Numb Like Her

Chapter 17

For the first time, Racetrack lost a bet. He grimaced as he gave mush two dollars, sulking away as Mush and Kid Blink jumped up and down in absolute gaiety. The boys teased Race for days and he snapped at them like a wounded lion. As a result to his failure at his own game, he didn't make any more bets on Talia and Jack.

Because Jack didn't go to Talia's; he hadn't been to see her in two days.

For two days, he had sold his newspapers and disappeared up to the Lodging House roof when he was finished and stayed there until after the sun had set. He couldn't explain it; he just wanted to be alone. He was a loner, everyone knew that, even Talia, but it wasn't like him to stay alone. The Newsies distracted him and eased his troubled thoughts. But lately, he didn't want to talk to anyone and didn't want to be around the endless mindless chatter. He just wanted some time to himself.

Jack Kelly was a good thinker though many wouldn't think it. He had many thoughts, about life, about the world, about Talia…

She was going to be so pissed at him, he just knew it.

But it was okay; he'd deal with it later. Because he needed time to think things over, to figure some things out…

He didn't speak to the Newsies much even though Kid and Much continually pushed his buttons with the same questions and cornered him in the bathroom...

"'ey, Jack, what's up, man?" Mush asked, leaning against Jack's sink.

It was Sunday morning and the Newsies usually went to the docks or to the park on Sundays. The bathroom was foggy with shower steam and the boys were hopping around, whipping each other with damp towels.

Jack closed his eyes, "Isn't it a bit early ta start tha interrogations, fellas?"

"So," Kid Blink said as he leaned on the other side of Jack, trapping him. "Haven't seen Talia in a while…"

Jack looked up. Instead of a mirror over the sinks, he could see to the other side where Newsies were brushing their teeth. Jack was shaving…the only one old enough to shave. But they were all staring at him. He was surrounded.

He ripped the towel from the sink, wiping his face as the steam rushed his nose, and looked at them incredulously.

"Would ya calm down? I'm going ta see her tonight."

"'ey, atta boy," Kid Blink said as he slapped Jack's bare back.

Jack shook his head as he playfully boxed with Kid Blink, "Ya guys really need ta get a new hobby."

"Find us some girls and we'll leave ya alone," Mush laughed. Jack chased him around the bunk room, stretching a towel between his hands, ready to whip him and anyone who was close enough.

Once the boys were all dressed, they left the Lodging House in a big group and Jack parted from them after he exchanged handshakes and back pats with his closest guys. They ran down the street, whooping and hollering. Jack smiled after them before he turned to walk the other way.

Jack had originally planned to see Talia last night. And originally the night before that. But with each night, even though his blood boiled with the taste of her lips from the night at the pub, her skin warm beneath his…he couldn't do it.

What would happen when he saw her? What would happen if he had gone to her place after they had left the pub?

It made Jack uncomfortable. He was getting too close…but he wanted to be close, close to Talia.

But there was still a part of him that anticipated her screwing up again. He was waiting for her to slam the door in his face again.

But just thinking about her…

Damn it. Now he really wanted to see her.

He wandered the streets of New York, watching the sky change from bright blue to hazy pink as the sun crawled in a lazy arch above him, settling in the west behind the old brown buildings. He passed families enjoying their Sunday afternoon in the square, buying candies in the shops and new dresses for school. Boys and girls holding hands…they made it look so easy.

He thought about the way he and Talia were together and he realized the guys were right: they were like two loaded guns, pointing at each other but never intending to pull the trigger. They were a lot alike, more than he cared to admit. She was strong on the outside but screaming at the top of her lungs on the inside, just wanting to break out and fly away. He could understand that.

She was much like a wounded animal that would turn on you the moment you did something she wasn't expecting. She had always been good at reading people. But not Jack.

He took a deep breath, his chest expanding as he strolled through the market. Everywhere he looked: the sky, the tall buildings lining the streets, the people passing by…he wanted her walking beside him, smiling and laughing her husky laugh, her voice in his ear.

He—

He almost admitted it, almost said it. But to admit that he missed her would be admitting—

But that wasn't them: it may have been there—the feelings they had for each other—but it wasn't like them to say it. They didn't need to say it.

So he wandered all the way to the theater. He meandered to the back and looked up, seeing the fire escape at her window.

"No turning back no, Kelly," he said to himself before climbing the old rusted ladder.

….

Talia waved goodbye to the dancers as she crossed the stage, slippers in hand. She removed the pin from her hair and let it fall as she climbed the stairs to the apartments, each step creaking under her bare feet. She went into her room and instinctively glanced at the chair in the corner. No flowers. She hadn't even opened the kitchen cabinet from the other night. She didn't want to think about it.

But when she glance up to the living room windows, she froze.

He looked up at her, seeing her through the glass, the setting sun bathing his face in a rosy glow.

She stared at him for a minute. She wanted to be angry, to yell at him, to make him go away.

But she was…glad to see him. Relieved, even.

She dropped her slippers at the door and slowly made her way around the couches to the window, her eyes on his face. She unhitched the window and pushed it up, letting the sounds and smells of the street fill the living room. She could hear children laughing as they played in the street.

He was sitting on the fire escape—typical—and he was leaning on his knees, looking up at her. He wasn't expecting anything, just sitting there with a relaxed expression.

"How long have you been here?" she asked.

He shrugged, "Dunno. Few hours."

She read his face. Why would he be sitting out here? Well, she knew the answer but she didn't want to think about it. Without another word, she left the window and went to her bedroom to the wash basin in her bathroom.

Jack climbed in and looked around the room, seeing the corner where he had kissed here before…

He rubbed the back of his head. He'd kissed her everywhere it seemed.

She dried off her face and looked in the mirror, seeing him standing in the doorway of her bedroom. She turned and looked at him for a moment, studying his tall figure. For once, she didn't want to yell at him or begin an argument with the intent of making him leave. She wanted him to stay.

Maybe Medda was right; maybe it was time to stop chasing the good things away….

"Do you," she began slowly, thinking as she searched his face. He only stared back at her.

"Do you want to come with me?...To the roof?"

His eyebrows furrowed and without waiting for his answer, she walked across the floor and slipped past him. He turned and saw her climbing out the window, her skirt disappearing as she climbed the fire escape.

He followed her and felt the wind on his face once he reached the top of the building. The view stunned him; it was better than the view from the Lodging House.

The sun cast a rosy glow over everything; the roofs, the smoke rising from chimney shafts, the bay and the docks. From here, they really could see everything. The roof was somewhat cleaner than the Lodging house too: it was flat with a tall ledge and some of the old theater signs were propped up against it on the other side.

Talia looked out to the sunset for a while. The sunlight highlighted her silhouette like a fire and the breeze played with her long hair. She was dressed in her dance clothes, a lacy chemise and a long cotton skirt that showed her ankles. She was still barefoot.

She turned to Jack and he was more stunned by the smile on her lips than the view.

Her eyes sparkled at him—literally sparkled.

"Isn't it wonderful?" She asked. She turned back to the sun. "Now I understand why Mr. Kloppman comes up here. It's so peaceful…I almost forget where I am."

He walked forward until he was standing next to her, staring at the incredible view.

"Yeah," he agreed huskily.

Without hesitation she took his arm and led him forward, "Come sit with me."

They sat on the ledge, their feet dangling over the street far below. The building must have been four or five stories high…Jack rested his elbows on his thighs and his eyes drank in the colors of the sun on the buildings, reflecting off the bay far off.

And he realized…for the past few days, all he had wanted was to clear his head, to forget everything for a while. Sitting next to Talia…

He looked at her. Her eyes were closed, feeling the sun on her face as if it was the most precious thing to her.

He had never felt so peaceful before.

"Volkov," Talia said softly, her eyes still closed.

His eyebrows furrowed again. "What?"

"My name; you told me you didn't know my last name." She opened her eyes and turned her face to him, her chin touching her shoulder, her eyes glinting as if the sun had brightened them. "It's Volkov."

He couldn't help but think how her voice sounded when she said the Russian name, her accent welcoming it like an old friend.

She smiled and bit her lower lip and after a moment she said: "My name isn't even Natalia."

Jack started, "What? Ya lied ta us? What—Then what is it?"

"It's my…what you call a 'middle name'. My real name is Ira. Ira Natalia Volkov, daughter of Konstantin and Dimitra Volkov. Born December 12, 1881."

Jack stared at her for a moment. "Ira?"

She shook her head, "Ira. Ee-rah."

He read her eyes and spoke the name again, "Ira."

She regarded him carefully. She liked hearing him say it.

"I didn't lie. Natalia is still my name. I changed it when my parents went back to Russia when I was fourteen. And then Rufus found me…and I told him my name was Natalia."

She looked out to the sunset, lost in her memories.

"There's still many things you don't know about me, Cowboy," she said sadly. "But I wanted you to know my real name."

"So," he said, leaning on his hands, looking at her. "Tell me what I don't know."

She turned and read his dark eyes and smiled, "What if you don't like what I tell you?"

He shrugged his shoulders, "'s your story, not mine."

She looked out to the skyline again, seeing the sun inch closer to the buildings. She opened her memory, allowing images and faces to come back to her. Even after years of trying to forget them, they were still there, waiting for her.

"I had a little brother," she said softly. "His name was Nikolai. We called him Niki. He died when he was three. He called me 'Lulu'."

Jack's eyes darkened as he listened to her stories of her family, of Russia. Her life in New York, though it was not pretty, was still better than the one she had had. Her voice weaved in and out, painting a picture of her home and town. He tried to picture it in his head, trying to picture little Talia.

"There were many friends," she said, smiling to herself. "My best friends were the ones I made in dance class. They made me laugh. Not everyone in my life was bad…just those who used me. There are good people there, in Russia. And it was beautiful in winter…the snow covered everything.

"My mother sold her hair to make more money for our dream to go to America. She didn't know that father was making money through me, through the men he sold me to. We were not rich but we were not poor. I had my own room. Father worked at the bank. Many men he worked with were miserable with their wives. I had many dresses.

"We came here when I was eleven. We came with other Jewish families. Mother and father hated it here. They never told me why. They left me here and Rufus took their place, teaching me how to become the best whore in his house. The other girls were sick, half of them were dying."

She looked at Jack, meeting his eyes, "Kid Blink asked me if I had syphilis. The truth is I don't know. But I think I would be dead by now if I had it…" She looked away.

"I became pregnant with my first child when I was fourteen…I didn't know it until my stomach began to grow. It became really big…Rufus was furious, said it was 'sloppy work'.The first was the most painful...

She took a deep breath, not wanting to think about it. She trailed off and it seemed like she had to fight her way back to the roof, sitting next to Jack, watching the sunset.

"The others were much easier to…take care of."

She looked back to him and smiled though it did not touch her eyes.

"And then I met the Newsies."

Jack didn't smile back. He could only watch her. So many memories…too many to forget. She was a different person in his eyes now. But he didn't think differently of her.

"That's my story," she said as she watched the sun which had almost completely set, its glow changing from rosy to red.

"And what of you, Cowboy?" She asked as she leaned back on her hands, her face level with his. "What of Jack Kelly, the 'greatest Newsie in New York'?"

He huffed and rolled his eyes, "Nah. I'm not anything what the guys say I am. I'm only tha leader 'cause I'm the only one who doesn't show my fear on my face."

She questioned him with her eyes. He ran his hand through his hair, thinking of the right words so that she'd understand.

"We was in the orphanage together, Kid Blink an' me. His mother died when he was five 'cause she was sick an' he neva met his fatha. My fatha left me at the orphanage around tha same time 'cause he was tryin' ta leave tha city. The bulls were afta him and he said it was too dangerous ta take me with him. They caught him soon afta he left me.

"Kid's like my brotha," Jack said with a sigh. "He can be a stupid brotha but I'd do anythin' for 'im. He's saved my ass more times than anybody. Nobody has eva been there more than 'im.

"We was nine when we met Mush. He told us that we could make money sellin' papes an' that we wouldn't hafta go ta school. We ran away from tha orphanage an' joined tha Newsies. I watched tha older boys an' learned from them. When I was fifteen, boys started watchin' me. I didn't even hafta try. I was just good at it.

"I went ta tha Refuge for stealin' food a couple a times. 's a jail for kids," he clarified as he read the confusion in her eyes. "Then last summer we went on strike against The World papes with Newsies from all ova tha city. Tha's when we got David. He helped us…I almost left for Santa Fe when it was all ova but decided ta stay. I couldn't leave tha only family I've eva known.

"But I still wanna go, someday," he mused. "Ta see wide spaces, do whatever I wanna do. Can't be free in a city like this. 's even harder ta make good money."

"Unless you are a whore," Talia interjected.

Jack smirked without even thinking about it and Talia laughed.

"Yeah, I guess tha's one way ta do it," he said, staring at the people down on the street, passing the theater. His brow furrowed, "But I'm glad ya not like that anymore."

She looked at his face and he met her eyes.

"I mean, I'm glad ya got out, got with Medda."

She smiled to herself, "Me too. She's been wonderful to me. And…"

She struggled for a moment and then looked him in the eyes, "You-you've been wonderful... to me."

He read her face, seeing the pain in her eyes.

She shook her head, "Not many would be so kind to me."

Jack shifted, a little uncomfortable. But he wanted to say something to her, something important that she needed to hear.

"Ya know I'd neva let anythin' happen to ya," he said softly, his dark brown eyes serious.

Even though she probably didn't want him to say that, he still wanted her to hear it.

She smiled at him.

They watched the sunset below the buildings until they couldn't see it anymore. But the sun's rays stretched across the sky, the colors even more beautiful than before. They listened to distant voices drifting up from the streets and the horses' hoofs clipping and echoing off the stone.

It was quiet between them and neither one felt uncomfortable or strange. It was the most peaceful time they had ever spent together. It was different.

Talia watched the different colors above her, different shades of pink, purple and red. She had seen many sunsets, both here and in Russia. They had all been the same, except for this one. She didn't have to pretend to be anything; she was herself. She didn't have to hide the true feelings she knew were growing inside her. She didn't have to fear leaving this spot, to return to her room. She felt safe.

"Jack," she said softly, her voice thick.

He looked at her face, "Yeah?"

"Thank you."

He saw a tear roll down her cheek.


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