Disclaimer: I claim neither hide nor hair. Only words, as feeble as they may be.
Dedication (and apologies): Four years later. I don't feel it's worth the wait. And honestly, I don't know what took me so long. I had this ending in mind since the beginning, but I just could never reach it satisfactorily, I guess. My inner perfectionist demanded and hence the years past. Well, all that is behind now, as I display, with a mumbled sort of pride: The Final Chapter. Boy, oh boy. Ali, forever, this is for you. I hope you like this ending... and that it still means something, arriving late as it is.
Once Upon a Time…
There was a cap. It wasn't an important cap; or especially unique. At the time of it's making there were many caps fashioned just like it and they proclaimed their ordinary, everyday use from shop windows and atop any heads they were deemed -for a small price- to perch.
The particular cap of our story was a brownish thing, almost indistinguishable from it's relations, and taken from its shop shelf by a fast-paced youngster who whistled at girls and liked to spend many an hour poking about in smoke-laden alley-entry establishments. The cap's time with this youth was adventurous (albeit the smoke did begin to have an adverse effect on it's threads) yet short, for it was in the worst of spring weather that the boy decided to end his wandering ways and settle on the path of true love, proposing to a beautiful girl at the very same moment a great wind separated cap from distracted owner and tossed it down the damp streets of Brooklyn.
Whether the proposal was accepted or not we shall never know as the hat was swiftly tossed more than a block's distance to land in a puddle before it was almost as swiftly retrieved by an elderly woman who gave it a gentle -and much needed- washing and gifted it to her husband. This man was a good deal less adventurous and his white hair would often prickle, but he was kind to the cap and never mistreated it. The cap enjoyed his time with his new owner and when the end finally came it felt (if one were to offer the thing a chance to express such a faculty) quite proud to have been the old man's sole companion at the time of his departure from this life into the next.
Change barrels onward and the cap spent the next few years at the bottom of several boxes and exchanged by grimy hands for grimy money until it was eventually donated by a benevolent lady to the House of Refuge. By then the cap had aged considerably. It was a little worse for wear. Tossed carelessly in amongst other threadbare attire and waiting perhaps for the next in it's cycle of discard (or maybe for it's last hurrah), it was wrestled free and seized with a fervor it hadn't felt since that first day in the sunlit shop.
The cap was raised from it's box to eye-level with someone who was very small and terribly unkempt. For a moment the two -boy and cap- stared at each other. The cap couldn't help but feel a little insecure: it's brim was bent, a seam had split at the back, and around the top, at its button, it was frayed. A youth such as this before it would not want something so shabby.
But something wonderful happened. The cap was shoved down over those unkempt blonde locks and came to rest securely against a pale brow. A word was then uttered, a simple word that filled the cap with elation and rejuvenation.
"Poifect," said the boy.
And so was the cap joined to his new owner, the future King of Brooklyn, Spot Conlon.
It was the very same cap that poked at Slinks' conscience.
Stuffed into her back pocket, the thing was causing a terrible ruckus against her common decency and was making her more uncomfortable by the moment.
Hunkered into the faded and cracked red upholstery of the farthest and most out of sight booth in Arnold's, across from a giant of a boy who had been waiting -patiently- for a rather elaborate story about red noses and such else that was sure to follow it. Obligingly, Slinks tugged the thing loose and laid it sheepishly on the table. Silently, she leveled out its crumples and gave its crown a little pull. It didn't look half bad for all it had endured. Yet, despite her compassion, it did not seem to regard her with any greater respect and did, if at all possible, seem instead to glare at her with a perfectly picturesque distain. Sid raised his black eyebrows, a few fairly accurate speculations pulsing in his head, but he remained silent, knowing there was a little more yet to come.
Slinks toyed and fussed with the brown-speckled cap a moment longer and let it fully insult her for a good handful of minutes before flicking it across the table.
"I stole that," she grumbled dejectedly, her fingers moving unconsciously to feel out the edges of her once-painful and now-numb nose.
Sid looked intently at the evidence before him. He didn't touch it. He didn't even have to ask who it was that had been the unlucky victim of his companion's robbery. One glance was enough to know.
The cap belonged to Spot Conlon.
He looked from Slinks, in all her disheveled glory, and back to the hat. And then, he began to laugh.
He laughed loud. And long. And loud.
Faces didn't just turn to the corner booth, they snapped up and sideways and they stared.
Slinks turned a deathly pale and sunk swiftly into the shadows of her booth. Sid was oblivious; he rocked on with laughter.
"What is so damned funny!" Slinks exclaimed furiously over the ledge of the table. She'd crushed herself so far from view she was now practically sitting on the floor.
Sid attempted to calm his humor and sounded something like a maddened bull snorting.
Within a few minutes he had regained his composure and it was a few minutes more before Slinks felt it was safe enough to be visible again. Thankfully, the other customers had since turned back to eating their food and away from the confusing outburst.
"Oh, Slinks." Sid shook his head, a smile cemented to his lips.
"Don't say meh name aloud!" She whispered fiercely, embarrassed and guilty. She cast Sid her most venomous glare. He was unaffected.
"Well," he swallowed in a heavy breath, the action making the booth look even smaller comparatively. "That explains quite a bit."
There were not many that would dare to tempt the wrath of Spot Conlon. Not if they valued everything near and dear. Conlon was something legendary. He was horror stories told to misbehavers and troublemakers; tales that brought even the stoutest of hearts to quivering, woeful heaps.
Now, whether the stories were true or simply rooted in a very simple situation that only became something bigger and grander with each fevered retelling was unknown and, quite frankly, unnecessary. The point of such stories isn't so much the story itself but the reputation it gathers behind it.
And Spot Conlon's reputation, though fueled perhaps by both myth and truth, was solid and irrefutable, a fact the boy-king enjoyed a little too much.
Yet, in the midst of his reign stood Slinks: She Who Dared.
Where others feared and fled, Slinks remained bold. She was reckless, admittedly, though her defiance was born from spite than bravery, she remained steadfast as if her mission where blessed by the heavens.
And for that, Sid found himself admiring the girl. At least enough to offer her the best respect he could under the current circumstance and keep his chuckles to himself as she recalled the tale of her most recent thievery and subsequent events.
However, something nagged at him in the undercurrent of her story. There had been a change, something slight and almost unrecognizable had shifted since he had last seen the girl. It was no more than a light in her eyes, or a blush of color to her cheeks, something -if under the glance of a different eye- easily dismissed. But Sid was more intuitive than any ordinary factory boy.
The answer came quickly: completely implausible and yet so very possible. He had no sooner pasted a name to the glimmering chance when the promised food was delivered, hot and inviting and much preferable to the violent kind of response a half-foolish opinion would get him. A musing such as this required tact.
And so, for the moment, conversation was hushed and the thought was pushed beneath the table, where it remained, with the stolen cap, all but forgotten.
Meanwhile, Somewhere in Brooklyn…
Spot Conlon had not forgotten.
Her stomach full, and her outermost extremities warmed and refreshed, Slinks handed over her sincere thanks to the large boy. It was a bit awkward, as she had no great experience in that area, but she put forth a commendable effort.
Sid made no moves to turn away as Slinks said goodbye. He shook her smaller hand in his large paw but lingered under the overhanging of Arnold's, looking down at the girl-newsie queerly. Instinctively Slinks fingers reached self-consciously to her nose.
Sid grinned then, her action breaking his intense stare. "It ain't that," he assured her.
"It ain't what?"
"It ain't what you think it is," he responded, slowly choosing his words. "In fact, I think you haven't even evah thought of it once. But it's the truth, as sure I know the sun is yellow."
Slinks felt dizzy. The boy wasn't making any sense. Talking in riddles. Must have been the altitude, thinner air and everything. She made motion to speak and Sid shook his head.
"You'll figure it out," and he imparted meaningfully -ambiguously- and turned away with a wink and a tune on his lips.
Slinks watched him go. Her head cocked to the side and she let out a low whistle.
Yup, thin air.
A Weight Like the World...
Slinks had seen a picture once. It was a statue of a man who carried the Earth on his back. As Slinks walked the long way back home, she thought on this man, "Mr. Atlas" she thought he might have been named, and how he must have felt.
In the picture the man had not been standing tall; he was bent and drooped. The Weight was heavy on his back. Too heavy for him to carry alone. Slinks knew what that was like.
Since she had left Arnold's (more notably: after Sidney's cryptic final words), each step she took felt a sluggish and heavy movement. Every corner she rounded was a brief success, the next her distant goal. There was a pressure at her shoulders; a tightening, and a heaviness. It spread into her neck and down her arms and crawled through her ribs to knot in her stomach. She carried not a large orb of land and water, but a small and pale and bony thing, unmistakably Spot Conlon-shaped.
And it was driving her into the ground. One step at a time.
Still, she persevered. The man in the picture hadn't anyone else around him for it was his burden to bear. And so she would bear hers.
And to bear meant she needed to face him. So Slinks finally turned her tired feet toward home. As she walked, she thought.
In fact, Slinks' mind was literally on fire, the events of the day crackling and popping over embers stoked by a growing and so far nameless, suspicion.
She thought of Brooklyn, now her home and trusted friend though once a scary new acquaintance. She remembered the first time she'd seen a newsboy, the troubles she'd gotten into as a young girl, the things that led her to the Lodging House and her first meeting with the King of Brooklyn.
How she had ached to topple him off the apple crate he sat on, knock that superior look right off his face!
He was the beginning of it all really. She hadn't been a pranking sort of girl before she'd met Spot. She'd been a bit of a con and could sneak about in the most impressive ways but the idea to pilfer from a person just to see the look on his face was something that had never before crossed her young mind. Looking back she realized that her first ever prank had been on that precise human: she'd slipped away with that stupid rusty key and tied the cord around the House's cat's tail. The cat, named Arthur, was a particular thing and fancied himself fond of everyone except Spot, at whom he would hiss and claw with a joy-like twitch of his orange tail at every given opportunity.
Sudden understanding flamed alight a forgotten year-long hatred of the color red, her recurring prejudice against those who carried canes (reflecting, in shame, her occasional refusal of sale to such persons), and her rash telling in secret to Ruby Williams' little sister that she liked brown eyes, and not blue, best in a boy, out of pure spite.
Like a lighted wick, the flame burned on and turned to current events and cryptic words.
A possibility itched softly at the corner of Slinks' mind then, whispering a suggestion deep into her thought stream.
Slinks stopped walking. Her cheeks grew pink, then red, then murderous.
The implication! The indignity!
The final blocks fell swiftly beneath her running feet, fear and confusion and worry melting away under the heat of her terrible fury. Fists clenched, she approached the Lodging House, a nest of flickering lights and warm air at the end of the street.
She would show Sid. She would show them all.
I do not love Spot Conlon!
A Spot (or two) of Fate…
It is a sad occurrence when the perfect response is not thought of until long after the insult has been issued. Whether lying in bed, or in the middle of supper, days or even weeks after, the perfect words form and, should the offending party be present –and the situation relevant-, they would be put right and squarely in their place. Yet, as it is, the time has passed and the late reply is now perfectly useless.
This could not be said of Slinks. As she bounded up the stairs, two at a time (to be noted in much the same way in which she left), the perfect words coiled on her tongue. They prepared to strike, deep and venomous. She would look right in Spot's face. She would point at his funny little nose. She might even shake her prize in the air, for added emphasis and such. And then she would declare that she was not nor would ever be in love with Spot Conlon, and she would declare such aloud so that all would hear and know and never dare again impugn her honor with such absurd assumptions.
It would have been a perfect plan had not Fate intervened, for when Slinks stomped purposefully to Spot Conlon's bunk he was very specifically not in it.
Though thwarted, Slinks remained resolute: she would wait.
Slinks settled into her bunk. With her back to the wall and her legs crossed she marveled at herself. There was something to be said about a woman on a mission, and a pride about the way in which she had just viewed herself. A Woman. With a Mission. To think, just a few hours ago –had it really only been that short of time?- she'd been a cowering girl with a stolen cap. Now, she was a Woman.
Slinks waited, holding onto her fervor, her eyes glued to the stairway, and her ears ready for the slightest indication of the newsboy.
Happy would be the author to announce that Spot Conlon returned that very evening and received the what-for he perhaps didn't entirely deserve. But correct is the assumption that night rose full and passed silently into day without one solitary sighting of the boy.
A strong will can account for quite a lot but sleep has a way of winning over every ardent fight, even the feeble yet noble attempts by a now-woman on her mission.
It was morning when she awoke with the distinct jolt one usually has when they don't remember ever drifting off in the first place. The Lodging House alive with activity. Newises were getting ready for a day of selling, which had dawned in the wake of the prior day's rain to be bright and sunny.
Slinks rose slowly and rubbed the sleep and disappointment from her face. The sharp sting of her indignation had lessened some, as did the size of the swelling over her nose.
Her appearance alongside her familiars -Griff, Marks, Will, and others- was mostly unattended. They had either forgotten about the previous night's occurrence or cared very little now that the issue, for the moment, seemed over.
The Lodging House had emptied by the time Slinks realized her heart wasn't in selling. Though she loved the streets, and the embellished headlines, maybe a scuffle or two she could bet a few bits on, the day before had left her exhausted. More so than a night's fitful rest could rejuvenate. Besides, she had other, more pressing matters. Morning had arrived and a resolution had not been made. This left a sour taste in Slinks' mouth. One more day would lend itself to the growing epidemic of wild and unfounded ideas about romantic inclinations that could be downright damaging to a girl's reputation. It was her duty as a female and a citizen of Brooklyn to set things straight.
Not, however, smelling like the sewer.
The washroom beckoned and she heeded it's call. The water was hot and soothing and she emerged some unrushed time later a refreshed Slinker, her spirit of chase and justice emboldened once again. She dressed in record speed, an almost melodious tap to her feet as she gathered her things -including the cap, which she proudly settled upon her head, in a gesture of daring she hoped would deliver a very specific desired effect.
So buoyed by the day and the song in her mind that she didn't see the occupant of the bunkroom until she very nearly collided straight into him. With a shriek, Slinks jumped backward.
"Wick!" She exclaimed, her hand flying to her chest and the heart that was threatening to beat right out of it. "I didn't see youse there!"
Wick remained slouched in the doorway, looking not the least bit concerned that he'd almost caused Slinks a heart attack. He was a slight, sly looking boy, who's posture was always hunched and lips always muttering. Wick was ignored by most of the other newsies on account of his generally suspicious nature. He looked like one that couldn't be truly trusted, and this was mostly true. Anyway, Wick liked the solitude that a reputation true or imagined gained him. It usually positioned him safely away from interactions of any kind, with anybody.
That was not true today. Instead of being left alone to sell papers, Wick had been singled out to deliver a message.
"Spot wants to see you," he said, his dark eyes twitching as uncomfortably as he felt. Wick never really had it in him to do much of anything, especially if that anything meant telling a fire-brand, tornado of a girl that the object of her previous evening's ferocity was essentially summoning her like no more than a hired servant. But when your self-proclaimed and as-yet-undisputed leader gave you a command, consequences convinced you to step outside your comfort zone… and possibility into the path of a current disposition that one would rather steer well clear.
It really came down to which was the lesser of two evils, and Wick was fairly certain he might have chosen wrongly as Slinks' eyes darkened and flashed something great and thunderous.
"Where is he?"
Wick took a step wisely to the side and pointed vaguely in the nearest direction. "The docks," he said, and no sooner were the words past his lips that Slink was moved past him too, a thundercloud in her wake.
She was out the door and out of Wick's mind in the same moment. His thoughts were finally and happily again on other matters -and far away from the conclusion of a spat he neither understood, nor cared to understand- as he took up his discarded papers from the bottom of the steps and began his day's selling once more.
Slinks and the King: Revisited…
Spot was in his usual place at the docks. He was balanced on an upturned milk crate, one leg dangling lazily over the side. His can rested across his lap, much like a king's mighty scepter. He looked the picture of rest and relaxation.
As Slinks came near, a ray of sun flickered temptingly off the key that hung round his neck. It reminded her of her better days.
Spot didn't seem to notice her for a while (although it was likely he was just not making a show if it, given her not-quiet approach). Slinks however had no use for being ignored today and cut straight to the quick of the matter as soon as she was within earshot.
"Well," she huffed, coming to stand at the foot of his perch, "you rang?"
The corner of his mouth twitched at the familiarity of her words. The slight movement went unnoticed by his companion.
Spot had no intention of giving into her haste. Something had her worked up, fuming like a horse who'd been nipped by a pesky fly one too many times. There was a certain appeal in her obvious impatience, in this wild unpredictable Slinks. He rather liked the flush it brought to her cheeks.
Spot kept his eyes on the horizon.
"I watched the sun come up, Slinks," his voice was steady, calm. "Youse shoulda seen it, all purples and oranges."
Slinks huffed. He was sure she even stomped her foot. He turned to look at her, slowly taking in her damp hair and the nose that had turned a soft shade of purple itself overnight.
"Where didya go last night? I was worried."
His words hit Slinks squarely in the jaw. Slinks' face twitched and the sudden shock reverberated into her chest. Her furious resolve slipped ever so slightly, like a perfectly-tuned gear malfunctioning inexplicably, briefly. She regained herself brilliantly, but not fully.
"You… youse what?" Maybe she hadn't heard him correctly. Perhaps she still had water in her ears from last night torrential downpour Maybe she had a concussion…
Spot hopped off the crate and landed before her. Slinks took a step back, but Spot took the step too, keeping the small space between them.
"I've been thinkin'," he said, his voice softening, growing sincere. "All night I been walking around. Didn't sleep, I was just lookin' at the stars and thinking'… about you." His eyes fell on hers. In the morning sun they positively shone.
Slinks took another step back, and Spot let her have the extra room. And boy did she need it. Her chest felt tight; there wasn't enough air in all of New York to fill her lungs fast enough. He had to be joking. This was some sort of trick.
She regained the lost step, bringing herself into his personal space this time.
"What are youse playing at, Conlon?" She demanded, bringing out the big guns now, remembering her earlier (and well-rehearsed) speech. She pulled the cap from her back pocket and waved it in the air before his face. "I stole dis, remember? I is the bane of your existence-" (she'd heard the phrase once and was proud of herself for using it now) "-so what's all this starry-eyed nonsense that youse been thinking of me all night?"
Spot looked past his cap and didn't waver a pair a hurt-looking eyes from hers. "It ain't nonsense," he defied, the sincere ring to his voice once more. "It's the truth. Something's changed in me, Slinks. Something's changed bout me and you."
Slinks felt the sudden urge to sit down. She hadn't been expecting this. Not even in her wildest dreams (not that she'd ever had any sort of dream involving Spot Conlon like this before in all her born days, thank you) did she expect this. And what exactly was this? A trick or the truth?
She stared hard into his eyes. Spot Conlon was a bad liar. He never had found a use for mendacity in his reign and the lack of use made his few attempts quite telltale. Slinks prided herself on being able to gauge the exact intention behind her leader words and expression. She knew them even better perhaps then her own. But try as she could -and in spite of every contrary desire- she could not find a break in his honesty. It was all right there, laid out all over his face, as vulnerable as you please.
Then he wasn't lying.
And that meant that he-
It could only be then-
The Big One…
There always comes that moment in life when one wishes they were prepared. Bags packed, hair combed, shoes tied: really prepared. Truly, we imagine, when the time or circumstance arrives, we will meet it head on. Perhaps with a laugh or maybe a carefree grin, but always with that determined step and firm stance. Yet, inevitably, the time presents itself, and we find, in a sad pitiful sort of realization, that we are lacking. That we are completely and utterly unprepared for the very next occurrence of our lives. And so stood Slinks. Unprepared.
And Spot, the sole object of her every waking, erm- pranking thought. The purpose of her nimble fingers and cunning mind, to pilfer and snatch and borrow and infuriate. She lived for it.
And he, the King of Brooklyn, toppled to a red-faced peasant, sent to suffer through many days of indignation and exasperation. Surely he despised her for it.
Slinks wasn't sure anymore. Of anything really. The world had turned head-over and everything was backwards and impossible. It was as if her mind had simply vanished, evaporated from her head. And the hollow place between her ears was filling slowly with a very Spot-shaped understanding.
He'd taken a step, just a small step into the bubble of space between them, filling it whole with his rain-doused scent, his threadbare shirt, his melting grin, his eyes the size of the sky, his hand that reached up to touch her face…
Oh sweet Mary!
He was a nose length away from her face. She could see his freckles on his nose and the soft wrinkles at the corner of his mouth. She could feel the sun off his tanned face. His blue eyes were on hers, and she felt as if the whole world was falling away.
A Small Disclaimer…
(Slinks might have had time to prepare herself. Had she been more cognizant of her surroundings -being her precarious position just a footstep from the edge of the dock- and her companion -a boy who's sincerity was being to slip-, she might have been able to prepare herself, to arm her wits. But as it was -and we are not to blame the girl, for she was, in fact, just a girl and these things are known to happen- Spot Conlon was just that good.)
Rivers and Retribution…
"Slinks?" His voice was honey, the sound of summer rain, the flutter of a heart.
Slinks blinked then, slowly. He was close. So close.
He flicked his eyelashes, those long glorious eyelashes, and then he smiled, a quick flash of teeth; the grin of a victorious captor.
With a quick twist of his wrist, Spot recaptured his stolen property. His triumphant cry broke the air in the same moment that he gave Slinks a slight push. Slinks screamed as she toppled backward and into the river with an undignified plop.
The cold water rushed over her, seizing up her limbs and turning her flesh goose pimpled. She floundered for a moment in the dank depths before a mighty kick brought her back to the surface. She sputtered and stuttered, coughing up her swallowed water and wiping it from her eyes. Above her on the docks, Spot was bent over with laughter, great big tears of delight rolling down his cheeks.
"You doity rotten-" Water poured into her open mouth, pausing her tirade. She spit and gasped, slapping her arms on the water to keep afloat.
Spot roared on with laughter.
"You watch it, Conlon!" She shouted. "I'll get youse for this!"
Spot brushed the tears from his eyes and set one foot on a crate, peering down imperially over the edge. He was of course quite unconcerned by the threats of his adversary, who now looked something very like a drowned rat.
"Then I'll tell everyone you wanted ta kiss me."
His words fell like stones. Slinks' mouth dropped open and she gaped like a caught fish. She felt herself go red with embarrassment and then pale as a sheet.
It was a lie. A baldfaced lie. And yet, who would believe her against the King of Brooklyn?
"You… youse wouldn't," her voice squeaked a little.
Spot didn't answer, he only winked. A great wink of promise and pleasure. And then he settled his cap on his head and turned away. Slinks listened to his footsteps recede down the wooden dock. She bobbed in the water like a forgotten thing.
Spot had won. She'd made her final move, given her all into her final prank, and now, no more. To retaliate would be to destroy her dear reputation; every perfectly positioned foundation she'd painstakingly crafted would be toppled in one fell blow. Spot had her over a barrel, as it were. Dangling on strings like a puppet. Pity crept in before she could stop it and crinkled up the edges of her eyes with hot tears. She swam to the dock and clambered gracelessly up the broken slats. Once atop, she stood alone, water running from her heavy clothes and pooling at her feet. A tear rolled down her cheek, hidden among the rivulets of river water but present nonetheless. She was soaked and defeated.
But then she had an idea. Slinks had a beautiful, brilliant idea.
Threats be damned!
It was too good, too sweet. Too tempting. She was alive with excitement. A grand plan began to take form from and every inch of her hummed to do this prankster deed and secure her vengeance. It warmed her soul and brought a wicked smile bursting across her face.
Spot Conlon, be warned, she thought, starting off towards the Lodging House once more, her new and beautiful plan zinging about sweetly in her head.
"Youse can't keep a good Slinker down," she announced aloud, proudly, to herself and the world.
Neither had any cause to disagree.