Disclaimer: The character of Spot Conlon in this story is the property of Disney and his likeness is only used for fan related purposes. Any original characters featured are the intellectual property of their creators.
Author's Note: This is the new story I've been working on. After Five, I wasn't sure if I wanted to dive back into another heavy long fic and I waited a couple of months before an idea I felt I could really run with came to me. This story it is that - as the summary states, it'll be something like a Gothic Horror and, once again, it's something I've never really done before. First of all, it's Spot-centric and Brooklyn-based (which is one of the main reasons I've taken so long to get it up and running... the research, gah!) Secondly, it'll be a romance, or as close to a romance as I'll ever come ;) This is definitely a different approach for me and I hope it is received all right. As always, reviews are always appreciated!
Warnings: This story will have some minor language, non-graphic violence, eventual character death, minor adult themes and blatant use of the folk tale, Little Red Riding Hood.
Standin' on your mama's porch
You told me it would last forever
Oh the way you held my hand
I knew that it was now or never
Those were the best days of my life
- "Summer of '69", Bryan Adams
The Working Boys' Home in Brooklyn, 1891.
Spot Conlon woke up like he did every morning: as slowly as possible, taking the time and the care to stretch out in his small bunk without waking up Butchy above him. His eyes were closed as he cocked his ear, listening. Pleased by what he didn't hear—namely, the sounds of countless other boys like him, getting ready for a morning hawking the headlines—and what he did hear—lots and lots of snuffles and snores—Spot opened his eyes and smirked to himself in that self-satisfied way he always did.
He only allowed himself that one moment of satisfaction before he was leaning over and rifling around in the battered wooden box he kept stowed under his bunk; too young, too new to the house to be trusted with a key to his very own locker, the underside of his bunk was as much privacy as he was allowed. Spot took a quick inventory as his thin fingers grabbed something new, searching for those things he would need.
His worn shirt and faded trousers?
A trusty hat to hide his head of unwashed hair?
Got it. With his free hand he scratched his head, feeling the slick strands slide through his fingers. He'd have to remember to take a turn in one of the tubs in the basement after he finished selling off the evening edition of the paper.
His fingers groped blindly, past his shooters, past a couple of dud coppers and even a bit of rolled-up string. Where was it? His heart sped up a little faster, visions of some of the boys with stickier fingers looting around in his box, in his belongings, when suddenly his pinky brushed up against the roughly-hewn piece of wood and he exhaled in relief.
Ah. Right where he left it.
Then, slipping out of his bunk, Spot pulled on his trousers first, buttoned up his shirt quickly next and finally jammed his hat on his head, doing what he could to cover up his greasy dirty blond hair. He reached back under the bunk and grabbed a couple of his shooters. The slingshot he stuck in its place of honor in his back pocket.
There, he decided, all set. And without waking up any of his bunkmates, still slumbering and snoring around him, he snuck out of the dormitory into the third floor hallway, hiking up his over-sized trousers as he went.
All of his clothes, from the shirt to the trousers and the yellow-stained union suit he wore underneath, they were all donations given to the Working Boys' Home. He was damn grateful to have them, too; if they would've fit properly, that would've been quite the luxury. And Spot Conlon wasn't the sort of boy who cared a lick about something so silly as a pair of too-large trousers when there were plenty of boys who went without. All it took was a hitch and he wouldn't trip. He couldn't complain and wouldn't at any rate.
In the year since he'd come to lodge at 61 Poplar Street he had perfected his morning routine. He had no choice. First awake every morning, first out of the lodging house, first one down at the distribution center... that was how it had to be if Spot wanted to make sure he got to buy any papes of his own to sell. He was eight years old, a scrawny underfed kid who was destined for the back of the line unless he was already standing defiantly, stubbornly at the head of it.
The third floor was empty like it usually was that early in the morning. The second floor hallways, too. He made it down both of them easily, ever alert and before long all that was left for him to do was hurry past the main offices on the first floor, heading straight for the back entrance without being caught and—
"Good morning, Liam."
He stopped dead in his tracks. Did the woman ever sleep?
Spot slowly turned around because he knew that was something else he didn't really have a choice about. And there she was: Mrs. Lucy Kirby, tiny in stature but big enough to stare the young boy down without her prim smile wavering once. The woman was like a ghost, Spot would swear it, if ghosts were slender, grey-haired ladies in their late fifties. He didn't know how Mrs. Kirby knew where to be, whether breaking up a midnight game of dice or catching one sneaky newsboy trying to head out early, but she was always there.
Technically she was the matron of the Home, tending to the laundry and the lessons, the donations, the repairs and the meals, but seeing as how the superintendent just bandied about with the title while hardly ever setting foot inside the building, Mrs. Kirby was more than the matron—she was the law.
He also knew better than to scowl, but that didn't mean he returned her smile either. "It's Spot now, Mrs. Kirby."
"And my ledgers have you down as Liam. Up again early, I see."
It wasn't exactly a rule but it was common knowledge that Mrs. Kirby preferred all the boys woken up at once so they could leave the lodging house together. She certainly didn't approve of one of them wandering around on his own.
Spot tried to keep his face neutral, hiding any hint of his lie or his intent. "Couldn't sleep." It was the same thing he told her every time she caught him which, while not often, was more often than Spot liked. Used to years plodding past his drunken father, he couldn't get used to tiptoeing past Mrs. Kirby's remarkable hearing.
Luckily for him, the matron was in a good mood that morning. "You know what helps me when I can't sleep?" There was a knowing twinkle in her light blue eyes. "A bit of fresh air always does the trick."
And then she winked and disappeared, probably off to wake up the rest of the dormitories. Spot waited until he didn't see her anymore, tipped his hat in the direction the matron had gone, and continued straight towards the back exit, down the stairs and then out the door. The sun was coming up just as he made onto Buckbees Alley, right on schedule.
Even before he came to live in the Working Boys' Home on Poplar Street—the Newsboys' Lodging House... whatever you wanted to call it—Spot was a Brooklyn boy. He was born and raised in a tenement on the edge of the Williamsburg neighborhood, not so far from the lodging house set up right in the heart of Brooklyn Heights. When his mother died and his father finally ran him out, he only had to move a couple of blocks over.
Spot knew Brooklyn like the back of his hand. Two blocks north of where he stood was the Brooklyn Bridge, but he had no reason to venture into Manhattan and rarely went that way. Once he turned out of Buckbees and onto Poplar, he was bounded in by Henry and Hicks Street, with Hicks on his right hand side—and the exact direction he set off for.
The distribution center where Spot and most of the other newsboys bought their copies of the sensational New York World wasn't too far from the lodging house, especially for boys who walked holes through their soles every day. He knew the shortcuts, the alleys to cut down, the streets to avoid. At the corner of Hicks and Orange stood the Sisters from St. Vincent's Home for Boys stood, trying to lure converts away from the Plymouth Church. They were good for a quick hymn and a not-too-stale roll if you crossed yourself and promised you were a good Catholic boy. Spot usually got his breakfast there every morning.
He was just taking a shortcut down Clark, nearly there and certain to be first in line again when he stopped and polished off the rest of his morning roll. He wished he had something, anything to wash it down, made do with what little spit he had and wiped the crumbs away with the back of his hand.
That's when he heard the scream.
It came from in front of him. Knowing the city as he did, Spot was only too aware that there was a small alley, a cut-through that led to the other side of the road up ahead. It was a narrow way, usually stuffed with piles of garbage and crates and other odds and ends the trash men never collected. It was also damn dark—and Spot knew only too well what could happen in a dark, dank alley this early on a Brooklyn morning.
It was a girl's scream, too.
Something was stirring inside of Spot. He knew it was a lesson well taught at the Working Boys' Home—though not in lessons... Mrs. Kirby hadn't succeeded in dragging Spot Conlon to evening lessons just yet—that, if you wanted to survive the streets, you kept your head down and your nose clean unless there was something you could do about it. If you were prepared to risk the Refuge, then you got itchy fingers. If you were sure you were faster than some mook with a knife, then you started a fight before you knew if the other guy was armed or not. And if you were sure you could get out of that alley again, then you hitched up your trousers and dove headfirst into the darkened side street.
And the thing was this: eight-year-old Spot Conlon wasn't sure. But, back when he was too young or too stupid to do anything himself, there were plenty of nights he heard his mother's screams and wished someone would help her. His mother may have been dead for over a year now, but Spot hadn't forgotten the sound of her scream. It was ringing in his ears just then as he yanked his slingshot out of his pocket with one hand, grabbed a handful of shooters with the other, and ran straight toward the terrifying sound.
The morning sun was still rising, but it wasn't so dark in that alley that Spot couldn't see what was happening. There was a man, a drunkard by the look of him, who had stayed out too late, probably kicked out when the last tavern closed and he hadn't walked it off yet. There was a young girl, hardly big enough to come up to the man's bloated belly. He kept his hand tight around her arm, dragging the girl closer to him.
As Spot watched, she swung up her free arm with a bit of spunk, trying to hit him with a brown basket she clutched in her hand. The man laughed loudly and Spot could've sworn he smelt the liquor on his breath from there. Despite his stumble, he dodged her hit—or didn't feel it at all—and gave the girl's arm another rough pull.
And then she screamed again.
Spot didn't speak. He didn't think. He just acted.
The first shot was wild. Spot had been aiming for the man's eye but he missed and nicked him right on the ear.
The second shot was closer: it hit the hollow of the drunkard's cheek. With a snarl of rage that almost seemed inhuman, the man's hands flew up to hit the spot that was hit and, in that instant, he let go of the hold he had on the poor girl.
Spot was already running in the instant he let fly the second shooter. Tucking his chin into his chest, protecting himself, he barreled right into the drunkard. After a long evening on the bottle, the man's balance was shot and Spot's hit sent him sprawling to his back before he even realized that the boy had moved.
Though free from the drunkard's clutches, the girl stood there frozen. It was almost like she had no idea what had happened—that, or what she was supposed to do now. Spot knew at once that couldn't leave her there. She was a sitting duck for when that bastard got back to his feet.
"Come on," he yelled, reaching out and grabbing the girl's hand. He tossed the rest of the shooters he held to the dirt in order to get a better grip, then gave a great big tug on her arm and started to run.
Spot didn't pay attention to where exactly he was going, so desperate was he to get away from that alley. There was no guarantee his hit would keep the drunk down long enough for them to escape but he damn well hoped so. His burned, the girl whose hand he clasped tightly in his, she didn't run anywhere near as fast as Spot which only made him try to move faster to compensate. She dragged on behind him but she didn't fight and she didn't resist, recognizing her hero in a boy just her side.
He lost track of how many blocks they thundered down, dodging an apple vendor setting up his cart, whistling past an iceman making his deliveries. Up ahead was a small strait, more a nook really, just large enough for two small kids to tuck inside and hide while making sure no trouble was following them.
Spot ushered the girl inside first, following in after her so that he was closer to the street. Their backs were to the brick wall and they could touch the other side of the wall if they reached out their arms. It was the perfect hiding spot. And it was there that they waited together to see if the drunk would appear. It was only after a few very tense minutes that Spot realized they were probably safe.
He also realized after those few tense minutes that he was still holding as tightly to her hand as a vise. It was tiny and smooth, the pale skin making his look grubby and ink-stained in comparison. She was like a porcelain doll, the ones he used to see in the fancy shops when his mother was still alive and they could afford to look at pretty things. And he was holding onto her with such force it was as if his grip could shatter her very fingers.
The idea spooked him and Spot hurriedly let go. He took another step away from her, turning so that his was back was against the other side. This way, the two of them could come face to face for the first time and they did—Spot stood there taking her in, appraising her as they both got their breath back.
She was a young girl, fresh-faced, sweet-looking. Her cheeks were pale, her lips red as a spring apple and her eyes a warm brown color that seemed to twinkle as she unabashedly met his stare. She wore her wavy blonde hair loose, flowing past her shoulders, tangled and knotted from her attack and the run. A ribbon, as red as blood, redder than her lips even, was tied underneath her hair, a bow on top, the twin ends disappearing in her golden locks.
Spot was staring, they both knew he was staring, and he had the strange, overwhelming urge to take her hand again. But he didn't.
Still, he had to say something.
"Where'd ya get such a ribbon?" It was a stupid question, an observation, just something to say. He smirked and, feeling embarrassed at how sweaty his palms were now, he said shortly, "That's not a color ya see round here often," while rubbing those same sweaty palms against his trousers.
"My father's a tailor," she told him, her voice breathy and not as high as he expected; she was still panting slightly, not used to running the way Spot was. "I can have any color I want."
Spot quirked an eyebrow. The meaning was implicit—in Spot's opinion, red was a whore's color, and she was obviously no whore. "And ya chose red?" he asked.
"Yes." She beamed innocently. "It's my favorite."
If she understood what he meant, she played it off rather well. Then again, Spot decided, she didn't seem like the type of girl who knew anything about life on the dirty New York streets. What would she have done if him and his trusty slingshot hadn't come along?
And then he surprised himself by telling her a lie: "Mine, too." Spot preferred blue, too much red reminded him of shed blood and his damn father's heavy hand, but if she liked it, well, maybe he could like it, too.
Her laugh was one of delight; it erased the last of her worries, the last of the panic that lingered from when that drunk grabbed at her. Even though she was no longer frightened, her warm brown eyes remained wide, an effect that made her look more vulnerable than before.
For some reason that angered Spot. It made him angry that this girl couldn't walk through the streets of Brooklyn—his Brooklyn!—without someone jumping out at her. It made him angry that he wasn't big enough to help or a better shot. Hell, it made him furious that this girl was out and about in the morning when, by any right, only newsies and vendors should be getting ready to wake up the city with their cries for sales. What had she been doing in that alley in the first place?
Gruffer than he should've, Spot asked her that very same question.
His question startled her and her laugh died on her lips. In that moment, her fear seemed to return. Her fear and her worry. "Papa, he—"
"Your father sent ya that way?"
"Oh, no! No, no, no... Papa, he would be so sad to know I made the mistake of going down that alley. He always tells me to stay to the main streets, especially when I'm needed to run errands so early in the morning. That's why I was there," she said, holding out the basket that she still clung to. How had she held onto it? Was it worth it?
"There were dyes he needed, and thread. It took all of last week's earnings to buy these." She caught sight of the disbelieving look Spot was giving her and read it correctly. "I couldn't leave it behind. Not even when that... that man tried to take it."
Spot was begrudgingly impressed. The man tried to take her, too, and she thought only of her father's basket.
"Say, what's your name, Red?"
Her cheeks colored scarlet. "Charlotte."
Spot thought it over for a second and he shook his head. "Nope, like Red better."
The color deepened and she frowned. "Then what's your name?" she asked indignantly. It was like the spunk she showed with swinging the basket all over again. He never would've expected it from a girl like this one.
"Spot," he told her after another moment's pause. No matter what Mrs. Kirby said, Liam wasn't his name anymore. He was Spot.
"Spot? Like a dog, Spot?" Her eyes brightened. "The way you came running into that alley with your slingshot, you could've been my attack dog!"
Spot had to admit, he liked her version of his nickname better than the real reason—even if she did think of him as a pup. It was Butchy, six years older and as big as two Spots put together, who came up with the name in the first place, and Butchy wasn't the sort of boy you argued with. So Spot had been Spot ever since he took up the slingshot and couldn't hit any spot, no matter how big. Though he practiced and he got better, his name was still Spot just like Butchy was Butchy and Stinky Feet would always be Stinky Feet no matter what soap he used.
The way he saw it, he was quickly becoming one of the best shots in Brooklyn, even if that stunt in the alleyway didn't prove it, and still he answered to Spot. Oh, well, he figured. It was better than Liam. And, thanks to Red here, the next time someone asked where he got his nickname from, he had a better story—even if he left out the part of hitting the man in the ear.
That thought in mind, Spot spared a small grin. "Anyone woulda done it, if they coulda."
Charlotte—Red—opened her mouth to respond but she was interrupted before she got the chance. In the distance the circulation bell was ringing, a shrill, clanging sound that told Spot he was even closer now for his running with Red. He immediately hiked up his trousers again so that he wouldn't trip.
"I gotta go," he said with another sideways glance out onto the street. There was still no sign of the drunk and inside he was already cursing himself for getting so caught up with the girl. If he didn't move and quick, there was no chance there'd be any papes left for him to buy. "Time to sell the papes," he said by way of an explanation, lingering in that small cove only long enough to nod his head over at her.
Red started, leaning forward and holding out her hand as if that would stop the boy. "But I didn't say—"
She was too late. He was already gone.
Because Mrs. Kirby caught him the morning before, Spot did what he always did: he woke a little earlier, then took to a different stairwell, a different route right out of the lodging house—anything to keep the wily matron on her toes. He could've sworn he heard the tell-tale clack of her sensible shoes down by the superintendent's office so he skirted that hall and managed to sneak out back without anyone being none the wiser.
Except, of course, for the young lady who was hemming and hawing around the back exit when he got out there.
At first he didn't recognize her, or even have any inkling why such a girl would be walking down Buckbees Alley without any chaperone. Crossing his arms over his thin chest, Spot scowled and stared at the figure across from him.
She was wearing a coat, a beautifully tailored jacket with a hood that hid her face from him; the jacket wasn't so long, though, that it didn't hide the white skirt that fell just past her knees. The girl glanced up, startled at his approach, but before Spot could ask what she was doing at the back door of the Brooklyn Home, she reached up two pale hands and lowered her hood. The hood, Spot noticed, was trimmed with a red ribbon the same shade of red as the ribbon she still wore tied underneath her wavy, blonde hair.
It was the red ribbon in her hair that brought the rush of yesterday morning back to him.
"Red?" he asked, unable to hide his surprise. "What are you doin' here?"
She smiled over at him, as if it were the most natural thing in the world for a tailor's young daughter to search out a boy of the streets. "You said you were going to sell your papers yesterday so I thought you must be a newsboy. There aren't too many, um, places for newsboys in this neighborhood. I thought I might find you here."
He gestured at his chest. Spot couldn't help but mirror her smile, even if his was more of a wry smirk. "Well, ya did."
"I wanted to say thank you."
"And ya came all the way here to say thanks? Ya didn't have to do that. Anybody who ain't no scabber woulda done the same."
"Scabber," Red repeated, trying the word out for herself. She laughed. "So you're not a... a scabber?"
Spot exhaled and stuck out his thin chest. "Nope. I'm a newsie." The image of absolute pride he was going for was a bit lost when, as he puffed out his chest, his over-sized trousers started to slip. Used to it, his hand caught the waist of his trousers as they drooped, yanking them back into place without ever letting the air in his lungs back out just yet.
Red watched him with a curious expression: most of all there was her smile, and Spot Conlon found a pretty young girl smiling at him very curious. "I brought you something," she said, opening the front of her coat and pulling out a package from where she had it resting against her dress inside, "to say thank you for me." She held it out to him. "Here."
It was wrapped in newsprint, a small white tag painstakingly tied around the middle. A small package, he probably would've taken it for another scrap of some unsold paper if not for that tag. Or the fact that it was Red who was holding it out to him.
Without a word, and more than a little skeptical because he couldn't remember the last time he'd been given a gift, Spot tentatively took the package and slowly, carefully started to open it.
"I noticed that your pants, they didn't fit quite right. I'm nowhere near as good with a needle as Papa, so I couldn't fix them for you myself, but I thought that might be useful. And you said red was your favorite color..."
Red's voice trailed to a close as Spot stared down at the bundle of red something that rested in his open palms; the paper it had been wrapped in fluttered to the cobbles, forgotten. Aware of the weight of her expectant gaze, he shook the bundle out, watching as two long, slender strips of red—red, the same color of her ribbon—fell out.
He let out a short, pleased laugh as he immediately recognized the gift: a pair of red suspenders.
- stress, 03.29.11