A/N Voilá, un update! Well, perhaps not exactly voilá, but it is, in fact, an update. Enjoy, and thanks again for your reviews and your patience!
By the time Darry and Soda came home, the kitchen was so full of smells and steam that I didn't dare go in. I sat on the porch, keeping guard over the things that had been set out to cool. I didn't know if any of the mongrel dogs that slunk around our neighborhood could jump over the fence or not, but I didn't want to risk it. I had just sent one especially curious mutt yelping away from a rock that didn't actually hit him when Darry pulled into the driveway. My brothers were barely out of the car when a taxi pulled up to the curb. The driver got out, looking doubtful. "Hey kid, does a lady with a lot of luggage live here?" he called to me.
"She does now," I hollered back, waving to Soda and Darry. "Aunt Lily's luggage is here."
They looked at the taxi in surprise, but their eyes didn't pop out until they saw what was in it—two more of the enormous suitcases plus six large, heavy wooden boxes. They took up the whole cab. Darry, being Darry, hefted both suitcases while Soda and I staggered behind him with a box apiece. The driver good naturedly stacked boxes on the porch, and when everything had made it at least that far, Darry reached for his wallet. "What do we owe you?"
I listened, half curious and half scared—taxis were a luxury I'd never heard the price of before, but the driver shook his head. "The lady already paid and tipped. And brother," he ruefully rubbed his arms, "did I ever earn it!"
By the time we got the luggage, including the other suitcase from Miss Meriwether's car, neatly lined up in the bedroom, the kitchen seemed to have shaken itself into order. Lily suddenly emerged looking, despite three hours of hard cooking, as cool and perfect as when I'd first seen her.
She smiled graciously, the first smile I'd seen her give, at Darry. "You must be Darr'l. I'm so delighted to meet you at last." She extended her slender, pale hand and Darry took it cautiously, as though he were afraid it might break.
"How do you do, Miss Hinton?" His voice was polite, but he was giving her one of his cool, assessing stares, so I guess he wasn't as bowled over by her as I had been, but then, Darry always uses his head before reaching conclusions. He'd probably think it was crazy to judge somebody by a couple of lines of poetry she happened to remind you of.
Lily turned her attention to Soda then, and her smile shifted a little so that it was no longer gracious but more just polite. "And you are Sodapop."
"Yes, ma'am." Soda looked at her, considering, and then he offered a smile, and it wasn't the "see-what-an-angelic-boy-I-am" smile he usually gave old ladies. It was the "where-have-you-been-all-my-life" one that he saved especially for pretty girls who came to the DX with imaginary car troubles and free Friday nights. "Ma'am, I've been awfully grateful that you were coming to help us out, but we were expecting an elderly woman, not a young and beautiful one. Are you sure the judge will think you're a proper guardian?"
I think my jaw dropped a little as I stared at his sheer cheek. She'll never fall for that, I thought, but once again I was proved wrong about Aunt Lily.
She stared at him for a moment, her eyes widening, and then she melted. Her expression went from cool to delighted as she shook her head, actually laughing a little. "You," she admonished, shaking her finger at him. "I can tell you are the scoundrel of the family. Go and get cleaned up for supper before you tell any more lies."
Soda's eyes went round and innocent. "I never tell lies," he swore.
"There's another. Go on. Shoo!" she shook her apron at him and Soda retreated to the bedroom, looking mighty pleased with himself.
I glanced up at Darry and saw him shaking his head at Soda's back.
"Supper will be ready in ten minutes," Aunt Lily announced, smiling again at Darry before disappearing back into the kitchen.
"Glory," Darry muttered.
I knew how he felt.
Supper, which could have been quiet and awkward considering our circumstances, was actually noisy and cheerful. Soda chattered continuously around mouthfuls of each of the twelve (I counted them) delicious dishes, and even Darry let himself be drawn into the conversation. In fact, the only quiet one was Miss Meriwether. She had a quick smile and answer for anyone who asked her a question, but for most part she stayed silent, kind of picking at her food. I thought she looked tired. When the meal was over, Darry had to take off for work. Soda and I tried to help with the dishes, but Aunt Lily shooed us away, saying something about the kitchen being no place for a man.
"Are you going out with Steve?" I asked Soda, flopping onto the couch while he fooled with the radio.
"Not tonight," he answered, adjusting the station to his liking and coming to sit beside me. "She's really something, isn't she?"
There was no need to ask which "she" he meant. "Yeah. Not what I expected an aunt to be like."
"You can say that again. Well, whatever things are going to be like around here, it sure isn't boring." Soda grinned contentedly. "Say, what do you think old Superman thinks?"
I shrugged. "I dunno. He didn't really seem like anything. I reckon he's still deciding. Using his head."
Soda laughed. "Like always." We listened to the program in silence for awhile, and then my brother turned to me and demanded, "And what on earth's in all that luggage, anyway?"
"That's easy," Miss Meriwether's voice spoke from behind us. "Her kitchen."
I turned to look at her and saw that she had her apron off and her coat on. "You leaving?"
"I have some grading to do before bed."
I got up to walk her out to her car. "Drive safely," I cautioned when we were standing beside her Chevy.
She laughed. "I will. Goodnight, Ponyboy." She slipped her arm around my shoulders and gave me a hug.
"Goodnight, Miss Meriwether."
She turned her head and kissed my cheek. "When we're not in school you can call me Sara. I'll see you tomorrow."
She climbed in, but before she shut the door, I said hastily, "Miss Meri...Sara …" I couldn't think of what it was exactly that I wanted to say, so I just mumbled, "Thanks. For … everything."
She smiled understandingly. "My pleasure."
I woke up the next morning to smells that made my stomach rumble, even though I would've sworn I'd never eat again after the way I'd stuffed myself the night before. Crawling over Soda, who still lay with the covers over his head, I pulled on jeans and a t-shirt, ran a comb through my hair, and headed out in search of the tempting smells. But when I got to the door of the kitchen, I stopped, confused. I had to be in the right house, and the room did look familiar, but it was all wrong somehow. The curtains for example—I'd never paid much attention to them, but I was pretty sure they hadn't been blue or so ironed and starched looking. And there were little rag rugs on the floor that I knew had never been there before because I'd swept the floor only yesterday morning. Little things, like canisters, seemed to have up and moved themselves during the night, and everything seemed incredibly shiny, catching the morning light and throwing it back in a way that made me squint at first.
I was so busy staring around that I didn't even notice Darry sitting at the table until I had sunk into my own chair. He was drinking coffee, which was at least something normal, but it was in a delicate china cup instead of his usual mug that read Coca Cola on the side. He was holding it funny, like he was afraid it might come to pieces in his hand any second and leave him with a lapful of coffee.
"Morning, Pony," Darry said wryly, as I continued to stare at the cup.
"Morning. What's all this stuff?"
He shrugged. "Aunt Lily asked if I minded if she moved some of her own things into the kitchen. I said I didn't."
I had to laugh. "I guess Miss Meriwether wasn't kidding!"
Darry looked at me questioningly, but before I could explain the back door swung open and Aunt Lily came in. She was in another black dress (I couldn't tell if it was the same one as the day before or not) with an apron over it.
"Good morning, Ponyboy, did you sleep well?" she asked, resting the broom she held against the wall and moving to the refrigerator to pull out the milk.
"Yes, thank you," I replied, watching as she picked up the coffee pot on her way to the table and refilled Darry's cup before coming around to me with the milk. As she continued to glide back and forth between the stove, refrigerator, and table, I couldn't help being amazed at the way she never seemed to hurry, yet got everything done quicker than I could have when I was still running for track.
Soda came in a minute later, still looking sleepy but dressed. We had breakfast—a meal bigger than anything called breakfast should be—and then Soda and Darry hurried to get ready for work and me for school.
I felt strangely nervous when Darry dropped me off and I walked through the front doors. It felt like when I had to go back to school after Johnny died and everyone had read the papers and knew everything that had happened. I guessed that everyone would still know everything even though it hadn't been in the papers this time, and they'd all be staring at me again. The thought made me dig my fingernails into my palms so that I would keep moving forward, not turn and race out the door toward home.
The day actually turned out not to be as bad as I was expecting. Sure, I got a few stares and whispers, but there were also a few people who seemed really glad to see me back, and that made me feel surprisingly good. Even cranky Mrs. Grunky said, "Welcome back," when she read my name on the roll.
In fact, there was only one part of the day that made me feel upset, and that was when I met Cindy Brady in the hallway. I'd seen her right before lunch, and I'd avoided her by ducking down a hallway. But as I came out of English that afternoon, she was waiting for me right outside the door. "Ponyboy," she said, stepping forward.
I ignored her and started walking fast. Jim, who was walking with me, hurried to keep up, shooting me a puzzled glance. I guess though everyone knew I'd been in the Home for the past couple of weeks, they didn't know it was Roger Brady who put me there.
Cindy ran after us. "Ponyboy!"
People were starting to stare, but I didn't care. I didn't even turn my head as she gasped, "I just wanted to say that … I'm sorry."
I stopped dead in my tracks and finally looked at her. "For what?" I asked coldly.
"For … well … because …" Just as I'd thought, she wasn't actually going to admit what her dad had done. She just wanted to make herself feel better by saying "Sorry."
"Stay away from me," I said coldly, and moved on, not caring that she looked as though she were about to cry. She was probably spying for her dad anyway, telling him everything that went on at school.
"What was that about?" Jim demanded as we headed for our seats in biology.
"None of your business," I muttered.
He looked startled. "Whoa, sorry."
I sighed and slumped into my seat, trying to relax, or at least distract myself by thinking about the giant mountain of homework I had to get caught up on. Of course, the classes at the Home hadn't done any good at all in keeping me caught up with my real schoolwork.
Aunt Lily moving in was a major shift in our lives, but even so, we settled quickly into a new routine. She made thing run so smoothly that it was hard to see how it could have worked out any differently. Actually, having her there was mostly easier for us. The kitchen really was the only room she changed much, although the rest of the house seemed to get shinier by degrees. She made few demands on us other than that we be clean and on time for meals, although under Darry's critical eye Soda and I always made sure to be on our best behavior around her. And what we got in exchange was a freedom from chores. Everything was always clean, laundry appeared ironed and folded on our beds as if by magic, and there was always, always more incredible food than a family twice our size could have eaten. Sometimes I wondered where all the cash to pay for the perpetual feast came from, but I figured Darry and Aunt Lily must have worked out something between them.
But despite the fact that she was living with us, that I saw her and listened to her and talked to her every day, after a week or so I began to get the oddest feeling that I didn't know her and that I wasn't getting to know her, either. It hit me one day because Mother's Day, along with the end of the school year, was coming up and the school was putting together a special program like they always did. Afternoon classes would be called off and the band and choir would perform, someone on the debate team would give a flowery speech, and they'd pass out as many awards as they could, so that lots of proud mothers could have a chance to stand up and clap. My mom had come every year before she died, since Darry was usually up for some ribbon or other. I'd never been up on the stage myself and didn't care to be, even though this was only my first year out of junior high. Last year, I'd skipped the whole day of school because I couldn't take it, and Darry for once hadn't said a single word. But the reason I'm bringing all this up is because it was Mother's Day that made me realize how little I knew Aunt Lily. All week I'd been overhearing snatches, mostly from girls, about what they would be doing for their mothers, whether extra chores, special meals, or cards and gifts.
Aunt Lily was a far cry from a mother, but she did do a lot of things you usually associate with mothers like cook and clean and make sure you eat your vegetables before your cake. So I started thinking that maybe I should do something for her, just to show my appreciation. But when I tried to think of what it might be, I came up blank. I couldn't cook for her, because she'd give me the evil eye of death if I fooled around with what had become her kitchen. I didn't know if she liked flowers and what kind, and ditto for chocolates. I didn't even know what her favorite color was—she always wore black, nothing but black. I didn't know if she liked to read or listen to music—every time I saw her she was doing housework, and although she sometimes spent an hour or two in her room, I hadn't seen past the door of that since the day I hauled her luggage into it. She laughed at Soda's nonsense, was unfailingly courteous to Darry, and scolded me for being too skinny, but I'd never, to my recollection, heard her make a single personal remark. Aunt Lily was an enigma, which was a word I'd learned in English that year. It meant a mystery or riddle, and at that point it seemed like one I'd never have a chance of solving.
Of course, not everything went smoothly. We liked eating Aunt Lily's food, but every once in a while I actually missed cooking. I missed not having chocolate cake for breakfast, too. Soda asked once if we could have it, and she smiled and asked if he wanted to stunt my growth. These were just little things, though. There were bigger problems.
One of them was Two-Bit. The first meeting between him and Aunt Lily was, no other way to put it, a disaster. He drove me home, like usual, my first day back at school, pumping me all the way about the new aunt. I mostly focused on the cooking she'd done last night, which in hindsight was probably a mistake, but everything else was too hard to explain, except the luggage. Two-Bit got a good laugh out of that, especially the way practically an entire kitchen had seemed to unfold out of it.
"She's like Mary Poppins. Remember when we saw that Ponyboy?" I remembered. Two-Bit had gotten us thrown out of the theater for standing up in the aisle and dancing along with the chimney sweeps.
"Mary Poppins only had one bag," I pointed out. "Aunt Lily has ten, and I've got the bruised toe to prove it."
"And she makes pie, huh?" he asked.
"Any of that pie left, do you suppose?"
"As long as Soda didn't stick it in his lunch."
So when we got home, Two-Bit came on in with me, which he did half the time anyway.
Aunt Lily was in the kitchen, her hands covered in flour, which may have been why she didn't offer to shake hands with Two-Bit as I introduced him, just looked him over with her cool blue eyes.
"Aunt Lily, this is a friend of mine," I stammered, suddenly uneasy. "He gave me a ride home from school."
"That was kind of him. Does your friend have a name?" she asked.
"Two-Bit," I answered, before I'd really thought it out.
"I asked what his name was, not how much he's worth," she said dryly, turning back to her dough and thumping it in a businesslike way, and I winced. Coming from Soda that remark would have been funny. Aunt Lily sounded as though she thought it likely Two-Bit really was only worth a quarter.
"Keith Matthews," Two-Bit blurted and hastily tacked on, "Ma'am."
"And what is your employment, Mr. Matthews?"
Two-Bit grinned, on familiar ground now, and I knew he was about to make one of his cracks about education. I shook my head at him, trying to warn him, but he wasn't paying attention. "I'm employed by the U.S. government."
"A government man?" Aunt Lily asked, that dryness back in her tone as she turned her head to look at him. "And what exactly do you do, Mr. Matthews?"
Two-Bit folded his arms across his chest and smirked like he always does when he knows he's about to get a big laugh. "Why, I work in the public school system, a long term, fulltime student. Yes ma'am, I'm one of their most valuable employees."
"I see," said Aunt Lily, turning back to her dough, and Two-Bit's smile faltered. "And when do you anticipate finishing your education, Mr. Matthews?"
I cringed inwardly, waiting for one of his usual replies about being satisfied with the company and not intending to leave, but instead he muttered, "I … I think I'll be finishing up real soon now, ma'am."
"That's nice." Aunt Lily thumped her dough a final time, dropped it in a bowl and covered it, then stepped over to the sink to rinse off the flour. When she was done, she turned and smiled at Two-Bit. "Thank you so much for bringing Ponyboy home. We won't keep you, since I'm certain your family will be waiting for you, to hear all about your day."
"Actually, my mother … Yeah, I guess I should be going. See you, Pony." He slapped me on the shoulder and hurried out of the kitchen.
"Just a second," I muttered to Aunt Lily and hurried after him, but by the time I got outside he was already in his car. "Two-Bit!" I hollered, but he just waved at me and roared away, trailing a cloud of exhaust.
I folded my arms and leaned against the front door, trying to collect my thoughts. I was furious that Aunt Lily had made a friend, and not just any friend but one of the gang, feel like he wasn't welcome in our house. But when I actually thought about it, I couldn't pin down any one thing she had done to drive him away. I also knew that I couldn't storm in and yell at her like I would have done with one of my brothers because like it or not, my security rested on her sticking around. And anyway, she was an older lady—you had to treat them with respect. If I hadn't been still mad as blazes, I would have been proud of myself for using my head so well, but the best I could do was try and hang on to my temper until my brothers got home.
That evening, I managed to pull Darry aside before he took off for work and explained what had happened with Two-Bit. Darry frowned, but more like he was troubled than like he was mad, and for a moment I was scared that he wasn't going to do anything—that his new rules were more important. But I should have known better. The gang is family, and that's the end of it. "I'll talk to her in the morning," my brother finally said, "and make sure she understands Two-Bit can live here if he wants. But don't you say anything about it, Pony."
I promised, silently vowing to bite my tongue if necessary. I don't know what Darry said to her because it was over by the time I got up next morning, but as she handed me my lunch before I headed out the door to school, Aunt Lily said, "If Keith drives you home again, you be sure and ask him in for a piece of pie."
So I did, and Two-Bit came, but it wasn't the same. Sure enough, things were changing, and I knew for a fact that I didn't like it.
To Be Continued