Hell is a Sober Crawl

BY : Glitter_Ink
Category: M through R > Newsies
Dragon prints: 175
Disclaimer: I do not own Newsies. Otherwise, names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of my imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Randall's Island - House of Refuge - 1897

Och, little one. Are you alright? What's the matter?

The exhausted, brown-haired newsboy intertwined his brows, crinkling to his temples and his frozen nose like a frostbitten rabbit. His lips were so split from the biting cold it was a miracle they hadn't fallen off altogether. A sailcloth pillow was propped between his head and the flee-ridden paper mattress, his arms folded fast, his long legs spread out in front of him. If it weren't for the cadenced inflation and deflation of his ribs, one would've confused him for a dead body.

You can't fall asleep, is it? Have you bad dreams?

Jack was comatose, the first decent sleep he'd gotten since he'd arrived on Randall's Island a week before. It must have been the chloral they'd dosed him with after that fit he'd thrown on the way in. And now, covered by a flimsy, lice-infested blanket, the young newsboy was cloaked in the gloomy ward of the older boys' dormitory. At fifteen, he must've just made the cut-off. Most of the others seemed older.

Now he was at the total mercy of Mother Nature's wild snowstorm that blew in through the rafters. 

Now, now, little bitty. I'm here. I'll always be here.

The corners of Jack's mouth fluttered into a kind of partial grin, his shoulders twitching as he pulled his arms closer to his chest. Breathless, he tilted his head against the pillow and pulled his limbs inward, like a deer that senses the nearby hound.

I won't let any harm come to you, darling.

As the words evaporate, he grumbles, low and inarticulate whispers at first, little more than nonsense. Jack manages a word, one he echoes — becoming more eager and anxious with each whisper. "Ma."

He murmurs her name over and over, his brows lifting and binding in a constant struggle as the woman's voice in his mind takes a form. A form with blue eyes, a golden complexion, an adoring smile. Her dark blonde hair is free of its halo-like braid around her head, and now it flows loose and wavy, and Jack can feel it caressing his cheeks as she kisses his nose. He can hear the faint clang her medal of Saint Philomena makes as she moves.

Would you like me to sing for you, Francis?

And she's real again, cradling him in her arms while she sways, soothing him to sleep. Jack can see the fabric of his mother's frayed but neat cotton skirt, the torn lace of her blouse. He can smell her lilac soap, can hear the simmer of his father's stew cooking nearby. He's home. And when his mother sings, he's carried off and cuddled against her again. Her fingers brush back his hair, her heart beats in his ear.

What though my joys and comforts die? I know my Savior liveth.

Her voice is melodic, like the little birds that used to hover around the wildflowers outside the house. The way the lyrics sound lilting off her tongue is how Jack knows it's Ma. He'd know her voice anywhere.

What though the darkness gather round? Songs in the night he giveth.

Jack opens his teeth-chattering mouth, trying to utter the hymn that had sent him to sleep when he was little. Bit by bit, and with the whisper of one fading fast, he repeats the chorus in a cracked mutter. And he and his mother both sing, free from harm and huddled together within the console of the cottage near the cliffs.

No storm can shake my inmost calm while to that refuge clinging. Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?

His muttering grows louder into coherent words, and louder still into lyrical garble as the teenager — once more a little boy — eases himself off to the best respite from the decrepit wasteland of the Refuge. "How can I keep from singing…"

He can't hear the shuffle of feet against the grimy floor coming closer. He doesn't see the weary boy staggering in the dark toward his bed. "How can I keep from—"

"Jack?" The low voice is obtrusive, and there's a tremor from inside the earth that shakes Jack from his hypnotic state and rips him away from his mother's embrace. He can feel her soft hands fading from him and her voice becomes remote until it's gone, and all he's left with is a bleak and barren heartache. "Jack, you're dreaming."

The newsie jolts awake, choking, shaking. He ignores his current surroundings until he sees the worried face shadowed beside his bed. His mind swims, and the flush of shame reddens his cheeks as he glares into the older boy's eyes.

"Sorry to wake you," Grim Krause whispers, crouching beside the metal frame. "I wanted to make sure you were okay." His voice is resigned, but his eyes indicate a range of concern. Four years older, Grim had been in and out of the Refuge for the past 10 years. So far, he's the only one who's bothered to learn Jack's name. Then again, it's only been a day.

Jack looks at his own arms enveloped around himself and relaxes. His huge, expressive eyes widen with fear, his bottom lip trembling. "I-I'm okay. Why? What happened?"

Grim shakes his head and sighs. "No, I thought I heard—" he hesitates, not wanting to say he'd heard the young newsie talking in his sleep, knowing it would embarrass the poor kid. "Forget it. You're okay. Go back to sleep."

With a pat on the shoulder, Grim stands and turns around. He pauses for a second, glancing back to find Jack pulling the blanket tighter around himself, burying his face into his pillow to hide. Grim wants to say something to the kid, anything, but decides against it. As Jack hears the footsteps fade away, he brings his head back up, fighting the hot tears that threaten to pour at any given second. His mother is gone, and he's alone now in the middle of a dark cave with nothing and no one. Rats screech along the floor, and he clenches his jaw, determined not to cry, his emotions close to escaping from where he's buried them.

With a shaky hand, he closes his eyes and reaches into his shirt, clasping his mother's Saint Philomena medal that hangs around his neck alongside the countless scars and bruises. He brings the cool silver to his lips and kisses it, running his thumb and forefinger along the delicate grooves and outlines.

Opening his eyes, Jack bites his lip to stop it from quivering, either from the cries or the cold, not even he can tell. His thoughts, meanwhile, fumble their way through a prayer of his own in the softest of whispers. He swings his legs over the side and forces his aching body to get up, making his way over to the barred window. He gazes out of it as he wraps his hands around the bars, staring at the dark sky.

Jack sniffles, his bloodshot eyes focusing on a single star above him. Polaris, the North Star. It's staring back at him, twinkling with a dim determination.

He whispers to his mother, feeling the burn of tears cut wet paths down his face.

Jack wipes at his tears, brows furrowed, and forehead lined with stubborn resistance. He runs his shaky fingers through his hair.

As the sharp chill of the November air frosts the thin windowpane, Jack feels the cold sting his nose and mouth, and he pulls his numb hands into his sleeves to keep them warm. He hopes his sister is warm, wherever she is. He hopes she's with Medda, at the very least.

And for a moment, Jack thinks he can tear away the bars and be out of that window and against the cold cobblestone below in less than a minute.

His throat locks and his eyes spill over once more.

Kissing the medal around his neck again, he closes his eyes and tries to imagine his mama's voice, just as she'd sounded in the dream. But it slips away from him as it comes. All he can hear are the stifled cries from the floor above, and loud footsteps echoing from outside the dormitory – the Warden's footsteps. They grow louder, closer, until—

The doorknob turns, the squeak of the hinges. The sound should send Jack into a frenzied panic, but it only triggered a sense of detached doom, absolute numbness.

Jack returns to Earth. And like that, he hurries back to his bed, throwing the blanket over his body, and shutting his eyes. Pretending he doesn't care, pretending nothing can hurt him.

This night, and the next night, and all the rest.

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