Jack glanced at his watch for the twentieth time. Forty-five minutes. I can get through forty-five minutes. That's just fifteen minutes, three times. I can do this.
"...and an order of mashed potatoes on the side," the customer finished.
Jack snapped back to the present. "Uh, sorry, could ya repeat that?" he said sheepishly.
The man looked annoyed. "Again?"
"Sorry 'bout that," Jack said, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. "I'll get it this time, I promise."
Get it togetha', Kelly. Race ain't talkin' ta ya, so what? Quit worryin' about it and do your job.
"What's with you today, Kelly?" Jacobi asked as Jack brought the order back to the kitchen.
Jack kicked at the ground. "Problems with the boys," he admitted.
"Ah." The man nodded in understanding. "Well, try not ta let it affect your work, alright?"
"Yeah, I know," Jack said, scratching the back of his neck absently. "Mr. Jacobi, you'se got kids, right? Can I ask your advice on somethin'?"
"Sure," the man said. "As long as you ask it in the next..." He leaned back from the grill, checking the clock on the wall. "...thirty seconds, before table four's order is ready."
"So yesta'day I took Race's car keys-" Jack was cut off by his phone ringing. He froze when he saw the caller ID. Race. His boys knew better than to call him at work... unless it was an emergency. "Sorry boss, gotta take this," he said, his heart already beating out of his chest. He flipped open his phone. "Race? What's goin' on?"
"Jack?" a small voice said.
"Romeo?" the seventeen-year-old said, slightly confused. "Is everythin' okay? Where's Race?" The younger boy let out sob, and Jack felt his blood run cold. "Rome, what's goin' on?" he said, forcing himself to remain calm. "Are ya okay? Talk ta me, kid."
"Race crashed the car," Romeo choked out. "Jack, I'm scared! Race yelled, he said ta get outta the car quick-"
"Are ya okay?" Jack interrupted, dreading the answer.
"I... I think so," Romeo said hesitantly.
"Where's Race, is he hurt?" Jack asked next, starting to pace back and forth.
"I don't know," Romeo sniffled. "He's helpin' Crutchie."
Crutchie. No, no, no, he's got Crutchie. As soon as I know Race ain't hurt, I'se gonna strangle him. "I'm on my way," he told his brother, trying to sound reassuring. "Where are ya?"
"The roller coaster hills," Romeo answered. "Jack-" The line went dead.
Jack cursed under his breath. "I gotta go," he called to his boss, throwing his apron at a peg on the wall. He didn't wait to see where it landed. "Family emergency!"
Jack drummed his fingers against the steering wheel anxiously, glancing at the time. What's takin' so long? Just my luck I get stuck at the longest red light in 'Hattan... The light turned to green, and he sped off without a second thought. Romeo's panicked voice kept playing over in his head. What would it take ta make that kid scared like that? Did somethin' happen ta Race? No, he said Race was helpin' Crutchie... Wait, what happened ta Crutchie? Romeo said he ain't hurt, he didn't say nothin' 'bout the otha' two. The car crashed, anythin' coulda happened. They could be dead. Please, God, don't let them be dead.
Glancing at the speedometer, Jack pressed harder on the gas. Three minutes. It's been three minutes. So much can happen in three minutes. Images flashed through his head, one after the other. One or more of his brothers hurt, their bodies mangled in some horrible accident. Hospital bills he couldn't pay. The thought of losing one of them... How am I gonna tell the otha's? That one a' their brothers is dead? Jack shook his head, a sharp pain building in his chest as his breathing sped up. He couldn't get enough air. The car swerved dangerously as he choked back a sob, and then logic took over. Pulling over to the side of the road, Jack rested his forehead against the steering wheel. Breathe, Kelly. You got this. Nothin's happened yet. Get outta your head an' quit thinkin' the worst. Your boys need ya, and they'se gonna need ya ta be calm in case one of 'em's hurt. You got this.
Taking a deep breath, he started the car. He pushed it as fast as he dared, knowing at the back of his mind that he had just lectured Race for doing the same thing. Race could be hurt. Race was in an accident, and our last conversation was a fight. It can't end like this. He's gotta be okay, he's just gotta! Crutchie, he's already been through so much. I'se listened ta that kid cry ta me 'cause he can't run an' play with the otha' boys, if somethin' happens ta him on top a' that bad leg I ain't neva' gonna forgive myself. Can't he just have a shot at a normal life? And Romeo... the kid's only twelve! He can't be hurt. There's so much he's still got ahead a' him. Kid ain't even in high school yet! All of 'em, they're just too... too young.
Jack forced himself to use caution as he rounded the next corner. Every fiber in his being screamed at him to go faster, but the last thing he wanted was to wind up in the ditch. Why'd Race hafta go an' choose this road? How am I gonna search 'round every curve for five miles? Hang in there, boys. Please, just hang in there...
Some kind of luck must have been on side, because just around the next bend he saw them. The were huddled together at the edge of the road, the two younger boys crowded in close to Race. None of them looked badly injured. Jack breathed a sigh of relief, feeling his fear start to ebb away. As he unbuckled his seat belt and threw open the door, he made brief eye contact with Race. The younger boy's eyes widened, and he looked away hurriedly. Jack immediately felt a surge of annoyance, but he pushed it back. C'mon, Kelly. Your boys need ya.
He bridged the gap between them in two seconds. As soon as he was in arm's reach of his brothers, Crutchie clung to him, burying his face in Jack's shirt. "Are ya okay?" Jack asked anxiously. His arms went around the gimp boy automatically as he turned toward Romeo. "Romeo, are ya okay?" The little boy nodded shakily. Satisfied with the answer, Jack pried himself out of Crutchie's grip. "Ya okay, Crutch?"
The blonde boy nodded, his face still pale. "I'm fine, Jack," he said.
Jack let out a breath he hadn't realized he'd been holding, hugging all three of his brothers tight. For a few moments, all he felt was a deep sense of peace. His brothers were okay. They were safe. But a nagging feeling at the back of his mind reminded him that this wasn't over yet.
"Racetrack, what the hell were you thinkin'?"
Race blanched. "Jack, I-"
Jack shook his head. "What'd I say, Race? I said not ta touch that wheel if I wasn't there!" One thing, Race, I told ya one thing! Why do ya hafta do this every- single- time?! "This is the worst thing ya coulda done, Race, and ya went ahead and did it!"
"Jack, I'm sorry!" Race squeaked.
"Sorry don't cut it anymore, Race!" Jack said, his voice shaking with frustration. "Crutchie and Romeo coulda died today! Didja even think of that, or were ya too busy showin' off?" Always. You'se always showin' off, and I'se the one stuck cleanin' up your mess! Ya went too far this time, Race. This time I could've lost you all. Jack took another deep breath, closing his eyes against the tears that threatened to fall. He wouldn't cry. Not in front of his boys. Someone had to be strong, someone had to be the leader, and that someone had to be him. That was just the way things were.
"Get in the car," he instructed. "All of ya, get in the car." Crutchie succeeded in prying Romeo off of his older brother, and the two of them headed obediently to Jack's pickup. Race stayed where he was, so Jack walked away, pretending to examine the car as he tried to get a hold of himself. With shaking hands, he slid his cell phone out of his pocket and dialed a number he knew by heart.
Spot answered on the first ring. "Hey there, Jackie-boy," he said, sounding out of breath. "Ya miss me or somethin'? What's with -hey! Get down! What'd I just tell ya?- what's with the phone call?"
"Hey, Spot," Jack said, smothering a grin in spite of himself. The Brooklyn lodging house was chaos most of the time, and a phone call with Spot was always entertaining. "I need a favor."
"You'se askin' me for help?" the Brooklyn boy said, amusement evident in his voice. "What's the occasion?" There was a loud crash in the background, but Spot ignored it. "Betta' make it fast, Jackie. I'se got about five minutes 'fore someone breaks a bone or loses an eye."
"Race wrecked his car," Jack said, getting straight to the point. "Could ya tow this mess back ta the lodgin' house?"
"The car me an' him slaved over?" Spot swore under his breath. "Why can't you do it? You'se gotta truck."
Jack glanced up at his boys. "I need some time," he said. "An' some space."
"Yeah, I get it," Spot said. "I'll be there in half an hour- kid, whaddaya want? Look, that ain't my problem. Soak 'im and take it back. Maybe more like an hour," he added to Jack.
"Sounds great," Jack said truthfully. Honestly, that was the best news he'd had all day. "I don't know what ta tell ya as far as where we are. It's the freakin' middle a' nowhere-"
"I'll swing by your place," Spot said. "Race can show me where it's at. Try not ta kill the kid, Jackie."
Jack grinned wearily. "I'll try."
"Good," Spot said, apparently satisfied with the weak promise. "Look, I'se gotta go. Tricks is about ta set fire ta somethin', I think it might be one a' his brothers."
"Uh... good luck, I guess?" Jack said. Most conversations with Spot left him confused. As he hung up and started back to his truck, he noticed Race still standing by the roadside. So it's one a' those days, he realized. Any little thing I say, he's gonna do the opposite. Just what I need. "Spot's comin' ta tow the car," he informed his brother curtly. He motioned toward the truck. "Get in. I'se gotta help Crutchie."
He gave Crutchie the boost he needed to hop into the car, storing his metal crutch down by his and Romeo's feet. Checking that the younger two were safe, he slid into the driver's seat and waited for Race. The Italian shuffled his feet, taking his own sweet time getting into the vehicle, and Jack tapped his fingers against the steering wheel in annoyance. 'Kay. Race in his his seat and buckled in, Crutchie's safe, the crutch is taken care of, Romeo's all good. Everyone's good. Everyone's safe. Let's go.
Just as he turned the key in the ignition, a police car whipped around the corner, lights flashing furiously. Please don't stop, please don't stop- The car parked next to what was left of Race's car and Jack groaned, banging his head against the headrest. Can this get any worse?
"It ain't my fault!" Romeo said suddenly. "Race said ta call for help!"
"I didn't say ta call the bulls!" Race retorted, glaring at the younger boy.
"Ya didn't say anythin'!" Romeo protested, his voice rising in pitch. "Ya just-"
"Quiet!" Jack thundered. "Shut up, all of ya. I'll be right back. None of ya move, ya hear me?"
Race muttered a response, and Romeo folded his arms over his chest, pouting and kicking the back of the seat. He stilled at a glare from Jack and and toyed with the edge of his shirt instead, avoiding eye contact. Jack sighed, readying himself to go talk to the police officers. "Sorry," he mouthed, making eye contact with Crutchie in the rearview mirror. The crippled boy shrugged wordlessly, making Jack feel even worse. Time ta face the music, he thought bitterly, getting out of the car.
That ten-foot walk was the longest Jack had ever faced, he was sure of it. A million thoughts ran through his head on the way. If these bulls know what Race's been doin' he'll go straight ta the Refuge for good. I can't let that happen. I can spin a sob story, lie my way out, take his place, beg if I hafta. I'se just gotta keep these bastards from gettin' their hands on him. The police car was parked on the side of the road, both front windows rolled down. He had never seen the driver before, but he recognized the man in the passenger seat. Officer Bixby had showed up at the front door of the lodging house some half a dozen times, always with at least one of the boys who had been caught doing something they shouldn't. He was a good guy, always making sure he got both sides of the story, stopping to say hello to Kloppman, wishing Jack good luck with the troublemakers. Yeah, but he's still a bull, Jack thought warily. And this is a lot worse than one a' my boys stayin' out too late or skippin' school. I can't expect him ta go easy on us this time. He stuffed his hands in his pockets to hide their shaking. I know what I'se gotta do.
"Jack Kelly," Bixby greeted. "Fancy seeing you here."
Jack hitched one shoulder up in a kind of half-shrug. "Hey, Officer Bixby."
The man in the driver's seat raised an eyebrow. "You know this kid, Bixby?"
"Oh, Jack and his brothers are old friends of mine," Bixby said lightly. "How many ya got now, twenty?"
"Sixteen," Jack said, shifting uncomfortably under the other officer's gaze.
Bixby nodded to the wreck in the ditch. "One of them do that?"
"Nah." Jack rubbed the back of his neck, managing a rueful smile. "This one's on me."
The man didn't bother to hide his surprise. "You? I wouldn't know you to be so careless, Jack."
Jack dropped his gaze to his feet, kicking absently at the ground. "I took my eyes off the road for just a second, I swear, ta talk to Romeo in the back. He was kickin' my seat- y'know how kids are."
"Kids?" the other officer snorted. "You're a kid yourself."
Jack merely shrugged, biting back the retort he wanted to throw at the man. Who's he callin' a kid?
Bixby took off his sunglasses and tossed them on the dashboard, reaching for the door handle. "Let's talk, Jack," he said, coming around the front of the car. Jack felt heat rise up in his face, and he crossed his arms over his torso, intent on studying his shoes. "Why were you driving Race's car?"
"He just got his permit, y'know," Jack said. "We was practicin' on this road for a bit, and when we decided ta head home I switched with him. He ain't that great at parkin' yet, and I didn't want him messin' up our driveway or plowin' through the house or nothin' like that. I had Race chatterin' away on one side a' me, and Romeo kickin' my seat in back, an' I slipped up."
"Uh huh," Bixby said, raising his eyebrows. "And how did your truck get here?"
"That's kinda a long story," Jack said, stalling for time.
The man in the driver's seat snorted, and Bixby shot him a glare. "Shut up, Bolger. Try me," he added to Jack.
"Well, ya see..." Jack said. "I landed Race's car in the ditch, right? Me and Race are helpin' Crutchie out, and I hand Romeo my phone and tell him to call help. I mean for him ta call Kloppman. I had no idea he called the bulls, not 'til you'se showed up. No offense," he added hastily. "We get back ta the lodgin' house, and I get my truck ta come tow Race's car home. The younga' ones were kinda shaken up, wouldn't let go a' me, so I brought 'em with. We'se had just pulled up when you guys joined us."
Bixby turned back to the car. "What do you think?" he asked his partner.
Bolger shook his head. "Kloppman, Crutchie, lodging house..." he said. "I don't know half of what this kid's saying."
Bixby rolled his eyes. "Kloppman is the boys' foster father," he said. "The lodging house is what they call their group home. And most of the boys there have nicknames they go by. But what do you think?"
"I dunno," Bolger said, scratching his chin. "I see the possibility of a ticket here, for reckless driving. And the fact that he's in foster care changes the whole situation. We really should bring Warden Snyder into this, as much as I hate the guy."
Jack felt his heart stop and the blood rush out of his face. C'mon Kelly, ya always knew that was a possibility, he reminded himself. Swallowing hard, he fought to control his expression. From the way Bixby was watching him, he didn't think he was fooling anyone.
Bixby turned his head, purposely directing the attention away from Jack. "Yeah, that guy's a bastard," he said, agreeing with his partner. "That's usually for second-time offenses though, right?"
Bolger shrugged. "For any foster kid who breaks the law, technically."
"That's cruel," Bixby complained. "If an adult got into a wreck like this they wouldn't go to jail. And anything relating to Snyder is a hell of a lot of paperwork."
"True," Bolger said, turning the information over in his head. "How 'bout this? We write the kid a ticket for reckless driving-"
"But then he'll have a record!" Bixby interrupted.
"If he didn't want a record then he shouldn't have done it!" Bolger snapped. "We write him a ticket and have him take a couple traffic courses."
Jack held his breath. He hated this -having them talk about him like he wasn't standing right there- but he was too relieved with the direction the conversation was going to say anything. 'Sides, ain't this like any otha' day? Grown-ups pretendin' they know ya, standin' around decidin' your future like ya ain't pullin' the same workload as them.
"Alright," Bixby consented. "I'll swing by your place later, Jack, and help you fill out an accident report and sign up for the class. Off the clock, keep your shirt on," he added to his partner.
Bolger grumbled under his breath as he filled out the ticket. "You're too lenient on these kids," he muttered. "One more kid in the Refuge means one less brat in the system making our lives harder."
Jack tensed, and it took all his willpower to keep his mouth shut. "Thank ya, sir," he said, folding the ticket and slipping it in his pocket. He started back to his truck, when Bixby's voice stopped him.
"I trust you, Jack," the man said. "I know something like this won't happen again." He gestured to Jack's truck, and the three restless boys inside. "You're a good brother to these kids. Go on and take them home."
Jack nodded, his gaze flickering up to meet the other man's eyes. "Thank ya," he said again, hunching his shoulders as he walked back to the car. He tried to ignore the sick feeling in his stomach as he glanced at the ticket, mentally counting how many extra hours he'd have to work to pay it. And traffic school. How am I supposta find time for that, in between the extra hours I'se gotta work and all the homework I'se gotta catch up on? Maybe I can take it at night... He shook his head, wishing he could shake off the bad feeling as well. Come on, Kelly. It was worth it for Race. He glanced up, frowning when he saw Race lounging in the front seat, his feet propped up on the dashboard and his hat over his eyes. Oh, yeah, he thought bitterly. It was all worth it.
"Get your feet off the dash," he said brusquely, getting in and starting the car. The younger boy stared at him, his big blue eyes unreadable. Jack snatched the cap off his head and tossed it into his lap. "I ain't in the mood for this, Race. Buckle up. We don't want two accidents today." He didn't miss Race's scowl as he did so, but he chose to ignore it. The kid's in enough trouble already. If he wants ta throw a fit, I ain't gonna stop him.
"Jack," Crutchie said hesitantly, glancing back and forth between his brothers.
Jack shook his head, starting on the road towards home. "Like I said Crutchie. I ain't in the mood." Crutchie backed off at that, and they rode the rest of the way in silence. When they got to the lodging house, Jack paused to help Crutchie out of the car. "Can ya take the little guy upstairs?" he asked quietly. Crutchie nodded, shooting a glance toward Race in the front seat. "He'll be okay," Jack said, sensing his younger brother's doubt. He didn't get angry often, and he knew it was putting the gimp boy on edge. "I'se'd neva' hurt one a' you boys, ya know that, right?"
Crutchie grabbed onto Jack's arm, using his older brother to steady him as he positioned his crutch. "I know, Jack," he said. "I trust ya- with my life and any a' theirs." He nodded to where Romeo was plastered against Race's side, his little arms around his brother's waist in a tight hug. "C'mon, Romeo," he said louder, holding out his hand.
It took some doing -and a little intervention from Jack- to get the kid upstairs, but finally Jack was alone with his brother. "Jack, I can explain," Race said quickly once they were inside.
"You'd better explain!" Jack snapped. He had been angry before, but the run-in with the cops had sapped the strength out of him and left him touchy and irritable. He was terrified -of losing Race for good, of being taken to the Refuge himself- and he hated that his boys had seen him like that. A leada' ain't supposta let anyone know he's scared. A leada' ain't supposta be scared! Spot was right, bein' in charge is exhaustin' as hell. "Race, what were ya thinkin'?" he asked, an edge of frustration creeping into his voice. "Why did ya think this was a good idea?"
"I don't know," Race muttered, not making eye contact.
Jack threw his hands up. "Ya don't know. Ya don't know." He fished in his pocket for Race's keys, waving them to make a point. "I'll tell ya what I know, ya ain't gettin' these back any time soon!"
Race shook his head, still not meting Jack's gaze. "Jack, I..."
"No, Race!" Jack said, stronger than he meant to. "It's my turn ta talk now, and it's your turn to listen." His mind gave him no reprieve, reminding him instead of all the times he'd almost lost Race due to some stupid scheme. A half-baked plan to sneak into a bar or get the girl's attention or get a free lunch. Something that would undoubtedly land Race in the Refuge and lost to Jack forever. That stops now. He may not a' listened ta me before, but God help me he'll listen now. "For once in your life, Race, just listen ta what I hafta say!"
"I listen!" Race protested, and Jack shook his head. Does this kid hear himself?
"No, ya don't listen." he corrected. "If you'se'd listened ta me yesta'day we wouldn't be in this mess now!" Why, Race? Why do ya gotta push everythin' I say? I'se tryin' ta help, ya ain't ya figured that out by now? "I'm startin' ta think ya actually like causin' trouble."
"Just stop, Jack!" Race ordered. "Ya ain't my pa. Ya ain't in charge a' me! We ain't even real brothers!" Jack recoiled, fighting hard to make sure Race didn't see how much that hurt. "Ya don't get ta tell me what ta do, an' take my car, an' make me do whateva' ya want!" the Italian went on, growing more and more agitated with every word.
"Racetrack!" Jack said, his voice rising. Not real brotha's. He ain't serious. He can't be. "Who the hell took care a' ya all these years? Who convinced ya ta run away, leave your deadbeat dad behind?" His voice shook with anger and emotion, and he fought to keep it steady. "Who let ya in when you was knockin' on my winda at three in the mornin'? Who is it that does nothin' but protect ya, day an' night, from all the trouble your stupid self gets into-"
Race shoved him hard, startling Jack out of his rant. "I ain't stupid!"
His voice cracked, but Jack ignored it. He grabbed his brother's wrists, fully intending on pinning the kid to the wall until he stopped fighting. They'd done this a thousand times, both familiar enough with each other that no one ever got hurt. So when Race let out a cry of pain and wrenched himself away out of his brother's grasp, stumbling backwards and landing on the floor, Jack knew something was wrong. "Racer?" he asked, his face white and scared.
"I take it back!" Race yelped, sliding backwards out of Jack's reach. He shook his head, tears running down his pale face. "I shouldn't a' said ya ain't my brother! Let me up, I'm sorry!"
"Race, I ain't touchin' ya!" he protested. The boys upstairs have gotta think I'se murderin' him. I'se known Race ta act up ta get outta trouble, but he ain't neva' done this.
"Stop, please!" Race pleaded. "I'll be good, I promise!" His choice of words and wide, frantic eyes struck a chord, an Jack's eyes darkened as the realization hit. How many times had he heard the same thing, years ago through the thin apartment walls?
Stop, please! Daddy, what'd I do? Stop, I'll be good, I promise!
"Racer," Jack begged, hoping the nickname would snap his brother out of it. "What hurts, kid?" He dropped to his knees beside his brother, giving him a quick onceover. He noticed the younger boy's wrist, pressed tight against his heaving chest, and reached for it. "Can I see?" he asked.
Race didn't react, not until Jack's fingers brushed against his arm. "Get offa me!" he yelled, shying away from the touch. "Jack, help!"
Jack pulled away, tears in his eyes. Snap outta it, Race, he begged internally. He had heard those words too many times. Heard them years ago from the tiny kid knocking on his window or sleeping in his bed, and days ago from the room down the hall. Jack, help! Jack, he's comin' ta get me! I don't know what ta do Jack, help me please! "Racer, look up," he pleaded. he gently lifted his baby brother's chin and barely caught a glimpse of his teary blue eyes before the younger boy pulled away.
"Don't touch me!"
Jack's hands flew up in a gesture of peace. "I ain't touchin' ya," he said, trying to make his voice calm. "Look inta my eyes, kid." He stayed where he was, barely breathing, as Race's sobs slowed and the wild look faded from his eyes. "It's okay, kid." he breathed, pulling his brother into a tight hug. "I've gotcha." Race held tight to Jack's shirt, letting the fabric soak up the last of his tears. Jack seized his chance to rub his own eyes, clearing away the tears he hadn't let fall. "C'mon, kid," he said softly, lifting Race up off the floor. He brought his baby brother into the kitchen, setting him down on a chair as he searched for something to use to wrap his wrist.
"This might hurt," he warned, coming back with a first aid kit. Race nodded, biting his lip and saying nothing, as Jack ran his fingers down his forearm, probing for breaks with his steady artist's hands. Jack didn't miss his wince as he grazed over his wrist. "It ain't broken," he noted with relief. A break meant a trip to the hospital, and a hospital meant forms had to be signed, questions would be asked, and he wouldn't have the answers. "Just sprained, I think. I'll wrap it up tight ta be safe."
He stayed quiet as he tied the bandage around the gambler's wrist, allowing him a chance to talk if he wanted it. When the silence stretched from seconds into minutes, he couldn't take it anymore. "Racer, what's really goin' on?"
Race stared at the floor. "I... I don't know," he said. "Ya looked like my pa, Jack. Ya didn't look like you." His pa? I ain't nothin' like his pa... am I? What'd I say, what was it that made him see me like that? Shaking his head, Jack made a vow to find whatever it was and put an end to it fast. "I freaked out, didn't I?" Race muttered, ducking his head.
"Kinda," Jack said absently. His mid was still preoccupied with Race's father. "Racer, I'm so sorry." He held out his arms, half-fearing Race would flinch or pull away again. A surge of relief filled him when the Italian threw his arms around him and held him tight. He pressed a kiss to the top of Race's head, managing a shaky smile. "I love you boys, y'know that, right Race?"
"Yeah, I know," Race said, separating himself just enough to send Jack a grin. "I'se pretty great, ain't I?"
"Yeah, I'd say so," Jack laughed. Thank God, he's back. His phone buzzed in his pocket, and seconds later he heard loud pounding on the front door. Right on cue. "There's Spot," he said, letting go of Race completely.
Race stood up and stretched. "I'll let him in," he said. "L... love ya, Jack," he added shyly. "See ya in 'bout half an hour?"
Jack paused in wiping down the table, a smile spreading across his face. Love ya too, kid. He let out a deep breath, feeling some of the tension leave him. "Let Spot drive!" he called after Race. "We'll finish our talk when ya gets home. No yellin', just talkin'."
A beat of silence followed, and then he heard Race yell back. "I can't hear ya, Jack!"
The Manhattan leader shook his head with a grin, sliding his phone out of his pocket.
One new message from: SPOT
SPOT: knocking on ur door in 2 seconds. good job on not killing race. text me wen its safe 2 bring him home.
Rolling his eyes, Jack tapped out a reply.
Cowboy: im not gonna kill my brother
SPOT: good 4 u. ive thought of killing mine a few times
Cowboy: dont text and drive
Jack stood up and stretched, trying to get rid of some of the tension. It was times like this when he wished he had someone to talk to, to confide in. Yeah right. I'se'd neva' do that ta my boys, an' Kloppman's got better things ta do than listen ta some foster kid complain about his problems. You'se the oldest, and you'se the leada'. There are some things ya just don't get ta do, Kelly. Jack hooked a chair with his foot and dragged it towards him. With a sigh, he settled into it and rested his elbows on his knees, clasping his hands behind his head and wondering what to do. Well, there is one place ya can go...
"Crutchie?" he called, getting up and taking the stairs two at a time. When he didn't get an immediate answer, he started searching bedrooms. He found the gimp boy on the third try, in the room Albert, Specs, and Elmer shared. Crutchie was sitting on one of the beds with his back against the wall while Albert helped Romeo with homework. All three boys looked up when the door opened.
"Everythin' okay?" Crutchie asked carefully.
"Yeah, everythin's good," Jack said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Crutchie, can ya hold down the fort for a little bit? I'se thinkin' of takin' a walk."
"Sure," Crutchie said, still looking a little worried.
Jack managed a half-grin. "Thanks, Crutch." On his way out the door her ruffled Romeo's hair and flicked Albert's cap off his head. "Love ya, boys."
"Love ya, Jack!" they chorused.
Jack hunched his shoulders as he headed down the stairs and out the door. He paused for a second in the driveway, fingering the keys to his truck in his pocket. The very thought made him feel a little sick. With a shrug, he started off down the road. His mind was distracted, but his feet knew the way. Besides, he was pretty sure that he could find the theatre from anywhere in Manhattan.
His mind kept playing over the moment he got the call, the moment he found out his brothers might be in danger. Scared don't cut it. I was terrified. It felt like I was on my own again, worryin' about some skinny blue-eyed kid who can't get himself outta his own mess. Yeah, that ain't a time I wanna live through again. He couldn't stop himself from remembering, though. Remembering that night years ago, a night that changed his life forever.
The new place was okay. Not good, not bad. Just okay. The couple who had taken him in were new to the foster care system. They were out of their depth. They didn't know how to talk to a kid, let alone raise one, but Jack wasn't about to protest. Not when they had given him a room and a bed. Given time, he could come to like this place. Not that he thought he'd be here long.
There was a boy next door, about his age. The kid was smaller than him, maybe a little younger, with tangled blonde curls and the biggest, bluest eyes Jack had ever seen. He had seen him once or twice, in the hallway or on the way to school. But he heard more than he saw. Through the thin apartment walls, sound carried. Sounds that shouldn't be familiar to a nine year old kid, but they were. Raised voices, breaking glass. A man's rough voice, slurring his words and spewing insults. A smaller voice crying out, the slam of a door, a child's sobs. Jack just clenched his jaw, turning over in bed and using his pillow to block out the sounds.
But one night was different. One night, the man didn't stop. He yelled his words and profanities, he drank his whiskey, but when the kid ran away he followed. Jack could hear them, right on the other side of the wall, like the wall wasn't even there. "You're worthless. Like your mother. Godforsaken woman wasn't good for anythin'. And when she died all she left was you."
The child choked out a sob. "That ain't my fault, Dad!" he yelled back, with shocking bravery in spite of his tears. "None a' this is my fault! Quit blamin' me just 'cause your life sucks!"
Jack winced, silently begging the kid to stop. Sure kid, it feels good ta tell him off. But it ain't worth it, ya know it ain't!
"Don't talk back ta me, boy," the man growled. "Are ya stupid, or what? Ya know what backtalk'll getcha."
Jack clamped his hands over his ears, not wanting to hear the blows fall. Finally, after what felt like an eternity, he cautiously let his hands drop. Silence. No man yelling, no sobs. Tap tap tap. Just a quiet tapping at his window.
There were a thousand things he could have done. He could have ignored it, gone back to sleep. That was what his foster parents always did. He could have told himself it was just the wind, or told the kid to go away. But none of those even occurred to him as he swung his legs over the edge of the bed, padding quietly over to the window in his pajamas and bare feet.
"Lovely night for a walk, ain't it?" he said, examining the stars. The kid blinked in surprise, balanced precariously on the fire escape. "Kinda chilly, though," Jack continued, rubbing his arms. The blonde-haired boy looked down at himself, as if suddenly realizing he was only wearing a thin T-shirt and sweatpants. "Ya should prob'ly get inside, 'fore ya get pneumonia or somethin'," Jack finished off, holding out his hand to the kid. The new boy took it without a second thought.
That was the first of many nights. They became fast friends after that, Jack and Anthony. Except he never called him that. "I hate that name," the Italian complained. "Me mudda always called me Race. I like that better."
It was refreshing- finally having a friend who understood. They didn't talk about Race's dad. They didn't talk about Jack's parents. They just had fun. They walked to school together, even though they didn't go to the same one. They did their homework in Jack's room, helping each other out with the hard parts. They ate dinner at Jack's place, ignoring the raised eyebrows and questioning looks the grownups exchanged over their heads. Some nights Race went home, but most of the time he stayed. He always fell asleep first, curled up against Jack's side as the older boy carded his fingers through his unruly curls. Jack liked it when that happened. It meant his friend felt safe. Safe was hard to come by these days.
Safe didn't mean perfect. Jack could hear his foster parents talking late at night behind closed doors. They didn't sign up for this, he knew. They signed up for one child, and they only received money for one child. There were still days when Race showed up with bruises, a black eye he can't explain. He always laughed it off and made excuses, but Jack never believed him. "I walked into a pole" only worked so many times.
But safe couldn't last forever. They were sitting around the table eating dinner when the bomb was dropped. Jack's foster father had been laid off from his job. They would be moving into a smaller apartment within a week. And they wouldn't be taking Jack with them.
Jack's eyes hardened, and he pushed his chair back from the table. His finger curled around Race's wrist, taking him with him as he stormed out of the room. Race sat on the bed, silent and unmoving, as Jack stomped around his room and threw clothes into his backpack. He muttered to himself angrily, and Race respectfully kept his distance, until suddenly Jack sat bolt upright, his eyes sparkling.
"Why don't ya come with me?" he said, dumping his school books on the floor to make room. "You an' me, the families we was born into ain't much. But we can be our own family. We could be brothers!" Race hesitated, but Jack plowed on, excited by his own idea. "Ya can't come official-like, 'cause then there'd be paperwork an' we'se'd end up halfway across New Yawk from each otha'. But if you run away and happen ta end up at the same place I do..."
"No one could stop us!" Race finished eagerly, a spark of hope catching in his chest. "Jack, let's do it!"
The older boy grinned, throwing an arm around Race's shoulders. "You an' me, kid," he said. "Things are lookin' up."
Things were looking up, for a while. But junior high was hard. There were more classes, more homework, and less time with Race. Honestly, that was the hardest part. For three years now, Jack and Race had shared everything. The same room, the same clothes, the same school. But Jack was twelve now, and in seventh grade. He got out half an hour after Race did, which meant he walked home alone, to where Race and their foster father were waiting.
Well, that wasn't entirely true. He was Jack's foster father. Race was still a ghost in the system. Anytime Jack was moved, he mysteriously disappeared, too. The Italian kid was street-smart. Given a few days, they'd find each other again.
Things were okay here. The two of them lived with a man, a man who didn't nitpick them for the things they did and didn't care that Race was an extra mouth to feed. Jack was too stressed out by his new school schedule to notice anything bad. In fact, if he didn't know his brother as well as he did, there was a chance he might have missed everything, even the signs that were practically screaming in his face.
Like the way Race buttoned his coat up to his chin and tugged his sleeves down to meet his wrists, carefully avoiding Jack's gaze. He stared at his shoes when their foster father talked, wrapping his arms around his body and examining the toes of Jack's hand-me-down sneakers that were a size too big. He was usually asleep already when Jack finally turned off the light and got into bed himself, so he never had a chance to ask him about it.
One day after dinner, Jack and Race were washing dishes. That was something their foster father insisted on. "I put food on the table and a roof over your heads," he said. "The least you two can do is help out now and then." Jack tried his best to make a game out of it, trying to coax a smile from his little brother. Race had been so withdrawn lately, the sparkle gone from his blue eyes and dark circles below.
Maybe he was just tired. Maybe he needed more sleep. Maybe that was why he didn't notice the plate Jack handed him to put away, watching in slow motion as it fell through his fingers in slow motion, shattering into a thousand tiny pieces on the floor. The color rushed out of the Italian boy's face, leaving him pale and shaky as he backed against the wall. Jack frowned, trying to place where he'd seen that face before.
Their foster father stood up, his features distorted in anger, and Jack remembered. On the fire escape, outside his window. He'd seen that same terrified face then, begging for someone to notice him and help. "It- it's just a plate," he said, putting himself between his brother and the angry man before them. "Ain't a big deal. I'll... I'll find a way ta pay for it, I promise." He swallowed hard, feeling Race trembling behind him.
The man still scowled, but he just kicked at the shards on the floor. "Clean this mess up," he said gruffly. "And don't let it happen again."
The two boys worked in silence after that, Jack sweeping up the glass shards while Race finished the dishes in record time. As soon as they were done, Jack grabbed Race's wrist and dragged him into their room. "Show me," he ordered.
Race flopped down on the bed, snugging his arms around himself. "I... I don't know what you'se talkin' about."
"Race, don't lie ta me," Jack warned. "I know he's been hittin' ya. Show me."
Race's chin nearly touched his chest. Finally, he stood up and hiked his shirt over his head. Dark, hand-shaped bruises marked his arms, and a few purple marks stood out on his chest and back. "There, ya happy?" he asked bitterly.
Jack's eyes were fixed on his brother's skin. Gently, he laid his hand on a handprint a good three inches bigger than his, a lump forming in his throat. "Racer, why didn't ya tell me?"
Race averted his eyes, his own hand on top of Jack's on his upper arm. "Betta' me than you," he said in a low voice. "I can handle it, I'se had worse. Nothin' ya coulda done," he added, quieter.
"Just 'cause you'se had worse don't mean it's okay!" Jack burst out. "You'se ten years old, Race! This shouldn't be normal, I won't let it be normal. 'Cause there's still one thing I can do." Race glanced up as Jack withdrew his hand, crossing over to the closet and yanking clothes off of hangers. He dumped his backpack out on the floor, his stack of clothes beside it. "Put your shirt back on," he instructed. "And get your stuff togetha'. We'se leavin', tonight."
"Jack, we can't do that," Race protested, pulling his hoodie back over his head with a slight shiver. Sure this place was bad. But he'd had worse. He could take it, why didn't Jack get that? "We got nothin', no food, no money, not a nickel to our names."
"Yeah." Jack paused in his packing to sit back on his heels, staring intently at his brother. "But he hurt ya, Race. I ain't lettin' no one hurt my baby brother, not again." Race flushed, staring down at his feet as he scuffed his toe against the carpet. "Hey, is that a smile?" Jack asked with a grin.
Race smothered it immediately. "No."
Jack's grin widened. "I think it was," he said, bounding across the room.
"Jack-" Race broke off abruptly as Jack tickled his sides, falling back on the bed to shield himself from the attack. "Jack, stop!" he yelped, laughing too hard to get the words out. "Jack, you win! I smiled! J- Jack!"
"Hey!" a voice yelled from the living room, making both boys sit up. "Quiet down in there."
Race's smile faded as he pushed himself up off the bed and started to gather his things. "Hey," Jack said, earning the blonde-haired boy's attention. "We got this. 'Sides, we don't need nothin'. We'se got each otha'."
Race actually did smile at that, allowing his brother to pull him into a hug and ruffle his curls, feeling a quick kiss pressed to his temple. "Yeah," he said. "We'se got each otha'."
They had each other, yes. But Race's first year of junior high was also Jack's first year of high school, and then they were apart again. And adjusting to high school was hard enough without all the trouble Race called. Jack had put his own cell number down as Race's emergency contact- Race still wasn't registered in the foster care system, and the last thing Jack wanted was for some nosy teacher to find out and call child services. It seemed like it was every day he got a call saying Race had gotten detention, or cheated on a test, or started a fight with some kids twice his size.
He wasn't any better at home, either. He snapped at Jack and their foster parents, and the smallest thing set him off. This family was nice. They treated both boys well, they accepted Race's presence from the start. They even took both boys back-to-school shopping, providing them with more clothes than they'd ever owned at one time in their lives. They didn't deserve to be shouted at by a moody twelve-year-old, or to have doors slammed in their faces when they tried to talk to him.
Jack assured them he'd take care of it. "I'll talk to him. He'll listen ta me, I know he will." Weak promises, he knew. Race would stay quiet and sullen for a few days after Jack had scolded him, but it never lasted long. "Race, you'se gotta stop this!" Jack pleaded with his brother. "Whateva's buggin' ya, kid, you'se gotta tell me! I can't help me if ya won't talk ta me, Racer!"
"I'm fine, Jack!" Race would insist. "Ya wouldn't get it, anyways!"
Jack was on edge at every moment. These people were nice, sure, but even nice people had their limits. He just knew that one day at breakfast they'd break the bad news, saying they couldn't take care of the boys anymore. They wouldn't give the real reason- no, of course not. They'd make something up.
"It just costs too much. You know how prices are rising these days."
"We just don't have the room. This house really is too small for four people."
"We're pregnant. We'll have kids of our own now, we don't need to pretend anymore."
Jack could only hope that was what would happen. Being sent away was far better than the alternative. Every time Race mouthed off, or brought home another detention slip that had to be signed, Jack was afraid it would happen. One day their foster father would snap, and he'd beat Race up good for all the trouble he'd caused.
The teachers had already labeled Race a delinquent. The kid seemed to be doing everything he could to get out of going to school. He faked sick, claiming that the thought of going made him nauseous. He seemed to close himself off once he walked through the doors, sitting by himself and barely saying a word to anyone. More than once at night, Jack glanced over at his brother's sleeping form and saw tear stains on his cheeks.
As the year went on, the teachers began to worry. Race rarely turned in his homework -even though Jack made sure he did it- and hadn't passed a test all year. His label changed from "delinquent" to "troubled child." They asked if everything was okay at home, and they wanted to schedule a meeting with his parents, but Jack knew he couldn't let that happen. As soon as it got out that Race was not only a delinquent, but a foster kid? He'd be off to the Refuge before Jack could do anything to stop it. At the Refuge they'd check for a record, and he wouldn't have one. So on top of having to endure the horrors there, Race would either be returned to his father or placed in another foster home by the state- one far away from Jack. At all costs, Jack couldn't let that happen. He couldn't let his brother go to that place.
But some things even Jack couldn't control. The day Race started the fire was the day it all went to hell. He was hanging out behind the gym, messing around with a box of cigars. He knew Jack wouldn't be happy if he found out- he had gotten detention twice already for smoking on school grounds, the threat of suspension hanging over his head, and Jack had properly threatened him on what would happen if he was caught with a cigar again. So when Race heard someone coming, he hastily dropped the cigar on the ground, stamping at it a few times before ducking inside through a back door.
Fifteen minutes later the fire alarm went off. The dry grass behind the gym was up in flames, but luckily the fire department got there before it could spread to the building. The school let the kids go early- most of them were hysterical, anyways. As soon as Jack heard the news, as soon as he got the text from the school saying that all the kids were safe, he knew Race had to be involved somehow. He left early that day, skipping his last few classes, and managed to get the truth out of his brother.
There were so many things he could have done. He was happy here. These people were good people, and this seemed like the perfect place to age out of the system. Only four more years until he was eighteen- why shouldn't he spend them here? In a place where he had food and clothes and a bed, caring foster parents who didn't nag or yell or hit, and a school that he could go to for all four years of high school. But as he looked at his brother, the messy-haired, blue-eyed kid standing in front of him and crying out of shame and fear, the truth hit him. Race was miserable here. All the stress of the lives they led -changing schools every year or two, the pressure of starting junior high, the loneliness of not having any friends, having to rely on a boy only two years his elder to keep him safe from everything the world had in store- had finally caught up to him. He was upset, he was suffering from anxiety, he was confused and he was scared. And Jack knew what he had to do.
He stole answers to the final from a teacher's desk. He got himself expelled, labeled a troublemaker. And before he knew it, he and Race were off to a group home- the Manhattan Home for Troubled Youths, nicknamed the lodging house by the boys who lived there. It was embarrassing. It was new and it was scary. But Race thrived there, surrounded by kids his own age who loved his jokes and his stories and all his quirks. So Jack pasted on a smile and easily slipped into his role of big brother to all. He got a job, he helped old Mr. Kloppman pay the bills, he ignored the mistrustful looks he got when people found out he lived in a group home. First and foremost, he was a big brother. And he'd take any challenge that came with the job, no matter how big. He helped the younger boys tie their shoes, he gave Crutchie piggyback rides down the stairs, he lied through his teeth to the bulls to keep them out of trouble. As long as his brothers were happy, he would be, too. He'd find a way.
By the time Jack made it to the theatre, tears were running down his face- tears he didn't bother to wipe away. His boys weren't around. He was under no obligation to be Jack Kelly, fearless leader. Medda was one of the few people he knew who didn't look to him for guidance- it was often the other way around. Her theatre also doubled as an artist's studio, a place to talk, a hidden getaway... whatever he needed, this building was it. No matter how often he moved around, the theatre had always been home.
Jack slipped in through the back entrance. The building was empty, as he knew it would be. He knew the show and rehearsal schedules by heart, there was only one person who would be around this time of day. He heard singing from somewhere in the theatre and he suppressed a smile. Medda was singing to herself again. She always claimed that it helped her think. "Miss Medda?" he called, his voice wavering slightly.
The singing broke off abruptly, and Medda Larkin appeared in the doorway. "Jack Kelly, man of mystery!" she cried out, just like she always did. Her smile faded into a look of concern when she saw his face. "What's wrong, honey?" she asked.
Jack opened his mouth to answer, but his mind filled with images of Race -his baby brother, knocking at his window and hiding bruises and begging him with those big blue eyes to get him out of trouble just one more time- and he just shook his head, closing his eyes against the tears that threatened to fall.
"Oh, Jack," Medda said, pulling him into a hug.
"I don't know what ta do, Medda!" he said in frustration, holding onto her as tight as he dared.. "I'se tryin'... I'se tryin' ta keep my boys togetha', unda' one roof, and Race seems so set on gettin' takin' away! I can't keep doin' this, Medda! I can't lose 'im!"
"I know, honey," the vaudeville singer said, gently extracting herself from Jack's hug. "Follow me, hon. And get ready to tell me all about it." Her pink skirt trailed behind her as she swept into the main room of the theatre, pausing in front of the stage and glancing back at Jack. "Don't just stand there," she said. "This dress is long and I ain't as young as I used to be. Gimme a hand!"
Jack hopped up onto the stage, holding out his hand with a trace of a smile. "You know where the paintbrushes are," Medda said, smoothing out her skirt and finding a seat. "You can paint while you talk, and I'll just listen."
So Jack poured out the whole story, the words spilling out of him as his brush moved with a mind of its own, painting what it always did- a place with clay buildings as rusty red as Albert's hair, blue skies that matched Race's eyes, and wheaten fields like Crutchie's messy blonde hair. Santa Fe. For a place that was supposedto be his escape, an awful lot of it reminded him of his brothers.
And Medda sat through it all, watching him work and listening intently. She was a good at that- letting him talk like he was a person with a problem, not some kid who didn't know what he was doing. She let him pour out all his doubts and worries and fears, everything from losing Race to struggling trust him to wondering how he'd pay for the ticket and still stay in school. He finally stepped back, his chest heaving and the story finished, Santa Fe stretched out before him. It almost looked like he could step right through... like he could pass through the canvas and wake up in his dream world.
"First things first," Medda spoke up, breaking the trance. Jack flinched, looking up from his painting and whirling around to face her. "You don't need to worry about that ticket, honey," the vaudeville singer told him. "You did a brave thing, taking the fall for your brother, and in a way I think you did right. But he needs to learn from his own actions. A few chores will settle him down a little, and there's no shortage of jobs around this place. He can work for me and pay off that ticket. And as for traffic school, you just painted me a beautiful backdrop to use in my next show. And I believe that all artists should be paid for their work." She said the words firmly, her dark eyes sparking with excitement.
"I ain't gonna take your money," Jack protested, but Medda held up a hand.
"Now hold up a minute," she said. "I ain't done talkin'. Don't you worry none 'bout Race's little episode today, okay hon? Raised voices remind him of his daddy just like cheap perfume reminds you of your mamma. Your boys mean the world to you and you'd never hurt them intentionally. And at the end of the day, Race knows that. He knows that better than anyone." She rummaged through her purse for a minute or two, coming up with a wad of dollar bills that she held out to Jack expectantly.
As soon as he gave in, Jack felt a weight slip off his shoulders. "You're a saint, Miss Medda," he said, slipping the cash into his pocket. "I don't know what I'd do without ya."
Medda touched Jack's cheek, wiping away the last of his tears with her thumb. "Sweetie, you'd do just fine," she said with a smile. "Now, you'd better get on back to the lodging house. Don't want your boys to worry."
"Yes, ma'am," Jack said, grinning slightly. He turned to go, and was halfway out the door when he heard Medda calling after him.
"Have Race come by on Saturday," she said. "I'll have a few odd jobs ready for him by then."
"Will do, Miss Medda!" Jack called back, starting his long walk home.
When he got back, he had a text waiting from Spot.
SPOT: ready or not, here we come. i need 2 get back 2 brooklyn, hot shot says the boys locked riddle in the attic.
Jack stared at his phone for a few seconds, wondering how anybody who went through Brooklyn ever made it out alive.
Cowboy: good luck with that. and go ahead and bring him back, everythings good here.
SPOT: just a warning, hes in a weird mood.
Jack didn't have long to wonder what that meant. He barely had time to check on the boys upstairs and get started on his homework before he heard the front door bang open.
"Jack?" Race yelled. Then, barely a second later, "Jack!"
Jack pushed up from the table, crossing into the living room to see what was wrong. "Geez, Racer, I'm here," he said. "What's all the yellin' about?" Race didn't answer with words. He threw himself at his brother, tackling him in a hug as his arms tightened around him in for dear life. Jack wrapped his arms around the younger boy automatically, his concern growing into a panic. "Hey, it's okay!" He squeezed his brother tighter, reassuringly, but Race didn't loosen his grip. "It's okay," Jack said again, softer. "Race, what's wrong?" Talk ta me, buddy. You'se gotta talk ta me.
"I don't wanna go ta the Refuge, Jack!" Race cried, his voice muffled by Jack's shirt.
The Refuge? No. He ain't supposta worry 'bout that, that's my job. "Kid, who told ya that?" he demanded, trying to get a good look at Race's face. His brother didn't budge, and in that he found his answer. "Conlon," he muttered. 'Weird mood,' he says. With the threat a' that place hangin' ova' his head, 'course he's in a weird mood. "I swear, if he's still here..." he threatened, glancing to the door, but Race shook his head. Jack sighed. "Racer..." he said, managing to pry himself loose. "Look at me, kid." Race barely glanced up, and Jack lifted his chin so he could look him in the eye. "I ain't lettin' ya go ta that place, kid," he said firmly. "Ya don't gotta worry 'bout that."
Race jerked backwards out of Jack's reach. "I'm such an idiot, Jack!" he said, tears running freely down his face. "This whole time I thought ya were just bein' a jerk, but ya was tryin' ta keep me outta the Refuge!" He shook his head, wrapping his arms around his torso and falling back another step.
He looked so small and lost, and Jack felt his heart twinge. "Kid," he said firmly. Race didn't look up, until Jack caught him by the shoulders and gave him a light shake. "Look at me, Race," he pleaded, gaining his brother's attention. He waited a second, making sure the Italian's eyes were fixed on him before continuing. "If bein' a jerk is what it takes ta keep one a' my boys from bein' dragged off ta that livin' hell..."
No way in hell am I gonna let any a' my brotha's go through that nightmare. They don't deserve that, no matter what stupid stunts they pull.
Jack cursed under his breath. Race's face right now was the exact reason he hadn't wanted him to know the risks. "I'm gonna kill Spot," he muttered, letting go of his brother and pacing back and forth. "The whole point was that ya weren't supposta find out. If he don't have the brains in his head ta figure that out..."
"No," Race said, surprising him. "I'se glad he told me." The gambler gave a watery smile, the kind he gave when he knew he was in trouble. "Now I can apologize for bein' stupid all week. I drove because ya told me I couldn't, Jack."
"I know," Jack said mildly, suppressing a grin as he moved into the kitchen. Am I supposta be surprised...? C'mon Race, ya know I'se smarter than that. "You'se an idiot sometimes, Race."
"And I took Crutchie with me so ya wouldn't get mad," Race continued, following him as he searched through drawers. "I thought that if I got caught I could say I was just givin' him a ride."
Jack raised an eyebrow. "Ya really thought Crutchie bein' there'd help your case," he stated, finally finding a clean washcloth. He shook his head, running it under cold water. "What goes on in that head a' yours, kid?"
Silence. "I don't know," Race said in a small voice. "Ya still mad?"
Jack beckoned his brother over to him. "Nah, not mad," he said truthfully. His talk with Medda and his little trip down memory lane had cleared his mind of anger, but that didn't change the facts. Race stole the keys, disobeyed him, and betrayed his trust, not to mention he put Crutchie and Romeo in danger. He could still feel the cold fear in his bones, and he had to grip the edge of the counter to steady himself. "Still disappointed, though."
Race's gaze flickered downward with a soft "oh," but Jack didn't take it back.
"Close your eyes," he said instead. Race's blue eyes snapped closed, and Jack gently scrubbed away any trace of tears from his little brother's face, pausing to place a kiss on his forehead.
Race pulled backwards again, pain etched across his face. "Jack, stop!" he begged. "I hate it when you'se mad at me, but this is worse. You'se all... disappointed at me... and you'se still helpin' me and stoppin' 'em from takin' me ta that place!"
"Racer!" Jack said, hoping the familiar nickname would make his brother understand. "Ya lied ta me, broke my trust, and put our brothers in danger. Ya screwed up, kid." The blonde-haired Italian flushed red and looked away, but Jack brought him back to reality. "Race, do ya really think anythin' ya do is gonna make a difference ta me? We'se brothers. Brothers look out for each other, no matter what."
The boy's blue eyes widened, and Jack leaned back against the counter. He gets it. He unda'stands. "I'm tired, Race," admitted. "Ya think I don't want ya ta be able ta drive? It would be so much easier if ya could. If it wasn't just me drivin' the boys around? But doin' stupid stuff is just gonna make it longa' 'fore ya can get your license. I know that when we'se was younga' we'se'd fight all the time, an' we really didn't mean it, but I just can't do it anymore. I'se got school, and work, and twenty-somethin' boys ta look out for, and half a dozen classes I'se afraid of failin'." He sighed wearily, feeling another headache coming on. "I thought it'd be quicker ta skip the whole fight and just take the keys right from the start."
"But it wasn't," Race said quietly, realizing. "Jack, I'm sorry I started a big thing. I just..." He hesitated, and Jack looked up. "I wanna be like you, an' drive the boys cool places, an' have Romeo tell me how great of a big brother I am," Race admitted earnestly. "Stuff that you gets ta do every day!"
"Racer, you'se their big brother, too!" Jack said incredulously. "What's more, you'se the fun one. I'se gotta make all the rules, be on ev'ryone's case all the time. You just get ta be... Race. And they love ya for it."
Race merely shrugged, not meeting Jack's gaze. "Hey," Jack said firmly, tipping Race's chin up with one finger. He knew that look. He wasn't about to let Race convince himself he wasn't wanted, wasn't needed.
"Get outta your head, Race, and stay with me," he instructed. Then he gave a lopsided grin. "Let's just stick with you bein' you an' me bein' me. 'Cause kid, it's you who Romeo looks up to. That kid looks at you like ya hung the moon, Racer. Ya should be proud a' that."
Race grinned slightly at the mention of Romeo. "Yeah," he said modestly. "Kid sees somethin' in me, who knows what. Speakin' a' Romeo... I should prob'ly go check on him," he added sheepishly. "I, uh, kinda scared him earlier."
"Yeah, prob'ly a good idea," Jack agreed, pulling the gambler into a headlock and ruffling his hair playfully. "He was upstairs with the boys last I saw 'im."
Race laughed, pushing against Jack's chest to free himself. He was halfway to the stairs when he hesitated, his back to Jack. Whirling around, he crossed the room at a run and threw his arms around the older boy, catching him by surprise. "Love ya, Jack," he said in a voice barely above a whisper.
A smile burst across Jack's face as he wrapped his arms around his brother. "Love ya too, kid," he said, dropping a kiss to the Italian's messy blonde curls. The familiar sharp scent of tobacco smoke hit him and he frowned, grabbing a fistful of Race's shirt and bringing it to his nose. Dang it, Race. "Have ya been smokin'?" he asked, already knowing the answer.
"Gotta go, Jack!" Race yelled, breaking away and dashing up the stairs. "I'll check in on Crutchie too, while I'm up here!" he called down.
"Hold it!" Jack ordered. "Back it up an' bring it here, Racetrack." He folded his arms over his chest, waiting for Race to obey. "Gimme the cigars," he said sternly once the younger boy stood in front of him.
"It ain't fair, Jack," Race protested as he fished the box of Coronas out of his pocket.
"It is too fair," Jack said, taking them off his hands. Can't leave this kid alone for a minute... "You'se comin' with me ta the diner tomorra afta' school, too."
"Noooo!" Race complained, stretching the word out comically. "Just tomorra, right?" he added hopefully.
Let's see how tomorra goes, first. "We'll see," Jack promised. Race let out an over-exaggerated sigh, and the leader couldn't help but grin. "Love ya, kid!" he reminded him.
"Yeah, yeah, whateva'!" Race waved him off. He quickened his steps, calling for Romeo as he took the stairs two at a time, but not quite quick enough to hide his smile from Jack.
Jack laughed a little, dropping the Coronas into his pocket. His fingers brushed against a piece of paper, and he sobered quickly as he brought out the ticket. He set it on the table next to him as he settled into his chair, staring blankly at his history textbook. He glanced back at the stairs, catching bits and pieces of Race's conversation with Romeo, and he made up his mind. Oh, yeah. It was all worth it.
Jack's head snapped up, catching himself just before he nodded off. C'mon, Kelly, focus! he scolded himself. Leaning back in his chair, he rubbed his eyes. He'd been staring at the page so long, the words and numbers had turned themselves into a jumbled, blurry mess. I can do this. Thirty-two problems left. I can do thirty-two problems. That's just... eight problems, four times. He sighed, taking another sip of his long-cold coffee. Screw this. I'se failin' anyways.
Today had been long. And to top it all off, his little meeting with Officer Bixby had taken forever- which was why he was up doing chemistry homework at ten past midnight.
He was just about to turn out the light and call it quits when a small voice made him freeze. "Jack?"
The leader whirled around to find Romeo in the doorway, wearing pajama pants and one of Race's T-shirts. The shirt hung on his thin frame and made him look so small. Paired with his pale face and wide, dark eyes, Jack didn't stand a chance. "Hey, buddy," he said, holding out his arms. Romeo ran into them, throwing himself at his brother and burying his face in the crook of his neck, his unruly dark hair tickling Jack's chin. "Bad dream, kid?" Jack asked softly. He felt Romeo nod against him, and he hugged little boy tighter.
"Why didn't ya go ta Race?" he asked. He knew that Romeo woke Race up most nights. Nearly every morning when Jack went in to get them up for school, Romeo was snuggled up against his big brother's side. Race had yet to complain, so Jack figured he had it handled. "What's up, kid?" he asked.
Romeo just shook his head, tightening his grip. "Race was in this one," he mumbled, his voice muffled by Jack's shirt.
Jack felt a pang through his heart, at a loss for what to do. Don't tell Race. Whateva' ya do, just don't. "Tell ya what, kid," he said, prying Romeo off of him. "How's about ya sleep in here tonight? I'se..." He glanced at is desk. "I'se still got some homework ta do. I'll stay up and keep ya company." He tossed back the blanket and lifted Romeo up onto the bed before taking a seat at his desk.
Romeo hopped up and climbed on Jack's lap, leaning back against him with a sigh. Jack glanced down at him with a grin. "And just whaddaya think you'se doin'?" he asked, ruffling Romeo's hair.
The kid shrugged, making himself comfortable. "Just sittin'."
"Just sittin', huh?" Jack said, tossing his pencil onto the desk. "What's up, kid?"
Romeo messed with the hem of his shirt, humming quietly to himself. Jack wrapped his big hands around Romeo's making the kid look up. "I don't know, Jack," he admitted. "I feel like... like my tummy hurts. But it ain't like when Race spins me around. It's like... I feel like I'se forgot ta do somethin', and like evr'rythin' ain't okay, but I don't know why! And I don't wanna eat and I don't wanna sleep. Can ya fix it, Jack?"
Jack sighed. "That's called anxiety, buddy," he said. "It ain't fun, is it?" Romeo shook his head silently. "Okay, kid," Jack decided. He scooped his baby brother up and carried him over to the bed, pulling the blanket up around him. "I was feelin' some anxiety today, and ya know what helped?"
"What?" Romeo asked, snuggling under the blanket. His wide dark eyes were fixed on Jack, waiting for his answer.
"I went down ta the theatre and talked with Medda," Jack said. "So how's about ya talk ta me?"
Romeo nodded. "I can do that," he said. Jack dragged his chair over to the bed, rested his elbows on his knees, and listened. He listened while Romeo told him everything from hating pre-algebra to feeling left out to being the youngest to being scared of driving with Race again.
Jack was quiet for several moments after Romeo had finished. "Today scared ya, huh?" he said.
"Yeah," Romeo whispered, picking at a thread in the blanket.
"It scared Race, too," Jack told him.
Romeo's head shot up. "Race don't get scared," he said.
"'Course he gets scared," Jack said. "Just like I get scared. We was both scared today. And I think Race might be scared that you'se mad at 'im."
"I ain't mad," Romeo said, his eyes wide.
"Didja tell Race that?" Jack questioned.
Romeo shook his head. "I told him I don't want his help," he said quietly, averting his gaze from Jack's.
"Hey, it's okay!" Jack said. "Tomorra, how 'bout ya tell him ya do want his help? I bet he'd like that."
Romeo smiled. "I can do that," he said. "Can I come ta the diner with you and Race?"
Jack grinned. "I bet he'd like that, too," he said. He glanced at his bedside clock, and his eyes widened. 12:57. "Time for you ta get ta bed," he said. "And time for me ta finish up this mess." He downed what was left of his coffee in one gulp, dropping into his chair to labor over chemistry equations.
"Love ya, Jack," Romeo said sleepily.
Jack smiled slightly. "Love ya too, Romeo."
Jack sighed wearily, dumping a load of dishes into the sink and glancing at the time. Just an hour left 'til my shift ends. That's just fifteen minutes, four times... aw, forget it. Afternoon shifts always seemed to drag on forever, and having Race there complaining about homework wasn't helping at all. Neither of them wanted to be there. All Jack wanted to do was go home and sleep, but he knew he couldn't. He had his boys to take care of, that online traffic course to work on, and of course, more homework. It neva' ends...
The bell over the door jingled, and Jack could hear a familiar voice yelling even from back in the kitchen. "Race!"
Romeo. Jack smiled, hearing his brothers excitedly chattering away. Last night's episode had had him a little worried, but it looked like everything was going to be okay.
"Hey, Mr. Jacobi?" he called to his boss. "Can I bring my brothers a couple sodas?"
The older man looked up, taking in the scene of the two boys working at the counter. His mustache twitched, concealing one of his rare smiles. "Go ahead," he said. "On me, just this once."
Jack's grin widened. "Thanks, Mr. Jacobi," he said sincerely, heading back out to the dining room.
"A-tro-cious," Race was saying, sounding the word out. "Jack's cooking is atrocious."
"You two," Jack told them, setting two sodas on the counter. "You'se gonna be the death a' me."
Race laughed it off. "Thanks, Jack," he said.
"Thank you!" Romeo echoed.
"Suspicious," Race said, reading from the list again. "Jack bein' this nice ta us is suspicious."
Jack shook his head, heading back to the kitchen with a smile. These kids, he thought fondly. They're drivin' me crazy.
(A/N): Thank you everyone for the reviews! This is the end of this story, but I do have a few more in the works. Life is crazy right now, but I'll hopefully be able to post them soon. If you liked this please drop me a review! Thank you so much for reading, I hope you enjoyed it!