Absolute mind-numbing pain. That was all he felt. Another blow. Something cracked in his chest as the relentless beating continued. All air was forced violently from his lungs and he pondered on how many ribs had just snapped. Blood dripped from his mouth, his nose, his knuckles, tainting the fresh white snow beneath him as he tried to find the will to stand. But before he could, another tremendous force struck his ruined cheek and sent him tumbling back to the ground. He knew he should move; he needed to get to her.. but he couldn't. Another impact, too solid for a punch, too soft for a bat, connected with his temple. Judging by the agony left in its wake and the rising urge to vomit he now suppressed, he guessed brass knuckles were to blame. A metallic taste continued to overwhelm his mouth, causing him to choke and sputter. His rising scream reduced to nothing but a gurgle that forced his freshly carved cheeks to split open further. His vision began to blur, his life fading to black as his eyes fluttered closed. An expanding pool of his warm blood turned the snow to slush beneath him as he let the darkness begin to take him.
Now all he felt was the icy, unrelenting hand of death creeping through his body. The only thing that mattered were the bright blue lights of her eyes... and now even they were fading.
He woke as the police car rolled to a stop. It had felt nice to sleep indoors for once.
"You gonna give us any more trouble, kid?" The boy didn't even look up as the tired yet gruff voice of the driver spoke.
"Nah, he's used up all his fight," the other man replied plainly.
The two men exited the vehicle and came around to help him from the back. The door opened and the officers stared at him expectantly. He hesitated, being indoors on such a cold winter's night was a rare respite and he wasn't eager to give it up. "We're not gonna hurt ya, kid," said the first man. He was taller and slimmer than the other with gentler features counter-balancing the other man's weathered exterior.
"Easy for you to say. He didn't bite you," the shorter man muttered, but was quickly silenced by a look from his partner.
With reluctance, the boy stepped out of the safety of the vehicle and into the cold, night air. He was guided by the two men up a pathway to a dark house. Its tall black facade extending up into the night sky like some dark, charred cathedral. His heart rate sped up, out of time with the slow footsteps crunching into the snow. A giant column stood to either side of the tall wooden door. The moonlight streaming through the clouds making them dance and flicker like twin demons watching over their doorway. The clouds made their way across the moon, making the shadows on the columns jump and mock him, the poor little boy, lost and alone.
The thundering sound of the old fashioned door knocker echoing through the building ripped him away from his hallucinations. Silence overtook the empty streets a moment longer before quick, heavy footsteps approached the door. With a creak, the large door opened to reveal a man of average height and thinning hair. "You realize it's three in the morning." The blunt voice was tired and cracked.
"Sorry to bother you, sir," the tall man spoke with an air of measured politeness. "May we please come in?"
"Who is it, honey?" He heard the sweet, melodious voice of a woman ring down the hall.
"Just Gotham's Finest." The man scoffed as he began to open the door.
"Well don't leave them standing. Come in, come in! It's cold outside."
With a light nudge from the officer, he stepped inside. The building was old and run down, like everything in the Narrows, and the floorboards creaked beneath his feet. The sound echoed through the quiet room and he glanced up to notice a high ceiling disappearing somewhere into the darkness. He found himself guided into a fairly large room with a sofa, where he sat down obediently. He could just barely hear the adults speaking in hushed tones in the corner of the room.
"You found him where?" The voice of a concerned woman spoke.
"Trying to break into the deli on Jefferson Street."
"Sonuvabitch put up a helluva fight, too." The other cop interrupted, his hand absentmindedly rubbing at a fresh bruise now blossoming upon his cheek.
"Fight? He doesn't look a day over twelve." The man snorted derisively. The bruised cop seemed to take offense but said nothing.
"Poor thing, he must be starving. Look at him, he's skin and bone," the woman cooed motherly before slipping away into the next room.
The boy couldn't quite comprehend the concern in her voice. But he sure felt the anxiety that crept over him as three pairs of eyes now observed him. He shrunk back into the sofa away from them, suddenly wishing they would all leave him be and let him find his way back to the box in the ally he called home. The stuffy air of the room made him feel claustrophobic and the sudden urge to bolt made his legs twitch.
"And there's no where else you can take him?" The man who opened the door pinched the bridge of his nose as he spoke.
"'fraid not," the tall officer said. "You guys are the only orphanage in the Narrows still standing."
"Where did the kid even come from? I mean, does he have a name?" The man's voice was growing more tired and irritated. The two officers exchanged quick glances before the tall man spoke up. "We, uh, we don't exactly know. He hasn't said a word since we picked him up. Had nothing on him that might indicate who he was or where he came from. Actually, all he had on him was a pocket knife. Didn't even have any shoes.." his voice trailed off in a downhearted way.
"Well we'll have to do something about that," the woman said with a small smile.
The boy's eyes, previously scanning the room for the nearest exit, now fell to the tray of food in her hands. The man let out a defeated sigh as he walked the officers back towards the door. But the boy paid them no mind, all his attention now focused acutely on the woman approaching him. He eyed her cautiously as she laid the tray down on the table in front of him.
"My name's Katherine," she said quietly. Her eyes were soft and echoed an emotion the boy could not place. "But you can call me Momma Kate if you like. Most of the other boys do." There was a long moment of silence. The boy longed to reach for the tray of food, to dive into it, grab all he could, and take off running. But he dare not touch it.
"Do you have a name?" Another long silence followed before the man returned. The second her eyes left him his hand darted out to grab the nearest bit of food, quickly stuffing it into his lap. His eyes flicked up to her. She was frowning, but not in a way he recognized. When she spoke, her voice was low and sweet, "You don't need to sneak it, honey. Take as much as you like." As soon as she turned away, he shoved the stolen bit of food into his mouth, quickly chewing and swallowing before his taste buds even had a chance to detect what it was. His sharp eyes watched her for a moment longer. She seemed distracted by her conversation with the man, who now seemed even more irritated than before. Feeling safe now that her attention was no longer on him, he began shoveling food into his mouth. It was like nothing he'd ever tasted. It didn't taste rotten or reek of trash like most his other meals. His taste buds reveled in the sensation before he realized it was quiet.. too quiet. The sudden silence nearly made him choke and terror washed over him when he noticed the couple was now staring at him. He swallowed hard; his mouth suddenly dry.
"It's okay, honey." She took a step closer to him and he reflexively flinched away. She paused, taking a knee in front of him. "I made this for you," her reassuring eyes locked onto his as she spoke, "have as much as you like." She pushed the tray towards him, nodding encouragingly. His eyes flickered from her to the tray and back again. His fingers twitched and before he knew it his hand was cautiously inching toward the tray. A tentative hand curled around a piece of bread and slowly lifted to meet his lips. She smiled at him and he reached for another handful of food. She did not speak again until his plate was empty. "You must be tired, sweetheart. How about we find you somewhere to sleep, hm?" Her hand extended towards him and he stared at it, uncertain. He decided not to take it, but he stood instead, willing to follow her. She led him up a set of stairs that creaked with every other step. Framed pictures hung half-lit on the darkened walls, he sensed the empty eyes of family members long passed staring down at him, watching him being led through the musty hallways. He instinctively reached out, grabbing tentatively at the nice lady's hand. Katherine looked down at him smiling, sensing his trepidation. "Don't worry sweetheart, nothing will hurt you here." He wasn't convinced, though he couldn't seem to drag his hand away from her.
"This'll be your room tonight." Her voice shook him from his trance and he realized they'd stopped in front of a door. Remembering himself, he reflexively dropped her hand and looked away. But he could still feel her smiling eyes upon him as she opened the door and turned on the light. It was a small room, holding nothing more than a bed and a tiny dresser in the corner. She waited a moment for him to enter, and when he didn't she made the first move inside. She glided to the head of the bed and began fluffing the pillows. In spite of himself, his foot took a small step and before he knew it his legs had carried him to the side of the bed opposite her. He glanced up at her, still wary. She simply smiled down at him.
"If you need anything, my room is the last one at the end of the hall." Her words were barely audible to him, now. His eager hand had reached out to stroke the soft blankets. It had been years since he'd slept in a bed and he'd quite forgotten what it felt like. Maybe I'll sleep here, just for the night, he thought to himself. Before he knew it, he was climbing into the bed, its warmth wrapping around him in a sweet caress. The world around him seemed fuzzy now as her gentle hands tucked him in.
"I never did get your name.." she almost whispered as he suppressed a yawn. The room was fading now and the idea of keeping his eyes open any longer seemed like a chore.
"Jack." The word fell from his lips like an old habit before he drifted off to sleep. Her smile grew ever so slightly and she brushed a bit of hair off his dirty face. "Sweet dreams, Jack." She whispered before turning out the light, closing the door, and making her way down the hall.
The dreams were always the worst. So bad in fact, he sometimes hated having to sleep altogether. The dreams were all relatively the same. Always filled with terrors he couldn't place or couldn't quite remember. Blood. He could taste blood, but could never tell if it was his or not. Rain. It always seemed to rain in his homemade hell. It made everything from his memory to the box he slept in soggy, numb, and cold. Sometimes there was someone else with him. A brother, a father, a protector, he couldn't tell. But whoever he was, he made the boy feel safe. When he wasn't in the dream, everything always seemed darker, like the sun hadn't risen in months and the world had long forgotten the warmth and joy it could bring. He would run from darkness, as far and as fast as his little legs would take him. But it was never far enough to keep the demons at bay. They always found him, cornered him, and beat from him any sense of hope he may have been clinging onto.
But over everything he could always, always hear the laughter.