Disclaimer: The characters in this story are the property of Disney and their likenesses are only used for fan related purposes.
The Lost Girl of Duane Street
The laughter came at midnight.
Tumbler had always been a light sleeper. It came from growing up in an orphanage, he figured, when a deep sleeper meant you could wake up the victim of some of the older boys who got creative late at night. Even though he escaped that place when he was six and now lived at the Newsboys Lodging House in Lower Manhattan, Tumbler would wake up at the slightest sound. And when the bells rang twelve times at midnight, he was always up before the final bong.
Of course, being a light sleeper meant that he was always an easy sleeper. When the bells finished their tolling, he would sniffle and yawn and cuddle up to his pillow before falling back asleep. At least, that's what he normally did. Because, well, the laughter wasn't normally there.
It started softly, so softly that Tumbler barely heard it. It was enough to keep him from falling back asleep, though, and as he lay on his bottom bunk, waiting for sleep to reclaim him, the sound got louder. So loud, in fact, that there was no denying what it was.
There was a high-pitch to the sound that marked it undeniably as female; a fullness to it lent the sound youthful cheer. The laughter was continuous and breathy, the gentle peals never-ending as if some young girl was entangled in some forever game just out of Tumbler's reach. He didn't know exactly where it was coming from except that it seemed to be above him. The bunkrooms were located on the second floor of the lodging house and he knew the third floor held the quarantine rooms; the attic was at the top. He worried that she was up there, and he was terrified that she was somewhere in the actual bunk room with him.
But he didn't see anyone from his bunk and, too frozen from fright to do anything but lie like a statue on his back and breathe shallowly for fear that she could hear him, Tumbler listened to the laughter and prayed it would stop.
It never did and hours later he fell into a fitful sleep, the strange and hypnotic laughter lulling him to nightmare-filled rest.
Tumbler woke up with the taste of fear in his mouth and cold sweat on his neck. Even when he was really little and knew what sort of creatures lurked in the dark, he had never had such a bad night and he was relieved when he opened his eye and saw the sun.
In the light of morning, with the rest of the boys awake and alive and not laughing like a little girl around him, the idea that he had imagined the giggles was a lot more likely. Especially when no one else seemed to have heard anything strange at all, and since Blink complained of stomach trouble and swore he'd been up all night, too—and the toilets sure smelled like he'd been up all night that morning—Tumbler was able to forget how scared he'd been. He promised himself he would forget all about the strange occurrence—
—which lasted as long as it took to sell the morning paper because, when he met up with Boots and Snipeshooter outside of Newsies Square for a pick-up game of marbles, he heard a little girl laugh somewhere outside and jumped as if he'd been hit.
Boots was busy, crouched in the dirt while setting up the game, but Snipeshooter, absently chewing on a stub of a cigar that he'd stolen from Racetrack earlier in the week, watched Tumbler get all jumpy and commented on it wryly. The younger boy had no choice then but to confess that the simple chuckle coming from somewhere nearby reminded him of a terrible nightmare he'd had before. He was too proud to admit that it seemed so much more real than a nightmare and that it had happened last night and Snipeshooter didn't ask.
Instead, he did something else. Something Tumbler—who was expecting teasing and more infernal laughing—wasn't expecting.
He nodded knowingly.
"Sounds like the story of the lost girl."
Tumbler felt the little hairs on the back of his neck stand up. "The lost girl?" he repeated.
"Yeah," said Snipeshooter. He nudged Boots in the back with his knee. "You know all about the lost girl, don't ya, Boots?"
Boots finished setting up the game of marbles and stood back up. He swiped his dusty hands against the side of his trousers, wiping them clean, and then nodded. "The lost girl of Duane Street? I thought everyone knew that scary story. The idea that you can still hear her laughin' all these years… used to give me the willies when I was a kid."
Tumbler just about stopped breathing when he heard Boots mention the laughing. "What's that 'bout laughin'?"
"Haven't ya heard the story before, Tumbler? Some girly used to live somewhere on Duane Street, years and years ago. She was a friendly girl, right, liked laughin' and all, but she didn't have that many pals. Maybe they all died before her, I don't know. Everyone was dyin' then. It was an endemic."
"Yeah," said Snipeshooter knowledgeably, "you know. When all them people got sick and they croaked."
"Like the plague," added Boots.
The plague, thought Tumbler with a frown. He gulped. More and more he was wishing he hadn't asked Boots and Snipeshooter about the laughter. He was liking the answer less and less. "But what about the laughin'?"
"Well, she died, right, in that endemic I was mentionin'. But 'cause she was lonely, she stuck around Duane Street and never… what do they call it?"
"Don't know. She just never went to see Jesus." Boots shrugged. "Guess he didn't love her. You should ask the nuns sometime."
Snipeshooter gave Boots a playful swat on the arm. "Anyway, since she got stuck, she'll come by the lodgin' house every coupla years lookin' for some new friends. They say… I mean, I heard that first you hear her laughin' and then you want to go play with her and the next thing you know—"
Boots drew his finger across his neck like a sword.
"How come I never heard of this?" Tumbler asked. He had to work hard to keep his voice from squeaking like a mouse.
"Because it happened a long time ago. Even before Kloppman."
Tumbler's mouth dropped open in surprise. "I thought Kloppman's been around forever!"
"He has," nodded Snipeshooter sagely. "And so has that girly spook."
"The lost girl," cut in Boots. "On account that she's lost somewhere on the street and no one can find her. Until she gets ya, that is."
"Right. And I heard that in all the years she was haunting Duane Street, only one kid escaped her. I mean, I say he got away 'cause he didn't vanish like the rest of the others, but that's only 'cause he promised he'd stay young forever and help her find new pals. He's like her slave now. I heard it."
Tumbler was prepared to believe anything when it came to that queer laughter but asking him to believe that a lonely ghost who sometimes visited the third floor of the lodging house had the power to stop a kid from growing up was a little too much. He crossed his arms over his chest and looked from Boots to Snipeshooter.
"How do you two know all this?"
Snipeshooter chomped down on the edge of the pilfered cigar. "I think the question is how come you don't?"
Tumbler didn't have an answer for that. He didn't like to admit that he was younger and new to the lodging house than the other boys so, wisely, he said nothing at all.
Boots crouched back down to the dirt. "C'mon, fellas. I don't even know why we'se talkin' 'bout some ghosty girly. Let's play our game."
"Sure," agreed Snipeshooter. "'Sides, everyone knows that the lost girl doesn't come around 'til it's All Hallow's Eve again."
Tumbler froze halfway down to the ground. "When's that?"
"What? Am I supposed to know everything?"
"Do you know, Boots?" implored Tumbler.
Boots shook his head. "I wouldn't worry 'bout it, though. I mean, it's only the end of October now. It must be ages until that All Hallow's Eve. Right, Snipes?"
"Right." Snipeshooter reached out and patted Tumbler on the shoulder, leaving the stink of stale smoke and mucky gutters to cling to the younger boy's shirt. He had a strong grip and just about knocked Tumbler to the dirt, grinning as he did so. "If you think you're hearin' laughin', you probably just heard the rats at night."
Tumbler brightened up slightly. "You're right, fellas. 'S probably just rats. Or," he added, smiling at the memory, "maybe Mush snuck another cat in the bunkroom again."
Snipeshooter and Boots—both who had been there last year when the infamous event of Li'l Mister Fluffy Pants had occurred—laughed at the idea, and Tumbler started up the game of marbles certain he was worrying over nothing.
That night the laughter started at midnight again, and no matter how much Tumbler tried to convince himself that it could be an uppity stray cat that got caught in the attic, the fact of the matter was that the strange sound sounded very much like a little girl laughing.
He tried placing his pillow over his head but that didn't do anything to drown it out. It was almost as if the laughter was inside his head, a thought that made Tumbler shake so violently that he very nearly fell out of his bunk. It had been so easy to forget how creepy the sound was during the day, but in the dark of night when not even the snores of the other boys around him seemed as loud as the tinkling laughs coming from above, he couldn't help but wonder what the girl wanted with him. He tried telling her that he didn't want to play and that the nuns had promised that Jesus loved everyone and he hoped that this was the last night he heard the haunting laughter.
Since Snipeshooter and Boots had been helpful enough to tell him the story of the lost girl of Duane Street but assure him that he was safe until All Hallow's Eve (whenever that was), Tumbler got up the next morning with the idea that he would go to someone else for more information. Because if it wasn't All Hallow's Eve now, then who on earth was doing all that creepy laughing at night?
He didn't want to ask the old supervisor about the eerie laughter but there was one other person who had been in the lodging house for as long as Tumbler could remember.
"Jack, can I ask you somethin'?"
It was during the morning rush. Ever since he first heard the noise last night he had felt a chill so Tumbler skipped his morning bath in favor of grabbing Jack Kelly by the edge of his vest just as the older boy was getting ready to leave the bunkroom. After wiping away the last suds of shaving cream from his cheek, Jack gave Tumbler a charming grin and, seeing that the kid was serious, led him out through the front of the lodging house.
"'S private out here, see," he said kindly, giving Tumbler a playful shove on the arm. "Now, what is it ya gotta ask me? That's a long face, there. Must be serious."
"It is," Tumbler admitted. "Jack, how long have you been stayin' at the lodgin' house?"
Jack rubbed his chin. "All right, fair question. Let me see… I think I was 'bout eleven or twelve then so… I don't know, five years? Maybe six?"
Tumbler nodded. That's what he thought. Kloppman might be ancient but Jack, he was pretty old, too. "In all that time, did you ever hear the laughin'?"
"Laughin'? I hear laughin' all the time, Tumbler. Kinda hard not to, not when we got Race livin' with us."
"No, Cowboy, that's not what I meant." Tumbler shook his head earnestly. "I mean laughin' at night. A girl laughin'."
A look of concern flashed across Jack's face. He bent down slightly so that he was eye to eye with the boy. "Hate to break it to you but we stay in a boys' lodgin' house. As much as I wish it weren't so, there's no girls around at night. Especially not girls laughin', though they would be if they got to see some of the things that went on in the bunkroom. You understand me?" He narrowed his gaze. "Why? Have you heard any laughin', Tumbler?"
Jack appeared so concerned, in fact, that Tumbler didn't have the heart to tell him the truth.
"No, Cowboy. I… I think it was just the rats."
That night, when the laughter started again, Tumbler jammed a finger in each ear and wished it really was the rats.
It wasn't the rats.
Skittery Daniels was like the brother Tumbler never had. Better, really, because when Skittery was in a good mood, he was better than any brother Tumbler could've had. When he was in a bad mood… well, he still didn't smack Tumbler around like some of the older kids at the orphanage used to.
Tumbler wasn't used to such little sleep. He found himself leaning up against brick walls when he was out selling, and yawning way more than was usual. Sometimes he slurred when he spoke and the bags under his eyes looked enough like bruises that one or two soft-hearted Society women slipped him an extra nickel when they bought a pape from him during his morning sales.
Sometimes he would meet Skittery over at Tibby's for lunch when he'd had a successful morning and, if Skittery was in the right mood, the two would sell the evening paper together. Skittery pretended it was because he could use Tumbler's cute face as a front for additional sales but Tumbler suspected it was because the older, experienced newsboy didn't like the idea of Tumbler roaming around New York at night. And he appreciated it.
That night, after the third time Skittery had to prod Tumbler to keep him on his feet rather than napping on a bench, Skittery finally asked what was wrong with the kid; in truth, he was a little concerned the first time but he didn't want to come off as a soft touch so he waited until the third time before he made a theatrical display of a sigh and offered the squirt a ride on his back for the trip home.
Tumbler accepted the piggyback ride gratefully—though they had an unspoken agreement that he would jump off before Duane Street so that Tumbler wouldn't get teased and Skittery wouldn't be seen acting so protective of the kid—and during the trek back, found himself wondering if he should spill out all of his worries over the strange laughter at night to Skittery.
He was going to but then he thought of Skittery: gruff, strong, stoic Skittery, who wasn't afraid of nothing. And he lied and told the older boy that he thought he heard either rats or cats or, hell, maybe it was a dog that was keeping him up at night. But he didn't mention a single word about laughter or lost girls or scary stories that he was still hoping that Snipeshooter and Boots had made up just to mess with him.
That night it wasn't laughter that woke him up.
It was crying.
Tumbler very nearly slept through the entire night. When the bell tolled midnight and he didn't hear any laughter, Tumbler fell back asleep in the giddy relief that the laughter had disappeared has suddenly as it had started. It had only been three nights but it seemed like it had been so long since he had a full night's sleep that he fell against his pillow with a secret little grin on his face.
And then the crying started.
It wasn't loud, hardly as loud as the laughter had been. A soft, gentle weeping that echoed around the bunkroom, Tumbler woke up and felt as if his heart was hurting. Laughter was one thing—but to hear crying? And was a that a softly whispered plea for help?
The boy was in a trance. Suddenly, nothing seemed so important as climbing out of his bunk and finding out where the weeping was coming from. He had to stop it. No one should have to stay up in the dead of night, crying for help. Not if Tumbler was there to help them.
It came from up above him but Tumbler wasn't surprised. He headed straight for the stairs, each step laborious as if his legs were filled with sand. An invisible force seemed to be pushing against him, trying to tell him to stay on the second floor, but the lure of the weeping was so strong that Tumbler fought against it.
Onward he climbed until he reached the third floor landing. Briefly, he hesitated, wondering if he should keep on going to the attic. Then the intensity of the weeping seemed overpowering and he knew… he just knew that the answer lied beyond the door to the quarantine room. The door was partially open, only a sliver really, and enough candlelight shone out in the hallway for Tumbler to notice that there was a scrap of something on the floor.
Something told him to ignore it, that the lost, little girl weeping inside of the quarantine room was more important, but he stopped any way and reached for the scrap. His fingers paused when they were only mere inches away from the rag when he recognized it.
Jack's red bandana.
It was as if he had come in out of the rain to find a warm quilt waiting for him. It was the feeling of safety, of security. Jack had already come upstairs, Tumbler knew. Cowboy had gone to help the girl who was crying. He wasn't alone in this after all.
Leaving the red bandana on the floor, Tumbler slipped into the quarantine room. The door blew closed behind him.
The weeping abruptly stopped.
Skittery woke with a start.
That in and of itself was a rarity. Being the sort of boy who clung to sleep until the last possible moment, who wouldn't open his eyes until Kloppman had smacked him on the leg a couple of times and even then it was always with some smart comment, Skittery wasn't in the habit of waking up early. Especially when it was still dark out.
What made it even stranger was that, rather than go back asleep, he lay on his side and wondered what it was that had woken him up in the first place. He had been in the middle of a rather pleasant dream that involved Medda Larkson and that fluffy purple feather of hers, when suddenly it was as if he heard his name being called. But that was silly, wasn't it? No one else was up this time of night, right?
Sitting up, squinting in the dim light, Skittery cast a quick glance around the bunkroom to satisfy the uneasy feeling that had settled over him. Except, it seemed, he was wrong.
There, standing by the wash basins, was a lone figure, casting a long shadow in the pale moonlight.
Skittery was up and out of his bunk before he half-realized what he was doing. Normally he was self-conscious of his pink longjohns but just then he didn't care. Not when he recognized the silhouette of the young man lurking on the far end of the bunkroom.
"Cowboy?" His voice was hoarse, a whisper. Something told him that it wouldn't be good idea to go rousing the rest of the fellas. "What you doin' up so early?"
"'S nothin'. Go back to sleep."
"First tell me what you're doin' up," insisted Skittery. If there was anyone else who gave Kloppman a hard time in the morning, it was Jack. "There's still hours to go 'til the distribution bell rings."
Jack was twisting the ends of his red bandana around and around, nervous fingers tying knots and untying knots as he watched their progress—anything to not have to meet Skittery's curious stare. At least, that's what it seemed to Skittery, who could outstare a dead horse when in the mood. Eventually Jack had no choice but to look up.
Which he did. With a shrug, he said, "I thought I heard somethin'."
"What? No… I mean, not really."
Skittery side-eyed Jack. He'd never seen the older boy look so twitchy before which only made the uneasy feeling worsen. "Which is it? Yes or no? What's goin' on, Jack?"
"Like I said. Nothin'." Jack huffed and shoved his bandana into the pocket of his trousers. Only then did Skittery notice that, apart from his neckerchief and hat, Jack was fully dressed.
"What's with the third degree, Skitts? Can't a fella just get up and want a wash at the sink without catchin' flack for it? So what if it's Hallowe'en?"
"Cool it, Cowboy. I didn't say nothin' 'bout it bein' Hallowe'en. I mean, who cares if it's Hallowe'en—" Skittery stopped right there. "It's Hallowe'en? Already?" His head jerked, turning to look behind him. It was gloomy in the bunkroom, the little bit of light filtering in through the windows enough to illuminate snoring lumps lined up in the bunks, but Skittery found Tumbler's bottom bunk easily.
Tumbler's empty bottom bunk.
Skittery felt like a sack of rocks had been dropped into the pit of his stomach. "Where's Tumbler?" he demanded.
And Jack simply looked away.
Skittery took the stairs two out at a time. The loud thumps behind him could have meant that Jack was following him. Or it could've been the thumping of his heart, he wasn't sure. He didn't look behind him to check and he didn't stop until he reached the third floor landing.
The door was closed just like it always was. Skittery wasn't sure if that was a good sign or not.
As if he was nine again and new to the lodging house, he remembered the story of the lost girl of Duane Street. In that moment, he couldn't tell you why that particular legend stuck out at him but it did. There was a boy that arrived at the lodging house that summer, Billy Woods, who claimed to hear the ghoulish laughter coming from the third floor. He told everyone in the lodging house that malarkey for three whole nights and he was the only one who ever heard the sound, even though half the bunkroom stayed up the third night just to catch him fibbing.
Then the fourth night, that Hallowe'en, he was gone and while everyone figured it was because the Bronx boys got Billy for some stunt he pulled in their territory, Skittery always had a bit of a wonder if maybe there were something in the old lodging house legends—especially since it was All Hallow's Eve. The story of the lost girl was around before there was even a lodging house, if Kloppman was to be believed, and it was like all the others. Just something to scare the younger boys and maybe explain away some of the hardships of the older ones. Billy was gone, so the story of the lost girl was as good as any to answer why.
Except it was Hallowe'en again this year and Tumbler was inexplicably missing.
Deep down Skittery thought he was being ridiculous. Lodging house stories were simply that: stories. He'd heard a million of them in the time he'd been staying at Duane Street. Shoot, he'd made up a good chunk of them himself! Even as a kid, he'd never really taken them seriously and that's what he had told Tumbler the other day. But why, then, did the sight of Tumbler's empty bed and now this, this closed and foreboding door, seem so ominous?
He gulped and, before he spooked himself out of doing so, grabbed the door handle.
The quarantine room was small and dark and musty. It wasn't used very often and it smelled like he expected: a hint of medicine that lingered in a dusty, shut-up room. Now, though, there was a hint of something else in the air. Skittery sniffed tentatively and recoiled at the strong smell of bitter vanilla in the air. A girly smell, but a bad smell, if he ever smelt it.
Fighting the urge to gag—and, perhaps, to run—Skittery took one step into the room. It seemed empty but he knew better than most that first looks could be deceiving.
"Tumbler?" he whispered.
For a terse second there was nothing. Not a single snuffle or creak or a relieved sigh that Tumbler was hiding somewhere in the room. Then, just when Skittery was beginning to convince himself that maybe the kid had risen early and started out and that's why he was now missing, there was a sudden a whisper on the wind that, if he was a superstitious sort of bummer, could've been a girlish giggle followed by what might have been a muffled scream.
End Note: This story was written for the twelve days of papes meme on tumblr. The prompt for day 2 was to write a scary story and, well, I hope this spooked you guys even just a little. I haven't sat down an written on a whim in ages but I'm kind of happy at how this came out. Here's to hopin' more comes out of it!
Happy Halloween, everyone :)
- stress, 10.20.12