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Ghosts

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Rain poured down from puffy, agitated clouds--relentless and cold--and Jack’s heart leapt into his throat.

He was running. He didn’t know how long he’d been running, from what, or to where, or why at all, but the darkness was closing in and gooseflesh crawled across his bare arms. Overhead, lightening flaunted itself against the purple sky and in its wake, thunder crashed.

Loud and symphonic, it grew more frantic with every step he took; every breath of stale, stagnate air he stole from the soggy streets of New York, like he’d stolen bread, clothes, shoes, and cigarettes. The storm raged like an orchestra hurtling towards its grand rapture, but the dissonance expanded into an aching madness; a blunt, deadened hysteria.

Gravel scraped his knees as Jack fell, hands clasped over his ears, mud seeping into his pants and oozing down his leg. Eyes stared at him from every back-alley and sewer grate. The feverish roll of thunder began to change into something else, something more distinct and eerily recognizable as the steady, stable hum of wagon wheels over cobblestone.

Jack felt sick.

Hold on, he heard himself whisper. The air reeked of horses and cigar smoke. Hold on, because these here goons don’t stop their carts for nobody.

Not even you? A small voice. A round and ruddy face, wide-eyed, missing two front teeth.

Not even me, Mikey. His white-knuckled grasp tightened around a thin wrist. Hey, you know where we’s goin’ now?

And there it was; the smile that could stop a hurricane, a bullet, and an army all at once.

We’s goin’ to Santa Fe!

A crowd cheered. Jack felt himself smile, but something inside was crippling. An impending doom burned like Hell in his chest and he wanted to get up and run until his legs gave out and the eyes stopped looking and the wagon wheels stilled.

Santa Fe, where there ain’t no Refuge and we’s both a couple’a cowboys, Jackie!

Jack pressed his index finger against Michael’s parted lips.

Hey, what’d I say? Keep it down, Mikey. We’s hiding, remember?

Beneath his hand, he felt a smile form.

We ain’t gonna hide in Santa Fe, Jackie. In Santa Fe, we’s gonna—

Rapid motion. A bump Jack hadn’t anticipated. A horse cried out, the carriage lurched, and Michael’s wrist started to slip from his hold. The beam they sat on, hidden from sight, let out a low, desperate squeak.

Then there was a snap, a crack, and a cry, all in no particular order. Maybe all at once. Jack didn’t know—but he did know that his hands were empty and the warm weight of his brother at his side had gone.

He scrambled. Every color blurred into the same shade of dismal grey, and then everything went red.

Red, like blood. Red cobblestone, washed in a stream of crimson.

Mikey’s smile could’ve stopped a hurricane, a bullet, and an army, but there was nothing in the world that could’ve stopped the weight of wagon wheels pressing down on his head.

Someone screamed. The carriage jolted to a halt. Jack tumbled forward, onto the mangled heap of still-warm flesh beneath the cart.

Jack only looked briefly, and then he vomited.

A mess of ginger curls soaked in red served as the only true confirmation that the trembling, stiff body was real—or at least as real as Michael had been thirty seconds ago.

And then he was running again, away from something horrid and towards nothing better than the worst he’d ever known. There was no Refuge and there was no Santa Fe. There was no Jack and Michael Kelly, no Theodore Roosevelt, no Snyder the Spider, no nothing. Just the sound of the rain, the smell of rotten garbage, and a smear of red against his shirt.

When Jack awoke, he was staring at blurry stars.

His chest heaved and his cheeks were wet. He sat up so quickly that his head spun as he glanced around the rooftop, out at the city’s skyline, down at the distant streets.

He remembered then where he was, and more importantly, where he wasn’t.

He reached first for his sketchbook, his security blanket filled with pictures of his nightmares. Drawing them got them out of his head, after all, and once they were out of his head, he could pretend they weren’t real.

A few feet away, Crutchie cleared his throat.

“You doin’ okay over there?” He asked with a tone that lead Jack to believe it wasn’t really a question. Or at least not the one he meant to ask.

“I’m fine,” Jack barked, snapping the sketchbook shut and wiping his cheeks with the sleeve of his threadbare sweater. “Go back to sleep, alright?”

Crutchie sat up.

“You look like hell, Jack.”

“Says the crip with the crutch.” Jack regretted his harshness almost instantly. He turned towards Crutchie, facing the line of hurt carved into his face, and sighed. “Shit, Crutchie, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it.”

“I know,” Crutchie retrieved his crutch from its position propped up in the corner. He made his way over to Jack and sat down beside him. “I know you ain’t fine, too. ‘Cause if you was, you wouldn’t’a said that.”

Jack groaned. “It’s a whole lotta nothin’. Really.”

“Seemed like a whole lotta somethin’, to me.”

Silence.

“You don’t gotta say anythin’,” Crutchie continued. “But if you’s got somethin’ you wanna say, I got two ears that wanna listen.”

Jack snorted. It might’ve been meant to be a laugh, but judging by the flicker of concern that appeared in Crutchie’s eyes, Jack had the feeling it sounded more like a sob.

“It was just a bad ol’ dream,” He sniffed. “That’s all. Ain’t no use in pretending it was anything more than that.”

Crutchie gestured to the sketchpad in Jack’s lap.

“You’s gonna draw it?”

Jack tossed the book aside. “Ain’t nothin’ to draw.” He paused, looking out at the cityscape as if he didn’t trust its reality. “Hey, tell me, Crutchie, what was your folks like?”

Crutchie cocked his head to the side, looking stricken.

“My folks?”

“Yeah. See, my folks were alright. But they’s been dead since I was a kid, so y’know? You ever…you ever have a brother? Or a sister, maybe?”

Crutchie crossed his arms tightly over his chest. He shivered despite the warm breeze that blew through his hair, and with a pang of realization, Jack wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have asked something so personal.

“I didn’t mean to upset ya,” he stammered. “I’m just…I’m just talkin’. Ain’t sayin’ much, just talkin’ for the stupid sake of it.”

Crutchie paused. For a moment, Jack was sure he wouldn’t respond and then, to what would surely be both their delights, the conversation would end. But Crutchie swallowed in a gulp of air, set his jaw, and squared his skinny shoulders.

“My folks wasn’t too good. They had other kids, y’know? Kids that could walk. What’d they need me for, right?” He laughed, but the sound was dry and humorless.

They were quiet for a long while, and then Jack moved an inch closer to Crutchie and put his head on his shoulder.

“It’s a big, stupid ol’ world out there, ain’t it?”

Crutchie leaned into his touch, slinging a lazy arm around his shoulders.

“Why’s you talkin’ all this stuff, Jack? You’s dancin’ around something you wanna say, but won’t.”

Jack stood up and paced. He shut his eyes, but pulled them right back open before the thought of Michael’s freckled, rosy cheeks could sneak its way into his head.

“It ain’t easy!” He cried, defeated. “I ain’t the kinda guy that talks about that stuff!”

“When’s the last time you went and did somethin’ easy, Jack?” Crutchie smiled gently. “Like I says, you ain’t gotta talk about it. But if you wanna, I’m all ears.”

Jack looked at Crutchie, long and hard, and it felt a little like he was seeing him for the first time. Soft features, fair hair, bright eyes, and a quiet smile to tie it all together. Something in his chest gave a sharp twinge, and he had to look away.

“I’m gonna tell you somethin’ I ain’t never told no one,”

Crutchie nodded. “Alright.”

“And,” Jack continued. “I don’t want you seein’ be different after the fact, alright?”

Crutchie laughed. “You’s talkin’ like you went and killed somebody!”

When Jack’s expression hardened, Crutchie sobered.

“You didn’t…you didn’t kill nobody, didja? Not that I’d see you different if you did, but…didja?”

Jack laughed miserably.

“Don’t worry, Crutchie, I didn’t kill nobody. But I saw somebody killed,” He swallowed the lump forming in his throat. “It was all…all red and stuff. One minute he was talkin’ and movin’ and sayin’ that we’s gonna be something, but he ain’t never said what.”

Jack turned his back to his confidant as tears welled up in his eyes. His cheeks took on a pink flush, and if his hands weren’t tucked inside his pockets, they would’ve been shaking.

“That wagon. The story they’s all tellin’ about me, when I left the Refuge.”

“What about it?” Crutchie prodded lightly, stepping up to stand by Jack. “Ain’t it true?”

“It ain’t a lie,” Jack let out a shaky breath. “But it ain’t complete, neither.” He retrieved his sketch book and flipped through it, settling on a page that brought a disturbed, frightened look to his face. He turned it to Crutchie. “Sure, I got away. But what for? For my brother to go and die? For everybody to look at me like…like I was the monster that went and offed him? I let go, but I didn’t mean to!”

It was an outburst that neither expected, but both should’ve seen coming. Jack’s book dropped to the ground and he turned away once again, doubled over the railing with his eyes squeezed shut and his shoulders shaking with poorly repressed sobs.

Crutchie stood in silence for a pause, glancing between Jack and the discarded art pieces. After a moment’s deliberation, he crouched down and retrieved the sketchpad, flitting through the pages and wincing at the detail, the intricacy, the harsh strokes and wavering lines. A splotch of red ink sat between a wrecked buggie and long-standing, ominous silhouette that Crutchie recognized instantly as the Refuge. It took him awhile, though, to spot the subtleties of the art, the vaguely human shape of the red blotch, the shadows stretching along the sides, the eyes peeking out from between yellowed, dog-eared pages.

“Jack,” He whispered, stunned. “You can’t be blamin’ yourself.”

“Who else is there!?” Jack turned to him, his face contorted with a kind of grief Crutchie couldn’t quite describe. “We ain’t got no folks; they’s been dead since Mikey was just a little thing, y’know? I was his folks! And I was no good at it, because I let go.”

Crutchie set the drawings aside and stepped closer to Jack, drawing him into a tight hug.

“You gotta quit tryin’ to be everybody’s hero, Jack Kelly.”

Jack slumped against him, weak and defeated, like a dead weight. If Crutchie hadn’t anticipated his mass, he might’ve fallen. But he had expected it; he knew Jack well enough to know when something could bring him to his knees.

“I ain’t tryin’ to be no hero,” Jack whimpered into his shoulder. “Me and Mikey, we was gonna go to Santa Fe, get the hell outta New York before it did us in like it did our Old Man. I told him they had horses there that don’t pull no buggies and you don’t gotta take food outta no trash cans; you just grow it in your grass and eat it up!”

Crutchie guided him into his make-shift bed and kept his arm draped around his shoulders. He pushed a strand of dark hair away from his damp eyes, tilting his chin so that their stares met.

“I’m real sorry about your brother, Jack, but it ain’t your fault. Not no more than it’s my fault for havin’ a bum leg. Sometimes, things just are, and you get to thinkin’, you know, maybe if I did this different, or did that different, nothin’ bad would’a happened,” Crutchie smiled at the flicker of trust he saw spread over Jack’s face. “But you’ll kill yourself doin’ all that, Jack, ‘cause no matter what, you can’t change the past. You can take all your what-if’s and they won’t do you no good. ‘Cause what if wasn’t. What is, was.”

Jack laid down, his head against Crutchie’s chest.

“You’s right,” He muttered weakly. “But that don’t make it hurt less.”

If Crutchie could’ve shouldered it all for him, he would’ve. But there was only so much he could say, so much he could do. He couldn’t sneak into Jack’s head and steal out all those memories. He couldn’t slip back into the past like some magic man and change the way things happened. He could only hold Jack in his arms and let him cry it out, if he had to, and that’s exactly what he did.

He didn’t know who nodded off first, but when he opened his eyes to the crack of dawn’s first beam of light, Jack was drooling against his shoulder and sleeping like last night hadn’t ever happened. The only reminder that it had, in fact, was the sketchbook, sitting open at Crutchie’s side. Careful not to stir Jack from the first sound sleep in too many nights, he reached forward and pushed it shut.

Out of sight, out of mind.