He glanced at a rusty pocket watch and then down the street. It was past four, and the person supposed to meet him there hadnt shown up yet. Sighing, he leaned against a lamppost to wait some more.
A shrill whistle pierced the air, followed by Thats the kid! Thats the one that cursed my horse! A large, red-faced man pushed his way through the people on the sidewalk, followed by a police officer waving a nightstick.
Recognizing the voice, the urchin took off running, heading in the direction of the tracks stables. It would be easier to loose the two men in the crowd, and there were plenty of places to hide once he reached the safety of the stables.
Sorry, he called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the crowd.
Racetrack rolled his eyes and went back to selling his newspapers. Ghost seen riding through town! Viewed by thousands! He thought that particular headline was a stroke of genius; the article was actually about Paul Reveres successful return to horse racing last week.
As soon as the last paper was sold, he joined one of the betting lines.
Whats yer bet? a voice from behind him asked in a soft Southern drawl.
He turned to face the same person who had run into him earlier. Closer he realized it was a girl, not a boy like he had thought. She was shorter than his five-and-a-half feet by a good four inches, and could easily pass for a young boy. Although he guessed she was about his own age, fifteen. The boyish clothes, jaw-length haircut, and overall scrawniness added to the disguise. Her pixyish face was the only noticeable clue that she wasnt truly a boy.
Two bits on Paul Revere.
Youd do better with Aphrodite.
Aphrodite? He rolled a cigar around between two newsprint-smudged fingers. But Paul Revere won Saturday!
She shrugged a thin shoulder. They let him win.
Let him win? He stood still until she nudged him forward in line.
She shrugged again. Common trick.
Bet, please, said the man in a bored tone from the other side of the window.
Racetrack turned his back to the girl. Two bits on Paul Revere. He counted out fifty cents, slid the coins across the counter, picked up the yellow ticket, and turned to leave.
She flashed him a wide grin before placing a dollar bet on Aphrodite. Good luck!
Racetrack threw himself on a bunk. Horrible. He slicked back his dark hair. This girl ran into me and later tried to get me to change my bet. Annoying thing is, she was right about Aphrodite. He crumpled the ticket and tossed it on the rickety bedside table.
Blink adjusted his eye patch in an attempt to hide the smile that threatened to break out. Racetrack didnt normally get this upset over losing at the track, which was good, because he lost more often than he won. The girl really must have made an impression on him.
Anybody know of an extra bunk in here? Morris Cohen, one of the unofficial leaders of the newsboys, lounged in the doorway. There arent any in the other room.
The one over mines empty, Racetrack replied. Why?
One of Spots bunch, some kid named Alex, needs a place to stay thats not in Brooklyn. He turned to leave. Shouldnt be here for more than a few days.
Just as long as trouble doesnt follow, thats fine.
Trouble! Get off me! The person on the bottom struggled to sit up.
The little kid scrambled to his feet. Im sorry, Alex! I didnt mean to trip, honest!
When Racetrack saw the person on the floor, he swore under his breath. It just had to be you, didnt it?
She rolled her eyes. Thank you for that wonderful greeting. Ignoring all the hands held out to her, Alex stood up on her own. Arms folded, she gazed levelly at the faces staring at her. Well, I can stand here all day if you want.
The newsies jumped to life at her comment. Some went back to getting ready for the day, while the curious loitered in the hallway.
Morris held out his hand. Im Morris Cohen. Nice to meet you.
Alex Binoche. She shook his hand. Spots told me about you.
Morris ushered her into the larger of the two bunkrooms. He stopped at a bunk about a third of the way down the row of beds and patted it. This ones yours. Racetrack, here, has the one under you.
Racetrack pushed rudely past the small group and headed to the washroom. Weve met before.
Kid Blinks eyebrows rose. Youre the one from the track yesterday!
Yep. She grinned, tucking a stray lock of red-blonde hair behind her ear. I take it hes told yall about it.
Blink smiled back at her. Just a little. Im Kid Blink.
Pleased to meet you. Sniffing, she asked, Do I smell coffee?
Laughing, they trooped downstairs for breakfast. Alex entranced them with her voice; her deep Southern accent, with a hint of something else, greatly contrasted with their rough street accents. Racetrack pointedly ignored their attempts to draw him into the conversation, even when Trouble spilt coffee everywhere.
As they left, Trouble heading back to Brooklyn, the others on their way to Newspaper Row, Morris had an idea. Alex, how would you like a tour of the city today?
She smiled up at him. Id like it a lot.
Great. He swung an arm over Racetracks shoulder, saying, And Racetracks just the one to show you around.
Two hours later, Alex was bored. Stifling a yawn, she trailed after him through Fulton Market. They passed a dress shop, a butchers with slabs of meat hanging in the window, countless cafés and lunch counters, a dry goods store, a grocers with bins of vegetables and fruits lining the sidewalk. She lagged for a moment, and then caught up to Racetrack, startling him. He had forgotten about her.
Hungry? she asked, munching on an apple. He barely caught the apple she tossed him.
Thanks, he replied grudgingly.
No problem. I like to keep in practice.
Racetracks eyes grew wide. You little—
Dont say it. Her green eyes gleamed, hinting of danger. Cest pas de tes affairs.
Well discuss it later.
Later turned out to be dinner at Von Werdts, a little restaurant a few streets from the newspaper offices. Glad to be out of the noonday sun, the boys were even more boisterous than they had been at breakfast. Combined with the clatter of dishes and silverware, their chatter and joking made the crowded restaurant seem even smaller. Alex enjoyed every minute; it was much more pleasant than Racetracks cold silence, which had been building since the apple incident.
The storm broke when Alex dug some change out of her pocket to pay for her Coca-Cola and salad. She was counting the coins when Racetrack sneered, Did you steal enough money to pay for lunch?
Her voice carried in the quiet that followed Racetracks question. No, I didnt steal it.
You had no problem lifting those apples this morning. Calmly, he lit a cigarette and took a deep drag.
You unimaginable bastard. She threw the last of her drink in his face and bolted from the restaurant.
For a moment, everyone sat in stunned silence. Morris, recovering first, dashed after her. He caught sight of her just before she was swallowed into the crowd. Dodging people and wagons, he tried not to loose her. He finally caught up with her in City Hall Park, only because she had climbed a tree.
Do you want to talk?
Go away. The branches shook as she shifted positions. Well, you can stay if you want. I dont mind.
Morris sat, leaning against the oak. How much of the city did you see this morning?
Alex snorted. Not very much. Racetrack did his best to forget I was there. Its like he hates me or something.
I dont know. All I did was tell him who was going to win. I cant help it if I was right.
He burst out laughing.
Whats so funny?
Race usually takes hints from anybody and loses. You come along and tell him wholl win, and he doesnt listen!
She plucked a leaf and began tearing it into tiny pieces, watching them flutter to the ground like confetti. I guess it is ironic, isnt it?
Neither said anything for a while, each lost in their own thoughts. Alex finally spoke, wanting to explain her side of what happened in the restaurant. She told of growing up in New Orleans, traveling across the country to New York, meeting Spot Conlon and living in Brooklyn, and being accused of cursing a horse at the track by a down-on-his-luck owner. Morris sat quietly as it all came pouring out.
And Ive only stolen what Ive needed to survive, nothing more. Ive never stolen money, she finished.
Good afternoon, Morris said, politely lifting his cap, to the lady on the sidewalk who was staring at him. Her eyes grew wide, and she hurried off without saying a word. He and Alex burst out laughing.
I bet she thinks her mind was playing tricks on her! Of course trees dont talk. I was just imagining things.
When the two had calmed, he said, Come down and Ill give you a quick tour of the city.
A real one this time? she asked as she climbed down.
A real one. I promise.
Alex grinned. Lets go, then!
She was still smiling when they returned to the lodging house. Planning on washing up before supper, she headed upstairs to the washroom, while Morris stayed downstairs to ask Mr. Russell a question. Outside the washroom, she paused to take a deep breath, hearing voices inside. After the outburst in Von Werdts, she wasnt sure how the others would react to her.
Aw, how was I to know shes like a firecracker with a short fuse, Racetrack complained.
Before she overheard anything else, Alex ran blindly from the room. She didnt hear someone say, Way to go. You did it again, Race.
Morris caught her when she stumbled at the bottom of the stairs. One look at her face and he could guess what had happened. He ignored her protest as he dragged her back upstairs by her wrist.
Higgins, what did you say to her this time? When Morris used any part of your real name, you knew you were in trouble.
Racetrack finished tying his shoe and looked up, dark eyes wide with surprise. I didnt say anything to her.
No, but she heard what you said, someone piped up.
What did you say?
He called me a firecracker with a short fuse. Alex glared at him.
Well, you get upset at everything I say!
You are rude.
Alex stared at the wooden floor, biting her lip. Sorry, Morris, she said softly.
Racetrack. Alex is staying here until things clear up in Brooklyn. If you have a problem with it, take it to Spot. He turned for the door. Suppers getting cold.
Alex pushed the pork and beans around on her plate, only a few forkfuls making it to her mouth. Oblivious to the conversation around her, she absently answered with a yes, no, or uh-huh any question that came her way. It wasnt until Kid Blink snapped his fingers in her face that she looked up from her plate of now-cold food.
Im sure thats not nearly as interesting as we are, he said, laughing and nodding at her plate.
Oh, sorry, she said. I was thinking.
We were thinking, too. How would you like to go out sellin with us each day? You could go with different people each time.
Morris added, And you wont be stuck here all day by yourself. There was no need to add, And the cops will be less likely to find you.
She looked at the expectant faces surrounding her as she made up her mind. Id like that.
Wanting to be alone for a while, Alex lingered downstairs with a book off one of the shelves. She gave up after reading the same paragraph three times in a row; not even Trilby could thrill her tonight. In the bunkroom, someone invited her to join a poker game that was just starting. After two hands, both of which she won, she quit and curled up on her bunk, pretending to be asleep.
Morris stopped by her bunk before going to bed. Do you want me to get you up in the mornin so the washrooms all yours?
Eyes still closed, she nodded. Morris?
When he couldnt think of any other way to insult her except by calling her Firecracker, Racetrack suggested they play poker. Sometimes he won, sometimes she won. Whatever the outcome, Alex just shrugged and went off to talk to Morris or Kid Blink before going to bed.
One night after a grudge match ended, some one tripped, crashing over one of the beds. A head popped up over the mattress edge. Sorry! Trouble grinned, rubbing the back of his head.
Hey, Trouble. Whats up? Alex got up from where she was and rumpled his hair. Even though he was accident prone, she liked the little kid.
He made a face as he fixed his hair. Spot said to tell ya, what was it? Oh, yeah. The bulls are slacking off. Hes gonna come get you when everythings clear, he repeated, faced scrunched up in concentration. As Spot Conlons messenger boy, he had a lot of messages to remember. As an eight-year-old, he had a lot of things hed rather remember than boring old messages, no matter how important the messages were.
The sparkle in her eyes disappeared. Thanks.
Errand done, Trouble scampered off to play with Boots and some of the other young newsies. Alex walked down the aisle of beds to the window and stared at the tenement building across the street. After a long moment, she opened the window and glanced over her shoulder at Morris before climbing out onto the fire escape.
Are you glad youll be going back home? Morris asked, sitting next to her on the top step.
She took a deep breath, holding it before slowly releasing it. I dont know. It never seemed like home to me. She leaned her head against the cold iron railing, thankful he wasnt insisting she talk. A hollowness as cold as the metal against her cheek was invading her soul, and she didnt know why. I just want to be by myself for a little while.
Morris seemed to understand, patting her knee as he got up. He was climbing back through the window when she spoke again.
Do I have to go?
Its up to you.
Racetrack, returning from the washroom before going to bed, noticed she was still sitting outside. Absorbed in her thoughts, Alex didnt notice him at the window. He almost climbed out to sit with her but decided shed hate him even more if he did. Instead, he went to bed and attempted to fall asleep.
When Alex finally came inside, he closed his eyes, pretending to be asleep. She was finally going back to Brooklyn, so why wasnt he happy about it? He rolled over and drifted into a restless sleep.
Alex didnt sleep well that night, either. She dreamed she was lost, being chased through the streets, searching for home. All the streets led back to one. She was outrunning whatever it was chasing her when she stopped short at a fork in the road, one branch leading to Brooklyn, the other to Manhattan. She spent too much time deciding which road to take and could hear the creatures breathing growing louder until she could feel its cold breath on the back of her neck. She blindly chose a path and plunged into darkness.
Ain? She jumped awake to see Kid Blink buttoning his shirt.
Oh, thanks for waking me, she mumbled. She climbed down and flashed him a brief half-smile before heading to the washroom.
Blink stared after her. Sure gonna hate to see her go.
Racetrack, sitting on his bunk, just grunted.
You have to like her just a little . . . He leaned against the bunk post, examining his fingernails.
Racetrack said nothing as he adjusted his shoelaces. Picking up his pocket watch from the nightstand, he pushed past Kid Blink and headed downstairs. Blink grinned and finished getting ready for the day. It was his day for Alex to tag along, and he was looking forward to it.
By noon, Blink didnt know what to do with her. He had done everything he could to make her smile, but she still walked around in a daze. Even in the midst of all the newsies at Von Werdts, Alex was quiet.
I just want to go back to the lodging house, she said as they left the little restaurant. Im not feeling well.
Ill walk you back.
The two walked in silence to Duane Street. Blink wanted to say something to her, but didnt know what or how to say it. He stopped outside the lodging house and caught her wrist as she headed up the steps.
You dont really want to go back, do you?
I dont know, she said truthfully.
He nodded and released her wrist. Well, I know several of us whore gonna miss you. Maybe even more than you think.
Merci. She watched him head back up the street before she entered the building. Once inside, Alex paused to take in the lobby, with its old Oriental-style rug and the worn settee by the dining room. Her fingers trailed over the velvety material on the armrest as she moved through the doorway to the dining room. Sitting at her spot at the table, she could hear pans clanking as Aunt Polly worked in the kitchen. The scent of coffee from the pot always kept on the back eye of the stove drifted into the room.
In the meeting room on the other side of the lobby, she stood in front of the bookcase and ran her fingers across the spines. The leather- and cloth-bound books tickled her fingertips. She smiled slightly when she found Trilby at the end of one of the rows, remembering her first night there. It seemed like it was months ago instead of barely over two weeks.
Mr. Russell, working behind the desk, looked up from his papers and smiled as she crossed the room. She smiled back and headed upstairs, avoiding the creaky part of each step.
Sitting on one of the bottom bunks, Alex gazed around the room. A square of sunlight warmed the floorboards at the other end. Even with sparse decorations, the room felt comfortable. Like home.
Alex flopped back on the bed, not caring whose it was. Thoughts tumbled through her head like water through rapids. She bit her lip as she tried to make sense of it all. She and Spot Conlon were really good friends and she got along well with a lot of the Brooklyn newsies. But she and Morris were really good friends, too, and she got along well with most of the Manhattan newsies. It all came down to one question: Could she live with Racetrack Higgins?
Alex closed her eyes, trying to wish it all away.
I told you shes gorgeous!
Did you hear what Trouble did today?
I wonder where Alex is.
How were the races?
Damn. Hey guys, I found her.
Alex sleepily opened one eye to see a cluster of people standing by the bed, watching her. She buried her head in the pillow and hoped she was imagining them, although she knew she wasnt. She still hadnt figured things out in her head and didnt want to talk to anyone until she knew what she wanted. After a moment, she sat up, still hugging the pillow.
You are feeling any better?
A little. She gave him a slight smile. Thanks, Kid. Is it supper time already?
What are you doing in my bed, Racetrack demanded, ignoring her question.
Your bed? This is— She quickly counted beds. Oh. I thought it was Kids. Sorry.
He glared at her. Yeah, right. You probably did it on purpose!
Que diablo would I do something like that for?
Im sure youd come up with something.
Ca cest assez. Im gonna go eat.
She said she was sorry, Kid Blink said before he followed her.
It didnt take Morris long to figure out Alex and Racetrack had had another head-on collision. She picked at her food and only halfway paid attention to the conversation. He raised his eyebrows questioningly at Blink, who shrugged helplessly in response.
Arent you going to eat?
Im not hungry. Alex sighed and drew a triangle in her pork and beans.
You need to eat.
Kid Blink took the opportunity to shove a forkful of food in her mouth and calmly returned to eating his meal.
Stunned, she stared, green eyes wide, before remembering to chew. After she swallowed, she demanded, What was that for?
Blink smiled innocently. Morris is right. You need to eat. He shrugged. You seemed to have forgotten how, so I was just helping you.
She fought to suppress a grin. I can feed myself.
Are you sure? I can feed you if you need me to. Another forkful hovered in front of her face.
Her grin escaped as she playfully batted his hand away. I get the idea! But, she added, I can feed myself.
The rest of the meal Alex was cheerful, laughing and smiling. Nothing she did or said let on that she had been upset five minutes before. It was so convincing, Morris and Blink couldnt tell if she was acting or not.
After lingering at the table long after everyone else had finished supper, the trio moved upstairs. Deep in conversation, Alex didnt notice who was leaning against her bunk.
Forgotten about me already?
She gasped. Spot. What are you doing here?
Hey, dont crush me to death, the skinny boy said, as she hugged him tightly.
Oh, right. She stepped back, grinning wildly, and he ruffled her hair. Why are you here?
I came to take you home. Everythings clear now.
Her smile disappeared and she took another step back. Im not going.
Not tonight. I meant in the morning. Spot leaned against the bunk post, arms crossed.
Im not going back, she repeated, jaw clenched in determination.
Morris and Blink glanced warily at each other. Both knew just how stubborn Alex could be, but they also knew that Spot Conlon was used to getting his own way. This was one face-off neither wanted to witness.
Youve got to go back! Its your home, Racetrack interrupted. He ran a hand through his hair, slicking it back.
She counted silently to twenty before opening her mouth. Its a place Ive lived. This, she said, gesturing at the room, is my home now. It frustrated her that she didnt know how to make them understand what she felt for the simple place.
You belong in Brooklyn, Racetrack snapped. He stood next to Spot, who intently watched Alex as she spoke.
Who says? Not me. I feel more at home here, even with you around, than I ever did there.
Morris decided to intervene before the two started a war in the middle of the bunkroom. Hey, we cant make her change her mind, but if you still insist she has to go back . . . How bout a card game? If she wins, she can stay. If you win, she goes back in the morning. Fair deal?
The three nodded, Spot and Racetrack somewhat reluctantly.
Morris laid out some ground rules. Four people per side to make it even, eleven rounds, the team with the highest hand wins the round. Crutchy would deal each time so no one could be accused of shady dealing. Sides were quickly chosen, and the eight players, plus Crutchy, settled in for the game.
Youre playing with the big boys, Firecracker. Ready for it? Racetrack smirked. She pretended not to hear him.
It was obvious that all the players were skillful. Spot won the first round. Morris and Tuesday took the second and third, bringing the score to 2-1, Alexs favor. Racetrack evened it up, and took the lead when Spot won the next round. The next five hands alternated until the two sides were tied.
This is it, Crutchy said, dealing out the last round.
Alex took a deep breath before picking up her cards. That cold hollowness was settling in the pit of her stomach. She never got this worked up over a poker game. She never depended so much on the outcome, either.
She held a two, four, six, seven, and ten. Nothing. She bit her lip, pondering what to do with her cards. Nothing. Unless . . .
Crutchy handed her two cards from the deck in exchange for the two she discarded face down on the table. Inwardly, she smiled when she saw the values. While her hand wouldnt guarantee a win, she had a pretty decent shot.
She bit her lip again when Crutchy called the hand. Spot, Morris, and Scrub all folded, leaving Racetracks team outnumbered three to two. Although Alex now had a better chance of winning, she didnt let it go to her head. Snipeshooter or Racetrack could still have a higher hand.
Kid Blink laid down a pair of kings. Tuesday, two pair, queens and fours. Snipeshooter had the highest hand yet, three of a kind. Alex closed her eyes as Racetrack displayed his hand so she couldnt see the triumph in his face. Quickly, she spread her cards on the table, eyes still closed.
Of all the reactions Alex expected, silence wasnt one of them. She peeped at the cards and opened both green eyes wide in surprise. Her diamonds for his spades, card for card mirrored until the highest card. Where a queen of spades stared up in his hand, an ace of diamonds sat in hers.
Flush of diamonds beats flush of spades.
Speechless, Alex looked at the faces surrounding the table and back at the cards. I won, she whispered. Im staying. She jumped up and began hugging everyone, face aglow. When she reached Racetrack, she paused awkwardly, biting her lip.
Racetrack broke the tension by holding his hand out to her. She smiled a relieved smile and shook it.
Thanks. She smiled up at him. You, too.
That night she went to bed, smiling, happier than she had been since Troubles visit. When she awoke the next morning after a nightmare-free sleep, she was still smiling.
Youre awfully happy, Kid Blink remarked, shrugging into his shirt. He smiled at her.
Alex laughed. Why shouldnt I be? Im home. She sat up, dangling her feet off the top bunk after making sure Racetrack wasnt still in bed.
Spot, finished getting ready for the trip back to Brooklyn, walked over and leaned on the end of the bunk. Youd better come visit sometime. He gave her a stern look, sending her off in a fit of giggles.
I will. You could always come here, too, you know, she teased.
Yeah, we havent seen you much lately, Morris chimed in. Several of the others nearby agreed.
I get the idea. He raised his hands in defeat. You dont have to gang up on me.
Dont have to gang up around my bed either.
Sorry, Racetrack. Alex hopped off her bed to stand next to him. Its almost time to eat, anyway. Sniffing, she asked, Do I smell coffee?
Laughing, they trooped downstairs for breakfast.