You know they're the only thing
That keeps me together...
Racetrack shuffled the cards.
They felt good in his hands, they made him feel grounded. He knew the movements so well that he didn't need to think to shuffle, he didn't even need to look at the cards. He just did it. It was automatic, nothing but muscle memory, but it calmed him down.
It stopped his hands from shaking, and after his hands stopped, his body stopped, too. And after he stopped shaking, his mind cleared a little. The clouds lifted, and the fog of things that were half-memory and half-nightmare was gone. He thought, just momentarily, about chasing after them, about trying to grab what was haunting him, pin it down, remember it, in the hopes that if he managed to remember it, it would leave him alone. But he wasn't brave enough for that.
He wasn't brave at all, really. He was just a good actor, a kid lucky enough to have a good poker face, paranoid enough to be smart, smart enough to keep out of trouble. No one really knew much about him, which was just as well, since he didn't really know all that much about himself.
Like the insomnia, for example. He contemplated it as he shuffled his cards. Only a few of the other newsies knew about it. Back when they were younger and Racetrack was still new to the lodging house, Jack had realized that Racetrack sat up in bed playing solitaire all night, and asked him why. He didn't explain. He couldn't. And then, years later, Mush had realized it. They'd been playing cards until almost three in the morning, since Mush was waiting to see if Blink would get home, and he had suddenly realized that Racetrack had no reason to still be awake... And it was the fifth time it had happened in a month.
"Racetrack, don't you ever go to bed?" Mush had asked.
"Nah," Race had answered, shrugging it off.
"Don't you need to sleep?"
"Sleep is for weaklings like you an' Jack," he'd answered, and a very sleepy Jack had mumbled at him to shut up and stop being so loud if he was going to be up all night.
"Why don't you sleep, Race?"
"Can't." He always said that, because there was no other way to explain it, once he got caught. Who never wanted to sleep, never needed it? No one would believe that. So he said it, when someone asked directly: he couldn't sleep at night. Nothing wrong with that, really. Except...
And what was he supposed to say to that? If he started telling people he didn't know why not, that there was something that haunted him at night and kept him awake but he had utterly no idea what it was, people would think he was crazy.
Sometimes, he thought he was crazy.
He began to lay out a game of solitaire, something else he didn't need to look to do. What if I am crazy? he asked himself, as he'd asked himself thousands of times before, on so many nights just like this one—nights where he sat up, alone, surrounded by sleeping friends—but alone, always alone. Even if they were awake, he was alone; even if he was playing poker with them instead of solitaire while they slept, he was still alone. No matter how close people were, he was still miles away from them in his mind. They were friends, but he was alone.
The spring air was still too cold for the windows to be left open at night, but at least now no one cared if the shade was up a little. That let in enough light to make his game easier, though he'd play it anyway; he'd play it in the pitch black and make up numbers for the cards if he couldn't see them. The important thing was that he played, not that he played correctly. But on nights like this one, crisp moonlight and watery lamplight left the bunk room surprisingly bright, and he could see his cards.
He was content to sit in the bunk room, playing solitaire by moonlight; he was content with the life he led. He knew that selling papers by day and playing solitaire by night wasn't the healthiest lifestyle in the world, that someday he'd pay for living with exhaustion and pretending it was nothing. But he'd cross that bridge when he came to it.
He just hoped it wouldn't come soon.
[AN: This fic took over a year and a half to write. So probably no one remembers that it's the follow up to Cigarettes and His Mother's Eyes, which was one of the very first fics I wrote. But it should make sense without having read that, thanks to the effort of my fabulous, fabulous beta readers: Shimmerwings, Angel of Harmony and The Second Batgirl, better known as the most wonderful people in the fandom.
More soon. Enjoy.]