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The Price of Fortune
Author's note: In the novel Before We Were Free, one prominent theme was “Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to avoid them, some things are going to happen.” This theme is prominently seen in my story. In the beginning, you have the main character’s best friend, Eddie, shot in a failed robbery. The main character and his friends Joe and Frank can’t afford to get Eddie to a doctor, so the main character decides to rob in order to get the money to save Eddie. He finds a way through which he can save Eddie (stealing from a rich girl he befriended), but by the time he finally has the money, Eddie has passed. The protagonist had a plan and was almost certain that he would succeed in his endeavor. However, no matter how hard he tried, Eddie died in the end, for it was what was destined to happen.
“Success Jimmy Boy! Pure success! We just have to cash this stuff in and soon we'll have our mugs buried in some pristine chow,” hollers Frank, as we dash out of the dim lit street into the safety of the shadows of an alleyway.
“Pristine? What the hell does that mean?” scoffs Joe.
“I dunno. All I know is I saw this rich guy eating some pricey looking food earlier and he was saying 'Oh, this food is so pristine,'” mocks Frank, twirling an invisible mustache on his face. The four of us howl at this, each of us patting the small assortment of rings, bracelets, and necklaces we have in our hands or in our satchels. I take one of the gleaming, golden necklaces from my hand, wrap it around my neck, and leap up onto the dumpster that we are lingering near.
Adorning my best king face, I preach to my pals, “Well then, my good sirs, let us join the 'great, rich bastards of this fine city!' Hell, with our fancy talk, top class clothes,” at this, I pat the stomach of my holed, dilapidated button-down shirt, “and pristine etiquette, we'll fit right in.”
“Huzzah,” cheers Frank, raising one of his bracelets up. Then, in a sarcastic tone, he belts, “Cheers to our new, hard earned, completely honorable wealth!” Breaking into a boisterous round of laughter, we all hold up various gold items we have and clink them together.
“We should probably bury the stuff, though, until news of the robbery blows over. We don't wanna get caught red handed by the bulls,” advises Eddie. To this, we all agree. After a couple of minutes of argument and tough decision-making, we develop a firm plan: Eddie and I will stay behind to find a place to hide the goods in this alleyway. Then, tomorrow, we'll all meet up here, put everything in bags, and run it down to the docks, where we'll bury it in the sand. After saying goodbye to Joe and Frank, Eddie and I get to work on finding a place to hide the jewelry.
The alleyway we're in is long, with an opening to the street on one end and a firm brick wall on the other. The cool midnight air blows on our necks as we search for potential cracks or crevices in which we could hide the stolen materials. I try walking to the end of the alleyway and feel my way around the wall that stands there. Feeling grimy, rough stone on your bare palm honestly isn't the most pleasant experience. However, it pays off in the end when my hand falls into a deep hole towards the bottom of the wall. With his attempts to make our lives better (let me tell you, it isn't working out so well yet), Governor Roosevelt hasn't really had the time to stay focused on the care and renovation of these old apartment blocks. Lucky for us, I guess.
I turn to Eddie and gesture for him to come to me. He jogs towards me, feet splashing against wet ground, with a good amount of the jewelry in his hand. I point out the hole and we begin stuffing our loot into it. After about five minutes, we have hidden everything and begin making our way back to the streets. Coming out of the alleyway, we are greeted by nothing but the light of the full moon, the rattling of wheels, and the clopping of hoofs on the stone streets.
“Ready to go to that place I told you about Ed?” I ask Ed.
“You bet, Jimmy. But it's down by the docks, right? That would be such a long run to make and I don't know if my legs are up to it,” he whines.
“Ah, quit your griping,” I laugh, punching him lightly in the shoulder, “I got us a ride.” His blue eyes follow my pointing finger to the stagecoach proceeding down the street towards us. He looks back at me, a mischievous smile on his face, and nods. In unison, we recede into the shadows and wait. First the brown, exhausted horses trot along in front of us, then comes the lavish stagecoach. When its rear is facing us, Eddie and I bolt out of the shadows, leap up to the rear, and grip the handles below the roof. My hands tightly grip the cold, wet metal and pull the rest of my body up onto the roof. Once I am secure on the top, I realize that Eddie is still struggling to lift himself up. Reaching my hand down, I grasp his sweaty palm and haul him up onto the roof with me.
“Thanks Jim, but I could've made it, had I just a bit more time,” he snickers, slightly embarrassed.
“Hey, that's what friends are for,” I smile, patting him on the back. See, Eddie's not all that capable when it comes to street skills, such as handling himself in a fight, or climbing up carriages. He's always been more of a virtuoso in school smarts (I guess because he actually got to spend some time in school) and just wasn't built with natural strength and agility that most boys at age fourteen in this city have. As a result of this, I have kind of become his big brother and protector on the crowded and hazardous streets of the city, and believe me, it has given me many more black eyes than I would prefer. Honestly though, I don't mind it one bit, because at the end of the day, he's the closest thing to family that I've had in ten years and the best friend I have had –ever.
* * *
“Remind me again Jimmy, if we were heading in the direction of the docks, why we couldn't just have brought the stuff with us and buried it now?”
“Eddie, you know I'm not that smart. Besides, it's more fun if we do it tomorrow, see how good we can do at avoiding the cops.”
“But wasn't the whole idea to hide the stuff so the cops wouldn't catch us?”
“It was but then I thought to myself, 'where's the fun in that?'”
“Whatever you say Jimmy,” Eddie laughs, shaking his head. We stand outside a four-story, red, brick apartment building, sitting in between two others that look near identical to it. Most of the lights in the windows are out and the few that are still on show no sign of activity. The wooden door in front of us is closed and the sign hanging above it can barely be read in the dim light of the moon: Rooms for Rent, $10 a month. It took us about half an hour to get here by stagecoach, so now it's later than it was before, and Eddie is about ready to hit the sack. I on the other hand, am too excited about what I'm going to show him to be tired.
“What is it you so desperately need to show me Jimmy? Are you actually going to ask me to believe that you own one of these rooms and wish to offer me a comfortable bed in it?” Eddie gripes.
“Better,” I whisper, “follow me.” Uncertain, but trusting in my judgment, Eddie follows me into the alleyway between the apartment building and one of its neighbors. This one is a good bit wider than the one we were in earlier, considering the fact that it needs to accommodate the two fire escapes of the adjacent buildings. However, the wider room doesn't really make for a brighter moon here, considering the fact that many people have put up clothing lines between the two fire escapes, obscuring the view of any light that may pour in. Aw well, at least no one will be able to see us. I stare up at the fire escape but frown in dismay when I realize that the ladder up to it is not hanging within reach. Eddie appears to have noticed the same thing I did, for within a minute, he pulls up a sturdy trash can and nods to me. I smile, thank him for his effort, and hop atop the trashcan. I reach for the ladder, but in vain, for I still fall short of reaching it. Looking down at Eddie, a plan conjures in my head.
“Climb up on my shoulders Eddie,” I command.
“Jimmy, I don't know if that's such a smart idea. What if I fall?” Reluctantly, he backs away.
“I'll have a good grip on you and make sure you don't. Common, when have I ever let you down?” I ask.
“Alright,” he sighs, “but if I get hurt, you're helping me out with sweeping tomorrow.”
“Don't I always?” I smirk. “Now, get up on my shoulders.” Hesitantly, he lifts himself up my back and onto my shoulders, where I tightly grab his ankles to ensure that he doesn't fall. The soles of his work-boots inflict a good amount of pain on my shoulders, but I bite my tongue and tough it out. Carefully, he reaches up to the end of the ladder, hanging barely within his reach and starts to pull it down. A great smile spreads across my face, for I know that success is so close. Then, I feel the steel can beneath me slip and Eddie and I tumble down with it. My back hits the firm ground and then Eddie's back hits my stomach, launching pain through me for a second. Sorely, we stand up, both in pain, both distraught at our failed attempt.
“I thought you said you would have a good grip,” moans Eddie.
“I did,” I argue, “just not on the can.”
I back up to lean against the wall, because my back is now killing me. CLING! My head slams into something hard and metal, and white flashes in my eyes as the agitating sound of the impact resounds in my ear. I mutter a curse under my breath and turn to see what on earth I hit. My pain instantly turns to joy when my eyes gaze upon the object I hit: one of the many bars of the ladder that lowered with us in the fall.
“You did it Eddie!” I cheer, extolling my friend.
“What'd I do?” he mumbles, still a bit out of it from the fall.
“You got the ladder down! We're up!”
Finally, he's come to and sees the ladder as well, “Well, what do you know, I guess I did!”
“Common,” I gesture for him to follow me. The two of us ascend the ladder and then the stairs of the fire escape, passing an innumerable amount of hanging button downs, pants, and dresses on our way up. Finally, after a slow climb (we were both still a bit crippled by our fall, so we didn't move very fast) we reach the roof. I run across to the end overlooking the docks. Instantly, the potent smell of salt and fish catches my nose, a scent that I have lived without for much too long. My eyes take in the beautiful sight of the line of anchored ships that stretches all the way down the docks. The white sails of their towering masts are skillfully drawn up, and their massive, sturdy shapes are inspiring. The brown wooden ports in which they sit are covered by great piles of crates and lanterns that shed some light on the few men that are still strolling the docks because they have nothing better to do. Beyond this beautiful setting is the Hudson, sitting between Manhattan and New Jersey, with its black fingers gently reaching up towards the sky and then crashing back down.
“What do you think,” I laugh back to Eddie. After a moment of silence I realize that the sight may not be as magical to him as it has always been to me. Disappointed, I turn back to him and sigh, “Look, I know it's not much. It's humble and simple, but it's got a . . .” I cut myself off when I see the amazement and awe in his eyes. He turns to me, a smile spread ear to ear across his face.
“Jimmy, it's beautiful. And, you actually live up here?”
“When I can get here, yeah,” I reply, pleased by his amazement. “I'll give you the grand tour. Over here are the lovely vents that keep me company when I sleep.” I offer, gesticulating to the short cylinders sticking up out of various places of the roof with small towers of smoke emitting from them. “And here are the beds,” I announce, pointing to the four large, metal, box-shaped vents found in the four corners of the roof. “Now, for the grand finale of our tour: the view.” I lead a bedazzled Eddie to the side of the roof facing the Hudson, drape my arm around his shoulder, and present the glorious view. “Here lies the great Hudson River, and you see that shoreline over there?”
“That there is New Jersey. Yup, you better believe it pal,” I pat his shoulder, unwrap my arm from his torso, and spread out both my arms, beholding the great sight, “we're living up high with the kings! We've got a penthouse with a gorgeous view of all of Manhattan for free!”
“We, Jimmy?” he asks, tears of joy forming in his eyes.
“Well, of course Eddie,” I smile, sitting down on the ledge overlooking the docks, “You're family. What kind of man would I be if I kicked family out of my house onto the street?”
“You mean it Jimmy? I can live up here, in your beautiful palace with you for free?”
“I don't see why not.”
“Well, Jimmy, if there's one thing I've learned in this upside down world it's that nothing out there is free.”
“Maybe not with the lot of scum you'll find around this filthy town, but with family, and I mean true family, things are different.”
Eddie takes me into an embrace and begins to sob tears of joy, “Thank you so much Jimmy.”
I pat his back, “I'll always be here kid.”
We pull out of the embrace and gaze out at the docks and the Hudson beyond it.
“Imagine being a sailor on one of those ships huh,” Eddie sighs, “being able to get far away from this rut of a city and being able to go anywhere in the world you want. Wouldn't that be the dream Jimmy?”
“Maybe for a couple of weeks yeah, but like my pa used to say, after spending enough time in one place, you're always gonna get tired of it, no matter how great it may be. There's no escaping boredom and pain, so why even bother trying.”
“You have a pa?”
“Had one. A mudda too,” I explain, getting up and walking over to one of the corner radiators, where I place down my satchel for a pillow and prepare myself a place to sleep.
“Well, what happened to them?” asks Eddie.
“Let’s just say that my pa had some bets he couldn’t afford to pay with money, so my ma and he paid with blood…” my voice trails off as I choke on the word blood. Sitting down on the radiator, I look out towards the river, making sure to keep my face hidden from Eddie. Tears begin to sting my eyes as memories of my mother’s soothing face and my father’s jovial laugh begin to form in my mind.
“Oh. I’m real sorry about that Jimmy,” Eddie whispers, trying to commiserate with my pain.
Quickly, I take the back of my sleeve and erase the tears from my face, “It’s fine Eddie. I mean, they were just my . . .” fresh tears stream from my eyes, and as hard as I try, these ones I can’t hide from Eddie. “I’m sorry you have to see me like this kid, it’s just so damn hard to deal with the pain sometimes! Just so damn hard!” Suddenly, I feel a hand soothingly patting my shoulder. I open my soaked eyes and find Eddie sitting next to me on the radiator, making his best effort to provide me with some form of comfort.
“I lost my parents the day I was old enough to work. Pa put me into school and had me help him with the crops on the weekends. Whenever I screwed up –and I screwed up a lot –he would take me to the barn and beat me until he was sure I’d learned my lesson. My mother wasn’t much better. She always would feed me the least of the food, going on about how my father needed his strength to work. When I complained, I would be locked in the closet for about an hour until I apologized and praised their generosity. I never liked my parents. That’s why when I was about twelve years old, I stole some of pa’s money and caught the first train to New York City,” Eddie continued, “I was so excited, because I’d heard back home that life in the city was a thrill and magical and all that stuff. Well, I got here but I didn’t see any of the magic. I couldn’t make it on the streets. I had no money, no home, and the jobs that were available, I was no good at. But then, you found me Jimmy. I had only been here about four days…”
“And I saw you eating some stolen food in an alleyway somewhere downtown,” I continue, wiping the last tears from my smeared face. “You were dirty and miserable and near dying. So, I took you to my boys, we got you to a doctor with the little amount of money we had and were able to get you back on your feet in no time.”
“And then you, and you alone, took me under your wing. You showed me the ropes and you always protected me. Without you, I would’ve been killed by this city a long time ago. You are the only real family I’ve ever had. With you is the only real home I’ve ever known. Jimmy, you are a brother to me, I owe you so much, and everything I do will always be in honor of you. So, you should never be afraid to be true with me Jimmy, cause there is nothing in this world that could ever make me think less of you.”
I turn to him and smile, “Brothers to the end.”
His face radiates joy as he responds, “To the end.”
“Alright grubs, you guys have done good for the morning. These blocks are cleared up. Now go get yourself some lunch and then come back in an hour –or you’re fired!” bellows Mr. Stew.
“But Mr. Stew, we don’t got enough to even get a lunch! We blew yesterday's salary on dinner. Can we at least have half of today’s salary for lunch?” proposes Frank.
“You ain’t even done half of today’s work and you expect me to pay you for it? I don’t think so. NOW SCRAM!” Mr. Stew bellows, his heavy-set form advancing on us. Frank, Joe, Eddie, and I make a terrified beeline down the street, as far away from the intimidating man that is Mr. Stew.
“Damn him Jimmy, damn him!” complains Frank, as we slow to a walk, down the brick street. “What the hell gives the boss the right to kick us around like this?”
“Nothing Frank, nothing,” I agree, shaking my head, “but think about this: in about a couple of weeks, we’ll be free of him, up in a fancy mansion somewhere far downtown. Then, you can come back here and, in your new fancy shoes, kick his dirt poor ass all the way to Brooklyn!”
“Amen to that,” cheers Joe.
“Speaking of the dough, we oughta go pick it up right about now, don’t you think?” suggests Eddie.
I nod, “How’s about a race? Frank and Joe versus Eddie and me?”
“I think we already know who’s gonna win Jimmy-boy,” smirks Joe, “Come on Frank! We’ll see you two in the losers circle!” And they’re off, tearing down the streets, running past vendors, and shoving aside men and women making their ways to lunch.
“Ready to win this Eddie?” I chuckle.
“You bet,” concurs Eddie. He leaps onto my shoulders, grasps them, and wraps his legs around my stomach. I do my part and place a tight grip on his ankles. Looking up at Eddie, I nod to make sure he’s secure. He nods back. I take off, conspicuously hurtling down the cluttered street with Eddie straddling my shoulders. My boots clap the stone-brick streets, and a chorus of “Watch it” or “Slow down kid” rings in my ears as people stumble aside so as not to be run down by my determined sprint. Fancy, black, three piece suits and flowing dresses of all colors flash before my eyes as I make my way through the throngs of people walking through the narrow streets. Finally, I see what I want: the ladder of a fire escape hanging down within one of the alleyways off to the side. I skid to a stop and make a sharp turn towards the ladder. Shoving my way through more crowds of people, I realize that I’m barging straight into a crash, for before me stands a wooden fruit stand, almost as tall as me (I’m 5’4), with the apples and bananas all lined up in their separate boxed sections. Behind the stand is a paralyzed vendor, realizing that soon he will be run down if he doesn’t move. I release one of Eddie’s ankles, causing him to let out a startled yelp. My grip on his other ankle tightens and his grip on my shoulders tightens as I leap up and use my free arm to vault myself over the fruit stand. My legs, leading the rest of my body, fly in front of me and hit the vendor square in the chest. THUMP! He collapses to the ground, but I keep my balance, push off his stomach (causing him to grunt in pain) and leap towards the alleyway.
“Sorry bout that!” calls back Eddie.
“Wrap your arms around my neck and hang on Ed!” I shout as the ladder draws closer. Eddie does just as I say and I release his ankles. Now, with my hands free and Eddie clinging to me with all his might, I leap off the ground and grasp the second lowest bar on the ladder. Once I make firm my grip on it, I rapidly scale the ladder, evenly breathing in and out in order to keep the strain I feel [from carrying Eddie in addition to scaling a ladder] from causing me to fall. After a few seconds – which felt like an hour – we finally make it to the top of the ladder and make our way up the stairways of the fire escape. Once we have reached the roof, I dawdle for a moment, struggling to remember which way the alleyway we were in last night was.
“That way Jimmy! That way!” Eddie commands, noticing my hesitation. Trusting his sense of direction, I lunge forward and continue my sprint. My feet carry me as fast as I can go along the hard, rough rooftops. I make good progress for a few seconds, leaping over small spaces in between some of the buildings. The smile fades from my face, however, as I skid to a halt, nearly falling off the edge of a roof overlooking a wide space between this block and the next. Probably should have considered this.
“Do you see Frank or Joe?” I call to Eddie.
“No, too many... wait, yeah, I do! They appeared to have bumped into a group of church goers and... ha! Everyone's on the ground and, oh are Frank and Joe in for it! They're not going anywhere anytime soon!” hollers Eddie.
“Ha!” I cackle in response. “Now, to find our way to that roof over there.”
“On the other side of that building's the place where we hid the stuff, right?” asks Eddie.
“I'm pretty sure,” I confirm. Then, a scent catches my nose that brings a smile to my face: the sweet, succulent smell of fresh baked cakes and bread. Turning to my left, I see a quaint bakery sitting in the middle of the long block of stores and apartments, its white color and pink sign sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of the identical, red-brick, three-story buildings. Without warning, I grip Eddie's ankles and run across the roofs towards the bakery. He quickly reacts and grips my shoulders. I draw closer to the ladder that will lead me down from these taller roofs to the roof of the one story bakery. I reach the ladder, tell Eddie to hang on again, release his ankles, and descend the ladder. From here, I run towards the edge of the roof facing the street and leap down. Landing on my feet, the impact of the fall shocks me for a second, but I am able to gain composure and make my way towards the alleyway, Eddie still clinging to me, whimpering from the shock of the sudden leap.
We trot into the alleyway and (seeing that neither Frank nor Joe are here yet) cheer. Eddie hops off my back and slaps me on my soggy, soaked back.
“Good running Jim!” he praises.
“Thanks,” I nod. Suddenly, Frank and Joe burst into the alleyway, cheer, but then go silent when they see us.
“Dang it, Frank! I told you we should've steered clear of those church people!” whines Joe.
“Look, that Mrs. Crop has given me trouble in the past and I just wanted to get even,” explains Frank.
“Well, congratulations, you lost us the race and almost got me a good spanking,” argues Joe.
“Almost,” points out Frank. At this, Joe takes off his cap and hits Frank over the head with it. The two laugh and then turn to us. “Well, congrats fellas! But, believe me, next race, we'll be winning.”
“We'll see about that,” laughs Eddie. The four of us make our way deeper into the alleyway, towards the back wall, but stop in our tracks at the horrific sight guarding it. Sitting on crates around the wall or standing right in front of it are six boys. All of them have about three inches on me and posses firmly developed, intimidating muscles. They wear clean vests and button downs, their pants are freshly ironed. Three of them crack their knuckles, one of them spits at us, and the other two swing sturdy wooden bats in our direction. These pleasant schmucks are from one of the preppy high schools in the area and enjoy spending the free time they have picking on those of us who can't afford to spend time in school or who don't have parents to send us there. We just call them “The Rats.”
The leader of the group, David, gives the cigar in his mouth a puff, lowers it and then walks towards us, spreading his arms out and hooting, “Well, lookie here boys, it's Jimmy and his rag-tag group of dirt poor cronies!” The boys behind him laugh and point, mocking us.
“What do you want Rat?” I ask him, stepping towards him, tightening my hands into fists.
“I take some offense to that name Jimmy-Boy,” he whines as his face leans towards mine, menacingly. Our eyes are locked, each furious. The stench of the cigar smoke in his breath is fowl as it flies from his mouth into my nostrils. “I prefer to be called 'Your Superior.' In case you don't know what that means, it means I'm better than...”
Shoving him back, I snarl, “I know what it means, you dirty schmuck! Now what the hell do you want?”
“All right, calm down there pal, I was just playing around with you,” he snickers, backing away a little. “Anyways, the boys and I were hanging around here last night, around say one o'clock, and we noticed a shiny thing in that little hole right there,” he points towards the hole where Eddie and I had hidden the stuff, then in the most innocent tone he can muster, continues, “so we went and checked it out. Well, imagine our surprise when we found a stash of lovely, lovely jewels in there. And well, we all knew that it must've been from that robbery that happened earlier in the night at the store down the block. So, we did the honorable, respectable thing, as our parents would've wanted us to: we gave the jewels back to the owner of the store. Oh, how joyed he was to have his product back. He was so grateful that he even gave us all a lovely gold watch for ourselves,” he taunted, holding up a solid-gold watch and waving it in front of my face. “Pretty, ain't it?”
“Why I oughta...” I advance on him, only to have two of his boys get up, come to his sides brandishing bats and pointing them at me.
“I wouldn't do that pal, I really wouldn't,” sneers David. “It could be detrimental to your health.”
“You took our stuff! Do you know how hard we worked for that stuff?” roars Frank, coming to my side.
“Ah, so it was you boys who took the gold. Well, that ain't too good, is it fellas?” the other five nod and all grunt in agreement. “Looks like we're gonna have to teach you boys a lesson, starting with Jimmy here.” The two goons flanking David approach me, bats in hand. I prepare my fists for a fight, but suddenly, the unexpected happens: Eddie leaps in front of me and puts his fists up.
“You want to get Jimmy, you're gonna have to go through me!” he shouts.
“With pleasure, shrimp,” one of the goons laughs as he swings his bat. The wood thumps as it slams into the side of Eddie's stomach, knocking him off his feet and onto the ground.
Furious, I shove the goon back into the wall and snap, “You leave him alone!”
“Or what, you little maggot! You couldn't protect your parents, so how you gonna protect this runt?” David inquires, causing every ounce of blood in my body to shoot up to insanely high temperatures.
“Like this!” My fist flies straight towards his nose. SNAP! Direct hit! A cracking noise is heard and blood splatters as my knuckle rams into his flimsy, fragile nose, causing him to wail in pain and stumble back into a garbage can. Frank acts off this instantly and leaps on the remaining goon before he can even get a chance to go for me. The two fall to the ground, Frank on top, ruthlessly beating the goon in the face. The other three goons (and the one who I shoved into the wall earlier) get up, shocked at the turn of events, and dash in to join the fray. Hastily, I pick Eddie up, hurl him towards the exit of the alleyway (far from the fight), stretch out my arms, and fling myself at two of the boys charging us.
Leaping forward, I realize that, due to their size, I won't be able to take both of them down, so I decide to tackle one of them. I set my sites on the thug on the left, charge him, encircle his stomach in my arms, and force him down onto the ground. Once I have him pinned there, I lift my right fist and take a good shot at his nose. I am about to punch when I feel stronger arms grab my shoulders and throw me against the wall. I clench my jaw as the impact of my back against the wall sends an absurd amount of pain shooting down my spine. As I take a moment to recover, a firm grip clutches my neck, choking me brutally. I attempt to break free, but in vain. Looking my attacker in the eye, a blaze of rage ignites in my eyes; David has rejoined the fight. My eyes shoot over to Joe; I really wish they hadn't. Now, three thugs have him pinned against the wall and are taking turns brutally barraging his stomach with punch after punch. Shifting my terrified gaze again, I see that Frank has been outnumbered and captured. His two captors drag him to the back wall and howl mechanically at what they're about to do. One of them brutally shoves him to his knees and holds his head up so that it's facing the back wall. The other picks up a bat, gets in the proper stance one would use to hit a baseball, and prepares to slug Frank in the side. Then, a thought pops in from the back of my mind and terror fills my body: Where's Eddie?
“Hey, Rats, over here,” calls a voice. After a second to process the voice I have just heard, I realize who it is, and rejoice. Turning my head, my eyes confirm what my ears have already realized. Standing there, with Eddie safe behind him, is our friend Ben [who is about a year older than me, but still a year younger than the Rats] and his mighty band of brothers. See, Ben's a newsboy –he does the job, sleeps in the newsboy lounge, and eats the newsboy food –who works for the New York World. The best thing about him is, he's pretty much become the leader of the newsboys (who work for the World, that is) in this neighborhood, and believe me, there are a lot of them. They all trust his decisions, follow by his example when it comes to selling papers, and will back him in any fight he may fall into. We met him on a day very similar to this one actually.
See, Eddie, Joe, Frank, and I were duking it out with David and seven of his friends over a sack of bread. We were by far outnumbered and had been cornered. I thought we were done for when suddenly I heard a voice, “So, I see your picking on the little guys again you rich bastard!” David's head turned to find Ben and seven of his boys glaring back at him. “Let's see how you do against a group your own size,” the owner of the voice hissed again. At this, the seven newsboys assaulted the seven Rats and Ben lunged at David. The fight was over before it could begin, David and his boys were running home to their mommies, while Ben and his gang were helping us recover. He treated us to a drink at a local deli [Smith's Deli, about four blocks down from this alleyway] after that and explained how he knew David. A while before this, apparently, David and his Rats had mugged Ben when he was hanging on the streets alone late at night. They beat him and stole his daily pay. Well, the next day, Ben came after them, this time with his boys, and taught David a lesson he wouldn't soon forget. It seemed that we shared a common enemy, and, as we all know, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.
Now, here we are again: nearly defeated by David and his pack of wolves when Ben (and his gang of twenty, this time) comes to our rescue. The Rats know they stand no chance against the Calvary, so they release us and back up to the wall, cowering in fear. Frank and I take a moment to catch our breath, then proceed to pick up Joe (who is still in pain from the attack) and take him to the line of newsboys. Once we're safe behind the wall of boys, Ben commands, “Newsies, slingshots at the ready!” At this, ten of the twenty boys take slingshots out of their pockets and load them with pebbles. David whimpers at the end of the alleyway, terrified of what is about to come. “Aim... FIRE!” A volley of pebbles eject from the slingshots, fly across the alleyways, and shower The Rats who scream in pain and beg for mercy. “I think our work here is done boys,” announces Ben. The Newsboys have done it again!
* * *
About an hour later, we are sitting in Smith's Deli with Ben and five of his boys; the other fifteen went back to work. The deli is mostly empty [this isn't exactly the most popular deli in the area, but we boys in the neighborhood like it], so we got a nice, large table by the window. Here, we sit and eat our sandwiches, paid for by the money David had to give Ben if he didn't want to get his ass whooped any further. The infatuating taste of a fresh chicken sandwich is one that I haven't experienced in at least a month now, and man does it feel good to have it yet again. After a couple of moments of silence, Ben speaks up, “You owe Eddie here a lot Jimmy. If not for him, the three of you would be even more black and blue than you already are.”
“Don't I know it,” I agree. See, apparently, after the fight had started, Eddie ran out of the alley to find help. He was unsure of who to go to until he saw Ben and his twenty boys hawking papers in the middle of one of the intersections between blocks. At once, he dashed towards them, cried that we needed help, led them to the alleyway, and well, you know the rest. “Eddie, I swear, if you ever doubt your value after this, I will refuse to talk to you for a good while,” I promise, chuckling with joy and pride.
“But Jimmy, I didn't do nothing all that big, honest,” he replies, humbly.
“Ah, shut your mouth and eat Eddie! A hero like you deserves it,” praises Frank.
Raising my glass, I cheer, “To Eddie!”
Everyone at the table echoes my cry.
After we all settle down, Ben faces me with a very serious topic, “So, Jimmy, I need your opinion on something.”
“Anything,” I offer, “I owe you one.”
“Alright, well, about five days ago, I was down at the Newsstand with my boys, picking up my copies of the July 2nd newspaper. Well, the prices have been jacked up for a while now, ever since the war started last August, but even though the war is over, they still haven't been lowered. To make things worse, the headlines their feeding us definitely aren't anything exciting enough to sell, so a lot of us have been going broke lately. Now while we was there, picking up our papers, this kid, all sweaty and tired, comes up to us, saying he's got amazing news. He tells us that he's a member of the newsies of Upper Manhattan, and his leader, Kid Blink, has been organizing a strike amongst his boys. He went on, preaching about how the jack-up in prices is unfair, we deserve better treatment, and all that other stuff. Then, he asked us to consider joining the strike. Before I could give him a clear response, he ran off, heading in the direction of Brooklyn. Well, I sat there, I did, and thought about his proposal, and the more I thought about it, the better it sounded. I mean, if we strike, the World don't sell its papers and they'll have to give us what we want, right? But, I dunno Jimmy, what do you think?”
I ponder his situation for a second, but it ends up being Eddie who gives the final response, “Well, in your case, I'd say, go for it. If all the newsies in the city follow the lead of you and Kid Blink, then Pulitzer will have to meet your demands. I mean, there's no guarantee that they will join you, but at least give it a try and see what happens. Remember, nothing ventured, nothing gained.”
Ben cocks his head, confused by Eddie's words.
“In other words, if you don't try, you'll never know if you could succeed or not,” Eddie explains.
“Oh. Why didn't you just say so Hero,” laughs Ben, patting Eddie on the back.
“He actually got to spend time at school back in his home out west,” Joe informs Ben.
“Well, you know what they say, every gang has got its brain,” I compliment, ruffling Eddie's hair.
At this, he blushes and laughs.
I turn back to Ben and ask him something, “Alright Ben, mind if I get your view on something now?”
“Fire away,” Ben permits.
“Alright, well, you know how we stole the stuff, but now the Rats returned it, right?”
“Understood,” Ben nods.
“Well, should we go and try to get it back?” I ask.
“Defiantly, but I suggest you wait a while before actually trying anything. Wait a couple of days so memory of the whole thing can blow over. Then, late at night, sneak into the store, steal the stuff, and go hide it at the docks –on that night.”
Eddie, Frank, Joe, and I all look at each other and nod in agreement. Sometimes plans change, and we're determined not to screw up this one.
Our four figures slink down the block, hugging the walls and keeping to the shadows. The moon is veiled by the menacing, dark clouds of the night and the street to our left is near empty with only a few late-night strollers still sauntering down it. Holding my hand up, I order the group to halt our advance right by the spotless, glass windows of Lou's Jewelry Shop. Once the quiet patter of our socked feet on the rock ground stops, my eyes peruse the block, making sure that no one is paying any attention to what we are about to do. The street is now vacant, to my relief, so I signal to Frank, who is bringing up the rear of our group. He scurries towards the door of the shop and pulls out a bobby pin from his untamed hair.
“Give me a second to jimmy the lock,” he requests, getting on his knees and putting the pin in the keyhole.
“We don't have all night,” I hiss, slightly anxious to get inside the shop and off the streets.
So, how exactly did we get here? Well, we took good-old Ben's advice and laid low for about a week. As detrimental as it was to our morale, we kept working our jobs as street sweepers and the boss gave us grief the whole week as usual. Finally, tonight came and the four of us [Eddie, Joe, Frank, and myself] met at Smith's Deli about ten minutes before midnight. With satchels readied, we casually made our way four blocks down from the deli to the jewelry shop, and now here we are.
Anyways, back to now. I hear a click and breath a sigh of relief as the door of the jewelry shop sluggishly creeks open. Joe and Eddie slip into the store, as commanded by my left hand. Frank and I follow. Slowly and gently, I close the door behind us, certain that no one noticed our entrance. We are inside and, immediately, we get to work. All of us float across the wooden floors, so light on our feet that we don't even make a sound, and head in the directions of shelves on the walls of the stores, cluttered with plethoras of gold and silver merchandise. I slide up to a white shelf on the right wall of the store, lined with watches of all shapes and sizes, all reflecting my image with their flawless surfaces. Gently and silently, I grab the materials off the shelf, one by one, and place them in my bag. As I shovel the watches into my satchel, a raucous clinking sound catches my ear. Alarmed, I twirl around on my heel only to find that the clinking noise is coming from Joe, who is rapidly taking necklaces off of their display cases and dumping them into his satchel.
“Joe,” I whisper, fiercely.
He pauses in his collecting and looks back at me, “Yeah?”
“Keep it down,” I command.
Remorsefully, he apologizes, “Sorry, I'm just a bit jumpy. I mean, what if we get caught?”
“You ain't never nervous Joe, why should you be now?” I inquire.
“I dunno Jimmy, it's just, something about this don't feel right. I have this feeling in my gut... ”
“Joe, everything is gonna be fine. No one knows that we was coming here tonight, we were careful when we came in, and if we just keep it down, we'll be outta here in no time. Just calm down.”
“Alright, sorry about that Jimmy. I'm probably just a little tired,” he sighs.
Both of us go back to work. However, now I'm slightly more anxious than I was before, because Joe may have very well been right to worry. Who knows what may happen on a job like this? I mean, one wrong move and... NO! I can't afford to think like that right now. Just stay focused on stealing the goods and getting them to the docks. Don't worry about anything else. Everything will be fine –I hope.
* * *
Ten minutes later, the four of us meet in the center of the store, all with our satchels filled to the brim, ready to start making our stealthy run to the docks.
“Everyone ready to go?” I question.
“I can't wait to cash in all this stuff Jimmy! Oh, we're gonna be so rich that even the boss will be begging us for money! And what're we gonna say to him? I'll tell you what we're gonna say Jimmy: we're gonna say, NO, YOU FAT, LAZY, NO GOOD...”
Closing my fist fiercely in the air in front of his face, I cut off his enthusiastically, hasty, loud rant and remind him of this; “Before we can do that, we gotta hide the stuff and then lay low for a bit until memory of the robbery blows over. Remember that, okay Frank?” My nerves are still a bit on edge so the tone in my voice is a bit harsher than I intended it to be.
“Sure thing, Jim. Sure thing,” he promises, calming down.
We all begin to make our way to the white-washed back door, all beaming with pride in the success of our robbery so far. Then, it happens: BANG! A gunshot rings out from the front of the store, throwing us all into panic. Frank and Joe dive behind the counter, while Eddie and I skid behind the shelves in the middle of the store that once held the bracelets and broaches on display. I look over to Eddie, who is trembling with fear, and wait for him to look back. Once he does, I mouth to him that everything will be okay. Doubtful and petrified, he fiercely shakes his head in disagreement and begins to break down, weeping. The gears in my brain are now spinning as fast as the ones on the fancy factory conveyor belts, attempting to formulate a plan that will get us out of this situation.
Suddenly, a voice from outside calls, “Come out with your hands up! We've got you cornered!” Crap, it's the bulls! Now what? If we surrender, then we will be booked and jailed for sure. I could never allow Eddie, Joe, or Frank to suffer that kind of fate. What to do?
“Frank, is the back alley empty?” I whisper.
Frank, who's location behind the counter is right next to the back door, opens it and reconnoiters the alleyway to the back of the store. He looks at me and nods, a hopeful glint in his terrified eyes.
“All right,” I begin, “everyone, empty your satchels of all the stuff you took.”
“But Jimmy, what about...” Joe begins.
“Just do it!” I snarl, restless and longing to flee from this situation as soon as possible. The ethereal trinkets drop from our bags and land with a loud smash on the sturdy, wooden floor. Our chance at fortune may be lost now, but at least if the cops do catch us, they'll have no evidence to prove that we were ever involved in any of this.
“What was that?” shrieks one of the cops from outside.
“I dunno,” replies another one, just as startled as his companion. “Whoever did that in there, put whatever weapon you may have down, and come out with your hands up!”
My muscles begin to tense and my heart pounds rapidly. However, I gain my composure and continue to direct my friends, “Alright, now, one by one, we gotta make our way into that back alley and up to the roof. Frank, you first.” He does just as I say and crawls from behind the counter, on his stomach, towards the back door. Reaching it, he rises to his feet, and bolts into the back alley. Joe, who is behind the same counter, repeats the action. However, as he stands up, he trips over one of the piles of jewelry, causing a loud clashing noise. Regaining his footing, he runs out to the back alley.
“Come out with your hands up or we will shoot!”
At these words, Eddie, the only one left in the store with me, whimpers, mortified by what the cops have just threatened. What the hell are they thinking? They can't threaten to shoot us like this! We're just kids! We didn't do anything so wrong that we should have to atone for it by getting a bullet lodged in our bodies! I have to get Eddie out of here.
“Eddie, I need you to crawl behind the counter, to the door. Then run as fast as you can into the alleyway and onto the roof.”
“But, Jimmy, what if the bulls shoot and I...”
Trying to reassure him, but so unsure myself, I promise, “You won't get shot Eddie. They won't shoot. I mean, we're just kids after all, they can't shoot kids. Trust me Eddie, you'll make it.”
After a moment of hesitation, he agrees, “Okay Jimmy.”
“Now, move on the count of three,” I instruct, “One... Two... Three...”
Eddie leaps to his feet and begins his desperate sprint to the back counter. He's half way across the floor, and is almost there. I begin to sigh with relief, but then I hear the bang. Red splatters all over the floor of the shop. Eddie yelps as he collapses to the ground. What just happened? Am I in a nightmare? Could I be dreaming... I mean, it all happened so fast and... No... this is real... NO! What have I done? If not for me, he never would've made that run! Granted, I told him not to run, I told him to crawl. Damn it Eddie, you idiot, what were you thinking? No, what the hell am I doing? I can't blame him for my mistake! He was just scared, he wanted to make it to safety quickly. Anyone in his position would've done the same thing, right? It's not his fault, it's mine! I should have heeded the warning signs all around me, but I didn't! I got cocky, and thought we could all make it out of here! What the hell is the matter with me? Now, thanks to me, Eddie lays, twitching in pain on the floor, with the right side of his checkered button down shirt and once black khakis now painted with blood. Some sound comes from the bottom of my throat, a sound like a wounded animal bawling in pain, as I gaze upon the body of my only family left, now mauled by a single bullet.
Without even considering the risk of the cops shooting again, I stumble from my hiding spot and race across the floor over to Eddie. Taking his decrepit, hurting body in my arms, I cry to him, “Eddie, hold on buddy, okay? You'll be okay! I promise.” But, will this promise end just like the last? No, I can't think this way! Not ever! Eddie will be okay! Slinging him over my shoulder, I stand up and proceed to the back door. The fresh blood from his wound drips onto my clothes, my guilt increasing with every drop. He moans in pain with each step, and I struggle to fight back the tears coming to my eyes. Once we reach the back door, I stop, turn around and, with rage in my voice, holler at the cops, “YOU DIRTY BASTARDS! YOU SHOT A KID! DAMN YOU ALL!”
I don't hear their responses, for I run out of the store into the damp, dank, and dark alleyway before they can respond, but I do hope remorseful words came from the mouths of those cops. Now in the back alleyway, carpeted with cigar butts and candy wrappers, my eyes look up, desperately searching for Frank and Joe on the rooftops. My search proves successful, for there, on the rooftop of the building behind the jewelry store, sit Joe and Frank, staring down at me. They look at me with a look of confusion at first, and then with a look of horror and disbelief when they realize who that figure slung over my shoulder is. Joe shakes his head, refusing to believe that it could have happened, but I nod back, choking down sobs. Grasping his hair fiercely in his hands, Joe stumbles back, out of view, towards the center of the roof.
“Help me get him up! He's not dead yet, but if we don't get the bullet out of him, he'll be dead –soon!” I shout up to Frank, who is still staring down, paralyzed. Quickly, realizing that we can still save Eddie, he comes to his senses and begins making his way down the fire escape. I climb up the ladder, using one hand to scale and the other to hold Eddie to me so that he doesn't fall from my shoulder. Frank meets me as I reach the top of the ladder. Handing him Eddie for a second, I pull up the ladder to the fire escape so no one can track us to it. Then, the two of us carry our injured friend up the rusty, creaking fire escape. Reaching the roof, Frank and I set Eddie down up against one of the railings.
Then, Joe runs up to me, panicking, and snaps, “I told you Jimmy! I told you something would go wrong! But you wouldn't listen! Now look what you've done! You're stupid plan got Eddie killed!”
Frank runs up in front of me, slaps Joe across the face, and shouts, “Calm the hell down! Eddie is still alive and we can still save him! Don't you go blaming Jimmy, because this is no more his fault than it is yours or mine! We all agreed to this job and none of us could've seen this coming!”
“I'm sorry Jimmy,” Joe apologizes, grasping his cheek, ashamed of what he's just said. Then, leaning up against one of the rails and taking his head in his hands, weeping, he continues, “It's just... Eddie man... He never did nothing to nobody. Why did those damn bulls have to do this to him?”
In order to evade the waterworks, which are bound to come out of my eyes soon, I get to work on removing the bullet from Eddie. Turning him gently on his left side, I scan his right side, still being painted with fresh blood, in search of the bullet. Following the flow of red, my eyes finally spot it, lodged deep in his waist. I attempt to pull it out with my finger. Gaining a firm grip on the wet, slippery metal, I begin to yank. However, the instant after I start, I hear a sharp cry of pain come from Eddie's mouth and my fingers immediately slip off the lubricated bullet. I realize that there is only one way to do this easily. “Frank, give me your knife.”
His eyes light up in shock, but then he realizes what I plan, nervously reaches into his shirt pocket, extracts the knife, and hands it to me. I nod a thank you to him and get back to Eddie. Gently and soothingly, I whisper to Eddie, “It'll all be okay kid. Just hang on.” Cautiously, I take the very tip of the knife and ease it into Eddie's wound. A squishing sound, that churns my stomach, can be heard as I gently dig deeper. Finally, I hit the bottom of the bullet and angle the blade so that it is under it. Gritting my teeth, I begin gouging the small metal ball from Eddie's side. In an immense amount of pain, Eddie howls and begs me, with the little strength he has left, to stop. That's the last straw. Tears begin to flood from my eyes and splash gently onto Eddie as I continue to extract the bullet from him. I feel his pain and I can't stand to face the fact that all this is my fault. If not for me, this would've never happened. Why do I have to see him like this? “It'll all be over soon buddy. Just hang on,” I cry, bitting my tongue. Finally, after what felt like hours, I see the bullet beginning to come out. I grip it with my fingers, give it one last tug. The sound of a boot hitting a puddle is made as the small object that has caused so much disaster comes out of Eddie's side and into the grip of my fingers. I throw the accursed sphere off the roof into the street below, slide the knife back to Frank, and tug off my shirt. My misty eyes blinding me, I turn to Frank, the shirt in my hands, and ask him to wrap it around Eddie's waist to keep the blood in. He nods, takes the shirt from me, and walks over to Eddie. My face drenched, I watch him as he expertly ties the shirt around Eddie's waist tight enough to keep the blood in enough but not so tight that it will hurt. Eddie's cries begin to grow quieter and die down. His stomach begins to go up and down at a slower pace, assuring me that his breathing has steadied. His lips close to their regular state of calm rather than the panicked state of movement that they've been in since he was shot. Finally, his eyes close, and he falls to sleep.
To the gentle sound of Eddie's snoring, Frank, Joe, and I collapse against various railings of the roof, all exhausted by the horrible ordeal we just had to suffer. Down below us, we hear the footsteps and voices of the bastards who shot Eddie and put us through this. They are searching the store and the alleyway for evidence of who could've tried to rob the store, but they'll never be able to conclude that it was the four of us, because in the morning, we'll be long gone.
I turn to Frank and Joe and whisper, “Things are gonna be different now boys. Eddie's not all better just yet, and we have to get him to a doctor.'
“But Jimmy, we don't have the money to afford a doctor,” argues Joe.
“That's why we're gonna have to split up and do anything we can to get it. I have a plan,” I begin.
“We're listening,” moans Frank.
I continue, “All right, Joe, I'm gonna need you to stay with Eddie day and night. You need to be there to help comfort him when he gets afraid and to help him with anything he may need. You gotta make sure that no one comes near him and tries to hurt him again, okay?”
Joe nods, fully accepting the responsibility.
I turn my head to Frank, “Frank, you need to get a job working down at the docks. It pays better than street sweeping, and it's closer to where we're gonna bring Eddie.”
“Where we gonna bring him?” asks Frank.
“Remember my old apartment? I brought him there one night, and he loved it, so I figured we could bring him there. Someplace where he can be happy after what happened tonight.”
Joe and Frank look at each other and nod. However, Joe decides to raise one more concern, “How are we gonna get him there?”
“Stagecoach,” I explain, “I have seven cents to pay for it.”
“How'd you get that?” requests Joe, awestruck at the good amount of money I had.
“I was standing next to the boss one day and his pockets were awfully full, so I decided to help empty them a little.” At this, the three of us lightly chuckle, the first actual joy seen in our group since the robbery began.
“Alright,” Frank begins, “but if we're doing all this stuff, what are you gonna do?”
“I'm gonna get money the way my mudda always told me not to,” I explain.
Frank is flabbergasted, “But Jimmy, that's dangerous. What if you get caught and arrested. Then what? Look, Eddie needs you now more than he needs me or Joe. Why don't you take the job at the docks and I'll do the street robbing?”
“No Frank!” I forbid. He flinches and looks down. Realizing that my tone may have hurt him, I gently explain my reason, “Look, I've already got one person hurt by taking risks with him. I'm not gonna make that mistake again. I gotta do this on my own so that I don't lose anyone else. Trust me Frank, okay?”
He looks back at me, and nods, understanding my reasoning.
“Okay. Look boys, I know we're all scared, but I am certain that Eddie will be fine. It's just a scratch and we all know that Eddie's a tough kid. He's gonna make it through this, okay? He's not gonna leave us yet.” They both look at me, smiles on their fatigued faces, and concur.
However, my words don't convince me half as much as they convince them. My doubtful thought is interrupted by a small clatter at my feet. I look down to find Frank's knife has been slid over to me. “What's this for?” I ask.
“If anything goes wrong, now you've got a way out,” he offered.
Accepting the offer, I thank him. However, when Frank's eyes are turned away, I drop the knife into my satchel, never intending to use it.
Still slightly jostled from last night's intense experience, I trot down the street past stores and apartments on my way to the rich side of the neighborhood. It is about 8:00 A.M, according to the eight chimes of the nearby bells in the gleaming steeple of the Catholic church on the street paralleling this one to the left. Reaching an intersection, I turn right onto a street filled with bakeries (all fuming with the mesmerizing aroma of freshly baked bread) and general stores, most of them with banners pasted on their windows saying many things: Cigars this week on sale for 5 cents; Best cola in town; We sell food, ammo, cigars, anything you may need, Closed for the day. For a second, I pause and contemplate going into that one store with the cigar sale to buy myself a one (which I haven't been able to afford for a year, considering that they got so damn expensive), but then I remind myself that I've got a mission to complete. I have to get money for Eddie. So, I remove the thought of a succulent cigar from my mind and continue my trot. At the next intersection, I make a final right, for the street that I am turning onto is just the place I want to be. It is a block lined with carts holding fruits and vegetables, stands selling special medicines that are supposed to help you live forever (if you ask me, there ain't a single thing true about those medicines), shelves lined with books, and many other things. Most people in this neighborhood call this part of town “Vendor's Village” on account of all the men who set up shop here and work so desperately to try to sell whatever product they have to offer. I never much liked to come up to this part of this town, but today, I know I have to in order to find out whether or not my journey to save Eddie will be long and hard or simple and swift.
Strolling down the block, I pass various carts containing fresh food products or jewelry, until finally, I reach the newspaper cart. The headline is posted on a large, wooden banner, held up by two thin beams: Newsies on Strike! Kid Blink's Diabolical Plan to Destroy our Fine City! Below this banner sits the cart, piled with newspapers, and run by a man in his thirties with a shining scalp, a stubbly beard, and a look on his puss that makes you think he's planning to kill somebody. When I realize that the guy I'm looking for ain't at the stand, I search the surrounding area, hoping I'll find him nearby. Sure enough, there he sits, on top of a group of crates piled up against the wall of the building behind the newsstand with his gang standing below him: Ben. He looks up at me, waves hello, and then beckons me over. Doing as he instructs, I approach the group.
“Hey, hey, clear room for the man,” he commands his boys. Immediately, they part down the center, allowing me clear access to Ben.
“Morning Ben,” I greet.
“Morning Jimmy,” he smiles, hopping down from the crate. “Hey, you're just in time. Remember how you encouraged us to join the strike?”
“Yeah,” I respond, slightly nervous at what he's going to say next.
“Well we did just that, and now we plan to take it a step further,” he elaborates, enthusiastically.
“See that banner over there? The one slandering the name of our great leader, Mr. Kid Blink?”
“Well, today, we're gonna take it down along with every scum covered newspaper in that stand. Exciting huh?” he cheers, giddily tussling with me.
“But, Ben, ain't there some risk to that? I mean, what if you get arrested?”
“If we do, it'll be for the strike. The cops can use all the brute force on us they want, but see, the second they lay a finger on any of us, they only make themselves look worse. All those muddas at home, how do you think they'll feel when they see the headline 'Poor Defenseless Boy and His Rag-Tag Gang Beaten by a Bunch of Brutal Bulls?'”
I'm impressed by Ben's willingness to be a martyr for the strike but instead of saying so, I simply comment, “Hell Ben, you could be a headline writer for the World with phrases like that.”
“Jimmy, today's the day the Worlds gonna fall at the hands of me and my boys! Don't you see? Today's the beginning of our victory!”
All around me, the gang cheers, hurling their caps up in the air and leaping with joy.
“I know it is Ben, and I'm proud of you for it,” I compliment, patting him on the shoulder. “Just be careful, okay?”
“Even though you sound so much like my old nagging mudda right now, I'll take your advice,” he chuckles back.
“I'll catch you around.” With my farewell given, I make my way out of Vendors Village before things get ugly, hearing the cheering and chanting of the Newsies behind me. My one option at money is now gone, by my own doing ironically enough (considering the fact that I convinced them to strike) and my ultimatum is clear: I'm gonna to have to start robbing in the daylight.
* * *
The wall against my back is cold and damp, but I remain in a cool, non-suspicious posture. In front of me, men in high class suits and women in expensive dresses stroll past, typically in throngs of threes or sixes. I have been standing here for about half-an-hour now and yet no easy victims have come along. You'd think that in the upper-class, residential part of this town, where the building's are actually well kept, and where the trees seem a lot brighter, people would feel comfortable to go for walks on their own. Apparently not. I am just about to forfeit my stakeout here when suddenly, she appears.
A young girl, only about 5'2, who looks to be about my age, passes by me. Her chestnut colored hair is long and flows all the way down to her waist. Her face, from the short glimpse I catch of it, is free of any blemishes, done up perfectly with makeup. She wears a long, sky blue dress, beautiful pearl earrings, a solid gold necklace, and a pink bow in her mesmerizing hair. In one hand, she carries a basket, which appears to be filled with vegetables; in the other hand she has a purse that is marvelously decorated and that I could probably make a lot of money from. She's elegant, breathtaking, and best of all, alone. I'm ecstatic, for my chance at a victim has finally been presented to me. Proceeding with caution, I put my plan into action and strut up to her.
“Hello miss. Name's Jimmy,” I introduce myself.
Startled, she jumps. Turning to me, she snaps, “David! Don't even...” Her voice trails off when she realizes that I'm not the boy she thought I was, “I apologize, I thought you were my brother. Um... hi, my name is Crystal” Gently, she offers her hand to me and, without missing a beat, I take it and shake it.
“Lovely name, almost as lovely as you are, miss.”
She blushes, looks down at her feet, dressed in new, expensive heels, and giggles “Thanks.”
“Miss, I was wondering if you'd like a shoe shine? Only two cents a shine,” I offer.
After considering the offer for a moment, she fumbles through her purse and pulls out two coins. Handing them to me, she replies, “Sure.”
Trying to conceal my joy at how well this is going, I reach into my pocket, pull out a clean handkerchief (it was Joe's, but he never used it, so he lent it to me), and kneel down on my right knee in front of a wall that's only about as tall as my leg. Pointing to the wall, I kindly request her to sit down. Smiling, she follows my instructions and gracefully settles down on the wall. To my pleasure, she places her purse on the ground below the wall, right next to her. Next, she puts her foot on my left thigh and I get to work on shining it. After a couple of seconds of silence, an awkward feeling begins to form in my gut and I decide to strike up a conversation.
However, before I get the chance, she chirps, “You know, I've never had my shoes shined before.”
“Really? I mean, you've had to have had them shined at least once. There are shoe shiners all over this town.”
“I know, it's just, every time I've gone out before today has been either with Mama or Daddy, and believe me, neither of them like the idea of having a boy put his hands on any part of me.”
“You've gotta ma and pa?” I inquire.
“Well, of course. Don't you?”
“If I had one, do you think I'd be shinning your shoes for two cents right now?” I snarl.
“Oh, I'm sorry, I didn't know,” she squeaks, a tone of guilt in her voice.
Cooling my hot head, I sigh, “No, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have blown up there.”
A momentary pause.
“So, this is your first time out on your own?” I question.
“Yes. At first, Mama and Daddy weren't too happy about me going out to get groceries down at Vendor's Village alone, cause they were scared I was gonna get robbed or something. But then, I said, 'Mama, Daddy, I'm sixteen years old and it's only four blocks away. I'll be perfectly safe. You gotta let go.' It took them a moment to think it through, but finally they agreed to let me go. So I got the groceries,” and she raises the basket that is still in her grip.
“Wow, your pa's able to give you enough dough to afford all that?” I wonder, awestruck.
“Yep. Daddy's the CEO at a bank somewhere uptown and gets paid a whole lot of money doing it,” she brags, although I 'm sure unintentionally.
“You and your folks live around here?”
“Actually, right in that apartment building over there,” her finger extends in the direction of a fancy, well decorated, six story building right across the street. “Daddy grew up in this neighborhood and loves the environment, so he decided to keep us here rather than move to some busy, uptown house. He just commutes early in the morning, so I don't usually get to see him until night.”
“Oh, interesting,” I nod.
“So, what's your...”
Hastily, I cut her off. “Well miss, your shoes are all shined,” I exclaim, bringing her foot from my leg and placing it on the ground.
A disappointed look forms in her eyes, but she shakes it off and politely replies, “Thank you.”
As she begins to get to her feet, I whip out my hand and snatch her purse from its place on the ground. Then, before she can get a moment to realize what's happening, I leap to my feet and sprint across the mostly empty street towards one of the alleyways that separates the apartment buildings. Refusing to look back, I dive past the elongated, metal gate on the side of the alley I'm entering from, lean down, rest my hands on my thighs, and pant out sighs of relief, for I am now out of danger of getting caught. After a minute to recompose, I erect myself. My heart stops. Standing there, in my path, as firm as a brick wall, are David (now with a bandage across the bridge of his nose) and two of his thugs, all sneering, all with their arms crossed. Behind me, a gate slams shut and footsteps approach my back.
“So, me and my boys, we was on our way home from breakfast and we saw you talking with my sister, you know, shining her shoes for her and being 'mister nice guy.' Well, it was kinda obvious what you were gonna do, I mean, her purse was right there. And look, here it is in your hands now,” he snickers, pointing to the object tightly locked in my right grip. “Now, don't get me wrong, I hate my goody-two-shoes sister with all my heart. But, if someone tries to steal the purse that I wasted my money on for her because I had to get her a present for her birthday, believe me, I ain't gonna be too happy.”
Wait, David's Crystal's brother!? How can two people, who are so drastically different actually be related. Thrown off balance, by the surprise of this news, I let my guard down. Big mistake, for suddenly, two firm pairs of arms grasp my shoulders from behind. I struggle to break free, but to no avail.
“Now, last time I tried to teach you a lesson, your pal, Benny I believe it was, got in the way of our personal time together. Well, there ain't no Benny coming to your rescue now, is there Jimmy? No, no, he's down at the newsstand getting himself and his little gang arrested. Too bad, he had some good muscle, could've used him someday, couldn't we have boys?” David's posse howls with laughter, all nodding in agreement with his statement. Furious, I surge forward towards David, a flame of rage in my eyes, and my teeth gritted. However, I am hoisted back by the two muscles he has securing me before I can attack him.
“No, no, no, down boy! You had your chance to have your fun, now it's my turn to have mine, okay?” he mocks, cracking his knuckles. Closing my eyes, I brace myself for the imminent pain which is bound to come. THUMP! His fist pounds into my stomach with brute force, causing me to grunt in pain and jolt back. Once I gain my balance and stand back up straight, he slugs me again, this time in the eye. White flashes before my eyes as I stumble back but then I'm shoved back up by the two Rats at my back. “What's the matter Jimmy-Boy?” he sneers, serving another punch to my stomach, causing me to whimper with pain, “Not so tough when there's no one around to save you?” At these words, his fist plummets into the back of my neck, forcing me onto the ground. “Too bad, I thought this would be a fun rematch.” His booted foot slams into my face two times, extracting blood with each blow. I roar with pain as the two goons behind me drag me to my feet and hold me up for more beating. “I guess you're just not up to it today, huh? Still a bit bummed out about Eddie? Don't worry, it's nothing to be ashamed of. I mean, come on, I'd be bummed too if my best friend were lying somewhere on the cold ground, dying, and there was nothing I could do about it.” I am hot with rage, struggling to break free. In the most innocent tone he can muster, David continues, “I wonder, what horrible person would've had the nerve to tip the cops off about your little robbery? And, oh, how awful it was of him to lie that the robbers were armed.” Behind him, the Rats all cackle madly. “You know, Jimmy-Boy, I did this city a favor. People like you and Eddie are the types who turn our peaceful city into a den of thieves and murderers. With him dead, and you in jail, I'll be a hero.”
I escape the monstrous grip restraining me, and lunge forward at David. His eyes widen, completely unprepared for what is coming. Propelled by fury, my right fist flies into the side of David's skull. Yelping, he stumbles onto the floor, tightly gripping his left ear, which is spewing out blood. Before anyone can react to what's happening, I perform one last attack on the scum at my feet: Shouting madly, blinded by rage, I raise my leg and bring it down on his flimsy stomach. A popping sound is heard as David screams and begins choking up great splatters of red. As determined as I am to continue my assault, I don't get the chance, because David's four men have finally come to their senses and begin converging on me. In my focused rage towards David, I do not notice the attackers until they are right on top of me and by then, it is too late to fight back. The two in front of me (who earlier were standing behind David) shove me back into the muscle behind me, and without a second of hesitation, they ruthlessly toss me to the ground. Upon landing, my elbow scrapes the ground. Consequentially, I screech in pain. Placing my hands firmly on the ground, I begin to lift myself up, only to be shoved back down by one of my tormentors. Closing my eyes tightly, I cover my face with my hands, girding myself to endure the impending bombardment.
Curses fly from the mouths of my attackers as their fists and boots barrage my face, stomach, and limbs. Raw, fiery pain is the only thing I can feel. Flashes of white explode in my eyes every time one of their merciless strikes hit. Finally, the hailstorm (which lasted for what felt like hours) ends. Miserable and weak, I am dragged to my feet, donning a mighty fine shiner on my right eye, and bleeding from my lips, nose, legs, and forehead. “Let's go see the cops, shall we Jimmy-Boy,” David snarls, roughly escorting me out of the alleyway onto the street from which I ran.
The sunlight stings my eyes, considering the fact that I have just come out of an area shrouded in darkness. However, after a moment of frivolous blinking, I regain clarity in my sight [or, at least as clear as you can get when you've got one eye swollen to the point of almost being blind]. My eyes fly, left to right, searching the lavish apartment block. There are more people out now than there were earlier, so it is harder to spot one specific face in the clutter. Finally, my eyes catch her: Crystal, standing right where she was when I shined her shoes, searching for either her purse, or me, or both. How much time went by in that alleyway? My moment to consider this is interrupted when I hear a stern voice to the left of us.
“What's going on here boys?” Turning, my eyes behold a cop, towering at six feet tall, whose figure far transcendences mine. His tall cap, the golden star in the middle gleaming in the sunlight, and his dark blue suit only adds to the already intimidating figure he possesses. On his face, he bears a frown and his eyes scan all six of us, probably already making assumptions as to what happened. Never thought I'd do this, but in my mind, I desperately pray to Jesus, asking him to keep me from getting arrested and to get me out of this.
“Officer,” pants David, prying the purse from my hands (which I surprisingly was able to maintain a grip on throughout this whole ordeal), “this criminal here stole my sister's purse right from under her nose.”
“We saw the whole thing,” “Yep, that's what happened,” “Wasn't right what this boy's done,” chime the boys behind David in agreement.
“Me and my boys ran after him and cornered him in that alleyway,” he continues, pointing behind us. “He put up one hell of a fight,” innocently, he brings his finger up to his bloody lips and ear, “and we had to use force to subdue him, that's why he's all beat up. But believe me when I tell you this, sir, I was just trying to protect my sister.”
The cop takes a moment to consider everything David has just said, analyzing all of us and nodding his head. Then, he demands, “Where's your sister?”
After browsing the crowd for a moment, David points to Crystal, who is still standing by the wall, and has appeared to have noticed her brother and myself.
“Let's go have a chat with her, shall we?” suggests the cop.
“Sure,” agrees David.
I am handed over by the Rats into the firm hands of the cop and the seven of us make our way across the street. People stop in their walks or activities and all eyes seem to be drawn to me as we part the crowd, heading straight for Crystal. I turn my head in the direction of some of the people to our left. Their gazes appear to be one of three things: curious, judgmentally disappointed and angry, or filled with pity at me and my battered state. So, I guess God is just as cruel as I thought. He's going to let me get arrested here for stealing the purse, and then without my support, Eddie will be dead within a few days. Never again will I listen to any of the crap the preachers on the streets try to persuade me to believe. Never again will I set foot in a church. God is nothing but a cruel monster. He provides for those who have managed to obtain fortune and glory, but takes from people like me, who have lost so much already.
“Ma'am, is this your purse?” asks the cop, as we approach Crystal.
Her eyes dart between my decrepit form and the threatening “say yes” glare of her brother. She takes one last look at me, her water blue eyes seeing into my soul and imprinting themselves into my mind.
Finally, she responds, “Yes.”
I bow my head in despair, preparing for what I am certain is to come next. Next to me, David chuckles deviously, knowing that he is victorious.
“So, this young man did steal the purse from you?” inquires the officer, reaching into his pocket and extracting a pair of handcuffs.
A confused expression crosses Crystal's face, “No, I gave it to him to deliver to my ma. See, this boy (his name's Jimmy, by the way) is a good friend of mine. I needed to get a message to my mama but I was tired from my long walk. Jimmy came along and I explained my situation to him. Generously, he offered to deliver the message to my ma while I took a moment to rest. That's why he had my purse, officer. Why, what did my brother tell you?” she demands, glaring at David.
I don't hear the rest of the conversation, for my mind is overloaded with confusion and questions. Why did this girl, who I literally just met, spare my life? With one word, she could've had me booked and jailed. Instead, she lets me off the hook, even after I tricked her and robbed her. This doesn't make sense. I mean, I appreciate her venial nature more than I can express, but it doesn't make sense to me. Finally, coming to, I hear the cop announce, “Young man, you're coming with me.” At these words, my sudden hope and excitement falls, figuring something happened in these few seconds that has changed me from the victim into the attacker again. However, I hear cuffs clap, and yet, feel nothing on my wrists. Turning around, I see David being escorted by the officer down the street, his posse trailing behind, begging that he be released. “You think beating up poor, defenseless boys is funny son? Yeah, well we'll see how you like it down at the station!” bellows the cop. They round the corner, David pleading for mercy, and his gang desperately trying to win their leader's freedom. My mind begins to whirl with questions again, but suddenly, I hear someone clear their throat behind me: Crystal.
“What just happened?” interrogates Crystal, her purse now returned to her finely shaped hands.
I gaze down at my feet and remain silent, embarrassed by the circumstances of this meeting.
Realizing her first tone may have been a bit harsh, Crystal gently encourages me to open up to her, “You can tell me. I won't be mad. I just want to know what happened.”
The veritable tone in her voice almost convinces me to confess, but I refrain from doing so and continue shuffling my feet.
Realizing that she's not gaining any progress this way, Crystal changes her approach. A great amount of sympathy in her face, she reaches up to my black eye and coos “You poor thing. My brother did this to you didn't he? Does it hurt.”
The second her hand makes contact with my eye, a searing pain shoots through me, causing me to grunt and fiercely pull my head back. Swiftly and timidly, Crystal's hand recedes. Seeing the fear in her eyes fills me with guilt. For some unexplainable reason, I don't want her to be scared of me. So, calmly, I turn back to her and meekly answer, “A little bit.”
Forgetting the sudden pullback I made earlier, she approaches me and offers, “Would you like to come into my house? There's some medicine we have there that I can use to patch you up in no time. I'm sure mama will understand.”
Silence and hesitation are my only response.
“Come on, don't be shy. It's no trouble, really,” she smiles.
Warmed by her considerate heart and inviting smile, I look up to her, and with gratitude in my eyes, nod. She is ecstatic at my response and leads me (holding my hand?) towards her apartment building.
“Mama, I'm home!” Crystal greets leading me through a freshly painted doorway into the third story, corner apartment she shares with her parents and brother. My jaw drops, for even the front hallway, which is only a minuscule portion of the apartment, is lavish and extravagant, with paintings hanging on the walls, and a table (on which Crystal placed her purse) with a beautiful vase sitting next to an opening on the right wall of the hallway that apparently leads into another hallway.
“Hello baby!,” a sweet, clear voice chirps back from the opening in the left wall of the hallway, from which flows the mouthwatering aroma frying eggs.
“You know how David's always picking on kids on the streets?” Crystal begins.
“Yes, but your father and I told him to stop that a long while ago. Why?”
“Well, he did it again today, and he hurt this boy named Jimmy really bad. Come see.” Crystal continues.
“Crystal, I send you out to get groceries and you bring home a boy instead?” the voice laughs, growing closer from the room I'm assuming is the kitchen. A slim lady, who appears to be in her early thirties, enters into the opening to the hallway from the kitchen. She is wearing a long, red dress, a pair of black heels, and a dirty apron. Her face, like her daughter's, is flawless, and her red hair is pulled back into a bun. Not acknowledging me, her blue eyes look to her daughter as she laughs “What am I gonna do with you...” her jovial speech is cut off by a gasp when she sees my state. I must look awful! “Oh, you poor thing. Did my David do this to you?”
I solemnly nod.
“Oh, where is that boy? I am going to give him a spanking he won't soon forget!” she vows.
“Actually mama, he got taken away by a police officer down to the station around the corner. The good sir told me you could pick David up whenever you'd like and until then, they'll just hold him there.”
“Ha, that'll teach that boy right! I'll go pick him up after lunch. Oh, he's gonna be begging to go back there once I get a hold of him!” she growls. However, as fierce as her voice is now, it swiftly changes to calm and nurturing as she turns to Crystal, “Sweetheart, take Jimmy into the powder room and get him well. I'll put another egg on the stove and he can stay for lunch.”
“Oh, that really won't be necessary ma'am...” I begin to protest.
Crystal's mother quickly cuts me off, “I insist. It's the least we can do for the damage David's done to you.”
Realizing that it would be pointless to argue such a trivial subject any further, I accept her offer, “Alright ma'am. Thank you.”
“Don't mention it. Now go get yourself patched up while I make lunch,” she smiles, taking the groceries from Crystal and heading back to the kitchen.
“Common,” Crystal pipes up, enthusiastically tugging my sleeve. Carefully, in regards to my wounds, she leads me to the doorway at the end of the hallway and into her living room. It's scale and furnishings astonish me. A comfortable looking couch sits in the middle of the room atop the deep pile carpet covering the entire floor. In the right and left corners of the room closest to the entrance are two cushioned chairs, both decorated with lovely flower patterns. Next to the wall at the far end of the room, between the two tall, clear, glass windows is a mahogany (at least, I think that's what it is) coffee table. Atop this table, a chess board sits and on the left and right sides of the table are chairs, appearing to be made of the same wood. Dangling from the ceiling is a golden chandelier, the candles on it currently unlit, considering the fact that it's noon and the light from the sun coming through the windows is enough to see by. Crystal gives me a moment to take it all in and then continues to lead me onwards into the powder room.
For the smallest room in the house, the powder room is pretty impressive. On the right wall, right next to the entrance, sits a white, gleaming tub, currently unfilled. On the wall behind it, a window is perched, lighting the room. A sink is plugged into the left wall, above it a mirror cabinet. I take a good long look in the mirror and the sight reflected back revolts me. The blood on my face has dried and now stains the area around my lips, nose, and forehead. A nasty gash is present on my forehead and lower lip. The shiner on my right eye is an ugly mix of dark red and purple, a thin, wide cut right below it. Swiftly, I turn my head, disgusted by what I just saw. My gaze shifts to the small, capped bowl in the middle of the room with a pipe running from the back of it up to a small compartment above it: the john. A small chuckle comes from my throat at the sight of the small coffee table right next to the john. These people really have money to spare, don't they?
I am drawn back into focus by the rustling of objects in to my left. Turning my head, I see Crystal, taking a bottle of alcohol, two rags, and bandages out of a the cabinet. She strolls across the floor, reaches the tub, and places one of the rags and the bandages in it. Now, all she is holding is the other rag and the clear bottle of alcohol.
“All right, sit down,” she instructs.
“Alright,” I comply, taking a seat on the closed bowl of the john.
“Now, did my brother beat you anywhere but the face?” she asks.
“Yeah, they did a number on my stomach and chest.”
“Alright, take off your shirt.”
“Excuse me?” I am shocked by her request.
“You may have some cuts there too and we have to make sure we treat them as well so that they don't get infected.”
After a moment of disbelief, I wave my hands up, surrender to her command, and strip myself of my shirt. Tossing the shirt into a corner of the room, I see that she was right. A wide scratch stretches across my bare pecks, and my stomach is coated with bruises. Also, now looking at my arms, I realize that they are scrapped up severely as well. “Alright, do what you gotta,” I groan.
“Hey,” she giggles, pouring alcohol onto the rag, “it's for your own good you know?”
“Is it gonna sting?”
“Just a bit, but try not to flinch, okay?” she requests, speaking in a gentle, soothing voice.
“Alright.” Closing my eyes, I brace myself for what is about to come. The rag first touches the cut on my forehead, causing me to flinch at the small stinging sensation.
“Hold on there,” Crystal whispers, “it's almost over.”
I clench my teeth and finally feel the alcohol lifted off of me. White foam begins seeping out of the cut and Crystal reacts very professionally, using the other rag to clear it away.
“Alright, now for your eye. Just close your eyes again and try to stay still, okay?”
“I'll try.” The same stinging sensation I felt on my forehead transfers to the area around my eye as the rag touches it, only, this time, it is severely amplified. I groan in misery, attempting to pull away my head. However, before I can, Crystal secures the back of my skull, holding it in place as she holds the rag over my bloodied face.
“Just hold on Jimmy. Just a few more seconds.”
We repeat this process with the many cuts on my arms and the huge scratch on my pecks (which let me tell you, stung a hell-of-a-lot more than any of the other cuts when the alcohol was applied to it). Finally, we are done. “Jimmy, I'm going to get some ice from mama now to help lessen the swelling on that eye of yours, okay? You just wait here.” With that, Crystal gets up and walks out. What am I doing here? Why am I here? It's just, something about this girl draws me in. I can't say no to her. It's a feeling I just can't explain, because, well, I have never felt this way about anyone before. I mean, sure there are girls out on the street who I feel have a particular charm about them, but never have I felt the same way about any of them as I do for Crystal.
Before I drown into thought, Crystal returns, holding a bucket of ice in her hands. She places it down on the floor and kneels down in front of me. From there, she takes some of the chunks of ice and wraps them in a fresh rag.
“This should help the swelling,” she promises, placing the cool rag on my eye. I sigh with pleasure, for the cold soothes my wound.
Considering the fact that we are going to be here for a while, I decide to try to make some conversation, “I just wanted to say, you have a really lovely house here. So big and fancy.”
“Thanks,” Crystal replies, gleefully. After a short pause, she speaks up again, “Mind if I ask you now why you stole my purse?”
Doubt fills my mind. If I tell her about Eddie, then her brother may find out that he's still alive and go looking for him to get revenge for what I did today. However, knowing that I owe her, I consider what I can say that will satisfy her curiosity. Finally, I come up with a plan, “I'll tell you later okay?”
She frowns, disappointed, but in the end respects my decision. There's a moment of silence as I savor the lovely feeling of the cold rag on my swollen eye.
“You know Crystal, you are really good at this,” I compliment.
“Thanks,” she chuckles. I hope to be a doctor someday. Daddy says if I work hard enough in school, he'll pay for me to go to a medical college where I can learn how to become a professional doctor. The thing is though, men usually beat women out in doctor jobs in this city, so I don't really feel my chances are all that good.”
“You kidding me? They'd be stupid not to hire someone with as much skill and charisma as you got. Trust me, I know what I'm talking about.”
Pride paints her face a deep shade of red as she smiles, “Thanks. But you don't have to lie to flatter me.”
“Crystal, I'm like Mr. George Washington; I can't tell a lie.”
* * *
After Crystal finishes tending to my wounds, which she has expertly bandaged, we make our way into the kitchen, which is lit by a chandelier on the ceiling, considering the fact that there are no windows in this room. Along the right wall, a broad counter, covered with cooking supplies and ingredients [tomatoes, beans, and broken egg shells], stretches from corner to corner. In the middle of this counter is an obtuse, black, metal stove, the flames within it still going due to the fact that it was probably used only a few seconds ago. Along the wall in front of me, a small line of cabinets (only taking up about one-fourth of the back wall) reside at elevated positions. Towards the left side of the room, away from the cooking area, is a large, round table, set up with six chairs. “Everyone hungry?” invites Crystal's ma, placing down a platter of soft, freshly baked bread, succulent strawberry jam, and three plates with steaming hot tomato omelets sitting in the middle of them. We all sit down at the table, say grace (well, they say grace, I kind of just awkwardly sit back, not really wishing to partake in the thanking of a god I don't believe in), and then begin to eat. The meal is invigorating and leaves me feeling full and refreshed. Luckily, Crystal's mother assured me that I don't have to tell her everything about myself right now if I didn't want to but also warns me that Crystal's father may have some questions about me when he comes home. So, instead of getting into my past or business, we just talk about local news we all know about or the events of the day. Once we have all cleared our plates and have finished most of the loaf of bread, saving some for David when he returns from the station, Crystal's ma makes another kind offer to me, “So, Jimmy, you seem to be a very nice young man. Now, from what I understand, you don't have a home to go to, is that correct?”
“That is correct ma'am,” I nod.
“Well, you're gonna need to rest up if you ever want those wounds to heal, so I'll tell you what; you can stay here for a few days, in our guest room, until you are better.”
“Thank you for the offer ma'am,” I smile.
“Don't mention it, and please, no more of this 'ma'am' stuff, it makes me feel old,” she laughs. “Just call me Mrs. Bell.”
“Okay, Mrs. Bell.”
“Common, you should probably get a bit of rest now, you've had a rough day so far,” suggests Crystal, getting up from her seat and gesturing for me to follow her across the hall towards the bedrooms. I nod in agreement, get up, and follow her. The two of us make our way out of the kitchen, across the entrance hallway, and through the opening opposite the kitchen. I find myself standing in yet another hallway, with three doors on the wall in front of me and one door on the wall to my left. Leading me down the row, Crystal points towards the door on the far right end, “This is David's room. The room next to it is Mama and Daddy's,” she taps on the far left door, “and this is my room.” Now, we turn our attention to the lone, brown painted door on the left wall. Opening it, Crystal explains, “This is where you'll be staying. Sorry if it's not much, we just never figured we'd need to accommodate a long time guest.”
Completely ignoring her absurd observance, I gaze, mystified, at the room around me. Leaning up against the wall in front of me is a lush bed, it's velvet red sheets and silk pillows immensely inviting. Next to it sits a short, dark wooden table with a candle (in a silver holder) on top of it. To the right of the bed and table is a large window, gazing upon the block of shops and apartments and the busy streets below. The window on the right wall, however, doesn't have as pleasing of a view: all it really reveals is the grimy brick wall of the adjacent building and the fire escape of this building. Hey, at least it gives me a clear path to the roof.
“This is really something,” I chuckle, walking over the fluffy, red, fur carpet to the bed and stroking the soft, smooth sheets, “It's a hell-of-a-lot better than anything I've ever slept on.” A long moment passes as I take in the luxury of the room. Finally, I sigh, “Wow. It's just amazing that you can afford all this just for your guest room!”
“Yeah, Daddy is a banker, so we've got a lot of money to spare,” she explains, walking up next to me.
“Wow,” I whisper.
Walking, slowly, in a circle, I take one last moment to familiarize myself with every little detail of the room before I am interrupted by Crystal's sweet voice.
“You should get some rest Jimmy,” she smiles, pulling down the sheets and moving back so I can get on the bed.
“As you wish, Crystal,” I obey, hopping onto the bed. The mattress sucks me in the second I land, stimulating my senses with a great feeling of pleasure.
“Oh, Jimmy... ah, never mind, we'll wash them later,” she giggles, giving a dismissive wave towards me on the bed.
After a moment of confusion, I realize that I have gotten her sheets dirty by lying in the bed in my filthy clothes. Guilt welling up inside me, I sincerely apologize, “Oh... I'm sorry bout that. I wasn't...”
“Jimmy, don't worry, it's fine,” she croons, approaching me and placing a reassuring hand on my bandaged forehead.
The second her hand makes contact with my skin, I begin to grow hot with embarrassment, and my face goes from pale to a dark red. Infatuated, I babble, “Thanks.”
She repays my gratitude with a warm smile, gets up, and begins making her way out of the room.
“Hey, Crystal!” I call.
“No one has ever been this nice to me before. I just wanted to say, I um... I really appreciate it.”
“It's my pleasure. Now, get some rest,” she kindly insists. With that, her beatific figure makes its way out of the room, leaving me to sleep. Slowly, my eye lids flicker shut, leaving me to dream about the young women with the chestnut colored hair and the blue dress.
My eyes open as I am gently shaken and a voice softly coos, “Get up Jimmy. It's supper-time. Daddy's home and says he'd love to meet you.”
As my vision begins to grow clearer, I question whether or not I am in heaven, for the smile radiating down at me is unquestionably that of an angel. However, as I raise up and reach out to stroke the face of the angel, a terrible pain spreads through my body, and I lay back down, groaning. Nope, I'm not dead yet, cause those damn bruises are still there and sore as ever! The nurturing hands of Crystal wrap around me and support me as I lift my body off of the comfortable mattress and into an upright sitting position. Slowly, and carefully, I slide my legs off of the bed and onto the floor, grunting with the pain that comes with each movement. Once my feet are on the floor, I take a moment to breath and then stand up, clenching my jaw to avoid screaming. Finally, I am ready to head to the kitchen, and with Crystal by my side, make my way out of the bedroom.
We arrive at the dinner table to find David (oh, this should be fun), next to him Mr. Bell, and next to him Mrs. Bell. Mr. Bell analyzes me thoroughly as I slowly sit down, and I do the same to him. He is a man who appears to be in his late thirties, with short, black hair, a small beard, brown eyes, and an expression on his face that tells me that he's pretty skeptical about my presence at the table. He wears a clean, white button down, a red tie, and a pair of brown suspenders. Our stare off is interrupted by whining from the mouth of David, “Mom, are we going to eat now? I'm starving!”
“Hush you! After what you did to this boy, you should consider yourself lucky that your getting supper at all,” David's father hisses in response, furiously shooting his eyes towards his son.
“I'm telling you Dad, he tried stealing Crystal's purse, and I was just trying to help get it back,” he retaliates.
“That's a downright lie,” Crystal argues, in a harsh and angry tone, “when have you ever tried to help me? All you ever do is tease me about how weak and helpless I am and then threaten me whenever I get involved in your business.”
“Quit lying to mom and dad, you spoiled, goody-two-shoes, bit...”
“You watch that mouth of your's David, before I have to shove a bar of soap down it,” warns Mrs. Bell.
“But mom...” begins David.
“But nothing, young man,” shouts Mr. Bell, silencing a defeated David, who sulks back into his chair. Turning to me, Mr. Bell invites, “Please, have a seat.”
An awkward silence falls over the table as Crystal and I take our seats, Crystal next to her ma and me next to Crystal. Waiting for the spell to lift, I feel David's vengeful eyes piercing into me. Making sure to be subtle, I shift my eyes and glare back at him: back off, now is not the time! At this, he snorts, acknowledging the fact that I'm correct, and furiously looks down at his empty plate.
Finally, Mrs. Bell's now cheerful voice cuts through the silence, “Shall we say grace?”
“Yes mama,” replies Crystal (with enthusiasm) and David (annoyed).
“Go ahead, say your grace so we can eat,” encourages an impatient Mr. Bell.
Once grace is said (by everyone but myself and Mr. Bell), Mrs. Bell gets up from the table and goes over to the stove to retrieve supper.
Although it is probably not my place to be asking questions here, I take a risk and question Mr. Bell, “So, Mr. Bell, you don't say grace?”
“Of course not,” chortles Mr. Bell, “see, the ladies, and even David, here believe that there is some 'Almighty God' up there who provides us with our good fortune and our money. They believe that he clothes, shelters, and feeds us.”
“That's crazy talk. The 'Good Lord's' never done anything for me or my pals,” I concur.
“Exactly,” Mr. Bell continues, “you know what does?”
“Hard work,” I nod.
Leaning back in his chair, a broad smile on his face, Mr. Bell remarks, “Good man.”
“Ah, both of you be quiet and eat your dinner,” nags Mrs. Bell, with a lighthearted tone.
“Yes Ma'am,” teases Mr. Bell, as his wife places a grand chicken and a bowl of gravy in the middle of the table. Next come the individual plates, covered with fluffy mashed potatoes. Mr. Bell reaches, with his knife, towards the chicken and begins carving it. Turning to me, he asks, “Would you like a leg, a wing, or just some of the meat?”
“I'm used to the spoils, sir, and I'd hate to be a bother. I'll just take some meat,” I modestly reply, trying to make it as clear as I can that I appreciate what I have been given already and don't wish to rudely take more.
“Young man, I appreciate the modesty,” begins Mr. Bell, a smile on his face, “but you are our guest here. You can have whatever you may wish. In fact, I insist that you have a leg.” With this, he takes my plate and brings it closer to himself. Sequentially, he cuts a vast leg off of the chicken, scoops it onto the plate, and hands the now filled plate over to me.
Not wanting to be rude by neglecting his offer, I grin, “Thank you, Mr. Bell.”
“You're quite welcome... I apologize, but I don't believe that I ever caught your name?”
“Jimmy,” chirps Crystal, “His name's Jimmy.”
“Thank you darling,” acknowledges Mr. Bell, “It's a pleasure to have you in our home and at our table, Jimmy.”
“It's a pleasure to be here sir,” I commend. Unable to fight my urge to resist, I glance over at David to see how he feels about the exchange between his father and myself. A small grin flickers across my face, for David is staring down into his potatoes, with one eye twitching, and bitting his lower lip, probably counting the seconds until this meal will be over.
Once he has finished serving slices of chicken meat to Mrs. Bell and Crystal, and a wing to David, Mr. Bell's attention returns to me, bringing up a subject that I would've preferred to avoid “So, Jimmy, Crystal tells me you are an orphan?”
“That's the truth sir.”
Nodding his head solemnly, he mumbles, “I see.”
Hoping to escape the subject and prevent him from sympathizing my situation, I blurt, “But, I work and make enough money to feed myself at least two meals a day, so it's really no problem!”
During the moment of silence that follows, again he nods. Then, he inquires, “What kind of work do you do, Jimmy?”
“Um... Well, I shoe shine every now and then... When I'm not doing that, I sweep the streets.”
“And rob!” accuses David, lunging, out of his seat, towards me.
“Another comment like that, David, and you can go straight to bed without eating another bite of dinner!” snaps Mr. Bell, leaping to his feet and slapping David on the cheek. David's eyes grow wide with shocks. He sputters, desperately trying to grasp some words that could help him regain control of the situation. However, realizing that his efforts are in vain, he stands up and, fuming, storms from the table to his bedroom. A door loudly slams shut and David is gone. “My apologies for my son's rash behavior. Now, you tell me that you work as a street sweeper or a shoe shiner. A man of many trades I see. How much do these jobs pay, Jimmy?”
“About fifteen cents a day if I do good enough.”
“And, tell me, how long have you been surviving without your parents?”
“I lost em when I was six, sir. I'm seventeen now.”
“Eleven years,” sighs Mr. Bell, shaking his head, “my god boy, you have been through Hell.”
My eyes quickly shift to Crystal to my left, who is staring at me, sympathy in her gaze. See, this is why I wanted to avoid this topic. I understand that I've had a hard life. My parents are dead and I've been stuck working crappy jobs for eight years of my life. I get it! Do I really need other people reminding me or feeling sorry for me? No! Therefore, in order to try to change the subject, I stutter out, “Um... Mr. Bell... have you.... um... did you have any involvement in that war about a year back?”
“No, we had none, thank the good lord,” remarks Mrs. Bell.
“However, we did read a good bit about it in the papers,” chimes up Mr. Bell. “Isn't it just an honor to have the same heroic man, who charged up Kettle Hill in the face of death, and killed thousands of those Spanish bastards, as our governor?”
“Daddy,” squeals a laughing Crystal, taken aback by her father's foul mouth.
“Yes John,” chuckles Mrs. Bell, playfully thumping Mr. Bell over the head, “watch that mouth of yours before I have to fill it with soap!”
Hysterically cackling from the surprised reaction of the women, Mr. Bell gasps out, “I apologize ladies, it's just heroic deeds such as these get me excited sometimes.”
“Well, if you're genuinely sorry, all is forgiven Daddy,” laughs Crystal.
Mr. Bell cheerfully wraps his arm around his wife and pulls her into him. At this, Crystal grabs my arm and leans her head on my shoulder, gleeful as a child. Not expecting this movement, I stare at her for a moment but then decide to go along with her, resting my head on hers. The rest of the meal is a jubilant affair, the four of us enjoying Mrs. Bell's fantastic cooking as well as the company of each other. I can't seem to wipe the smile off my face, for finally, I am not in a damp, dirty hole, where all we do is complain about the lack of money we're making or the crappy hand we've been dealt; for once, I am home.
* * *
It's ten o'clock. Everyone else in the house is in their beds, peacefully sleeping. However, even as I lay here, under the soothing blankets of the guest room bed, I unable to peacefully rest, and I just don't understand why. I mean, this has been the most amazing night of my life: I ate the largest, most satisfying meal that I have had since my mother died, watched David get scolded by his parents on multiple accounts, took a soothing bath for the first time in ages, and then, with Crystal on my team, played Mr. And Mrs. Bell in a game of Chess (Crystal kindly taught me how to play). Nothing seems to be wrong or out of place. What's missing? Conflicted and confused, I throw off the covers and climb out of the bed. Pulling on a pair of pants and a light undershirt, I open the window on the (insert direction later) wall of the room and walk out onto the fire escape.
The cool night air is refreshing on my face as my bare feet land on the cold, rough metal of the fire escape. After a moment of taking in the atmosphere, I scurry over to the stairs. Quickly and quietly, I begin making my ascent to the roof of the six story building. As my legs propel me up the many staircases of the escape, my mind continues to work hard, trying to remember what could be missing. Finally, I reach the roof. After taking a second to catch my breath and rest my sore muscles (which are still recovering from today's events) from the trying climb, I shift my gaze up. Immediately, I am awestruck by the view that my eyes take in. Slowly making my way off the fire escape and towards the center of the roof, my mind desperately attempts to process what it is seeing, for in the distance, far in front of them lies a utopia. Another world, that always seemed so far out of my reach, now seems so close. The large towers of this city touch the sky and the lights beaming from it are warm and inviting. I'll bet the people there never have to worry about the grime and scum of the streets because it's too clean for there to be any. Even if there were, I doubt that they'd have to worry about it, for they are so high up in their marvelous, pillar shaped palaces that they will never have to set foot on the grounds of this stinking place ever again. It's grand, it's rich, it's... No, it's still just New York. It's just another part of this city. It's just another part of the hell that has taken everything from me and has given me nothing in return. This view and the view of from the roof of my old apartment building down by the docks: they're no different. Only, one of them has the salty view that reminds me so much of my ma and pa... The view by the docks makes me feel at home while this view just makes me feel angry, cold, and alone. It reminds me of what could've been. It mocks me. I'd take the view of the Hudson and New Jersey over this one any day. And that's when it hits me. I have everything now, here in this new home, except for the one person who matters most to me, the one who I shared my private view of the Hudson with, the one who has always been there for me: Eddie.
What have I done? I have forgotten my reason for being here in the first place. I was here to save Eddie, or to find a way to save Eddie. Instead, I have just been enjoying myself. I've been getting this top class medical treatment and food and rest, but I am not the one who needs it! Eddie is! What have I been doing? Why the hell have I been so selfish? That's it, I have to fix this. There's only one way to fix this... No... No... I can't just rob the Bells after all they've done for me. I mean, they gave me a home, they fed me, they gave me fresh clothes, and a bed. I can't just betray them like this. What can I do? Ask them for a loan! That's what I'll do. I'm sure they'd be willing to lend me some money if I need it after I get to know them all a bit more. Then, I can take the money, get Eddie fixed up, and... Well, I'm not sure what comes after that, but I am sure it's something good! The night is still young, so I'll just go tell Frank and Joe down at the docks about my plan and come back here before the family re-awakes.
Turning around to run back to the fire escape, I see her: Crystal, standing there in a long, white night gown, her silhouette glowing in the moonlight, her flowing hair draped over her right shoulder. “Crystal, hi,” I stutter.
“Hi Jimmy. What are you doing up here so late?” she interrogates.
“I could ask you the same thing,” I reply.
“I was getting a cup of water and on my way back decided to check on you to make sure you were sleeping alright. I saw your window was open so and I decided to check to see if you had run up here before assuming you had run away. So, what are you doing up here exactly?”
“I couldn't sleep, so I came up here to get some fresh air and sort out my thoughts.”
“Is something wrong?” inquires a now concerned Crystal, approaching me at the center of the roof.
I've still decided that I can't tell her about Eddie at the risk of her brother finding out, so I resolve to tell her my story, “Crystal, sit down.” At this, I walk over to one of the guard walls on the edges of the roof, sit down, and pat the empty space next to me, inviting her to sit. She does so, swiping aside a strand of hair that fell in front of her eyes. Looking out at the view, so as not having to make contact with Crystal, I begin, “So, there was this boy, who was born down by the docks seventeen years ago. He had a mudda and father who loved him very much and always did their best to make sure he had a happy, healthy life. His mudda would stay home and take care of him, you know, feed him, sing him to sleep, give him all the love he could ask for, stuff like that. His father showed his care and devotion in a different way: his father would spend hours down at the docks in the scorching heat or pouring rain, working his ass off under the cruel fist of some bastard boss. It killed him a little bit each day, but he did it anyway, without complaint, just so he could make enough money to support his son and wife. He did it so he could make enough money to afford their ten dollar, fourth floor apartment with a lovely, rooftop view of the docks, the Hudson, and New Jersey. He did it because he loved them. Well, everything was great. They were the happiest family in the world, for even though they didn't have much money, they had each other.” I shut my eyes, bite my teeth, and force myself to continue, “One day, when the boy was about four years old, his dad was let go. See, more people were becoming poor, and kids were being pulled outta schools so they could work to support their folks. Now, child labor comes a lot cheaper than regular labor, everyone knows that. So, for whatever reason, the boy's the father was fired and replaced, even after all that loyal work he had done. The father knew he still needed to make money somehow to feed the boy and his mother, so he took the only option he had left: he gambled. Here's the thing though; the old man never was very good at gambling. He wasn't bringing in enough to pay the rent, and barely enough to feed his family. Luckily, the landlord was nice enough to allow the family to stay in their apartment during the winter, but during the summer, fall, and spring, he'd have them sleep on the roof. It wasn't that bad though, cause it had a nice view of the Hudson, a couple of radiators to sleep on, and the refreshing smell of sea water. Now, the father kept gambling, in hopes that he could get enough money to buy the apartment back, but just ended up loosing more games than he could afford. He owed a lot of dangerous people money, but had nothing to give them. So, one one night, in the middle of May, the mother, who'd had more luck in card games, went with the father and left the boy, now five years old, in the custody of the landlord, who had always been good to them and who they had come to consider a friend. Next morning, the boy was woken by the landlord, who had a grave look on his face, 'Son, last night, your parents were on their way home from a game when they were ambushed by a couple of mafia thugs, dragged into a dark alleyway, and shot dead.' After that, he said something about the police and justice, and –oh it don't even matter!” I struggle, desperately, to choke out the rest of my story before I break down, “After that, they took the boy from his home to an orphanage, somewhere in the industrial part of the city. Here he was supposed to be given a chance at a better life. But, that place was no 'better life.' It was a prison! The owner of the joint forced the kids to go earn money in the nearby factories and if they came home empty handed, they got a good beating for being 'lazy maggots' and then were thrown out on the streets for the night, no dinner, no nothing. Well, that place only held the boy for about a year and when he was six, he left for the factory one morning and never went back. This boys name was Jimmy Miller, but now it's just Jimmy.”
A long silence falls between the two of us and I continue to stare at the city of towers in front of me so I don't have to look at Crystal. My eyes are moist and keep pouring out water no matter how hard I fight. Angry and broken, I mutter, “This damned city has just taken everything from me and never given much in return.” Quietly choking on my tears, I clench my eyes shut and weep uncontrollably, no longer caring weather or not Crystal sees me. In the midst of my lamenting, two, soft arms wrap around my neck. I open my eyes and turn my head to find that Crystal has moved behind me and is now holding me. I lean back into her embrace and continue to weep, knowing that she's right there to comfort me. Her touch light and soothing, she strokes my hair, telling me it will be all right. I don't know how long we sat like this, but I know that it ended my sorrow.
Once I have finally calmed down, Crystal, still holding me, asks, “What about me, Jimmy?”
Confused by her question, I c*** my head.
“I mean, you said this city hasn't given you much in return for all it's taken, but it's given you me, hasn't it?” she smiles.
“I know it has Crystal,” I agree, laying my hand over hers on my chest, “but, once I'm well again, it's gonna take you away from me. I can't stay here forever.”
“Jimmy, I can convince Daddy to let you stay. He already thinks you are a fine young man and I'm sure, if you worked for him a bit, he'd be glad to have you live here. I won't just let you go Jimmy. I can't. You're the most amazing guy I've ever met.”
Smiling, I stare up at her, “You really think so, Crystal?”
“Without a doubt,” she smiles back, her hair blowing in the wind. Then, she does something I would never have expected. Her face leans towards mine and her moist, soft lips touch my cheek, causing me to suddenly flare red. This is what I have wanted since I met her, and yet, I do not now know how to react, due to the fact that I honestly did not expect it to happen here and now. Pulling out of the kiss, she looks into my eyes with a look that says I love you. However, my eyes remain in shock and are unable to formulate a look that would provide a proper response. At this fact, she just giggles, whispers “Goodnight,” stands up, and heads back down the fire escape. I just continue to sit there, dumbfounded and enchanted, staring out at the lights of the city in the distance and gently resting my hand on the cheek where the kiss was placed.
After about five minutes of sitting on that roof and wondering what just happened, I snap back into reality, leap onto my feet, and scurry down the fire escape to my room. Coming into it through the window, I see that the door has been closed and Crystal has gone back to her room. My eyes glance at the clock on the wall and relief calms their anxiety when they realize that it's only 10:30 P.M and there's still enough time for me to get down to the docks, explain my plan to Joe and Frank, and get back here before dawn. Swiftly, I pull on my socks and the new boots I was given by the Bell's, which are sitting at my bedside, and don a button-down shirt which is hanging on my bed post. Once I am fully dressed, I climb back out the window, slide it shut behind me, and descend the fire escape to get to the streets below. Reaching the ladder at the bottom of the escape, I unlatch it, causing it to lower to the ground, and quickly slide down it. My feet touch the floor of the alleyway with a quiet thump and then propel me out of the alleyway into the streets, to Eddie.
* * *
I waited about half an hour for a carriage to come along, meaning it was already 11:00 P.M when I began to make the hour trip it would take me to get to Eddie and the boys. Luckily, the man driving the carriage had no other customers and when he saw me waiting on the street, offered me a free ride, due to the fact that it was so late. So, here I am now, at 12:00 A.M, exiting the comfortably cushioned wagon and stepping back in front of the large red apartment building I once called home. After thanking the driver who provided me with the means of getting here, I jog over to the alleyway where the ladder of the fire escape is hanging down (a signal that Frank and I agreed on informing me that they are there).
“Jimmy, where've you been?” greets Frank, coming over to me as I step off the fire escape onto the roof. Before approaching him, I take a moment to see how the boys have set themselves up on the roof. Eddie is resting, with my satchel (which I gave to Frank last night when we split up) as a pillow, on one of the square vents attached to the wall that faces out towards the Hudson River and New Jersey shoreline. Joe is sitting at the foot of the vent, keeping and eye on Eddie to make sure he doesn't stumble off the vent in sleep.
“Frank, I have a plan that will save Eddie,” I begin, enthusiastically running up to Frank.
“Before you explain, here's how things are going,” he cuts me off, wanting to get the bad news out of the way before we speak about anything good. “Alright, so, I went to the docks today and got a job hauling crates, like you told me to do. I worked hard and got payed about twenty five cents, so I was able to get Eddie, Joe, and myself pretty decent meals. Here's the thing though, Joe tells me that Eddie hasn't been doing so good. He's been moaning in pain all day, been getting paler, and his wounds turned an ugly greenish, purple color. Also, a couple of times during the day, he began choking and coughing up blood, and it seemed like he was gonna die. Thank god he didn't but I don't know how long he can hold out with this wound untreated in his stomach. I know you won't disappoint Jimmy, so tell us, what miracle have you worked to save our friend?”
Wait, Eddie's been coughing up blood? He's been choking? Is he really... no, he can't be, I have a plan that will surely save him. There's still time to make it work. No one dies this fast, right? Right! There's still plenty of time. I can still spend some time with Crystal and save Eddie. Everyone's happy! So, putting the concern generated by Frank's words out of my mind, I explain the events of the day. First, I inform him that I tried getting money from the Newsies, but they had gone on strike and had been arrested, making them an unreliable option. At this, Frank's face grows grim, and he nods, silently mourning Ben, honoring him for his sacrifice. I proceed to tell him about Crystal (David's sister), and how I stole her purse, but was caught by David and his Rats. Continuing, I describe to him the beating I received and how I was nearly arrested, until Crystal spared my life and offered to patch me up at her place. Recalling the events of my stay at the Bell's apartment, I describe the meals I had, the family time I spent with them, and the love that was blossoming between Crystal and myself. Then, I begin explaining my plan, “So, you see Frank, I'm gonna get closer to this family in the next few days, and then, when I've cozied up to them enough, I can ask Mr. Bell for a loan and we can use that money to get Eddie a doctor. What do you say?”
Frank's face shows no sign of any emotion other than shock. He glances over at Joe, who has the same look of shock and a slight look of anger. I begin to wonder what I said wrong. However, my question is answered as he begins to speak, “So, you mean to tell me, that while I was off at the docks, slaving, to feed Eddie (who let me remind you, is dying), you,” at this point, his voice has raised with rage and he shoves me back, furious, “were off with some Gibson girl, who (just to make things worse) is the sister of the leader of the Rats, having the time of your life, eating luxurious food and resting up, while Eddie here, was suffering on a cold, hard, radiator, dying?!” By now, Frank's voice has raised to a shout and he is glaring at me with hate and disappointment. “You selfish bastard!”
“Frank,” I begin, putting my hands up, trying to remain calm, “I told you, I am doing this so I can get them to like me more so I can get the money to save Eddie...”
“Are you really this stupid, Jimmy?” he screeches back, his face glowing red with rage. “I told you, Eddie is in a critical condition and we don't have that time! Were you not listening to a word I said?”
Anger begins boiling up inside me, but I continue to maintain a cool head as I reply, “I heard every word you said. I'm just trying not to lose hope...”
“Hope?! There is no damn hope! Don't even try to lie Jimmy! I know that the only reason this is so hard for you to see is because you had a taste of what 'The Life' is like and wanna spend just a few more days there. Well, guess what? You do that, you lose Eddie! Why should this even be a choice? That girl is David's sister! Are you actually gonna tell me that you are finding it this hard to choose between that and Eddie! I thought Eddie meant something to you! You liar! You traitor! You're no better than any one of those Rats...”
At this, I snap. Screaming, I lunge myself at Frank. Catching him by surprise, I am easily able to tackle him onto the cold stone of the roof. With my left hand, I aggressively pin him down to the roof by his shoulder. Fire flaring in my eyes, I raise my tightly clenched fist, ready to beat Frank senseless. His eyes, angry, hurt, and betrayed, lock with mine and he spits, “Go ahead! You've already killed Eddie!” I tighten my grip on his shoulder and prepare to strike. No one talks to me that way! No... No... what am I doing? This is Frank, my friend, who has stood by my side in work, in fights, and in life. I can't do this to him. What am I thinking? He's right: I am no better than a Rat. My right arm drops down to my side and my left hand releases its grip on his shoulder. Planting my hands firmly on the ground, I lift myself up and then stick out my right hand, offering to help him up. Coldly, he stares at me for a moment, slaps my hand away, and gets up on his own. My eyes follow him as he walks over to the radiator where Eddie is sleeping. I look to Joe to see how he feels about what just happened, but he just shakes his head and turns away from me. My attention returns to Frank, who picks up one of the three satchels sitting on the ledge (mine is under Eddie's head as a pillow) and furiously hurls it at me. “Come back with it filled,” he scowls, “or don't come back at all.”
Choking down the pain of that remark, and flinging the satchel on, I nod and begin to make my way back down the fire escape into the darkness of the city. Before I can, however, Frank peeved voice calls my name again, “Jimmy! I see you forgot this!” I turn just in time to catch the knife he tosses to me. Pocketing the knife, I look to him to say thank you. However, he has turned his back to me, as has Joe. Hurt and angry, mostly at myself, I leave.
* * *
2:00 A.M. Carefully and silently, I lift the window to the guest room of the Bell's apartment and climb inside. Placing my feet lightly on the carpeted floor, I take one last moment to memorize every little detail of this beautiful place that could've been my home. Then, realizing that the luxury of lingering isn't an option, I kick off my boots (leaving only my socks on), walk over to the bedside table and pick up the candle that is sitting there. With shaking hands, I pick it up with my right hand and pick up one of the matches next to it with my left hand. Scraping it against the wooden table, I ignite the match, which I then use to light the candle. Once the candle is efficiently shedding light on the small radius around me, I blow out the match, wave it a couple of times to make sure it does not reignite, and toss it out the window into the alleyway below. Now, with the light of the candle guiding me, and my satchel open and ready around my shoulder, I make my way out of the guest room and into the dark hallway with the many bedrooms.
Sneaking down the hallway, the light of my candle cuts through the darkness ahead of me and keeps it at bay behind me. Cautiously, I turn around the corner at the end of this hallway and pace into the entrance hallway of the home. The floorboards creek under my feet with each step I take as I proceed forward towards the living room. Trusting the dim light to keep me from bumping into one of the corner chairs, I tiptoe around the edge of the living room, making my way to the powder room. Finally, reaching my destination, I hold my candle to my left and locate the medicine cabinet. Approaching it, determined to complete my mission, I stop, for staring back from the mirror on the door is a face I just can't seem to recognize. Two bloodshot eyes stare back at me, underlined by sagging bags. They belong to the desperate, tear-stained face of a boy who has lost everything and is now about to do something he may always regret even when he knows there's just no point. It's the face of a boy who's lost all hope. A boy who is dead and done. This can't be me... it just can't... There's still hope. I'm not out yet! I can still save Eddie. I can still save him. Not intending to let this reflection turn me away, I fling open the door of the cabinet and begin searching for the items I need. My eyes desperately strain themselves, browsing the contents of the dimly lit cabinet searching for the two items I need. Victorious, I finally locate the bandages and alcohol, pull them down from their shelves, and drop them into my bag. Closing the door, I quietly think to myself, alright, almost done. Just gotta get one more thing.
Ensuing another prowl through the hallways and rooms of the apartment, I reach the kitchen. Not intending to spend anymore time here than I have to, I slide over to the cabinets along the back wall of the room. Making sure my satchel can fit the loot I intend to gather, I raise the candle up for light, pry open the cabinet doors, and begin perusing the silverware and china. A fine set of ten plates, eight cups (painted with designs of flowers) and golden silverware sits in the front of the many expensive sets. Deciding that this set probably won't be missed too much, considering the fact that they have so many more, I grab three of the plates, four of the cups, and all of the finely polished silverware and gently place them into my bag. I have what I need. Time to get out of here.
As I turn towards the opening to the entrance hallway, the light of the candle illuminates the kitchen table where only few hours ago I was enjoying a meal with one of the most beautiful families in the world. Now, here I am betraying them... Staring at the empty chairs, the accusing words of David resound in my head, rob. Hell, I guess he was right. The torment I feel in my heart is overpowering. I'm never gonna get anything I want without stealing it I suppose. Before the guilt can consume me, I run out of the room and hastily make my way to the guest room and my escape.
Entering the guest room, I blow out the candle, place it back on the side table, and quickly pull on my boots. My heart races as I tie the laces on my boots, wanting so much to get out of here and away from the guilt that's beginning to flow through my veins. Finally prepared to flee, I scurry to the window and begin to pull myself through. However, a soft voice calling my names stops me dead in my track, “Jimmy...”
Turning my head, I see a sight that stops my heart. There stands Crystal, right next to the bedside table, confused and struggling to deny the truth she sees in front of her. “Please, don't tell me you're actually doing this... after all I've done for you... why would you Jimmy?” she chokes, tears wallowing up in her eyes. Guilt pierces my heart as I search for some way out of this. I can't allow myself to turn back now... I have to get out of here and save Eddie... Something heavy sags in my pocket... My ultimatum is clear... Eddie can't die... Drawing the blade from my pocket, I run up to Crystal, clench her arm in my left hand, and threaten her with the knife in my right hand. Her eyes light up with fear and disbelief as her body tenses. She looks at me, her mouth open in shock, and lets a tear roll down her red cheeks. “Jimmy... How could you...” Utilizing all my strength, I maintain the cold, firm facade, so as not to reveal to her the true shame and pain I am feeling from having to do this. Slowly, I pull her back towards the window with me.
Back-stepping ever so slowly, with the cold edge of my knife resting against her neck, I hiss, “You squeal, and I will not hesitate to use this.”
“David was right about you, wasn't he? Jimmy, how could you... I thought you were different... I thought I loved you,” at these words, another tear crawls from her eye and slides down her cheek, “I thought you loved me...”
By now, we are at the window and it takes everything I have not to turn the knife around and slice my own throat after hearing these words. I can't just leave her like this. This isn't the way you say farewell to the only love you've ever known. But, this is: Lowering the knife, I pull her towards me and grab her lips with mine. At first, she struggles to escape, but then realizes whats happening and submits to it. A flare of passion, regret, and broken dreams explode inside me as we hold onto each other, both of us wanting the moment to last forever. However, I know that such can not be the case and quickly pull out of our embrace, sputtering out, “Crystal, you are the only girl I will ever love, but you don't understand; I have to save him.” With this, I throw her down onto the floor of the guest room, leap out the window, and disappear into the darkness, knowing that what I have just lost can never be regained.
“I'm back!” I shout, staggering onto the roof and turning to the radiator where Frank and Joe sit around Eddie's body. Allowing the success of my endeavor to overtake the loss I feel from having just betrayed Crystal, I run over to the boys, and hold up the bag, laughing with pride. However, looking down at them, I see that their faces are grim and lost.
“You're too late,” mutters Frank, standing up with Joe and clearing room for me to see Eddie.
Numbness shoots through my body, but quickly, I compose myself, realizing that he can't be right. Dropping the bag from my shoulder, I stumble over to Eddie, and fiercely shake his body. To my relief, his eyes pop open and remain bright with shock for a moment. However, once he realizes what is happening, they close slightly and begin to look weaker than ever. “Hiya Jimmy,” he moans.
“Eddie, you're gonna be all right. I... I got you the money so we can get you to a doctor. You're gonna be fine,” I babble, unwilling to believe that what Frank said was right.
“Jimmy... it's all right... there's this warm light... it's calling to me Jimmy, saying... saying that it'll take away my pain. I'm ready Jimmy... you can let go...” he whispers, struggling with each breath.
“No, Eddie, it'll be all right. I got the money right here, we can get you all better. You don't gotta go yet buddy.” Sobs begin to get mixed in with my words as I try to convince myself that Eddie will make it.
“Jimmy... this place isn't like New York... it's happy... it's free... it's home...”
“Eddie, I thought I was your home!” I bawl.
“Jimmy, I love you... and appreciate everything you've done for me all my life... Believe me Jimmy, when I say that you are the only person on this earth who ever made me feel wanted and loved... The only person who I will ever truly care about... But, Jimmy, the Good Lord is calling to me and telling me that it's time to let go...”
“But Eddie... I need you... Come on Eddie... We can fix you up and then we'll get on one of those ships like you always wanted to... Just the two of us, escaping this city together... I just need you to stay here with me...”
“One day... One day you'll see me again Jimmy... I promise... but for now... I've gotta go... gotta go... home...”At this, his eyes shut and his head falls back.
This isn't really happening! It can't! Shaking him, furiously, I shout, “Eddie! Eddie, wake up! Buddy, you're gonna be all right! We're gonna make you better! Eddie, wake the hell up, damn you!” tears stream down my face as I pointlessly thrash his cold, limp body back and forth, trying to pull him back. Nothing burns within me except regret and sorrow. I can't feel anything but pain. Still holding Eddie's body in my arms, I turn to Frank and Joe and scream, “DO SOMETHING, DAMN IT!” They just sit there, watching on with pity and sympathy. Disgusted by their lack of attempting to do anything, I return my focus to Eddie. Pulling him into a tight embrace, I cry out, “Eddie! Please, just come back!” But, I know that he won't be coming back.
A long moment passes before a voice from behind me asks, “Was it worth it, Jimmy?”
I turn my head far enough so that I am able to see Frank through my peripheral vision, “Was what worth it, Frank?”
“That time you spent living the good life. Was it worth it?” he persisted, his tone dead and disappointed.
For a long time, I remain silent. “No,” I mumble, “No Frank, it wasn't.”
“Didn't think so,” he responds, coldly. Turning fully, I meet his bloodshot eyes. Two eyes, that used to be bright and cheerful, now are dull and lifeless. His face radiates no warmth or care, only hate and despair. “Joe's gone. He said his goodbye to Eddie but just couldn't bear to look a murderer straight in the eyes, so he left while you were busy with your weeping. I only stayed because I figured it would only be right to let you know what's happening. So, now that you know, and because I have already said my goodbyes to Eddie, it's time for me to get going as well.”
“Wait... where are you going?” I inquire.
“That's not for you to know Jimmy,” he chokes. “All the jewelry you stole is still in your satchel over there,” he explains pointing to the area on the floor where I dropped it, “and you can survive on your own with that. Don't follow me Jimmy. Joe and I need to forget this. We need to move on, and we just can't do that if you're with us.
“So...” I sputter, “this is goodbye?”
“It's better for the both of us,” he concludes after a moment of silence. With this, he shoves past me, his face down, and slowly proceeds to the fire escape. Reaching it, he stops. His silhouette remains still for a long while, breathing heavily, and muttering something beneath its breath. Slowly, his head turns to me again. His mouth opens as if he is about to say something. However, after a moment, he turns away again, shakes his head, and descends the fire escape.
Now, standing where I am, I realize that I have gained nothing from this ordeal. Instead, I lost everything. I lost two friends, Frank and Joe, both people who used to view me as their hero and leader. This happened when I went to go live with the Bells that one afternoon instead of searching for a way to save Eddie. I lost my one chance at love when I robbed the Bell's, drawing a knife on Crystal in the process. Worst of all though, I lost someone who can't be replaced or regained, as trust and chances can: I lost the only person who ever brought meaning and purpose to my life. What do I have left? A couple of pieces of stolen jewelry? What the hell is that going to do for me now? It can't buy Eddie back.