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Everyone's Got Folks

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Christmas Eve, New York City, 1890.

 

        "Francis Eoin Kelly, you get in here before you freeze yourself to death!"

        The shout from the tenement window made a eight-year-old boy grumble, dusting the snow off of his worn-out coat and saying goodbye to his neighboring friends before trekking his way up to the small, dusty place he called home. It didn't look like much, but when his small hands pushed open the door to the cramped living space, the scent of evergreen and apple cake filled the air.

        "Mama, I told you, I wanna be called Jack," The brown-eyed boy protested, taking off his tattered shoes and coat. Pale hands, covered in bandages from sewing needles, wrapped his small and wirey frame into a blanket and held him close. His head tilted up to find eyes that mirrored his own and dark brown waves of hair tied up into a bun. There was no denying that he was his mother's son.

        "How about Cowboy?" Eileen Kelly patiently inquired, holding her son tight and warming him from the chill. His expression seemed to glow after that, nodding his head and flashing a gapped smile that revealed two missing front teeth.

        The moment was interrupted by a loud shout and a giggle, startling the pair as the father of the household tumbled into the room with another scrawny boy on his back. 

        "C'mon, Jacky! I got 'im on the ropes. We's catchin' an outlaw!"

       "We are, Michael," came the exasperated (yet humored) correction from the mother as she watched her two sons pile on top of her husband, shouting and making fake guns out of their fingers. Dusting her hands off on her apron, she gradually returned to setting the cramped table for dinner, laughter hiding under her breath.

       "Put 'em up, partner! You ain't gettin' away this time."

       Malcolm held up his hands in defeat, letting his eldest son wrap loose Christmas bow ribbon around his wrists as handcuffs. As the self-proclaimed sheriff of the household, Jack held the authority over his younger brother. He let the pair exchange cheers and congratulatory words before breaking the bonds that held his wrists together and scooping both boys up, one over each shoulder.

        Their father was met with squeals of protest and delight as he brought them to the table, setting them down so they could find their seats. Michael wrestled with Jack to get the first bowl of soup, unfortunately leaving the six-year-old victorious and the two parents in fits of laughter as Jack pouted at his loss. The rare treat of apple cake, however, brightened his spirits immensely for the remainder of the meal.

       The three of the four Kellys had settled around the dried evergreen tree that leaned against the corner of the room. Haphazard presents were strewn beneath its lower branches, hidden under very outdated newspapers found throughout Lower Manhattan. In the neighboring bedroom, a glimpse of Michael could be seen on one of two rickety beds, quiet snores bubbling from his mouth.

       "Didn't I hear it was someone's ninth birthday tomorrow?"

       Malcolm's stern voice alerted Jack, who'd been busy sketching beneath a pile of moth-eaten blankets his parents sacrificed in order to keep him warm. He peeked out from beneath them, wide eyes filled with expectant wonder. Birthday was an incredibly uncommon word for him to hear and ever stranger was the apparent celebration his father now hinted at. 

       His father's ice blue gaze tore away from him and went straight to Eileen, who offered a sly smile to her boys before getting up and searching beneath the tree. She picked up a small box that was wrapped exceptionally well in last Saturday's edition of the New York Sun. It was held out in front of Jack, whose thin fingers reached out for it with uncertainty. 

       "I know it's early, but this is something special between the three of us," Eileen began, encouraging him to take the package and abandon his current sketching position. He took the gift in his hands, looking between both parents for the go-ahead before tearing at the wrapping.

       The box underneath was small and battered, but the young child's breath was stolen away when he took off the cover. Inside, a red bandana was neatly folded and pressed inside. The cloth had no signs of being attacked by moths or being caked with dirt, which meant only one thing to Jack: it was brand new.

       He held the bandana up towards his Eileen with a clever smile, silently asking for help tying it around his neck. Once the cloth was in its proper place, she was enveloped in a tight hug from her first born.

       "Happy birthday, baby," Eileen whispered, brushing her fingers through his ruffled hair. "When we head out to New Mexico, you'll get to wear that bandana and ride in on one of those golden palominos. Santa Fe won't know what hit 'em when Cowboy Kelly comes to town."

       It was later in the night, when Jack had passed out on the wooden floor, that the couple got a glimpse of the charcoal sketch he'd been working on. Jack himself was seated proudly on the back of a palomino horse, holding a cowboy hat high in the air. New to the picture, however, was the subtle detailing of his new bandana. As he mumbled blissfully in his sleep about countering the outlaws and ragamuffins on the Great Frontier, his father wrapped the edges of the blankets tighter around his frame while his mother blew out the candle. They went off to bed with smiles, anticipating the morning wake-up by one energetic boy wondering what the holiday had brought him . . . and a golden-hearted cowboy all too eager to give away the presents he had made by hand.

July, 1899.

 

       "You got folks?"

       Jack isn't sure what to make of the two Jacobs boys. Davey seems bookish; the straight-and-narrow sort that made for the best lawyers. Les was a rulebreaker, troublesome and constantly looking for a battle to wage. The two couldn't have been a better example of the phrase 'two sides of the same coin'.

       "Doesn't . . . everyone?" came Les's innocent response. The words are enough to make Jack freeze in place, his mouth steadily going dry as he formulated the best way to get out of the situation at hand. Davey sensed the tension enough to distract his brother from asking more questions, but it does nothing to snap Jack out of his thoughts.

       His right hand dove into his pocket, rough fingers brushing against the fabric of a red bandana. Slowly, Jack comes up for air, but not without giving the Jacobs brothers a right scare before he does so. 

       The question remains verbally unanswered, but the tense silence from the newsboy leader gives the only response needed. Sure, everyone's got folks. It's only the people like Jack who carried the pain of putting it into past tense.