Rating: T for potential strong language
Summary: When Kloppman sees too much of his young self in a resentful Skittery on Christmas Eve, he feels it is finally time to share the story of a chance encounter, one that occurred nearly half a century before.
"God, I hate all this snow."
Pegasus was surprised. "Really?" She shrugged. "I love it." Peg grinned, opening her arms wide and throwing her head back for a moment to feel the soft cold crystals. She pushed back damp strands of her black hair and wiped the moisture from her face, a futile attempt considering that the snow was coming down quite heavily now and, carried by the wind, seemed to be falling horizontally.
It was only mid afternoon, but the streets today were covered in shades of gray due to the impending blizzard. Many factories and shops were closing early – being Christmas Eve, owners found the heart to release their workers a couple of hours before the regular clock out time. Skittery and Peg trudged through the piling snow in amicable silence, heading towards Tibby's to meet their friends before the Holiday banquet that night at the Duane Street Lodging House. Skittery pulled his cap lower, trying to keep the snow from his eyes. He hid his hands in his coat pocket and fiddled with the few coins that remained there amongst the lint. If it weren't for the free meal tonight, he would have been severely pushing his limit. Winter had been consistently his worst season and this year proved to be no different. He heaved a sigh despite himself.
Skittery looked over to Peg then, who was carrying at least three bags full of – well, he didn't know. He had asked her about its contents, of course, when she emerged from the front doors of the garment factory where she worked, looking about every which way in an almost frantic cautiousness. He had been waiting for her, like he did most every Sunday, right by the lamppost directly across the street. Skittery had been drawing a smoke when she hurriedly zigzagged through the throngs of people on the sidewalk, her pale green skirts fluttering with her rapid movements. The bags had been hanging at her elbows as she jumped over the accumulating hills of snow, crossing the street towards him. The cigarette had been hanging loosely between his lips when he was about to ask her what the hell she was doing with all those bags and why she was skipping like a lunatic – but she had forcefully pulled him by his arm without a word nor a glance, peeling him off from the lamppost he was leaning against.
He had nearly swallowed the damn cigarette.
They had walked at a brisk pace for nearly three blocks – he was having trouble keeping up with her – when she had finally breathed a sigh of relief, turned at her heels, and said cheerfully, "Hi, how are you?"
"Are you mad?" had been his bewildered response.
She had apologized, and that was when he asked her about the bags.
"Oh, it's just a couple of things I picked up… from here and there." She paused. "Mostly there."
In other words, she wasn't going to tell him. And she wasn't letting him get near them.
He looked at the paper bags now, and curiosity was getting the better of him. He was about to ask her about them again when she spoke.
"There's something about the snow, especially when it's coming down like this, that makes me feel a little… I don't know, a little melancholy. Do you know that feeling?" She put a hand on her chest, as though indicating that that was where she felt the emotion.
Skittery was confused and the bags were momentarily forgotten. "I thought you said you liked the snow."
"I do," she confirmed earnestly. "I feel that way, but it's… it's not a bad feeling. Maybe that's the wrong word. Wistful, maybe? I don't know how to describe it, really." She thought for a moment. "Snow is my first memory. You know when you're a kid and everything is right and magical and wonderful?" Peg bit her lip. She was sure she wasn't making any sense. "Nevermind, it's nothing," she said, laughing, feeling a bit foolish.
Skittery had been listening intently, but when he heard the nervous laugh he thought better than to pursue the subject. "Well, I think the snow is a pain," he said half-seriously. "It's freezing as hell, and when it's all done with, the streets are slippery, and your socks are never dry, and your feet are cold and wet from walking through all the dirty slush."
Peg laughed. "You're such a cynic."
"I'm not a cynic," he said pointedly. "I'm a realist."
They neared Tibby's. They could tell that, even from their distance, the small restaurant was booming with energy. The glow from within escaped through the windows, illuminating the darkened street. Sounds of laughter and boisterous conversation drifted towards them. When Skittery pushed the door open, they received the full extent of the excitement from within the humble establishment. Tibby's was filled to every square inch. The waiters shuffled awkwardly about, deftly holding their trays way above their heads in order to weave through the crowded interior. The volume of chatter was unprecedented, even for Tibby's. The place was bristling with movement – there were animated exchanges, waiters struggling to keep up with orders, and shivering bodies of those who had just escaped the cold outdoors. Everyone was in the spirit of the holidays. Even the gruff waiter who normally served the newsies seemed only mildly irritated that they were taking up precious seats without ordering anything.
Skittery and Peg had to squeeze through to reach the tables where many of the newsboys and girls had gathered. They simply stood at the head of the middle table against the windows as there were no more seats available to them. A wave of cheery greetings welcomed them. And, just as Skittery had first eyed Peg's new accessories, the boys and girls similarly reacted to the mystery bags.
Peg set the sacks on a cleared table. She had sidestepped Skittery's inquiries before, but she was not completely oblivious to the interested stares this time.
An impish half-smile formed on her face. "I guess there's no point in waiting." She pushed the bags to the center of the table. "Merry Christmas."
The group took that as their cue. The eager young boys clamored towards the table first, yelling, "Presents!" as they did so.
Skittery quirked an eyebrow. "Presents?" he asked, turning towards Peg who stood next to him.
She nodded as she tried to gather her bearings. She placed her hands on her ears hoping to warm them; unfortunately, it seemed her hands were even colder. The snow that had gathered on the front of her clothes was melting and seeping through to her skin. The cold sensation brought her body to a slight quiver. But then she saw the expressions of pure joy and curiosity of her companions, and something about the scene made her forget about the cold.
Skittery was skeptical about the bag's contents. "How'd you afford three bags worth of presents?"
"I didn't," she answered simply.
Skittery was afraid she was going to go through the rest of the day with her esoteric statements and was relieved when she elaborated.
"The Richardsons – that's the family I used to work for – were cleaning out their closets. All ten of them. Well, Annie was doing the cleaning – she still works for them. She's a sweet girl, the sweetest I know. She knew I didn't have a coat for winter so she told me she'd sneak some clothes out for me. I went to Queens a couple of weeks ago to pick them up, but I ended up… um, taking more than I had intended."
Skittery almost laughed at that and she saw it.
"They were perfectly fine garments!" she said, still in disbelief how anyone could throw out such garments.
The Richardsons, however, were amongst the wealthiest families in the city and, as Annie had informed Peg, they had just purchased a new wardrobe - again. The clothes they were discarding were "out of fashion," as Annie put it, even though she was wholly convinced that these clothes were the same ones that the family had purchased only several weeks before. When Peg and Annie sat rummaging through the clothes that day, Annie would lift an article and say, "I've never seen them even wear this before." And for as long as Ellie had known her, Annie never forgot a thing.
She was quiet for a minute, but then continued talking. "It's not really stealing," she said, even though no one accused her of it. "They were going to throw them out like they were useless rags. And I just – I just put them to better use because they're obviously not rags, right?" she questioned no one in particular.
Peg was verbalizing her every thought again, Skittery knew. He was amused. She was clearly trying to convince herself, not anyone else, that she had done a good deed. She confirmed his suspicions when with a terse nod of her head, she answered her own question.
"Right," she said, sounding close to satisfied with her reasoning.
"So," Skittery began, tapping his temple with his forefinger, "why were you running out from work, then?"
"Oh. That." She grinned sheepishly. "It's not every day that someone comes out of the factory with a bunch of clothes. It is a garment factory. I was afraid they would think I was stealing from them. And of course I wasn't. I was stealing from – no, not stealing… I was doing the Richardson family a favor by taking the clothes out of their hands. That's it!" she said, snapping her fingers as though she finally convinced herself.
"You're so paranoid," Skittery said, smirking in her direction.
"You're beginning to sound a lot like Jack here," added Race, squeezing past them to reach the other tables in order to show off his "new" shirt. He patted Peg on her shoulder as he scooted past her: it was his way of saying thanks.
In fact, the words 'thank you' were barely spoken. It would seem to be the simplest words to say, but those simple words never seemed to be enough to express the heartfelt gratitude experienced during Christmas. Instead, the girls gave the sincerest of hugs, and the boys gave the hardest of smacks on the back, which Peg assumed were appreciative gestures.
Skittery watched as one of the youngest newsies, Clue, pull out his gift from the bag. All of the garments were carefully folded and tied with two intersecting strings; a slip of paper was placed in the center of the strings for each gift, which featured the receiver's name in a surprisingly elegant script.
"Okay then, where'd you get the string?" Skittery asked with a hint of a teasing tone.
"Those I got from the big pile of leftovers on the factory floor. You don't know how long it took for me to find the longest pieces through that mess."
"And the paper?"
"Ms. Landry gave me a couple of sheets from her notebook. She's in charge of the girl's home."
"I remember. And the paper bags?"
"Those are from – oh," she said, finally realizing his intent. "You're making fun of me."
Skittery gave her a short chuckle in response and turned his attention back to the table where the boys and girls were now donning their gifts. Tumbler himself had received a gray neckerchief lined with blocks of white.
"I couldn't find anything small enough that'd fit him," Peg whispered to Skittery as she watched the boy unfold the cloth.
But Tumbler didn't seem to mind the simple gift. "Now I can be just like Cowboy!" he exclaimed, as he tied the kerchief around his neck, trying to imitate Jack.
Skittery screwed his face in distaste. "What d'ya want to be like Cowboy for?"
"Hey, who doesn't want to be like me?" Jack replied, sending a grin in Tumbler's direction.
"Yeah, who doesn't want to be like Cowboy?" echoed Les, sitting in the seat next to Jack.
Skittery caught David rolling his eyes at his little brother's outright adoration of the older newsboy.
And suddenly, more wrapped objects were appearing. Apparently, Peg wasn't the only one that came bearing gifts that afternoon. Mush slid a wrapped box in front of Blink who, in a state of surprise, took a minute to realize that the box was indeed for him. Bumlets handed a pair of small identical packages to Swifty and Pie Eater. David and Les presented Jack with a rather large parcel, triggering a wide smile to form on Jack's face. Jack, in a remarkable gesture, had prepared not one, not two, but three gifts, one for Davey, Les, and Crutchy. When Davey asked how Jack paid for all the presents, Jack went into an elaborate explanation of how he earned a lot of money in the last couple of months thanks to Les and casually added that he snatched some things - candies, most likely - from Toby back at Medda's. Hands hurried to open gifts and fragments of papers began to fly all over. The tables quickly filled with bright wrappings as well as newspapers, which some had used as a substitute to wrap their gifts. Race exclaimed, "Two in one night!" when Snipeshooter presented the older newsboy with a cylindrical object, covered haphazardly with an article from The World; it was undoubtedly a cigar.
"I swiped it off this old geezer a couple of days ago," Snipes said.
Race gave the kid a toothy grin. "Thanks, pal."
Clue joined Tumbler and together, they grabbed all the bags and crumpled wrappings, flipping through them to make sure no gift was unaccounted for.
"There ain't no more," Tumbler announced. "But… what'd you get, Skittery?"
"Huh?" Skittery uttered in reaction.
Peg started. "What?" She rummaged through the bags, but they were indeed empty. "Oh no… I must have forgotten. You must have slipped my mind when I was putting together my gift list…" she attempted to explain.
Skittery involuntarily stiffened, but quickly regained his composure, at least physically. "Yeah," he mumbled. "I didn't need anything anyway."
"Oh." She smiled. "Good, then."
He was suddenly preoccupied with a familiar emotion - though he couldn't quite put a finger on what it was - so much so that he missed the covert wink Peg gave Tumbler. Tumbler tried hard to contain his grin – he loved being in the know when it came to secrets, and he was, thankfully, good at keeping them.
"I'm going back to the Lodging House," said Skittery unexpectedly.
Peg turned her head sharply. "What? Now?"
"I'll see you guys later," he said to the group, cutting Peg off.
"Going already?" Mush asked from the table to their right. "You must really be excited about the dinner tonight."
With a half-hearted attempt at a smile, Skittery made to leave the restaurant. He had to shuffle his feet along, as he was compressed on all sides by people. When he finally reached the door, he pulled it open only to be struck by a strong gust of frigid wind and snow. The storm still hadn't passed. And Skittery at last recognized that all too familiar feeling that had overcome him moments before, when Tumbler revealed the empty paper bags.
Author's Note: This idea of Christmas fluffery was inspired by Dewey's Holiday with the Newsies Contest. Even though I couldn't find the time to write this in time to submit it (finals…), I wanted to thank Dewey for motivating me to try writing a Holiday story. Congratulations to Stress and her winning fanfic, "O'Malley's on 12th"! It is a wonderful story so anyone wanting some heartwarming Holiday tales should head on over!