A/N: Why, you ask, have I not updated this story in so long? I don't know! It's been half-written for so long, but apparently I needed to move to something else for a while. I wrote parts of it, re-wrote them, and finally got it finished. So, here it is – the last chapter of Ten Years Later.
Dedication: This one's for all of you who have been reading this story and making such wonderful comments and suggestions for the past fifteen months. Thanks, you're great! Also, I can't finish this story off without a thanks and a virtual hug to Tensleep, whose story Different View was what kept me on this site long enough to decide to write my own story down. You're awesome!
Disclaimer: S.E. Hinton owns The Outsiders
Stepstepstep step step step. Step. Step.
I turned my head just enough to see if his eyes were closed before I took a careful breath. Out like a light. A light that gets flicked on and off with random constantness, that is. I used my semi-free hand to grope around on the chair for the small blanket I'd dropped. If I got it warmed up on his head before I set him down, he usually didn't wake up. Got it. I did a couple of mid-air folds with the blanket and set it against the back of his head before sitting back in the armchair to wait for him to be just a little more asleep, and maybe get a burp out of him on top of it. That was one of the frustrating parts – you finally got them fed, changed, and sound asleep, and ten minutes later they were wide awake again because they had to burp. Repeat process.
I set the pillow on the arm of the chair and settled in, nestling Jon up against me with the pillow taking the weight of him and my arm. I was getting good at this, I thought. I ought to be, I went through it every night.
Ever since the twins had been born, and excluding the first couple of weeks when Melissa's parents had come to help out, we each took one baby every night. Usually we rotated, since Gina was the easy one and it gave us each a little more sleep every other night. I had taken to sleeping out in the living room with whichever one I was in charge of so we could all sleep better by the simple act of not waking up anyone who wasn't already awake.
I sat for a bit and listened to the quiet noises of the sleeping house – the hum of the refrigerator, the overhanging tree branch in the back yard brushing against the gutter, the furnace kicking on in the basement.
The weather was just getting colder, so the warmth from the heating ducts had that familiar smell that you recognize when it comes back on after a long summer, but which becomes standard and eventually unnoticed as autumn wears on.
Linleigh and Vic were back in school, and so far nobody was having any problems. Lin had started seeing a more specialized psychologist after what Vic told us, and apparently she was making progress. It was tough going, it would be for a long time, but it was something. I was making progress, too, but at least my nightmares originated several years and half-a-world away. Some of hers were still wandering the streets of her home.
I think I had just dozed off when a noise at the front door startled me awake. I pulled myself up out of the chair and set Jon in the bassinet before going over to turn on the porch light and peer out the window. I unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door immediately. "Soda?"
He was hunched over with our house key in his hand, like he'd been trying to unlock the door. "Sorry, I wake ya?" he asked in a loud whisper.
"Well, yeah, it's the middle of the night." I wasn't going to lie. "What's wrong? Come inside, its cold out there." I stepped out of the way to let Soda get past.
"Sorry Pone, did I wake the babies?" He was leaning a little too close and talking a little too…unclearly.
"Soda, are you…have you been drinking?"
He shuffled in front of me to the living room as I guided him with my hand on his back. "A lil'," he slurred.
"Sit down." I moved the newspaper off the couch. "Soda, you don't drink, everyone knows that. I even said so in that thing I wrote."
"Never mind. What happened, man? What's going on?" I leaned back next to my brother and watched him run his hand through his hair.
"I saw her," he finally said. "I saw her, and she was with a guy."
He didn't need to tell me who he was talking about. I had never seen Soda so distraught over a woman before. He hid it well, but we still talked, so I knew his breakup with Melanie had been tearing him apart. "Soda, maybe you should consider talking to her, you know? I mean, maybe she's feeling the same way."
He gave me a sidelong glance. "She was with a guy," he repeated.
"Yeah, you said. But that doesn't mean she's happy. Maybe he was her cousin or something."
Soda looked at me for a second before he started laughing, then tried to quiet down when Jon stirred. "He ain't her cousin, Pony. But thanks for tryin'."
"What's going on?" A bleary-eyed Vic was standing at the end of the hallway squinting in at us.
"We're having a party," I said.
He came over and sat down on Soda's other side. Soda draped his arm over Vic's shoulders. "Sorry I woke ya'."
"Are you drunk?" Vic asked, cutting right to the chase as always.
"Naw, I ain't drunk," Soda answered with a sigh.
Vic shot me a skeptical look. "How would you know? You don't drink. That's what Pony said in that thing he wrote."
"He never read it," I explained. "Hang on." Jon was fussing around in his bassinet, so I picked him out and set him against my shoulder, where he let out a loud burp. "Finally."
"You two should go back to bed," Soda suggested. "I'll just sack out on the couch."
"That's where I sleep," I reminded him.
"Right. So I'll go in with Melissa," he decided, setting Vic off laughing.
"How about both of you go in Vic's room? Vic, get the sleeping bag out of the hall closet, one of you can sleep on the floor." I took Soda's arm before he followed Vic. "You okay?"
He nodded. "Yeah, I'll be okay. One o' these days." He gave me a wry grin and headed off to Vic's room
I stood across the table from my brother, watching him. "So you don't even have a headache?" I'd already asked him twice, but I couldn't get over it. If I hadn't seen him buzzed off his rocker the night before I never would have guessed.
He grinned at me over his plate of eggs, grape jelly, bacon, and pink pancakes. He'd gotten up early with Linleigh and made the pancakes at her request. "Not even."
I walked over to the back door to open it, and the cool morning air wafted in as I sat down with my breakfast.
"Is that too cold for the baby?"
"No, he's got a blanket on." I gazed at my brother, wondering if I should leave well enough alone and deciding against it. Sometimes Soda doesn't want to talk about something because it really isn't something he wants to talk about, and other times it's just because he doesn't want to burden anyone else with his issues. "Soda, I really think you need to talk to Mel." I could almost see him shut down in front of me, see him make the decision right then that whatever I said would never be enough to sway him. I hate when he does that. He's always nice about it, but I can tell when he is dismissing a thought before it even has the chance to be justified. "Really. I mean, how much worse could you possibly feel? You're already not with her. You'll either find out that she really is over you, which is what you already believe anyway, or she'll tell you that she's just as miserable as you are. Right?"
Soda shrugged. "I guess so."
"So you'll talk to her?"
He let out a deep sigh. "If you promise to stop talking about it, I will promise to call Melanie sometime this decade."
Soda stared at his plate and ran his fork haphazardly through his eggs. "Hey, thanks for letting me crash here."
I shook my head. "Soda, you know you can come here anytime you want. That's why I gave you a key. You don't need to thank me."
He took on a stern tone and looked up at me. "Yeah, well, if you ever showed up drunk at my place in the middle of the night, you'd be sleeping in the bathtub."
I gave him an even stare, and he finally grinned, so I gave in and smiled back, shaking my head at the memory. "That was a heck of a night," I said. "And for the record, the bathtub isn't such a bad place to sleep. At least not until you have to get out of it the next morning and stand up straight."
"Yeah," Soda agreed, "and I'll bet that was the last time you ever let Two-Bit get your drink for you."
"No kidding, man. And he used that good grain alcohol; I didn't even know it was there until I was hammered. Don't ever ask Two-Bit for 'just a Pepsi'. Good thing Melissa didn't find out, she would've had his nuts in a -"
"Find out what?"
Soda turned his grin to Melissa, who was coming into the kitchen with Gina in one arm. "That Pony was half-toasted the day you got married."
Melissa looked over his shoulder to his plate. "Oh yeah? Who made breakfast?"
"I did." Soda leaned back and stretched.
"Thanks. Pony, can you take her? I'm starving."
We did the baby-transfer-maneuver like pros, and Liss got herself a plate. The first few weeks you would have thought we were passing a bomb back and forth, as awkward as it was. As I sat there holding our daughter and watching my wife, something in me found itself grateful that we can't read each other's minds. She looked hideous, that was all I could think. Her hair was jumbled up in a tangle, her worn-out pajama top was not only mismatched with the bottoms, but clashed loudly, there were bags under her eyes, and she hadn't showered in two days. Whoever wrote that "till death do us part" line must have had mornings like this in mind.
"What's wrong?" Melissa asked, giving the pancakes a tentative lick before putting the forkful in her mouth.
"Huh? Nothing. I was just thinking, that's all."
"When's everyone coming over?"
Good, change of subject. "Around three or four. Did you pick up the rolls at the store yesterday?" Halfway through the question I knew she had forgotten.
"I'm sorry, I never wrote it on the list, so I completely forgot. Want me to run over and pick them up this morning?"
"I'll get them," Soda offered. "I need to run over to my place this morning, anyway. Just tell me what you need, and I'll pick it up on the way back."
Melissa looked relieved. "Thanks, I'll give you some money."
Soda waved his hand. "Forget it. I wanted to bring something over anyway." He stood up and dumped his plate off in the sink, then gave me a pat on the shoulder. "See ya' later, buddy. I might be a little late," he added, lowering his voice. "Got a phone call to make."
"So where's Soda?" Steve asked. "Fizz, get away from that. I told you before we came, don't touch whatever's not yours. Put your hands in your pockets!" He shook his head. "I swear, that kid's tryin' to make me crazy. He don't listen any more."
"Don't worry about it, Steve. It's just a coaster. We don't have anything he'll break."
"I don't care, that's not the point," he replied. "I always swore I would never have one of them kids who don't respect other people's property. Fizz, dammit, put that down!"
Fizz was standing there with one of Liss's knick-knacks in his hand, pretty much ignoring Steve as he examined the piece. I didn't care, he was just a little kid, but Steve looked about ready to blow a gasket.
"Put it down," Darry said firmly, and Fizz put that thing back on the shelf like it was on fire. "If it ain't yours, don't touch it," he added reasonably. "And if you don't know, be on the safe side." Fizz looked at Darry for a second and kept his mouth shut. He's a little scared of Darry.
Steve looked relieved that somebody else had supported his authority. I never know what to do, when it's someone else's kids. I think a lot of parents have a tendency to expect more from their kids than other people do.
"Hey Fizz," Vic said from the hallway, "I got some stuff in my room you can do. You like to draw?"
Fizz took off after Vic, and Steve finally relaxed. "Vic's good with kids," he said.
"Yeah, he is." I was noticing that he was good with people in general. As anti-social and defensive as Vic had initially seemed, over the past year his true personality had really begun to shine through. He was still blunt and sarcastic, but his authoritative air had other kids and even a lot of adults impressed, including me. He was mature for his age, and drew a good line between asking for help and handling his own problems. He still pissed me off plenty, mostly on purpose, but I wouldn't have traded him for the world. I couldn't imagine life without him as part of our family.
Lin dropped down onto the couch next to Darry and watched Gina finish off her bottle. "She really likes you," she said nonchalantly, but I could pick up the slight jealous edge to her tone. I guess Darry could, too.
"She likes whoever's holding this bottle," he said. "And right now, she'll like whoever gets this wet diaper off of her. Any volunteers?" He looked straight at Lin, who giggled.
"Okay, I'll do it," she offered. "But only if you read me a chapter tonight."
Darry put out his hand for her to shake. "Agreed."
"How's she doing?" Two-Bit asked in a hushed voice after Lin had disappeared into our room with Gina.
I wanted to say better, but it wasn't the truth. "They took her off the meds she was on because all she was doing was sleeping." I shook my head, disgusted at the unfair nature of the world. We could see Lin's potential, and we often got glimpses of the sweet little girl who was buried inside. It was just getting rid of all of her demons that was dragging us down. Without the support of our families, I honestly can't say that Melissa and I would be able to do it on our own. Sometimes Lin needed more help than we knew how to give, leaving us empty and frustrated. "It's an uphill battle," I finally summarized.
"Ain't this party started yet?"
I grinned at Soda as he crossed the room and tossed a bag into the kitchen.
"We were waitin' for you, buddy!" Steve said. "A party ain't a party without Sodapop Curtis!"
"We can go sit outside," I suggested. "The grill should be ready by now." I slid the plate of burgers out of the fridge on the way through the kitchen.
"He was her cousin," Soda said over my shoulder before we walked outside.
My brother laughed at me. "No. He was a guy one of her friends set her up with. She said he's annoying." I couldn't help noticing that Soda looked rather pleased with that information. I just hoped he wasn't setting himself up to get hurt again.
"So what else did she say?"
Soda shrugged. "Not much. We're having lunch sometime next week. Just to talk," he added. "So who's doing the cooking this year?" he called out.
"I did it last year," Two-Bit piped up.
"Like hell you did," Steve answered. "As if any of us would let you near our food."
"I think Stevie here should have the honor," Soda suggested. "He's Mister Diner Man, surely he can cook a burger over some hot coals."
Steve tossed his bottle cap at Soda. "Yeah, it's a real honor, cookin' up your food." He stood back up from the chair he had just dropped into and waved a hand at me. "Where's the flipper?"
"Here." I handed over the utensil and sat down on one of the lounge chairs to watch everyone kick back and relax for a while. We had started this tradition about five years ago – getting together for a cookout on the day we'd lost Johnny and Dally. I guess you can only take so much weepy nostalgia before someone finally gets fed up and points out that we'd be doing ourselves a whole lot more good if we turned the day into something positive.
So far, nobody had skipped one. The plan was to keep doing it until there was only one of us left, at which time the festivities were solely at that person's discretion. Until then, it was a cookout, no matter what the weather was like – and we'd already had one year that soaked us all through, but it had made for an awesome impromptu tackle football game. We could talk about Johnny and Dal, but no angry outbursts or tears allowed. One of the best parts about it was that it was a solid way to get us all together to catch up on each other's lives. The years go by, and as much as you never think it will happen, friends separate for longer than they had intended. Pretty soon you wake up one day and realize that you haven't talked to them in ages. If nothing else, the cookout ensured that our connection would never be severed for longer than twelve months.
"Steve, is that supposed to be on fire?"
"Relax, man, you think I don't know what I'm doin' here?"
Soda snickered and Darry rolled his eyes. Two-Bit took a sip of his Coke – he's sworn off of alcohol since his girlfriend threatened to leave him if he couldn't control his drinking – and Steve tossed the flipper into the air and caught it repeatedly, until it finally dropped to the ground and Darry insisted he go rinse it off under the faucet rather than 'just burn the junk off of it'.
Despite our agreement, a slight wave of nostalgia washed over me as I watched everyone. Darry was getting married. Soda had his own successful business. Steve had a wife and child whom he supported well. Two-Bit had a serious relationship going, at least serious for him, and she wasn't even blonde. And me – married, mortgage, four kids…it wasn't the picture I had imagined when I was a kid, but I was happy. And then, there were the two who were missing. Who would they have been? Where would life have taken them?
I sighed deeply, breathing in the cool evening air and thinking back to how awful life had been on this night not so long ago. Some friendships dwindle with age, get lost, fall apart. Maybe that would have happened to us, if not for the common bond we all shared, especially on this one day of the year. But so far it seemed that we would be different. Here we were in my backyard, the rest of the gang, still going strong…and it was already eleven years later.