One of Race’s favorite things about living in the lodging house was the sense of privacy it provided, without the loneliness of being alone in private. He knew that every single one of those boys had been through hell and back, just like him, but none of them talked about it. They didn’t have to. And it was nice. Nice to be understood and accepted and not have anyone worryin’ about you, or worryin’ about no one else. They looked out for one another, took care of each other, and helped out when someone fell behind. There was this mutual bond between each of the Newsies, if someone needed something, they’d help. If someone was hungry, they’d share. If someone was hurt, they’d take care of ‘em. It was much better than being on your own all the time, which Race had grown used to before he met Jack Kelly and the rest of the Newsies.
But sometimes, being around people all the time was too much, and Race had to escape for a little bit. Still afraid of being arrested (again), he had to choose where he hid out carefully. Jack took the roof (his penthouse, as he called it) when he needed to escape, and usually slept out there when it wasn’t too cold. Race kinda wished he had somewhere quieter to sleep. The lodging house was nice, sure, it had a roof and some kind of heating during the winter, actual beds….those were all good things. But it also had typically had two boys to a single bed, and with so many kids under one roof it got pretty chaotic. Still, it was better than the streets.
And the Refuge.
Race felt his heart beating hard in his chest as he paced around the alley behind the lodging house as the sun was going down. He’d been on edge all day, and really just needed to burn off some steam.
Hah, my heart is racing . He thought to himself, rather sadistically. He chewed on his cigar violently, the same one he’d had in his mouth practically since he woke up. Contrary to what the rest of the Newsies thought, Race didn’t smoke all that much. He liked the cigars, sure. The smell of ‘em, the taste of ‘em, but he didn’t love smoking. Honestly, it was only when he was close to freaking out that he even lit his precious cigars up. And he was getting pretty close now.
You’s tired is all, Racetrack. He told himself, Ya didn’t sleep last night. You’s tired and ya best shoes has a hole in ‘ems. That’s all.
Race wished that his heart thumping in his chest and his shaking hands would listen to how absolutely rational his head was being.
You’s fine. Ya ain’t even got no gambling debt this week.
Race grabbed a fistful of blonde curls with one hand, taking the cigar out of his mouth with the other hand and glaring at it, the end he’d had in his mouth damp and flattened from bite marks. He winced.
You’s fine. Breathes, ya moron. Breathe.
Race felt like someone had punched him in the ribs. He very specifically knew how that felt, too. He couldn’t catch his breath, and his ribs ached as he tried to force air through his lungs. He hated when this happened, when he just couldn’t breathe . Something dumb, like finally wearing a hole through his favorite boots, sent him spiraling like this, and then he couldn’t handle anything or anyone. He’d snapped at Romeo, poor kid, going off on him for leaving his stuff too close to Race’s bunk. Romeo hadn’t really done nothing wrong, Race was just in a bad mood and getting too punchy to be around. He’d almost hauled off and punched Mush in the mouth just for askin’ if he was alright. All that only made Race feel a whole lot worse.
Race was so busy trying to breathe that he didn’t notice someone come down the fire escape behind him, and he had his eyes squeezed shut so he didn’t see the person approach him until a cautious hand brushed against his shoulder. Race jumped a good two feet into the air in shock and scrambled away from the stranger in the alley. But as his vision cleared from the panic he sighed with relief to see that the stranger wasn’t a stranger at all, it was Jack Kelly, with a concerned look on his face.
“Ay, you okay there Racer?” Jack asked, lookin’ rather uncomfortable on account of scaring his friend. “I didn’t mean to spook ya or nothin’, I just uh…” he shuffled his feet a bit. “I heard ya from the roof and got worried.”
Race’s relief quickly turned to red-hot anger. “I’m fine ,” he snapped, “I don’t need ya sneakin’ up on me, or eavesdroppin’ on me from ya’s precious penthouse , Kelly.” Race’s cigar was back in his mouth and he spoke through gritted teeth. Jack looked down, noting that Race’s hands were shaking.
“Sorry,” Jack said, hesitating. “You wanna come back inside? It’s gettin’ cold out.”
Race had been sweating from panicking and honestly didn’t even notice that the temperature was dropping. It was mid-November, and the early mornings were frigid and the nights downright freezing in Lower Manhattan. Now that Jack brought it to his attention, Race was cold, but the thought of having to go back inside to a dozen nosey Newsies made him feel nauseous.
“I said I’s fine , Jack.” Race said, pushing Jack another two feet away from him. “Ya ain’t my mother an’ I don’ need ya naggin’ at me! Get outta here!”
Jack’s expression went from defensive to worried again. “Race…” Jack took a step toward his friend again, and Race reached out to stop him, but Jack met his eyes. “You’s cryin’ , Racer. What’s goin’ on with ‘ya? I won’t go tellin’ nobody. Just get it offa ya chest.”
Race shakily touched at his cheek, surprised to find hot tears running down it, and fiercely balled his fists to wipe at his face.
“I don’t need no help with nothin’!” Race nearly shouted, his voice cracking. “I…” he sniffed, now aware that he was crying and struggling to stop. “I’s got it unda’ control.” he wiped at his face, looking away from Jack.
“Don’ look like you’s got it under control,” Jack said, leaning against the wall of the Lodging House, trying to get closer to Race without invading his personal space. “Did somethin’ happen today? On the streets?”
Race glared at Jack for not leaving him alone, but shook his head anyway.
Jack simply nodded, not pressing for details, but glad that Race wasn’t in any sort of trouble. If he was (and it wouldn’t surprise Jack as it’d happened before) Race would’ve been honest. They had a mutual understanding in the Lodging House, if you’s was in trouble, ya had to let the fellas know.
Trouble followed Race pretty often, between makin’ friends with the wrong folks at the racetrack, not bein’ able to pay back his gambling debts, and the typical trouble the Newsies found themselves in, Jack would’ve been concerned if Race wasn’t jittery and on edge all the time. But today was somethin’ else. He’d only seen Race like this once or twice, and it was usually followed by him disappearin’ for a while and showin’ up later like nothing had ever happened.
Jack looked Race up and down, the kid shakin’ like a leaf. He chewed on his cigar, staining his teeth brown. Sweat beaded on his forehead and his eyes darted back and forth, looking for a way to escape and run, and Jack felt his heart pang.
“You don’t gotta run, Race,” Jack said softly, “Maybe I’s can help.”
Race shook his head again, desperately wanting to run as far as his shoddy boots-with-holes-in-them would take him, but the longer Jack stood there, the easier Race could breathe, so he didn’t run away.
“Ain’t nothin’ you’s can do,” Race mumbled after a minute, “I’s just...gotta...gotta smoke or somethin’.”
Jack waved him away. “Stuff’s bad for ya,” he said, his tone light rather than condescending.
“So’s not bein’ able ta breathes,” Race muttered, rubbing his hands over his face, taking the soggy cigar out of his mouth. It prolly wouldn’ even light up.
Jack gave Race a smirk. “Whadda ya think it does to ya lungs, huh?”
Race rolled his eyes and fiddled with the cigar in his hand before putting it back in his mouth. Jack looked him over.
“You’s can do whatcha want Race, if ya wants to smoke I ain’t gonna tell you’s no.” Jack told him gently, and Race felt himself growing defensive again. He wanted to retort but he was now getting cold, and was dangerously close to cryin’ again.
“You’s not my motha’,” Race bit out under his breath, “Let me alone, Jack.”
Jack gave Race a concerned look. “You’s my friend, Race.” He said carefully, “And if you’s ain’t right, I ain’t gonna leave you out here to freeze all alone. What happened today that’s got you’s upset?”
Race hesitated, looking down at his feet, the leather of his boots cracked and worn, cold pavement shooting right through the hole in the soles of his shoes and through his thin socks to his feet. His toes ached from cold, and his stomach sank knowing that it was only going to get worse as winter set in.
“M-my boots…” Race whimpered, his voice small. “They’s got holes in ‘em. My best pair.” he frowned, tugging on his blonde curls in frustration. “‘S dumb.” he muttered. “Dumb reason ta be’s so upset.”
Jack shook his head. “Boots are important,” Jack said, to Race’s surprise. “You’s got a good a reason as any to be upset. And knowin’ you, Race, you’s was already upset, and the boots is what pushed you’s over the edge.”
Race sniffed, wiping at his nose and trying to play off his emotions, but his heart was still pounding and he could feel tears building in the back of his eyes.
“Yeah,” Race said quietly, and Jack put a very cautious hand on his shoulder. Race’s blue eyes met Jack’s hazel ones and he sniffed again. “Them boys is so loud,” he said after a second, “And sometimes I’s just gotta…” he sighed, looking back at his feet. “Gotta get away from ‘em. Too much noise and then I’s forgets how ta breathe an…” Race’s words caught and Jack could practically hear his heart pounding.
“So I uh,” Jack hesitated but didn’t take his hand off of Race’s shoulder. “I sleeps out on the roof for the same reason, ya know. ‘Specially since that last stint in the Refuge. I don’t do so well all cramped up in the room with the boys no more.”
Race looked up at him. “Yeah?”
Jack nodded. “There’s too much noise. Sometimes you just gotta get away from it all, an’ block everyone else out.” he glanced over his shoulder at the fire escape he’d climbed down earlier. “If you’s want, ya can always go up there and take a break. Just say the word and I’ll let you’s have the penthouse all to yerself.”
“Ya mean it?” Race sniffed, taking the cigar from his mouth again, sticking it in his vest’s breast-pocket. “You’s wouldn’t mind?”
Jack shook his head. “Nah. I’s know how it feels Racer. Is okay to need to catch a break once in ‘awhile.”
Race nodded. “Yeah.” he said quietly, and Jack gave him a little smile.
“I gotta set of old boots you’s can have too, no holes in the bottoms of ‘em. Too small for me, but probably be’s about your size.” he added.
Race’s eyes widened a little with surprise, and he felt his chest loosening as he started to calm down. “Ya do?”
Jack grinned “You bet.” he wasn’t about to tell Race that they were his backup boots for when his current pair got worn out, and they still fit perfectly. Jack knew that Race needed them more than he did. He could always buy new boots. Or steal them. Whatever he had to do. He’d figure that out when the time came.
“Come on, you can sleep’s up in the penthouse with me tonight.” Jack said, leading Race back toward the fire escape. “And tomorrow’ll be a new day to try again.”
Race smiled a little, following Jack up the ladder of the fire escape, glad that his hands weren’t shaking so badly anymore and he could grip the cold iron rails.
“Hey, Jack?” Race looked up to Jack where he stood on the next landing of the escape. “Thanks.”
Jack gave Race a lopsided grin, holding out his hand to pull him onto the landing. “Ay, we’s a family.” he said, “We’s take care of each other. Next time, just let me know’s you’re havin’ a bad day. I’m here for ya.”
Race felt better, a lot better, knowing that he had someone who understood how he felt, especially since he didn’t quite understand it himself. Did Jack get like this too? Where he couldn’t breathe or think straight and little things would make him upset? Race wouldn’t be surprised; Jack Kelly was a living legend for how many times he’d been sent to the Refuge and escaped it’s dirty grasp. There ain’t no way a kid been to jail and slept alright afterwards. Jack probably had as many issues as Race did, but like Race, he hid ‘em until he forgot about ‘em.
“You’s a good pal, Jackie.” Race said as he followed Jack up to the rooftop, “I’m lucky ta have ya lookin’ out for me.”
“Anytime, Race.” Jack told him, gesturing to the thin mattress set up on the edge of the roof, “Go ‘head and relax, I’ll find ya somethin’ to eat and bring it to ya in a whiles.”
Race laid back on the mattress, focusing on breathing again. “Nothin’ Albert makes,” he told Jack before he started toward the ladder again, “Moron burns everythin’ he touches.”
Jack smiled to see Race back to his sarcastic self, and went back inside, letting him have some time for himself.
Race slipped his newsboy cap over his eyes and relaxed, still cold, still upset over his boots, and still fighting the tight feeling in his chest, but relieved to know that he could count on someone else with how he was feelin’. Today was a bad day, but Race actually believed Jack when he’d said tomorrow’d be better. He had friends like Jack to count on and trust, so yeah, tomorrow’d be better.