill was a little better than this,” said Mary, shaking her head.
Theo nodded in agreement, and even Ray felt bad that the children had to live in such a dangerous place.
“This is no place for the children to live. There’s filth everywhere. I am sure that is the reason their mother got sick. Eventually, the children will be sick too if we don’t do something about it,” said Theo.
They knocked on the door, and Mario opened it. He had a big smile on his face when he saw Theo, Mary, and Ray standing outside. He asked them to come in and took them to his mother, Grace, who was lying on the bed.
Mary held the mother’s hand and asked, “How are you doing?”
Grace looked distressed and coughed. She said, “I’m always getting colds. When I get better for a few days, I would come down with another one. When I get sick, it puts me in bed, exhausted and needing a nap. I can barely drag myself through the day. I’m sorry my children were rummaging through the garbage cans. I don’t blame them for leaving the house looking for food because they were hungry. We were not always like this. I lost my job and couldn’t pay rent. This place was empty so we moved in. It’s better than living in the car. It’s only temporary until I get better. Thank you for feeding my children and for the money and food.”
Theo felt sad as he watched the sick mother. She needed help. He couldn’t bear to see the children and their mother living in such misery. He thought about it harder and decided to help. He whispered to Mary that she was to stay with the family while he stepped out for a little while and promised he would be right back. Mary frowned, confused, but when she saw Theo’s eyes, she knew her husband was planning a way to help the family.
As soon as Theo left, Mary took the food out of the bags and laid it on the table. She took the lid off a soup container and fed Grace while Ray showed the children the clothes his parents had bought for them. Mirla danced around with her new pink dress, and Mario admired his new shirt and pants. Mary called the children, and they all sat down and ate at the dinner table.
Moments later, Theo returned with a few people from social services to help the children and their mother. The children cried because they thought they were being taken away.
“Oh, no, children, they are not here to take you away. They’re here to help you,” explained Theo, trying to comfort them.
He sat down next to the children, looked at them straight in the eyes, and said, “Your mother is sick. She needs to go to the hospital. First, the good doctor will look at her. Then they will give her medicine to make her feel better. Lucy, the governor’s wife, told me that once your mother is better, you could live with her in the mansion with her family. Your mother will work for them. Isn’t that nice? You will have a nice bed to sleep in, and you will no longer need to search for food in garbage cans. There will be plenty of food to eat there. You will go to a new school with new clothes and shoes, and no one will tease you and your sister anymore. Those bad times are gone and will just be a memory.”
Mirla’s eyes got bigger with excitement. She stopped crying and hugged Theo. She kissed him and kept saying thank you until she fell asleep in his arms with a smile on her face. Mario was so happy he cried. Mary comforted him and said everything would be all right from then on. Mario smiled and hugged Mary. The thought of not seeing the kids who were bullying him at school was something Mario was looking forward to.
As the ambulance took the mother away, the social workers took the children to the shelter while their mother was being cared for at the hospital. Theo, Mary, and Ray went with the children and stayed with them until someone settled them into their temporary home.
Before the family left, they received word from the hospital that Grace was all right and that they would release her in a couple of days. The children were thrilled when they heard that and hugged the family once more, thanking them for everything they had done for them.
The kids looked out the window, waved goodbye, and waited until the family was out of sight before going to bed. Mario and Mirla were happy about the opportunity for a fresh start in a new home and a chance at a new life. They knew they had nothing to worry about anymore.
When Theo, Mary, and Ray walked along the field to head home, they knew the children and their mother would have a better and more fulfilling life awaiting them. They had been going through tough times throughout their lives, but God had smiled at them and those difficult times were over.
Their first day at the market was rewarding!
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