Dutchy slammed into the large dormitory at the Lodging House, and threw himself down on his bed angrily. He knew that he should probably be selling papers right now, that he should definitely be selling papers right now, since he was flat broke, but he was just utterly fed up. If he went out to sell papers right now, he'd probably end up begging passersby to buy, and he was determined to keep his pride, if nothing else.
He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes wearily. Today had started out well, but then Specs had intruded into his selling spot and refused to leave. Normally, Dutchy and Specs got on all right, but today, Specs had been in a foul mood. After about ten minutes of trying to outshout Specs (and failing), Dutchy had admitted defeat. He trudged off to find another selling spot, hopefully one where he wouldn't be encroaching on another newsie.
No matter where he went, though, there was already someone selling there. If it wasn't Boots, it was Snoddy, and if it wasn't Crutchy, it was Blink and Mush, who constantly sold together. After close to an hour of wandering south aimlessly, trying to find an empty street corner, Dutchy had wound up at the harbor, with ferries from Ellis Island coming and going in the distance. Finally, here was a space with no newsies.
Already exhausted, he had tried to sell, but no one passing by had seemed interested. And then he had been robbed. Remembering, his fists clenched. He had been dragged into an alley by two hurly sailors who could easily have snapped him in two with a flick of the wrist. So he'd stood still, anger burning in two bright circles high on his cheekbones, as they searched his clothes and managed to find the four dollars he'd hidden in his shoes. Before he'd had a chance to do anything, they'd dashed off through the alley, his precious four dollars clutched tightly in the bigger one's hand. There had been nothing for Dutchy to do but straighten his clothes, put his shoes back on, and head back towards the Lodging House.
So he lay in his bunk, exhausted, feet hurting, totally broke, and hating the entire world. Hating Specs, hating Crutchy, and Snoddy, and Boots, and Mush and Blink, and Pie Eater, and everyone, up through and including the Cowboy. He knew deep down that none of them were really at fault (with the possible exception of Specs), but hating them all felt so good that he stared at the bunk above his and hated with all of his heart.
His life hadn't been supposed to end up like this. Once he'd had a family, had a name... Kristoff. In 1882, when he'd been no more than a baby, his parents had left West Prussia and had come here, to New York, so their children could have a better life. As he'd grown into a toddler, and then a child, his parents continued to work. Eventually, they'd made enough to buy a small cloth store and the small apartment above it. Everyone had continued to work hard, from his father, down to his littlest sister, who was still barely toddling by the time Kristoff was six.
And then everything had gone wrong. He'd taken an afternoon to go play with some of the Irish boys down the block, and when he returned, it was ablaze. All of it. The store, the apartment, his family. Kristoff had stood there, in front of the scorching inferno, and stared blankly, until one of the firemen squatted down next to him and gently told him that they were all dead. His father, his mother, his oldest brother Zalek, and his two little sisters, Olenka and Delja. Everything he ever had, everything he had ever been was suddenly gone, consigned to flames.
Kristoff had looked at the ground, trying to fight back his tears, when he slowly became aware that the fireman was telling him that he was going to have to go to an orphanage. He'd been only a child, but he knew that going to an orphanage was tantamount to going to prison, and so he'd run. He'd squirmed out of the fireman's grip and dashed down the block as fast as his short legs would take him. Managing to lose himself in a crowd, Kristoff had heard the fireman calling for him, telling him to come back, that everything would be all right. Not for a moment, though, did he consider answering.
It was only later that evening that he'd sat on a stoop, sunburned, tears still running down his face, and realized that he had nowhere to go. He had no more family that he knew of, no friends he could go to. All alone, the little boy had pulled his knees towards his chest and started sobbing quietly. The sun slowly set in front of him, and he'd clutched his stomach, feeling the first pangs of hunger.
Then he'd heard a voice, a kind voice, asking him if he needed help. He looked up into the kind, weathered face of what looked like the oldest man he'd ever seen. Hoping that this grown up could do something, anything, he'd answered that he was all alone. Though at first the elderly man had thought that he was merely lost, he eventually managed to pry from the stubborn little boy the knowledge that his family was dead and that he had run away so he wouldn't have to go to an orphanage.
That was how he'd met Kloppman, to whom he still felt grateful every single day. Kloppman had dried his tears, had taken him to the Lodging House, and had put him out on the streetcorner the next day with a bundle of papers. The newsies had seen his blindingly blond hair and given him a name based on the only country they knew of that bred so many blonds, no matter that Kristoff wasn't Dutch. He'd been too worn out to correct them, so Kristoff had died and Dutchy was born in his place.
Now, eleven years later, Dutchy was still sleeping in the same bed. The world had gotten smaller as he'd gotten taller, and had gotten sharper when Kloppman had found him his first pair of glasses somewhere (he'd never asked where), but his view had not changed at all. Every night, he gazed up at the same wooden patterns on the base of the bunk above him, every morning he woke with the same mix of anticipation and despair of what the day would bring.
Days like today, however, made him wonder why he even bothered getting out of bed in the first place. He groaned loudly, punching the lumpy pillow with his fist. Those four dollars hadn't been much, but they'd been all he had. Now he was left with nothing but his clothes, his hat, and his glasses.
There was a rustling from the bunk above him. "Hello?" a sleepy, yet nervous-sounding voice said. "Who's there?"
Dutchy lay stiffly and silently, wishing he hadn't made any noise, not wanting anyone else to see him so out of sorts. The boy in the bunk above him, however, hadn't forgotten that he had indeed heard a despairing groan.
As Dutchy crossed his arms and wished that he didn't exist, a tousled head popped over the edge of the bunk and looked down on him. "Dutchy? That you?"
"Yeah," Dutchy answered grudgingly, recognizing that dark, shiny head of hair, even upside down, even without his glasses. "Hey, Bumlets."
Bumlets sighed, and it sounded curiously like relief. "What's wrong?"
Dutchy put his glasses back on and Bumlet's tan face came into focus, gazing at him curiously. "Nothin's wrong," he replied woodenly. "I'se just tired."
Before Dutchy could process that Bumlets had said that as though he didn't believe him at all, Bumlets had pulled his head back, and lay silently on top of the bunk.
For several minutes, both lay silently. Ultimately, Dutchy, feeling the discomfort keenly, sighed and said, "Bumlets? You awake?"
"Look, I jus' had a really long day. That's all. Didn't mean to..."
This time, Bumlets lithely swung his body from his bunk and landed lightly on his feet on the ground next to Dutchy's bed. "What's botherin' ya?" he asked again.
"It's a long story," Dutchy replied, sitting up tiredly and raking his blond hair back from his forehead.
"I think I got the time," Bumlets replied, sitting down on the next bunk over.
"Oh, yeah?" Dutchy leaned against the headboard. "Why ain't you out sellin' papes?"
"It's a long story," Bumlets mocked with a strange grin on his face.
Despite himself, Dutchy grinned. The dark-haired newsie had always had a talent for making others smile, no matter how vile their mood. Dutchy didn't know Bumlets very well – Bumlets was insanely shy, and Dutchy was usually too involved in his own issues to try to draw him out – but on those rare occasions when they'd spoken, Dutchy had always ended up feeling better than he had started out feeling. "You tell me yours and I'll tell you mine," he said. "Deal?"
"Deal," Bumlets said obligingly. He reached into his belt and pulled out his stick. Dutchy didn't know the significance of the stick, but he'd never seen Bumlets without it. "Didja hear that the circus was in town this weekend?" Bumlets asked suddenly.
"The circus?" Dutchy repeated, confused. "No, but I believe you..."
"My whole family was in the circus," the dark-haired newsie explained with a rueful grin on his face. "We was a family of acrobats. "'The Flyin' Fretelli Family,' we was called, even though our last name was Cortez."
"Why'd they call ya the Fretelli Family, then?"
Bumlets shrugged. "'Cause nothin' sounds good with Cortez, I guess. Anyhow, we was famous. My pop, my ma, my older brothers and sisters, and me. They called me 'Baby Fretelli,' 'cause I was the youngest."
"'Baby Fretelli?" Dutchy repeated, his lips twitching slightly.
"You tell anyone and I'll soak ya," Bumlets threatened, but his tone was teasing. "We traveled from place to place with the circus, far back as I can 'member. I never had a real home, and I don't even know where my family came from."
"That's rough," Dutchy said.
"It wasn't too bad. We'd go out every night, do our act, and have the rest of the time free. The circus took care of us and paid us all pretty well. I saw lots of places, all over this country." A faraway gleam entered Bumlet's dark eyes. "I seen mountains and beaches, forests and deserts. I never thought that anything could be so pretty, but I seen it all."
"So what happened?" Dutchy asked simply. "How'd ya end up here?"
Bumlets smiled embarrassedly. "Well, it was our first time in New York, right? We'd never seen it before, or anythin' like it. I went out alone to look 'round on the last night, and I got lost. The city was so big, and the buildings were so tall, and everythin' looked the same. No one I asked knew that the circus was in town, so I jus' kept wanderin' around, lookin' for the way back. Well, the next mornin', I did find my way, but the circus was gone."
"What d'you mean, gone?" Dutchy asked. "How could it be gone?"
"Same way that it's gone from every city. Time was up, and they packed up the elephants and left."
"Your family?" Dutchy responded, feeling slightly horrified. "Did they jus' leave you too?"
Bumlets looked down, his smile fading somewhat. "Well, I wouldn't say that they jus' left me. I bet they looked, but the owner of the circus was a real stickler for schedules. So, 'less they wanted to lose their jobs with no promise that they'd find me anyway, they didn't have no choice."
"I'se sorry," Dutchy said sincerely. "That's some bum luck."
Bumlets looked back up at Dutchy, his quirky smile returning. "It's all right, Dutchy. I liked it here, yeah? Also, none of you newsies ever made me climb a fifty-foot platform an' jump off. I...don't got no likin' for heights."
"So you'se really okay with bein' here?" Dutchy asked. "You don't...want nothin' else or wish for it?"
"I'se okay with bein' here," Bumlets replied quietly, "but I still go to see every circus that comes to town. Jus' in case, right?"
"What would ya do? If ya found 'em, I mean."
Bumlets tilted his head back and looked up at the old, stained ceiling. "I got no idea. I don't want to go back to the circus, but I'd like to let 'em know that I'se alive... and I'd like to know that they worried about me."
"That's fair," Dutchy said. He waited for a moment, but when Bumlets didn't seem about to say anything else, he ventured, "Uh, can I...ask you a question?"
"Is that why you ain't sellin' today? 'Cause you went to the circus, and they wasn't there?"
"Yeah. That's it."
"Oh. Can I ask another question?"
Bumlets looked down at the wooden rod he was carrying. "What, this?"
"Yeah. You always got it with you, so I was wonderin', well, what's the deal?"
"Ain't nothing special," Bumlets replied. "I found it in the street one day a while back, an' it reminded me of how guy who swallowed swords used to pretend to fence with me." He stood up and did a demonstrative lunge and a couple of swings, though his movements were confined in the cramped room, so he shrugged and sat down again. "I always enjoyed the fencing, so I kept the stick... Almost feels like a sword."
"Wish I had something like that to protect me." His foul mood abruptly returning, Dutchy flopped back on the mattress. "Could've done me some real good."
Bumlets crossed his arms and looked at Dutchy. "Right. Well, that's my story Your turn."
Dutchy glared at the ceiling. "Um, I lost my selling spot, I walked all over Manhattan, and I got robbed. That's about it."
Bumlets winced in sympathy. "Ouch. Sorry, Dutchy. How much did they get off ya?"
"Four dollars," Dutchy said with emphasis, happy to have an understanding ear. "Everythin' I got."
"If..." Bumlets replied tentatively, "...if you really need it, I could lend you a dollar or two... I been savin' up money."
Dutchy's head snapped to the side to stare at Bumlets in surprise. "Are you serious?"
"I wouldn't offer if I didn't mean it," Bumlets said, almost shyly. "If you ain't got nothin', I could spare it."
"You'se crazy!" Dutchy exclaimed. "I mean, lendin' your best friend a nickel, I can understand, but lendin' me a dollar or two? You—" he broke off, sputtering.
Bumlets shrugged, looking down sheepishly. "I trust ya, Dutchy. I know you'd pay me back soon as ya could."
"Trust me?" Dutchy stammered. "You don't even know me."
"I know you well enough," Bumlets stated. "I'se always at Tibby's with all the other newsies. People jus' don't always notice me, 'cause I'se quiet."
"I ain't takin' your money!" was Dutchy's firm response.
"Um, if you insist," Bumlets said. He looked out of the small window, where the setting sun bathed Manhattan in an orange glow. "Well, if you won't take my money, will you at least let me buy you dinner?"
"Why're you bein' so nice?" Dutchy asked. "Not that you ain't a nice guy, Bumlets, but you don't owe me anythin'. I ain't done nothin' to deserve it."
"Why d'you think that a guy can't do somethin' nice for someone else if the someone else ain't done nothin'? I prefers to think that it's nice to take a friend out to dinner if he's had a bad day."
Dutchy stood up and put his hat on. "Well, I do think you'se crazy, but if you'se really determined to buy me a free dinner, I ain't about to complain more than once."
Bumlets shrugged and stood up too. "And when we get there, will you answer a question or two for me?"
Eying Bumlets suspiciously, Dutchy said, "Maybe. Depends what they are."
Bumlets waved a hand dismissively. "Nothin' important."
"Fine. Well, what're we waitin' for, then? I'm hungry."
With a nod, Bumlets followed Dutchy down the stairs, rolling his eyes at Dutchy's pained mutterings about his poor abused feet and legs.
On the way out of the door, Dutchy automatically turned left – it was the way to Tibby's and it was the cheapest place around. Bumlets, however, laughed and tugged on Dutchy's sleeve.
"You'se goin' the wrong way," he said.
"We ain't goin' to Tibby's," Bumlets said, having correctly guessed the cause of Dutchy's confusion. "I thought you might want to eat dinner away from the others."
"Huh?" Dutchy repeated.
"You'se had a rough day, right? Well, when you'se in a bad mood, you want to be alone. So goin' to Tibby's ain't the smartest thing to do. C'mon," he said, pulling at Dutchy's sleeve again, "where we'se going is back that way."
"How'd you know?" asked Dutchy, allowing himself to be pulled along. "I mean, that I don't like to be 'round other people when I ain't feelin' good."
Bumlets' ears turned pink, but all he said was, "That was why you came back to the Lodging House, right? So you could be alone."
"Well, yeah," Dutchy admitted.
"I messed up that plan, huh?" Bumlets said, carefully avoiding Dutchy's gaze as they hurried along.
"A bit," Dutchy said, "but I don't really mind." As he spoke, he was surprised to find that he wasn't lying, that he actually didn't really mind. "It's kinda nice to have someone to listen."
Without warning, Bumlets suddenly gasped and with an unnecessarily tight grip, pulled Dutchy into an alleyway. As they flattened themselves against the nearest brick wall, Dutchy snuck a glance at Bumlets' face, and was surprised at how pale Bumlets' dark-skinned face could get.
"What's wrong?" he mouthed at Bumlets, who merely lifted a warning finger to his mouth. Dutchy took the hint and kept as quiet as he could. A moment later, three men strolled by the alley, chatting casually, their voices too low to be overheard.
They didn't seem to notice the two boys holding themselves stiff and silent against the wall. Soon, they were gone. Bumlets, seeming to finally judge it safe for them to move, exhaled and relaxed against the wall.
Dutchy crossed his arms. "What was that about?" he demanded.
"Keep your voice down!" Bumlets whispered. "They might still hear you!"
Accordingly lowering his voice, Dutchy whispered back, "Fine. Now, what's going on?!"
Bumlets looked over at Dutchy with an unreadable expression. "Let's get some dinner. I'll explain there, yeah?"
"You'd better," Dutchy grumbled, rubbing his sore arm.