Chapter 12

Once things had settled down I finally got to meet Cynthia. Darry invited her and Rachel over for dinner once I was mostly healed. I was as excited for the company as I was for the chance to spend an evening doing something that didn't involve a hammer, paint or nails.

As it turned out, Cynthia's picture didn't do her justice. And I changed my mind about one little girl being less trouble than two teenage boys. If Rachel turned out anything like her mom, Darry would have to dig a moat around the house to keep the boys away. One look at his bulging biceps, though, and they might be too terrified to go anywhere near her.

To top it off, Cynthia was just as sweet as she was gorgeous. I could see how she'd make a good teacher. She seemed like the type of person who was real good with little kids.

The three of us all pitched in to make dinner. It reminded me of a different time when there were three of us in the kitchen at once, laughing and goofing around, throwing food at each other.

Maybe I got swept up in the moment. Maybe it was the two beers that I'd drunk, the first alcohol I'd had in a month. I don't know. When Darry left the room for a minute to help Rachel set the table I told Cynthia, "Boy, if Darry doesn't ask you to marry him, it'll be about the dumbest thing he ever did."

The words were out of my mouth before I had a chance to really think about what I was saying. Cynthia grinned and covered her mouth, looking over my shoulder. When I turned around I saw that Darry was standing in the kitchen doorway. I guess maybe he'd forgotten the silverware. My brother's mouth was open wide enough to catch flies. He was holding a stack of plates, gripping them so tight that I was surprised they didn't crack in his hands.

I felt like I was ten years old again and about to get clobbered for poking a hole in Darry's football.

That was more or less how Darry proposed to Cynthia.

My brother got married over the Fourth of July weekend. The ceremony was outdoors in the little park down the street from our old house. Their wedding wasn't big or fancy, but there was a barbecue and a big white cake and plenty of fireworks and sparklers for the kids. It's a lot of fun to have kids around on the holidays.

Two-Bit in a suit: that's an image that will stay with me for the rest of my life, partly because he's standing in the front row of the wedding photo that Darry hung on his living room wall.

Darry and Cynthia are in the middle of the picture, with the rest of the wedding party standing around them. Darry is smiling. His eyes are bright and warm. I wondered how I could have ever thought they looked like ice. I was Darry's best man, and I'm standing next to him. I thought the scar on my chin still looked pretty bad, but in the picture you can barely see it.

Cynthia's hands are resting on her daughter's shoulders. Rachel is wearing a gauzy lavender dress that makes her look like a little princess instead of a flower girl. Two-Bit is next to me, and his arm is around his wife. His two girls are sitting on the grass, so engrossed in pulling out handfuls of it that they don't look up as the picture is being taken.

Cynthia's parents are standing behind their daughter and their son-in-law. I met them for the first time at the wedding. They're nice folks, real down-to-earth. They knew that Cynthia was pregnant before the wedding. It didn't seem to matter to them so long as their daughter was happy.

Steve is in the picture too. He was one of Darry's groomsmen. In the picture he's standing between Two-Bit and one of Darry's old skiing buddies. He's wearing a shadow of his cocky old smile. He was glad to be there for Darry but I think the smile had more to do with one of Cynthia's bridesmaids, a pretty dark-eyed girl on the other side of the photograph.

After the wedding reception was over and we'd sent the bride and groom off on their honeymoon Two-Bit and Sherri invited some of the guests to their house for a night-cap. I made a half-hearted attempt to help clean up once everyone else had gone home, but Two-Bit, with his tie loosened, told me, "Leave it. Our place has seen worse than this. We've got two pint-sized terrors that make this a regular tornado alley." He kicked up his feet on an overturned chair, popped the top off a Budweiser and offered me one.

Long after Sherri put the girls to bed Two-Bit and I stayed up drinking beer and talking. I was worried about what I was going to do for a job. I'd been filling in for a couple of Darry's guys whenever he needed me, and the physical labor was helping me put some muscle back on my frame, but I needed to find a regular job. And with Cynthia and Rachel moving in, I wanted to find a place of my own.

Two-Bit just shrugged. "Things happen when they need to happen, and if they don't, you're always welcome to come and work for me…" He grinned. I'd had similar offers from a few friends around town. I appreciated the gesture, but I was still feeling mixed-up, like I didn't know what I wanted anymore.

With Darry off on his honeymoon I didn't want to go home to an empty house, so Two-Bit let me crash on his sofa. When I woke up the next morning he was still passed out in his recliner.

Sherri was the only one up and about that early, but she looked as bleary-eyed as I felt. There were still bobby pins in her hair and mascara smudges under her eyes. She asked me to stay for breakfast but I turned her down. I told her that my stomach just wasn't in the mood. Really I just didn't want to impose on her hospitality any more. When I went to leave Sherri gave me a peck on the cheek. Two-Bit was right, Sherri really did like me, but she loved Two-Bit.

The walk home was only a few blocks, but my feet didn't take me there. Yesterday I'd gotten to thinking about family, and how Mom and Dad and Soda would have loved to see Darry get married. Since they couldn't be there, I decided I should tell them about it.

It wasn't quite six o'clock in the morning yet. A low fog covered the wet grass in the cemetery, giving it a spooky feel, like the start of a ghost story. I haven't believed in ghosts since I was a kid, but when I saw a lone figure standing amongst the headstones, I could have sworn I was looking at one.

Cherry Valance was dressed in a tan car coat over a dark blue skirt and a lacey white blouse. Her red hair was pulled back from her face. The damp morning air darkened it and made it curl up at the ends. She was just as pretty as I remembered, like the last ten years hadn't happened. Standing there in my wrinkled suit, with my tie undone and hanging around my neck I was suddenly self-conscious.

Cherry was standing over one of the graves. There were fresh flowers at her feet, and it was clear that she had brought them. Now I knew who had been leaving flowers for Dallas Winston.

I watched her for a while, not saying anything. She hadn't noticed me. Maybe I was the ghost here. Maybe Frank had killed me and I just wasn't smart enough to know it.

Just then Cherry turned around, like she was going to leave. She saw me and jumped, startled. I put my hands up, palms out. "Sorry!" I said. "I didn't mean to sneak up on you."

Cherry took a deep breath and for a second she looked like she had a few choice words for me. Then recognition flashed in her eyes, "Ponyboy?"

"Hi, Cherry," I said. I was a little shaken myself. "Really, I didn't mean to interrupt. I can leave you alone if you want."

"No, its okay," she said quickly, taking a step towards me. "Gosh, it's been a long time since anybody called me Cherry."

"Oh, I'm sorry. Sherry then…"

"No, I mean, I don't mind. Don't be sorry. It's actually kind of nice. It's good to see you again."

"You too. You look good." I said. I could have kicked myself, but instead I settled for blushing as red as a lobster.

Cherry smiled. "Thanks." She looked at me for a minute, like she was considering something. I've never been good at reading girls. Finally she said, "You look good too."

I felt a little spark in my chest when she said that. It went out when I noticed the wedding band on her finger. I guess I stared a little too long. She caught me looking and held up her hand so that I could see it.

"Congratulations," I said, feeling like I should at least be respectful.

"Thanks."

"Does he treat you alright?"

"Yeah, he's a real good guy," she said, but there was something about the way she said it, like being a good guy didn't make you a great husband.

Cherry's clothes looked expensive. She probably had a nice big house to go home to and a fancy car to get her there. Why, I wondered, was she was out here hovering over the grave of a dead hood she'd barely known?

Cherry looked like she couldn't find anything else to say and neither could I. In the awkward silence we both looked down at Dally's grave. When I looked up at Cherry again I saw that she was twisting the ring on her finger, and there were tears on her cheeks. I don't think they had anything to do with Dally.

Cherry didn't have a handkerchief. She was using her sleeve to dab at the corners of her eyes. I pulled my tie off and gave it to her.

"Do you need to be somewhere right now?" I heard myself ask.

Cherry shook her head.

"Would you like to talk, maybe over coffee?"

She didn't answer right away. I felt awkward because I thought she was going to turn me down.

She didn't.

"Yeah," Cherry answered, and smiled through her tears, "I'd like that."

The morning sun was starting to burn away the fog. Cherry took my arm so that she wouldn't slip on the dew-covered grass in her high heels. We walked to a little diner a few blocks from the cemetery that was open for breakfast. It was usually filled with kids drinking cokes and blowing straws at each other, but it was still early. The only other customer was an elderly man reading a newspaper at the counter.

Cherry and I sat down in a corner booth. We ordered coffee and toast from a bleach-blond waitress. Cherry's tears were all gone but her eyes were still red. The waitress gave us both a funny look. I imagine that we looked like an odd pair, with me in my rumpled suit and Cherry in her Sunday best. None of that seemed to matter to Cherry, though.

"You're probably asking yourself why I was up there this morning," Cherry said when our coffee came.

I was. I've never been good at hiding what I'm thinking.

"Sometimes things don't work out the way you thought they would," she explained, "and you end up wanting what you can't have."

Cherry told me about her life after high school. It turned out that she'd gotten married right out of college. Her husband, whom she'd met at her big fancy school, was a lawyer. He made good money, but he was never around. They'd been trying to start a family, but that was a tough thing to do when one side of the bed was always cold.

Cherry had regrets. Sometimes she wondered what her life would have been like if things had been different. Her parents always told her that everything happens for a reason, but it was getting harder and harder for her to see what that reason was. Most of the time Cherry thought that the best time of her life was when she was sixteen, when the world was big and dangerous and full of possibilities. All of that was gone now, buried by bills and groceries and dirty laundry. When she felt overwhelmed by her mundane suburban life and her shallow friends she would come to the cemetery and visit a boy who symbolized everything she had loved about her youth. She would visit Dally, and she would remember all of the wonder and the excitement of that first blush of teenage love.

"It sounds crazy, I know," she said, looking down at her folded hands.

"It's not crazy," I told her. For Cherry, Dally would always be seventeen: a wild young hood who had teased her at a drive-in movie, the tragic unrequited love of her young life. It wasn't Dally that she loved, but a time in her life, one that she could never get back.

I think Cherry realized that too.

We talked for a while about old times and old friends, but eventually I couldn't steer the conversation away from myself anymore. Over the last few months it had been getting easier to talk about everything that had happened since I left Chicago. It still wasn't something I liked to do, but Cherry made it painless.

There was one thing that had been bothering me more than anything else. I hadn't told anyone, not the doctors, not even Darry or Two-Bit. I told Cherry, though:

"I haven't been able to write anything since I left the hospital," I said. It had been bugging me something terrible. It was like I'd gone blind or lost my sense of smell. I loved to write, I'd always loved it. Now, even when I tried, my pen just sat there on the paper. The only thing that came out of it was a blue dot of ink.

Cherry was resting her chin on her knuckles, frowning as she listened to my story. "People don't just lose the ability to write or read or speak," she reasoned. "It's still there. It'll come back."

I didn't understand how she could be so confident. It almost made me feel like she wasn't taking me seriously. I could feel my pulse racing. I hadn't realized I was so upset about this until now.

Cherry waited for me to calm down a little before she asked, "What do you think about?"

That was an awful broad question. "What do you mean?"

"What's on your mind?"

There was a lot on my mind: Charlie and Frank and the whole Chicago mess, Soda and Darry, Steve and Two-Bit. Everyone and everything that had happened to me in the last four months was all jumbled together in a big rat's nest on the inside of my skull.

Cherry looked me in the eyes. God she was pretty. I suddenly hated her husband, and I hadn't even met the guy.

"You need to let it out," she said.

'Let it out.' That was doctor-speak for crying or screaming or talking endlessly about some horrible thing that had happened to you in your childhood. I'd talked about everything I could think of. There wasn't anything else to 'let out'.

"You know what I mean, Ponyboy," she said.

I swallowed. I knew what it was she was getting at. I think I'd known the answer all along.

We talked until hamburger patties replaced the eggs on the grill and the lunch rush had come and gone. Cherry offered me a ride home but I turned her down. Ten years ago it would have been because I was ashamed of the neighborhood I lived in. That kind of thing didn't matter so much anymore. There's a kind of honesty and acceptance in growing older. I just wanted the extra time to think.

Cherry and I didn't exchange phone numbers but I was sure that wouldn't be the last time I saw her. It is a damn small world after all. I hoped that we'd talk again over breakfast at that little diner. Cherry told me a long time ago that she thought I was the only person she could get through to. She said she didn't feel like she had to keep her guard up with me. I felt the same way about her too. I tried to decide whether or not that made the two of us friends. I'd like to think so.

I took the long way home after Cherry drove off. It took me three hours to get there. By the time I heard the screen door slam shut behind me I was bone tired and starved. I went rummaging through the kitchen, but I wasn't looking for something to eat. I knew where Darry kept his old architectural notebooks, the kind with the crisscrossing blue lines on a white background. I found a blank one in the back of a drawer and I sat down at the kitchen table with a charcoal pencil. Then I did what Cherry had told me to do: I let it out. When my pencil started to move, my story began like this:

The first time I was stabbed I was twenty-four years old. I'd been cut before, and guys had pulled blades on me plenty of times, but that was the first time I'd come close to being killed with one…

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The End

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