Jack had never walked through the front door of the brothel before. And it wasn't something he wanted to do again.
In the lobby, two women with their breasts hanging out of their tightly bound corsets greeted him and the older Newsies behind him. The room was filled with cigar and cigarette smoke, men's booming laughter and the clinking of beer mugs.
The women looked to the door and sneered and laughed at Talia, their cackling voices piercing Jack's ears. They laughed at her and her new clothes; David had given her a blouse and a long blue skirt that had belonged to his sister, Sarah. Jack saw by the look on Talia's face that she felt uncomfortable in the clothes. Her breasts were too full for the blouse to close all the way.
Talia glared at the women and they shouted for someone named "Rufus". Kid Blink, David, Mush, Racetrack, Specs, Snoddy, Pie Eater and Jake all glanced at Jack as he stood by the door with his arms crossed, ignoring the girls to his left at the bar, their legs wide open to him, inviting him.
"Well, this is pleasant," Race said, snickering.
"Looks like your kind of place, Race," Snoddy said as he shoved his friend.
Race glared at him, biting on his cigar.
"TALIA!" boomed a thick Brooklyn voice.
Jack saw a grizzly man emerge from the crowd of sailors at the smoky bar, approaching Talia with dark lust in his deep-set black eyes. His suit was faded and moth eaten, hanging on his broad thin shoulders. His face was sickly thin, his skin permanently burnt from the sun's rays, and his black hair and beard tangled into one another. He might have been a handsome man had it not been for his sickly appearance and the deranged smile on his thin cracked lips.
"Who's that?" Kid Blink whispered in Jack's ear.
Jack's eyes stayed on the man's sunken face, "I'm guessing tha owna of the joint."
"Tha owna?" Racetrack scoffed. "You mean the pimp."
"What?" Kid Blink asked, looking at Race.
"Jack," Race said seriously, "He owns her. Ya get me?"
Jack looked back at the pimp, his brow furrowed as he watched Talia stand in the middle of the room, all eyes, lustful and hatful alike, on her. The women laughed at her from their seats in the drunken men's laps and the drunken men stared at Talia, hunters poising to pounce.
"I'm jus' sayin', Cowboy," Race said carefully. "This may not be as easy as we thought it'd be."
"My beautiful Russian beauty," the pimp crooned, touching Talia's long dark hair. Her eyes flickered with disgust, clearly smelling the alcohol on his breath, but she did not retreat. She stood tall, staring into his glassy eyes.
"I heard about your night with Rockefeller," he purred. "Shame…I guess I have your friends here to thank for losing me my biggest customer…"
"Save it, Rufus," Talia spat. "I'm here to collect my things."
Rufus laughed and coughed into a white handkerchief. There was blood in it. He whipped out his hand and grasped Talia's arm in a tight hold. The Newsies advanced and stopped behind Talia, seeing the sailors rise from their bar stools.
"You forget, bitch," Rufus wheezed. "You're mine. My best girl." He reached out with the hand that was grasping the bloody handkerchief, and ran his fingers down her jaw, neck, and collar bone. His eyes were wild, "You're not going anywhere."
Talia's eyes flared and she yanked her arm away, "Wrong. I became a free woman a week ago. My contract expired."
Rufus' eyes widened and he glared at the newsboys.
"Planning on opening your own little show then?" Rufus cackled.
Kid Blink and Jack advanced quickly towards Rufus but Talia and the other boys retrained them. Rufus laughed and coughed into his handkerchief.
"Go on, leave!" Rufus shouted. "You'll be back. You'll come crawling once you realize you can't live without me. You're nothing. Worthless!"
"Apparently you didn't think so," Talia hissed.
Rufus glared at her, a wicked smile on his lips, "You may survive, Talia. You've got spit. But you may be the one ta kill yourself in the end. They always do."
Jack stepped around Talia, his eyes staring evenly into Rufus'. They were the same height and Jack glared at him with all the hate in the world.
Rufus smirked and stepped aside, gesturing lavishly to the staircase. As Jack led the way to the back of the room, the women sneered and spat at Talia.
"You think you're so much better than us," said an older woman with wrinkles around her mouth, her hands wrapped around a sailor's neck as she leaned her face towards Talia. "But you're still one of us, no matter where you go."
"Nice clothes," one red head cackled, touching Talia's blouse.
Talia raised her hand quickly and the red head pulled away, fear in her eyes.
One girl with dirty blonde hair stepped in front of Jack on the staircase landing, smiling at him with stained teeth. She was younger, maybe sixteen, and her breasts were at Jack's chin.
"You should come with me instead, handsome," she crooned, touching Jack below the belt. Her eyes cut to Talia, "my parts haven't been used by half the city..."
The women cackled and Talia quickly stepped in between Jack and the girl with a wild look in her eyes. Before anyone could react, Talia slapped the girl with the back of her hand. The women in the room exploded with shouting and cursing. Talia turned to them, leaving the blonde moaning on the stair.
"I dare you," she said darkly, her "r" rolling on her tongue like the hiss of a deadly snake. She looked at Rufus' smirking face, "Invest in some new merchandise, Rufus: the syphilis will shut this place down before the bulls do."
The women gasped and began advancing towards Talia with deadly intent. The sailors jumped up from their bar seats and glanced at each other, then at the women. Their smiles quickly faded. Some threw up over the bar. Jack took Talia by the arm and the newsies followed them up the stairs and down the hall.
They all clambered into Talia's room and locked the door.
"Are ya tryin' ta get us killed?" Jack shouted.
Talia laughed darkly, "They're too drunk and sick on drugs to do anything." She flew around the apartment, stuffing clothes into old carpet bags. She went to her dresser and emptied its contents. She poured money out of an old sock and stuffed the bills into her blouse.
"Talia..." Kid Blink began slowly, his expression concerned as he looked at her. "You...you don't have syphilis, do ya?"
Talia stood up straight, staring at the wall. Her expression dropped and she wanted to ignore the sincere concern in Kid's voice.
"No," she said finally. She turned to look at the blonde boy. "That's one thing I've managed not to try."
The boys rolled up her sheets and wrapped her breakable things, like her wash bin and dishes, in them. They left the furniture. They stripped the bedroom, kitchen and bathroom bare and all gathered at the window. Talia looked over the room once, her eyes stopping on the chaise lounge. So many nights and so many men…she had lost count long ago…
"Let's get out of here," she said before stepping out the open window.
They passed her belongings carefully down the fire escape. Talia watched them, laughing when Skittery and Race got into it over the sheets.
"They're breakable, dumbass," Race said from the street. "Don' throw 'em."
"Whatta ya talkin' about?!" Skittery shouted. "They're sheets!"
Soon they all gathered on the street, each newsie carrying something. They had nowhere to go; night was quickly falling and the shouts from down stairs were getting closer and louder.
"Where to?" Talia asked as she walked next to Kid Blink and Jack. "I'm homeless now, thanks to you." A clever grin appeared on her lips, the first sign of humor Jack had seen in a while.
"Our place, for the night," Jack said after a moment of thinking. "We'll go lookin' for a place tomorrow."
And so they trudged back to the Newsies Boarding House and stored her things in the attic. Talia stared at her things, all piled in the middle of the gloomy attic. Jack could see the tiredness in her eyes, her eyelids fighting to stay open.
"C'mon," he said, nodding to the door.
She stumbled down the stairs to the second floor. The newsboys were already getting ready for bed: some brushed their teeth, others took off their shirts and pants and crawled straight into bed. Talia didn't notice them; all she could see was the bed at the far end, still unmade and the way she had left it that morning.
She crawled onto the bed, feeling the sheets under her fingers. Jack stared at her, wondering why she was frozen on the bed, staring at the pillow.
"These sheets are clean," she mumbled to herself hoarsely.
Jack remembered she had said that the night before, too.
Jack sat on the edge of the bed, glancing at the other boys. But they weren't paying attention; they were already half way to dreamland.
"Talia," Jack said, pulling back the covers, "you're tired. Lay down."
She seemed to be disoriented, in a haze. She sat on the bed, her skirt wrapped around her legs, and she looked up at him, "I'm not tired, cowboy. I'm more than that…" She examined the bed again and her eyebrows knitted together. "Sometimes I forget if I'm sleeping or awake."
She looked at him and he saw the anxiety in her eyes.
"I'm scared, Jack," she said, so quietly Jack wasn't sure he had heard her. Those were the last words he ever expected to hear from her. It sounded strange.
He lifted his hand, then dropped it, hesitant. He lifted it again and laced his fingers in her hair, his hand resting against her neck. He didn't smile but his voice was soft, "I'm here." He seemed uncomfortable but he meant what he said.
She read his eyes for a long moment, still confused, "I've never-" She shook her head and looked away from him, "You make me feel strange."
Jack dropped his hand, "What's that mean?"
She stared at the blankets, "I don't think you want to know."
Jack huffed and sat on the floor next to the bed, resting his elbows on his knees, "Go ta sleep, Talia."
"Sleep in your bed," she said, almost angrily as she laid her head on the flat feather pillow. "I promise not to run away this time." She flashed him a grin but it did not touch her eyes.
Jack looked at her for a moment before standing, leaving her alone in the corner by the window. Though he was drained and longed for sleep, his eyes stayed locked on her through the night, listening to his friends'—his brothers'- even breathing fill the room. The quietness of the room threatened to pull Jack under but he fought the heaviness of his eyelids, staring at the girl, the wounded tiger, in the bed.