Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of Disney and are only used for fan-related purposes.
Author's Note: I wrote the following fic in honor of my mother, who passed away suddenly at the age of 57 on February 19th. I've always had a harder time expressing my emotions except when it came to writing. While I've been working on original works these last few years, the recent resurgence of the NML on Facebook coupled with the fact that I very much wish I could be a kid again led me to turn to my first love: Newsies. This short vignette is the result. If you read, please enjoy, and do me a favor: tell your loved ones that you do, in fact, love them. You'll never know how much you'll regret you can't when they're gone.
Alfred Kloppman was dead, and Jack Kelly was the one to find him.
It was the first time he ever remembered waking up in his bunk without hearing the old superintendent's rousing shouts of "The presses are rollin', sell a pape, sell the papes!" That should've been his first clue.
He had no idea.
Jack never considered himself a curious creature. He left all that wondering and worrying shit to Davey. But he felt it. Something was wrong that winter morning. Call it Irish superstition or what, he sensed it. So, after slipping out of his bunk and slapping a few of the fellas awake, he washed up, shaved, tied his lucky red neckerchief tightly around his throat and started for the stairs before he thought better of it.
The superintendent's family had a small backroom on the first floor of the lodging house. Like Jack, Kloppman was alone so there was no one he was going to bother by letting himself into Kloppman's quarters.
Which was why Jack was the first to find him, lying on his cot, so very still.
So very cold.
He looked peaceful, or maybe that was wishful thinking. If Jack screwed up his face just right, squinting a little, he could even pretend that Kloppy was breathing. But the old man wasn't breathing. His hands were already like ice. The sour tinge of death hung in the air. And it hit Jack like a shooter to the back of his head.
With his heart beating wildly, Jack didn't know whether to throw up, curse up a storm or bolt.
Kloppman was dead. What the hell was he supposed to do now?
Racetrack's nasally voice was like nails striking against a slate. Jack flinched, then stiffened. He didn't turn around.
"Jack?" The Italian's voice softened, almost as if he knew. As if he, too, had sensed it. "Everythin' alright in here, Jack?"
He couldn't keep his back turned forever. He was no coward, and he knew that that the other fellas deserved to know the truth.
Jack's mouth opened and then shut with an audible click when he realized that Race hadn't come down alone. There was Race standing in the doorway, sure, but there was Blink, his arm slung around a smiling Mush's shoulders.
Jack swallowed roughly when Mush's cheerful grin started to waver. He knew. Before Jack said anything at all, Mush knew. Kid Blink, too. His arm tightened, as if he was trying to keep his best friend up on his feet.
Behind Blink, Jack saw Pie Eater and beside him, Skittery. That shook Jack. Shit. Because wherever Skittery went, there was a good chance his shadow followed—
"Hey. What's goin' on? C'mon, move over. I wanna see!"
Tumbler, who was still young enough to retain some of his innocence, peeked his head around Race's stubby legs before Skittery grabbed the kid by his arm and yanked him back.
It all happened so quick, but not quick enough.
"What's 'a matter with Mr. Kloppman? Skittery? Cowboy? We'se all up already. Is he still sleepin'?"
No one answered him. It struck Jack that they were waiting for him to.
"Yeah," he said, "simply sleepin'."
Because it's not lying if it's just improving the truth a little.
Glancing up, he met the gazes of the older boys. From the starkness and defeat, anger and horror, the disbelief staring back, he knew they understood.
His hand trembled. His stomach lurched. He felt his eyes go wide, go wild.
The boys parted like the Red Sea before him, Skittery dragging a still curious Tumbler with him.
In the end, Cowboy ran. It was something he was good at.
Jack didn't return to Duane Street for three days.
He couldn't face it. Echoes of his mother's prayers, his mother's coughs, his mother's inevitable stillness haunted him in a way he was afraid Kloppman would if he went back too soon.
So he stayed with Davey's family instead. He didn't tell them. They didn't ask. Esther fed him soup to warm his bones, and Sarah held his hand, demanding nothing. Even Dave, the Walking Mouth his self, held his tongue. Normally the quiet would've driven Jack mad. But not then. He needed it in away he couldn't possibly explain.
He still went to the distribution center every morning while the Jacobs boys went to lessons, and every evening they tagged along beside him. It surprised him to see that the world—and the World—was still spinning. News made headlines, newsies hawked their wares. The world had one less person—a good man, too, damn it—and it felt to Jack like he was the only one who gave a shit.
That wasn't true. He knew that. His pals at the lodging house, they cared. Fellas who moved on, they came back to pay their respects. With Cowboy actively avoiding Duane Street, Racetrack filled him in on people's comings and goings.
And it was Race who told him what had happened after Jack bolted.
The biddies of the Children's Aid Society took care of everything. The body was taken, the linens washed, the room aired out and a new superintendent was installed the next afternoon.
Because, God forbid, the street rats and the hooligans go more than one night unsupervised.
God forbid they get the chance show they cared at all that Kloppy was gone. That he died two floors below them while they laid in their bunks and dreamed of a happier existence.
Jack Kelly hadn't had a single dream since he found Kloppman. But he was glad for that.
No dreams meant no nightmares.
It was too soon to have to say goodbye. At least, that's how it felt to Cowboy when he finally worked up the nerve to go back home.
Eight years he'd been a Manhattan newsie. The old superintendent was grey and wrinkled the first time a poor orphan boy—because a Pa in jail was no Pa of his—stumbled his way onto Duane Street. It was Kloppy who let him stay his first night for free, and Kloppy who sent him off to the distribution center to sell newspapers for the World the next morning.
Lodging cost money. Food and drink cost money. Before he went up the river to Sing Sing, Jack's father taught him not to starve. But it was Alfred Kloppman who taught him how without ending up in the Refuge for it.
The tiniest smile curled his lip. Yeah, it didn't always work out that way, but at least Kloppy cared enough to try.
Waiting beneath the gas lamp on the back side of Duane Street, a cigarette dangling from its place between ink-stained fingers, he could admit to himself that he thought of Kloppman as more of a father than his old man had ever been.
And that's what made this so fucking hard.
Thank to Race, he knew Kloppy was already gone. But Cowboy didn't need a corpse to say goodbye.
Corpse. His smirk turned wistful. One of the words guaranteed to sell a pape.
Kloppman had taught him that word.
It didn't matter that it was colder than a witch's tit out. Or that the sun had gone down hours ago, meaning it was closer to curfew than he cared to admit. Jack went through his stash of hand-rolled smokes as if it wouldn't take him half 'a hundred just to earn enough pennies to buy more.
The flickering candles in the windows beckoned him. He knew his bunk would be waiting because none of the other fellas would dare take it from him. Three days, or three months, no matter.
Saying goodbye was harder than he thought it would be.
He tried but the words stuck in his throat. Taking a calming drag off his last cigarette, he kept the smoke in until he felt it burning his lungs. Only then did let the smoke out, exhaling it on a sigh.
Then, tilting his head back until the heavy moon was all he was, Jack gritted his teeth and said the one refrain that wouldn't leave his muddled brain—
"Ah, Kloppman. Why the hell didja hafta go?"
For a heartbeat, he waited for an answer he knew damn well he'd never get. The February chill bit through his thin vest, reminding him that another storm was brewing. It'd be a cold one tomorrow. He'd have to get up early tomorrow.
To some other man's morning shouts.
Jack shivered, took one last puff, and rubbed his tired eyes.
Another sigh escaped him, followed by a heartfelt muttered curse.
Stamping on the dying ends of his cigarette, Cowboy shoved his hands in the pockets of his threadbare trousers and shuffled inside the back entrance of the lodging house.
Life goes on, he supposed as he ignored the greetings from some of the other boys, numb fingers struggling the do the knot on his neckerchief. Even when, for those, it doesn't.