rassy-ass to my beta, Dakki!
Part One: Endless Night
"You promised you'd be there
Whenever I needed you
Whenever I call your name
You're not anywhere."
René hated the dark, especially on muggy nights like this one, where the streetlamps cast an eerie orange light on the pavement, and the moist air moved within it like spirits or spooks. René, always small and childish for his age, shut his eyes and turned his face into his father's chest with a whimper. His father hugged him tighter, and René felt safe.
He was only seven. His mother had died giving birth to him, an unfortunate but common occurrence for the poor. René's father had latched onto the baby boy, loving René as he had loved nothing else; he would not allow the affliction of poverty to affect his son as it had his wife.
But the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and now Henri Bedier was on the run.
And he was not going to put René through that.
René had fallen asleep, tight and warm in his father's strong arms, and Henri could not bring himself to wake him when they arrived at the broken building; René was a beautiful child, more because of his tiny size than despite it. His angelic, innocent beauty was even more breathtaking when he slept.
"Basil," he whispered through the rotting door, tapping it softly with his foot. "Basil, please, don't be asleep yet. Open the door."
No answer. Henri started to panic; he couldn't leave René lying on the front step, not in this chilly weather, not with these shady people standing so nearby.
"Basil!" Henri tapped a little louder, careful not to fall. "It's Henri Bedier! Please answer the door!"
The door opened slightly, and a curious pair of eyes stared up at him. "Who are you?" The child asked, his voice full of the counterfeit power of a young boy given new responsibility.
"My name is Henri Bedier. Where is Basil?"
Henri paused, trying to remember Basil's surname; surely the boy wasn't old enough to call him 'Basil.' "I mean... Mr. Kloppman. Where is he?"
"Who is it, Cowboy?" Came an older voice, footsteps creaking as a heavier body approached the door. The young boy gave Henri a cautious glance and responded:
"Bedier?" Henri breathed a sigh of relief when his old friend appeared at the door.
"It's Henri, Basil. I need your help."
Basil Kloppman's graying eyebrows lifted. "Cowboy, get up to bed."
"But Mr. Kloppman-"
"Up. And tell Beans that just 'cause he's your leader don't mean he decides what time that lamp goes out."
Cowboy pouted for a moment, then sullenly dragged his feet down the hallway and up the stairs. As a chorus of yelling began on the second floor, due to Cowboy's sudden dousing of the lamp, Basil crossed his arms over his chest and watched Henri.
"I needed money, Basil. I borrowed some and promised to pay it back, but I can't. I have to go, but I can't take René with me. It's not safe."
"You want me to take him?" Basil sighed heavily, rubbing his forehead. "Henri, I don't have enough beds-"
"Please, Basil!" René whimpered in Henri's arms, and his thumb slipped into his mouth. "I don't have a choice! If I take him with me, he'll be killed for certain! I'll do anything to keep him alive! Basil, please take him." Henri's blue eyes, so similar to René's, filled with tears. "We worked together, Basil. I saved your son. Now it's your turn to save mine."
Basil turned away, looking up at the sky. The factory accident. Basil's oldest son had gotten his hand caught in one of the whirling machines, and if it hadn't been for Henri's quick thinking and strong stomach, the boy would have lost more than just his left hand. Much more.
"...I suppose we could double-up," Basil said after a moment, holding out his arms. Henri's face nearly glowed with relief.
"Oh, God bless you, Basil Kloppman, you are a saint among sinners. God bless you, Basil, God bless!"
Basil smiled slightly as the sleeping boy was placed in his arms. "Hush now, Henri. You're making my face flush." He glanced down at René for a moment, then back to Henri. "I'm glad to do it."
Henri wiped his eyes and sighed. "Basil, you are a savior. I hope you realize that."
Basil didn't answer; he only mirrored Henri's smile.
"René," Henri whispered, stroking the fine hairs on his son's head. "I guess it always comes down to this: love and loss. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all." He leaned over to kiss René's forehead. "I now know that twice over."
He watched René sleep for a moment more, then turned away. "Thank you, Basil. You don't know what this means to me."
Basil shook his head. "Yes. I do."
"I'll come back for him if I can."
"But don't expect me."
René bit his lip and started down the front steps. "Thank you, Basil. Thank you."
He would never see Henri Bedier again, and he knew it.
"Mr. Kloppman," came a voice from down the hall. It had that creaking quality of an adolescent boy, and Basil knew it was Beans, the boys' current commander in chief. "Mr. Kloppman, Cowboy's being a jackass and he says-" Beans stopped short when he noticed the sleeping boy in Basil's arms. "Who's that?"
"His name is René Bedier. He'll be staying with us from now on."
Beans hesitated. "They ain't enough beds."
"He's small. He can share with someone until a bed opens up."
Beans scratched his head, then nodded. "A'ight."
"Now," Basil continued as he and Beans headed up the stairs. "What is Cowboy doing?"
"Being a jackass. He ain't never listened to me, Mr. Kloppman. I's the leader, but he ain't never listened to me once."
Basil laughed slightly. "He'll be leader after you're gone, Beans. I can promise."
"Glad I won't be here for it. The boy's mad, I tell you. Ten years old and he thinks he owns the world!" They entered the bunkroom, full of darkness and empty whispers. "Oy!" Beans shouted. "Shut your holes!"
The boys, ages seven through seventeen, although not all of them knew exactly where they fit between the two, glanced up. Some of them seemed angry and others worried, but as they realized a new boy was curled up in Basil's arms, all faces turned to curiosity.
"You boys gotta stop fighting all hours of the night," Basil said, shaking his head. "Get to bed, the lot of you."
Somewhere in the jumble of boys falling and pulling themselves into bed, someone asked, "Whatcha got there, Mr. Kloppman?"
"His name's René Bedier, though I'm sure that'll change before long. He needs a bed. Who wants to double?"
Everyone turned to look at everyone else, but no one volunteered. It wasn't as if they were selfish; there just wasn't any room. René was small, but most of the boys were already cramped as it was.
Basil sighed heavily. "Boys, please? Someone?"
Silence held for a moment, then: "He can share with me, Mr. Kloppman."
Basil exhaled and stepped over to the volunteer's bed. "Thank you, Ezekiel."
"His name's Skittery now, Kloppman!" Someone yelled, and laughter erupted. René twitched and whined in his sleep as Basil set him down on Ezekiel's bed.
"So you finally got around to naming him, good," Basil commented absently. "Took you all long enough."
"Eh, he's a hard one. But he's scared of spiders, Kloppman. Gets all skittish around 'em."
Basil shook his head, then caught Ezekiel's eyes. "You watch him, okay?"
Ezekiel blinked and nodded. "Okay Mr. Kloppman."
Basil smiled; Ezekiel had been somewhat of a loner since he'd shown up two weeks earlier, only really getting along with Racetrack Higgins, one of the older boys who got along with everyone and therefore didn't really count. Ezekiel was the last person Basil had expected to speak up, but maybe having René around would be good for Ezekiel. René was younger, smaller, newer... a better target for heartless boys. It wouldn't be good for René, no, but Ezekiel might help him there; they could help each other.
"All right, enough fuss. To bed, all of you!"
When Basil turned to leave, Cowboy mocked him, mouthing words with a twisted face and his lips curled over his teeth, as if, like Basil, he had none. Most of the younger boys snickered as the older ones rolled their eyes. Basil did not turn around, deciding he would rather not know.
The lamp was out and the room went quiet. Ezekiel got a chill and pressed his back against René's for warmth; that had been the big reason he had volunteered to take René. They were both small, and so could fit, but the bunkroom was chilly at night, and the added body warmth was a luxury.
Silence was their blanket for a while, letting them sleep through the cold, but Ezekiel woke in the moonlight to shivers and whimpers from the boy next to him. He rolled over, annoyed, and shook him. "Hey," he whispered, "hey!"
René woke with a jerk and sat up straight. Without hesitation, he opened his mouth and started to cry for his father: "Papa! Papa! Pa-" Ezekiel's hand closed over his mouth, and he gasped shortly, frightened.
"These guys ain't gonna be happy if you wake 'em up 'cause you had a nightmare," Ezekiel warned, noticing the sudden dark stain on the crotch of the other boy's pants and curling his upper lip in distaste. "Keep quiet."
René's muffled breathing through Ezekiel's hand was the only noise, so the older boy released the younger. "Where's Papa?" René demanded immediately, keeping his voice in a whisper. "Who are you? Where am I? Where's Papa?"
"I dunno where he is," Ezekiel answered honestly. "Mr. Kloppman would know. He brought you here."
"Who's Mr. Kloppman?"
"He runs the Lodging House. That's where you are: The Newsboys Lodging House, Lower West Side."
René 's face was sickly pale, and the moonlight enhanced the odd, ivory color of his face, giving him an almost ghostly air. "But... Papa was just here! I fell asleep and he was carrying me! We was leaving, Papa wouldn't tell me why! I... I..." He started to cry, and Ezekiel's upper lip curled in further disgust. "He said that I'd always have him 'cause I never had Mama! I'd always have Papa! Always!"
"Land sakes! Shut up!" René's tears stopped out of pure shock at the distinct sound of dislike in this boy's voice. "Your Papa ain't here! All you got now is the clothes on your back, and you already gone and ruined those." René blushed darkly and looked away. "That's it. Time to grow up."
René sniffled and wiped under his eyes. "I... I don't... this don't make no sense!" He lay back on the bed and curled up into himself. "I want my Papa."
Ezekiel felt a twinge of pity for the boy when he started to cry again. "C'mon, stop crying," he said, awkwardly petting René's hair. "You don't gotta cry. Your Papa wouldn't have left you without good reason."
"I miss him. I want him." René sobbed, putting his face in his hands. "I don't understand why he left me!"
Ezekiel sighed and laid back on the bed, uncertain of what, exactly, he was supposed to do while René lay next to him, moaning: "He promised, he promised, he promised!"
So he let René cry. He wasn't able to sleep through it, so he lay awake and listened, waiting it out. When René finally seemed dry, Ezekiel turned to look at him. His breathing was heavy and his eyes were wide open; Ezekiel found himself stunned, for the first time of many, by the clear, soft, emotional blue of those eyes.
"Feel better?" Ezekiel whispered. René glanced at him and sighed.
"No," he answered, "but I'm too tired to cry anymore."
They were quiet for a moment, then, "My name's Ezekiel Tennyson. The boys call me Skittery."
"I'm René Bedier. Why do they call you that?"
"'Cause I'm afraid of spiders."
"Oh." René was quiet for a moment, and Ezekiel thought he was asleep, but he soon spoke again: "Do you want me to call you Skittery?"
Ezekiel considered that, letting the surprising question turn over in his mind, before opening his mouth and responding.
"I know that the night must end
And that the sun will rise
I know that the clouds must clear
And that the sun will shine."
René opened one eye, already aware it wasn't Ezekiel and therefore not worth the necessary effort to get up. "Hey Kinks," he muttered, shutting the eye again and shifting for a more comfortable position. The sun was out and the air was quite perfect, so René had lain down after selling and decided to take a brief nap. "Whaddaya want?"
"You gotta come quick! They found Beans!" Kinks's smile seemed to take up half his face. "He's dead!"
That got René's attention. Beans had been missing for a week, long enough that some of the boys were starting to argue over whom should be their new leader. René sprang up and started to run as fast as his clumsy, adolescent body could carry him.
"Kinks!" He cried as they ran, "What happened?"
"Racetrack found Beans in an alleyway! Knife stuck in his chest, all the way to the hilt! Probably a Queens boy, they always hated him!" Despite the sadness of the story he was relaying, Kinks eyes were shining with excitement. The winds of power were shifting; every newsboy in the city knew it. The newspapers they sold and the history books of their grandchildren may not recognize this day, but amongst the newsies, it would always be remembered. "Don't know who done it and it don't matter neither. Someone's gotta take his place!"
"Do you know who?" They turned a corner, still running as they neared the square. "Racetrack, Mick, Snoddy?"
"Kid and Cowboy!" Kinks sounded even more excited as they approached the mob of boys just outside the gates of the Distribution Center.
"Kid and Cowboy?" René gasped and separated from Kinks, pushing through the crowd. "Oh God, Kid and Cowboy!"
Kid Ballatt was a handsome boy with blond hair and shining blue eyes that some would say rivaled René's. He had only been at the Lodging House for a few months, but he had a merry disposition that made him well liked amongst the boys, and a natural candidate for their leader.
Cowboy, however, had more dominant characteristics. He'd been defying Beans since before René joined the Upper East Side clan. He was one of those boys you either love or hate; there was no in between. There was a leader in him, though, a natural leader, and everyone knew it. Whoever won this fight would determine which newsies would stay and which would leave, either because they disliked Cowboy's personality, or because they feared it.
"René!" He turned and smiled as he found Ezekiel's excited face. "René! René, over here!"
He pushed through the crowd until he reached Ezekiel, who was watching Cowboy and Kid argue their superiority with each other, preparing to fight.
"I want Cowboy to win," Ezekiel said, grinning down at René; he'd enjoyed a growth spurt that winter, and now took his pleasure in teasing those who were smaller than he. Otherwise, he was generally the same as he had been five years ago: dark hair, eyes that were a little too close together, high cheekbones, a noticeable beauty mark under his right eye, and a cracking voice that was sometimes queerly high and others laughably low. "He's a lot like Beans, y'know, only a little more asshole-ish."
"Yeah, 'cause we need an asshole for a leader," René muttered.
"You're going for Kid, I take it?"
René shrugged. "I really don't give a damn. As long as no one gets hurt."
Ezekiel snorted. "Get your head out of the clouds," he said, blunt as ever. "They's both gonna get hurt. Just depends on who can take it and who can't."
René turned his eyes up to Ezekiel, who glanced away from them; René was a book, readable and passionate. He was as good-looking at twelve as he had been at seven, and he had never bothered to teach himself how to show the world his poker face; the open emotion of his eyes was part of his beauty, and in some unconscious way, he knew it.
They stood side-by-side as Racetrack finished taking the bets and melted back into the crowd to watch. Cowboy and Kid stared at each other, sizing each other up, trying to see which spots were weakest, which place would be best to strike first.
René tilted his head to the side, lifting his eyebrows as Kid and Cowboy started their mutual assault. "I wonder if Papa knew what kind of world he was leaving me to."
Ezekiel rolled his eyes and grunted, wincing as Kid took a fist in his stomach. René constantly continued to dwell on how his father had left him. Most kids stopped complaining or crying after a year or so, but Ezekiel still woke on occasion to hear weeping from René's bed, the one he now had to himself. René was twelve, and in Ezekiel's opinion, that was a little old to still be crying for your Papa in the dark.
Cheers erupted as Cowboy was knocked to the ground and Kid grinned, pouncing over him. The yells sounded again when Cowboy grabbed Kid's neck to push him away and nearly throttled the pretty blond in the process.
"Gouge him, Cowboy!" Ezekiel crowed before turning back to his tiny friend: "Don't you get it, René? If your Papa was alive, he'd have been back for you by now." René's eyes narrowed, and Ezekiel sighed. "Don't tell me, I know: I'm a jackass."
"Look, I'm just telling you what's what, a'ight?" Ezekiel glanced at the battle briefly, as Kid and Cowboy tumbled on the dusty ground, each trying to remain on top and become the victor. " René, you know I wouldn't lie to you. I tell you the truth; I'm the only guy that will. And I'm telling you now: Your Papa's gotta be dead." He put his hand on René's shoulder and squeezed it firmly. "So stop torturing yourself like this. A'ight? I hate you fussing over what you don't gotta fuss over."
René glanced at the hand on his shoulder, then smiled shyly as he returned his gaze to Ezekiel's face.
Any words he may have said, however, were cut off by a sudden shriek, and the crowd went silent, letting Kid's cries reverberate against the still air.
René put his hand over his mouth as he felt his throat clench in disgust, and Ezekiel's entire face shook with horror as he let the scene sink in.
"Oh God," he muttered, drawing René close. "Cowboy, I didn't really mean to gouge him..."
Kid was yowling on the ground, his hand cupped over his left eye, although that didn't quite stop the torrent of blood. It was as if a dam had been split, broken, and the blood was rushing through, leaking through his fingers to leave wicked designs on his knuckles, dribbling over his cheeks and chin to be diluted by tears and mucus. René fell to his knees and vomited noisily on the cobblestones, leaving Ezekiel to waver on his feet, keeping himself standing only because to fall would mean to look away; only René had been able to look away so far, and he was the one who had gotten sick.
Cowboy stood over Kid, the corners of his mouth twitching as Kid continued to scream and clutch his face, as the blood splashed on the ground and soaked into Kid's white shirt. Cowboy leaned to the left... to the right... raised his eyes to glance around at the boys in the crowd... then, he smiled brightly.
"I win," he said.
René glanced at Kid once more, nauseated at the sight but appalled by the reaction. Everyone was either disappointed or ecstatic at the outcome of the fight, but no one seemed worried. Kid was bleeding, his eye, his life destroyed; even if he survived, he would never be the same person he had been just moments earlier.
A group of older boys approached Kid, who would later grudgingly accept the amendment of 'Blink' to his nickname, and lifted him up, carrying him in the direction of where their doctor, who also happened to be Basil Kloppman's second eldest son, did his business, giving large discounts to the boys in his father's care. René wished he could help them, but he was still much too small, not strong enough, and he felt dizzy anyway.
"René." He wiped his mouth and looked up at Ezekiel. "C'mon. Let's go back to the Lodging House."
"He'll be fine." Ezekiel smiled wanly. "Now c'mon."
And René trusted him, as he always would.
"Where has the starlight gone?
Dark is the day
How can I find my way home?
Home is an empty dream
Lost to the night
Father, I feel so alone."
Ezekiel faded into the background of the Christmas crowds. Parents were too interested in the needs and desires of their children, children were too interested in the toys and cheer and lights, all of which Ezekiel was blind to. He was no longer a child, no longer welcome at the Lower West Side Newsboys Lodging House, no longer able to see or relish the simple joys of a boy.
He tried to attribute that to his loss of a home... but he knew that blame belonged to something else.
"Ezekiel!" He turned, his hunched figure pushed and shoved by the herd of people. "Ezekiel, wait!"
He shook his head and sighed. "René, you don't have a coat. Get back to the Lodging House before you kill yourself in this cold."
"You can't leave."
"Yes, I can. Didn't you hear Cowboy? Everyone knows what we been doing."
"No, they don't." René reached and grabbed Ezekiel's cold hands. "I heard the others talking. It's all gum. Cowboy thought you was looking guilty and picked on you 'cause he needed to remind everyone that he's the one in control. Nobody knows a thing."
Ezekiel bit his lip, and brushed his finger against René's rosy cheek. He opened his hand, and René pressed his ear into it, shutting his eyes and sighing.
"It's too risky. We can't chance it," Ezekiel said, snapping his hand back. "This is not a hard concept to understand, René: it's dangerous."
René went silent; he had turned sixteen just before the snow hit, and he was old enough now to understand the world. He looked up at Ezekiel, eyes glistening with anger, worry, and regret. "Where will you go?"
"I remember visiting my uncle once before my parents died. He had a dairy farm, and I really liked it there. I think I'll go up to stay with him."
"It's winter," René protested. "They won't need farmhands now."
"It's a dairy farm; cows always need milked." Ezekiel smiled slightly. "And if I'm turned away, there's always railroads to be built. I'm good with tools. Remember how I helped Mr. Kloppman fix the roof last summer?"
René sighed and put the ball of his hand to his forehead. "Where?" He demanded. "Where is your uncle's farm?"
"René." Ezekiel frowned. "René, no."
"Ezekiel, where is it?"
"You're not going to spend the rest of your days here wondering about me. I'm not worth it."
"I'll just wonder more if I don't know where you are."
"René, it's not important."
Ezekiel sighed, his breath blossoming out in front of him. "Bennington County, Vermont. Near Sucker Pond; I remember ice skating there once or twice."
René nodded and clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering; the sky was clouded gray and gobs of snow sat in the corners of the allies, dull, occasionally colored brown with dust, or even yellow from a few impatient bladders. René shivered, half from cold and half from loathing; he hated this life, this poverty he had been forced into, these dark streets and shadowed days. He still refused to accept his father's inevitable death, but René still sometimes resented him for this damnation.
Then he felt himself enveloped in warmth, led through the eye of the alleyway as Ezekiel clung to him, shared his heat, rubbing his strong, callused hands up and down René's shoulder blades, bringing goosebumps to a peak. René was surprised by this sudden show of affection; Ezekiel rarely touched him even when they were alone in the bunkroom. But he didn't protest; he had forgotten his coat, after all, and as he linked his fingers in the small of Ezekiel's back, he remembered that moonless night the week before, where an accidental brushing of lips in the Lodging House basement led to more purposeful touching, heat of a different type from a different source.
"Come with me."
René lifted his head to look Ezekiel in the eye; René now towered over most of the other boys in the Lodging House, but Ezekiel was the one he could always count on to look at him dead on.
"What if Papa comes back and finds me gone? I can't-"
"René, your Papa's dead!" Ezekiel cried, pulling back and gripping René's arms. "He ain't coming back for you! Never!"
René stared at Ezekiel for a moment, then struggled out of his grasp. "How do you know he's dead?" He demanded, his pretty eyes narrow and angry. "How?"
"Common sense don't mean squat, Ezekiel Tennyson! Not when it's my Papa's life you's talking about!"
Ezekiel and René watched each other, each waiting for one to speak again, to keep the argument going. If they kept it going, maybe it would be easier for Ezekiel to leave and for René to let him go.
But neither of them wanted to separate on bad terms. Ezekiel had always been curt with René, and René had always preferred this openness. He was angry not because Ezekiel was telling him his father was dead; Ezekiel always told him that. Ezekiel's departure and the fact that René could not bring himself to tag along fueled his anger.
"René..." Ezekiel said finally, running his fingers through his hair. "René, if you ever get your feet back on the ground and realize your Papa's dead, come find me. A'ight?"
René nodded slowly.
"Too bad you won't come with. Woulda been nice to have company."
Ezekiel sighed heavily and put his hand on René's shoulder. René bit his lip and glanced up at Ezekiel, who leaned over and pressed his lips delicately against René's forehead before jerking back with a blush. "I, uh, better get going. Don't wanna get caught after dark falls."
René nodded. "A'ight. Go on then."
Ezekiel paused, then touched René's face, a gentle brush of fingertips that made the younger boy's ears twitch as his eyes scrunched shut. Ezekiel laughed softly, then René heard the sounds of his boots on the pavement, and when his eyes opened, Ezekiel was gone.
René Bedier looked up at the glowing sky and sighed before stepping back onto the street and running to the Lodging House.
Loss was nothing new to him.
END - Part One
Next: The river's dry, the ground has broken, so I must go, now I must go.