The old grandfather clock down the hall struggled to chime and confirm the midnight hour. Members of the Bryant family had fallen asleep hours earlier, except for one. The youngest member of the aristocratic family rushed to pack and mentally go over her plan of escape for the countless time. Nerves were starting to take over, that much was apparent when the size of her suitcase changed three times in four hours. Several times she would walk around the room and remind herself why she had to do this, why she had to detach from the aristocratic life. A small suitcase sat on her bed, inside held two simple outfits, three books, a couple pieces of jewelry that belonged to her great-grandmother, and a photograph of her grandfather. She was walking away from so much, but had decided this chapter in her life had to end.
Ava Bryant was the youngest daughter to a millionaire New York architect. At a young age she took lessons in acting, music, dancing, and singing. It quickly became apparent Mrs. Bryant had plans for young Ava because once her daughter was old enough to enter public school, tutors were hired so these lessons weren't interrupted. Ava's two older brothers not only attended public school, but were recently accepted into college. Parties were constantly held at the Bryant mansion, and Ava played the piano, sang, or on occasion recited Shakespeare while in full costume. A few times her father used her by inviting associates to dinner and Ava performed for them. Recently she turned sixteen, her parents idea of a birthday gift was to sign her up for a vaudeville audition in Manhattan.
She never had a friend, her mother never let her mingle with other aristocrat girls her age. Ava despised her parents for not giving her the same luxury as her older brothers, a chance to attend school and make friends, even experience romance instead of just read about it. Women who attended the parties mentioned ungrateful brats who ran away from home, the more she heard it Ava wanted to do it. Lack of courage kept her from actually following through, but after her parents told her about the vaudeville audition she made up her mind to escape the depressing life of an entertainer and take control of her own life.
Quietly pushing aside her collection of 78 records, Ava stood in front of her full length mirror located near the window. Moonlight trickled into the dark room so she could clearly see her outfit. During the last several months she rummaged through the attic, grateful her mother never threw anything away, since she found her brother's old clothes. Surprisingly, after a few minor alterations his clothes fit her, and helped hide her figure. Brown knickers, a faded green button up shirt, a tan plaid jacket, a gray cap, then her black stockings and brown lace up boots. Unsure of what to do with her long thick hair, Ava braided it then hid it inside the shirt and jacket, ignoring how hot it felt against her naked back.
Looking back at herself in the mirror, Ava took a deep breath and slowly exhaled. The time had finally come, there was no turning back. She snapped the suitcase shut then stepped over to the open window. Ava found herself thankful that her mother insisted on giving her a room on the first floor, aristocrat protocol states that only staff reside on the first floor. Her parents insisted Ava's bedroom had to connect to her practice room. It was a weak excuse, Ava wondered if fellow aristocrats really believed it. She poked her head outside and surveyed the area to discover the streets were clear. Soon a small suitcase was flung from the window, landing in a nearby rosebush, then a teenager clumsily dropped into the garden below with a muffled "oooff!"
Terrified she woke someone up, Ava didn't move for almost ten minutes. The staff at her father's mansion were trained to be on high alert, the smallest noise they were expected to investigate. Satisfied she wouldn't run into the gardener or butler, Ava grabbed her suitcase, crawled away from the mansion like spider, then disappeared into the night.
Another morning in Manhattan started off like any other. Business owners checked over their stock and dusted surfaces, before checking the clock and unlocking the doors. The sound of hooves clip-clopping up and down the street alongside newsies screaming out the latest headline. Three years earlier newsies went on strike against Joseph Pulitzer, now in 1902 it felt like a distant memory. It was an important event for 1899 but it was a brand new century. Many of those kids weren't newsies anymore, so it was best to move on just like they did. People were more interested in Rag music, and snatching the new toy known as a Teddy Bear.
A young man in his mid-twenties, dressed in an expensive suit, exited the tailor's shop and stepped into the side alley. He threw an empty box into a large crate that held broken baskets, empty boxes, and other discarded items then started back inside when something caught his eye. A body lay on top of a crate right next to the door. Rolling his eyes, the young worker kicked the crate as hard as he could and growled, "I've told you kids time and again! Go to the diner across the street for scraps!"
The door slammed shut the same time Ava's eyes snapped open and she sat up. Before she could catch herself, the young teen tumbled onto the dirt floor. Ava completely forgot what happened a few hours earlier, but the crash landing quickly jogged her memory. Rubbing her backside as she slowly pulled herself off the ground, she mumbled, "And a good morning to you too."
After leaving the Bryant mansion, Ava just wanted to disappear. Mr. and Mrs. Bryant were going to be dramatic when announcing their daughter was missing, and use every lie possible to hunt her down. Therefore, Manhattan was going to be the haystack and Ava planned to be the needle that can't be found. The problem was as she darted through the empty streets, sleep consumed the young teen and it couldn't be ignored. She couldn't remember curling up on the crate.
Slender fingers brushed down dark brown bangs before she jammed the cap on her head. A quick check to make sure her long hair wasn't exposed before pulling up her stockings and adjusting the outfit. Yawning, the young girl snatched up her suitcase and stumbled out of the alley. Put your acting lessons to good use! You're not an aristocrat, so act like it!
"...daughter of millionaire kidnapped!" screamed a newsie as he waved a newspaper at the bustling crowds.
Ava pulled the cap over her light gray eyes as she started down the busy street. How am I going to blend in when I'm the front page news?
A hand fell on her shoulder and she immediately froze. Within seconds of entering the New York street life, her family found her. All those months of planning and researching so that she would successfully blend in, only to be found within seconds. The papers were sure to print a scandal, resulting in her parents sending her away. Weren't they planning on doing that already by pushing to have her join vaudeville? A sigh escaped her lips as she turned to accept her fate, then stared in shock at a newsboy who had to be in the preteen age range.
"Sorry to scare you, but I saw you leave the alley," he explained, adjusting the papers under his arm, "do you need a place to stay?"
She almost answered him, but why would he be so quick to help a stranger? Ava always heard street kids trusted nobody. Could that have been one more lie aristocrats told their children so they wouldn't mingle with the street kids? Wouldn't surprise her, considering she heard for years not to go near a street boy because he'd rape her. Remembering her mental pep talk seconds earlier, she replied, "I don't have any money."
His dark brown eyes lit up. "You could earn it! Be a newsie like the rest of us!"
Her brow furrowed. "Us?"
The newsboy didn't answer, instead he grabbed her arm and started to push through the morning crowds. Ava tried to wrench her arm free, but he had a death grip on her. One thing she had to admit, her short experience on the street proved more eventful than sixteen years of constant lessons. It wasn't even nine o'clock. Mentally she kicked herself for not leaving sooner, since nothing other than fear held her back. You are such an idiot
"Here we are! The lodging house." he let go of Ava's arm as they neared a building with a small sign over the door that read Newsboy Lodging House.
Ava rubbed her arm as her gray eyes looked up at the sign, then shifted to look at the mystery newsie. "I'm not going to take advice from a stranger."
"Oh! I'm Les. Les Jacobs."
"Well Les Jacobs, you never answered my question. Who is 'us'?"
Les proved one shouldn't judge a book by its cover. Standing at exactly five foot, he looked like he lacked muscle but his death grip on Ava's arm proved otherwise. He set his papers on the front steps of the lodging house, then moved to stand behind her. His hands clamped firmly onto her shoulders as his knees rested behind hers and light pushed her legs out, directing her into the building. There was no chance of squirming away, she tried. This kid is good
"Les..." A young adult male stood behind the front desk. The look on his face indicated he was used to the boy's antics, but this was new, "What're you doin'?"
"Hey Cowboy!" Les released Ava and waved, "I brought a new recruit!"
Cowboy, or Jack Kelly, arched an eyebrow. Les tended to recruit street kids to become newsies as if they were lost puppies who needed a new home. It wasn't a bad thing, the kid was devoted to being a newsie, and to making sure street kids had a place to stay. Focusing his attention on the young woman he asked, "Are you interested in becomin' a newsie?"
"Jack, she doesn't have any money."
"Beat it," Jack pointed to the door, "finish sellin' yer papers."
After a hasty retreat by Les, Jack stepped out from behind the front desk. Faded black slacks and a faded gray button up shirt, accented a homemade black vest. His blonde-brown hair was slicked back and parted down the middle. As he leaned against the desk, he asked, "What's yer name?"
"Sophia." her parents shortened the name, thinking it sounded better as a stage name.
"You look like Mr. Bryant's daughter, the one who is said to be kidnapped."
She stared at him. Her mind told her to beg, plead, even bargain with him not to take her back to her parents. If she were a damsel in distress, that's how she would react. Earlier she told herself to quit thinking like an aristocrat, she was now a street kid. Right now she was playing the ultimate chess game, if she made the wrong move it was game over.
"Think that braid inside yer collar'll fool people?"
Her hand shot up and touched a section of her braid sticking out of her jacket. During her trek through the streets with Les, the braid slowly bunched up and spilled out. While planning, she never thought that could happen. She had no idea what to do with her hair, a barber would just call her parents to confirm the request. Every hairstyle she tried resulted in the cap not fitting, but she had to use the cap because it made her unrecognizable. The only option she had was a long braid down her back, but it failed.
"I only take in newsies. Considerin' yer headline news at the moment, I'll pay to get yer hair cut off." Jack gave her a stern look and shoved a hand in his pocket, "but take advantage of me an' I call yer parents. No games."
Sophia nodded. "Understood."
Walking around to once again take his place behind the front desk, Jack searched several shelves for the registration logbook. Upon finding it, he flipped through several pages until he found a blank one near the back. Pulling a pencil stub from his pocket, he scribbled vigorously on the page then asked, "Age?"
Quickly scribbling, he stated, "Newsies usually pick their own sellin' spot. I'm makin' the decision that you sell with Les fer a few weeks. When yer comfortable with the sellin' routine, either continue with him or find yer own place."
"I can defend myself. My brothers constantly started physical fights with me."
Though he didn't react, Jack liked what she told him. Newsgirls were common, he had no problem with taking in a newsgirl, but an aristocrat trying to adjust to street life was a little more complicated. Jack didn't feel like wasting his time dealing with rich kid drama. Newsies had to defend themselves, it was part of living on the streets. If the only complaint he had against her was she beat up one of the newsboys, that didn't bother him.
"Alright," he closed the logbook and stuffed it back in the shelf before once again leaving his place behind the front desk and motioning for her to follow him, "The boys sleep upstairs, your room is down this hall and to the left." Jack walked down a long hall, dramatically turned left and opened the first door on his right, "Damn, looks like we'll have to clean it before you can sleep in here."
Sophia glanced inside the room and started to say something when the telephone buzzed, forcing Jack to quickly step away. The room had a strong musty smell, which complimented the faded peeling wallpaper. A thick layer of dust covered everything in the room, a few steps inside looked like footsteps in dirty snow. She wondered why the room hadn't been used in such a long time. Did someone die in here? Was the room haunted? Stop it, you always let your imagination run wild!
"This used to be the former owner's wife's room," Jack stepped into the room, arms crossed over his chest, "The other rooms down this hall were for newsgirls, she watched 'em while her husband watched us."
"I take it...when she passed away he just left it alone."
Jack nodded. "The girls left too. They didn't want the city to come after old man Kloppman and shut down the place."
"Did he retire and give you the place?"
Sadness filled his smokey gray eyes. Lifting a hand and rubbing the back of his head, Jack explained, "He passed away about a year and a half ago. For a lot of us who lived here, he was like the father we never had, or the mentor we desperately needed." he spun on his heel and exited the room, "The city wanted to tear this place down after old man Klopper died, so I quit sellin' newspapers an' started runnin' the place."
Following after him, she set her suitcase next to the door and asked, "How on earth did the city agree to that?"
Jack grinned. "I know people."
The rest of the morning was spent in a tiny apartment, Jack and a woman by the name of Sarah argued over how to cut Sophia's hair. Jack demanded all of it be cut off, while Sarah stated that Sophia should still look like a girl. It took showing Sarah the headlines for her to back down, though she voiced how upset she was over losing the fight. Glancing down at piles of hair that covered the apartment floor, Sophia realized she only kept the long hair because her parents friends and business associates told her she looked beautiful with it. How often she was compared to stage actresses who also had long hair, it was just one more thing that tied her to the entertainment industry. She was finally free.