Emerald (2011 Winning Story)

By Lindsay Klopp (North Carolina)

The lazy morning of pink and lavender offered an almost cruel illusion of warmth. Under the brightening sky, trash and tainted snow sat in heaps on the waking streets. Even before the shadows on the city’s landscapes were lifted, the commuters had already begun their daily trek, unhindered by the frigid weather in lieu of fulfilling their purpose for another day.

Among these monotonous souls was one particular who had been doing his job for hours yet. He shouted for the attention of the passerby, waving his printed merchandise desperately in their faces. He repeated his usual mantra: Extra, extra, headline, and would you like one, sir? Though the effort was fruitless; no one had time to spare for a boy of the streets, his clothes splotched with dirt and dust and his grimy hair concealed under an oversized cap. He, like them, was doing what he could to earn a living, however meager an existence it was – an existence that, during this Depression, could not be spared from the harshness of the economy or the season. Cold and penniless, the little newsboy sat on his godforsaken street curb and curled into a ball to stay warm.

As the morning passed and turned to midday, the tight herds of potential newspaper buyers had diminished. Business was at its most uneventful at this time, and the little newsboy would venture from his post to the walkways in search of anything valuable. It was a rare occasion, but a coin or piece of jewelry would be lost in the rush-hour fray, later to be found by the boy’s careful eyes. It had been decided long ago that morality did not survive on the streets, and anything the boy found would be used to sustain himself. He never expected much, maybe enough to afford a simple meal…but on this ordinary day in the Empire City, something extraordinary happened to the little newsboy.

Something was reflecting the sun’s light, emitting dazzling gold flashes through the boy’s retinas, blinding him as he scoured a pile of grey snow. Drawn to the light, he dropped to his knees and dug into the snow, ignoring the stinging ice that numbed his fingers. Finally, he reached the curious item. As he wiped away the remaining slush, the lost brooch revealed itself in full glory. The little newsboy’s jaw dropped, and his eyes glimmered. Surely this was the most magnificent craftsmanship he had ever seen! He cupped the brooch gingerly in his hands and examined its every detail. The flawless golden shape was fashioned into a cat with its body outstretched and curved in a circular motion, and tiny features lined with silver added depth to the design. The cat’s most striking element however, was its eyes, made of vibrant green gemstones. The boy knew that these jewels had a specific name, though he couldn’t remember what it was.

That night, the boy took shelter in the alley near his street curb. The brooch was a hungry fire in his pocket. Glacial winds cut straight through his thin blanket, sending the wretched cold wracking his entire being. It was usually during these miserable hours of vulnerability that the little newsboy would reminisce of his days before the street, when the thoughts of survival and labor had never crossed his mind. His life hadn’t been glamorous, but it was comfortable and happy. He lived with his mother, a hardworking, gentle woman. He had never known his father, who had gone away when the boy was very young, leaving behind only vague memories and war medals. His ailing mother joined her husband years later after many trips to the hospital…and then he was alone. The little newsboy closed his eyes and felt the salty tears freeze to his flushed cheeks. He began to think of what his day would entail tomorrow. Tomorrow he would use the brooch to buy thick layers of the warmest blankets. Tomorrow he would buy a feast fit for kings to finally quell his stomach’s constant cries. Tomorrow he would… Tomorrow…tomorrow… And he slept.

The next morning went by like the last, and was not unlike other mornings. The little newsboy purchased his piles of daily news to sell in the early hours, continuing his work as he always had; though he had been especially anxious, and not as desperate. He could not suppress the excitement welling up inside of him. What was his new treasure worth? What could he get with it? His mind was filled with thoughts of a dinner at the five-star restaurant down the street, in warm new clothes. Goosebumps raced along his arms as a brisk gust of wind interrupted his daydreams. Yes, he would definitely have to buy a coat. A cynical smile budded and bloomed on his unkempt face. Still, he could not recall the last time he had smiled at all.

Reveling in his moment, he almost didn’t hear a short, grandiosely-dressed old woman calling for his attention. Snapping back into reality, he focused his attention on the woman and offered her a friendly, curious smile. She did not seem interested in buying a newspaper. In fact, she seemed rather distressed.

“My boy, I believe I lost a rather expensive brooch in this area yesterday. By any chance, have you seen it?” she inquired curtly, grimacing at the newsboy’s impoverished appearance. The little newsboy hoped that the woman did not notice his face turning pale with grief, his reaction to his dreamy thoughts turned sour. Of course this woman did not expect him to give her his new treasure? She was obviously a very wealthy woman – she could afford ten new brooches! He quickly decided that he would not part with the brooch. “No ma’am, I haven’t seen it.” he lied. At the sight of the woman’s uptight face sinking in despair, he found himself wondering why his treasure was so important, and he asked.

“Oh… It was a gift from my late mother. My very favorite accessory! What will I do now?” the old woman wailed, turning her back to continue searching somewhere else. Something inside the boy’s chest grew heavier with every step the woman took, and guilt – an emotion that he had not felt in a long time – washed over him. Well…if it meant that much to her…

“Wait.” he choked out, and the woman turned around to give him an exasperated look. “I…I think I might have found a brooch yesterday…with a green-eyed cat on it…”

The old woman’s wrinkled face suddenly lit up with hope that made her seem years younger. She scuttled back over to the boy with haste. “Really?” The little newsboy nodded and pulled the brooch out of his pocket, revealing his precious treasure, the woman’s favorite accessory. It was quickly retrieved by its original owner. “Thank you, thank you my dear boy!” the old woman said, her tone light with genuine gratitude.

“You know, I think I’d like to purchase a newspaper.”

The boy obliged her, and as he handed her the slab of printed press, he realized that even without the brooch, he would survive. Tomorrow always brought new surprises, after all. But here was one thing that had been bothering him: “Ma’am, I have another question,” he announced timidly, sure that the crabby woman was through with her good mood and would turn her nose up at him again. Instead, the woman smiled invitingly.

“What is it, child?”

“The green gemstones in the cat’s eyes. What are they called?”

“Oh, those? Those are emeralds. Beautiful gems, they are.” she answered amicably. The little newsboy seemed interested, so she added, “Would you like to know a little fact about emeralds?” The boy nodded eagerly. With a warm chuckle, the woman looked directly into the boy’s eyes and said: “Emeralds, like most every other jewel, are not easy to find. They can be very elusive, and they don’t look like this,” she pointed to the cat’s eyes on her brooch, “when they are first discovered.”

The little newsboy’s eyes widened in naïve wonder. “They don’t?”

“No, they look like ordinary rocks. In fact, some of the rocks are quite unattractive.” She looked over the boy, who lowered his head in shame. The old woman reached her bony fingers over to the boy’s face and rubbed a smudge of dirt from his cheek. “But that is why it’s important to search deep into the rocks and see what’s on the inside, because that’s what really counts. The beauty within.” She gazed sympathetically at the boy’s visage. After a long pause, the woman sighed and turned to leave. The little newsboy watched her go from his home on the godforsaken street curb. Before being completely engulfed by the stampede of commuters unhindered by frigid weather, the woman turned once more to the boy and shouted, “You have a good heart, my boy. You may not be an attractive rock, but you’re certainly a beautiful emerald.”