New York – Randall's Island – House of Refuge – 1897
Skittery hesitates. He knows what he's getting into. He's known for almost five years now. The newsies used to joke about his 'habit' whenever he scavenged for laudanum on the streets. But since Skittery's ended up on the Island, no one's telling many jokes anymore.
Skittery conceals the way he scratches his arms in restrained craving, but it's been weeks now, and others have noticed.
It's nothing to be ashamed about, Skittery reminds himself. Hell, he's seen plenty of other boys in his ward suffer from withdrawal symptoms to one thing or another. Why should he be an exception?
Skittery has tried to distance himself from the others ever since he arrived, laying low and flying under the radar in the crowded dormitory. He's seen plenty come and go, most arrive in handcuffs and leave in coffins. He doesn't want to make waves, just wants to keep his head down until he's free. But it's getting harder and harder to remain invisible when his body is screaming for laudanum at all hours, threatening to fail him if he doesn't get his fix. Or at least, that's how he feels.
Skittery's asked Atlas, Muggs, Z, Crazy, River, Grim, and several others more than once that week for laudanum. But each boy turned out empty pockets.
And now Skittery finds himself in front of Warden Snyder's door. He'd been dragging his heels for days, but something deep inside of him unraveled, telling his brain to get the drug by any means necessary lest he die.
The task of venturing down to the Warden's lair had not been first on his to-do list. And Skittery hated that it had come to this.
Grim didn't say anything when he saw Skittery leave the dormitory that afternoon. He knew enough to understand.
The older boy had been watching out of the corner of his eye as Skittery paced in the dormitory washroom for over an hour. He knew Skittery had been fighting the urge to see the Warden, as his pride wouldn't let him.
But Skittery would be going on a month without laudanum. And Grim had seen even the strongest boys cave at one point or another. No one could go on forever. Not in a place like this.
And Grim knew how feeling that kind of desperate could make you do things you never thought you could until you do them.
Grim watched as Skittery defeatedly clenched his fists at his sides and then unclenched them, walking out of the washroom and toward the door, having made up his scattered mind.
Two other boys join Grim by the doorway.
"Where's he going?" The smirking one, Atlas, asked Grim, watching as Skittery walked down the hall.
Tide, a blue-eyed boy with thick eyebrows, said nothing but offered a knowing glance.
"Where's who going?" Grim asked flatly.
Atlas cocked an eyebrow. "The Polack. He just left."
Grim turned to look at the Staten Island native, giving him a warning look. "I didn't see him leave," he said, walking away, Tide following him. "And neither did you."
Folding his arms, Atlas stood with his lips slightly parted in amused disbelief. "He gave up, didn't he?"
Grim turned halfway, shrugging. "Didn't you?"
He saw Skittery disappear down the dark staircase, en route to hell.
Didn't we all, Grim thought with a sullen glance at the ground.
"Kid's going to Snyder?" Tide guessed quietly in his faded Scottish accent, brows furrowing.
Grim nodded, pursing his lips. "Yeah."
Tide gave a wry smile. "He'll learn."
In the partial light of the dark hallway, Skittery breathes out and readies himself, his eyes trained downward like a condemned man approaching a noose. He lifts his fist to the door, pausing to catch his breath. Finally, he raps on the wood twice, hearing a low "Enter," after a few seconds.
Skittery grips the doorknob shakily and then pushes into Warden Snyder's untidy office. It's full of guards and orderlies, with one older woman serving coffee. Some of them sit with their feet up on tables, hats off, playing cards, smoking, reading. They barely notice Skittery walk in.
He crosses the room to Warden Snyder's desk, already regretting this decision.
The Warden doesn't even look up, as if he can automatically sense it's one of his charges and not a staff member. He doesn't make eye contact, only mumbles something incoherent to the roundsman he's playing cards with.
Skittery can feel himself perspiring, his stomach twisting in knots. He needs laudanum, fast. He's aching to be numb, to be at peace.
The boy stands before the Warden's desk silently. Skittery can't bring himself to say the words. He's scratching his right arm again, dragging his nails up and down scarred skin. Finally, Skittery clears his throat. "Excuse me, Warden Snyder."
The Warden's eyes flick to Skittery, looking him up and down. Snyder looks rather old for fifty-two. A cigar hangs from the corner of his mouth as he stares at the boy. And then, a sneer tugs at his lips as the cogs in his brain begin turning. He realizes why Skittery is there, but he is going to make the boy say it aloud. He wants Skittery to beg.
"I need laudanum, sir," Skittery continues nervously, averting his gaze as he hugs his arms around himself. Not because he's cold, but because he's scared his heart might beat right out of his chest.
Snyder stares wordlessly. Of course, he knows what Skittery's looking for. He knows everything, somehow.
Skittery's losing his nerve, and now he's surrounded by Snyder's yes men staff, who do whatever Snyder says whenever he says. They spend every waking day making sure Snyder stays in charge of the place. After all, he lines their pockets well. Not that Snyder doesn't have his own powerful people to answer to, but he has them so wrapped around his finger that he could burn the place down and only get a light reprimand.
Snyder stands and reaches out his rough, large hand to throw his cards onto the desk in a fold. He laughs quietly, and Skittery shrinks back a bit, trembling. "I'm dying for it," Skittery says weakly. "Real bad."
Snyder always did have a way of worming secrets out of anyone. Skittery never knew how he did it but standing before the man gives him an idea. It's the look in his eyes, the bark of his voice. It's as though in an instant he can make some poor soul's life hell. And his network of corrupt chess pieces who sit at his right hand would help cover it up, no questions asked.
The Warden knows the laws of the institution and giving contraband to his charges violates a sizable number of them. But Snyder reasons what the Commissioner doesn't know…
Snyder takes in Skittery's appearance and his ragged uniform.
Skittery looks pathetic and half-empty, his warm skin now a sickly pale from the withdrawals. For a moment, Snyder looks like he is going to give into the puppy-dog eyes Skittery displays. But there's always some kind of catch.
"Sit," Snyder says firmly, gesturing to the empty chair before his desk.
Skittery sits, hands fidgeting, trying to conceal his shaking fingers. He feels his heart sink to his stomach, tears welling in his eyes for reasons he doesn't understand.
Snyder returns to his desk and slowly searches through his desk drawers almost gleefully. Skittery squirms in his seat as the Warden deliberately takes his time, knowing precisely where he keeps such paraphernalia. After a minute, he resurrects a spoon and a bottle with an amber tincture.
Skittery looks up. The Warden pours out a spoonful of laudanum and begins to offer it to Skittery. Skittery unsteadily reaches out to take the spoon, only to have it pulled away at the last second. The boy's face contorts in betrayal, as if he were really expecting it to be that easy.
"Please, sir," Skittery begs anxiously, his eyes glued to the spoon. He's worried that it's all a cruel joke.
"You want it?" The Warden asks tauntingly, holding up the spoon.
Skittery sees what's coming. He's not naïve enough to think he'd get laudanum for free. He's heard the stories, the accounts from other boys in his ward. He's known for weeks what the deal is.
"I need it, sir," Skittery nods to the spoon pointedly. He hates laudanum with all his person, but he needs it to survive. And he chooses survival over pride.
"How bad?" Snyder inquires casually. "You know, this stuff costs me money."
Skittery isn't stupid. And he thinks, in his muddled mindset, there is no price too high to pay for his fix. His life's already a disaster, and there's hardly any dignity left in him. Skittery is the most desperate he's ever been. He moves clumsily to his feet and offers a meek shrug.
"I'll do anything," Skittery whispers as he scratches his arm obsessively. The Warden considers him, and Skittery feels his breath hitch in loathing because he knows what he just said has opened too many doors.
Slowly, Snyder hands Skittery the spoonful of laudanum. From there, Skittery manages to get his first surge of comfortable numbness. He looks more collected and eased, and his heartbeat returns to normal.
Now Skittery's mind is spinning, and he's becoming lightheaded from guilt and laudanum as he awaits the Warden's verdict. He's seen plenty of other kids in the Refuge in a comparable situation, making deals with the Warden in exchange for narcotics or something as small as a confiscated stuffed animal.
The day he first arrived, a few weeks ago, he waited inside the Warden's office to get his uniform and dormitory assignment. While he waited on a long bench, Warden Snyder was at his desk, handing a boy about Skittery's age a cigarette. When the boy asked for a light, the Warden said something to the effect of, "You'll have to earn that, won't you?"
Skittery knows how pitiful he looks. Face pale, eyelids reddened, swaying dizzily, and doing his best to keep his focus. Through the heaviness of the laudanum, Skittery is far gone, utterly disengaged from the world around him.
"Since you prefer laudanum to most else," Snyder began walking around his desk to Skittery, "You shouldn't have a problem going without your meals this week."
Skittery makes a strained little noise in protest, but keeps his mouth shut for fear of what he might say in his state. He manages a half-nod if it means he'll get more laudanum.
"Good," Snyder replies, this time forcefully giving the boy another spoonful. Skittery lets out a strangled groan, some of the laudanum spilling out of the corners of his mouth. He groans again in slight shock as Snyder pulls out the spoon, feeling sick. There's an arrogant grin on Snyder's face, and the roundsman at his desk chuckles softly.
"Send in the next one," is all Snyder says after a beat, looking more than a little smug. "He's waiting outside."
Skittery doesn't recall seeing anyone in the hall outside the office, but Snyder always did have an omniscience to him.
"Yes, sir," Skittery says despondently.
Snyder tucks the bottle of laudanum into a drawer in the desk, locking it. "Unlike you, laudanum isn't his opiate."
I would hope not, Skittery thought, heading for the door.
Suddenly, he's itching for another dosage. His heart aches for the kid who's about to come in after him, and he looks over at the Warden's spiteful eyes for a fleeting second before looking away.
Outside the office, a boy his same age stands up when he sees Skittery exit the room. He runs a shaky hand through his greasy hair and stops Skittery with a light pull on his arm.
"Skittery," The boy whispers, fear in her eyes as he gazes at him. Skittery recognizes the boy simply as No Name. "Was Snyder disagreeable? I really need a drink. I'm about going out of my skin for whiskey."
He speaks so quickly it makes Skittery's head swim. He hesitates, wanting to tell No Name it's not worth it, but realizing that's never convinced anyone of anything before. And Skittery needs more laudanum right now.
"He's feeling generous," was all Skittery mumbles before turning away and heading for the stairs.
Skittery stops himself on the second step, and looks back at No Name, who is working up the courage to knock. The newsboy shook his head quickly, climbing up the stairs, knowing there was nothing he could say or do that would help.
Just a week ago Muggs, another boy in their ward, had been going crazy for a hit of cocaine. Snyder exchanged a thumbnail of the stuff for Muggs' sacred heart medal that he always wore around his neck, the one that had belonged his grandmother. It was genuine silver, and something the Warden would no doubt pawn. Muggs had handed it over without another thought to snort the white powder. No anger, no sadness, nothing.
That's where he and Skittery differed. Skittery is docile because he still has hope. Muggs is only pliant because he never had any hope to begin with. If the Warden were to suggest that Skittery trade his mother's Saint Philomena medal for laudanum, he'd never do it. He'd rage and scream and stomp if it came down to that. But Muggs gave up his only familial possession in a matter of milliseconds.
The Warden found this fascinating, and he likes toying with Muggs – likes trying to get a reaction out of him as if it were a game. Skittery doesn't understand why the Warden bothers. The boy is about as lively as a brick wall.
Even Grim seems put off by him.
The truth of the matter is that all the boys in Skittery's dormitory have been where Skittery is at some point. Groveling in front of Snyder to scrounge a taste of alcohol, a line of cocaine, a drag of nicotine, whatever their vice may be.
Skittery lets his thoughts drift elsewhere as he makes his way back to the dormitory. He tries to think of anything that will take his mind off the craving for another drop of laudanum. He thinks about his little sister Sophie, hoping she's somewhere safe and warm. Honestly, he doesn't know where she goes at night, but before he left, he asked Jack Kelly to keep an eye on her. Jack's the only one he really trusts with such a task. Pie Eater is too forgetful, and Snoddy is taking care of his sick mother.
The laudanum takes the edge off. Now Skittery's so numb he can't even bring himself to be sad about missing Sophie. He does miss her, of course, but his chest is empty of pain, his eyes are dry of tears, and feeling anything other than apathy takes a tremendous amount of effort. It didn't always.
Could he even remember the last time he felt any kind of joy? A month in this place would make anyone lose their sanity and the better part of their memory. It's a wonder Skittery is thinking at all given how dead he feels.
He doesn't like the feeling, but what can he do besides go completely mad? That's one way to end up in Blackwell's Lunatic Asylum. Skittery is barely a month in, and he has eleven more to go. His body is giving up before his mind does, and that is a terrifying thing to experience.
Skittery's stomach growls as he looks out the barred window on the second-floor landing, gazing longingly at the New York streets in the distance. In his head, he hears horses, trolleys, young, old, immigrants, soldiers, factory workers, affluent businessmen, stylish celebrities, and poor mothers all crowding the streets. How many of them wonder if Skittery is safe, warm, well-fed, and happy?
He climbs the rest of the steps in utter dejection.
As afternoon turns to evening, Skittery feels his stomach grumble, knotting itself with hunger pangs. Is he really to go an entire week without food for two, lousy spoonfuls of laudanum? For that he deserves an entire bottle.