Footsteps slowly creaked on every step of the stairs. The door of the dorm room creaked open, the hinges swinging slowly. Blearily, the only light sleeper in the room sat up. The sirens had been wailing until only a few hours ago, and even now the city was far from quiet. He heard the painfully slow footsteps approach from across the room and could instantly tell who it was.
"Crutchie?" He called softly. The movement stilled. "C'mon, Crutch. Ya know I heard ya." There was a quiet sigh, and the steps started again, even quieter.
"Whatcha doing? It ain't even close ta the bell. The sun ain't even started to rise yet."
"Ya don't sound too sure about that." Crutchie sighed again and stopped moving.
"It's nothin', alright? I jist couldn't sleep." Race was quiet.
"Okay." He said after a pause. "But if ya wanna talk, I'm here." Crutchie's cautious footsteps resumed once more, and this time made it all the way to the door to Jack and Crutchie's little room before stopping. "You sure you're okay, Crutch?"
"I'm fine." Crutchie said softly.
"Okay." Race laid back down, and Crutchie heard his bunk squeak. He waited to make sure the boy didn't have anything else to say before slipping into the small room he and Jack shared in the winter or during bad weather. It was supposed to be some sort of closet or something, but had been crammed with two cots and a barrel to make a place for the leader and his closest friend to sleep when they weren't on the roof. Crutchie crept as quietly as possible to his cot and sat down, feeling the sleepless night and turmoil of emotions catching up with him. He closed his eyes and laid back, keeping the tears at bay. He sniffled, not realizing Race was listening from his bunk by the wall.
The next night, almost the exact same thing happened. Race was woken up by the stairs creaking and the door hinges squeaking, and could hear Crutchie doing his best to make his way across the room silently.
"Crutch?" He said quietly.
"Ya wanna talk?"
"I'm fine, Race."
"Okay." Crutchie fell asleep with silent tears flowing down his face, again not knowing that Race was listening quietly from the other side.
Crutchie didn't repeat the scene for a few weeks, and Race almost believed that it really was just a couple of nights where the younger boy couldn't sleep. Then he was woken up once more.
"Crutchie, if ya wanna talk, we can go downstairs."
"I...I'm fine, Race."
"If you was fine, you wouldn't be not sleepin' a couple nights a week."
"I said, I'm fine."
"Okay, but I'm here. Just come out again in ya wanna talk." Crutchie started to open the door to his room, but stopped suddenly. Race could hear him trying to compose himself, his hand of the door. There was just enough light for Race to be able to see tears streaming down his friend's face. "Crutchie, I'm here." He said very quietly. Crutchie sniffled. To Race, the noise was very loud, and he was surprised none of the other newsies woke up. In actuality, Race was such a light sleeper almost anything woke him, and even the simplest noises sounded loud to him during the night. "I'm here if ya wanna talk."
"I wanna sleep."
"I know you ain't been sleepin', Crutch. I can hear you cryin' sometimes, always after you come up real late."
"You...you can?" Race nodded, forgetting Crutchie couldn't see him.
"Yeah. I hear lots of stuff in the night."
"Sorry. I...I didn't mean ta keep no one awake."
"Crutchie, whatever is goin' on, I can help. I wanna talk to ya."
"I'll be fine. It's...it's nothin'."
"No it ain't. I understand if ya don't wanna talk, but I'm here if ya do. Always, okay?"
"Okay." Crutchie started to open the door again, but stopped once more. "Race?"
"I ain't fine." Crutchie's tears were flowing again. "I ain't fine. At all." Race stood up and stood next to his friend, slipping an arm under Crutchie's to support him.
"Ya wanna talk?"
"Yeah. Yeah. I gotta talk." Crutchie whispered. Race picked the smaller boy up, holding his crutch carefully in one hand, and tiptoed out of the dorm room, avoiding creaks and squeals as much as possible. Crutchie was quietly sobbing into Race's shoulder, trying in vain to stop the tears. Race crept down the stairs, reaching the common room.
"It's okay, Crutch. Sh, sh, it's okay. I'm here. I'll listen. I'll help. It's okay." He whispered. He let Crutchie go, putting him down on a beat up old couch. The boy was crying steadily and quietly, making almost no noise. Race let Crutchie cry until he calmed down, almost fifteen minutes. Crutchie curled into a ball, hugging his gimp leg to his chest. "You okay, Crutch?" Race asked quietly when the tears slowed down. Crutchie shook his head, but sat up. His dark hair was messy, his face red and swollen from the tears that were still flowing. "Ready ta talk, or just wanna sit for a little while?" Crutchie took a deep breath.
"I...I wanna talk."
"Okay." Race sat next to the boy.
"It don't make sense. It's stupid." Crutchie feebly swiped at his face, wiping away some of the tears and snot. "I ain't been sleepin' for a few weeks, an' I've been goin' outside sometimes."
"Why? What's goin' on?"
"That's what's silly. It's jist...I start thinkin' 'bout the strike, an' bein' in the Refuge. An' all the sudden, just at night, when I'm in the dark an' everybody else is asleep, all the sudden I feel like I can't breathe, an' my leg starts ta hurt, an' I feel like I can't barely move from bein' so scared." Crutchie's tears were louder now, separating his words and phrases with hiccups and sobs. "An' when I walk, sometimes I feel better, but sometimes I can't even get out of bed from bein' so scared. I feel like the Spider's hidin' in the room, an' if I move at all, he's gonna git up an' hit me again, an' take me back to the Refuge. So I jist lay there and don't move at all, but I still feel like he's there, hittin' me over an' over." Race rubbed his brother's back when he hunched over his lap, sobbing again. "An' it goes away when the sun comes up, but in the dark, I'm always so scared, so, so scared." Crutchie tried to compose himself again, but only succeeded in making his crying slightly less audible.
"Why didn't you tell nobody? We woulda helped." Race said. Crutchie wiped away more of his tears.
"Because I didn't want Jack ta know. It'd make him worry, an' if he's worried about me then he won't let me do nothin'. I can take care of myself, I jist get scared at night. An' I get some sleep, enough ta stay awake all day."
"Crutchie, that ain't okay. Jack would-"
"Promise you won't tell Jack! Please! He's jist gonna worry!"
"Please! I always tell him 'bout nightmares, jist not how scared I am at night! Jist please don't tell him 'bout that! Please!" Crutchie looked desperate. Race sighed, conflicted. "Please, Race! I keep all your secrets! Please!"
"Fine. But you gotta keep talkin' ta me, okay? Keep lettin' me help, okay? Tell me when you feel scared, an' I promise I'll hear an' come an' help, okay?"
"I promise. My bed is right next to yours, an' I'll hear even a whisper at night. Anything wakes me up, okay?"
"Okay." Crutchie hiccuped violently.
"You okay now?"
"Uh-huh. I'm tired." Race scooped his friend up again, ignoring his protests that he could walk.
"Let's get you to bed, then. The bell will ring in a few hours." Crutchie feebly protested again, but was asleep by the time they reached the top floor dorm.
The next time Race woke up in the middle of the night, it was from a whisper from the other side of the wall.
"R… race. Please! Y… you promised!" In an instant, Race was up and opening the door. The room where Jack and Crutchie were sleeping was dim, but there was just enough light for Race to make out Jack's heavily sleeping form and Crutchie's wide open eyes, his hands gripping his blanket tightly. He had bright streaks on his face, running down the sides into his pillow, clearly more silent tears. Race moved to the side of the bed. Crutchie was staring straight up at the ceiling. Race put out a hand and lightly brushed his brother's shoulder. Crutchie jolted, gasping.
"Sh, sh, it's just me, just Race, just like I promised. It's gonna be okay." Race whispered. Crutchie's eyes slammed closed for a second, then opened again, wider than before.
"Please." He breathed. "Please, Race, make it stop! Make him go away!" Race brushed the hair away from Crutchie's eyes.
"You wanna go downstairs?" Race whispered. Crutchie nodded joltily. Race glanced over at Jack, who was still breathing steadily, calmly sleeping. He scooped Crutchie up, feeling the younger boy relax, leaning into Race's chest and curling up, shaking with silent tears. "It's okay, Crutch, he isn't here. It's just me, an' you, an' all the other boys. There ain't nobody else. It's okay, it's gonna be okay." Race kept up the steady stream of quiet reassurance until he made it to the couch, where he put Crutchie down and again let him cry all the tears he had. When he calmed down, he was again curled up, clutching his leg to his chest. This time he'd ended up with his head on Race's lap, and Race stroked his hair to calm him down as his sobbing calmed into hiccups.
"I was s… so scared, Race." Crutchie didn't sit up this time, just murmured from his position. Race rubbed his shoulders, trying to ease the tension that was evident in Crutchie's whole body. "He was there. He was standing there, watching me an' Jack, an' he told me he was gonna lock us both up an' hurt us both, an' he started hittin' me, an' my leg hurt so bad, an' I couldn't move, I couldn't barely even breathe, an I couldn't move, an' I was so, so scared, Race, an' I just wanted to git out but I couldn't, an' I was stuck, an so, so scared, Race." Crutchie's tears were flowing heavily and he wasn't blinking, just staring straight ahead.
"He ain't here, Crutchie. It's just me."
"I know." Crutchie whispered. "But it was so dark, an' it felt like he was there. I couldn't move, an' it was so scary. I kept thinkin' that I was back in the Refuge an' if I made any noise, the Spider would come, but I didn't move an' I didn't make a noise an' he still came, he still hit me an' hurt me an' I was so, so scared." Crutchie was shaking and hiccuping again.
"It's okay, Crutch, sh, sh, it's okay, it's alright, I'm here, you're home, I'm here, it's okay, sh, sh." Crutchie calmed down enough to sit up, and he slumped against the side of the couch.
"I was so scared." He whispered. "So, so scared."
"It's okay, Crutchie, sh, I know, being scared is okay, it's okay to cry, just calm down, okay?" Crutchie nodded. The two sat in silence until Race noticed Crutchie nodding off. He lifted the boy again and brought him upstairs, careful not to wake any of the other newsies. He looked down at Crutchie's finally peaceful face and wished for the sake of his brother that it could stay that way, not be plagued by the nightly panic attacks. He was too great a kid to have to go through that.
The two walked sometimes, when Crutchie wasn't paralyzed with fear, just scared. They walked and talked about everything, not just Crutchie's night terrors.
"Race?" Crutchie asked one night.
"What happens when Jack an' I move back up ta the roof?" Race thought. Crutchie had been adamant that they weren't telling Jack, because he really didn't want Jack to worry about him.
"Then… we'll have a signal. I'm on the top floor, I'll hear if you thump the roof. An' if ya wanna walk, just come down and wake me up."
"But what about when I can't move, an' I need ya to carry me down like happened the first couple times?"
"Just knock your crutch off the cot, or make some sort of noise. If ya want, I could even check on you in the night sometimes." Crutchie nodded. They kept walking, staying on the well lit main streets to avoid gangs that might be lurking and the shadows, for Crutchie's sake. They always walked in circles, staying close enough to the lodging house that they could always make it back long before the bell rang, before any of the boys, even the earliest risers, were awake.
The first night Crutchie was back on the roof, Race snuck up in the middle of the night and saw him sleeping peacefully. Race smiled at the sight, he was curled up with a slight smile on his face, his crutch next to him. Race quietly climbed back into the dorm room and slept through the rest of the night, the best night's sleep he'd had in awhile.
Race woke up the next night to a thump from the roof above him. He hurried up the ladder, making sure to check that Jack was still asleep before sitting down near Crutchie, who was sitting up, but hunched over.
"You heard me."
"Of course I did. I promised I always would." Crutchie was shaking, but his eyes were dry.
"I don't like it, Race. I want it to stop."
"I know, I know. It's okay, calm down, it'll be okay."
"Why is this happening? Jack doesn't do this! Even Specs has nightmares, but not like this! Why am I like this? Why won't it stop?"
"I don't know. But you're stronger than all of them, Crutch."
"No, I'm not. If I was as strong as them, I wouldn't be awake and crying right now, I wouldn't be scared of shadows."
"Crutchie, some of them boys who went to the Refuge couldn't talk for months after coming back. Some of them never were the same again, and you was back out selling the day you came back! You was smilin' an' laughing', an' you'se perfectly fine during the day. It's only during the night that you ain't jist how you was before! Even Jack put himself up here for a few days when he got back the second time! You didn't do none of that, an' if that ain't bein' strong than none of those boys are!" Race whispered fiercely. Crutchie sniffled.
"But I'se scared of the dark, an'-"
"Crutch, you was alone in the dark for two weeks. You was hurt an' alone, an' it probably felt like we abandoned you. If anybody has a reason to be scared of the dark, it's you."
"I wasn't alone. There were other boys."
"It don't matter. None of us was there, an' the only one who managed ta see you at all was Specs, an' only 'cause he's good at getting through windows. You felt alone, an' you felt like the dark was never gonna stop, an' still when ya got out, ya went right back ta work like nothin' happened."
"It ain't like nothin' happened though! I'm scared all the time, scared to be in the dark, an' scared ta be alone, an' scared ta move. I jist want it ta stop, I want it ta be back like normal, but I can't stop bein' scared!" Crutchie squeezed his eyes shut, keeping all but one fat tear from leaking out.
"Maybe ya can't, but that don't matter! You'se stronger than I would be! I ain't never even been inside the Refuge an' I'se had nightmares!" Crutchie sniffed.
"That ain't true."
"Yeah, it is! I'se had dreams that I was trapped inside, an' the Delancey's were comin' at me, Oscar swingin' his brass knuckles an' Morris with a stick, an' all I can do is curl into a ball and hope I wake up soon! You've been through so much more than I have, an' still you'se only gettin' night terrors!" Crutchie's tears were flowing freely again. "You'se so strong, Crutch, an' you'se the only one who can't see it."
"I just want it to end." Crutchie whispered. "I want this to all be over. I wanna be able ta sleep through the night an' not be tired all day, an' I wanna be able to be awake in the dark without thinkin' that the Spider's comin' for me, that he's gonna hurt me more."
"I know, Crutch, an' maybe one day it will. But for now, it's you an' me. I'm here, okay? I ain't gonna leave ya, I ain't gonna make ya go through this alone. I'm always here, an' you can count on that, okay?"
"I promise. I promise I'll help ya through this, however long it takes. If I hafta live next to ya for my whole life, I'm gonna do it, 'cause I ain't gonna make ya do it alone, okay?" Crutchie wiped his face.
"Of course, Crutch. I'm here." Race put a hand on his friend's shoulder. "Always right here."
"Can we walk for a little bit?"
"Sure." They slipped to the ground and started their circuit, Crutchie visibly loosening up the further they went.
"Race?" He said, pausing.
"I love you. Like a brother, I mean."
"I know. I love you too, like a brother." Crutchie gave a small smile, far from his usual but more than he usually showed at night. Race smiled back at his brother. "Family looks out for each other, an' we'se gotta protect one another, that's what Jack said during the strike. So that's what I'm gonna do, got it?" Crutchie looked at him.
"Jack… Jack told you that?"
"Yeah. Why?" Crutchie smiled more strongly.
"I wrote him that, in my letter."
"Then I guess I'm following your own advice."
"Guess so." Crutchie looked up at the sky. "Thanks, Race."
"No problem. You'se my brother, after all." Crutchie nodded.
"We always have been, we just ain't said it until now. An' family looks out for each other, right?"
"So that's why I've been lookin' out for ya. I gotta look out for ya, an' you'se already look out for me when I need ya to." Crutchie nodded again.
"I think I'm ready ta go home. I'm tired." Race smiled at the younger boy.
"Let's go, then." By the time Race was in bed again, he was absolutely positive of one thing. Crutchie was going to push through his panic attacks. Maybe it would take a long time, maybe Race would be the only one to ever know about his huge triumph, but one day, somehow, Crutchie was going to make it through this. And he was going to come out of it even stronger than he already was. Race could only hope to be half as strong as his brother, because in the end that's all he needed. Crutchie had enough strength to make it through six times what Race had to, and he didn't even know it. Race smiled as he drifted off, thinking of an old story his mom had told him, before he had to live on the streets. A story about a very strong man who had to go through so much because of his strength. If Race ever told that story, the name would be changed to match that of the strongest person he'd ever met. Crutchie Morris, the boy to make it through hell and back and think he was weak.