Chris has written more than 300 flash fiction/short stories. Working Vacation was 21st out of 6,700 in the 2016 Writer's Digest competition.
Tom wasn’t wearing shoes when he ran away from home. They were by the front door where his ma always insisted he leave them when he went inside. The pants, suspenders, long-sleeved button-up shirt, and hat were what he was wearing and all he took when he slipped out his bedroom window.
The day before, he had come home from school where he was in the fourth grade and found his ma on the kitchen floor, dead. This morning he had sat in his room listening to two strangers talk about his future like he wasn't fifteen feet down the hall listening. When one of the adults mentioned the word, orphanage, he ran.
An hour later, Tom was on a bridge that led to a part of the city he had never been to before. Buildings towered over busy streets while people clogged the entrances and exits to the subway. Newsies called out the headlines for the day, but Tom wasn’t interested in the news. He was hungry, and the thought of where he would sleep that night had just entered his mind.
He sat on a chunk of concrete under a bridge. His sore feet soaked in the cool creek water while his mind wandered. His pa had been killed in a construction accident two years earlier. Tom hadn’t really known his pa very well. He seemed to be at work all the time. But Tom adored his mother. Tears streamed down his smooth face and dropped onto his shirt. He wiped his nose on his sleeve, something his mother could never keep him from doing.
“What’re you cryin’ about?”
A boy, a few years older than Tom, towered over him with fists on his hips and a frown on his face.
“I ain’t cryin’.” Tom wiped at the tears and turned away.
“Well if you ain’t cryin’, you oughta get to a doctor cause your eyes is leakin’ like fire hoses.”
HIs name was Jack. He sat with Tom and they threw twigs into the water and watched as it carried the sticks away like life seems to carry everything away.
“Don’t worry, we all cry sometimes.” Jack stood up and walked to the edge of the underside of the bridge. “You comin’ with me or you gonna sleep on that rock all night?”
The older boy walked fast. Tom had to run sometimes to catch up. At one point they stopped and Jack looked toward the sky. Tom followed his gaze up the side of a building all the way to the clouds.
“She’s the tallest in the world,” Jack said.
The boys went on until they turned into a dark, damp alley. Rats skittered around mounds of trash and garbage. The cool moistness felt good on Tom’s feet, but the smell of decay and human waste caused him to contribute to the source with his own vomit, which didn’t take long. He hadn’t eaten since breakfast.
“Here we are.” Jack pointed at a ground-level window that was half as tall as it was wide.
“What’s down there?” Tom wiped his mouth on his sleeve.
“It’s where me and my gang live. Well, it’s sort of gang, but we don’t hurt nobody unless they try to hurt one of us. We steal sometimes cause we gotta have food.”
“And you want me to join your gang?”
“Climb through that window and you’ll meet the others.”
Tom pushed the window open with his feet and slid in. He stood in complete darkness. He heard a sniffle, a boot scraping over dirty concrete, a snicker. “It ain’t funny,” he said to whoever was there.
They all started laughing and lit candle after candle. The room was filled with light and laughter.
“Hush!” The room went silent at Jack’s admonishment. “What do you think? Do we got room and food for one more?”
“Heck, we ain’t got enough food now.” One of the bigger boys stepped forward.
“Well, Tucker, maybe we just oughta throw him out.” Jack took a step toward the other boy.
“I’m for it.” Tucker was as tall as Jack.
“Or maybe we just keep him and throw you out.” Jack struck his most menacing pose with fists on hips.
Tucker looked around the room. Every eye glared at him, upper lips curled and mouths sneered.
“Do what you want, Jack. You always do anyway.” Tucker sat back down.
"What we always do is vote.” Jack turned his attention to the others. “This is Tom. His ma died yesterday. If you want him to be one of us, raise your hand.”
Every hand went up except Tucker’s.
Jack showed Tom to a spot in the middle of a line of orphans and runaways just like him. The other boys wrapped themselves in blankets and curled up on the floor. Tom wanted a blanket. Maybe he could steal one. Jack said they stole things they really needed. He’d probably have to steal shoes too.
During the night, someone got sick and threw up. Moans and more vomiting followed. Tom hoped he wouldn’t catch whatever it was.
The following morning Tom watched Jack cross to where Tucker was wrapped in a blanket. He bent down and shook the older boy. Something wasn’t right. Jack shook him again and pulled the blanket away. There was no rise and fall of his chest. His eyes didn’t flutter open to greet the candlelit morning. Tucker was dead,
Jack picked up a small wafer and held it out. “Rat poison. If any of you guys is thinkin’ about killin’ yourself, here’s how you do it. He went around to Tucker’s feet and unlaced his shoes. “Is any of you older boys wearin’ shoes that’s too small?”
“Mine is.” One of the boys stepped forward.
Jack tossed the shoes to him. “Try these. And give yours to Tom. He’ll need ‘em if he’s gonna be a newsie.” Jack was busy removing Tucker’s shirt. “You got any money, Tom?”
Tom barely heard the question. All he could think about was what Jack had said about him being a newsie. Two boys carried Tucker’s nearly naked body to the window. Tom put his hands in his pockets, pulled them out and looked at his open palms. “I got twenty-eight pennies.”
“Everybody give Tom one penny. We did the same thing for you when we took you in, so no whinin’. The boys filed by, and each one dropped a penny into Tom’s cupped hands.
“Now how much you got?” asked Jack.
Tom sat on the dirty cement floor and counted each penny. “I got forty-eight.”
“You need two more.” Jack was holding Tuckers pants. He fished around in the pockets and dropped two more pennies into Tom’s hand. “Now you got enough for a whole stack of newspapers. Sell enough of ‘em and you’ll be able to buy somethin’ for dinner." Jack started to walk away, but turned back. "Here, you'll be needing this." Tucker's blanket landed at Tom's feet.
The early autumn day was bright and warm. Tom sat on the curb beside a stack of one hundred copies of the New York Times. He held one copy up in front of his face.
“What are you doin’.” Jack sat next to him.
“I’m readin’, what’s it look like I’m doin’?”
Jack picked up a paper and pointed at a random paragraph. “Read that.”
Tom read the words. Some were challenging, but he made it through the paragraph.
“Ain’t nobody in the gang can read.”
Jack called them all together in an alley near where they bought their newspapers. “Every mornin,” said Jack, “We has to find somebody to read the headline to us so we knows what to call out all day. From now on, that’s your job, Tom."
Most of the day, Tom stayed near Jack, but he had his own stack of papers to sell. He tried the words out for the first time, announcing the big news to the waking city.
“Get your morning paper, read all about it! Germany attacks Poland! England and France at war!”
A man held out a penny, and Tom exchanged it for one of the papers. He looked at the coin. Wheat stalks framed the back. On the front, President Lincoln’s portrait was centered beneath the words, In God We Trust. Should he trust God or should he trust Jack and the gang of newsies? Maybe God had sent them to him, sort of like angels. Yeah, he liked that. He sold another paper and began making plans for dinner.
Newsies (Newsboys) on the Streets
© 2018 Chris Mills