Author's Note: Sorry to anyone who got excited thinking this was a new chapter, it's just a re-post! I had a reviewer (Lee) who correctly pointed out something that I had been afraid might cause confusion, but I'd never bothered to go back and clarify it, so here I am now. Originally I had Pony commenting on "the summer I was eighteen." I was referring to the summer after he graduated from high school, which was the summer he turned eighteen. I'm going by S.E. Hinton's birthday for Pony, which is July 22nd. I apologize for any confusion to those who previously read this chapter. By my calculation, that takes it to the summer of 1970 if we assume that the events of the book took place in the fall of 1966. I could say more, but don't want to ruin it for first-time readers. I'll comment on the other issue brought up by the reviewer when I post chapter 8. For the record, the events in chapter 1 occur on Friday, August 20th, 1976. Hopefully this gives a good point of reference. If anyone else picks up on any other points of confusion or inconsistencies, feel free to mention them. I have no problem with going back and fixing things. Enjoy!
Disclaimer: S.E. Hinton owns The Outsiders.
I picked the top folder from my pile, leaned back in my government-issue swivel chair, and opened it.
The boy sitting on the other side of my desk glared viciously. "It's Vic," he spat.
Vic it is, then. What's your story, Vic? Thirteen years old. No siblings. Mother – skipped town three years ago while on parole. Father –
I glanced up at Vic. There was still a decent bruise next to his left eye. How long ago had it been? I consulted the file again. Two weeks. As much as I hated to do it, I flipped through the pages until I found the pictures. They had been taken at the hospital the night of the beating. Two pictures, one from the front and one from the back – Vic standing naked in front of a blank wall, showing off his bruises for all the world to see. Or at least for a series of (usually) well-meaning cogs in the machine to see. In the pictures, he wore the same tried-and-true scowl that he was giving me now. His dark eyes bore into me angrily, and his hair stuck out in unruly wisps like he hadn't combed it in…well, in two weeks. When a bunch of strangers take over your life, you maintain control in the only things you have left – you stop combing your hair. No one's going to hold you down and do that for you.
"Are we almost done, mister?" he snarled.
"Pony," I told him.
He looked confused. "What?"
"You can call me Pony. That's my name."
Vic sneered at me. "As in, 'not big enough to be a horse?'"
I grinned. "No. As in, 'adorable animal that chicks like to ride.'" It was crude, but it got him. He had to look down at the floor so I wouldn't see his almost-smile.
Some of the desks around us were emptying out. I looked at the clock – three minutes till noon. Protocol dictated that I should wrap this up now. Sorry kid, no one wants a thirteen-year-old hoodlum who spent two months in juvenile hall for armed robbery. Forget that you were stealing a sandwich, and that you were waving a butter knife at the cashier who caught you. Tough break. We can't pay anyone enough to take you home.
God, he looked so skinny.
"Hungry?" I asked him.
"You do eat, don't you? Let's go get lunch." I wasn't sure exactly what I was doing, but I couldn't put that kid back in the pile…not just yet.
Vic made a point of blatantly ignoring me as I drove, which was just fine with me. I've never been one for the mindless time-filling chit chat that people actually think makes life less awkward. If you don't have something useful to say, keep your mouth shut. Vic was sure doing a good job of that.
He looked so young. It had been eleven years since I was that young, and it seemed like I must have looked older than he did. Probably not. That's probably why Darry had worried about me so much – when he had looked at me when I was thirteen, he'd probably seen a little kid that the world was ready to take into its claws and suck the life out of. Do I still look so young to him, I wondered?
Darry had taken good care of me. We had had our share of spats and disagreements, but he'd made sure I stayed in school and kept my grades up, and there was always food on the table, a warm bed, and a friendly face at the end of the day.
During the summer that I turned eighteen, Darry abruptly ceased to be the person responsible for me; ever since then, we've never had another disagreement. I remember the day like it was yesterday. I'd come home from my summer job one evening, and Darry was sitting on the couch with a letter in his hand. He looked like he had been sitting there for a while, with his work clothes still on and his hair messed up from running his hand through it about a hundred times. He looked up at me when I walked in, and for a minute I thought someone had died, by the look on his face. I guess the scenarios had been running through his mind, and to him it must have felt by then like someone had died. Me, namely.
He was holding my draft letter.
Four days later, I left for boot camp, then was off to Vietnam. Soda was already over there; he had enlisted two years earlier. Who ever would have thought that Sodapop Curtis would make a great soldier? He did, though; he took care of his men, and they loved him. I put in my year of service, and despite Darry's fears, returned home the following summer and used my GI bill to put myself through college.
Soda came home the year after I did – not by choice; he'd gotten a bullet through the leg. You can hardly tell now, except for the scar, and sometimes he limps when it's going to rain. He rents a garage now and does a really good business fixing up cars. He's got one guy that works full time for him, and two high-school kids that work afternoons and weekends.
You would think Steve would be right there with Soda fixing cars, but his wife won't have it. I would almost think it was funny, if it didn't irritate the piss out of Soda, the way his wife controls him. Steve had gotten a girl pregnant right out of high school (not even the girl he had been dating – she was one he picked up at a party when he and his steady girl had broken it off for the millionth time). So anyway, Steve did the noble thing and married this girl who can't stand him, and now they've got a small house and a little kid who follows Steve around like he's the king of creation. Steve's wife's family runs a diner just north of town, and so that's where Steve works. He runs the kitchen. Other than the occasional cup of coffee, I don't eat there. I'm not stupid.
Darry is doing the best out of any of us, financially speaking I mean. He used some of the money we had saved for my college to take some business classes. His boss retired a few years ago, and transferred the business to Darry, who expanded it into a roofing and contracting gig. He has six guys working for him, and with the reputation he's built, they are in constant demand all over the city.
"Well, here we are," I said unnecessarily. Talk about your mindless chatter. I'll tell you, you get people telling you your whole life how quiet you are, and you sometimes actually start to believe that there's something wrong with that. I parked the car and pulled the keys out of the ignition. I had brought us to a Dairy Queen. I don't know why, it just seemed appropriate.
We went inside, and I sat across from Vic in the booth and watched him polish off two sandwiches and a large fries. He still looked hungry. He looked something else, too. He thought he was hiding it well, and he was to most people, but I could see it as plain as day. After growing up in my neighborhood, I've found I can often penetrate the indifferent mask worn by the distrustful victims of their own lives that I see almost every day. Vic was good, but not good enough.
"I know you're scared," I ventured.
He glared at me again, like I knew he would. "You don't know nothin'. You don't know me at all."
Oh, but I do know you. Different name, different face, but I know you.
You're Dallas Winston. You're Johnny Cade.
You're me, without my brothers.
I had spent the past year trying to save kids' lives from the inside, and learning that some battles are too big and some wars never end. I thought back to the pile of folders on my desk, waiting to be shuffled into homes where someone actually cared. It wasn't easy, and there weren't enough homes. Some of the homes turned out to be worse than the ones the kids were taken out of; others were just more interested in that check in the mailbox than in that kid in their living room. To be fair, most were good, and the foster parents did the best they could; but there still weren't enough.
I stared at Vic, and watched him shift uncomfortably under my gaze. I knew I was deciding on something that would have a major impact on more than one life. Good, or bad? I guess life would be a lot easier if we always had the answer to our choices right in front of us. I would have known to not run away the night Darry had hit me (or, at the very least, to not wake up Johnny and walk to the park). Of course, if all that hadn't happened, there was a good chance I wouldn't even be sitting here now looking at this scared hungry angry kid with messy hair. He would be back at the boys' group home eating canned vegetables and boiled chicken for lunch, and I would be off somewhere probably actually making some decent money. Everything leads to something else, though, and once you see the cracks in the foundation and realize that you can patch some of them up, that knowledge breeds compulsion and you do things you never believed you would.
What would Melissa think? I knew the answer, even before the question had fully formed in my mind – Melissa would understand. Growing up, I had always thought that Soda was the only one who would ever really understand me. Then I had met Melissa in college, studying to be a teacher. She would understand.
As I sat staring at uncomfortably-shifting-Vic I was struck by the sudden impression that I was at the pound, staring through the bars and wondering if he was housebroken yet. That was what did it. I looked into the eyes of the kicked puppy sitting across from me, and leaned close.
"I know you hate me. I know you think I'm the last person in the world who gives a hang about you." Vic was staring at me in confusion. "Well, Vic, today is your lucky day."
He tried for bored sarcasm. "Why? Did I win the lottery?"
"Better…you're not alone anymore."
Vic's expression faltered, just for an instant. He still didn't trust me. But he wanted to believe me.
And that was a start.