It was his second Christmas in Santa Fe, Jack reflected, and it was no less lonely this year than it had been the year before. Lying on his narrow bed, his head pillowed on his hands, he stared up at the rickety ceiling of his small home. Next to him, crumpled on the sheets, lay David's latest letter.
He hadn't meant to crumple the letter in his hands. Normally, he cherished each of David's letters and kept them safely stacked in his bedside drawer. Upon reading this letter, though, he'd been overcome with such despair and frustration that his hands had seemed to act of their own accord.
Slowly, Jack reached over and grabbed the letter, absentmindedly trying to smooth the wrinkles from the page. He glanced down at David's familiar, spidery handwriting that scrawled messily across the sheet, so at odds with his personality. Almost against his will, Jack began reading again, though he'd already read it so many times he could quote it from memory.
December 15, 1902
Today's been a very long day, but I felt that I had to write you before I went to bed, or else I wouldn't be able to fall asleep. I spent the majority of my time today arguing with... Well, it seems like everybody.
First there was my mother: "David, honey, Santa Fe is so far away! And I know that you care about him, but you haven't seen him in two and a half years. What will you do if you spend all of your money and burn all of your bridges to go there and you hate it?"
Then there was my father: "I don't think we have the money to send you to college in Santa Fe, David. If one of the colleges had offered you a full scholarship, it might have been okay, but I don't think we can afford it."
At that point, I decided to leave and take a walk to calm down. Unfortunately I ran into Mr. Duncan - you remember, he's my teacher? - and he told me that if I'm actually serious about being a reporter, I shouldn't even be considering going to Santa Fe. After all, New York is the busiest place in the country, and the East Coast has the most prestigious universities.
Luckily, the next person I saw whom I knew was Racetrack, and he could tell that I was pretty hot under the collar, so we walked around for a while and just talked. He told me that if I really want to go to Santa Fe, then I shouldn't let anything stand in my way. I know that he's completely right.
But, Jack, I just don't know about this. I'm just not sure. I fought with my parents and with Mr. Duncan, and I told them that they were wrong, but deep inside, I'm beginning to doubt. What if my mother's right? What if I don't like it in Santa Fe? And worse, if I start to resent you because of it? We've been apart for so long that I can't be sure if what we had then will be enough. It used to be when I closed my eyes, I could conjure up your face in a second, as easily as if I'd just seen you. But lately, it's becoming harder and your face is more and more clouded.
I'm not saying that I don't care about you... I'm just scared, I suppose. Since I wasn't offered any substantial scholarships, I have to take a stand one way or another. If I do wind up in Santa Fe, it's going to have to be entirely because of you, Jack, and that's a large step to take.
In any case, I guess for the moment it's a moot point, since I don't have the money to make it out there. So that's another year gone by without seeing you.
Merry Christmas, Jack.
I miss you.
Jack let the letter flutter softly to the floor and pressed his hand to his chest unhappily. When he'd left for Santa Fe on that July day over two years ago, David had been the only person he'd allowed to accompany him to the train station. Before Jack had boarded the train, he'd kissed David one last time and promised that they'd be together again soon. For a moment, he'd almost believed that he could give up his dream of Santa Fe to stay with David, but then the conductor had yelled, "All aboard," and Jack had picked up his small suitcase and climbed onto the train.
At first, it hadn't been so bad. Of course, he'd missed his friends...and David...but the excitement of setting off on his dream had kept Jack going. Upon arriving in Santa Fe, he'd begun saving money he earned from doing odd jobs around town, and after several months, had managed to rent his own small apartment. He'd marveled at how cheap everything was - back in New York, he wouldn't have been able to pay a single month's rent had he worked for months on end. He'd gotten a job at a lumber mill and worked hard every day, eagerly waiting for the time when he'd earn enough to buy a ranch with some land and some horses. His dream of becoming a real cowboy had never seemed closer.
And yet, all through it, something - no, someone - had been missing, and he felt the absence every day when he woke up alone and every night with only the wind to talk to. When he wanted to tell David about an incredible horse he'd seen, or if he wanted to get advice, he couldn't just run the few blocks to the Jacobs' apartment; he had to sit down and write a letter, knowing full well that David wouldn't see it for at least several days, and then it would be another several days before Jack would receive his reply.
There had been times when he'd nearly given up and returned to New York, but he'd always stopped himself, knowing that if he left Santa Fe after all of the time he'd spent dreaming of it, he would regret it. All the same, without David, it felt as though his dream had been tarnished. Without David, Santa Fe wasn't home.
Groaning, Jack turned over and pressed his face into his thin pillow. They'd had plans, David and him. David had been supposed to join him in Santa Fe. He'd learn to be a journalist and reporter while Jack would spend his days out on the range. Then, at night, they'd both return home to be together. In public, as always, they'd have to act as though they were simply friends, but once the door was closed, they could be two boys in love.
And now? David was reconsidering everything. He wasn't sure whether he wanted to go to Santa Fe, and he wasn't sure whether he still loved Jack. The letter hadn't actually said that in so many words, but what else could Jack assume?
"Goddammit, Dave," he said out loud, but the words lacked any sting. "What do you want me to do, beg?" Blinking hard, embarrassed at the lump in his throat, Jack turned over, buried his head in his pillow, and closed his eyes. He didn't fall asleep for a long time, though.
The next day was sheer torture. Despite Jack's surly face and tired eyes, Mr. Welch, his boss down at the lumber mill, had insisted on attempting to have a cheery conversation. He'd chattered on about his son and his daughter-in-law coming to visit with his very first grandson, about Santa Fe's burgeoning future, about every possible topic under the sun. Jack felt as though he were being crushed under the weight of all of those words. It was all he could do to nod and make acknowledging noises every few minutes when Mr. Welch paused expectantly.
Finally, though, Mr. Welch asked the one question he should not have: "Jack, you're always so quiet about yourself! Do you have a special someone waiting for you?"
"I...don't know," Jack muttered.
Mr. Welch threw back his head and laughed heartily. "You don't know? How's that, boy? Either you got a gal or you don't!"
"I don't got a gal," Jack replied stiffly, knowing that at least he was telling the truth.
"What's that? A young, rough and ready boy like you doesn't have a sweetheart? Well, that's just a crime."
"It's okay." Jack lowered his head towards his work, hoping that Mr. Welch would get the hint and go away.
He didn't. "Well, if you ever feel the need, lad, I know plenty of fine young ladies ĺ─˛round town. Just give me a holler and I'll introduce you."
"Thanks, Mr. Welch." By now, Jack's knuckles were white and his fingers were twitching, but he managed to control his emotions with some difficulty.
"It's no problem, Jack, it's no problem." The large man beamed down expansively. "In fact, my wife's family is giving a Christmas party tomorrow night at the Radisson Hotel downtown. I'd be real pleased if you'd come as our guest. With all of our own grown up and gone, the wife's been missing having young'uns to dress up and cart around town."
Jack blinked, his irritation beginning to fade. As bad a mood as he was in, it was a very nice offer, and it might be a good thing for him to get out and try to have a good time. If he were thinking about having fun at the party, maybe, just maybe, he wouldn't think about David. He opened his mouth to say "Thank you," but Mr. Welch spoke first.
"It would also shut people's mouths to see you out canoodling with some young ladies."
"What?" Jack blurted out, straightening up. A terrible suspicion began to grow in his mind.
Now Mr. Welch looked slightly embarrassed. "Never mind, Jack. Forget I said anything... You're a fine worker."
Jack swung around to stare at the older man. "Tell me, Mr. Welch."
"It's really nothing"
Rubbing the back of his neck, Mr. Welch sighed and looked away. "It's just that you're by yourself so much, and you don't really talk about your family or friends. You only ever talk about this... David." The blood began to drain from Jack's head. "I told them all that there's nothing like a good friend, and that's what this boy is, but... Some of them insist on thinking that you're..." He trailed off, clearly reluctant to say the word. If Mr. Welch had punched Jack in the stomach, he couldn't have been more stunned. "Ooh," he managed.
Mistaking the source of Jack's distress, Mr. Welch put a comforting hand on his shoulder. "I told them that they were being idiots, Jack. They're just fools."
"...Yeah. Right." Jack looked at the floor. "Mr. Welch, thanks for the offer, but I ain't gonna be able to make it to the party."
"Well, that's all right, Jack," the older man said soothingly. "Listen. You're not looking so good. Why don't you take the rest of the day off? I won't dock you for it. Just don't tell anyone I let you go early." He winked.
"Thanks," Jack said vaguely. "I'll see you tomorrow." He turned and stumbled towards the exit, grabbing his coat along the way. As he shrugged into it, he wanted nothing more than to run, fast, all the way back to New York, back to David's arms.
Once he stepped outside, he half-wished that he were back inside. It had started snowing, and the cold wind blew the frozen particles here, there, and straight into his eyes. It was the last thing he needed.
Pulling his woefully thin coat closer around him, he squeezed his eyes shut as he walked and wished with all his heart, wished harder than he'd ever wished before. I don't know if you exist or not, he thought, and if there is, I know that I don't talk to you very much, but I need a favor. It ain't even a very big favor... Not for you, anyway. For me, it'd make all the difference. I need to not be alone in this strange place where people look at me strangely. I used to think that Santa Fe was all I needed to be happy, and maybe it could have been once... But it ain't all I need. Not by a long shot. Please, if there's anyone up there, anyone who cares, I just need to not be alone.
His impromptu prayer finished, Jack opened his eyes slightly and, feeling slightly foolish for doing it, scanned the gray, blustery sky for a sign, any sign that he'd been heard. Of course, there was nothing. He let out a long, disappointed breath that the wind pulled from his mouth.
In fact, the wind seemed to be growing ever stronger. As he fought his way towards his small apartment, Jack began to get tired. He didn't stop, though. It was going to be a nasty storm, and if he didn't get home soon, he might not make it. He'd heard of that happening: men, going outside during a blizzard, losing their way, and freezing to death ten feet from their homes because they couldn't see where they were.
Finally, the wind was hurting his eyes too much, and it was starting to hurt to breathe the bitter cold air. He needed to stop on the way home. Glancing around with watery eyes, he noticed the post office nearby. That would be a good place to warm up, at least for a few minutes, and he could check his mail. Maybe there would be a new letter from David, saying that he was sorry and he still loved Jack. Jack laughed sardonically, turning towards the post office. Sure, maybe there would be a letter, and maybe Santa Claus actually existed.
His numbed fingers fumbled with the doorknob. It took him a full twenty or thirty seconds to twist it and half-walk, half-fall into the post office, slamming the door behind him.
"Sorry," he gasped out to the ancient clerk. "It's freezin' out there!"
The clerk, occupied with someone else, nodded absentmindedly at Jack, who took up his place in line behind the man who was currently arguing with the clerk. For a moment, Jack only worked to warm up a little bit, and didn't listen, but then as the argument grew louder, he began to listen almost against his will.
"It's really important that I get the mail," the man, younger than Jack had first assumed, was insisting. All Jack could see from the back was that he was wearing a nice black wool coat and a fedora.
"Listen, kid," the clerk said calmly, "you might as well calm down. I'm not giving you someone else's mail. That's a felony."
"You don't understand, sir," the young man said, controlling his voice with some obvious effort. "This mail might - I can't explain it, but I promise that I don't intend to do anything bad with it."
"Sorry, but I'm afraid I can't help you."
"If you can't do that, then why can't you at least tell me his address?" the determined man asked.
"I told you before," the clerk said, calm as ever, "it's not that I can't give you his address, but that the weather's blowing up and you won't make it ten feet outside, much less find where you're going before you've frozen to death."
"What are you talking about?"
The clerk laughed. "You're one of them city folk, aren't you? Things are a bit different out here. I'll give you the address once things have calmed down a bit. Until then, you might as well make yourself comfortable."
As Jack watched, interested despite himself, the young man's shoulders slumped and he braced himself against the counter. "Fine," he said, frustration evident in his voice. "But could you please, please just go and check and see if there's any mail for him? I won't take it, I just want to know, I promise."
The clerk opened his mouth, probably to refuse once again, but he paused. Evidently he saw something in the young man's face that made him hesitate. After a tense moment of silence, the clerk nodded slowly. "All right, kid. I'll check for you. What's the name you want me to check, again?"
The man slowly stood up straight again, hope in his posture. "Kelly. Jack Kelly. Thank you so much, sir."
Jack's mouth fell open as he started in shock. Who was this person and what the hell did he want with Jack's mail? Whatever it was, it couldn't be good. And besides which, it was his mail, dammit! Well, it had been a lousy day to start with, and apparently it was going to end a lousy day. A good soaking might actually improve his mood slightly. His hands itching to clench into fists, he reached out, grabbed the man, and swung him around roughly.
"Hey, buddy," he demanded harshly, "what's the big - " At the sight that met his eyes, he blinked once, twice, sure that it was a mirage. But blinking didn't make it disappear. A pair of shockingly blue eyes met his and reddish-brown curls peeped from under the dark hat. "...idea..." he trailed off weakly. Jack squeezed his eyes shut, shaking his head vigorously from side to side, then looked again, his heart pounding in his chest. But David, staring amazedly at Jack, was still there. "...Dave?" Jack whispered.
"Jack..." David whispered back, almost as stunned as Jack. Then a smile so huge that it almost hurt to look at it appeared on his angular face. "Jack, I can't believe it's really you!"
He reached out to grab Jack, but Jack took a step backwards. The words of David's letter were all too fresh. He wanted David more than he'd ever wanted anything, but he didn't think he could bear it if David hadn't come to stay, if - and Jack knew this was a long shot - he'd come to bid Jack goodbye.
"What - what're you doing here, Dave?" he asked, hiding the tremor in his voice.
David blinked, the stunned happiness in his eyes slowly changing to confusion. "What am I doing here? Jack, I thought"
"Don't get me wrong, I'm real happy to see you," Jack said, the words stumbling over themselves in their haste to get out, "but your last letter made it clear that you wasn't too sure about any of this - about me - anymore."
A small, sad smile darkened David's face slightly. "Oh... You got that, huh?"
"Yeah," Jack said, shoving his hands in his pockets to keep them from shaking. "I got that."
"I was..." David paused, taking his hat off and holding it in front of him. Despite his confusion, Jack couldn't help but notice that no matter how good David had looked as a teenager, he looked far better as a young man. "I was hoping," David continued, embarrassment in his voice, "to beat that letter here. I thought that maybe I could...intercept it before you read it... But I guess I didn't."
"Is - is that what you were doing there?" Jack asked. "You were trying to get my mail so I couldn't?"
"Yeah." David grinned shamefacedly.
"It's an awful far way to come to grab a letter, Dave," Jack said, keeping his voice as calm as he could.
Sudden realization dawned in David's eyes. "Oh. Oh! You think...that...that's why I'm here? To get the letter?"
"No!" David exclaimed. "Jack, I don't have so much money that I can travel two thousand miles just for that. You know that."
"Yeah, I - I know that." Jack bit his lip.
David reached out and grabbed Jack's shoulders in a surprisingly strong grip. "Jack, I came here for you. I came here because I wanted to be with you. I'd just mailed that letter when I realized what a mistake I'd made. I wasn't scared because I thought I didn't know you anymore. I was scared because I knew that this was the real thing and once I got here, I wouldn't be leaving again... Not as long as you'd be here."
"You ain't leaving?" Jack asked, almost afraid to listen to what David was telling him. The last two and a half years of isolation had taken more of a toll on him than he'd thought.
"No," David replied firmly. "I came here to be with you, Jack. If...if you'll still have me."
Jack swallowed hard past the lump in his throat. "Dave... You gave me one hell of a scare there." He laughed shakily. "'If I'd still have you'? That was maybe the dumbest thing you've ever said!" With a blossoming warmth in his heart, he threw his arms around David, feeling David's arms wrap around him tightly in return. He buried his face in David's shoulder, his nose next to David's neck, breathing in the scent that was unmistakably the man he loved.
"I missed you," he whispered, the words barely more than a breath, feeling David squeeze him tighter and tighter.
"I missed you more," David murmured.
"Not a chance."
"Seeing all the newsies without you there was constant torture."
"I didn't even have them," Jack returned quietly.
David was quiet for a moment. "Okay, you win. How...how have you made it through all this time?"
Jack pulled back far enough to look David in the eye. "By telling myself that you'd make it here one of these days, Dave. That's how."
"I'm sorry it took me so long."
Jack paused. "How did you make it here? You didn't have the money, remember?"
David smiled, that large, beaming smile that always melted Jack's heart. "You're right, I didn't. But the newsies decided that they'd had enough of me always moping around and talking about you, so they pooled enough money to buy me a train ticket."
"The newsies did?" Jack said, an identical grin spreading across his face. "I don't believe it."
"Believe it," David confirmed. "If there was one thing you taught everyone, it was that newsies always look out for their own... whether their own happen to be sulking in their midst... or thousands of miles away."
Reaching out to touch David's cheek, Jack blinked suddenly, startled. "It worked," he said in wonder.
"What worked?" David asked, amused.
"My wish. I - I made a wish, Dave. I wished that I wasn't alone anymore. I wished that, and ten minutes later, here you were. It worked." He looked up at the ceiling of the post office, as though he could see past it to the skies. "It's a holiday miracle!"
"It's a coincidence, Jack," David smiled. "I was here before you even made that wish."
"No, you're wrong," Jack said stubbornly. "I made the wish, and the storm blew up and forced me to come in here. I didn't even used to believe in them, so don't you think I know a miracle when I see one?"
"It's. A. Holiday. Miracle," Jack said with finality.
David shrugged, then laughed, hugging Jack again. "Okay, Jack, it's a holiday miracle." A dry cough startled them both. They glanced over to see the aged mail clerk watching them, arms crossed over his chest. Guiltily, the boys leapt apart.
"We're sorry," David blurted out, his freckled face turning a light pink. "It's just - we're close friends, and it's been a really long time -"
For what seemed an eternity, they waited breathlessly, wondering what the clerk would do, if he would scream abomination and toss them out into the cold. Finally, just when Jack was beginning to realize that he was holding his breath, the clerk laughed and shook his head.
"It's all right, boys. I used to have a - close friend too." He looked up, eyes filming over. "His name was Kloppman. I wonder every day what happened to him," he mumbled, almost to himself. "In any case," he said, his voice strong again, "we have to wait out the storm in here, so I'll go grab some blankets and see if there's any food around." With a nod, the clerk shuffled out of the room and into the back.
Jack and David both glanced at each other, stunned. They spoke at the same moment.
"Did you hear"
"When he said"
Both broke off, and David motioned Jack to speak first.
"Do you think it's possible, Dave?" he asked. "That it could be...the same one?"
"It's a rare name," David replied. "I think there's a fair chance."
Jack grinned, a spark of his old, mischievous fire back in his eyes. "Wouldn't that be a kicker? If it was the same guy and if we could...?"
David smiled back. "It sure would. But first..." He drew Jack close to him again. His mouth only inches from Jack's, he whispered, "Merry Christmas, Jack."
Jack twined his fingers in David's hair. "Happy Hanukkah, Dave," he whispered back.
And just before their mouths claimed each other for the first time in two and a half years, another whisper, just two words, echoed through the small lobby. Later on, neither Jack nor David would be able to recall which one of them said it, or whether they both said it at the same time. All they knew, having found each other again, was that it was equally applicable to both of them: