Warm Woolen New Year
The chill in the air was sharp and a day's worth of tromping through a few inches of snow had left him damp and uncomfortable, but he felt positively electric anyway. The day belonged to the normal: get up, bundle in meager winter clothing, hit the streets of Manhattan to sell until dusk. The night belonged to the fantastic.
It was New Year's Eve, and not just any—the new century was on the horizon and everyone he came in contact with that day was abuzz about what to expect in the 1900s. To Jack, it seemed so big, so limitless, and more than ever, he was looking forward to heralding in the New Year.
Usually, it was him and the other Manhattan newsboys (Brooklyn or Queens or Staten Island sometimes joined in, depending), enjoying a modest but rowdy evening. Food would be shared, cheap alcohol (stolen, no doubt) would be passed along in dark bottles, and leftover Christmas crackers would be exploded in the faces of the unwary. Toasts at midnight were solicited, and even a drunken kiss or two. Everyone left in high spirits, ready to face the year ahead, however hard it might be. They needed the New Year—it was a like a rebirth for them, a way to brush aside the trials and tribulations of the last year and start anew. It seemed even more important this year, what with the 1800s and the year of their Great Strike behind them. Unlike last year, Jack would end this one with new family, new friends and a new sense of purpose, and he was more emboldened to face the first day of the year than ever.
His papers had been sold off over an hour ago, but Davey had said that he would meet him here, between the Dutch bakery and tailor's shop that served as a halfway point between the Lodging House and the Synagogue, where David and his family currently were. Despite the fact that a rather exciting celebration was on the horizon, Esther wouldn't hear of her children missing the weekly services. Jack was fine with all of it—despite the fact that his jacket did little to stave off the cold and despite the fact that he lacked a proper winter scarf, cap or pair of gloves, he'd have stayed out there as long as it took, as long as his best friend could join him on such an exciting evening.
Down the street, people were already heading off to various parties in the finest things they owned as they towed fruitcakes and wine, and children in starched collars. Two blocks down, he could just make out Blink and Mush on the corner, where they divvied a box of crackers between themselves, all the while sharing a cigarette. Blink whispered something to Mush, then the two erupted into laughter so loud, it echoed off the alleyway Jack stood by. He grinned to himself; somehow he had a feeling that something entertaining would be happening tonight, possibly in retaliation for the stunt Racetrack pulled on them at Christmas.
He was lost in thinking of all the possibilities when the sky went black and his senses left him.
The first thing he noticed was that his hearing was muddled. Sure, he could tell voices were speaking, and he guessed most of them were male, but he couldn't make out how many, or who they were. He only knew that the buzzing was human.
The second thing he noticed was the blazing pain on the back of his skull. The more he pondered the source, the more pain he felt, and soon the throbbing had extended from the base of his skull to his temples and forehead. He tried, once, to open his eyes and focus on the sources of the sounds he couldn't place, but even the little bit of light still in the sky felt like a million gas lamps, all burning as brightly as possible. In an effort to spare his eyes the pain his head suffered, he closed them tight and tried to focus his hearing again.
There was little luck here, but his sense of touch was still well intact, and his body was currently enjoying a dizzying dance of hot pain and cold climate. His hands gripped cold cobblestone, so he assumed that he was on his back, on the ground. The snow beneath him had started to melt and was permeating his clothing. There were hands on him, cold and chapped from the winter wind. Someone's voice buzzed in his ear and prodded his wound. He wanted to order his muscles to bat their fingers away and his mouth to scold them, but neither wanted to obey. He settled for a moan elicited from a dry mouth as a means of protest.
Buzz buzz hum. Calloused fingers felt for a beating heart.
The hands were cold and the wind was cold and the ground was cold. He shivered in response to the chill and the pain.
When the warmth came, it made him jump.
They were hands, surely, but these were covered in well-worn mittens. They handled his neck and shoulders gently as a second set—clad in leather, judging by the smell—wrapped a warm linen bandage around his head. His body was returned to the floor and he hissed at its temperature.
There was a deep bass buzz as cold hands patted his thigh reassuringly and mittens enclosed the frozen fingers on his left hand and rubbed some warmth into them. When the chapped hands and mittens then grabbed his body and lifted him suddenly, the jar to his head sent the pain flaring anew and harder than before. His world went dark again.
When noise returned, he could tell he was in the bunkroom at the Lodging House by scent alone, and he found the stale smell strangely inviting. He cracked his eyes open and could see that the room was mostly dark, but that his field of vision was blurred badly. He made out a movement in his peripheral—a shock of red on his right. It buzzed at him as it came closer, and the increase in volume made his head hurt further. He groaned and reached a hand out toward the source in an effort to shoo it away, his hand missing the warmth of the bed as it waved in the cold dormitory air in search of its target. He met mittens again, and they took his hand gingerly before tucking it back into bed.
They were red too, the mittens, and they reached over to dim the gas lamp before raising a ragged washcloth to his face.
Buzz buzz still buzz careful hum blood.
Words were getting through now, so he considered that a plus. And besides, the bunkroom was chilly; so he settled down in his bed and allowed the mittens to cleanse what he surmised was dried blood from his neck and cheeks. He shut his eyes and enjoyed the tactile pleasure of soft knitting and the smell of wool and cedar and old paper.
Mittens worked away, stopping only to cinch the gloves further onto their own hands in an effort to keep the biting drafts in the room from stiffening their fingers. The close contact and careful nursing somehow seemed to dull Jack's pain and trepidation at suddenly having lost control of some his senses and Jack found himself somewhat involuntarily leaning in to extend contact with his caretaker. Mittens didn't seem to mind, and kept going through the ministrations while stopping to spare a soothing touch or two.
Once he was cleaned up, the red shock of mittens left him and disappeared into the darkness. Jack found that he lamented their loss.
Just as suddenly as they had left, they returned to his body, straightening his nightclothes and smoothing his bandage and tucking him further into the heavy blankets on the bed. It made him feel warm and safe and something else entirely.
Hmm hum buzz rest buzz in the morning.
It's still and quiet in the room for a moment before he cracks an eye open just long enough to watch red float into his line of sight before it's melded with the darkness. He felt a still deeper sense of loss he couldn't explain, but tried to stamp it down and rest his aching head.
Sleep came quickly to the fringes of his consciousness, but just as he was almost there, the smell of wool and wood returned, and soft warmth caressed his cheek fondly. He laid completely still and let that feeling of something else wash over him again.
Mittens stroked the corner of his mouth, and a pair of yet warmer lips followed in their wake, their contact brief and chaste but sweeter than any holiday sweet or glass of cheap champagne he might have missed out on tonight.
One more caress and the red shock was gone, extinguishing the lamp behind it, leaving Jack to dreams of winter textiles and gentle touches.
The first morning of 1900 greeted Jack just after the church bells struck seven. When he came back to waking life, he was greeted with a dull ache in his head, but he was pleased to find that his sight was clear again and his hearing was better. He slowly looked at the room around him and took in the aftermath of the world left over from the wild night before. Winter clothing was strewn about and covered in paper confetti. Boys were stacked two and three deep in the tiny bunk beds, their half-naked forms tangled in shared blankets. To his left, Blink and Mush were curled up in a bed together, a half-eaten dessert of some sort perched precariously on the end of their bed, forgotten. To his right, Race was all but face-down on the floor, probably sleeping off the copious amount of alcohol he consumed the night before. In Race's usual bed, Mr. Brooklyn himself slept, sprawled out, a mostly empty liquor bottle by his side and his cane tucked under his chin. Behind him, he could hear Skittery snoring and Boots muttering to himself in his sleep. Jack had missed a hell of a night, but it didn't much concern him at this point. Other than taking a medicine for his head and trying to figure out what the hell had actually happened to him last night, he was thinking of one thing only.
The smell of wool and the warm touch on his lips still lingered. He shuddered at the memory of it and at the dawning realization that it affected him so.
Carefully, he rose from his bed and padded across the room quietly in an effort to allow the merry band of New Year's revelers a few more hours rest. Besides, no one would be out on the street this early, so it was a moot point to try to go out and sell; they might as well enjoy the break while it existed.
When he made it to the washroom and could take in his visage properly, it wasn't a pretty sight. His mysterious nurse with a warm kiss had done a pretty good job of cleaning up, but some of his hair still clumped in masses of brown, coagulated blood. The linen bandage was soaked through, but by the look of it, the stains were hours old, and the bleeding had likely stopped. His cheek was bruised, and he surmised that he had probably taken a hit when he blacked out.
"Damn jerk. Look what they did to my freakin' mug," he muttered as he poked at the purpling skin.
He hissed and muttered and cursed his unknown assailant to high heaven as he slowly unwound the bandage around his skull. Once he had the covering removed, he tried to get a good look at the damage.
"Can't see," he grumbled, trying to get close to the mirror, "Wonder how bad it looks."
Jack's eyes shot up to catch David's reflection in the mirror.
"Jeez, ya scared me."
"Sorry," David apologized meekly, "I came to check in on you. Mama's making us all go to my Aunt's place for the New Year. I figured I'd make sure you've bounced back, seeing as everyone else will be out of commission for most of the day." He jerked a thumb in the direction of the dorm to illustrate.
"I'm feelin' better, I guess. I see better and hear better. Head hurts like hell, though."
"I'll bet," David replied, rummaging around the washroom until he came across a crude collection of first aid supplies, "It's a pretty considerable wound. Any idea what happened?"
"I was hopin' someone could tell me."
David unrolled a considerable amount of linen gauze before tearing it with his front teeth. "No one knows. Blink and Mush said they heard something in the alley and saw a guy run off. They came to investigate and found you unconscious. We wager he was out to rob you—your pockets are empty."
Jack rummaged hurriedly through his trouser pockets. Nothing.
"Damn him! That was a day's wages! That bastard!"
"Consider yourself lucky that he didn't do you worse," David reasoned as he began to wind a fresh bandage around Jack's wound.
"That was almost a buck and a half, Dave!"
"Better off than dead."
Jack scoffed, "I didn't almost die, Dave."
"You could have. You're lucky that one of the guests arriving at the apartments across the street from the scene was a doctor."
Jack remembered the leather gloves. That must have been him.
Leather gloves reminded him of knitted ones, and it made him feel warm.
"Well, if you're sure you're alright, I should be heading back. We're leaving for Queens in an hour," David's voice shook him out of his thoughts just as they were beginning to wander, "I think you should sit today out, Jack. Rest up a little. Don't make me worry."
Jack cocked an eyebrow at David's mother hen attitude, and David blushed bright red in response.
"I mean, we'd all worry. The other guys. And I. All of us at once."
The warm feeling was tingling in Jack's chest again.
"I have to get going. Take care, Jack," David said as he reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out a scarf, which he curled around his neck.
And there they were, fresh from his pocket: two red mittens, old and mended, but bright and intact.
David fitted them on both hands and Jack stood and stared.
"...What?" David blinked at him.
"Those. Did you always have those?"
David looked down at his hands. "The mittens? Mama knitted them about three years back. They had gone missing at the end of last winter until last week, and it was cold outside, and..."
Jack's hands were on his, gripping them awkwardly, testing the fibers of the mittens.
The care and the caresses and the kiss. All Dave.
"You. Last night..."
David turned a brilliant red. "You were...I mean..."
Jack's rough fingers grazed the corner of his mouth, bringing David's speech to a grinding halt. Jack felt David suck in a sharp breath as he placed a kiss in the wake of his fingers, much in the same manner David had gifted him last night. Once David's eyes had slipped closed and Jack could hear his companion's pulse pounding, Jack decided that, unlike last night, he wouldn't let THIS gift slip by until he had had his fill of it. He sucked on David's lower lip just long enough to coax the other boy into joining him. Once David had come to life, Jack reveled in the mittened hands that clasped behind his neck and pulled him into a full-on kiss.
How long they had stayed that way, neither of them knew, but it was long enough to lose breath and ruffle hair and crush clothing. When they parted, they stared at one another silently, unsure of how to move forward.
Jack took the initiative first. "Thanks for takin' care of me last night. I'll take it you missed the party."
"Yeah," David replied, still out of breath, "I don't mind. I'm glad you're okay."
"Better'n okay now," Jack grinned impishly.
David blushed yet more furiously and bit his lip. "This...all this...what do we do now, you and I?"
Jack shrugged. "It's the 20th century, Dave. As I see it, we do whatever we want with it."
"What do you want to do with it?" he asked softly, as if just slightly intimidated by the possible answer.
Jack took David by his mittened hands and caressed fabric and palms with his thumbs. "Carry it over to the next century. But since that's a long ways off, I s'pose we'll just have to occupy the space in between."
"Indeed," David nodded, clasping Jack's hands and tugging him in for their third kiss.
Jack allowed himself to fall completely into the warm tendrils that consumed his body, reveling in David's hands and drowning in his kiss. He grasped David's hands tighter and smiled against his mouth, suddenly convinced that if these were the kind of promises he had to look forward to in the coming year, 1900 looked even more hopeful than he could have ever imagined.