Chapter 1: Her Son's Father
Francis Quinn was a good man. He wasn’t a kind man, or an innocent man. But he was definitely a good one.
Kathleen could tell by his smile. It curled at the corners and shined in his big, beaming eyes. She could tell by his laugh. It was loud and braying, a guffaw that he threw his entire body into. She could tell by his hands. They were big and strong, they encompassed her own, and his thick fingers were covered in calluses. She could tell by his eyes. They were warm and brown, sunny, beckoning. She just couldn’t describe it, but she knew. Kathleen just knew.
At least, she thought she did.
He proved her wrong when he left, abandoning her when she thought their life together was just beginning. They were going to be a family, she thought. The three of them were going to build a life together.
She was wrong. Francis didn’t want a family. Francis was too busy for a family. Francis already had a family. Francis didn’t want a family. Not with her.
And poor Jack had to bear the burden of her stupidity.
Jack told her. Of course, he did. He warned her. Francis Quinn ain’t a good man, he had said. Said it the first time he’d met him. Said there was a way he stared, a way he grinned that was all lip and no teeth, a way his hands stilled when he heard something he didn’t like and a way his laugh echoed in a room full of people.
She didn’t listen and now she was paying the price. Now, he was paying the price.
“I’m real sorry, Jack,” she whispered at their wedding. They were at the altar; their families were staring. They were disappointed in her. She was lucky she had Jack.
He smiled at her, all teeth and no lip, and winked. “We was gonna’ end up together one way or another, Kathy Halliday.” His answer was a little too loud and the priest gave him a scathing look.
Jack was sweet. They were going to grow old together. They’d always promised they were. They just never thought they’d do it as man and wife.
“Still,” she murmured quietly, gripping his hand a little tighter as she tilted her head toward him a little more, “you never wanted this, Jackie.”
He smiled and huffed out a soft laugh. “A shotgun weddin’ wasn’t part of my plan, but better you than any other gal.” His thumb ran over her knuckles, his arm bumping against her shoulder.
Jack didn’t love. He couldn’t recognise it, couldn’t feel it, and didn’t want it. He just didn’t feel that way about girls. Not about boys either. He loved his friends, he loved his family, but he didn’t love anyone like Kathleen loved Francis.
But Jack loved little Sullivan. He loved them so much. He’d rest his forehead on her bump and whisper to them, and Kathleen would smile because Jack Sullivan would be a better father than Francis Quinn.
When her feet hurt, he’d massage them. When she was too tired, he’d do the housework and make dinner. When morning sickness hit, he sat next to her while she vomited and rubbed her back. When she couldn’t sleep, he moved himself into her room and would lay beside her and they’d talk like they used to until she nodded off.
Kathleen was thankful. She owed everything to Jack.
Jack, who would touch her stomach and grin his big, cheesy grin. Jack, who would rub her shoulders as they listened to their mothers talk about their own pregnancies and whisper smart remarks under his breath. Jack, who played the piano with such enthusiasm she could picture how he’d dance to the tune if he could. Jack, who could paint the most fantastical pieces she’d ever seen and say it was bad. Jack, dear Jack, who sang to her baby in a quiet, soft, deep voice, lullabies from their past. Jack, who loved her the way Francis should have.
Jack, the father of her son.
God, she was thankful.
Jack would take care of him. Jack would take care of her boy. Jack would love him. Jack would raise him right. Jack would make sure he knew his mother loved him.
Kathleen Kelly Sullivan died. But she died content.
Because Jack Sullivan was a good man. Jack was a kind man, and an innocent man. Jack was such a good man.
Chapter 2: A Dollar for a Dime
Jack Kelly was a good man. He was a kind man, but not an innocent one. But he was definitely a good man.
He turned eighteen last week and Crutchie was having a hard time coming to terms with it. The Jack Kelly he knew was a boy; the Jack Kelly he saw was a man. It was difficult to relate the two pictures.
And he was a man. Crutchie could tell.
He could tell by his shoulders. They were broad and set, heavy with the weight of new responsibilities and expectations. He could tell by his hands. They were big and fluid, long fingers covered in calluses from holding a paint brush or piece of charcoal for far too long. He could tell by his voice. It was booming and brilliant, modulated and pleasant to listen to. He could tell by his jaw. It was strong and sculpted, well-defined by the common exercise of clenching his teeth. He could tell by his smile. It curled at his lips, crinkled at his eyes and softened his features, framing his teeth like a painting. He could tell by his eyes. They were tired and green, big and bruising; raging flames to those he disliked but adoring candlelight to the right people.
Jack Kelly was a man. Crutchie was having a hard time figuring out when that had happened.
He was selling the last of his papers in Five Points. The headline was good today and Crutchie, who had all but finished by midmorning, had decided to meet up with him; maybe help out with the papers if he could.
Five Points was dangerous, after all. Notorious since the riots. Crime was in abundance and Jack’s safety was always at risk.
But Jack, being Jack, didn’t want any of the boys to get hurt. He took it upon himself to cover the foot traffic there and Crutchie would be lying if he said he didn’t hate it. Jack was too good for Five Points. It was all too clear now. Looking at him, looking at the way he worked and smiled, Five Points didn’t deserve Jack. But they had him. At least for now.
The blonde smiled, watching as Jack kneeled down to talk to a little boy who’d run up to him. The child was clearly worth more than all the newsies combined, he had smart clothes and a clean face, but he greeted Jack with a screaming grin and a penny for a paper. His mother followed after, smiling at the newsie like they were old friends and the two were drawn into conversation.
Crutchie didn’t want to bother them. Jack was clearly talking to a regular and who knows what tall tales he’d told to be allowed to sell here. No, he simply watched from afar; smiling at Jack’s little habits and intricacies.
Jack always shouted the headlines with a palm cupping his mouth like a megaphone. He always stood with his feet shoulders’ width apart: said it made him look more confident, stronger. Crutchie always thought he looked strong, but didn’t argue. He always beamed a sunny smile, even when he had rude customers that he secretly wanted to beat down. He always moved around a lot, swinging papers left and right. Somehow, he always managed to avoid hitting people: he had a gracefulness to him that helped him dance through crowds and crowds of people without bumping into a soul.
Crutchie admired that. Most of the boys were agile when they moved, Race in particular was able to duck and weave through the heaviest of mobs, but Crutchie’s limp didn’t allow him the same talent. He was awkward when he walked, heavy and clumsy. His crutch a constant companion he couldn’t be without.
He huffed at himself. He hated hating his limp. It was a part of him, and no part of him should be hated. Especially something he couldn’t control. At least, that’s what he told himself. Told Arms too.
The little boy had clung to him ever since Race had found him at Sheepshead and brought him back to the Lodging House. Probably because they were so similar. The kid had one arm and was nicknamed accordingly: no one knew his name; most thought he couldn’t remember it, but he did. He’d told Crutchie after a particularly bad day, there had been a heavy rain and both of them had felt it to their bones.
Frankie Jordan was dead and gone. Arms stood proudly in his place.
They’d been selling together earlier. The boy was seven and had no right being on the streets alone after being a newsie for only a month. He was sticking with Crutchie until all the older boys agreed he could sell on his own. Selling papers was difficult. Selling papers with one arm was worse.
“Can I get past ya’, love?” a rich voice murmured. It was so surprising, for a reason he couldn’t pinpoint, that it immediately brought him out of his musings and he instinctively moved his crutch closer to his body.
He spun on his good foot to glance behind himself. There was a girl, well-dressed and patient, with a sweet face gazing back at him. Crutchie startled. “Uh!” He crowded closer to the wall. “Sorry, ma’am.”
She huffed out a smile, “t’s alreyt, love,” and nimbly skirted past him. She crossed the road and wound her way through the growing crowd, a suitcase in hand.
The blonde watched her go, befuddled. She didn’t sound like a New Yorker, didn’t really sound American either. What was she doing in Five Points?
Jack’s hollering brought him back to the present and his eyes swam back to his friend. The man was grinning, waving his last paper at the passing crowd. Most of them ignored him. The headline was raving about the Whyos incident. It was no wonder that the Irish immigrants that lived here were avoiding the news.
Crutchie glanced around the crowd, wondering who would be Jack’s last customer. Instead, he saw something he wasn’t expecting.
There was a man, lingering in the doorway of what looked to be an apartment building. He was old, well-dressed and portly. His face was red and a little sweaty, at least it looked that way from a distance, and his greying moustache covered his mouth. He was balding but the light hair he had was slicked back; his large, hanging ears on full display. He was puffing on a cigar, almost in a snobbish mockery of Race’s lazy smoking, and his eyes were locked on Jack. It didn’t look like he was considering buying: he was just staring.
It made Crutchie’s skin crawl. No one should be looking at Jack with those eyes. Eyes that raked and analysed, examined a boy with cold calculation. It reminded him of how The Spider would look at him; look at Jack too, before he was put in prison of course. Those eyes flickered towards him and the blonde startled. He quickly looked away, trying to find Jack amongst his terrified cacophony of thoughts.
“Crutch?” His best friend asked, bandaged hand coming to rest on his shoulder, squeezing. “You okay?”
The blonde shook away his thoughts, smile pulling at the corners of his mouth, “’course, Jackie.” He shrugged his shoulders, eyes trailing towards the old man who was still staring. “Just thought we could walk back together is all.”
Jack grinned that charming grin of his, and one of his ink stained fingers poked Crutchie’s cheek. “I dunno’. You gonna’ take me out to dinner first?” The brunette winked, pinching his friend’s round cheek and pressing his thumb into the large dimple that appeared.
Crutchie batted his hand away, rubbing at his reddened face, and glared at Jack childishly. “After that, no thanks.”
“Aw, come on, Crutchie. You know your cheeks are too sweet to resist.”
The blonde smacked Jack’s thigh with his crutch. With Jack laughing like there was no tomorrow, Crutchie’s eyes searched for the old man. He was still in the same doorway, still staring. Crutchie swallowed hard. “Come on, Jackie. Let’s get goin’!”
Jack agreed, “there’s a ham sandwich with my name on it.”
Finch was waiting for them at Jacobi’s. He had a bowl of pea soup and a tired frown.
“What’s a matter, kid?” Jack asked, crowding the blonde onto the bench across from the other boy. He did as told, resting his crutch against the table and stretching out his legs until they were comfortable.
“It’s Al,” he sighed, dipping a finger into his food and crassly licking at it.
Crutchie shared a worried glance with Jack. “What about Al, Finch?” He asked carefully, leaning forward a little to rest his elbows on the table. He ignored his best friend, who sat next to him sideways on the bench.
The other boy let his arms collapse onto the table top, pushing his soup away in the process, and made a face. “To tell the truth, I ‘ain’t too sure.” Finch crossed his arms and then rested his cheek on them. “I think he’s worried ‘bout Racer but…” Jack tensed. “I don’t know why!”
The three were quiet for a short moment; thinking, remembering, wondering.
Jack’s mouth opened, only slightly, and then closed. Crutchie’s eyes scanned his friend’s face, worried, and watched as Jack swallowed heavily. “He’s not smokin’ much…”
The blonde wanted to ask how he knew but thought better of it. No one knew Race better than Jack, except maybe Albert.
The realisation brought a new, awkward silence between them. Crutchie bit his lip. “That’s good ‘ain’t it.” Jack was lost in thought but Finch listened, eyes watching. “Different, yeah, but good.”
Finch nodded warily, sitting up and pulling his cold soup closer. He had a spoonful, made a face, then continued to eat. The older brunette stayed silent. Crutchie entertained the idea of consoling him but thought better of it: empty words never meant much to Jack.
Instead, he called over one of Jacobi’s daughters and ordered a ham sandwich and cauliflower soup. She dashed off after a second: she was only ten and the poor girl hadn’t gotten the hang of writing yet.
“Hey, Jackie,” He prompted, turning to look at the elder. “My leg is sore.”
Just hearing the words seemed to snap the brunette out of his worrying, well his worrying for Race anyhow, and he immediately rounded on the younger. “Aww, geez,” he patted the bench and Crutchie set about raising his bum leg into Jack’s lap, “You shoulda’ said earlier, Crutchie!”
“It ‘ain’t too bad.” He exchanged a secretive glance with Finch. “Just sore is all.” The pale boy nodded and mimed buttoning his mouth: Crutchie instantly relaxed.
Jack focused on his pain straightaway, massaging up and down his bad leg without so much as a whisper of complaint. “How was sellin'?” Finch asked, he was spooning at his soup but hesitated to eat it. “My papes sold out in an hour.” He took a retching spoonful. “Headline was real good today, fellas.”
Crutchie agreed, but his mind was on Jack’s magic fingers. “Maybe in your neck o’ the woods,” the brunette murmured, “but it was hardly sellin’ in Five Points…”
“Well, that ‘ain’t no surprise,” answered Specs, dropping his hat on the table and sliding in next to Finch. He ran his fingers through curly black hair and sighed, heavily.
“And what took you?” Finch commented dryly, waving a dirty spoon at the older newsie. “You was just suppose to talk to Racer,” Jack’s hands stilled, “and here you is: hours later.”
The blonde boy leaned forward in his seat, foot inching upwards in Jack’s lap, and gave the elder a careful stare. Jack started the massaging again, smiling up at Crutchie with amusement when Specs answered. “Oh, zip it!” It wasn’t funny: Crutchie smiled back. “Davey and Les was by Wall Street. We was catchin’ up and I invited ‘em here to eat.”
Finch made the simple, dramatic gesture of looking around.
“They was walkin’ home!” Specs admonished, elbowing the blonde, “Said they would drop off their bags and come over…”
Alice brought over their meals and took Specs’ order. “How’s the eye, kid?” He asked after, staring at it and trying to see if it was still as red as before.
“Better,” the young girl chimed, smiling so big it showed the gap between her lower front teeth. The boys couldn’t help but grin back: Specs patted her cheek and sent her off, reminding her he wanted a chopped cheese. “I remembers!”
Jack was wide-eyed at the sight of his sandwich, glancing at Crutchie with a question rolling on his tongue. “Eat up, Jackie.” The blonde murmured, smiling.
The brunette’s face softened and he gripped his friend’s leg just a tad tighter. “Thanks, Crutch.”
Crutchie turned to his soup just in time to see Finch try and swap their bowls. “Finch,” the pale boy tried to look as innocent as possible, “what do you think ya' doin’?”
He swapped them back guiltily. “Notin’”
“See, that’s what I thought you was doin’ but I wasn’t sure.”
Specs snorted, rearranging his glasses on his nose and dutifully avoiding the blazing glare Finch sent his way. He smiled then, seeing something that the others couldn’t. Finch follow his stare and rolled his eyes, grabbing his bowl and drinking his soup in one sudden mouthful. He slammed it on the table so hard it was a surprise he hadn’t broken it.
An amused voice filtered through the newly joined chorus of boys. “I wasn’t gonna’ touch it, Finch.” Said newsie gave a sceptical nod. “Honest, I wasn’t,” crowed Romeo, grinning as he leant over Crutchie’s right shoulder.
The blonde was quicker than the others gave him credit for and swiftly batted the oriental boy’s hand away. “You ‘ain’t havin’ mine neither…”
“Fellas,” Romeo pouted pitifully, laying himself across the table, “do you want to see me grow hungry?”
Crutchie rolled his eyes and shared an unamused frown with a grinning Jack. Specs snorted into his knuckles, unknowingly smudging his glasses. Finch scowled, “Yeah… we does.”
“Ya’ know guilt don’t work on this lot, Ro,” Buttons sang, sitting himself on the table, legs crossed, and spinning so he faced his friends. He patted Romeo on the back, winking at Finch.
Romeo propped his chin in his palm, staring into the horizon -otherwise known as the alcohol display at the back of the bar. “Oh, woe is me and me achin’ belly…” He stepped over the bench and dropped himself onto it with a creaking thud.
Jack’s fingers started dancing across Crutchie’s leg again: the blonde glanced over, detaching himself from Romeo’s whining for a moment, and found that his friend had eaten his sandwich already. Jack grinned, lips curling upwards, and shrugged, massaging up his calf. Crutchie smiled and turned back to his soup, too distracted by the feeling of Jack’s touch to pay attention to the others.
“You believe ta’ headline?” Elmer asked. Crutchie wasn’t sure when he arrived but he was sat next to Specs, staring at his fingers. “I got ta’ willies!”
Buttons tilted his head, eyebrows scrunched up and lips thinning. “Why the willies?”
Elmer bit his lip, worrying it between his teeth, and rested his chin in his hands. “’cause fings is changin’, Ben.” He scratched at his cheek, distracted, and stared down at the table. “Fings is changin’ ‘nd I don’t like it.”
The brunette nodded, though it didn’t look like he followed Elmer’s line of thinking, and blew at the thick, mousey strands of hair that hung in front of his eyes. “’ain’t that excitin’ though?”
“Elmer’s gotta’ point,” Specs told everyone, munching on his sandwich with his eyes closed. “Who’s to know what’ll happen after this.”
Jack must have gotten tired of all the talk; his fingers were digging deeper into Crutchie’s leg and his brows were furrowed. He was sighing to himself, like the world was against him and he was all alone. The blonde leant forward to tap his hand. Jack startled, glimpsing at Crutchie from under his lashes, face pale.
“You okay?” whispered the younger boy, trailing shapes onto the brunette’s knuckles with his finger. Jack hummed reassuringly, smiling back with flaring eyes and continued with his ministrations. Crutchie frowned slightly, watching his hands. He was being too quiet.
Jack being quiet was usually reserved for the rooftop. Reserved for Crutchie. It was a worry that he wasn’t talking or joking with others.
“Hey, fellas!” A large hand landed on Jack’s shoulder and the young man glanced up at their newly arrived friend. Crutchie gave a forced grin, delving into his warm soup, while the other boys chorused a cacophony of greetings. Davey shook his head with a smile, sitting down with the group. “How’s the news treatin’ you?”
The newsies answered in a mess of incomprehensible gibberish that the student had no way of deciphering. He nodded but looked to Crutchie, silently pleading for any clue as to what he’d just heard. “Lot’s of talk about the killin’s,” the blonde murmured with his mouth full, glancing at the sickly-looking Elmer, “we’s a little worried.”
“Who ‘ain’t?” added Davey, crossing his arms in front of his chest. “The Eastman’s are on the move again and no one can stop ‘em.” He seemed troubled by the idea; but as he had said, everyone was anxious about what was happening.
With those words, thoughtless as they were, the boys silenced their happiness.
Everyone was encompassed with a barrage of what ifs. The helplessness was palpable: the sincerity with which they felt the coming change was terrifying. It showed. It showed in the way Buttons sagged, it showed in Romeo’s sad grin, it showed with Finch’s pinched frown, with Elmer’s stillness, with Specs’ and his bruising lip, with Jack’s quiet and Davey’s thoughtful expression.
Crutchie scratched at the table, button nose twitching. He wanted to say something, to lighten everyone’s worries, but there was nothing he could say. He was scared too.
Jack straightened. He scanned the table before, it seemed, he resigned himself to breaking the disquiet. Crutchie was thankful, he didn’t like a crowd’s silence: it brought back memories he wished to keep buried. “Oh, come on, fellas!” The brunette called, voice jovial and clear. It didn’t calm Crutchie, though: it was too fake to ease his nerves. “Don’t go thinkin’ about stuff that ain’t even happened yet.”
Buttons shoulder’s eased, carefree grin widening his cheeks, and he began nodding confidently. “Jack’s speakin’ sense, boys,” He chimed, readjusting his hat and pushing the mousey curls from his eyes. “We ‘ain’t got nothin’ to worry about just yet.” Elmer opened his mouth to speak but before he could make a sound, a hat flew at him and banished all he had to say. “No!” Button’s scolding frown was good-humoured, his pale eyes sparkling with amusement. “We want none of that, Elm.”
The table seemed to grow lighter with his antics. Trust Buttons to brighten the dreary mood, Crutchie thought as he smiled at the tall boy. Elmer even relaxed, listening to the boys talk but not contributing just yet: he was too busy fiddling with the thrown hat, following the patterns that Buttons had sewn and thumbing the stitching.
Crutchie was glad Elmer had calmed down. He tended to get overexcited and fixated himself wholly on one thing. It often left him grumpy and tired, and in no mood to be with others. Buttons seemed to be the only one who could save him from his obsessing. The blonde wanted to know how he did it. Because occasionally, like now, you would see a new, rare, side to Elmer that was peaceful. He was content. He deserved to feel that way more often.
It was a shout from Romeo that brought Crutchie out of him musings. The boy was beside him and seemed to want to deafen him and everyone else at Jacobi’s. “Davey, where’s the kid?” Mr Jacobi slung them a warning stare. The Asian boy grinned back sheepishly. He was leaning over him and Jack, hand resting on Crutchie’s shoulder to hold himself up.
“The kid has a name,” said Jack, lowly, “and stop leanin’ on him!”
Thankfully, Romeo did as he was told and raised his hands in confusion. “Yeah, Ro’. I ‘ain’t a crutch.” Crutchie joked, “I know it can get confusin’, what with the name and all…”
The younger newsie rolled his eyes, dropping his hands and mussing up the blonde’s curly hair with both. Jack’s fingers dug deeper into a damaged muscle and Crutchie couldn’t supress a winced curse. Romeo immediately pulled back. “Shit. Sorry, Crutchie!” He waved him off, glancing at the brunette from the corner of his eye.
Jack’s hands had stopped moving and he was staring at them. He looked sad.
The younger tapped him with his foot. Jack looked up, caught his eyes then turned away. Crutchie sighed and pulled his bad leg back, sitting normally and staring straight at Finch. The tall, well-built blonde appeared to have seen everything and he was eyeing the two strangely.
“So,” Specs started, licking his fingers free of extra cheese, “where’s Les? He not want to come?”
“Oh, he wanted to!” Davey guffawed, leaning back on the bench and stretching his neck until it cracked. “But he’s got school work and mom wasn’t lettin’ him out of her sight until he started it.”
The newsies winced in unison: as much as they’d like to have an education and make something of themselves, what they’d heard about homework was all bad. “Well, what’s he gotta’ do?” Elmer asked, drawing his attention away from Button’s hat.
Davey’s frowned, face scrunching up in disapproval or confusion or both. “I ‘ain’t sure. He hasn’t said.” He shook his head. “Gee! He’s always bellyachin’ about school but this time… zip.”
“He forgot, I’ll bet!” Romeo wagered, sitting on the table with his feet on the bench and leaning on Buttons. The mousey haired newsie didn’t seem to mind but Finch was looking a little claustrophobic on his side of the table. Crutchie shrugged helplessly when the taller caught him looking.
Davey nodded, seemingly deciding that was the reason. Crutchie wondered if he really believed it though. “How’s Sarah?” Elmer asked, excitable grin beaming at Davey like the sun in July.
“Why d’ya wanna’ know?”
“He don’t,” sniggered Buttons, shoving Romeo with his elbow, “but this knucklehead is keen on her.” He put him in a headlock, knocking his hat off, and gave the younger boy a fierce noogie.
The smaller newsie did his best to fight him off but the slim boy was stronger than he looked. “You louse,” he growled, red faced, “that’s nothin’ but batty!” Managing to escape the older’s wrangling arms, he forcefully readjusted the hat Crutchie had saved from ruining his soup. “Sure, she’s a knockout but she’s Davey’s sister!” He crossed his arms. “I ‘ain’t nothin’ if not respectable.”
The boys shared hearty laughter at that one. Romeo shrunk in on himself, but didn’t argue that what he’d just said was nothing but crap. The oriental kid was nice, good even, but he wasn’t respectable.
“David,” Specs murmured in a soft voice, catching everyone off guard. His voice was serious, too serious for the joking mood. “We’ll stop with the jokes if ya’ want.”
Davey looked dejected and unhappy: Crutchie wondered how no one had noticed until Specs had spoken. It was clear that he hadn’t been laughing with them, the dark-haired boy’s laughter was loud and booming, and in retrospect it was incredibly noticeable.
“Sorry,” Buttons was fidgeting with his fingers when he spoke, “We didn’t think nothing of it.” The slim boy was always talking about his sisters, how they had gotten courted when they worked in the mills, and joked about it like it was nothing. There was something in his face though, something in his eyes, that made Crutchie think. Was his life before the newsies all that great?
“We’ll stop, if ya’ want,” Finch added quietly.
Davey sighed loudly, broad shoulders drooping forward until Crutchie was sure they’d begin to ache, “it ‘ain’t that, fellas.” He ran his fingers through fleecy black hair. “Well, I mean, it’s all sorts a strange, but I ain’t gonna’ give you any guff.”
“Then what?” asked Jack, leaning forward. No longer haunted by something unknown.
“It’s Sarah.” Finch looked exasperated but stayed quiet. “She ‘ain’t been at home as often as she should.” Davey saw the newsies about to weigh in and defend his little sister; she was free to do as she wished, he knew. “She ‘ain’t ever home,” he added quickly, “New York at night ‘ain’t no place for a gal like Sarah.”
Crutchie searched for something to say: anything. “…might’ve gone a bit stir-crazy,” Elmer suggested: he was from a big family and he knew the pressures that came with it. It was why he ended up at the newsies' digs. “If ya’ worried, I’d talk ta’ her.”
Davey nodded, thanking Elmer. He was quiet for a handful of seconds then his eyes landed on Romeo. A smirk spread across his face like soft butter on dry bread. “D’ya really think my sister’s a knockout?”
Crutchie couldn’t help but snicker: Davey was catching on quick. Jack caught his eye with a grin, raising his thick brows like he shared the same proud feeling.
The friends said goodbye to the boys an hour later.
Romeo was telling the story about the lady with the yellow dress for the third time that week: he and Elmer had argued that Davey hadn’t heard it when Finch refused to listen to it even one more time. The blonde had to give in when the student glanced around the table curiously, wanting to know what was so interesting.
He’d just gotten to the part where she slapped him, Davey looking a little sick while the rest of the boys laughed, when Jack stood up. His charm made it seem less abrupt than it was but it was clear none of the newsies were buying his excuse. Even more so when he started tugging Crutchie off the bench.
It wasn’t Crutchie’s fault though. He had quickly agreed with Jack, not wanting to hear the tall tale again, and lied about finally meeting Ms. Medda. Jack had said he was helping him paint another backdrop for the theatre; he tried to make it more believable.
Finch was staring at him, his expression rather comical: his eyes were amused but his lips were frowning. Take me with you, he mouthed. He clearly thought Jack and Crutchie were escaping; the blonde couldn’t blame him: they were.
“Yeah, yeah.” Romeo hollered, “Skidoo ya’ four-flushers!”
Jack laughed, boisterous and pleasant, and whacked the shorter on the back of the head. He passed over Crutchie’s crutch and they both shouted their goodbyes to the fellas.
They were walking when Crutchie broke the peaceful quiet. “We actually goin’ to the theatre?” he asked, eyeing Jack who was frowning to himself. The brunette glanced at him, surprise slanting across his jaw. “Is I finally meetin’ ya mother?” he teased, knocking Jack’s arm with his shoulder.
The taller boy snorted, rolling his eyes, and wrapped his arm around Crutchie’s shoulder. “Nah, just wanted to get you alone.” He crowded closer, shaking the younger like he was in on the joke.
Crutchie rolled his eyes, offering his friend a tight frown that mimicked exasperation. He wasn’t hurt by the joke. He wasn’t.
They slowly came to a stop in front of the Lodging House.
Jack’s grin softened into a small smile. He melted over Crutchie, leaning heavily into him and cocooning him in warmth. It was late spring and if he didn’t feel so safe, the blonde would have pushed him away. The elder’s forehead was resting on his left temple, his nose brushing his cheek with every breath. “…wasn’t kiddin’ ya’, Crutch,” Jack murmured quietly. His voice was husky, deep, reassuring. The grip on his shoulder was firm.
Crutchie was glad for the setting sun: his face was attracting the light. “I know,” he mumbled, turning his head only slightly towards Jack. Their noses brushed: Crutchie could feel his face flare.
Jack was smiling and his eyes, green as the frogs they used to catch when they were kids, were searing. He wondered how they could contain so much fire and passion. It was poetic, almost. How Jack’s entire being was flaunted to the world through those large, leafy eyes. Deep-set and upturned, they spoke inspiring words and spun tales of enchantment. He was lost to them.
Crutchie swallowed, his mouth was dry and his tongue felt heavy in his mouth. He licked his lips. They were cracked and drying and he couldn’t help it. Green eyes flicked down to his mouth for less than a second.
Jack quickly moved his face away, eyes focused on the Lodging House as he heard the front door open. He took a step back and grinned at Henry, both being drawn into a conversation that Crutchie couldn’t stomach.
He felt as though he could finally breathe. He wet his lips again and blinked away the enchantment Jack had cast on him.
Excusing himself softly, he went inside and greeted the others. He received a chorus of replies from the kids downstairs; Arms loudly complained that he had been gone too long but the smile he sported gave him away.
Glancing around the room, Crutchie tried to find Lime. Mush was teaching a group of five younger boys a card game, and by their shouting he assumed it was Bullshit. Blink was hovering over Arms, whispering advice on what card to play. The little boy promptly ignored him and played a different one. Chai was sleeping in the worn armchair in the corner, snoring loudly with his hat hung low over his eyes. Below his hanging feet and sat against the side of the armchair, Lime was reading a book to Cricket. The tall boy looked enamoured with the story and the blonde didn’t have the heart to interrupt them.
Lime must have felt him staring, she looked up at him through periwinkle eyes and grinned. Cricket stole her attention before he could respond and Crutchie huffed out a laugh. The kid couldn’t be more obvious if he tried.
The blonde dragged himself up the stairs with his crutch. His leg was burning but he ignored it: he was used to the pain. Limping through one of the bedrooms, he did his best to avoid scattered clothes and leftover papers. He opened the stuck window with a bang and looked out over Manhattan.
Nesting birds had flown off with the disturbance, arching into the sky in a murder of black. The window was littered with handprints, black feathers swinging down from the roof, and the fire escape creaked with the evening chill.
The sky was darkening, white clouds rolling overhead, and the yellows, oranges and reds blended together like one of Jack’s paintings. The sun lowered further and further into the edge of the city, the dark coral colour billowing away and bleeding darker and darker.
Crutchie lingered in the window, breathing in the crisp air and watching the world pass by. His hat was in his hands, and the small breeze ran through his hair like comforting fingers. He was sat on the window ledge, shifting the weight off his bad leg, and enjoying the quiet.
It was only when he heard a scream from downstairs, whoever had won that game of cards wanted everyone to know that he had, that he decided to move. He leant back a little and bumped into something solid. Knowing it was one of the boys, he kissed the quiet goodbye and glanced up.
Jack stood behind him, calm and unspeaking. He tipped his head down, gazing at Crutchie with a gentleness that anchored his heart. Lips turning up at the corners, the brunette sloped closer and wrapped warm arms around him, resting his chin on Crutchie’s blonde curls.
He felt safe. He felt secure. Warm and adored. He felt wanted.
The younger fumbled with his hat, wishing he hadn’t propped his crutch by the window, and tried to relax. Jack could probably feel the rigidity of his body, feel his nerves, as he slowly and carefully began to trail his fingers over Crutchie’s arms.
“Jack,” he whispered into the silence, gazing at the murky sky and listening to the foot traffic below.
He heard him take a breath, felt his chest push into his back, felt the fingers on his skin, heard the reverberations in his spine. “Hmm?”
He felt the quiet laugh, felt the breath roll through his hair. “I’m okay.”
The boy was placated: he relaxed. Falling into Jack’s waiting arms, he touched the brunette’s forearm and squeezed. I’ll listen, it said.
Jack pressed his face into dirty curls, holding him even tighter. “Just worried.” Crutchie could feel his lips move, felt them on his scalp, and tilted his head to the side. Jack instinctively dropped his head into the space near his jaw.
“Race?” He prompted, looking at the elder’s mop of burnt umber hair. When did he take his hat off? Crutchie wondered. Unable to resist, he ran nimble fingers through the thick waves of hair.
Jack shook his head, stilled, then nodded. “A little,” he sighed, propping his head on the hand massaging the blonde’s shoulder. Crutchie let his hand fall away, and when he did, Jack tipped his head so their temples were touching. “A lot’s happened,” his index finger circled then traced an arrowhead, “I just wonder what’ll happen next.”
“Ya’ gotta take things as they come, Jackie.” He knocked their heads together sympathetically. “You said that.”
“Then I’m a liar,” he grouched, “bite me.”
Crutchie snorted softly. “You’ve seen my teeth, Jackie,” he teased, grin wide and dimpling, “I don’t think you want that.”
Jack was quiet for a moment. “D’ya really think it’s good Race ‘ain’t smokin’ no more?”
The blonde blinked, surprised. “Well, it definitely ‘ain’t bad.” He stared out into the city, traced the cracks on the sidewalk and watched old men wander by. “Timin’s odd, though.”
Sighing, his friend pulled away from him: Crutchie felt alone almost instantly. He missed the body heat, missed the closeness and missed the feeling of Jack’s heartbeat at his back. He felt empty.
Jack sat on the ledge with him instead, body facing into the room, his eyes on Crutchie. “Tony’s been smokin’ since he was eleven.” He looked over his shoulder and glared out at New York, but his voice held no venom. “Why’s he stoppin’ now? And why not tell someone?”
“Race looks after himself, Jackie.” The blonde sighed, reaching over to pet Jack’s messy hair. “Ya’ know he don’t want no one worryin’ about him. He probably said nothin’ so nobody would start helpin’. If he made a big deal out of it so would we.”
The elder was quiet, considering his words, and hummed. “Guess you’re right.”
“’Course,” Crutchie grinned, eyeing the other as he finally seemed to lighten up, “I’s always right.”
Jack gazed back at him. “Yeah,” he smiled, green eyes simmering. “You are.”
Anthony Higgins had once had a family.
Back when he was Anthony, not Racetrack, he had a father and a mom.
It’s been a long time since he was Anthony.
He still remembers, though. He remembers his father. He remembers how he was big and strong, he towered over little Anthony like a giant, and he remembered the booming voice that spoke in crisp Italian. He remembers the smell of cigars and leather shoes. Remembers the tanned, sallow skin and the rough feel of stubble on his cheeks. Remembers hairy arms and shiny watches, slicked back hair and the smell of another woman’s perfume.
He remembers his mom. He remembers her red lipstick smiles and the smell of her clothes. He remembers how she styled her blonde hair, how she spent hours in front of the mirror every morning, and how she laughed when he told her how pretty she looked. He remembers her husky voice, how quiet she sounded when she spoke, and the Brooklyn accent that coated her words. He remembers her blue eyes. Remembers her warm hugs, her softly sung lullabies, and the taste of her biscotti.
He remembers when his father fell in love with the drink. Remembers his mom hiding her chipped front tooth. Remembers how her voice turned wheezy overnight then stayed that way. Remembers when she stopped painting her nails red because they were always broken. Remembers when she started wearing scarves to cover the bruises. He remembers when she flung herself in front of him and took the beating meant for him. Remembers every time she took his beatings until she couldn’t.
He remembers the funeral. Remembers when his uncles lowered her into the ground. Remembers how hard he cried and the beatings and bruises that came after.
He remembers the sadness, the desperation, and then the hatred.
He remembers the shouting and the screams. Remembers the seventh woman he brought back: she looked like his mom, was kind like his mom, and took the beatings for him like his mom. He remembers the blood. Remembers the feeling of the knife in his hands. Remembers his father’s grunt. Remembers the feeling of the knife being snatched away and a shrill voice screaming, Anthony, what have you done?
He was taken away after that. Taken to Snyder. No uncle wanted an orphan who smiled at his father’s funeral. No uncle wanted an orphan who thanked and hugged the woman who murdered his father. No uncle checked for bruises. No uncle knew the truth.
Was Anthony a bad person? Yes.
Was his father worse? Definitely.
Racetrack stared at the bottom of the top bunk. He hated thinking, hated when his mind decided to relive memories he didn’t want to remember. His fingernails were digging into the palm of his hands, his knee was knocking against the wall, the blanket was scratchy and someone had stolen his pillow. He could hear Henry snoring, could hear Elmer talking in his sleep, two of the younger boys were whispering to each other under their covers, birds were chirping outside and someone kept turning in their sleep. He could smell sweat and dirt, faintly smell the bakery across the street, the tobacco on his bedclothes and the soap on his skin.
He took a breath. Then another. Then another and then kept breathing.
The sun was blistering through the canopy of homemade curtains. His eyes stung at the thought of morning but he knew he wasn’t going to be able to sleep. Rubbing his eyes, he sat up in bed and tried to stifle the creaking of the old mattress.
He stared at the door, leaning back against the cold wall, and wondered if today would be better than the last. Damn Jack straight to hell. Damn him for noticing; damn him for caring.
Rubbing his tongue over his teeth, he tasted the smoke from days before and itched for a hit. He leaned off of his bed and pawed at the floor, trying to find his trousers. Pulling them closer, Racetrack searched through his pockets but found nothing.
“Fuck,” he hissed under his breath, propping himself up and throwing them into the middle of the room. “Fuck!”
He ran a hand over his face, scratching away at his scalp in irritation. Looking up, he saw the open-mouthed sleeping face of Albert. Damn him! Growling, Race flung himself off the bed and snatched his trousers from the floor. He needed fresh air and he needed it now.
Barging into the hallway, he struggled to put his clothes on but managed to do so before reaching the stairs. He stole Finch’s boots, the other boy still sleeping in the armchair where they’d left him the night prior, and stomped out of the digs and into the cool morning air.
The baker’s wife was outside, sweeping up after drunk stragglers, and Race realised he must have looked a mess. She was polished. He looked like he’d rolled out of a trash pile.
Jumping down the stairs and taking a turn around the block, he tucked in his undershirt and fastened his trousers properly. Licking his hand, he swiped at his bedhead blonde hair and hoped it was enough. He slapped his cheeks, took a breath, and stretched.
Manhattan in the early morning was cold and breezy. Birds were sleeping, traffic was light and the sun was grey.
Racetrack didn’t appreciate mornings. They were unkind, distant and a harsh wake up call for dreaming boys. Let him be lost to sleep for one morning. Let him dream just that little longer. Let sleep linger in his limbs and let contentedness linger in his heart. But a newsies’ work was never done and sleep was unimportant when the priority was to sell enough papers to live. Live, he thought bitterly, am I living? Is this living?
Lost to his musings, he walked past an alley where a group of men stood and didn’t think twice. He rubbed his nose; he could smell piss and vomit and hooch.
“Stay down, doll!”
He stopped in his tracks: cocked his head to the side and listened.
Another voice spoke up, it sounded vaguely Italian but there was a definite New York tinge to his words. “You’d do well to do as ya’ told, puttana…”
That was a threat if he’d ever heard one. Turning on his heels, he strolled back to the alley with his hands in his pockets. Three men were surrounding someone, swearing and kicking and making threats. They were definitely Italian; though, one of them seemed to be a second-generation immigrant like himself.
He stepped forward; brows furrowed. He didn’t like what he was hearing: women didn’t deserve that kind of language. “Forza ragazzi! Non è il modo di conquistare una donna.”
That gained their attention and the three turned to address him. The broader man spoke, squaring his shoulders and raising his chin. His eyes spoke volumes of what his words could not. He looked at Race like he was dirt, like shit under his expensive shoe, like a fly he wanted to swat. “Fanculo, ragazzo!”
The blonde’s blue stare fell on the poor girl they’d managed to get their hands on. She was curled up on her side, hands protecting her face, and knees drawn up to her chest. Her clothes looked familiar but Race couldn’t place them. There was a newsie hat a few feet away and everything clicked.
They weren’t insulting a girl, just a kid. A kid he recognised too. Race couldn’t remember his name, but he knew for certain he was one of Spot’s cronies. The red shirt was a dead giveaway. The kid was from Brooklyn.
“Lui è solo un bambino,” he murmured to no one in particular. His eyes hardened: the kid wasn’t moving. He looked back at the trio and took in their bloodied, scratched faces with pride. “Se vuoi colpire qualcuno,” he said, stepping forward and into the fight, “colpiscimi.”
One of the lackeys, a thin man with a broken watch, bolted forward, fist raised to strike him in the face. He dodged it easily, leaning back and out of reach. He twisted with the next punch, quickly drawing up a long leg and kicking the Italian-American square in the nose. He slowly dropped his leg, hands still in his pockets, and assessed the damage he’d done.
The bastard had fallen back and had a hand to his face, blood gushing from his nose and down his dirtied suit. Race smiled and tilted his head a little. Incensed, the other rushed forward a second time. The blonde arched away and behind, kneeing him in the back and then using his foot to stomp his face into the ground.
He crumpled forward, unconscious.
Racetrack looked at the other sidekick and blinked. “Impaurito?”
“Son of a bitch!” growled the short, balding lunkhead. He eased forward, apparently smarter than his friend and took up a boxing stance. Race wasn’t one for boxing, but he knew a raggedy fighting stance when he saw one.
Lazily strolling towards him, he deftly avoided the weak punches that were thrown his way and when he was close enough, he swiftly raised his knee. Fella went down like a sack of shit. Race was too preoccupied with his easy achievement to realise he’d left himself open.
The punch to the face was a surprise and it stunned him just enough for the leader to get in a second one. He felt numb: the excitement of a fight too distracting. Racetrack chuckled, meeting eyes with the well-muscled man.
“Then there was two,” he grinned, wiping the blood away from his mouth.
Quick as whip, Race landed a hard kick to his opponent’s neck that sent him to his knees. He punched him swiftly in a set of three: right hand, left, then right again. He heard a crunch but didn’t think. Instead, he gripped the man’s messy, gelled hair and leaned in to his face. His grin was proud, spittle clinging to sharp teeth.
“Vaffanculo,” spat the big-headed louse.
Race could only laugh. He rammed his knee up as his hands forced the bastard’s head down. There was a sickening thud, then silence.
The blonde dropped him to the ground and stepped back. He watched the old man whine, he looked like an overgrown child having a nightmare and Race had to sneer in disgust.
Groaning to his side caught his attention, he glanced at the beaten men and quickly decided they weren’t a threat, and circled to look at the bloodied kid on the floor. In his enjoyment, he’d almost forgotten. The Brooklyn boy was fighting off unconsciousness, twitching and spasming, and Race knew he had to get the kid to a better place than this.
He regarded the beaten man with an unimpressed frown. He talked a big game for someone without the skill to back it up. He kicked his ass and crouched down so he was closer, he lifted him by his hair and stared into tearing eyes. “You got beaten by a kid.” He said seriously, “should stop pickin’ fights with ‘em.”
Spitting on his face, he let his head drop.
Race stood then, and moved closer to the squirming newsie. He wondered how the hell he was supposed to get him back to the Lodging House but quickly realised there was no other option: he had to carry him. Carefully, he dug his arms under the boy’s body, trying to avoid hurting him even more, and ever so slowly began to lift him up into his arms. He gradually began to stand. When he was fully on his feet, Race tested the weight. The kid was too thin and bony to be healthy, but he was light and easy to carry.
He sniffed, then glanced at the asshole laying on the floor. He groaned tiredly, too spent to deal with them. “Fuck off, ya’ pansy!” He barked, stepping on him as he walked back down the alley, “and take these useless fucks with ya’.”
He stepped out onto the sidewalk. The sun was shining and the birds were chirping. The morning chill washed over him and slicked down his spine. He shivered, the torrential rain of sweat lingering coldly against his skin.
What a shitty start to a shitty day, he moaned to himself. Ignoring the baker’s wife as she screeched accusations after him.
Jack was pacing. Race was getting dizzy just watching.
He’d walk up one length of the room, stop and mumble to himself, then retrace his steps. He had been doing so for over an hour.
It was 6am and Racetrack felt sick. The urge to vomit was settled heavily in his chest and he could feel the build up of spit in his throat. During the fight, he had been excited and eager: now, he could feel the punches and the past bubbling under his skin.
He didn’t regret it. The kid had needed help and he’d given it. He just wished they hadn’t been Italian; wished the leader hadn’t looked like his father; wished old memories that should have stayed buried weren’t rocking against his skull incessantly, screaming to get out.
The kid was safely tucked away in the backroom, Kloppmann’s office if anyone ever asked, with Specs and Crutchie. Race had been banished from the room as soon as he’d put the poor kid down. “You have a habit of gettin’ in the way,” Specs had told him as he desperately searched for the first aid kit.
Jack had asked every question possible when Race was pushed out the door. The blonde had to recount the entire chain of events and, really, no one was that surprised. Racetrack got into a lot of fights and he brought a lot of strays back.
“What’s a Brooklyn kid doin’ in Manhattan?” Jack had murmured to himself before starting up his pacing. That was half an hour ago and he was still at it. Back and forth, whispers under sharp breaths and confusion painted across his tanned face.
The other boys were quiet. They had settled around the downstairs front room in a tangle of different ways. Elmer and Buttons were pushed together tightly, sharing the big armchair in the corner and Romeo was laying across the top of the back rest. He was fiddling with one of Kloppmann’s doodads and ignoring the other two boys attempts at not looking awkward. Henry was sleeping, laid out starfish on the floor, with a couple of boys using him as a pillow. Mush, Tommy Boy and Blink were helping some of the younger boys tidy their hair and put on their shoes: they needed to be ready for when the bell rang.
Albert was chewing next to him. Loud and annoying, but familiar. Sat on the stairs, hat in his lap and shoelaces untied, he was the only semblance of normal. Not because he didn’t care, but because he knew normal was needed.
It was stifling. The quiet waiting. The loud thoughts. The heavy breathing. The mourning prayers.
No one heard the door open but Race saw Crutchie coming out. He was leaning heavily on his crutch and his eyes were tired: face sad. “Someone needs to tell Spot,” he remarked from the doorway.
Race held his breath, heart in his throat.
Jack stopped in his tracks, halfway across the room, and spun to face the blonde. “He okay?”
Crutchie nodded, readjusting his crutch and leaning against the door frame. “Specs thinks he’s broken some ribs and there’s a lot of bruisin’, but he’ll live.”
“Dzięki Bogu,” Elmer breathed, rocking back into Buttons’ side. He flushed red when he realised what he’d done and Finch just sighed. He was balanced on the chair arm and had been actively making pained faces whenever the shorter started acting shy.
Glancing at Race, Crutchie confirmed his suspicions. “The kid woke up for a bit. He’s from Brooklyn.” He focused on Jack then. “We need to tell Spot.”
Race’s fingernails bit into his palms. He sniffed. Albert was pursing his lips and scratching his cheek. The other boys were silent: a tense quiet blanketing the Lodging House. Conlon was a legend to newsies across New York; the strike did little to dampen the image. They were afraid of him. He was afraid of him.
He glanced around the room. Eye contact was stressfully avoided. Elmer and Buttons were the only ones to break the convention. Instead they pretended to be captivated by a profound conversation, though Finch’s badly hidden amusement said otherwise.
Biting his tongue, he dropped his head when Crutchie glanced his way. He would not fall victim to those big begging brown eyes, he refused to. He felt a tap on his wrist. Albert was staring at the ceiling, but his nonchalance was taunting. He knew and he was telling his friend as much. This was an opportunity: a chance.
The blonde coughed, drawing all eyes to him as he stretched. His seat was uncomfortable and Jack’s imploring, hopeful smile instilled a puddle of fear in his stomach. Expectations were a curse. “I was headin’ to the races,” he said, his voice embarrassingly soft, “I can head over after sellin’.”
Jack’s grin brightened in bliss. “Great!” He clapped his hands together and swivelled to fully face the younger. “Thanks, Race!”
Racetrack could only nod. His tongue was heavy and his throat dry. Immediate regret weighed on his shoulders. What had he done? Brooklyn was dangerous. Spot Conlon was dangerous. He was dangerous. A detriment to himself and his family. What if he screwed up? Started a fight or a feud or a war they couldn’t win? What if he said something? Something bad, something dangerous, something telling and indecent? Dio mio, what had he done?
There was a tap against his ankle. Then another and another. It was steady and gentle, but there. It was grounding. The step underneath him was hard and bit into his rear, his toes pressed painfully against the tip of his boots, his fingers were stiff and his palms stung. The kids were chattering again, far too loud for so early in the morning, and Crutchie and Jack were whispering in hushed voices; Albert was chewing gum by his right ear and Race could hear the water running upstairs. There was a faint smell of scented soap that clung clammily to scrubbed skin and there was an overpowering whoosh! of coffee beans whenever Kloppman’s office door opened, the already eaten baked bread the baker’s wife had brought over still lingered on their fingers and Romeo’s so-called perfume seemed to douse his clothes.
He took a breath. Then another. Then another and then kept breathing.
“Good luck!” Romeo snorted, leaning against the wall and watching Albert’s jaw work through his stolen gum. “You’ll need it.”
Race’s nose twitched. It was no wonder he could smell him so strongly. “Can it!” He kicked off the stairs and headed towards the door just as the circulation bell started ringing.
He heard Jack yell “time to go, boys,” as he left.
The tall blonde waited for Albert at the corner. The coins in his pocket were heavy. He skimmed the pad of his thumb over the nickel he was toying with, felt the grooves and indentions beneath his skin, and tried to settle his breathing.
Al was selling papers and talking to Julia Fernandez Torres. She was the daughter of a factory worker and always went out of her way to buy a newspaper. She’d knitted him a scarf once and he still wore it with pride. Race suspected they were courting but his friend hadn’t confirmed any rumours.
The brunette was smiling and laughing, she twirled strands of hair between her fingers, and her green gaze was settled firmly on the redhead. Race was envious: they could talk all they liked and flirt like it was no one’s business. No one would stare or make a snide remark. They were the same class, the same race, different gender, normal.
He startled when the nickel slid out from between his fingers and circled at his feet before dropping on its face. It made a barely audible tinny clang. Race stared and stared and stared.
The clouds, overhead, were grey and cast a shadow against the cobblestones. Drops began to spatter against the ground, dotting the sidewalk and then falling with abandon. He could feel the rain against his skin, the clammy wetness of his clothes and the chill beginning to seep into his bones.
Cursing, he picked up the nickel and searched for Al among the downpour. He and the Fernandez girl were pressed together under the overhang of a nearby grocers. Julia was dripping wet and Albert didn’t look much better. He was trying to dry her with his papers, patting at her wet face, and leaving ink smudges along her cheeks.
“Al!” He shouted across the street, hands cupped around his mouth, and pointedly ignoring the people passing by. They gave him scathing looks and Race was in no mood to deal with them. “Hurry it up! We gotta go’!”
The redhead didn’t seem to want to be interrupted if his glare was anything to go by but Race didn’t really care what he wanted. It was Albert’s fault, after all. “Go where?” He called back, hands falling to his side as he shot his friend a warning glare.
Race planted his hand on his hips and Al immediately understood. He apologised to Julia, if her understanding nod was any indication, and waved goodbye as he ran across the street. Hunched against the rain, Al socked the blonde in the shoulder as soon as he was within reach. Race rolled his eyes and turned. “You can talk to the missus whenever. Now we gotta talk to Brooklyn.”
Albert raised a brow and his frown pinched at the corners. He ignored the teasing, shoved his papers back in his bag and walked. “Your nervous, huh?”
The redhead hummed, glancing at Race from the corner of his eye. “You know I’ll soak him if he tries anythin’.”
Racetrack snorted, kicking at a stray shoe, and turned his face up to the sky. He liked the feeling of rain against his cheeks and forehead, adored the colour of the sky when it finally broke, enjoyed the wetness of his fringe and how his hair curled at the ends. Removing the hat, he wrung out the water and put it in the bag slung over his shoulder. “You’d die.”
“I wouldn’t,” was all he said, staring at the cars passing by and watching women flounce out of the rain. “You’d save us.”
Anthony turned to look at his friend and gazed at the contours of his pale, freckled face. After a second, Albert met his stare. His frown was firm but not unkind, his eyes a puddle of blue and his crooked nose was no longer sniffling.
He tilted his blue eyes to the sky, regarded the grey clouds rolling into clarity, and let them close. Smiling lazily, he replied with a voice drowning in sincerity, “don’t be so sure.”
“You’d leave us to suffer?” Al huffed and Race could hear his clothes rumple as he moved. His reply was a careless grin and he laughed when Albert clicked his tongue.
They strolled into Brooklyn with easy banter and playful threats.
It was busy despite the rain and Race let his gaze linger on passing dock workers. Their skin was tanned, their arms muscled and clothes damp. He pointedly looked away when one glanced back and turned to Albert.
The redhead was staring into the distance, blue eyes focused on the Brooklyn Lodging House a little way ahead. “Strange that we ‘ain’t seen no newsies.” He murmured under his breath, thin lips curling downwards and teeth clacking together as he shivered.
It was strange. Race had been wondering where they were ever since they’d crossed the bridge. Usually Spot had eyes everywhere: observing and analysing, scrutinising what a newsie was doing stepping into Brooklyn when they had no reason to. His presence was no longer questioned since he’d been seen at Sheepshead enough times but eyes still lingered and ears still eavesdropped. Today though, there was no one.
Brooklyn was blind.
“Might have somethin’ to do with the kid back at the house.” His voice was quiet and mumbled. The eyes may be gone, but that didn’t mean the ears were. They needed to be very careful.
Al huffed, shoving his hands in his pockets and rolling his shoulders. “I hope so.” He sniffed hard. “Never thought bein’ ignored would give us the willies.” To emphasise his point, he gave an exaggerated shiver and pressed his arms against his sides.
The blonde nodded: it was all he could do.
They strode quietly up to the house. They breathed deeply, settled shoulders, straightened spines and puffed out their chests. There was a lot to anticipate and they needed to be prepared. They were seconds away from a million possibilities.
The building was tall and dirty. It stood sturdy and proud, seemingly honoured to house its inhabitants, and boasted large curtained windows and a red door. It was quiet and alone.
Outside the Lodging House, there was a skinny teenager pacing. It was a strange sight to see but oddly comforting. Curly haired, pale and dotted with moles, the boy was sixteen at most and boasted a childish face. Ink streaked across his cheek and there was a smudge of dirt on his chin. His black hair was plastered against his face and rain dripped from his nose.
He must have heard them approach. When he looked up, his black eyes hardened. “What’s ‘hattan doin’ here?”
“We got news,” Race replied, smoothing wet hair away from his forehead. “Where’s Conlon?”
The tall teenager stiffened and straightened. He was tall but not as tall as Racetrack. “What’s it to you?”
“Like I said, we got news and I sure as hell ‘ain’t trustin’ it to you, kid.” The blonde raised his chin and levelled the gangly newsie with a glare of his own. “Now, where’s Conlon?”
Incensed, the boy drew forward and snarled. His chapped lips were pulled back over prominent yellow teeth and he spat out a curse. He opened his mouth to speak, hands balled tightly into fists and jaw shaking, but was conveniently interrupted.
“Hotshot?” a deep voice asked. Race could feel his hands begin to shake in his pockets. “What’s happenin’?”
The boy, Hotshot, calmed and stepped back. “We got guests,” he ground out, still glaring at the two.
“DaSilva,” Spot Conlon said, voice growing louder as he strode closer. He seemed not to see Race, which was impossible considering his height and his shaking, but the blonde was thankful. “To what do we owe the honour?”
Albert, pressing his shoulder against Race’s arm, addressed the King of Brooklyn. “One of your boys.”
Race tried to breathe but found it impossible. Al’s wet skin on his was all he could register. “Mine, huh?” Damn. He glanced at the other boy and his breath fell short.
Spot had crossed his well-muscled, tanned arms and levelled Albert with an interested stare and raised brow. His red shirt clung to his chest and his braces hung loosely from the grips on his trousers: his skin was wet and smudged with grime, his jaw was chiselled and his eyes, molten brown, met his.
Race pointedly looked away and ignored Spot’s confused scowl. The heel of Albert’s boot dug heavily into the toe of his own. The weight lightened, then returned and continued to do so. He closed his eyes and focused.
He could feel the rain pelting his shoulders and the stray droplets from the ends of curled hair trickling down his skin, his clothing stuck to his body uncomfortably and his cheek thumped painfully when he clenched his teeth. Albert was speaking, explaining, with a firm voice; footsteps clinked against cobblestones and the ringing bell of a bicycle raced past. Spot’s voice answered in kind, it was hard and accusatory and Race felt his breath hitch.
Al pressed his boot down heavier.
Right. The rain smelled clean and fresh. Ink stained his arms and fingers and he knew he smelled like the newspapers he sold, sharp and weighty and important. His stomach-rolled and his nose twitched: someone had been handling fish and it had sunk into their clothes and skin and hair, it encompassed them and drowned them in salt and sea and slimy scales. Then, apples. Green apples, delicious and tangy, fresh and crisp and juicy. His mouth watered at the thought and his breathing calmed.
He kept breathing. In and out. One after another.
Race opened his eyes.
It seemed a decision had been made. Albert was nodding and his boot wasn’t digging into his toes anymore. He turned to his friend, eyes gentle and mouth softly smiling, and pushily twisted him so that they were facing the way they’d come. He leant close and whispered quietly. “They’re comin’ with us. They want to see the kid. They’ve been searchin’ for him all mornin’.”
The blonde nodded stiffly, moving one foot in front of the other, and sunk heavily into the arm around his back.
“Breathe an’ walk—”
“—Just breathe an’ walk.” He continued quietly, falling into uncomfortable silence when Spot flanked his left side.
Kid Blink met them by the front door, though he was significantly drier. In his large, calloused hands he cradled a paper bag. He shrugged helplessly when the four boys entered the house, motioning to the bag with an awkward smile and closing the door behind them.
“No’ Mrs France again.” Lime sighed, “she’s been comin’ ove’ on an’ off all mornin’.” The blonde looked tired and upset but took the paper bag from the tall boy and ignored the sight of the Brooklyn newsboys trailing after him.
Blink sniffed, wiping at his nose with his palm, and followed after her as she started up the stairs. His voice carried wonderfully though, and everyone could hear his reply. “She said she snuck in some donuts as well.”
Race licked his lips at the thought of fresh dough and warm jam but settled on the pit in his stomach. He glanced into the living room, hoping to find Crutchie or Specs or Jack but had no such luck. “Back office!” Henry called with an exasperated grin, wincing when Whizz successfully began to choke him during his piggyback ride.
The blonde smiled, pointedly ignoring his companions, and suggested that the little boy hug him tighter. He laughed when Whizz did as he said, Henry dropping to his knees and prying thin arms from his neck with a wheezing breath. The younger boys crowded around him with questions and curiosities.
“New rule,” Henry huffed, rubbing his throat and trying to catch his breath, “don’t choke your friends.” He coughed when one of the twins clapped him on the back.
“Traitor,” Albert sniggered.
Race waved him off and knocked on the door to Kloppmann’s office. He felt Spot and Hotshot follow after him. Al left him alone and meandered up the stairs, humming an easy melody and wearing a simple smile. Damn him!
The seconds stretched and stretched: the uneasy quiet they shared growing tenser. He bit his lip and knocked a second time, toes scrunching in his socks. Hotshot cracked his knuckles, his clothes rumpling as he moved. Spot was silent and still.
Quietly, the door opened and Race was engulfed in warm darkness. He glanced down and found Crutchie. His face was barely visible through the small gap. He looked tired and sleepy. His eyes were drooping and every blink grew longer and longer. Sniffling, he watched Race carefully as the taller licked his lips and spoke. “Conlon’s here.”
Crutchie nodded. He looked over his shoulder and mumbled something quietly, he received a hushed answer then opened the door wider. Moving away, he shuffled into the room and out of sight. Race stepped aside, letting Spot and Hotshot into the office.
He considered leaving. He wasn’t needed any longer. He could go to Sheepshead or find Albert.
The door stayed open.
He should leave. This, whatever it was, was none of his business. They probably wanted to be alone.
He bit his lip and shuffled in his boots. Stares burned against his back and the silence from the living room haunted his thoughts.
Anthony stepped inside.
The office was small and cramped. Files and papers were strewn across any available surface and books were stacked on the bookshelf lining the wall to the right. There was a small bed tucked away in the far corner and a desk faced the wall opposite the door. The window above it was covered by a thick green curtain. Only a small candle lit the room.
Closing the door behind him, he sidled up next to Crutchie. They shared an unassuming place by the door and stayed quiet, sympathetic witnesses to tragedy. Jack sat on the desk. He looked small, scrunched up, and his eyes focused on the boy in the bed, focused on the rise and fall of his chest and the sound of breathing. He must have been caught in the rain too: Race noticed the wrinkles in his shirt and the dampness of his slacks.
“He’s sleepin’,” Jack said, not averting his eyes from the body on the bed.
Hotshot, the tall and gangly boy who had spat threats at him back in Brooklyn, collapsed heavily into the chair by the bed. In Manhattan, in a room full of strangers, he was silent and careful. Meekly, he rested his hands against the bed covers and felt the fabric under his skin. Then, gradually and brokenly, he began to sob. Quiet at first, then loud and violent.
The King of Brooklyn was stiff and still. Lifeless. Racetrack could only see the outline of his back but, in the forgiving darkness and dim chaos, he seemed lost. He didn’t move closer. He didn’t speak. Instead, he remained unmoving in the cusp between the bed and the door.
No one said anything so Race did the same. His tongue felt like led and his arms remained slack by his sides, his legs like stone.
The boy in the bed –Smalls, Albert had said his name was— breathed steadily. The blonde couldn’t see him in the darkness but he had been told about the bruises and the broken ribs. He’d seen the busted lip and the limp limbs. He’d heard the whimpering and the crying.
He startled from his thoughts when the friend beside him moved. It seemed the blonde couldn’t bear to listen to the cries any longer. He couldn’t stand idly when he was capable of offering comfort. He limped to the bed and carefully placed a hand on the bawling boy’s shoulder. Hotshot turned his head and Race could see the tears and the snot. His heart clenched.
Crutchie’s must have done the same. He dropped his crutch, uncaring when it clattered against the carpeted floor, and pulled the taller teenager into an awkward but tight hug. Hotshot seemed to need it. His fingers immediately clung to the blonde’s clothes, his face burrowing into his shoulder as he let out the most broken howl.
Anthony felt his chest quiver. A ball slid up his throat. He clenched his fists and swallowed back the vomit.
Dropping his head, Jack pushed himself off of the desk and walked purposefully to the door. He’d heard that noise before, they all had, but he couldn’t handle it. He whispered something to Race about water and left the room, but the taller wasn’t listening. He was too deep in his thoughts, too deep in memories of the Refuge and the godawful howling he’d hear every single night.
The sound of broken dreams, of abuse and torment, of torn families.
His bones ached and his heart burned, jaw clenched so painfully it felt as though his teeth would split. I am not in the Refuge; he pushed those words through his mind again and again until it was all he knew. I am with my family, he promised himself. He repeated it over and over until it became a mantra of truth. I will never be alone.
He opened his eyes, unsure of when he had closed them, and calmed at the sight he saw.
Spot Conlon was still there.
The brunette hadn’t moved. His broad shoulders were stiff, his fists clenched and white-knuckled, strong legs rooted heavily apart, back straight and stiff. Race couldn’t see his face but he could picture his frozen expression. Ambivalent: enraged but damaged. It was unsettling: to see someone so confident and assured be so absent. Yet, it was wholly expected. How else could he react?
Spot Conlon always had complete control but how do you control this.
How do you help?
Race swallowed his nervousness and steeled his bravery. He ignored the panic rising and stepped forward, then continued to do so until he stood by Spot’s side. He kept his stare on Smalls, on Crutchie and Hotshot, on the glass of water by the bed. He didn’t move. He kept himself at a careful distance: not too far to be aloof, but not too close to be invasive. He waited; listened to the timed breathing and the muffled howls.
The other boy didn’t move. The other boy didn’t speak. The other boy didn’t see or hear, but his breathing did hitch.
And Race spoke: careful and considerate and oh so quiet, he promised, “he’ll be okay.”
And Spot believed him.
He melted. His fists unclenched, his shoulders untensed, he slackened his spine and swayed on his feet. He swallowed, heavy and loud, and regarded the tall blonde boy with a hushed whisper. “What happened?”
Race struggled with what to say so placed a hand on the shorter’s back. The muscles pulled taut under his palm and he seared the feeling into his fingertips. He moved away just as quickly, having gained the attention he needed, and slunk back against the wall.
Spot followed, slowly stepping back. His eyes didn’t leave the bed: wouldn’t leave it. He regarded Racetrack again. “Tell me what happened.” His voice wasn’t loud or threatening, but it was firm and unshakeable.
Anthony swallowed. He tangled his fingers in the sodden fabric at the edge of his shirt and wet his mouth. “I found him.” He confessed, jaw heavy and eyes stinging. From his peripheral vision, he saw Spot’s face shift ever so slightly. Brown eyes, grave and grateful, gazing at him with intense focus. “He wasn’t too far from here.” The blonde’s eyes fell to the floor, pitied smile tugging at his lips, then raised them so he was looking right at the King of Brooklyn. “But I was too late.”
Spot didn’t look away but the younger did.
“They’d already soaked him by the time I got there.” The blonde looked at the small boy in the bed and frowned. He wasn’t going to cry over this. He worried his bottom lip between his teeth and winced at the taste of blood. He must have split his lip during the fight. “I got him away from them and brought him here.”
He felt Spot’s eyes leave his face. “Who was it?” he asked. There was a sharpness to his tone and a violent tilt to his spine.
The blonde hesitated, opened his mouth to speak and stopped. Jack had opened the door and turned to look at the two. He had a glass of water in one hand and a surprised sound in his throat. His eyes glanced between them, settling on his friend, before he shuffled further into the room and towards Crutchie and the crying boy in his arms.
Anthony eyed the open door and then looked to Spot. The brunette was watching him carefully. The blonde nodded towards the door and then quietly left the room. Spot followed, confused and curious but without question.
They left the first floor, wary of being seen by the younger newsies, and wandered purposefully up the stairs.
“Where are we going?” The elder asked finally, hands in his pockets and boots thudding mournfully. He didn’t want to leave Smalls and the blonde understood why, but he couldn’t talk when he was surrounded by his brothers.
Glancing behind him, Race murmured a quiet and sincere sentence: “somewhere we can talk.”
Spot didn’t respond and the blonde was thankful.
They walked quietly through one of the bedrooms, passing empty bunks and sleeping boys. Specs was napping, right arm pillowing his head and body hugging the moth bitten blanket, and Albert rested on the bed below. Dry and wrapped in a twist of blankets, he counted his coins. He stopped when the two newsies entered: he watched them for a moment, searched for something, then nodded and continued counting.
The blonde swallowed. Curling his fingers into fists and setting his shoulders, he marched towards the window. Spot followed after him, a comfortable distance between them, and acted indifferent. Except, Race could feel brown bullet eyes digging into his back and had witnessed the annoyed clench of his fists.
There was a loud clang as the window opened; he stepped out onto the fire escape.
He didn’t wait for the brunette. He began scaling the ladder: cautious of the wet railings and the slippery metal. The rain pelted his skin and the strong wind blew, but he continued up. Uncaring if Spot followed.
He pulled himself over the top of the Lodging House and stood tall over Manhattan. Unaware of the rain and the wind and the loneliness, he stared down at the borough and felt pandemonium. Without his brothers and without his impudence, he was Anthony.
The ladder clattered behind him and Spot Conlon appeared. Drenched and drowning, he was silhouetted by the dreary sun and a large shadow cast across the rooftop. He climbed to his feet and pushed away from the edge. The city was deafening and the drop was long.
“Sorry,” Anthony said when the elder came to his side, “I’m sorry.”
In the rain, tears didn’t matter. In the rain, tears weren’t tears. In the rain, he could cry.
Spot was quiet, accommodating, lenient. He kept to himself but his presence alone was a blessing. He would wait. Anthony knew he would. He was patient when it mattered.
“There was three of them,” he hadn’t realised he’d shouted until the brunette turned to face him. “Italian fellas,” he added quietly.
Spot’s eyes widened, the brown in them so molten it burned, and he looked back out at the city. His lips were moving, red and slow and silent, until he swivelled back to Anthony. He didn’t say anything.
Anthony sniffed, ran a dripping hand through sopping blonde hair and tried to ignore how Spot’s eyes followed the movement. “One of ‘em,” he said, voice wobbly and weak, “looked like a rat. He had this big, pointy nose an’ beady eyes.” He laughed then, broken and pathetic and futile, and watched as the King of Brooklyn fell into concern.
“Higgins,” he said, placid and so unlike Spot Conlon, “let’s go back downstairs.”
Anthony shook his head, wiped at his eyes with his sleeves and drew back against the concrete overhang. He avoided Jack’s mattress and blankets, avoided the dry newspapers covered in sketches and stupid notes, and fell back against the wall.
Spot followed. He sunk to the floor and sat, and waited for the blonde to do the same. “We’ll stay here then,” he murmured just loud enough to be heard over the rain, “and we’ll jus’ talk.”
Nodding, Anthony hugged his knees and breathed deeply.
“You sleep up here?” The brunette asked, uninterested. His eyes still focused on the younger boy. He hummed when Anthony shook his head, “one of the other boys?”
Spot nodded, ignoring the croakiness of his voice, and gazed at Anthony. His eyes were careful, soft, doting. They marvelled at the wetly curled strands of blonde hair, admired how the rain drops fell and danced across the arc of pale, bruised skin, and hung heavily on the redness of his puffy and gashed bottom lip.
“Jack an’ Crutchie,” Anthony swallowed. He desperately wanted to ignore how Spot’s gaze flickered across his face, and how much that delighted him. He glanced away. “They stay up here together.” He licked his lip. “And when it gets too cold, they stay in the back office.”
The brunette nodded. It was clear he didn’t care about the boys’ sleeping habits. “That bed is small.”
Anthony shrugged. “They don’t mind. It’s better for ‘em. Helps with everythin’.”
“Did you fight ‘em?” Spot asked. His voice was quiet and gentle, unassuming and patient.
Staring at his feet, the blonde licked his sore lip and nodded once. “Had to.”
Spot acquiesced the unspoken want to slow down. He stared out at the open rooftop, watched the world pass by and the rain thump against concrete. “Thanks.” The brunette relaxed against the wall, crossed his legs at his ankles and shoved his hands in his pockets.
Anthony kept his eyes on his boots. They were wet and stiff and had probably tracked water all over the house. He grinned at the thought. He thumped them together. Once, twice, then a third time. He felt and heard the clack they made when he stomped the toes against the concrete.
The elder stared, bewildered but amused, and the blonde found that he didn’t care. His mom used to make tapping sounds when she walked. Her heels clicked against the floor whenever she came home and that noise meant he wouldn’t be alone any longer. There would be hugs and smiles and laughter. There’d be delicious food and a warm bed. He felt the smile before he heard the hum of contentment.
“He had a broken watch,” he started quietly, “an’ was wearin’ a blue suit. Broke his nose.”
Murmuring to his right had him still for a moment before he remembered. Right. “He hit you?”
“No,” he replied airily, “was too slow.” He tapped his feet against the concrete again, careful that his knees didn’t hit his bruising cheek and sore lip. “His friend tried to but… guess he wasn’t as good at boxin’ as he thought.”
“Was he ugly too?”
Anthony snorted. “Yeah. Fat an’ all.” He shared a conspiratorial grin with Spot. “Goin’ bald an’ missin’ teeth. Real sweaty fella.” He stared back down at his feet. “Didn’t know Italian all that well. Don’t think he spoke it.”
Spot nodded, “an’ the other one?”
Swallowing, the blonde paused his tapping and crossed his legs. He met the brunette’s gaze with a small smile. “He got a hit in.”
The other’s eyes lingered on Anthony’s swollen cheek. “Jus’ one?”
“Okay, I give.” He mussed up his hair; felt the raindrops fall down his back. “Two.” He grinned, then let it fall. “He was as Italian as they come. Tan, short an’ cocky.”
Spot hummed, snickered a little as he looked back at the blonde. “Hair gelled back?”
Anthony huffed. “Yes! An’ there was an ugly moustache!” He was talking with his hands again, throwing them up in the air and moving them around sporadically. He came very close to hitting Spot in the face with his elbow.
The brunette shook his head and laughed. It was deep and strong. “Suit—”
“—that was too small?” He nodded excitedly. Pausing, Anthony stared at his hands and remembered. “Think I broke his glasses.”
Spot smiled, wide and angular. “Good.”
The younger bit back piercing laughter, body convulsing back against the wall as he creased his eyes closed. He looked at the other, incredulous, but Spot just shrugged with a cocky smile. Brown eyes flickered to his cheek; he was reminded why it hurt so much. “He was wearin’ rings too.”
There was a startled curve to Spot’s sudden frown. A realisation that Anthony wasn’t privy too. “How many?” he asked, restrained and hard.
Spot fell back against the wall. He was angry, enraged, defeated. There was a downwards slope to his shoulders, a heaviness to his frown and a severe glint in his eyes. He was silent and Anthony didn’t attempt to say anything. The change in the brunette’s mood was startling.
Anthony’s confused pout twisted into a frown. He watched the lightened rain grow heavier, dousing the city in an expectant sorrow. The birds were quiet and the boys were subdued.
Something soft and cool pressed against his skin. The weight was gentle and light. He turned to stare, blue eyes thawing, and felt his stomach clench.
Spot was holding a damp white handkerchief to his aching face. His tanned hand pressed against his skin hotly: the heat burned but felt so incredibly comforting that he couldn’t help but press into it. His fingertips were calloused and scarred and lingered against his hairline. Spot’s eyes were dark, concealing, and spoke a thousand words that Anthony couldn’t understand. “Thanks, Higgins,” he murmured earnestly.
“It was nothin’,” he answered, glad for the handkerchief and the shadows and the thundering rain. Spot’s breath was hot, his gaze sincere and touch, secure. Anthony’s cheek fit, snug, against his palm and it was all he could think about.
“It was everythin’.”
Italian: [Aw, come on, fellas. That’s no way to win a woman.]
[Fuck off, kid.]
[He’s just a kid.]
[If you want to hit someone, hit me.]
Polish: [Thank heaven/Thank God]
Italian: [Jesus Christ/My God/My Lord]
I am currently without internet at home so I had to upload this at work. I have never felt more awkward.
I feel like my writing has changed a lot in just one chapter. However, here is our darling Racetrack and his baggage. And Brooklyn is here!
Thank you for reading and please feel free to comment. It´s nice to hear people´s opinions.