Part One: 1897
Więc, maleńka. Co się z tobą dzieje?
The stoic, dark-haired newsboy intertwined his brows, crinkling up his temples and his frozen nose like a frostbitten rabbit. His lips were so split from the biting cold it was a miracle they hadn't fallen off altogether. A sailcloth pillow was propped between his head and the flee-ridden paper mattress, his arms folded fast, his long legs spread out in front of him. If it weren't for the cadenced inflation and deflation of his ribs, one would've confused him for a dead body.
Nie możesz zasnąć, nie? Miałeś złe sny?
Skittery was nearly comatose, the first decent sleep he'd gotten since he'd arrived on Randall's Island a week before. It must have been the chloral they'd dosed him with after that fight in the canteen. And now, covered by a flimsy, lice-infested blanket, the young newsboy was cloaked in the gloomy ward of one of the older boys' dormitories, at the total mercy of Dame Nature's wild snowstorm that blew in through the rafters.
Teraz, maleńka. Mama jest tutaj. Mama zawsze tu będzie.
The corners of Skittery's mouth fluttered into a kind of partial grin, his shoulders not quite twitching as he pulled his arms closer to his chest. Panting a little raggedly, he tilted his head against the pillow and pulled his limbs inward, like a deer that senses the nearby hound.
Nie pozwolę nikomu cię skrzywdzić, moje dziecko.
He's grumbling now, low and inarticulate whispers at first, little more than nonsense. Gradually, he manages a word, one he's echoing — becoming all the more eager and anxious with each whisper. "Mama…Mama…Mama...Czy to ty?"
He's murmuring her name over and over, his brows lifting and binding in a constant struggle as the woman's voice in his mind starts to take a form.
A form with lively blue eyes, a golden complexion, an adoring smile. Her dark blonde hair is free of its halo-like braid around her head, and now it flows loose and wavy, and Skittery can feel it caressing his cheeks as she kisses his nose. He can hear the faint clang her medal of Saint Philomena makes as she moves.
Chcesz, żebym zaśpiewał, Jakub?
And suddenly she's real, cradling him in her arms while she sways gently side to side, soothing him to sleep. Skittery can see the fabric of his mama's frayed but neat cotton skirt, the torn lace of her blouse. He can smell her usual aroma of lilac soap, can hear the simmer of his papa's white borshct cooking nearby. He's home.
And when his mama sings, he's carried off and cuddled against her again. Her fingers are brushing back his hair, her heart is beating in his ear.
byly sobie kotki dwa.
A-a-a, kotki dwa,
szarobure, szarobure obydwa.
Her voice is melodic, like the little birds that used to hover around the wildflowers outside the house. The way the lyrics sound lilting off her tongue is how Skittery knows it's Mama. He'd know her voice anywhere.
Ach, śpij, kochanie,
jesli gwiazdke z nieba chcesz - dostaniesz.
Wszystkie dzieci, nawet źle,
pogrążone są we śnie,
a ty jedna tylko nie.
Skittery opens his teeth-chattering mouth, trying to utter the lullaby that had sent him to sleep when he was little. Bit by bit, and with the whisper of one fading fast, he repeats the chorus in a cracked mutter. And he and his mama both sing, free from harm and huddled together within the console of the cottage near the Tatra Mountains.
Ach, śpij, bo wlaśnie
księżyc ziewa i za chwilę zaśnie.
A gdy rano przyjdzie świt
księzycowi będzie wstyd,
ze on zasnąl, a nie ty.
His muttering grows louder into coherent words, and louder still into lyrical garble as the young man — once more a little boy — eases himself off to the best respite from the decrepit hell of the Refuge. "Ach, śpij, kochanie…."
He can't hear the shuffle of feet against the grimy floor coming closer. He doesn't see the weary boy staggering in the dark toward his bed. "jesli…gwiazdke z nieba…chcesz - dostaniesz—"
The low voice is obtrusive, and suddenly there's a tremor from inside the earth that shakes Skittery from his hypnotic state and rips him away from his mama's embrace. He can feel her soft hands fading from him and her voice becomes remote until it's gone, and all he's left with is a bleak and barren heartache.
"Skitts, you're dreaming."
The 15-year-old newsboy jerks awake, choking on the breath he didn't realize he was holding, scared to death. He's panting so urgently that he ignores his current surroundings until he sees the worried face shadowed beside his bed. His mind swims, and the flush of shame reddens his cheeks as he glares into the older boy's eyes.
"Sorry to wake you," Grim Krause says softly, crouching down beside the metal frame. "Just wanted to make sure you're okay." His voice is resigned, but his eyes indicate a range of concern. Three years older, Grim had been in and out of the Refuge for the past 10 years. Most of the boys were afraid of him.
Skittery looks down at his own arms enveloped around himself and gradually relaxes. His huge, expressive eyes are wide and cold with fear, his bottom lip starting to tremble. "I-I'm okay. Why? What happened?"
Grim shakes his head and sighs. "No, I just thought I heard—" he hesitates, not wanting to say he'd heard the young newsie talking in his sleep, knowing it would embarrass the poor kid. "Forget it. Just making sure you're okay. Go back to sleep."
With a brotherly pat on the shoulder, Grim stands back up and begins to turn around. He pauses for a second, glancing back to find Skittery pulling the blanket tighter around himself, burying his face into his pillow to hide his face. Grim wants to say something to the kid, anything, but decides against it.
As Skittery hears the footsteps fade away, he brings his head back up, fighting the hot tears that threaten to pour down at any given second. His mother is gone, and he's alone now in the middle of a dark cave with nothing and no one. Rats screech along the floor, and he clenches his jaw, determined not to cry, his emotions dangerously close to escaping from where he's buried them.
With a shaky hand, he closes his eyes and reaches up into his shirt, clasping his mother's Saint Philomena medal that hangs around his neck alongside the countless scars and bruises. He brings the cool silver to his lips and kisses it softly, running his thumb and forefinger along the delicate grooves and outlines.
Opening his eyes, Skittery bites his lip to stop it from quivering, either from the cries or the cold, not even he can tell. His thoughts, meanwhile, fumble their way through a prayer of his own in the softest of whispers. He swings his legs over the side and forces his aching body to get up, making his way over to the barred window. He gazes out of it as he wraps his hands around the bars, staring up at the dark sky.
Skittery sniffles quietly, his bloodshot eyes focusing on a single star just above him. Polaris, the North Star. It seems to be staring back down at him, twinkling with a dim determination.
He's whispering in broken Polish to his mama, feeling burning tears cut wet paths down his face.
He wipes angrily at his tears, brows furrowed, and forehead lined with stubborn resistance. Skittery takes a shallow breath and runs his shaky fingers through his hair.
His whispers are so quiet that his lips barely move as he forms the words. As the sharp chill of the January air frosts the thin windowpane, Skittery feels the cold sting his nose and mouth, and he pulls his numb hands into his sleeves to keep them warm.
And for just a moment, Skittery thinks he can tear away the bars and be out of that window and against the cold cobblestone below in less than a minute.
His throat locks up and his eyes spill over once more.
Kissing the medal around his neck again, he closes his eyes and tries to imagine his mama's voice, just as she'd sounded in the dream. But it keeps slipping away from him as quickly as it comes. All he can hear are the stifled cries from the floor above, and loud footsteps echoing from outside the dormitory – the Warden's footsteps. They grow louder, closer, until—
Keys jingle in the lock.
The sound that used to launch Skittery into a frenzied panic, now only seems to trigger a sense of detached doom, absolute numbness.
The doorknob starts to turn.
Skittery returns to Earth. And just like that, he's hurrying back to his bed, throwing the blanket over his body and shutting his eyes tightly. Pretending he doesn't care, pretending nothing can hurt him anymore.
This night, and the next night, and all the rest.