Disclaimer: Disney owns Newsies and all the wonderful characters from the movie.
The scene swam in her head for days. The memory of what happened haunted her especially at night, when everyone was asleep and the quiet of the dark took over. In her youth, those moments of quiet had been rare gifts in such a busy household. She had grabbed at the moments eagerly, to think and to daydream about romantic adventure, like in the short novels Anne and she had sneakily "borrowed" from the Richardson's library. That was years ago. After what she witnessed in that first meeting with Blade, the quiet moments she had so cherished had suddenly become maddening.
Thinking that if she were exhausted enough she would be able to sleep through the quiet nights, Ellie immersed herself in her work. Though she was initially frightened away by the job conditions, each passing day brought a further familiarity with the garment factory on Orchard Street. She was almost keeping pace with the more experienced workers even. It wasn't easy, however, sitting on the narrow stool and squinting into the relative dimness to match the stitching patterns. Her fingers, hands, were suffering from the sudden strain. Still, a large chunk of her finished pieces was always deemed incorrect; she never received the wages she expected after all the effort she put in.
And each day, the anxiety grew. Counting her earnings every night, Ellie kept seeing herself in Tess' place: beaten down and bloody and filled with regret for not having worked harder to get more money. The fear drove her like it would a terrified, clambering coward. She wasn't going to put in the most money—that Ellie knew from the staggering amount she observed the others bring in that night. She just needed enough to escape the ring and Beth.
But it was already Wednesday morning. An entire week had sped past as if time itself wanted to send Ellie into that ring.
The morning sun was just peaking up from the horizon. Ellie left the Girl's Home earlier than usual to get started at work as soon as possible. At this hour, though, she would be waiting outside the factory before it even opened. As she headed to work, not yet quite awake, she felt the warmth and sensed the sweet aromas of freshly baked breads and pastries wafting towards her. Coming up to her right was a bread shop. She passed by this and numerous other bread shops every day, but she felt compelled to stop in front of it today. Viennese Bakery, she read as she slowed to a halt beneath the shop's awning. She caught a glimpse of the baker busily setting and filling up the shelves from warm crusty breads, bread sticks, and rolls. They had already arranged the window shelves with intricate white lace and baskets full of baked goods to entice patrons, and it was working well.
Of course she couldn't afford to, but Ellie was tempted for a taste. She continued to stand there, entranced by the smell of warm food, reminded of sweltering days in the kitchen when Nancy baked bread for the Richardsons.
Not too far from the Viennese Bakery were three boys bustling door to door, distributing copies of the Newsies Banner. Pie Eater, Snoddy, and Skittery had been making the rounds in the neighborhood, humbly asking for support of the Newsies cause. The plan was to hold another rally at Newspaper Row at noon. This time, though, the newsies hoped to have the support of other exploited child workers. It was important, therefore, to spread the word as quickly as possible within the next few hours.
The three newsboys were just about to turn into Sixth Street and onto Second Avenue when Skittery, drawn by the whiff of fresh breads, absentmindedly gazed up the block towards its source. He did a double take when he saw Ellie standing there in front of the bakery. He had been joking when he asked her if she was following him last week at the restaurant, but now he had to wonder—was she really following him around?
"Hey Skittery, you comin'?" asked Pie from ahead.
"Huh. Yeah… yeah, I'll catch up with you fellas," Skittery said inattentively, already walking away from them.
Snoddy raised a brow, shared a shrug with Pie, and shot a confused look towards where Skittery was heading. What he saw caused his face to break into a wide grin. He went running back to Pie and, clapping his friend's shoulder, excitedly whispered, "He's seein' a girl!"
Skittery sidled closer and closer to the bakery, watching Ellie curiously, until he was standing right next to her. The girl barely flinched, didn't even notice his presence. He studied her profile for a long moment, and was surprised to see a look of torn longing in her face. Skittery inhaled softly. He knew that look well. Directing his gaze into the bakery, Skittery cleared his throat deliberately.
He saw her eyes changing, going out and back into focus, until they finally met his through the reflection in the window. She started, whipping around to face him.
"You're okay," she said, relief in her voice. Her face softened instantly, leaving no trace of the pained expression she had on just seconds before.
Skittery arched his brows high in genuine surprise. The change in her was so abrupt he almost doubted what he had seen earlier.
"At the rally," she elaborated, misinterpreting his reaction, "the police made arrests… I thought they put you in jail."
That pulled him out of his thoughts. "Yeah, they did, those bastards," he answered tensely. Then with a frown, he asked, "You saw all that?" He was sure he had seen her run backstage with the other girls when the cops and thugs infiltrated the rally. She couldn't have seen the riot that amassed outside in the lobby, when the guys frenziedly tried to get Jack back from the grips of the policemen—only to be cuffed themselves.
She shook her head delicately. "Ricky," Ellie supplied, "he explained what happened."
Ricky, of course. All around good guy with a sharp ear for information.
"Got out on bail," Skittery said before quickly adding, "Here, hold onto these." He dumped the stack of Newsies Banners into her surprised arms.
She blinked at the papers, but her mind lingered on his last statement. "But that must have been a fortune," she gaped.
"Yeah, for Denton. Paid for every single one of us. Nice guy. Come on," he said, gesturing to her as he walked to the door of the bakery.
"What are you doing?" she whispered urgently, scurrying to follow him despite the shot of worry she felt from the manner of his stride.
Skittery paused at the door. "Distract the baker, will ya?" With that, he pushed the door open.
But he was already inside. Though tremendously confused, she hurried in after him.
The towering, white-haired pastry chef at the counter was watching them, the potential customers, with interest. "May I help you?" he asked, his voice thick with a European inflection.
Distracted by Skittery's mysterious behavior, Ellie didn't expect the baker to address them first. Skittery turned around and gave her a short, meaningful glance, directing her with a flick of his brown eyes to the man at the counter.
"Yes," she said slowly, frowning in Skittery's direction before flashing a wide smile at the baker. She had no idea why Skittery was asking her to provide a distraction, but she figured she would find out soon enough.
With the fragrant, homey tints hanging delightfully in the air, Ellie found little difficulty in searching for something to say. "Can you point me to that wonderful smell? It's a bit like a roll, but there's also something sweet"—she sniffed the air thoughtfully—"like peaches? Or maybe apricots?"
"Ah, yes, young ma'am," the man said enthusiastically. "The buchteln—that is what you are smelling." He pointed towards a tray lined with what looked like a cross between a small cake and a dinner roll.
"Buchteln," he repeated for her. "Sweet dumplings, with apricot filling."
"Oh, I see."
"Very delicious. You have a good nose," he said.
She chuckled, slightly embarrassed. "Thank you. Actually, I used to help cook and—" she began to explain, but a sharp poke at her elbow brought her attention back to Skittery. He was heading out. "Um, thank you again… for the buchteln," Ellie said apologetically—the man looked baffled by her sudden leaving—and scuttled out the door.
"What was that about?" she asked when she reached him already several yards away.
Before he could answer, an outraged shout came from behind them. "Hey! Hey, you!"
Ellie twisted around to see the baker standing just outside his shop and yelling angrily after them.
"Cheese it!" Skittery alerted. He took off but managed only a few steps before realizing that Ellie, deeply perplexed, continued to stand awkwardly in the middle of the street. He sighed, turned round, grabbed her hand and, despite her surprised protest, pulled her to run with him.
They dashed down the block, veering to the right onto Sixth Street, turning right into Second Avenue. They continued their frantic pace for another two blocks. When Skittery felt they put a safe distance behind them, he slowed his pace. Ellie stopped to catch her breath, looking nervously over her shoulder. "What's going on?" she demanded between huffs, trying to gather her wits. She moved to push back the loosened strands of dark hair from her eyes but was impeded, to her surprise, by her lack of free hands. One arm was holding onto Skittery's papers. The other…. Her eyes, and subsequently his, dropped abruptly to their still linked fingers.
Both hastily withdrew their hands.
Several beats of silence passed. Skittery, then, stiffly took back the papers from her and, drawing a breath, spoke finally. "Here," he offered simply. "For paying for my drink."
He held out a large yellow muffin. Upon laying eyes on the round cake and catching its sweet corn scent, Ellie's stomach lurched for it greedily. Thankfully, she still retained enough sense to stop herself from ravenously swiping the food from him.
"You stole that," she stated, understanding at last what had just conspired at the bakery.
"Yeah. Sometimes it's either that or starve," he said bluntly.
She looked saddened by the harsh truth in his statement. "I've never stolen anything before," Ellie said in a low voice.
"So you've got a clean record."
"But I just helped you," she insisted, frowning, a fierce debate taking place behind her dark eyes.
He considered that. "Unknowingly. Look, I ain't returning this. If you don't want it, that means more for me which is just fine with—"
She moved so quickly that Skittery hardly registered the muffin was taken from him. Ellie split the small cake and placed the half back onto his open hand before he even had time to blink.
"Just this once," he heard her say to herself quietly.
He had thought, for a moment, that she would forego her hunger to be a stickler for morals. When he saw her half of the bread already in her mouth, however, it was confirmation of what he had seen earlier: the expression on Ellie's face when she was standing alone in front of the bakery—it wasn't the face of someone with a passing fancy for some sweets. It was the face of someone famished, of one who had barely eaten in days. And Skittery, with his years as a newsboy working on the streets, was all too familiar with that look. And he knew that anyone who experienced that sort of hunger eventually got to a point when morals—like the one warning against stealing—became subjective, murky, another oppressive nuisance laid down by society.
"We're square now," he said with finality.
The slightest hint of mirth flickered across her face as she shook her head doubtfully. "This is never going to end, is it?"
He quirked a brow in question. "What d'ya mean?"
Sighing, Ellie explained, "You know this muffin is worth more than the penny I gave."
He let out a groan, though his amusement came through in his eyes.
They walked up the street in amiable silence—Skittery looking for his friends, Ellie heading to work—as they had their breakfast. Ellie nearly swallowed down her half. From the corner of his eye, he spied her chewing on her last bite thoughtfully, scrutinizing him.
"What?" he asked.
Startled that he caught her looking, Ellie flushed slightly. She swallowed the rest of her muffin before tentatively asking, "Why are you carrying a walking stick?"
That was a question he hadn't heard in a while. Skittery felt the thin wooden cane under his arm. It had been a little over two years since he began taking the walking stick everywhere with him. "It helps me sell papers," he said.
She pondered for a brief moment. "I hope you don't use it to scare kids away from your selling spot," she said.
The theory garnered a chortle. He had started carrying the walking stick with him when, as he passed the age of fourteen, Skittery began to notice his diminishing sales. No longer did he have the same paper-selling prowess as he did when he was, say, nine. Even at twelve. At fifteen, he joined the faction of newsboys on the uncertain brink of adulthood. Fighting a losing sales battle against hundreds of other—younger—newsies, but still needing to stay afloat to survive, Skittery adopted a trademark. It wasn't the most creative one, but he had found the walking stick lying around idly in a dusty corner of the lodging house one evening. On a whim, he took it with him the next morning. And the next morning, and the next after that. It helped, somewhat. People picked up on his presence more. After all, it was hard to miss someone shouting a headline and waving a walking stick in your face.
Of course, the trademark didn't make him filthy rich—he'd never heard of anyone getting filthy rich from selling papes—but the walking stick became part of his routine long before he realized its effects had worn off at sixteen.
Now in his seventeenth year, Skittery had no disillusions about the impending future. He was already pushing his limit as a newsboy and with year eighteen bearing down on him, it meant he would no longer be allowed to sleep under the Duane Street Lodging House's roof. For all he knew, this strike could be the last of his battles as a newsie. If they succeeded in bringing the price back down, Skittery going to seriously focus on saving up for the future. He had to.
Ellie stopped. "I think your friends are waiting for you."
Skittery raised his eyes to see Snoddy and Pie standing just outside the backdoor of a small corner building: a boardinghouse for working girls. Snoddy had that stupid knowing smirk on his face while Pie stared in disbelief. As Skittery glanced at the girl to his right, he knew exactly what his friends were thinking.
He cleared his throat. "So, uh, the newsies are having another rally at Newspaper Row," he announced, handing her a copy of the Newsies Banner. "This afternoon."
Ellie took the sheet, quickly reading over its contents. "You're all so brave for doing this," she whispered to herself. Despite the setbacks, despite being arrested, the newsboys were still standing—and fighting back.
Skittery had heard her whispered awe. He snorted in response. "Yeah, well…" He trailed off, flashing back on the week's events since the strike began. "Sometimes you gotta stand up for yourself, right?"
Something about the way he said it triggered Ellie's mind to recede into its memories. Suddenly she was nine, sitting on a park bench and comforting a ten year old stranger whom she had barely managed to pull out of a scrap.
A couple of days before when Ellie found him selling his papers on Fifth Avenue, Mort had referenced that same scene, quoting something she had said that sunny afternoon seven years ago. Odd that she hadn't been able to remember what Mort was talking about then, but hearing Skittery say it now, she recalled the exchange clearly.
"I wanted to ask you," asked a timid Mort, "what's your name?"
"Ellie Summers," she had answered. "What's yours?"
"Mort," he said. Then after a pause: "You're really brave."
She had liked the sound of that, to be called brave like the heroes in the books Ms. Hutchins read to Francesca. But she knew she wasn't like them. "I'm not brave," she mumbled honestly. "But sometimes you have to stand up for yourself, right?"
"We'd really appreciate it if you could spread the word. You know, if you want," Skittery said, his voice breaking through Ellie's thoughts.
She shook off the remnants of the memory. "Yes, of course," Ellie offered.
Skittery glanced at his friends before nodding at Ellie. "See ya, then."
And they parted ways.
As she headed forward, she felt the change inside immediately. Only one block away, Ellie was compelled to turn around and steal one last curious look at Skittery.
Until recent events, Ellie thought she had grown to become decent at playacting—that is, pretending easiness when she was feeling anything but. Years of perfecting a convincing smile and curtsy under Agnes' strict watch and the Richardson's fearsome gaze had had much to do with that. Though those years had been difficult, she was grateful for them: they had cemented for her the idea of the restorative power of a single smile. Agnes' teachings were about putting on a show for others, but to Ellie, they also became a method of reassuring herself. Whenever she got in trouble with the Richardsons, or she felt the twisting envy for Francesca's beautiful dresses, or she unsuccessfully tried to piece together memories of her father, Ellie pulled back her lips, pulled them back taut into a forced smile. Her mind, shackled into melancholy in those long moments, followed the simple physical motion and was freed to climb out of its rut.
She didn't understand why it worked and she didn't bother questioning it. She only practiced it—to keep herself out of trouble, for the sake of others, and to keep her own tears at bay—to the point where even her oldest friend, Mort, couldn't see past the smiling face.
But it was different with Skittery. In the brief moments she had spent with him—a stranger, an acquaintance at best—Ellie felt honest. Just minutes before, she had even snatched the bread from his hand like a rude child, revealing how famished she truly was.
This was strange of her. Agnes had taught her better than that.
But, she thought, maybe it's not me. He had known she was hungry, she was sure of it. She did try to hide it, and he had seen past the façade.
That wasn't all that was bothering her. Skittery also put her mind at ease. Somehow, he commanded her attention, coercing everything else on her mind to rest. Considering her current troubles with Blade, this new realization unnerved her.
And yet, she found herself welcoming the distraction he provided.
With the questions swirling around in her head, the trek to the factory didn't seem to take any time at all. Her intention to arrive early failed, however, as she spotted a group of girls pushing past the factory door.
Ellie quickened her pace until she merged with the group and exchanged polite morning cordialities. She didn't know the girls well enough to strike up a conversation, but, in exchange for the bread, she decided it was the least she could do for Skittery. She drew in a breath and asked the girls if they had heard about the rally at Newspaper Row.
"Newspaper Row?" one girl asked as they hurried to their stations. "It's not the newsies rally, is it?"
"It is," Ellie confirmed.
"What's their strike got to do with us?" another voiced, uninterested.
Ellie pulled from her skirt pocket the Newsies Banner and passed it along to the skeptical girls, letting the infinitely more eloquent Bryan Denton do the explaining. The thin paper made its rounds, but before anyone could voice their opinion, the petulant foreman stomped into the room. His beady eyes scanned the room of working girls and they complied silently, grabbing at rolls of fabric and starting up their machines.
As the usual workday proceeded, no one spoke for hours.
Not until there came the rumblings from outside.
At a quarter before noon, an unusual cacophony coasted into the factory through the windows. Shocked, the girls shot up from their seats and huddled at the two windows.
Peering down into the streets below, they saw a flock of courier boys flying by on their bicycles, followed by a marching mass of girls and boys—factory and sweatshop workers, bootblacks, newsies, street sweepers.
"Will ya look at that?" whispered one in amazement.
"I can't believe it," said another girl, smiling. "Looks like Jack Kelly got himself a real rally. I don't know about you girls, but I'm not missing this." Picking up her skirts, she turned round and made for the exit.
The others, their excitement now palpable, immediately scurried after her. Only Ellie and one young girl remained, both on the fence for they were unwilling to lose a day's earnings.
Then the foreman rushed into the room, his face showing his incredulity, baffled by the girls suddenly taking their leave.
"What the hell is goin' on here?" he shouted angrily.
For the young girl Mildred, that was the deciding point. Raising her chin high, she stared at the man straight in the eyes. "We're goin' on strike, sir."
Mildred's spirited response left Ellie feeling slightly abashed, selfish and cowardly. And that was Ellie's deciding point.
They hurried down the stairs and joined the strikers advancing towards the rally site. It was only several blocks down from Orchard. With each block they passed, with every step they took closing in on Park Row, the din of the crowd grew. They crossed Canal Street onto Division, then merged onto Bowery until they hit Park Row, otherwise known as Newspaper Row.
From every street poured in more strikers. Newspaper Row was overwhelmed and engulfed by the working children of New York. Chants of "Strike!" and ecstatic cheers echoed through the air. Picket signs were lifted high, proud. It was invigorating to see so many people come together for one cause, to defend themselves against the mighty few. There was power here. They were a united army.
This was what Jack Kelly had been talking about at Irving Hall, Ellie realized.
From the other side of the street, Mort stood amongst his fellow Queens newsies. They had been waiting for what felt like hours, waiting for Jack Kelly and David Jacobs to reemerge from The World's iron gates, waiting to discover the outcome of their strike. The multitude that had been passionately protesting to have their rights heard had quieted dramatically with anticipation.
Mort saw Evans and Ricky straighten from ahead. Their sights were directed on the gates, which were swinging open finally. David Jacobs sauntered out with Kelly close behind, their expressions unreadable. The Manhattan newsies closed in around the pair, whispering furiously and pushing Kelly for answers. Several keyed up seconds passed during which the city became abnormally hushed.
And then, hoisting a small boy onto his shoulders, Kelly let out a decisive and resounding shout: "We beat 'em!"
The crowd sprung back to life. People jumped and clapped, and they let out shouts of pure joy. Some even hugged the people around them—whether they were strangers, it didn't matter.
"Told ya we'd beat 'em, didn't I?" exclaimed Ricky.
He had, Mort admitted. Ricky was the one who persuaded Mort to return to Queens, guaranteeing that—if the newsies all stuck together for just a while longer—they would bring Old Man Pulitzer back to his senses. "Or at least get the paper price back down," Ricky had said with a wink.
It wasn't what he said that had convinced Mort, but the fact that it was Ricky who said it, and with such conviction. Like the rest of the Queens newsboys, Mort trusted him, and Evans, too.
The newsboys gathered together, proud, elated, and relieved. With the jubilant atmosphere, even Mort caught several pats on the back. He tried to keep his balance in the midst of all the wild celebrations. It was when he caught himself from stumbling that he saw her. He almost missed it, but then his eyes whipped back to confirm the familiar face across the street.
Ellie. His face lit up when he got a clearer look at her. She was smiling.
But he had never seen her smile like that before. It puzzled him. Furthermore, her eyes were fixed on something in the distance to his right. Intrigued, Mort followed her line of sight. He expected to find nothing in particular—after all, everyone here was smiling—but he was wrong.
There, standing amongst the Manhattan newsies, was Skittery. Grinning. Panicked, Mort turned from him and Ellie and back, and there was no denying it.
They were gazing at each other.
Mort felt like someone had stomped on his heart. The blood rushed in his veins, pulsed in his ears. His head was clouded by a potent emotion he couldn't place. He couldn't think, so he only reacted. Breaking out from the throng of newsies, Mort marched forward.
Closing the distance between them, he called her, raising his voice over the ruckus. "Ellie."
She was genuinely surprised to see him. "Mort, you're here."
She beamed, and it only stung him. It wasn't the same expression as the one he had just seen her share with Skittery. "Can we talk?"
Noting his tone, she frowned with concern. "Of course."
He took her elbow in an effort to guide her, but they struggled to remove themselves from the rejoicing mass. In an impulsive moment, Mort chanced a look back over his shoulder to where he had last seen Skittery.
Their eyes locked.
Mort dragged his gaze away, tightening his hold on Ellie's arm.
And Skittery was left scowling after them.
Author's Note: Oh, dear, the movie is over! Where do we go from here? I will tell you: I hope people have been curious about her appearance in Chapter Eleven, because we're finally moving on to the Miss Addleton storyline. :)
I have to say I am relieved to have finished this chapter. I enjoyed writing more about the characters and moving their development forward, but I didn't expect to be stuck on the bread scene for so long and, for some reason, the wording felt even more awkward than usual. The more I deleted and wrote parts again, the more awkward they sounded! What's up with that?
Thank you to stress, Adren, Song For A Rainy Day and Laelyn24 for the encouraging reviews! I hope you know how much I really appreciate them. :)