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The bottom of my shoes clicked against the cobblestone street as I stepped out into the cool, March morning. A dull, opaque gray sky loomed above. The street hummed with lively people; vendors hawked goods on tables and in baskets meagerly filled with potatoes and bread, and businessmen scrambled to their offices, newspapers tucked under arm. Less noticeably, poor beggar children skulked around alleys, eyeing unattended vendor tables. The children, begging for money or food, clung to the elbows and coattails of men, who irritably swat them away, as if they were gnats.
A clock tower several blocks away sounded a deep toll, seven times. Out of habit, I reached into my pocket, fingers gliding over a smooth, gold pocket watch. Laying the flat of my thumb over the cool back of the clock, I felt the faint pulse of gears turning together in time. Normally, in a quiet room, the hushed ‘tick tock’ of the watch drove a man insane with its repetitive, judging pulse. Now, however, the cloth of my pocket and the noise on the street subdued the watch’s little voice.
“Sir, sir! Do you have any change you could spare, sir?” A young boy stepped out in front of me, looking haggard and hungry. “You see sir, I’ve got eight siblings waiti---”
Interrupting his story, I dropped two shiny coins into his small hands. As they clattered together in his cupped hands, he looked up at me with a wonderstruck grin.
“God bless you, sir. Thank you!”
For a second, under the dirt and grime of his face, I caught a glimpse of what happiness should look like on a child’s face. The expression of discarded worry remained in his eyes for a few seconds, but it soon passed. He politely nodded his head at me, running off at a speed that only a young, energetic boy might.
As a creaky carriage passed in front of me, I continued to walk through the crowd, fiddling with the watch in my pocket. Once the carriage passed through my line of vision, I noticed a cluster of people gathered, all observing something resting on the ground. A few women clutched their hands to their chests, as little children, hidden behind their skirts, stood on tiptoes, curious to see what was going on. Men in the crowd looked around, at passersby and each other, as if there was something to be done.
Politely pushing my way through the crowd, I caught sight of what drew the attention of so many. A young boy, similar to the one to whom I had just bestowed money, rested unconscious on the hard, cobblestone street. Thick, dark blood stained his pale neck and the unnatural position of one of his small legs made the scene even more unsettling. A woman knelt over him, his blood staining the front of her white, cloth dress as she cradled him.
Without hesitation, I took six quick, long strides towards the two and knelt down over the boy. Placing my hand on his fragile neck, I searched for a pulse. Under the warm, damp sensation of the blood, I felt the light thud of his beating heart. Gathered around the three of us, the crowd continued to stand motionless and silent, gawking.
“Someone fetch the boy some water,” the woman next to me cried out, looking up at the crowd and clutching the young boy’s hand. “Hurry!”
With the slight shove of her mother, a young girl ran off towards the river, cupping her apron, as if it were a container in which to retrieve water.
“Is there a doctor close?” I questioned, my voice echoing, as I looked around at the thinning crowd. After several moments of silence and blank faces, a young boy yelled out.
“There’s a doctor just up the street, sir. Should I fetch him?”
Responding to my quick nod, he ran up the street, weaving through the traffic of moving people.
Turning back to the motionless boy, I observed my companion. She continued to hold the boy’s hand and seemed to be muttering something under her breath, perhaps a prayer.
“What happened to him?” I inquired. She looked up, startled that I was addressing her in her moment of concentration.
“I can’t be sure, sir. I only came across him a minute before you arrived. It seems he fell off the roof. You see, that awning right there has a tear.”
She pointed to an awning close above us, its fabric torn as if something heavy had been too much for its weak, weathered fibers.
“He must have been running.” She nodded towards his other hand, which clutched a small piece of bread. “The poor thief fell off the roof.”
As she stroked a trickle of blood off his face, the compassion of the woman was evident. Despite the damage to his body, the boy’s expression seemed relaxed and peaceful, as if he enjoyed an undisturbed slumber.
A ruddy, heavyset man made his way towards us, with the messenger boy at his heels.
“What happened here?” the doctor asked, placing his leather bag on the ground. He squatted down next to the boy’s leg and motioned for me to move. I stood, dusting off my coat. As I started to answer his inquiry, I felt a slight tug at my elbow. Turning, I saw the messenger boy gazing up at me, expectantly. When I made no movement, he cleared his throat.
“Sir, it’s just that I ran to fetch the doctor. Could you spare…?” he held his cap out.
Anger and irritation overtook me as I reached into my pocket to give the boy his payment. With no regard to the boy who lay before us, he again ran off into the street, following many of the other people who had already left the ordeal.
The doctor now examined the fragile head of the boy, frowning slightly. “Does he belong to you?” he asked, glancing up and me.
“No. I only found him a few minutes before I sent for you.”
The dark sky let out a roll of thunder. The few people left in the crowd looked up at the sky, with mutual expressions of anxiety.
“If he is to recover,” the doctor stated, “the boy needs to be taken indoors, quickly. My clinic is already full. Is anyone here willing to take him in?”
Silence filled the small crowd around us. Some shifted uncomfortably where they were standing, and others began to depart, muttering excuses about the impending rain.
The doctor shook his head when I offered my own home.
“That’s too far. He’s already in a bad state. We can’t afford to move him across town.”
Both of us turned towards the compassionate woman.
“I’m sorry, sir, but I’m just a servant. There’s nothing I can do.”
She stood up slowly, placing the boy’s hand over his chest, as if his death were already a decided thing. As she ducked into the crowd, fat drops of rain began to plummet towards the earth. As their delicate bodies slammed on the cobblestone streets, water splashed on everything it could reach, forming puddles. A small river of blood-soaked rain pooled around the lonely, motionless boy.
Later, as I walked home, the sun peeked from behind the heavy, gray clouds. In a matter of minutes, the remnants of the rain had evaporated. The puddles of water were gone, as if they had never existed. Morbidly, I wondered if the small puddle of blood had cleared up as well, disappearing as if the day’s events had never unfolded. Reaching in my pocket, I fumbled to feel the familiar pulse of my pocket watch. That pulse, the churning of the watch’s gears, had also disappeared.