Benjamin's Tale
by Merri-Todd Webster
(2 May 1999)


"And they journeyed from Bethel: and there was but a little way to come to Ephrath; and Rachel travailed, and she had hard labour.

And it came to pass as her soul was in departing (for she died) that she called his name Benoni; but his father called him Benjamin."

(Genesis 36:16, 18, AV. Benoni means "son of my sorrow"; Benjamin means "son of my right hand", that is, the favored son.)


He had never seen the dark man before. That was how he thought of
him--the dark man. Dark hair that moved in the wind like a crow's
feathers and a long dark coat with dark pants and dark shoes
underneath. And dark gloves covering his hands. He didn't look
like a nice man, with all those dark clothes and that frown on his
face, pulling his dark eyebrows together. His leg throbbed
painfully, so that he had to bite his lip to keep from crying, and
seeing this strange dark man hovering over him did not make him feel
any better.

The dark man stooped, his hands hanging loosely between his thighs.
Seen closer to, he didn't look quite so scary. He was younger than
Daddy and had pretty green eyes, with long thick lashes kind of like
Daddy's friend that you weren't supposed to talk about, especially
not to Mummy. His smile, though, made the little boy think of the
way the big bad wolf must have smiled at Little Red Riding Hood from
inside her grandmama's bonnet, ready to eat her up.

"What's your name, son?"

He hiccupped, trying to keep the tears back. "Benjamin, sir."

"Hi, Benjamin. You can call me Alex, and you don't have to call me
'sir', okay? Tomkins and I are going to take you to the hospital so
they can fix that leg."

Benjamin looked distrustfully at the dark gloved hands that reached
out for him. "Where's Tomkins?" He knew Grandpapa's butler, he
knew old Tomkins was a Safe Person. He still wasn't sure about this
Alex. He didn't look very Safe at all.

Alex dropped his hands and bit his lip. "He's waiting by the car,
waiting to drive really fast to take you there. But you have to let
me carry you to the car, Ben, you can't walk on that leg."

That was true. He was sure he couldn't walk, he'd tried. It hurt terribly,
and the grownups kept saying it was broken. Benjamin nodded,
and the dark gloved hands scooped him up easily. He was careful not touch the
broken place, and that made Benjamin feel a little better, but not much.
He lay boneless against the chest of the stranger, Alex's chest, still
trying not to cry but failing. It was bad enough that he'd broken
his leg and it hurt terribly and Daddy would be so disappointed if
he cried, but now this strange man was stealing him away and he
couldn't do anything about it.

They came to the end of the long hallway, and Benjamin's heart
lightened. There was Grandpapa, his hands folded behind his back,
and he smiled as they came toward him. Benjamin wound his arms
around his grandfather's neck as the old man stooped and kissed him.

"There's a good boy. You'll be more careful the next time you climb
the old yew, won't you, then? Alex will take care of you, and everything
will be all right. Won't it, Alex?" He looked sharply at Alex.

"Yes, sir," Alex replied. "Everything will be all right." He was
not looking at Benjamin but at Grandpapa, though he smiled
reassuringly.

Alex carried him out to the car and sure enough, Tomkins was waiting
there, standing still and straight as he always did until it was
time for him to do something. As they came up, he got into the
driver's seat, and then Alex put Benjamin carefully in the back and
slid in beside him, and Tomkins took off very fast.

Benjamin was not worried about the fast driving because the big car
was very safe, and Tomkins was a good driver. But it felt better to
lean on a grown-up; it was hard, otherwise, to ignore the pain. He
wished Grandmama were here so that she would hold him in her lap
and sing to him. Despite himself, he whimpered.

"You okay, Benjamin?"

Benjamin snuffled, nodded, then admitted shamefacedly, "It hurts."

Alex made a small noise in his throat. "I know it does, kiddo. But
Tomkins is driving as fast as he can."

Cautiously, Benjamin leaned toward Alex, hoping he would not be
pushed away. He felt cold, and he remembered that he had felt
warmer when Alex was holding him, carrying him. "Daddy says big
boys shouldn't cry, no matter how much it hurts."

Alex made another strange noise that was maybe a nasty laugh.
"Yeah, that's what daddies say, but I don't think you're a really
big boy, yet, do you, Benjamin? I won't tell if you want to cry a
little bit, and Tomkins won't, either."

Greatly daring, Benjamin leaned over so that his head was almost
touching the man's arm. "It hurts a lot. I feel dizzy."

Even though he'd been hoping for it, he was surprised when Alex put
a hand on his head. "Come on and lie down, Ben."

Benjamin put his head down on Alex's thigh, on top of the black
coat. He didn't think Alex could see him, since he was lying on his
side facing the back of the front seat, so he slipped his thumb into
his mouth, which he was strictly not supposed to do. That helped
the hurt a little, and he was able to think.

"Nobody calls me 'Ben'," he said after a moment.

Alex's hand slid lightly over the boy's hair. "Do you mind if I
call you that?"

Benjamin briefly considered the issue. "No."

"Good." The hand continued to stroke his hair, and the stroking
along with sucking his thumb and lying down made the sick feeling
almost go away. He had to wake up, sort of, when Alex asked him a
question.

"What does your grandfather call you, Ben?"

"He calls me his dear boy. Sometimes his special boy. Or just
Benjamin."

"Hmmh."

Benjamin sucked his thumb a little more. "Are you Grandpapa's
friend?" he asked.

"I work for him," Alex said, after a pause.

Benjamin turned over, onto his back, hiding his wet thumb in his
pants pocket. "Sometimes Grandpapa has a friend like you."

"LIke me how?" Alex asked. He was frowning. Benjamin hoped he hadn't
said The Wrong Thing.

"Like--like--" Benjamin struggled to convey concepts which were not in
his vocabulary, like "handsome" or "beautiful" or "attractive." "Like
they go places with him, and he buys them things. And sometimes they
help him." His thumb strayed toward his mouth, and he wiped it on his hip,
rubbing. "Some of them haven't been very nice to me."

Alex's mouth twisted up for a moment in that way grown-ups had.
"They were stupid not to be nice to a boy like you, Ben." He
smoothed the bangs off of Benjamin's damp forehead.

"Can I tell you a secret?" Benjamin asked, scanning Alex's face.

"Yes, you *may*," said Alex, just as Grandpapa would have.

Benjamin pursed his lips, rolled his eyes toward Tomkins in the
driver's seat and then back toward Alex, and whispered solemnly,
"Daddy has a friend. A special friend. She lives far away and I'm
not supposed to ever talk about her in front of Mummy. It feels
funny to keep secrets from Mummy. Once she gave me a present,
though. Daddy's friend, I mean."

Alex smiled, reminding Benjamin of the big bad wolf again. "That
was smart of her, Ben. --How's the leg?"

"It still hurts, but not so bad."

Alex squeezed Ben's shoulder gently. "We're almost there."

Benjamin did not remember much, later, about the hospital.
Everything was white and moved very fast. Mostly he remembered
waking up and being offered some strawberry ice cream, which he ate,
feeling the throbbing of his leg now contained and dulled, encased
in the stiff, heavy cast that was still damp inside. He watched
some "Sesame Street" episodes on the telly, only he wasn't supposed
to call it the telly, and then Grandmama came in to see him. She
hugged him, smelling of roses.

"How's my good boy, then?"

"All right, Grandmama. It doesn't hurt so much any more. I tried
not to cry too much."

She patted his cheek gently. "The doctors say you were very good
and did everything they asked you to."

Drowsily, he nodded. "They let me have ice cream."

"Oh, that must have been lovely."

Benjamin drifted for a moment, giddy with medications he did not
remember receiving. He came to himself again and voiced his one
clear thought: "Where's Alex?"

"Right here, kiddo."

Grandmama turned, looking surprised, as Alex came into the room. He
was carrying his long dark coat over one arm, showing a maroon sweater
underneath, and had a bunch of balloons in the other hand. Smiling, he
tied the balloons to the foot of Benjamin's bed.

"You came through with flying colors, Ben."

Benjamin raised his hand toward the pretty balloons, pink and silver
and green and blue, the pink one in the shape of a heart. "Alex
carried me to the car and held my hand through all the bad stuff,
Grandmama, he helped me a lot."

"Did he now...." Grandmama sounded as if she didn't quite believe
this. Alex reached over and ruffled Benjamin's hair, something
Grandpapa often did.

"He was as good as gold, ma'am, really brave. Hospitals are scary
places, aren't they, Ben?"

Ben nodded, shuddering, and he saw that Alex kind of shuddered, too.
Grandmama was watching them with an odd expression on her face,
which bothered Benjamin, so to make it go away, he asked a question.

"When is Grandpapa coming to see me?"

Alex and Grandmama looked at one another in a very funny way. Then
Grandmama said, "Excuse me, boys, I must go speak to Tomkins," and
hurried out of the room. Ben looked up at Alex, who leaned his
elbows on the railing and bent low over the bed.

"I've got a secret to tell you, Ben, but you mustn't tell anyone,
ever, okay?"

"Okay...."

"This is like the secret about Daddy's friend, only even more
important. Don't tell *anyone*. Ever. Especially not your mommy
and daddy."

*Okay*...." Ben tried to sit up, but his head was woozy from all
the medicine. Alex pushed him gently back onto the pillow and patted his
chest.

"Your grandfather had to go away for a while. Probably a long
while. And he has to make certain people think that he's, well,
dead."

Benjamin's eyes filled with hot tears. "Grandpapa's dead?"

Alex shook his head fiercely. "No! No, he just has to pretend.
Because of a very important game that he plays." Alex bit his lip.
"Like, you know, when you get 'out' in a game and you have to
pretend you aren't there any longer."

Benjamin snuffled hard and wiped his eyes. "Oh. Oh, I get it. I
think I get it."

"Good boy." Alex ruffled his hair. "Because he's 'out' in the game,
he won't be able to see you for a while. But he told me I could
tell you about this and that you could come visit him after a
while."

"How soon?"

Alex's mouth turned down at the corners. "Not for a while. But
I'll see him, and your grandmother will see him, and we'll tell him
how good you were for the doctors and how you're getting better."

Benjamin nodded. "Okay...."

He did not remember falling asleep at the hospital. His stay there was
boring, although Alex visited him often and told funny stories that made
Ben laugh even though he didn't really understand them. Tomkins took
him home, a few days later, and then his mother flew with him to
Grandmama's place in Scotland while his broken leg got better. He
did not see Alex for more than two weeks, and he almost forgot about
the dark man who had carried him to the car and brought him balloons
and told him it was all right to cry.

Then one day Grandmama brought in a tea tray with enough for two
people and said, "There's someone to see you, Ben my love."

At first Benjamin did not recognize the tall, smiling man with the
gaily-wrapped package under his arm. Only when he thought that
Grandmama didn't use to call him 'Ben' did he look at the stranger
and cry, "Alex!"

Alex smiled at him, a very nice smile indeed, and sat down carefully
on the edge of the bed. "How's the leg, Ben?"

"I'll be on crutches, soon!"

"Good boy."

"Would you sign my cast?"

"If you want." Alex pulled a pen out of his blazer pocket and
leaned over Ben's leg. Ben sat up to see what Alex was writing.

"Best wishes," Alex said slowly, "from your... friend... Alex."

"Thanks!"

"You're welcome. Want some tea?"

"Not really."

"Well, I do." Alex poured himself a cup of tea, added some lemon,
and then stuffed a whole scone in his mouth. Ben giggled.

"Is that for me?" He pointed to the shiny package. Alex glanced at
it as if he'd forgotten it was under his arm.

"This? Oh, yeah. It's for you." Alex handed it over and ate
another scone while Benjamin ripped into the shiny striped paper and
tore at the tough brown cardboard box underneath.

"Here--let me help you with that."

A knife flicked out of Alex's hand. "Take your hands away,
Benny-boy." Ben raised his hands over his head as Alex ran the
knife through the sticky brown packing tape. "There you go."

Ben dug through the straw-like stuff that filled the box until,
crowing with joy, he pulled out a large stuffed bear with glossy fur
that was almost black. "A teddy!"

"That's what it is." Alex grinned and Ben grinned back.

"Thank you, Alex!" Ben leaned forward and threw his arms around
Alex's neck.

A moment later, Alex returned the hug, patting Ben lightly on the
back. "Thank *you*, Ben, but it's not really *from* me." He drew
back and put his hands on Ben's shoulders. "Remember our secret?
The one not to talk about?"

Ben nodded, putting his finger over his lips.

"That's who it's from."

Benjamin squeezed the dark-furred bear tightly, grinning into the
top of its head. Its fur was just about the color of Alex's hair,
and its eyes were green.

***

end