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The Stranger Within

It was one of those sweltering, hot days in the middle of July when all you can do is dream of the cold winter days that you hated only months earlier. One of those sultry days when you either yearn for a swim in a pool or crave a cool drink. In my case, all my friends who had pools I could invite myself into were away on vacation, and the public pools were out of the question unless I could learn to enjoy suffocating myself in chlorine with hundreds of other delirious people. Instead, I decided to go to the neighborhood cafe where they sold my favorite dessert, frozen yogurt. Since my parents hadn't given me a car for my sixteenth birthday, the only option I had was to walk.

Dragging a friend along, we headed for the ice-cream shop, almost passing out from the burning heat of the angry sun on the way. As we trudged along, my friend continuously grumbled about the heat and why she had so foolishly decided to come with me on this hair?brained quest for frozen yogurt. I just shrugged, perspiration dotting my forehead, mumbling.

"We're almost there. Just think of cool air conditioning and the sweet taste of frozen yogurt on your tongue. It'll be worth the walk," I assured her.

I had to admit to myself that the cafe was quite a distance from our house. I was beginning to get extremely thirsty, and my head was reeling from the smoggy air.

When we were about a block away from the cafe, I noticed her for the first time. She was old, somewhere in her mid?seventies I guessed. She had this awful arch in her burly shoulders as if she couldn't hold the heavy weight of her large chest. Her curly hair was frizzy from the heat and dyed a horrible greenish?yellow, which was clashing dreadfully with her neon pink shirt. She was struggling, pushing a squeaking grocery cart full of what appeared to be beauty?salon items.

Besides all her extraordinarily gaudy clothing, her most dominant feature was the deep frown she wore. At first, I thought it was from the harrowing heat, but with each step toward us her scowl increased, creating a more disturbing picture of a very unhappy soul. It seemed as though she hated the very air she breathed, reminding me of the cantankerous lady who used to live on our street, the one my friends and I called The Witch.

I glanced at my friend to see if she had noticed her. I could tell she had, for she was wearing the usual disgusted face she wore when she disliked something and somehow felt superior to it. My friend was the type of person who was very conscious of what others might think of her. She wanted to remain flawless to the world so, when she was presented with someone who was different in any way, she became arrogant and condescending.

As we drew closer to the lady pushing the grocery cart, my friend directed us as far away as she could, until we were nearly walking on the road. I began to observe the many others that were passing by. They, too, were avoiding her at all cost as if she were a leper or a criminal of some kind.

The lady stared blankly ahead, her wobbling knees hitting the sides of the cart. Somehow, I felt ashamed at my reaction, but that didn't stop me from hurrying by. Just as we made it past her, I heard this horrible sound from behind me and quickly turned around to see what it was.

The lady's cart had been knocked over and her soap, perfume and shampoos were scattered across the pavement. Shocked, I looked at the lady's hunched back trembling as she slowly bent with great care to begin collecting her items.

I gulped. Many things were running through my head. I looked at my friend inquiringly. "What should we do?" I asked quietly.

"What should we do? We shouldn't do anything!" my friend said, rolling her eyes heavenward.

"Yeah, I know, but it looks like she needs help," I responded softly as the lady began feebly assembling a couple of perfume bottles into her lap.

"Well, I'm sure she's okay. Someone else will help her. Besides, we didn't knock her cart over…" my friend said with cold logic and then started to walk ahead. I stood there for a minute thinking. Something was tugging at the strings of my heart and, all of a sudden, I felt great compassion for this pitiful lady. At that very moment, I knew | what I had to do.

"Are you coming?" my friend called over her shoulder impatiently.

"No, I'm going to help her," I said with determination as I began to head back toward the lady.

"What? Amy . . ." my friend groaned through clenched teeth, giving me that look that said, Don't test me, and don't expect me to follow you.

I didn't pay attention to my friend as I cautiously knelt down beside the lady who was now furiously attempting to set her cart upright once more. I could feel the inquiring, skeptical eyes of the passersby. I knew they were thinking I was crazy for helping her or, worse, that I had clumsily knocked over her cart and therefore was assisting her out of duty.

"Here, let me help you," I said gently, as I began to position the cart upright.

The lady slowly glanced up, her large eyes filled with such fear, sadness and pain that I was frightened by her stare. I gulped and then, hesitantly, began putting the items back into her cart.

"Go away", she grumbled, throwing a tube of cream into her cart. "I don't need your help."

Shocked, I backed away from her seething stare and looked up at my friend who was haughtily standing by, glaring with her arms folded smugly against her chest. I sighed.

"No, I want to help you," I continued, putting three more shampoo bottles into the cart. The lady peered at me as though I was crazy. Maybe I was, but I knew that I was supposed to help her. She didn't stop me this time so I helped her put away the rest of her items. I was stunned by how many people walked by and hopped over certain disarrayed items in their paths, not even offering a sympathetic word or glance. What astounded me even more was when a cute guy whom I had liked for as long as I could remember was one of the uncaring, selfish people who strolled by. I was embarrassed by his reaction when he first saw me in a humiliating situation and then disgusted by his self?centered attitude.

When the last item was put back into the cart, I slowly rose to my feet, flinching as the lady awkwardly stood as well. I supposed she would walk by without looking at me, but then I realized I was guilty of misjudging her character.

I waited as she straightened her bent head, sniffled and slowly peered up at me. Her large dejected eyes were filled with a wonder I couldn't express in words. As an innocent tear dribbled down her ashen cheek, I was sure I could see a hint of a smile.

"Thank you," she whispered in a hushed tone. My throat tightened and tears threatened to fall down my cheeks.

"You're welcome," I murmured, offering a smile.

And you know what? She smiled then and a beautiful peacefulness washed over her once?stern countenance. I grinned widely as she cordially nodded her head and continued down the street, slowly creeping out of my life as quickly as she had appeared. Yet I knew that her smile and gratefulness would always be imprinted upon my life and heart.

When I finally had my frozen yogurt and my friend was still complaining about the embarrassment I had caused her; I felt gratitude well up within me. At that very moment, I didn't care anymore what other people thought. I was going to do the right thing, even if it meant losing or embarrassing my friends. I smiled to myself because even though I had helped that lady in such a small way, she had helped me more by showing me how I could be different in the world and how good that could feel.