Long Black Veil

Author's Note: I finished it, for better or for worse. Originally published under a different penname (that version has been deleted). Based off of the song "Long Black Veil." I suggest you listen to it after reading the story.

Special Thanks: LL Bean slippers, dark chocolate, zip drives, inspiration in unlikely places.

It was a Tuesday. I remember this because I hate Tuesdays. I was sitting on the Lodging House's front stoop, my legs bent and apart, back hunched, the stub of a glowing cigarette burning my fingers. It was cold. My breath rose in steam when I exhaled, and burned my throat on the intake. Any sensible fellow was already inside and in bed, covers up to his chin, dreaming of roaring fires or the hot summer sun.

Still, there were a few stragglers. I could hear Ivan "Dutchy" Von Dutch come stumbling down the street from a block away. By his side was a tall, amicable kid we just called Specs. Specs had mousy, curly brown hair and a curious expression, but tonight it was marred by drink. They both gave me friendly punches before helping each other through the door with a last minute attempt to compose themselves.

About five minutes later (after the tip of my smoke was no longer big enough to get my lips around) Jack Kelly came round the bend, whistling lowly. He stopped in front of me and I looked up through my bangs but did not raise my head.

"Comin' in?" He asked casually.

"No, thanks," I said quietly in return.

Jack looked for a second at the door, then his glaze returned to me.

"Uh… you know, Skitts, I could just lend ya s-"

"No, thanks," I said again, a little more forcefully. Jack was fatherly, protective, and sometimes a little too much so - but he usually knew when to stop.

"Alright, g'night," he said, and brushed past me to the door. He opened it, but paused at the sill. "'ey," he said, and when I turned, tossed me a fresh cigarette. I nodded my thanks and he grinned and disappeared.

I turned the smoke around and around between my fingers, debating when to light it. As I was listing the pros and cons of starting it that second, I felt someone settle down beside me.

"Christ," I muttered. "Didn't even hear ya, Race."

The short Italian beside me shifted a little and grunted around the large cigar he had in his mouth, chewing thoughtfully. His eyes were closed, and his hat sat off his head so his hair, dark and curly, could be seen underneath. Everything about him was purposeful, Racetrack, from the persona he had created to the cigar he chewed (never smoked). Yeah, he was well put together. I was a mess in comparison, and the contrast was even sharper now that we sat side by side. My hair was messy, my face dirty, my clothes torn, my cap patched, my smokes bummed. Race didn't care, and why should he? Smart as he might have looked, he was still a street rat like me. In the end, only one thing mattered, and that was that we were best friends.

We sat in silence for awhile, me staring at my cig and him chewing away and grunting every so often. Finally, he said -

"-out here."

I blinked. "What?"

"I said, it's a little chilly. It's cold out here."

"Oh. Yeah," I said.

"Huh," said Race, he stood up, dusted off his knees, and disappeared inside. I was puzzled, but distracted myself by taking my time striking a match against the stair below me. I watched it burn for a moment then brought it up to my mouth, where Jack's cigarette was held. I took the longest drag my lungs could handle and then leaned back on my elbows and blew it out, watching the smoke hang in the air. The door opened, then slammed shut, and Racetrack remained, a bundle in his arms and a glare in his eye.

"Hey," I said, "you better get in there before Kloppman locks up for the night."

"Bad news, Skitts," Racetrack said dryly. "He just did."

"Well… then you shouldn't have come back out," I said lamely.

"What, and leave you out here by your little lonesome? I couldn't do that! You need protection, my friend." There was a pause. "And blankets. I got some blankets." He dropped his bundle and I unfolded one of the scratchy brown blankets hungrily.

"Yeah, we're roughin' it tonight," Race continued in that same dry tone. "Look at us. Sleepin' out here 'neath the stars." He sat down and gestured up at the sky to get my attention. "Up there," he said to me. "They tell me there're stars up there."

I settled my blanket over my knees and slid back a little so I could lean against the brick wall. No, I wasn't going to say it. It would be stupid, besides, he probably knew already that-

"Thanks, Race," I muttered, then yawned quickly and shut my eyes, cigarette smoldering away.

He'd heard me, and he grunted, and leaned against his part of the wall, blanket over his shoulders like some sort of poor man's cape. His cigar was hidden, stashed in some pocket somewhere, and his eyes were still trained skyward.

I took another drag and then passed my smoke to Race, who accepted it without a word. I sighed, then, and tried to settle in a little more, stubbornly ignoring the chill that had set deep in my bones.