A/N: This is another of my old "Newsies" stories edited somewhat for posting. It takes place in the same universe as "Nobody Answered" and "I Never Claimed to Be a Hero," although it is not necessary to read those stories to understand it. The movie "Newsies," along with any character you recognize belongs to Disney. I am using them without permission, but I'm not making any money off of them so please don't sue me.
Where Angels Fear To Tread
"God does notice us and He watches over us. But it is usually through another person that He meets our needs."
~ Spencer W. Kimball
Lower Manhattan, 1898
There were no angels in Manhattan's Lower East Side. No celestial fire lit the dirty corners of the tenement building on the east end of Dawson Street. At least, that was Christopher's conviction. For what member of the heavenly host could bear to look on a woman's flea-infested, fever-ridden death bed and not ache to ease her suffering? What kind of God could allow her to become so broken by life that she had to leave it this way? So when his mother begged for her rosary and a priest for the Last Rites, it was all Christopher could do not to scream. When the priest told him she was dead, he kicked over the room's single chair, threw the icon of the Virgin Mary into the fire, sat down on the hall steps and cried.
No one came out to ask what the noise was about. A few thumps on the wall told him to quiet down, and Mrs. Batella almost paused when she passed him on her way up the stairs, but that was all. No one came to the funeral either. Anabella Pacino was buried at state expense with only her son in attendance. If they'd had money for a funeral, they'd have had money for a doctor.
"Would you like to say a few words?" they asked him.
The landlord met him in the door when he returned home. "I've waited until after the funeral, Chris, but I'm going to need to see the week's rent soon. I know your mother just-"
"I'll be out tamorra," he replied shortly. "An' it's Christopher." G-d, ya'd t'ink dey'd have a liddle decency- Then he remembered he didn't believe in God anymore.
The night's grace gave him the time to burn every scrap of paper left in the apartment, the bundle of love letters from his father to his mother, the newspaper articles chronicling the Pacinos' engagement, marriage, the birth of their son, and the death of father and husband. He hesitated a moment before adding the family Bible to the conflagration, but in the end, he threw it in as well.
The next morning he pawned his mother's rosary for the rent money. The landlord took all he earned, but at least he was out of debt. The week he'd spent at his mother's side had cost him his job, so he spent the rest of the day in a search for employment. Surely someone had work for a strong, willing fourteen year old boy. Or maybe not. Every factory he tried already had its quota of laborers. He tried to find work in a restaurant, but the headwaiter took one supercilious look at his dirty face and hands and turned him away. Midday found him filching rolls off a bakery counter to feed himself, and evening, cadging a drink from the tavern goers. His mother deplored both stealing and drinking as the worst of sins, but he was thirsty and God had obviously forgotten New York long ago.
An hour past sunset, he had found neither a job nor a place to sleep. He supposed the orphanage would welcome him, but he didn't intend to go there until he became truly desperate. He dropped down on a doorstep to rest –
"Hey! Hey! Ya aw right?" - And didn't realize he'd fallen asleep until he woke up to find someone standing over him. The boy leaned on a wooden crutch and sported a head of extremely curly brown hair. He smiled when he saw Christopher open his eyes and turn toward him. "Good, ya ain't hurt. Ya know, ya'll prob'ly sleep betta inside."
The steps were not the most comfortable bed; Christopher awoke stiff, tired, and not at all pleased. "Yeah, well, if I had da money dat's where I'd be," he grumbled.
"Oh, don't worry about dat. Kloppman always gives a new kid his first night free," the boy replied cheerfully. "Den tamorra one a us'll spot ya enough fer some papes, an' ya can pay yer own way afta dat."
"Spot me? Papes? Whaddaya tawkin' about?" Christopher did not think well this close to midnight.
"I'm a newsy. We sell da World, heah. Ya's blockin' da doorway a me home. Come on. Da beds ain't da best in da world, but dey's betta den da streets."
Christopher continued to peer blearily at the boy while the concept of a bed and an actual job registered. Well, I got nothin' ta lose. "Aw right." He got to his feet and preceded the boy in.
"Crutchy, you're late!" The old man behind the front desk failed miserably at looking stern.
"Sorry, Mr. Kloppman." Christopher's host handed the man two cents and scrawled something in a brown book. "I had a lot ta sell taday."
"And who's gonna buy them at eleven thirty at night?!" the man huffed. He nodded at Christopher. "You new?"
"Yeah," the crippled boy answered for him. "He was warmin' da doorstep so I invited him in." He slid the book along the desk. "Sign in heah."
Christopher signed on the first open line. The line before that read 'Crutchy Morris,' so he assumed that was his benefactor's name.
"All right! The sun ain't gonna wait! You got work tomorrow! Upstairs!" Kloppman shooed them away, then disappeared into a room off the lobby. Christopher caught a glimpse of a bed and a nightstand through the open door and realized the man must have been waiting up.
At the top of the stairs, Crutchy directed him through the door on the right into a room full of bunkbeds. He glanced over his shoulder, wondering what lay through the left door. "Heya, fellas!" Twenty-some boys were undressing for the night and climbing into bed. "Da girls leave already?"
There were a few tired greetings from the boys. "Heya, Crutchy," a tall, blond boy in a nightshirt called. "Yeah. Wheah ya been?"
"Heah an' dere. Hey, Jack, we gots any beds free? We got a new kid."
The boy scanned the room. "I dunno."
"Yeah, we do. Blackbird left, rememba, Jack?" a boy called from one of the corners. He looked about Christopher's age. "He can bunk wit me." To Christopher, he added "Take da top. I walks in me sleep."
Christopher nodded, as the others laughed. "Yeah, rememba da time he walked right into the girls' room? Queen decked him! T'ought he was awake!"
"Wasn't he dat time?" Another raised an eyebrow. The boy took the teasing in good humor.
"Yeah, yeah. C'mon, I'm beat."
Christopher stripped down to his undershirt, and turned towards the wall, listening. Within minutes he was asleep. If he hadn't stopped believing in them, he would have recognized Crutchy as his first angel.
"Wake up! Wake up! Outta bed! The papers won't sell themselves! The presses are rolling! Snoddy! Snaps! Snitch!" Get out there! Carry the banner! Racetrack!" A jab in the ribs and a stentorian voice woke Christopher far too early the next morning.
"Hey!" He rolled over, sat up and rubbed his eyes. The landlord swept through the bunkroom, brandishing a broom and shouting at the yawning boys. "Get up! Sell the papers! Sell the papers! Whaddaya dreamin' about? Come on! Come on!" Christopher followed the other boys to the washroom. A boy whose name he did not catch lent him some supplies, and he washed his face, combed his hair and shaved what little he had to shave to the sound of their yawns and good-natured complaints. Then he followed them downstairs and out the door.
"Heya!" Christopher turned at the voice from behind him. He waited uncertainly on line to get his papers. The brown haired boy smiled at him. "I'm yer bunkmate - Snoddy." He held out a hand.
"Christopher." He shook. "What kinda name is Snoddy?"
"Mine." Snoddy replied without visible offense. "It's a nickname, aw right? Ya t'ink Crutchy's parents named him dat - or Racetrack's?"
"Don't know him."
Snoddy nodded further up the line. "Short, Italian kid - da one wit da cigar. Loves da horse races, so he got da name from sellin' at da track." Christopher located the boy in question - it would be difficult not to. Besides the outstanding characteristics Snoddy had mentioned, the boy wore a set of mismatched clothes that surely constituted a sartorial crime.
"Love his sense a style," he commented.
Snoddy laughed. "Don't go sayin' dat aroun' Race! He's proud a dose clothes. Crutchy - well, dat's pretty obvious."
"So how do ya get a name like Snoddy?" Christopher grinned.
Snoddy grinned back. "Actually, it's me last name. Jack couldn't let it go once he heard it, though. An' I like it betta den Bryan, anyways."
"If you say so." He glanced forward impatiently. "Why ain't dis line movin'?"
"Weasel always takes his time." Snoddy replied. At that moment a bell began to ring stridently. Christopher winced and covered his ears at the harsh sound. He thought bells were supposed to be melodious. "Speak a da devil. Hey, Chris - do ya need money fer papes? Crutchy said ya might need somebody ta spot ya."
He stiffened and turned around. "It's Christopher!" "You bear a saint's name. Be proud of it!" Not that he had much use for saints, but his mother had loved the name.
Snoddy held up his hands in defense. "Christopher den. Sorry. Ya need any money? It's two fer a penny - ya sell dem fer twice as much."
"Uh, t'anks, yeah. I'll pay ya back-"
"I wouldn't be spottin' ya, if I din't t'ink so!" Snoddy replied. "Ya can sell wit me. I'll show ya da ropes."
It soon became clear to Christopher that the job was not going to be as easy as he'd half expected when he took Crutchy's offer. Selling newspapers took far more work than he'd ever thought - when he'd ever bothered to think about it. The newsies passed almost unnoticed in the city. They were such fixtures - like the stones in the street and the beggars on the corner.
"You-" Snoddy finally laughed near noon. "-is hopeless!"
Christopher shrugged defensively. "I ain't dat bad."
"Not sellin' all yer papes by lunch I can understand." Snoddy continued laughing, despite him. "But not sellin' any a dem?"
"So how do you manage it?" He asked Snoddy who had only half his original number of papers. His partner had a sanguine disposition. He smiled often at everyone and everything, though Christopher noticed he went silent whenever a pretty girl approached to buy a paper.
"Just a second." Snoddy paused to collect two succulent peaches off a fruit stand while the vendor's back was turned. He handed one to Christopher. "First of all," he advised, "don't go by da front page story. Dere's a lot more, prob'ly betta stories latah on, an' ya can get away wit exaggeratin' dose a liddle. By da time somebody reads dem, you'll be long gone."
The peach could not satiate the hunger of a few days, but the sweet juice was wonderful. He ate as slowly as possible, savoring the taste, before answering.
Snoddy tossed the peach pit aside. "Like da headline I'se callin' earlier."
Christopher remembered. "'Police Chief Implicated in Harlem Fire?' What about it?"
His partner nodded at the stack of papers he carried. "It's da one on page three." Puzzled, Christopher opened one of his papers and searched for the article. "Bottom left." Snoddy added.
He located it. "'In da round of his duties a Harlem police officer was kind enough ta stop an' repair a young couple's stove. Da lady was expectin', an' in light a dis an' da recent cold snap, Officer Galway's assistance was appreciated . . .'" He looked up.
"Not what ya expected?" Snoddy grinned. "Dat's one a da reasons we don't give out page numbers. If somebody asks, ya don't rememba."
They moved on after eating. With Snoddy's help, Christopher managed to sell a few newspapers in the new area. They passed a familiar dilapidated church building almost hidden between two larger neighbors.
"Dat's sad." Snoddy commented.
"Fills on Sundays," Christopher replied unthinkingly. "I don't go dere, though," he added quickly.
"You from aroun' heah?" Snoddy asked.
He shrugged. "It ain't no secret."
"Why'd ya leave?"
"Nothin' ta stay for." At a sudden thought, he glanced back at the church. "I wanna look at somet'in."
Christopher stared down at the dirt mound. It bore no headstone, and was only marked by a small wooden cross at one end of the grave. Had his mother really been that small a woman? She'd crossed over on the boat from Italy at fifteen, lived for three years in a settlement house, then at 18, calmly announced to Ferigo Pacino that she was going to marry him. Surely that five foot long grave could not contain such a personality. "Please, Christopher. Please, God!" What help had He been? Christopher wanted to tear the wooden cross out of the dirt and fling it as far as he could.
"Who is it?" Snoddy stood at his elbow.
"Me mudda." His partner asked nothing more, simply waiting until Christopher was ready to leave.
He didn't recognize his second angel any more than he had the first.
"Full house." Truth won her third straight poker game with an angelic smile.
"Ya shoa ya ain't got some kind of hidden advantage?" Swifty complained.
Truth's eyes widened in wounded innocence. "Swifty! Ya really t'ink dat I would cheat?"
"Yes!" everyone chorused. Christopher had met the girls when he and Snoddy returned to the lodging house that evening. There was Truth, genius at poker and former con artist - not to be trusted if she swore she was lying. He'd also met sisters, Pounce and Pen. Pounce had volunteered to teach him the game, while Pen scribbled away in a brown book. Clouds and Pips had brothers among the newsies. Clouds and her twin Itey were both thirteen, and Pipsqueak was five.
"Dat's it!" Blink gave up. "I ain't playin' wit you no more. If you ain't takin' me money, he is." He pointed at Racetrack who had somehow managed to scrounge up enough money to bet, even after a discouraging day at the tracks.
"It's gettin' late, anyways," Dutchy said. "Kloppman'll be up soon, an' we might as well get ta sleep."
"Evenin', ladies." The boys stood up like gentlemen as the girls left. Christopher smiled at Pounce in particular, and winked at Pips who grinned back and stuck out her tongue. When they'd gone, he turned to Snoddy. "Ya shoa yer sleepwalkin' ain't an excuse?"
Snoddy rolled his eyes. "Very funny."
"T'ink it's contagious? I might catch it, an' wander over dere later." Several boys overheard and laughed.
At that moment Kloppman entered the room. He stopped in the doorway with a hand over his heart in shock. "You boys are actually going to sleep without me dragging you into bed?" he asked wide-eyed. "Cowboy, you'd better call the doctor. I'm hallucinating!" While the landlord bantered with Jack, Christopher climbed into bed. He heard Snoddy whispering something below him, but didn't quite catch the words, and - unexpectedly tired - fell asleep before he could ask.
Snoddy closed every night with those few muttered words. After two weeks at the lodging house, Christopher finally gave in to curiosity and asked what he was doing.
"I-" He pictured his friend blushing during the pause. In those two weeks, he'd come to know his partner well. "Don't tell da guys – I was prayin'."
"Prayin'!" A picture of his mother on her deathbed flashed through his mind. "Dere's a laugh!" A bitter sound that could not resemble laughter any less, no matter what he claimed, escaped his mouth. "Prayin'. I ain't laughed like dat in a long time." He turned toward the wall with one last laugh, but didn't fall asleep until much later.
The afternoon visit to the cemetery also became a regular routine. Snoddy remained as silent and sympathetic a friend as ever, saying no words when none were needed. Christopher settled into a routine of selling papers, visiting the graveyard, playing poker, and mocking Snoddy's 'devotions' as he called them, when yet another change upset the established order.
A new boy appeared in the square one morning in May. Christopher first caught sight of him talking to Cowboy. He cut a far from imposing figure at first glance - a head shorter than Christopher, thin and wiry - not to mention the ridiculous conceit of the gold-handled cane he wore at his side.
"Jack, who's da new guy?" he called. Both boys turned to look at him.
"Oh, Christopher, dis is-"
The boy waved silent any introduction and gave Christopher a measuring look. "Yeah." He nodded. "Yeah, Jack, he'll do." He spat in his hand and held it out. "Chris."
"It's Christopher," he replied, annoyed both by the familiar address and by the boy's superior manner. "An' who're you ta say I'll do?"
He vaguely noticed everyone step back. "Christopher-" Snoddy whispered warningly.
The boy straightened in surprise, and narrowed his eyes. "Ya know who ya's tawkin' to?" His voice held a touch of menace and a touch of disbelief.
"A little kid wit a big head." Christopher replied with amused condescension.
"Been nice knowin' ya, kid," he thought he heard someone whisper. He didn't have a chance to see who because by then he was too busy defending himself. The second punch bloodied his nose before he could react to the first which had split his lip. Once he had rallied enough to fight back, he found the battle no easier. His opponent never seemed to stay still. While Christopher's fist passed through the air where he should have been, the boy hit him from the other side. He was sprawled on his face with an arm twisted behind him within seconds.
A knee on his back pinned him to the ground, and the boy leaned over him. "Ya tired a eatin' doit?"
Christopher nodded slightly. "Uncle." The weight left his back, and he rolled over to spit the dust out of his mouth. The boy stood over him, smirking. He held out a hand, but Christopher got to his feet on his own, regarding him with new respect. He brushed the sweaty hair out of his eyes and wiped his nose on his bandanna. "D-n!" He smiled. "Wheah'd you loin ta fight like dat?!"
In reply, he got another smirk. "We ain't finished da introductions, yet. Youse Chris." The boy spat in his hand and offered it in a gesture of peace. "Spot Conlon."
Christopher could hardly have failed to know the name. Boys spoke it with respect, fear, and just a little superstition all over New York. He smiled wider in reply and shook. "Den I don't feel so bad about gettin' soaked - an' it's still Christopher."
"Whaddaya got against a nickname, anyways?" Snoddy asked curiously. "EXTRY! EXTRY! PRICELESS JEWEL STOLEN! REWARD FER RETURN!"
Christopher was surprised. "Nothin'! Oh, ya mean - I jist don't like bein' called Chris dat's all."
"Well, anyways, ya's passed da test." Snoddy grinned.
He called out a headline. "What test would dat be?"
"Spot." Snoddy replied. "Ya gots guts, speakin' up like dat, even afta he soaked ya. 'Sides, most people don't come outta a fight wit Spot wit less den two black eyes! Goin' a liddle far jist ta impress Pounce, though, don't'cha t'ink?" he added slyly.
"Why would I be tryin' ta impress 'er?" Christopher returned. He smiled, though. Pounce was becoming a friend, and he had no objections to that friendship becoming something more.
"How's yer lady, Bowler? Youse two enjoy yer evenin'?" Christopher's tone said far more.
"Ya wanna say dat where I can soak ya for it?" The older boy, just back from a visit to his fiancee, only half-joked back.
Christopher smiled at the ceiling. "No, t'anks. I'll pass."
Race made a note on his scratch-sheet, dropped it on the night stand and rolled into bed. "You some kinda mudpie eater or somet'in? Cuz I swear, I ain't nevah met nobody wit a dirtier mouth."
"Livin' wit you jist rubbed off, Race." He leaned over the side of his bunk to look down at Snoddy. "Finished yer devotions?"
"Ya's a real jerk, ya know dat?" Snoddy replied sharply.
Surprised at the outburst, Christopher lay back on his elbows. He covered his confusion with a joke. "So den why do ya put up wit me?"
Snoddy sighed, but Christopher could hear the exasperated smile in his voice. "I just got da worst taste in best friends."
Christopher mystified his best friend. He joked, teased the girls, flirted with Pounce and played poker like the world was about to end. But on those visits to the graveyard, he came far closer to crying that he would ever admit. And Snoddy was sure his bitter mockery of anything related to religion must have some cause.
"Pie Eater! Spot me two bits? Sweet Alicia's runnin' taday. Can't lose."
"Like da las' t'ree hosses ya lost me money on?" Christopher asked with a smile.
Race waved his cigar disparagingly. "Dat was dif'rent. Sweet ain't lost a race yet."
Christopher raised his eyebrows; Race's favorite picks tended to be longshots. Besides, he'd heard no mention of Sweet Alicia in the racing pages of the paper. "So why don't nobody know about her?"
"Chicago hoss. Dat winnin' streak back in '94-" Racetrack closed his eyes and shook his head in an expression of pure bliss.
"Ninety-four! Ya wanna bet me money on a five year old unknown?"
"Eight years." The gambler corrected. "An' she ain't unknown out west. If ya had any culture, ya'd a hoid about 'er." His eyes twinkled. "C'mon, Christopher."
"When've you ever been out west?" He made a last feeble protest, but caved in at last. When Race persisted, he tended to get his way. As he was heading away, a thought struck him, and he turned to call after the gambler. "What was dat ya called me?"
"Pie Eater," Snoddy began.
"What's wit everybody callin' me dat all da sudden?" Christopher interrupted. "You, Race, Bowler, everybody?"
"Just seemed ta fit." Snoddy shrugged. "Anyways, um, I was wonderin', I go ta church sometimes - ya ever wanna come?"
At the unexpected question, Christopher's normally genial expression faded and his eyes hardened. "No t'anks," he said shortly. He spoke as little as possible, and then only when Snoddy asked him something.
Snoddy's invitation remained on Christopher's mind all day, and into the night. He lay in his bed wondering what had prompted it. He must have made his feelings on a God who could allow the city he walked through every day to exist quite clear. His mother hadn't been the only one to waste her life in thankless devotion to an uncaring deity.
"Exactly who do ya t'ink hears ya anyway?" he asked aloud angrily.
"What?" Snoddy's sleep-fogged voice drifted up to him.
"When ya's prayin' ta God ta send an angel or somet'in-" The sneer was meant less for Snoddy than for the object of his prayers. "-Just who do ya t'ink hears ya? Who do ya t'ink really gives a d-n, 'bout us down here?"
After a long silence, Snoddy whispered. "Me mudda."
"Yer mudda!" Christopher scoffed. "Yer mudda!" His sardonic laughter woke several others and drew a thrown shoe from some disgruntled boy. It wasn't the grumpy demands that he shut up and go to sleep that quieted him, however. "Yer mudda," he repeated to no one but himself and the dark.
"Mornin', Pie Eater." Christopher glanced at Racetrack and returned to tying his bandanna. Race blissfully ignored the snub. "Ya read da racin' pages?"
"Exactly how much money do you owe me right now, Race?" he interrupted. "I ain't in da mood taday." He snatched up his hat, slammed it onto his head and stalked out of the lodging house.
Race raised his eyebrows. "What's eatin' him?" he asked Snoddy.
Snoddy shook his head. "No idea," he lied. He pulled on his hat and followed his friend. His invitation of the previous morning seemed to have succeeded a little too well.
"Hey, Pie, wait up!" Christopher turned with a pained expression as Snoddy pelted up to him. "Ya eat yet?" he asked.
Since they were only just reaching the church where the nuns handed out rolls and coffee to the newsies, Christopher ignored the question. He had no more wish to talk to Snoddy at the moment, than he had to talk to Racetrack, anyway.
He glanced aside at Mush, who accepted a roll with the puppy-eyed expression he always wore. Christopher had gone through this ritual every day for the past three months, but he felt like he was seeing everything for the first time. He saw the church beyond the three women, proud, beautiful and indifferent, the boys and girls, usually so loud and boisterous, subdued in the presence of respectability, the nuns with their wagon of coffee and bread to feed the poor, depraved children. Suddenly, he no long had an appetite. Where had they been when his mother shivered to death, screaming for relief? Help da liddle lost souls, he thought scathingly, da poor depraved, sinners, livin' on da streets. Nevah mind how dey got ta be livin' dere. Nevah mind dat if dey'd been dere earlier, dere wouldn't be nobody ta save. Abruptly, he turned away.
He sensed, rather than saw Snoddy following him to the distribution center, and was irrationally angry at him as well. Yer mudda!
He turned and snapped. "I'm sellin' alone taday." Barely even waiting for a reply, he shoved his way through the crowd to the gates. When they opened, he was first up the ramp to get his papers. "Thirty!" Slamming down the coins was a relief of sorts.
Weasel grinned at his glowering face. "Wake up on the wrong side of the bed, this morning, Pie Eater?" So he'd adopted the nickname, as well. Christopher ignored him, looking pointedly over his shoulder at Morris. "What's the matter? Cat got your tongue?" Yer mudda! He snatched the papers out of Morris' hands and stalked down the steps and out of the gates without waiting for anyone else.
He held his breath for several minutes until he was certain Snoddy wasn't following. Once he was certain, however, he felt slightly hurt. He tried to shrug off the feeling, but he was unready to relegate his best friend to the same category as the nuns. He swore aloud which was no relief and only attracted hostile attention from passers-by. Then he dropped down on the curb to watch the passing carriages, but he was too restless to stay there long and stood up once again, waving a newspaper feebly. He knew where he was heading and intended to fight it every step of the way.
Christopher was just moving on, when a woman, hair pulled up in a fashion that shouted 'money,' stopped in front of him. "Boy, can you direct me to St. Catherine's Cathedral?" A wire somewhere in Christopher's chest vibrated warningly and then snapped with an audible twang. After a moment's stifled silence, he pointed the way, babbling something without knowing what. It must have been the proper response because the woman nodded, paid him a penny for his pains and another for the paper she bought almost as an afterthought and walked away. His third angel barely brushed his life, but this time he was alert enough that it scared him speechless.
When the woman had gone, there was nothing left to fight. Christopher stuffed one hand in his pocket, took a tight hold on his papers with the other and started walking.
"Who heahs ya? Who really gives a d-n?"
Of course, she'd care about her son. But she ain't dere ta care! She's dead, horribly, painfully, pathetically dead, an' nobody cared den! He reached the peeling church building. It seemed even more run-down than ever. The walls sagged together and the roof was speckled with bare patches where shingles had fallen off, as if the building knew as well as Christopher that its inhabitant had turned His attention elsewhere and had given up pretending otherwise.
"Dere ain't nobody here." The door collapsed open at his light touch. He walked in, squinting. "Nobody," he confirmed. Still, he couldn't walk down that uncarpeted isle. 'This Do In Remembrance of Me.' The thought of approaching that altar, however indifferent the one it represented, directly made him queasy. He edged around to the deteriorating staircase and climbed to the balcony.
The balcony of the church had not been used in years. A layer of dust coated the few old pews. Many of the boards were anchored only at one end, and they creaked in surprise unused to footsteps in so long. He breathed easier there, free to look down upon the altar, to question, demand, even abuse.
"Whaddaya want wit us anyway?" His shout seemed a whimper. Even in the empty church no echoes answered him. "Ya ain't lissenin'!" he added illogically. "Some liddle specks a dust ya set up ta run around when ya's bored an' den fergot about! What do you care? Remember you?!" His shoulders slumped, and he sank down on one of the broken pews. "Was it worth it?" He turned his gaze away from the altar and directed it past the wall to where the cemetery lay. "Was it really worth thoity-t'ree years, livin', prayin', believin' ta die like dat?" He switched back. "Why'd ya hafta let 'er? Wha'd ya leave us here for if ya don't care?"
He sighed. What am I even doin' here?
At nine o'clock that evening, Christopher was still asking himself that question. He swore silently down at the altar and paced along the balcony. He couldn't seem to stop his feet - first one direction, then the other. "Whaddaya want? Dis h-llhole of a city." He sobbed soundlessly - Yer mudda! - and swore again, kicking at the floor desperately. It was the only scapegoat available. "Dis - why-?" He paced back. What am I doin' here? Yer mudda! Another silent sob, like the gasping of a drowning man, escaped him. He strode faster. The sobs twisted his face, but his eyes remained dry. "Why?" His foot crashed through a rotten board, followed by the rest of him.
He grabbed frantically at everything within reach, and managed to catch hold of the leg of a pew. "Help! Please! Mama!" When he attempted to pull himself up, however, he slid further. He abandoned the attempt instantly, paralyzed with fear. "Help! Mama! Please! Don't- God, help me! Please!" He didn't hear his own babbling. "Mama - please - I'se sorry - help me-" Only his head and arms were above the hole. The rest of his body dangled at least ten feet off the ground. He might only break a leg falling; he might break his neck. The church only looked small in comparison with its neighbors. He slid again and clung tighter to the leg of the pew. The splintered ends of the boards jabbed him in the sides. "Please, help me! Mama, please! Help me! I'm sorry!" He didn't know what for. "Help me! Help!" No one answered such calls on Dawson Street. People minded their own business as a matter of policy. "Help! Please - God - help me! Mama!"
"Christopher?" He twisted to see who was calling him, but stopped immediately when the movement produced another slid downward. "Christopher?"
"Pie Eater, ya in here?" That was Jack's voice, and the first was Snoddy's.
"Up here," he gasped in relief.
"Up where?" Snoddy must be right underneath him.
"Da balcony. I'm stuck."
He heard them blundering around below, then a pounding on the stairs. It was too dark to make out much more than the general shapes of things, but he could tell that it was Jack who burst out onto the balcony first and Snoddy who followed close behind. Apparently, those two had come alone. He didn't ask how they'd known where to find him. "Careful - da floor."
They followed the sound of his voice. Jack nearly kicked him in the face before stepping back, then hit him, trying to discern exactly where he was. "What happened?"
"Da floor gave. Jist get me out, aw right?"
"Course." Jack seemed to be fumbling with his belt.
Moving around to his other side, Snoddy tripped over his arms. Christopher panicked as he lost his hold. "Help-" After a frantic fumbling, Snoddy grabbed him by the arms. He stopped falling for the moment. "God - t'anks," he gasped, his voice betraying his fear.
"Don't worry. Ya's gonna be fine."
Something thick and rough landed on his shoulders, brushing his cheek, and he yelped. "What was dat?"
"Don't worry," Jack said. "Can ya let go for a minute?"
What? "Ya crazy?!"
"Just one arm at a time, so I can slip da rope under yer arms."
"Can't ya just pull me out?"
"Dere ain't nothin' ta pull against. Ya's too far in dere."
Snoddy released his right arm and almost immediately grabbed it again. Even that short interval frightened Christopher. He wanted nothing but to be standing on his own two feet again. No, not standing, lying - in the lodging house in his own bed, thinking about Pounce and how much money he'd lost to Race, and not the floor a dozen feet below his shoes. "Ya's almost out," Snoddy encouraged, threading his other arm through the rope. He felt the loop draw tight around his armpits.
"Ready?" Snoddy let go, and Christopher grabbed the taught end of the rope for dear life. At the first tug on the rope, he was afraid it would slip off him. The second moved him slightly upward. He held his breath. The third pull was more effective. His chest was most of the way out of the hole then, next his waist. He wiggled his legs to help shift himself, and a final pull dragged him out and across the balcony floor. He lay still for a moment, unable to think about anything, but his relief at being safe. His friends helped him to his feet and out of the rope. Then, without a word of explanation - he would have been hard pressed to find one for himself - he sat down on the nearest pew and began sobbing.
His eyes just overflowed. He hadn't cried since the night of his mother's death. Why-? An arm wrapped around his shoulders, and a figure settled down next to him. He wouldn't have seen much between the darkness and the tears if he had looked up, but he kept his face in his hands. A second arm, from the opposite side, joined the first. It seemed like an hour that he sat there. It was probably no more than fifteen minutes. He'd stopped shaking when Jack suggested they return home.
"Da boys are gonna love dis one," Cowboy added, slapping him on the back as they walked down Dawson Street. Christopher stiffened. "A newsy gettin' lost in New York City!"
It took him a moment to make sense of that. "T'anks," he said quietly. T'anks, Mama. T'anks, God.