Norman's jaw hit the floor, and he clutched his temples as a nuclear explosion of excruciating emotional agony took siege on his heart and soul. My own heart raced as I looked onto Mr. Tyler's face filled with alarming shock, then onto Eric's face filled with a bizarre array of unstable confidence. Even at that moment in time, something in my gut told me that there was no way this thing turned out pretty for anyone involved.
“That necklace means too much to our family for you to take it like it doesn't even matter,” Norman said, agitation rocketing through his voice. "It's over two-hundred years old.”
“But more importantly, it's worth twenty-thousand dollars,” I reminded him.
Norman shook his head. “It's not always about the money," he said. “It's about the history. That necklace survived plane crashes, a fire...it even survived the Titanic. We had ancestors on board, for crying out loud.”
“I know, I know,” Eric said. “I already know how and why it is important. That is not why I stole it.”
"Then why did you steal it?" Norman roared, his face turning a strawberry pink color. "You knew how important it is to us, and you stole it anyway. That's why you don't have any friends. Because you're just a loser.”
The lobby went dead silent, and stayed that for many arduous moments. Eric folded his arms and wiped his twitching eyes, trying his hardest to fight back steadfast tears. "Well, I thought you were better than your brothers," he said, his voice trembling sorrowfully with every single word. “I thought you wouldn't need to start insulting me.”
Norman swallowed and sucked in his gut. “Look. I'm sorry," he said. “I don't mean it. I just need the necklace back so I can give it to Charles.”
“Humph,” Eric scoffed. “If you must know, I sold the necklace to Hamstein.”
“Hamstein?” Norman and I both asked simultaneously.
“Ah, man,” Mr. Tyler said, scoffing in audible disdain and disbelief, gripping his temples and rummaging his fingers through his long hair. “Not Hamstein. Anyone but Hamstein.”
Towards the center of the city, the four of us looked upon the decaying, outmoded wooden shack, seated underneath the somber sky and dark gray clouds looming ominously above our heads. Across the shack’s only window were written in bold red words, Old Silenda Jewelry.
“That's the place. So, once we get on in, let me do all the talking,” Mr. Tyler said. “Only been in here once before, but that’s all it takes to know that you don’t want to mess around with Hamstein, the guy who runs the place. Be on your toes.”
Telling someone to be on your toes with someone like Hamstein is like telling someone to tiptoe around a grizzly bear. You’re still going to go to bed that night a bloodied pile of broken bones.
Mr. Tyler pulled the door open and the four of us went inside, making way to a dark and cold room smelling of old people and window cleaner, the only sound besides our footsteps being a whirling air conditioner fanning away somewhere in the distance.
“Hey!” he shouted. “Anyone here?”
In an instant, the lights flicked on, revealing that we were in a small and cramped showroom, the crusting walls covered with shelves and shelves of shiny jewelry of all kinds and colors, all hidden away behind heavy-looking glass. Up in front was a glass counter with even more jewelry behind it, a bell and cash register seated on top. All of the jewelry had to amount to millions, maybe even billions of dollars – my eyes and mouth watered at the very thought. I’d never seen anything like it.
All my amazement dropped dead when I heard stomping footsteps coming from a wooden door leading through the back of the store. It popped open, as a short and pudgy middle-aged man stepped out, his hair short and gray, his skin tan and his chin hairs unkempt above his flannel shirt and denim jeans. The grizzly smell of cigarettes and booze belched off of him as he stepped forward towards us.
“What in the name of hell?” the man said in a deep-throat, booming voice, his forest eyes growing and his forehead wrinkles widening as he stared at us in bitter confusion. “The hell you are, shouting like that in my store. Think I got that bell there just because I like bells? Where have I seen your mug before?”
“It’s a pleasure to see you again, Mr. Hamstein,” Mr. Tyler said in a forced authoritative tone of voice, before motioning down to Eric. “You sold me a necklace for my mother’s birthday last year. Actually, a year ago to this day, I believe. Odd coincidence, huh? And this is—”
“You bought that necklace from me for twenty-thousand dollars,” Eric interrupted. “But it wasn’t mine to sell. I need it back.”
Hamstein rolled his eyes and spit on the ground, muttering curse words under his breath. “You mean to tell me that you sold me stolen merchandise? And you have the stupid to come back in my face and tell me that?”
Eric nodded his head. “Yes. Please give it back.”
“Agh!” The jeweler scoffed, stomping his foot onto the ground in a blunt act of sheer anger. “Fine, fine, you dumb little…I suppose you brought me the twenty-thousand dollars I gave you for it?”
Eric froze like a block of ice, before slowly being thawed out by Hamstein’s menacing gaze. “I uh…erm…no. I do not have the money.”
“Ha!” Hamstein shouted. “Then how about you get out my store then, you useless little maggot.”
“Hey, don’t call him that,” I said. “He just wants his friend to forgive him for what he did. Give him back the stupid necklace.”
“And why should I?” Hamstein beckoned. “I got a buyer whose been inching closer and closer to wanting to buy that thing for twice as much as I snagged it for. I don’t have to do squat for you kids.”
“Because it’s the right thing to do. The kid is in a wheelchair,” I responded. “Why do you just do what we say, you crusty old douche.”
“Hey! That’s enough!” Mr. Tyler shouted. “Don’t ever talk like that. Especially not to him. Mr. Hamstein, I’m sorry, we’re going to—”
“You’re going to get these kids out of my store!” he belted. “I’m never going to see you punks ever again. You ruined my already crap day.”
“I have a couple questions first,” Norman said, breaking his long silence, causing the four of us to freeze in his direction.
“Well?” Hamstein said, spitting with every syllable pronounced. “What are you waiting for? Shoot it out of your gullet already.”
“I think there’s something strange here that no one seems to be asking about,” he said, his face tucked towards the ground in a deep, ponderous stare. “Eric stole the necklace and sold it here at the start of the school year, right?”
“That’s the story so far, yeah,” Mr. Tyler confirmed.
“So, what we don’t know is, one, why he stole it and sold it to the jeweler. And two, if he sold it to the jeweler…where’s the money?”
We all turned our gaze to Eric, who adjusted his glasses as he stared blankly out into the distance, months worth of lies and deception belted out of his lungs all spiraling back towards him like a boomerang to the heart.
He shifted his gaze to his left. He shifted his gaze to the right.
And then he started to cry.
“What are you all looking at me for?” he screeched. “N-ngh! Ah…I want to go home, I want to go home, I want to go home…”
“Eric, if you want to put this behind us, you’ve got to tell us right now,” I said, my eyes wide, staring a hole through his as I shriveled my fists, my heart thumping. “Where is the twenty-thousand dollars?”
Eric started to hyperventilate, sweat drenching from down his tomato-red face as his muscles twitched and legs and arms shook violently. “I-I-I don’t have it anymore!” he exclaimed. “C-c-c-cancer! I stole it because of cancer, don’t you see?”
“Cancer?” Hamstein said in a concerned tone of voice, his ears perking up the instant they absorbed the very word. “Did you say cancer?”
Eric nodded his head. “My mother was diagnosed with Stage Three-C breast cancer this July,” he explained. “The prognosis was not good. And she could not afford the surgery she needed to save her life. So I stole it before we came to the academy, sold it here, then sent my mother the money.”
I looked at Mr. Tyler, his jaw dropped to the floor, then to Norman, who’s face froze like arctic stone. Then to Hamstein, whose fingers dangled from his open palms, his bottom lips trembling, unable to come up with the very words.
“Wait here,” he said, stepping towards the back of store, leaving us to wait in utter silence.
Minutes later, he returned with two small red boxes in his hands. Wiping sweat from his forehead, he stepped over to Eric’s wheelchair and dropped the boxes in his hands. “Here,” he shrugged. “The necklace is in the bottom box. I threw in a couple of friendship rings in the top box. To make up for what I called you before.”
“B-but, it’s too much money,” Eric said, staring ominously at the small box with tears in his eyes. “You can’t do that.”
“You can’t put a price on human life,” Hamstein said. “I lost my wife to cancer thirty years ago today. And I’d do absolutely anything to get her back. I miss her more than anything else.”
“G-gosh, thanks,” I said, nearly coming to tears myself. “I wasn’t expecting you to—”
“Shut up,” Hamstein interrupted, sending a chilling sensation up my spine. “I wasn’t talking to you, you little ginger brat. I didn’t do jack for you. Now, get out of here and don’t come back.”
Mr. Tyler nodded, as he, Norman and Eric stepped out of the jewelry store. I turned towards Hamstein and stuck my middle finger up, before proceeding to follow them out into the city.
Later that afternoon, I heard a knock on my bedroom door. I opened it up and Eric appeared with one of the small boxes still in his hands.
“Here,” he said, handing it towards me.
“H-huh?” I responded, confusingly accepting it into my hands. “What is this…?”
“It’s a Christmas present from me,” Eric explained, shrugging his shoulders. “You almost got us kicked out of the jewelry store, but I do not believe I would have gotten to go there in the first place if it weren’t for you. So, thanks.”
“I don’t know what to say, Eric. But…you did give the necklace back to Charles, right?”
“Not yet,” he said. “Charles doesn’t care that much about the necklace itself, believe me. It’s a trust thing with him. If he knows I stole it, he’ll never forgive me, even if he gets it back. I have to come up with a plan so that he never knows I took it, but he’ll get it back. I promise.”
Eric departed and I opened up the box to gander upon the two silver friendship rings, together combined spelling the words “Together Forever” engraved in the ore.
They were the perfect presents for Bailey. And it almost time to tell her.
I wish I knew it wasn’t me she was in love with, though.
She was in love with you, Ben.