Numb Like Her

Chapter 2

That night, David and Racetrack came back for Jack. Jack, Kid Blink and Mush had spent the entire day in Talia's apartment. Most of the time Talia was out, either down stairs with the other girls so as not to be suspicious, or in another bedroom… the boys didn't ask why.

Jack couldn't help but watch her dress again before they left her room, only this time she saw him looking as she buttoned her blouse half way. She smiled at him over her shoulder and lifted her hair from under her shirt, letting it fall down her back.

Jack looked away, feeling frustrated again.

They left through the window and Talia turned out all the lights, following the boys out on to the stairs, her long skirt dancing about her bare legs and boots. The street lamps were lit and people were returning home from their day in the city. Talia breathed the fresh air, feeling the cool air on her skin, feeling somewhat free.

Together the Newsies and Talia walked through the city and down the dusty streets. Talia pulled her thin shawl around her tightly, hoping none of the men that passed them on the street would recognize her. Even dressed in a full length skirt, a blouse and a shawl, she still felt naked. But as she walked beside Jack (who was using Kid Blink as a crutch) and David with Mush and Race behind her, she felt safe; something she hardly ever felt.

But she ignored the stares and the disgusted eyes that saw her, mostly from the women that passed them on the street.

"So, Talia…" David began shyly and curiously. "If you didn't have the…profession you have now, what would you do?"

The boys looked at David pointedly, wondering what possessed him to ask that question. They were usually very careful of what they asked Talia…especially in front of Jack. Jack never liked hearing about Talia's "work". But they were naturally curious.

Talia smiled to herself, her thoughts carrying her elsewhere, "a dancer."

"Really?" David smiled, pleasantly surprised. "Did you dance in Russia?"

"I took lessons when I was small," she said, her smile growing. "Dancing was something I used to escape for a little while, to become someone else. I could be anyone, anything I wanted to be and it would be beautiful."

Her voice was soft and David's eyes were drawn to the genuine smile on her lips, not one she flashed to the men at her door. He had a feeling that that was the real Talia.

"You should dance here," David said hopefully. "I think they still have lessons at the-"

She shook her head and she wrapped her arms around herself, her face turning to stone.

"They won't take girls like me. And besides, it was the silly dream of a girl," she said softly. "A foolish girl."

Jack listened to her but did not look at her; he felt she did not want to be looked at.

They arrived at the Boarding House where the other newsies were hanging around on the stoop, waiting for Jack to return. They smiled and shouted, all smoking and laughing.

Talia never minded coming to see the newsboys. They made her laugh. And they didn't tell her lies. Newsies were known for their straightforwardness: calling it like it was and accepting it for what it was, not wanting to change anything or anyone. They had learned quickly to roll with the punches life threw at them.

"Took ya long enough, Jack," called Boots as he jumped down from the steps.

"I'd like to see ya do betta," Jack said as he shrugged off of Kid Blink's shoulder and went to sit on the step, stretching his torso.

"So what happened?" Boots asked as he sat next to Jack. "Said sumthin' bout you gettin' slugged real bad."

"I wasn' slugged real bad," Jack said defensively.

"Just almost killed," Talia said with a tight grin.

"Yeah, but Miss Fix-It here saved our Cowboy, right Talia?" Race said as he wrapped his arm around Talia, kissing her cheek.

Talia laughed and playfully shoved Race.

Jack made a face, "'s wasn' that bad."

The Newsies laughed.

"I'd better head home," said David as he glanced at his pocket watch. "I'll see you guys in the morning. Take care, Jack. See ya, Talia."

"Say hey to Sarah for me!" yelled Mush, laughing.

David waved a hand in the air and disappeared down the street.

Talia was welcomed into the world of the Newsies like she had always belonged. They sat on the stoop for an hour, just talking about the city and the scum in it, the scum they depended on every day. They were kicked out of wherever they went and were known as common "street rats". But for the Newsies, they were family.

Talia laughed harder than she had in a long while, not the fake laugh she often gave to the men she had to sleep with. She felt free to be herself, which she honestly didn't know which side of her was her real self. She had lived most of her life playing a part, hiding behind a mask. She was beginning to forget the difference between her real face and the mask she wore.

The Newsies saw her as a young woman, often forgetting that she was Jack's age. Not because of the skin she left exposed or by the way she carried herself but by her eyes: The anger that flashed in them was anger that had been within her for years; the joy that appeared in their icy depths, which was rare; or the shine that gleamed in them when she was thinking. She was experienced with life, more life than they cared to know about.

They had known her for only a year but learned much about her by the way she talked, looked. Newsies were very observant; after watching people in the city for years, they had learned how to read them.

And they hated to see her go, to leave with another man when she didn't want to. But they knew she had to.

Which is what happened while they were sitting on the old stoop outside the boarding house: they were much older, in their thirties or forties, and came walking out of the shadows with nasty grins on their faces. One had long dark hair tied back and hollow black eyes; he was broad in the chest and had bulky arms. He was the first to approach, his eyes locked on Talia like a snake hunting for a mouse. His friend hung back in the shadow of the building across the street.

Talia looked up, seeing the figure out of the corner of her eye, and some of the older newsies stood up defensively, including Mush and Kid Blink. At first they thought the men were thugs. Then they saw them looking at Talia. But even if they were here for her, this was Newsie territory.

Jack didn't stand. He knew there was no point: he would tell the scum to leave but Talia would leave with them. There was nothing Jack could say to make her stay. And he saw it in her eyes: when she was with him, she was different, real. There was a spark in her eye. When she was with a man, she became someone else, a seductress. The spark would die.

And now, as the stranger stared at her, her face changed, pulling on her mask. Her eye lids drooped and she breathed deeply, breathing him in.

It drove Jack mad. But he learned to be numb long ago.

Little did he know she was numb too.

"Hey there, beautiful…" the man whispered huskily.

Talia could smell the sweat on the man's clothes. He and his friend were sailors from the docks. She had seen them before. They were not the gentle types...

"I've seen you before…" he purred. "I never forget a face as beautiful as yours…"

She wanted him to leave; she was having a wonderful night, here with the Newsies…but she needed the money. If the scum had any money… a gamble she'd have to take.

The man glanced at the tall muscular newsies behind her, "I'm sure your friends won't mind if we borrow you away for a few friend and I are…hungry."

Talia glanced at the other man, glaring at her from the shadows, and she felt her heart beat faster; she'd seen the work these men left behind on the other girls at the brothel...there was even a rumor that they had killed one of her own. But she fought to hide her panic. She hated it when men came in groups.

Talia looked back at Jack, Kid, Mush and the boys, telling them with her eyes to be cool, to not get tense. But they weren't watching her.

She looked back to the man, moving closer to him, playing a part she had mastered long ago. She took his hand, trying to guide him away from the Newsies.

"Then let's go somewhere and…feed his appetite."

The man advanced forward quickly and wrapped his hand around her arm, his fingers digging into her. She let out a startled cry, a glare flashing across her face, and he jerked her towards him. She kept quiet as he stuck his face in her neck, smelling her hair. She kept her eyes averted.

Jack stood, forgetting his pain, and strode forward, placing his hand on the sailor's wrist tightly. The sailor hit Jack's hand away quickly.

Talia shot Jack a hard look and the man looked at him with amusement.

"Did I tread on your land, pal?" the sailor asked harshly.

Talia placed a hand on the sailor's chest and whispered to him, "Give me a minute."

Talia went inside the boarding house with the boys following. Jack stared at the sailors for a long moment. They smirked at him. A year ago, Jack wouldn't have stood a chance. He'd grown since then; he was taller and stronger now. One of the biggest Newsies. But it was the pain in his side that made him walk away.

Jack stepped into the parlor of the boarding house and sat down on the wooden staircase, feeling short of breath. His wound was pulsing like the blood boiling beneath his skin.

Talia began tucking some of her skirts into the hem at her waist, revealing one of her long slender legs.

"I'll come back tomorrow to check on you," she said without meeting his eyes.

"Don' botha," he said emotionlessly. "I won' be here."

Talia stared at Jack for a long moment, feeling lower than the dirt on his shoes.

Jack thought for a moment and looked up at Talia's exposed leg.

He shifted on the stair uncomfortably, avoiding her eyes. "Jus' be careful."

Talia didn't meet his eyes, afraid he'd see the fear in them. But she could handle herself and these men. At least, that's what she repeated to herself.

She sighed, looking up at the boys. She didn't like the looks on their faces; Mush and Kid Blink were glaring at the men outside. She looked at them for a moment and then disappeared out the door. Jack stood and went to the window, watching the two men approach her. Although she followed them willingly into the alley, they held her arms tightly and drug her into the darkness until she was consumed by the shadows where he couldn't see her.

"It ain' right," Kid Blink said in frustration as he and the boys went up the creaky stairs to their bunk room. "It ain' right! Jack, we coulda stopped them."

"She wouldn' let us, Kid," Jack said as he dragged himself up the stairs, Mush close behind him.

Kid Blink walked angrily into the bunk room, throwing his cap onto his bed. "Man, you know they had more on their minds than just-"

"I know, Blink!" Jack shouted, going quickly to the wide window at the other side of the room, his hand pressed to his side. He began pacing up and down the aisle between the bunk beds. His friends watched him as his words came out in angry fragments until he could form a complete sentence.

"Ya think I don' know-know that she might end up dead on tha street one mornin'? She doesn' care, Kid! Let her go! Damn it!"

Jack fell onto a bunk, not caring if it was his or not, and shut his eyes tightly, trying to ignore the tear in his side. He took off his shirt violently and threw it onto the floor.

The boys stared at their leader for a long moment, watching as he covered his eyes tiredly with his hands and moan in frustration. Not knowing what else to say or do, they began preparing for bed. Kid Blink went over to Jack and sat next to him, looking out the window to the alley where Talia went.

"Jack," said Kid Blink earnestly, "Talk to me, man."

Jack shrugged and sat up, trying to come across as indifferent. He winced and pressed his hand to his side, looking back to the window.

"'s nothin' ta say."

"You had a lot to say just then," Kid Blink said, his voice almost angry. "You always get this way, Jack. 's not hard to worry about her…especially since she puts herself in danger this way..."

Jack didn't say anything; his anger had not yet subsided. Kid Blink was one of his best friends but he still wasn't ready to open up to him, not about this.

Knowing Jack wouldn't sleep until he saw Talia come out of the alley, Kid Blink squeezed his friend's shoulder gently and went to crash in his own bunk.

"No good scum," said Race from his bunk, chewing angrily on his cigar. "I knew I recognized 'em; they busted me out at the races last week."

"She's been seeing a Rockefeller," said Mush, staring up at the ceiling from his top bunk with his hands behind his head.

Race looked up at him, "'s not much betta, Mush."

Jack sat on the bed, staring out the window for another thirty minutes. The boys' voices faded and soon they were all sleeping.

Jack glanced around anxiously and flopped around on the bunk, trying to shake off the worry in his head, the thoughts…and he fought to make himself believe he didn't care. But he did. Every passing minute was another painful hour that he didn't know if she would come out of the alley.

But she did. Talia emerged from the shadows alone with a torn blouse and tangled hair, glancing around to make sure she was alone. But there were no bruises, from what Jack could see, and her face looked the same. But she limped along the wall of the building across the street, holding onto the bricks and her lower stomach. She slumped to the ground and rested her head against the brick. She grimaced, clinching her lower stomach.

Jack stared at her for a moment before reaching for his shirt. After dressing carefully and loosely tucking in his shirt, he walked to the staircase, ignoring the pain that was slowly subsiding. He bounced down the stairs quickly and not caring if the boarding house keeper, Kloppman, saw him or not, he left through the front door.

Talia heard the door open before she saw who it was exiting the boarding house. She quickly stood and leaned against the wall. When she saw it was Jack, she showed a tired relieved smile.

He couldn't help the irritated glare in his eyes; why she thought it was ok to smile at him, he had no idea.

Jack strode over to her casually, his hands in his pockets, and he tried not to look at her dirty ripped clothes. He looked her in the eyes for a moment, reading her. She looked back at him unashamedly.

"Ya a'right?" he asked evenly.

She smiled, tilting her head back and closing her eyes. Jack saw the marks on her neck and the cash tucked against her breast. He imagined them, tucking in their shirts and tossing the bills at her feet. He looked away, his jaw clenched tight.

"I'm always alright, Cowboy. Nothing more, nothing less."

"C'mon," he said, motioning with a tilt of his head. "I'll walk ya."

She smiled at him and then her smile dropped, her piercing blue eyes burning into his. He didn't like the way she was looking at him, seeing through him.

"You waited for me."

He ignored the gentle tone in her thick voice.

"Be careful there, Jack," she said as she began to walk, wincing. "Soon you'll start to care."

He began walking with her down the street, not knowing what time it was nor caring. It was a pleasant night; the air was cool and the sky was clear. The buildings and alleys were silent and for a little while it seemed like Talia and Jack were the only ones in New York.

"So," Jack said at last to break the silence. "Ya wanted ta be a danca."

She laughed, "you and your accent."

"Ya one ta talk," he shot back.

She laughed and he couldn't help but crack a small smirk.

"Yes, I wanted to be a dancer."

"Are ya any good?"

"Better than you, I think."

"'s that so?"

She laughed again and he shook his head, smiling now.

"I don't want to go home," she said suddenly. She clutched her stomach.

He looked down at her and saw that beneath her tough expression, the one she always wore, she was feeling something she had never let him see before. It was something between fear and heartbreak, maybe both.

"Okay," he said with a sigh, thinking. "So where to?"

They walked around the city for what seemed like hours until they stopped at the docks, the place they had met over a year ago. They threw rocks and small pieces of wood into the bay and watched the sky turn from navy to purple with the rising sun. She felt safe and comfortable and he saw it in her eyes, heard it in her voice.

Jack and Talia never really had time to where it was just the two of them. Jack was still uncertain of how to act around her but on this night it was simple: he was talkative and even a little silly, something he was only around Mush and Kid Blink, talking in strange funny voices as he imitated the people in his life. He laughed louder than Talia had ever heard when he told her about the boys-his brothers-and his eyes crinkled when he smiled.

And she laughed too. It was a husky soothing sound to Jack. She even opened up to him; her past was always such a mystery to him.

"I came here with such silly dreams," she said, laughing as she watched the distant ships and fishing boats leave the docks across the bay.

"I remember my first day in America. I remember thinking how dirty it was. Nothing like the pictures I had seen in school."

He laughed softly with her. Then the brightness in her eyes faded and she smiled sadly, like a girl letting go of what was lost.

"What about your parents?" he asked curiously.

She shrugged, "They went back to Russia. I stayed. They missed home but knew I had a better chance here."

Something dark crossed her expression and he knew not to pry.

"What about yours?" she asked.

"My mother died a while ago," he said casually, tossing a stone into the bay. "My father's in the hands of the state penitentiary."

She nodded, "Kid Blink told me you wanted to go out West, Cowboy."

He shrugged, "I did. But something told me to stay here." He laughed humorlessly, "But I'm beginning to wonder why. There's nothing here for me."

Her eyes glassed over as she stared at the water, "I've been thinking the same thing lately."

He looked at her for a moment, seeing the hopelessness take place in her eyes. Then he realized he recognized that hopelessness in himself. He was content to stay with the Newsies in New York, his home, but every now and then he thought of Santa Fe and pulled out his ragged magazine to look at the Cowboy, wishing it was him.

"I guess dreams are only for those who can make them come true," she said huskily.

"Nah," he said as he pushed his fingers through his hair. "Dreams are fa everybody. They're what make nights the best time a day."

"Not for me," she said sadly. She pulled her shawl around her tightly.

He looked at her, trying to read her eyes.

That was why they only talked about small things, never getting in too deep as they both knew not to do. They both knew intimacy came at a price.

"But this was a good night," she said, smiling at him and pulling on one of her many masks. "Well, some parts of it. Thank you, Jack."

"For?" he asked quietly, his eyes locked on her face.

She smiled beautifully, her genuine smile, "for making this the best part of my day."

She quickly stood up, looking away from him.

"I should be going…" she said, her voice deeper than before. She fixed her skirts and blouse. "I promised Garrison…"

Jack looked down at the water, feeling his anger rising: he had almost forgotten about Rockefeller and her.

He walked her back to the brothel and stopped a block away. He watched her walk to the front of the building, her long hair blowing lightly around her face, and he saw her wave to him before she disappeared through the door.

He turned away and walked back to the boarding house as the sun began to rise.

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