Winter's Soliloquy

Chapter 23

A Plea For Help

XXX

I pulled up to the house, noticing the lights on in the living room. I sighed, not wanting to deal with the angry stares I knew I was going to get. I'd seen Steve at the school, knew he probably saw or heard what had happened. Hell, I remembered when I was a student - if there was a fight on campus, within a half hour everyone knew about it. Wildfire couldn't spread that fast.

I was reasonably sure whatever had happened, Pony wasn't the one to throw the first punch. It just wasn't in his nature. He fought to defend himself, not for kicks or even in retribution. He didn't even like fighting Socials. Still... he knows the rules. Whatever you're doing that could cause trouble for us... you'd better damn sure not get caught. He'd not only gotten caught, but suspended as well.

I headed in. The television was on as was the radio, but both had their volumes subdued, no one even listening. Not only that, the place was still messy. He'd ignored the one thing I'd told him to do – clean up.

"Hey, Darry. We already ate... didn't know if you were coming in or working at the warehouse." Soda pulled something out of the oven and sat it on the table. The guys, I noticed, were playing a curious game of silent poker at the other end of the table, Soda's cards face down and for once, no one was trying to peek at his hand while he was up.

"Ponyboy eat?" I went to wash my hands in the kitchen, getting a cup of ice water to drink dinner down with.

"Yeah. He wasn't feeling too hot, went to lay down already."

Yeah, I bet he ain't feeling too hot, I thought. He's avoiding me, just like I figured he would. I looked at Sodapop who was working too hard trying to act natural.

"I take it you know he was in a fight at school. He's suspended – today and tomorrow. I doubt the teachers will let him make up his work, either."

Soda looked stoney faced. "Cut the act, Sodapop. I know with the watchdogs sitting here, you already knew this." Steve's eyebrows moved, like he was looking at me without lifting his head, but both he and Two-Bit said nothing.

"Yeah. I knew. What was the fight about?"

I took a bite and looked up at him. "I already told you, cut it out. I'm sure Steve or Two-Bit here could tell you more than I can. Pony too, since he seems to rattle off to you anything and everything. As for me -" I said, gesturing at my chest with my fork - "I only heard that he was in a fight. The teacher who caught him said there were a few others involved but she couldn't catch them or get their names. Pony was the only one caught."

"Did he... say... anything when you brought him home?"

I looked at Soda, wondering what he was aiming for. He certainly wasn't acting like I thought he would. Hell, I guess I expected him to bake a cake in celebration of Pony's screwing up.

"No, he kept his trap shut. I did tell him to cook dinner and clean up, which," I looked around again, "he didn't do. Ponyboy!" I yelled, hoping he'd be smart and not make me call again.

"Sorry, Darry, that may have been me making the mess." Two-Bit said carefully. "I was horsing around..."

I wondered who he thought he was fooling. "Shut up, Two-Bit."

No one said anything more and I took another bite... then looked down at what I was eating.

"Who made this?" I suddenly asked.

"Pony did." Soda answered carefully. The card game, I noticed, was slowing to a snails pace.

I chewed and swallowed, then looked around the room. "Sodapop, I know every meal he has cooked in his life - good, bad and burned beyond recognition ... and he has never made this before. Ever. You didn't make it either, since nothing is colored wrong or spiced weird."

"You don't like it?" he asked. The card game ground to a halt.

"I didn't say I didn't like it. It's probably one of the best meals I've had in a long time - but that isn't my point. I told Ponyboy to make dinner. I also told him to clean up! Who ..."

"I made it, Darry." Steve said, looking up.

"Me too. We both … did..." Two-Bit might be a flunkie, but he was reading my expression well enough.

"Ponyboy Michael Curtis!" I yelled, my chair flipping back as I stormed to my feet. As fast as I was, the three of them beat me to the hallway, blocking me.

"Move!" I demanded.

They stood there, refusing to budge.

"Darry.. stop! He's sick! I told you he wasn't feeling well, now leave him alone. Punish him tomorrow for not cleaning... hell, punish me for lying to you! But you leave him alone!"

"Sodapop, move it! The rest of you too!" I barked. Still, despite some faint trepidation visible in their eyes, they stood their ground. However, their ground was in my house. I reached out to force my way through the blockade.

"No Darry... don't!" Steve insisted, backing up right to Soda's door. Two-Bit and Soda did the same. "Leave the kid alone."

I didn't understand this! I was already mad that he'd been in a fight, then pissed when I realized he blew me off when I told him to clean and cook. Now, even the guys were infuriating me by not letting me near him. Then, like a ray of light in a stormy sky ... I got it. Something else was going on.

I locked eyes with Soda and gritted my teeth. "What's wrong with him now? Is he even home?"

"Yes he's home! He's just sick, I told you. Let him sleep."

"Move!"

"Darry..." Two-Bit tried, but I glared at him, shutting him up.

"Sodapop Patrick Curtis, move out of my way - now!"

"No! I won't let you!"

Before he or I could say more, the door opened behind them.

"It's okay, guys."

Eyes moved, then bodies. Two-Bit and Steve stepped aside while Sodapop went to stand behind Pony. I looked him up and down – his color was off, but other than that, I didn't see anything wrong. "You sick?"

"My head hurts and my stomach ain't settled. Otherwise..."

I smelled it right off the bat. "You've been drinking!"

He looked at me a second then didn't bother trying to deny it. "Yes, I have."

As God as my witness, I wanted to throttle him. "What the hell is your problem?" I stepped forward but the guards tried to get in my way again.

"No Darry, don't!" Two-Bit nearly yelled.

I pushed him away as I stood toe to toe with my youngest brother. He looked at me, his eyes suddenly stopping me. They weren't defiant. They weren't angry. They weren't… anything! Empty. Dull. Even this afternoon, they were a little off, but they still had emotion. Now, even the chagrin that was there from me having to go to the school to get him was gone.

If I'd hit him, he wouldn't have fought back. If I'd cursed him, he wouldn't have cried. Even if I'd tickled him, he wouldn't have laughed. Unlike a year ago - if I'd hit him now, I doubted he'd have run away. He'd have stood there, taking hit after hit until I stopped - or the guys stopped me. That's probably why they wouldn't let me near him; they probably thought I'd lose control again. Knowing this was painful; that they felt I'd physically hurt him again, no matter how untrue I knew that to be.

I wouldn't hurt him. I'd yell, I'd scream... but I'd never hit him again. I might take out the wall next to him, but I'd never hit him.

But looking at him, I saw a void; a despondency of everything reflected in his eyes, and it scared me. This was something worse than getting caught fighting, or disobeying, or even drinking. It was as if he was done. Done living.

My heart pounded in my chest while my adrenaline rush tapered down. I backed away, giving him room again. The guys likewise relaxed some. Still, despite the fact he had his eyes locked on mine, his expression was hollow.

From my peripheral vision, I could see Soda's head turning from me to Pony and back, worried what I was going to do. He needn't have. I reached out, gently touching Pony's pale forehead with my hand.

"You're not hot, but still - go lay down."

His stare into my eyes persisted for a few seconds more, then he turned and crawled back in Soda's bed. Whether he chose this bed or if Soda insisted he lay here, it was a good choice. I don't think I would have wanted him alone tonight. Once the alcohol left his system, I would get to the bottom of this.

"Have you had anything to eat today, Pone?"

"I'm not hungry."

"Fine, but have you eaten?"

He looked at the window. "No."

"Steve made some chicken tetrazzini, I'll put some in a bowl for you."

"I'm not hungry."

I looked at him. "You need to eat. It'll help get that alcohol out of your system. Then you can go to sleep."

I didn't wait for the third, I'm not hungry, to come my way. I was more than used to his quirky appetite. The guys followed me down the hall, Soda staying behind.

"Fill me in," I said, knowing they were behind me. They said nothing and I tired of their apprehension. I turned and looked at them. "I can't help him if I don't know what to fix. So tell me... what happened?"

"First off," Steve started, "the fight wasn't his fault. Some Soc's were razzing him about losing the game. You know how it goes – the point guard sets the flow even if he's not the one making the baskets. Anyway, we weren't there when the first punch got thrown, but jumped in to help when we could. We got word that a teacher was coming and split. I tried to warn him, but by then he was a bit dazed. He got hauled to the office, and later I saw you and the kid leaving. Dinglebutt here," he said jerking his thumb at Two-Bit, "and I split at lunch, snagging Sodapop on the way over."

"We found him on the back porch," Two-Bit continued, "asleep with an empty bottle of beer and a crushed pack of smokes by him. Steve and Soda got him inside, woke him up and got him to drink some coffee. Then he went to bed. Soda checked on him a few times while we cooked."

"I didn't want you knowing," Soda said from the doorway, ending the explanation. "It ain't their fault."

I got a fork from the drawer, pocketed the aspirin and poured a glass of Tang. "I didn't say it was anyone's fault, but you know how I feel about him drinking. And smoking too? Something's going on, and I need to know what. If the social workers were to come by, what the hell do you think would happen? I'm disappointed, Sodapop." I leaned against the counter, as if pushing it away. "Really disappointed. Pony for being in this mess in the first place – and drinking to boot, but disappointed in you too. You shouldn't have lied to me. None of you."

I left them in the kitchen as I went back to Ponyboy's side. He was still facing away, looking at the window. "Here, for a bunch of overgrown mechanics and goof-off's, they seem to cook rather well." I didn't expect him to laugh, but I was hoping for some glimmer of life in his eyes. They remained dull. I took two aspirin out, laying them by the glass and pocketed the bottle again. "Take these and eat something. We'll talk tomorrow. I won't yell, either. But we're going to have to talk."

He said nothing and I left the room. Soda was standing against the kitchen doorway, his hands in his pockets, face drawn. The guys were gone. I felt the heaviness in the house on my shoulders. Soda didn't even look up.

"Don't leave him alone," I said softly. "Call me if you need help."

He nodded and went to his room. I heard the mattress creak under Soda's added weight, hoping they actually would call for me if they needed me.

XXX

I ignored the bowl even though the tetrazzini smelled mouth watering. My headache hurt, but then – my head always hurt. I shrugged, reached for the pills and swallowed them without the Tang. I already had the feeling that Darry thought I was suicidal, since he left the pills but not the bottle. I didn't care. I wasn't interested in offing myself. Maybe it was just the half bottle of beer (man was I a lightweight), or maybe it was the fight. Maybe it was the futility of life. Whatever it was, I just didn't want to play anymore. I wanted a time out.

The door opened, Sodapop quietly slipping across his room to the bed. There was a pause as he stopped, pulled off his shirt, then lay down. His hand touched my shoulder and I gave in, scooting back a bit. He knew my cues as well as I knew his. His arm went around me as I curled into him. I'm too old for this. Soda's legally an adult. Social services would put both my brothers in jail if they saw us. I didn't care and neither – I think – did Sodapop. They'd never understand that his embrace was like a security blanket, one I desperately needed right then.

"It's okay, Ponyboy. Talk to me, please. Tell me what's wrong," he softly whispered into my ear as he held me close, making me feel safe.

I had no answer since I also had no clue. Tears rolled down my face and I shook, trying not to sob. Soda must have heard me as he pulled me just that much closer to him and said nothing of substance more. His only words until I fell asleep were gentle shushes mixed with murmurs that I would be alright.

XXX

Sunlight filtered in my window and I jerked awake, my head still splitting from all the unresolved issues from yesterday. I got my things and went down the hall to shower, stopping to check on the guys first. They were both still asleep, curled up against each other; Soda's arm finally having something besides empty space to lay across. I blinked and headed on down the hall, hoping Soda managed to get something out of Ponyboy.

XXX

I heard the shower turn on, the squeaky faucets giving away that someone else – Darry - was awake. I looked at Pony's sleeping face, shaking him a little.

"You awake?"

"Yeah," he answered without opening his eyes.

"You okay?"

"Headache's still there."

"That's called a hangover, little bro." I got up, scrubbed my face and looked over at him. "Take some aspirin and it'll go away. Eat something too. Better yet, let Darry see you eat, it'll do a lot to smooth things over with him."

"It ain't a hangover, it was only half a beer. Besides, my head was already hurting."

I found my clothes hanging in my closet and pulled them out. "If you get tanked on half a beer, may I suggest you don't drink anymore? It's obviously not something you're meant to do."

He sat up and stared blankly out the window as I went back and forth in my room, pulling on my DX shirt and changed into my work pants. I sat down next to him, socks in hand and tried again, hoping sleep had lifted the fog from yesterday's events.

"Care to tell what was so bad yesterday?"

He looked at me then fingered the fringe on the blanket. "I don't know," he said with a shrug.

I sighed, patted his knee and got up again. "I have to go to work. If you want to talk, call me. Come over even. Just... just don't sit here and wallow. Whatever's wrong, we can work it out - just like we always do." I looked at him, noticing he hadn't moved much. I kneeled in front of him, determined to see his eyes. "I love you, Ponyboy. You're my brother... I hate seeing you like this."

"Soda.... time to go!" Darry called from the living room. I felt torn again - needed at work, but needed at home.

"Love you too, Sodapop," he mumbled. It was tearing me up, seeing him so lost. At least he spoke. "Go on, I'll be fine."

"Alright, but you try to have a good day. Enjoy being out of school, pretend you're cutting or something. Maybe play the piano a little – I know you like that. Just... don't sweat this. Besides, you have the grades to not make this hurt you too bad anyway. It'll be fine. Really."

He gave a fake smile, nodding. I patted his leg again and headed down the hall just in time to hear Darry yelling for me again.

"He talking any?" Darry asked as we drove off.

"A little." I answered, unsure if that was the right answer.

XXX

I listened to the quiet. Silence was everywhere. I hated it. Since that night when I faced the barrel of a gun and felt it go off, when motion stood still, when light went dark and sound echoed away to deafness, I haven't been able to see or hear anything right. I haven't felt right. I was lost and desperately searched for a beacon that would lead me back. Not even Soda could ignite a light that bright. But I knew who could.

I picked up the phone, dialing a number my fingers had memorized. It rang once, twice. Then...

"Hello?"

"Linda?" I asked, already knowing it was her.

"Ponyboy? My God, are you alright? I've been trying to get in touch with you for days!"

I listened to her voice, not wanting her to stop talking, unsure what words to say back. I'd closed my eyes, wishing I could wrap myself in her arms.

"Ponyboy, are you there?"

"Yeah," I said, trying hard to hold my voice steady. Tears were already welling up, blinding my vision again.

"Are you okay?" she asked carefully.

No, I wanted to say. I'm falling apart. "I need you," was all I could muster, my voice cracking despite my struggle to keep it steady.

"I'm on my way."

XXX

Calla Lily Rose

And with a warm sun ushering away the last of the bitter cold, the soliloquy ends.

Thank you, all the readers and reviewers, who have stayed with me through the ups and downs of this particular story. It's a tad after the beginning of spring as I write this.. there have been more problems with this story and behind the scenes than I have had in a very long time. My sincere apologies if it doesn't live up to the Summer and Autumn season stories. I do, however, put a lot of work into each chapter and each story in the hopes that everyone stays in character, the flow is even, and each new submission has something that brings you – the reader - back, time and time again. Special thanks to Feisty Feist... a great inspiration and great writer in her own right. She's kept me going when at times I have so wanted to give up.

And... while I'm at it, I recently went back and did some re-tooling on Missing Days, my very first submission on FF. It's still a bit raw – I didn't want to take that away, but, like Soda does... I tweaked it, making the engine hum a little better. Anyway, thanks everyone. You are why I write.

Calla