Numb Like Her

Chapter 34

February 12, 1901

She waved goodbye to the owner and his wife, Thomas and Rebecca, and to their son Teddy who was cleaning tables. The sound of clinking glasses and laughter filled the room, the opening of the door letting in the winter chill.

"See you tomorrow, Ira," Rebecca called, her sweet Irish voice complementing her smile. "Tell Medda to come and see me! We have a card game to settle!"

Ira laughed and waved again as she went out into the cold bitter night, the wind pinching her cheeks. She pulled her shawl tighter, hoping her students were already home in front of roaring fireplaces.

She had thirty now. Two classes, one after the other in the evening.

She normally waited for Jack, and sometimes the others were with him. But she had pushed him to go to Tibby's tonight, for Mush's birthday. They were all there, waiting for her to join them. Kid Blink would probably have his girl there, too. Ira had taken her time in accepting her: Kid Blink was dear to her, and an ordinary girl would not do. She was far from ordinary.

Ira looked up, seeing the tiny snow flurries. The street and buildings were covered, the snow glowing in the light of the street lamps. The snow crunched under her boots and she was careful not to slip on the dark patches of ice. Wisps of her hair flew about her face in the wind, her eyes narrowed as she made her way towards Tibby's.

The months had passed quickly, and everything had finally calmed. Her wounds had fully healed, except of the cigar and cigarette burns that would stay with her forever. She could climb up and down stairs, dance, and do almost everything she could before with almost no pain. It was almost completely numb now.

The Newsies were back to selling papes every day, including Jack.

Jack couldn't stay away from her, though. He stayed with her most nights, always eager to be near her even though he never said it out loud. Ira knew he was still anxious, still afraid to leave her alone.

"Stay because you want to stay," she would say bitterly. "Not to be my personal bodyguard."

Some nights they fought; Ira was still under the influence of her "strange moods" as David called them. Sometimes she wanted to be left alone, her eyes distant and cold. Her bad thoughts would cloud her mind, make her mean; the past, her anger, was still difficult for her to push away.

But Jack would push back, too stubborn to be turned away. Sometimes they went hours without talking and he would sit, waiting for her to come near him. Eventually she would and it would be as if they hadn't fought a day in their lives.

Some nights they did nothing but laugh and tease each other, both smiling and carefree. Sometimes he'd let her open the bottle of whiskey behind the ice box. He never let her drink when she was angry. They'd drink a couple glasses and soon their mouths would be too busy to talk.

Nights were now Ira's favorite time of day, regardless of her mood. Jack's presence had become like breathing, though she'd never say it. She showed it instead.

The Newsies had thrown her a birthday party in December, the fourteenth. It had been at the Irish pub under the dance studio, and they had danced until dawn. She'd turned 20.

"So, I am older than you," she'd mumbled huskily into Jack's ear, her eyes glinting.

"You like that, don' you?" he asked, his face close to hers, his eyes warm from the Irish ale. "They say you can learn a few things from older women."

She smiled, "I'd love to teach you…"

He grinned.

Rockefeller was in prison, for how long she didn't know. But the trials had ended and the city awaited his sentence. She had managed to stay out of the way, her new identity throwing off any attempts made to find her.

But the thugs weren't the ones looking for her.

She looked around the dark deserted street; many were inside, staying warm. The snow seemed to make everything so peaceful. It reminded her of her town in Russia, completely covered, completely quiet. It was the first winter in New York that she allowed herself to enjoy. She welcomed it like an old friend.

She was half way to Tibby's, crossing near the Theater, when she heard someone behind her. She felt something firm poke into her back. She stopped walking and the object was forced into her ribcage.

"If you turn around," said a voice, "I'll—I'll kill you right here."

Ira stiffened at the woman's shaky voice. Had she not been threatening Ira, she might have sounded kind.

Ira's face hardened and though she showed no fear, her heart thumped painfully inside her. Tibby's was only two streets away, in the square…but she didn't want to risk the others, put them in danger, too…

"And don't even think about running."

She sounded young. Ira waited for her to speak again, the snow falling around them. They were the only ones in the street, the nearest lamp casting their shadows across the snow covered sidewalk.

"Walk and turn right," the voice commanded.

Ira's mind was still wheeling, trying to think. After a moment's hesitation, she willed her feet to move and she obeyed the command.

They walked for almost an hour, the voice and the gun barrel guiding Ira to the docks. The water was black and still and the snow covered boardwalk groaned under their feet, the ships towering over her. From the shadows, Ira guessed the woman was about her height; she was wearing a cloak and she saw the hem of her skirt, a rich red fabric.

"Stop here," the voice said.

Ira looked out to the water, seeing the buildings across the river, the lights in the windows glowing brightly. She looked down: she'd never seen the water so dark before, lapping at the dock, welcoming her. She was standing at the very edge, far away from the docks where the boats were tided. The sky above was clear. Ira saw a few stars.

She breathed deep and evenly, her breath clouding the air in front of her. The gun barrel was pulled away but the muscles in Ira's back remained tense.

"T—turn," the voice said.

Ira closed her eyes and twisted her feet carefully so as not to slip on the frozen wood. She lifted her face and opened her eyes, seeing the woman.

She was young, maybe nineteen. Her blonde hair curled softly over her shoulders, the red dress dark against her creamy skin. She had blue eyes, icy blue as they studied Ira. The revolver shook gently and did not belong in her delicate upper class hands. She was left handed…Ira saw the ring on her finger.

She met the girl's eyes. Her red painted lips trembled and she fought tears. She was angry…and terrified.

"You-You are to blame," she said breathlessly. "For everything."

She seemed frightened to be standing so near to Ira; fear and hate raged inside her eyes. She tightened her grip and steadied the gun.

"You ruined him," she hissed.

Ira said nothing. Her eyes stayed locked with the girl's.

"If it wasn't for you…" She sniffed, fighting to blink away the tears in her eyes. "He—He used to make me dress like her, like you."

Ira stiffed.

"Like a whore," she sobbed. "He called me 'Talia' and I knew who you were. I've been waiting to find you."

The gun shook violently.

Her face tightened into a hateful glare, "You ruined me!"

The words pierced Ira's ears, forcing their way through her memories. She had shouted the same thing at Jack. She could only stand on the edge of the dock and watch the poor girl sob into her other hand, the gun still pointed at her.

"He will love me, me…once you are gone," she said at last. She shook her head in disbelief and disgust. "Why would he want you over me? You're—nothing!" Her scream echoed around them.

Ira's lips parted, the air fleeing her lungs.

"And I have nothing to fear," the girl said softly, comforting herself. "No one ever notices these things…"

The girl's eyes hardened, "Men only care about you when you're on your filthy back. No one cares when a common whore is killed."

Such bitterness. How long had she been looking for her? How many nights did Garrison humiliate her, make her feel worthless compared to the whore that was his obsession? How many nights did she dream of this moment? Ira almost felt sorry for her.

The girl was rambling about the trials, her fresh humiliation, but Ira didn't hear her. She knew she only had minutes at most before the anger would curl her finger around the trigger. She thought of her girls, dancing in front of the long mirrors, eager for Ira to see their improvement. Tiffany was a natural at twirling…Molly had finally learned the beginning steps…she'd been so happy tonight.

Ira knew each of them by heart, the sounds of their voices, their faces. They'd brought her small handmade Christmas gifts before their December recital. Their families had come and even the Newsies had been there. The girls, her little girls, had been stars dancing across the sky, even if just for a few moments. And she had done that for them. They were not perfect, but they were perfect to her.

She thought about the Newsies, her Newsies: Mush, Kid Blink, David, Racetrack…everyone. She had remembered the looks on their faces when she had been brought back from the Underground. They cared too much about her. They needed to stop that…It was now, staring at the gun that was pointed at her, that she wished she could hear them laughing, see them wink at her, kiss her cheek like it was nothing. They were still waiting for her at Tibby's.

She thought of Medda…she will undoubtedly be heartbroken, her sweet friend. Nights spent sitting on her bed, talking until the sun rose, laughing until they couldn't breathe. Her sweet blue eyes crinkling when she smiled, her gentle fingers brushing her hair….So much like a mother.

And Jack…

She'd been with him last night. They had filled the tub to the brim with water, lying against each other in the steam as the snow fell outside. She'd felt his wet chest and shoulders, her finger tips greedy for him. His eyes, dark and hungry for her, burned her now as she remembered. Their bodies had been so restless, never keeping still, not while the other was pressed against them.

Jack. The boy with too much to say, strong and silent, unrelenting. The boy she hated and loved at the same time. She wished they were back on the roof, watching the sunset, laughing and listening. His cocky grin, his angry glare, his deep voice in her ears as he yelled at her, pushing her to push back. That was their way: out of anger came a passion that hurt her to think about now, too much to bear. He had ruined her. She wouldn't have it any other way.

And she knew he would know; he knew she wouldn't leave willingly, not now. Not when everything had been so wonderful. The first time she had ever been truly happy. She wouldn't leave, not now. He had torn New York apart for her and she couldn't imagine what he would do to find her again. He would go mad. He would do anything…and she didn't want him to find this girl at the end of his search, the same gun pointed at him.

"End it with me," Ira said suddenly. Her voice was surprisingly deep and calm, her eyes still looking into the young eyes of Garrison's wife. Her voice was angry, threatening, "Leave the others alone."

And the girl's lips twitched, her eyes steely.

"I don't make deals with whores."

Ira could have lunged at her, could've fought back. But, what then? Shoot the girl? Push her into the water? It wouldn't end there. It never would, not as long as she was alive. She felt utterly helpless as she stared at the girl's face, seeing her dark tired eyes. She was tired. Ira was tired. Maybe this would give them both peace.

Maybe she would leave Jack and the others alone. She barely had enough courage to hunt down Ira, the common whore. And she was right: the only ones who will notice will be Jack and the others. Maybe it was better this way. They were on deserted docks, far away from Tibby's, and the Newsies would be safe.

The Newsies would be safe. At least, that's what she told herself as she closed her eyes. She didn't have to open them to know that the girl had lifted the gun's barrel to point it at her face. She could feel it. There was nothing she could've done, nothing she could've said. She felt foolish for thinking her life would've ended happily. But at least it had been happy at all, even if it had been at the end.

She felt the air on her face, stinging the wet trails the tears left there, felt them drop to the snow at her feet. It was so cold.

Ira heard the gun shot but she didn't hear her body break through the water's surface, didn't feel its cold icy grip: she was numb.

Every day and every night, he told them the same thing, the same four words. And each time he said it, they believed him a little more. The shine in his eyes was unmistakable; no one could stop him, and no one would. He was not crazy, he did not go mad. He had accepted the words as easily as the breath that filled his lungs. And soon, everyone else did too. And it comforted them.

"I will find her," he said.

And, eventually, he did.

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