I. Prologue

Ponyboy Curtis turned 15 with great expectations.

The birthday party was just like any other birthday party – minus the pomp and circumstance. A low key affair: cake, a few simple presents and only the most important of friends.

I had been introduced to Ponyboy a year before – two times in the same week – and I was quite anxious to meet him again, relive the good times. Although, I shouldn't complain. I did get two for one that week but it's not often someone slips through my grasp. That jarred me. The elusive ones are always the fighters, the challenge.

And man, I love a good challenge.

I walk up the step and through the front door. No one acknowledges me. The oldest – Darry – is sticking candles in the birthday cake. He's anxious like I am and I wonder if he can feel what may be about to happen. Darry swats away the friend named Two-Bit who has just snagged a piece of cake. Darry straightens himself up to full height, his bellow filling the room. But he's smiling.

I smile as well and sit in his recliner. It's soft and worn in. The other two, Sodapop and Steve, arrive home from work, crease caking their palms. Soda goes to the sink, asking where his brother his, pumping soap into his hands. Steve pulls out a deck of cards, flinging the Jokers at Two-Bit.

The house is alive with so much energy. Death, life, love. I bask in it.

The five people in this house right now are everything to everyone here. They have blinders on when it comes to others. It's a strange feeling to realize their importance and relish it.

Then, he walks in.

He's taller than I last remember. Long legged and lean; his shaggy hair and crooked smile still reminding everyone that he's still a kid. I look at his brothers who will never forget that.

My gut tightens. He's not like the others. There's a connection, I feel empathy for him. He's important. Special.

The brothers grin. They shift their weight as he enters and say "Happy Birthday" in unison. Ponyboy's embarrassed but not displeased. Sodapop gives him a hug and ruffles his hair.

Darry stands there. His pride and his exhaustion and his love radiating out from him. At first, I think I am the only one who can feel it when Ponyboy looks at him. "Thanks, Dar," Pony says.

Like I said, the kid gets it. Just like me.

Pony looks at the cake and then at Two-Bit. "Did you take a bite?" he asks.

"Whatever gave you that idea?" Two-Bit scoffs.

Ponyboy touches his own mouth. "Because you got some chocolate right here, Sherlock."

Two-Bit chortles and then gets him in a headlock and the wrestling begins. They hit the table, knocking the presents off and jostling the cake. I stare at the shaking cake, wondering if my work will be over before it begins but then Sodapop grabs the edge and rights it on the table.

Steve passes Darry the matches and Darry lights the candles. Ponyboy rolls his eyes at the 15 candles but takes a breath and poofs them out. It's a fairly tame birthday – the cake is cut and dished out and the boys lounge around the kitchen, laughing and talking between mouthfuls of chocolate cake and beer. Steve's annoying Ponyboy and vice versa, Darry's watching his family, feeling proud and thankful, and Two-Bit's telling Sodapop about a girl who might be the perfect match. Sodapop shakes his head, telling him to forget it.

I stand up. The recliner shakes and Darry and Ponyboy glance my way. Pony gives Darry a quizzical glance and then grins. He digs into his piece of cake, the fork prongs stabbing a large chunk. I move toward the kid, setting my hat on the kitchen table. He takes the bite and I place a hand on his shoulder. He chews once, twice, and then swallows.

Or at least tries to.

I tighten my grip on his shoulder.

Ponyboy's throat closes up. I won't let him swallow. His green eyes go very wide as he thinks about what is happening. He can feel me, I'm that close. His hands fly up and touch his throat. He watches the others in the kitchen, chatting and drinking, oblivious. Then his hands fly down again and bang the table for attention. His brothers look up.

He's blue. It doesn't take a genius to tell them what is happening. "Oh shit," Soda swears jumping down from his seat on the counter. But it's who Darry has him before anyone.

Darry's pounding his back and the kid's still making those small strangling sounds. "C'mon, goddamn it, cough," Darry says as Pony still finds no air. And when I see Darry's eyes, they're frantic. Two-Bit grabs up the telephone.

I step aside, watching by the stove. It's no comfort to me that I have to take him. He's one of those people I'd rather survive, fight me if they can. It makes my job more interesting that way. Not an antagonist so much as a test.

Acknowledging the sheer irony of this is something I'm not pleased to do—choking and dying on the day when you were born. Even the stupidity of it— getting done in by a piece of birthday cake isn't that much of an admirable way to go out. For Ponyboy Curtis it's a damn shame because the kid deserves so much better.

I sigh, not liking what I'm about to do.

Moving closer, in the middle of a shouting Darry Curtis, I touch Pony's shoulder again. A shock goes through both of us as I take his strength. Pony's eyes flutter and then he's down. His legs slump beneath him and he and Darry both fall to the floor. I kneel down beside them.

"Darry! Do something!" Sodapop is hollering, on the verge of something I can't fathom.

"Damn it," Darry whispers so low only I can hear him. "Don't do this. Please don't do this." He bends low to his brother and gives him the "pulse of life". He breathes into Ponyboy and pumps his chest five times.

I stand up and grab my hat from the table, ready to commend myself for a job well done when there's a choking, coughing noise from behind me.

I allow myself to remain frozen for a few moments and then turn to face him.

Ponyboy's writhing on the ground, harsh breaths coming from his windpipe, so painful that I even wince. Darry, pale and sweating, rubs his brother's back, encouraging him to breath.

Impressed and curious, I move closer. Three times he's beaten me. The fountain, the fire and now here. I kneel by his side. Pony's staring up blankly at the ceiling, his chest heaving. Sodapop kneels on his other side. "Pone?" he asks in his own choked voice. "Are you ok?"

Steve and Two-Bit stare down at him. "Jesus, kid." Steve rubs his eyes.

They'll joke about it when it's over: the kid's cursed, he's unlucky, charmed, he's got nine lives. But the fact of the matter is they're right. He is cursed. Tragedy breeds tragedy but it also amounts to something else – a sixth sense, a feeling, an openness others don't have. It's all wrapped up in the kid. He has what I may need.

Ponyboy nods. It hurts to speak. Then his head lolls to his left and his face clouds up. He sees me. Sees death.