Manhattan Lodging House
That night when Racetrack got back to the lodging house, he snuck in avoiding Jack and going promptly to his bunk without a word to anyone. Crutchy watched him come into the bunkroom and once Racetrack had sat down and taken his boots and hat off, came over and sat down on Snipeshooter's bunk.
"So Racetrack, I need a little help."
Race looked up at Crutchy stonily and pulled his scarf off, but didn't reply. Crutchy didn't notice the look, or if he did he shrugged it off.
"Ya see, I'm tryin' ta think of something to get Mush for Christmas, but I'm drawn' a blank here." Crutchy explained.
"I wouldn't know. Never given presents before." Race replied shortly, emptying his days earnings into his box.
Crutchy cocked his head to one side and frowned deeply, "Race…you've never given anyone a gift before?"
Racetrack looked up at him, wondering what the fuss was about., "No…never saw why I would want ta…its not like I ever got presents either." he said with a scowl.
"Dat's terrible Race…" Crutchy said, clearly concerned, but his plan to find out why Race hated Christmas was working so far.
"I don't see why its so terrible. So I've never given or gotten presents before, big deal." Racetrack growled, standing up and fluffing his pillow up.
Crutchy shook his head and took his cap off, giving it a shake, shaking off the hurt feeling that stabbed through his chest,
"So you can't think of anyting to get Mush?"
Racetrack sat back down on his bunk and looked at Crutchy. He didn't want to hurt his feelings by being snappy; Crutchy was one of his best buddies and everyone liked him. Hurt Crutchy and you had a lot of people mad at you. So Race sighed and closed his eyes, thinking hard about what Mush would want that wasn't impossible and unaffordable on a newsboys wages.
"I dunno…pair of socks? His are getting some big holes in da toes…"
Crutchy's face lit up with unbridled happiness that can only come from someone who is very childlike mentally and he slapped his cap on his knee, beaming,
"That's perfect! I knew you would tink a' something Race!"
Racetrack stood back up, "Glad I could help." he said with a small grin, patting Crutchy on the back before heading to the bathrooms to get cleaned up a little bit.
While he was in the bathroom washing his face off and running a comb through his hair, he thought a little bit about Christmas. He had never had a true Christmas before. The Bronx newsies had never done anything for the holiday's before, and when he was still at home, before that, Christmas was just a time to drink a lot of wine and beat everybody.
He gave a sigh and looked at himself in the piece of broken mirror. A sad, miserable boy looked back him, no smile or quirk of the eyebrows. Race glared at himself and put the piece of mirror face down.
"Racetrack, are you gunna stand there all evening or are ya going ta come down and help us?" Blink asked, poking his head in the bathroom.
"Huh? Oh….yeah sure, I'll be down," Racetrack replied, looking over at Kid Blink, "What are we doing?"
Blink looked at him for a moment, then grinned, "Didn't you hear? The tree arrived!"
"Oh…ok, I'll be down." Race said, nodding his head and frowning.
Blink grinned and ran back downstairs, thumping the whole way. Racetrack sighed again, ran the comb through his hair one more time and put his hat on before going down to join the others.
Downstairs was indeed festive as the boys were putting the tree up and hanging it with handmade ornaments, ribbons made out of newspapers, pieces of colorful broken glass and a few real ornaments that Kloppman had had tucked away in a box somewhere. Jack was hanging his red bandana up on the tree, tied in some sort of knot. The little boys were helping Kloppman put the presents under the tree and Crutchy was cutting out paper snowflakes to hang off the counter ledge and railing.
Racetrack looked around at everyone, smiling, laughing, having fun and stuck his hands in his pockets. He didn't have anything to put on the tree or to put under the tree, but he did know how to get a present of sorts…
Jack climbed down from putting the paper star on the top of the tree and grinned. The one of the good things about being a newsie, was you had lots and lots of paper to make things out of.
"'S'matter Race?" Jack asked, seeing Race standing to one side and going over to him.
Racetrack looked up at him, "I'm going to go get your hat tomorrow, Jack. Do we…have anything I could take to Harlem for…you know…a…gift?"
Crutchy looked up from cutting snowflakes and smiled to himself. His questions about a present for Mush had gotten Race thinking after all.
Jack cocked his head to one side, "Race, its Christmas Eve tomorrow, you don't have to get my stupid old hat…" he said, putting an arm around Race's neck.
"But I want to Jack…and wouldn't it be a good gesture to send something to Harlem for Christmas?"
Jack grinned and nodded, pulling Racetrack over to the guys so they could discuss what to send Harlem. That night, Racetrack Higgins went to sleep a little bit warmer feeling inside, knowing that he had done something right for once, and nobody was going to hit him for trying……
Manhattan ~ Harlem ~ December 24
Christmas Eve morning found Racetrack waking up at the crack of dawn, shivering out of his blankets and into his boots, jacket, scarf and hat. The night before, the boys and Kloppy had gotten their money together and sent Dutchy and Itey out to a shop to by a bag of chocolates for Race to take to Harlem as a present.
Racetrack reached into his box for the crinkly bag of chocolate and tucked them under his jacket, then quietly slipped out of the bunkroom, not wanting to wake anyone before it was time. Once downstairs, he woke a note to Kloppman, letting him know when he had left and that if he wasn't home by dark, Harlem had kidnapped him.
That being said and done, he headed outside into the cold frozen world that was still asleep and headed north through Central Park, hunching his back against the icy wind that had picked up during the night.
Off the coast, the storm cloud had moved inwards some more, darkening, building, sucking up more and more moisture off the ocean……
Meanwhile in Harlem, Cobra and his boys were up and about, sneaking in and out, getting their little hordes of saved money out to buy things for each other, slipping in and out of alleyways like a bunch of spooks. More then once, someone would run into someone else and a lot of yelling and jumping up and down would go on, before they would slither off again.
Christmas gift buying always was a good excuse for being sneaky and devious. Cobra himself certainly wasn't above such sneaking about and did his fair share of it, haunting several stores in search of the perfect thing to get Will and Olaf. Olaf was easy really, if it was shiny or sweet he would like it. Willow was a bit more picky, but that only stood to reason, since she was a girl and an older girl at that.
As Cobra sauntered down the street, looking in windows and kicking snow, Fiend slunk out of a general store in front of him, glancing around nervously. Cobra grinned and scooped up a handful of snow, spat in it since it was rather dry, formed a nice round snowball and pitched.
Fiend took a step forward down the street just as the snowball made contact with the back of his neck, splattering and going down his shirt collar.
He promptly screamed bloody murder, causing many decent early morning people to turn their heads and stare, before hurrying off, some glancing over their shoulders.
"Right on target!" Cobra shouted, pitching another snowball and catching his best friend full on the ear as he turned around.
Cobra laughed at Fiend's expression of outrage and ducked behind a building corner as a retaliation snowball was thrown.
"Not nice! I was all warm! And…you had to go get me cold!" Fiend yelled, lifting his shirt back up off his back and shaking it.
"You were only warm, because you were in there having hot chocolate with the Miss Weinstein's!" Cobra retorted, poking his head out, only to get creamed with a well timed snowball.
Fiend got his turn to laugh and did so, "So what if I was having hot chocolate? You're just jealous because you can't have hot chocolate with the Miss Weinstein's!"
Cobra retreated into the alleyway while some distinguished looking gentlemen passed and made snowballs, then popped his head out and barraged Fiend with snow, cackling under his breath,
"I am not jealous!"
"Now now." Will suddenly said from behind Cobra, putting her arm around his neck and pulling him back.
Cobra cursed and jerked away, stepping out of the alley, "Don't sneak up on me."
She pulled him back into the alleyway and yanked him down by his coat collar, "I've been wanting to do this for a long time." she said.
For reply, Will pulled him down closer and kissed him deeply. Cobra's eyes went wide and he pushed her away his face turning red, "Are you…mad!?"
"Merry Christmas." she replied, before darting out into the street and leaving, laughing.
Cobra's wiped his mouth off with a gagging sound then grinned,
"Wow what? I've been waiting for you to poke your blonde head back out here." Fiend snapped, storming into the alley.
Cobra looked at him, then plastered him with a snowball, "I knew if I waited long enough you'd come see where I was."
Fiend stood there fuming and brushing the snow out of his coat collar and off his face, muttering in Italian under his breath rather rapidly. Cobra just laughed at him, then helped him get the snow out of his coat before they both went out and walked around, window shopping, smelling the smells of hot pastries and such….
Back down in Manhattan, Racetrack had trekked up through the middle of Central Park without stopping, despite the fact that his shoes were getting soaked through from plowing through the un-shoveled walkways and a frigid wind was blowing, steadily getting stronger and it was starting to snow.
The warm fuzzy feeling that had made him start out on this journey was quickly starting to fade and he found himself whining and wondering why the heck he had wanted to walk to Harlem just to get Jack's stupid greasy hat. Harlem didn't even like him.
"These stupid chocolates are getting darn heavy." he grumbled, pulling them out of his jacket and looking at them hungrily.
The little bag was wrapped so nicely in it's crinkly paper and tied with a little ribbon, that Racetrack couldn't bring himself to open it and take one of the chocolates, no matter how hungry he was.
"Stupid Jack. Shouldn't have left his stupid hat up here in the first place. Could'a gotten Blink to go get it, his legs are longer. Wouldn't get so stinkin' wet," he snarled to himself, "Maybe I can con that Fiend character into a game of cards. He seems kinda dense…"
"I swear if that stupid storm comes in a dumps on me, Jack's going to owe me for the rest of his life. And if I get stinkin' sick he's going to owe past his lifetime. His grandkids are going to be paying my grandkids till the end of their stupid lives. I could be sitting nice and warm next to the stove listenin' to Dutchy write letters to 'is parents. But oh no."
He continued to complain all the way through Central Park, and barley even noticed when he came into Harlem territory. In fact he probably would have ended up in Da Bronx if the blizzard hadn't set in about half way into Harlem.
It hit like most blizzards do, the wind howling and wagon loads of snow being dumped in a matter of minutes. Visibility was zero and Racetrack found himself huddled up next to a abandoned building, cussing the cold, wind, snow, Jack, New York City, his jacket, the chocolates and Harlem. Then he cussed Jack some more, and his parents and his grandparents and great-grandparents for having such a stupid, heartless offspring.
The blizzard went on unheeded by his curses and got stronger, dumping more snow on New York City.
An hour passed. The blizzard continued to rage with no signs of giving up. Racetrack was now huddled up in a ball, to cold to cuss or complain anymore. His humped up back was piling up with snow, soaking him to the skin as it slowly melted.
"M-my toes are going to f-fall off."
At just that moment, two angels of mercy in the forms of Seal and October struggled past the corner of the building and somehow heard him.
"Did you hear something!?" Seal yelled against the wind.
"I thought so! Hello!?"
Racetrack's eyes got as big as baseballs and he sat up, but quickly hunched over as the cold wind hit his fairly warm middle.
Seal and October frowned and stepped in the direction of the voice, their forms looming out of the white darkness and October bent down, yanking Racetrack out of the snow.
"Good heavens! Higgins!" he exclaimed, giving Racetrack a good shake to get the snow off of him.
Seal took his jacket off and wrapped Race in it, and together they packed him off, like a crippled mummy. Race remained wordless, to cold to say anything and allowed himself to be packed between October and Seal.
The two boys fought their through the storm and fifteen minutes and two blocks later, they burst in the Harlem lodging house door and dumped Racetrack next to the stove.
Everyone looked at them, then at Racetrack waiting in silence for an explanation. Will paused in her stirring of the risgrynsgrot, Bouncer and Tic looked up from setting the table and lighting candles and Cobra dropped his hammer from putting a wreath up.
"What is that?" Willow exclaimed.
Seal glanced at her as he pulled his stocking cap off, "It's a frozen Racetrack."
"Found him to blocks down humped up in the snow. Not sure what he was doing around here in the middle of a snowstorm.." October added.
Cobra finished putting up the wreath, stuck the hammer in his pants pocket and went over to Racetrack, squatting down and resting on his heels.
"Yes Racetrack, what were you doing in Harlem? Doing a bit of spy work for Jack?"
"Cobra. Be nice." Will snapped.
Racetrack sat up, getting rather toasty rather quickly and swallowed, searching for something to say. Nothing came to his ice cube of a brain, so he pulled out the chocolates and held them out.
Olaf suddenly started laughing, till he fell down then laughed some more. His childish glee at Racetrack's predicament lightened the whole room and giggles started bursting out, followed by laughter.
Cobra laughed as well and took the bag, pitching them on the table before helping Racetrack up,
"You came all this way just to give us a gift? Unbelievable."
"No…Jack sent me to get his hat…everyone pitched in to by the candy." Race replied, looking around the room and sniffing the air.
Wooden plates were set around the four person table, with candles placed in the middle and burning brightly. The scraggly tree to the one side was heavy with straw decorations the little boys had made, paper snowflakes and worn out sock figures of little gnomes. Candles had even been placed on the tree, firmly anchored by string, but unlit, as well as handmade Swedish flags.
Even though only Cobra, his brothers and a few others were Swede's, the non Swedish boys didn't mind at all having a Swedish Christmas. Luckily they didn't have to have pickled pigs feet, a common Christmas delicacy.
"His hat. Good, Tic has been complaining about that thing." Cobra said, putting his hand on Race's shoulder and steering him into a chair.
"I wasn't spying though, really. I just go caught in dat snowstorm…" Race said, still a bit worried that Cobra suspected him of espionage.
Cobra went into the back room for a moment, coming back out with Jack's black cowboy hat, "You're really not the spying type Racetrack. Here's his hat."
"Yeah Racetrack, it was just kinda strange finding you up here on Christmas Eve. We wouldn't really suspect ya as a spy." Seal added, handing him a cup of hot coffee that Will just poured.
Racetrack took a deep sip and sighed happily as the warmth spread through his body and made his toes tingle. As he watched the small group finish getting things ready for the next day and for the dinner that night, he smiled to himself and a different warm feeling spread into his soul.
Cobra watched Racetrack for a moment, then went into the 'kitchen' and leaned himself against Will,
"I guess you won't be getting the gloves."
"Stupid Racetrack." was Will's snapped response.
Cobra looked over at his shoulder to Race. Olaf had come shyly up to him and was offering him a piece of shortbread, grinning like a maniac.
"Well…it might not be as good as gloves…but…how about me?" Cobra asked in a whisper.
Fiend, who had been watching them, nudged Bouncer, "What are they whisperin' about all cozy in there?"
Bouncer frowned at his brother and Will, "I'm…not sure. But I wouldn't disturb them." he replied with a grin.
Fiend grinned back and plopped down on his bed, stretching out and yawning.
"So Racetrack, what are you going to miss out on in 'Hattan?" Tic asked, after pulling Knack away from trying to crawl under the stove.
Racetrack put his cup down on the table, "Oh…I dunno. Never had a Christmas in 'Hattan yet…"
"Gee Race, sorry you gotta spend it here with us. We aren't that bad though…" Seal said apologetically.
Cobra came out with the platter of pickled cod and set it on the table, "Don't be apologizing to Racetrack, he's not the one who decided to come up here."
Race's nose wrinkled at the sight of the pale picked fish and looked away coughing to cover up his gagging,
"Well…it kinda was my idea. Jack asked me to come get it, and I said no, but then changed my mind and said I would…"
"I knew there was a reason Bronx kicked you out." Cobra muttered, before turning and going to help Olaf tie his shoes, something he had been working on.
Before to long, it was time to eat and Will and Cobra were pulling platters of sausage, fish and baked apples out of the oven. Next came the risgrynsgröt, which Will dished out herself onto the line of plates.
Racetrack watched everything with great interest, his stomach growling at all the lovely rich smells permeating the air. Having not eaten anything before leaving, he felt like a starved wolf, and eyed the sausage, licking his lips.
Everyone gathered around the table, Bouncer holding Olaf, who was 'wanting to be tall' just then, and Cobra said a word of thanks to his and his brothers gods. Then October said a few words for those who weren't heathens, thanking the Lord God for the past year. Racetrack shifted a little nervously, thinking of the stolen money in his pocket that he had taken from Boots a few days ago.
"Dinner, is served." Cobra said, when the saying of graces was over and sat down in his seat.
Racetrack got joustled to the back as the boys dove into the food, having been forced by Will to not eat the whole day. Of course none of them had been walking in the snow all day either.
"Hey! Let Racetrack get something first. He's our guest." Cobra suddenly said, slamming his fist down on the table.
The boys jumped and backed off, Tic pushing Race forward.
"Take whatever you can eat." Will said with a nod, handing him a plate.
Racetrack looked at the plate, then Cobra, who nodded at him telling him to go ahead. Slowly, he reached out and took one sausage off the platter, a baked apple and a piece of fish, before backing away from the table.
"Geez Race, you can take more than that." Seal said encouragingly.
"No…I'm fine. Tanks though…"
Seal shrugged and stepped forward to fill his plate with the others. Race looked around for a place to sit, since the brothers and Will were sitting at the table. He finally choose a choice place next to the barrel stove and sat down, folding his legs under him and watching the others.
Once everyone else had gotten their plates full and sat down on their beds or the floor, Bouncer looked around with a frown,
"Down 'ere." Race replied, waving his hand in the air.
Will shook her head as Bouncer got up and went into a back room, "You don't have to sit on the floor. Bouncer's getting you a chair."
Race shook his head in protest, but Will got a look on her face that said it was best not to argue with her, and he took the chair that Bouncer had brought out, sitting down next to Tic and Cobra.
A few moments of silence followed, everyone devouring their first bites, then slowed down, enjoying it. Outside the wind was still howling, the snow making little scratchy noises against the door and few windows as it was blown against them.
"This is really good Will. Thank you for feedin' me…" Racetrack said, as he finished up his food.
Will blushed a little and just nodded, not used to getting complimented on her cooking, then took a bite of her risgrynsgröt, but politely pulled an almond out of her mouth. Bouncer and Tic started laughing,
"Oh Will, whatever will we do without you?!" Tic exclaimed between giggles.
"I'm confused." Race whispered to Cobra as the others laughed.
Cobra grinned, "One almond is put in the bowl. Whoever gets the almond will get married the next year." he explained.
"Ohhh." Race said with a grin.
After dinner came time to open the few gifts they had gotten each other, and Racetrack sorta slouched down in the chair, feeling really out of place, until Cobra came up and handed him a package.
"Merry Christmas Race."
"What's…this? How did you know…I was coming?" Race asked, puzzled as he turned the package over.
Cobra smiled, the first time Racetrack had seen him smile, flashing rather white teeth,
"It's a custom my family has…to have a gift for a guest that might drop in. And if there isn't a guest, someone in the family gets it." he explained.
"Open it!" Fiend hollered.
Racetrack was starting to flush and pulled open the wrapping and pulled on the soft gloves.
"These are really nice guys…Thanks. I needed a pair of gloves…"
The door suddenly swung open, blowing snow inside and a skinny, rather tall gnome came in, carrying some packages and stomping his feet. Olaf's eyes went wide,
"The Jultomten!" he gasped, jumping up and staring.
"The what?" Race asked Bouncer, who was sitting next to him.
"Our version of Santa Claus." Bouncer replied simply, watching his little brother and the twins.
Racetrack nodded and watched, then looked around at everyone laughing together and talking. The warm feeling flooded him as he realized that Christmas wasn't just about having a tree and giving presents, but about being a family, related or not, and getting along with each other, not just then, but all the time. It didn't have to be about getting drunk and eating loads of food with relatives that you didn't even like.
He smiled, glad that Jack's hat had made him come to Harlem, and that Cobra and his boys had showed him what Christmas was really about…
Being a family, no matter what.
Hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it.