Chapter Eleven - The denial
Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1966
Soda sits on a plastic chair in the corner of a conference room, hands between his knees to stop them from shaking. Silently he watches Darry and Mrs Garcia talk to two cops in uniforms. One of them takes notes, Darry points with his finger on the notepad, probably correcting something he got wrong. His mouth moves fast, but Soda doesn't pay attention to what he says to them.
They told Mrs. Garcia everything, and she got stern and professional, and Soda is sure of that if they find Pony alive- and he must be- they will take him away for real this time. It's in her face. The thing is, he thinks that he won't even care if they do it, as long as Pony is all right. He just has a horrible feeling that he's not. And he hates himself for even thinking it.
They don't do anything about it, either. They have been here for more than an hour, telling what they know, and no one is out looking yet. He would have, if he just knew where to start. Pony might not even be in Tulsa anymore. He might be dead already. And here he just sits on a hard chair, doing nothing.
He feels numb.
"Soda?" Darry gestures at him to come, and he rises, quickly, moves fast over to the table where they stand. "The woman who came for Pony, how did she look like?" his brother says urgent. His eyes are harder than ever, has the resemblance of ice cubes.
"I don't know... Johnny didn't tell me."
"Johnny Cade," Darry hurries to say, turned to the cops again. "You need to talk to him. Soda can get him."
Soda catches the keys to the truck coming his way, and he doesn't think twice before he runs.
It's cold. I don't have my jacket, and I don't know where I am. I stop outside the house, squinting against the sudden sun. And old man walks on the sidewalk with his dog, and the look he gives me is filled with fear. He hurries over the street, keeps looking back at me as he crosses it.
I want to beg him to help me, but I can't. The words won't come out, and besides, no one can help me. I stare down at my hands, know what he sees, and I drop the key I still hold. It falls down on the asphalt, but I don't need it anymore. I curl my arms around my body, hide my hands as much as I can. But I know my clothes look the same.
Left or right? I try to think how she-
how she drove me here, not even a day ago. Was it really yesterday? It feels like forever.
I start walking. Not fast, I can't speed up or the dizziness will hit me hard, and I walk close to the house, for support, to hide. I stumble. Sometimes I fall down on my knees, and then I have to struggle to get up.
I walk past a pay phone, but it's broken, someone has cut off the cord and the receiver is missing, but I don't have any money anyway. My backpack is gone, I have a vague memory of leaving it in the car. I think I have a few dollars in it.
But it's gone, right. I don't have it. And the phone is broken, I can't call anyone. Keep walking.
I bow my head when I meet people, not wanting them to see my eyes, but they all stare at me, some shout something I don't hear. I just want to go home. Nothing else. So I ignore everyone.
I cross a street and then another one, and suddenly the little corner shop ahead is familiar. My heart start to pound faster - I know where I am. I smile out of relief. Only a little bit left. I know I can do it.
"What if I don't remember right?" Johnny says nervously as he jumps into the passenger seat of the truck. Soda doesn't wait for him to lock the seat belt, he reverses out onto the street from the school's parking lot, speeds up to the limit and over. Screw traffic rules.
"You have to." He throws a glance sideways. Johnny looks pale. "It's all right, Johnny. Just tell them what you remember, okay?"
"I should've stopped him," Johnny says. "It was my fault."
"No, it wasn't."
Johnny sighs, looking out through the side window. His hands are clenched, and he shivers in his thin jean jacket.
"I told him to not go with her. I should've tried harder. He - he asked me to get you but I didn't."
"Shut up, Johnny," Soda pleads with a thin voice, knowing he's unfair. He can't blame Johnny. Pony is stubborn, always does what he wants, even though what anyone says. The Ifs and Buts don't matter, don't change anything.
"Was it him? That man Pony told us about?" Johnny's black eyes are wide.
"We don't know," Soda says truthfully, cursing at the car in front of them that forces him to slow down. "Damnit."
"Yeah. We think it's him."
"It ain't good."
"I know. I know that." Soda swallows. "But he's just a kid, right? Pony's just a kid. Maybe he just wants to scare him or, I don't know. Maybe he won't hurt him."
"Yeah," Johnny says, knowing what Soda wants to hear, but he doesn't manage to make the tone right. It sounds false. "We'll find him. He'll be okay."
The rest of the way they ride in silence.
I'm so tired. And thirsty. I stumble up onto our yard, reach out for the rail to the porch steps, drag me up to the front door. Then I stop. I wonder what my brothers will say. I'm scared. A bit shaky I open the door, sneak inside, eyes down.
It's so quiet. I close the door behind me again, look up, stare at the empty living room. Maybe I can pretend nothing happened. I can do that.
No one answers. Where are they? I still don't know what time it is. I move to the kitchen, look up at the clock on the wall. Nine thirty. Maybe they are at work.
I wonder what they will say when they find me home. They think the state got me - I know Johnny must have told them. I wonder if they were relieved. Maybe they will be disappointed at me, that I came home again.
No. Soda won't. Soda will be happy. He must be.
I rub my eyes. Stare at my hands. God. I need a shower.
So she brought you here, huh? Your old man told me you were smart, boy. Apparently not. What the hell did she do to make you come with her?
Don't talk about my dad.
What? I can't hear you. Speak louder.
Don't talk about my dad!
I step into the bathroom, undress. It feels like I move in mud, I can't move faster. I leave my clothes in a heap on the floor, climb into the bathtub.
She lied in the dry bathtub.
I shiver, quickly turn on the water. It's cold first, but I force myself to stay under. All the red, hers and mine, all the blood, swirls down in the drain. My hands get clean, but they will always be dirty. The wound on my arm looks nasty.
The water is hot now, so hot it almost burns. I like it.
I hated him! But you already know that, don't you? You know everything.
I killed them.
Are you crying?
Fuck boy, you don't know shit about life. You don't know how it can screw you over, fuck with you, give you all the bad cards. And you know what? Your dad was one of the dealers - gave all the shitty cards to me and kept the aces for himself you know. I have all the reasons to hate him! I had the right to do what I did!
Hey! Look at me! I want you to fucking listen!
It's not until the shower turns cold again I realize I used all the hot water. My teeth clatter. I rise, take the towel and dry myself, and I walk into my room and find new clothes.
I walk to the kitchen. There is chocolate milk in the fridge and I pour a glass, sit down by the table, lean my head in my hand.
Everything is normal.
Like it should be. I drink my milk and decide to forget.
What the hell did you do!
His voice echoes in the room. I put my hands over my ears, hard.
"She... uh. She was blonde. And. Um. She spoke like... differently." Johnny's voice is thin and scared. The police taps his pen impatiently against his notepad. They are sitting across each other at the table, Darry standing behind Johnny's chair.
"Differently?" the cop, Jackson, asks. "Lisp? Stutter? Accent?"
"I - I mean... not like we do. In Tulsa."
"She's not from Oklahoma you mean?"
"I guess." Johnny swallows.
"Where did she sound coming from?"
Johnny just shrugs. He has never been out of Tulsa. Jackson sighs. These kids. He's used to them, the greasers from east side. They don't talk to cops, and if they do, all that comes out is rubbish. He has locked up more of them than he can count, and they went missing all the time, most of them wanted for some crime. But this time they have Mrs. Garcia on their side, and he has to admit, the older brother has made some impression on him. It is something strange with this case. So he grabs his pen in a tighter grasp, urges the kid in front of him.
"What did she say? Did she mentioned the name Henry? Or Matthew or Luke?"
"I don't think s-"
"No," Darry interrupts. "Pony wouldn't have gone with her if she had."
"Okay." Detective Jackson scribbles down something, looks up again. "What about the car?"
"It was white. A Ford." Johnny frowns. "It was a bit rusty. Not a nice car."
Johnny glances up at Darry. "I'm sorry," he mumbles, devastated. "I didn't-"
Darry squeezes his shoulder. "It's okay, Johnny."
"Okay," Jackson says when it's obvious the young greaser won't say anything else. "We will call the station and make an inquiry on these persons. Henry Morgan, who changed his name to Matthew Gaines but now pretends to be Luke Morgan - is that correct?"
"Yes," Darry says tiredly.
"And a blonde woman, unknown name, who drives an old, white Ford."
Darry shuts his eyes. There's not much information, he knows that, hears it in the cop's voice. This is hopeless. It's worse than try to search for a needle in a haystack. But they need to do it, and he knows that both him and Soda will search. As long as it takes, until they find him.
"Well, since the man is a criminal, we'll take him as soon as he sticks his nose out, all right?" Jackson says. "And he will, sooner or later. Don't worry." He fails to be comforting.
My hands fidget. I need something to do, something normal, to stop thinking. I hear him, all the time.
What the hell did you do?
But I promised myself to forget. Nervously I move from room to room, to mine, to Soda's, I stand outside Mom's and Dad's, touch their door, walk back to the living room. I get my school books from my bed but when I try to read, the words make no sense.
I search the house for cigarettes and find a pack on my desk.
I sit on the porch and light up - eye every car suspiciously, ready to run, but I'm good at this, to pretend. I know exactly what happened, and the answer is nothing.
That's what I gonna tell my brothers.
"God," Soda says, hides his face in his palms, talks with a hollow voice. "Where do we start?"
"We'll go home," Darry says, "and we will call Steve and Two-Bit as soon as we know they're home from school. I will send Dally to talk to Tim and his boys. Spread the word to look for him." He tries to think practical. It keeps him from breaking down, and that's good. He can't break down when Soda is on the edge of doing it. They have just dropped Johnny off at school again, Mrs. Garcia's orders, and they head for home.
"Then..." He turns the truck around a corner. "We can go out. Talk to people. Someone can have seen something."
Soda lifts up his head, nods. "Yeah. We can do that."
"We can spread out a photo," Darry says. "He has one from school last year, right?"
Soda nods again, but he doesn't answer this time. His eyes are dull, rimmed with red. But suddenly they widen, become more vivid, and he sits straight up.
"Stop! Stop the car!"
"What? We're almost home- Soda! Shit!" Darry hits the brakes, but it's too late. Soda has already thrown up his door, jumped out during the speed. As Darry slams his foot down, Soda scrambles up on his feet again, seemingly unscratched despite the fall on the hard ground, runs toward their house.
I almost don't even notice him until he's all over me. He squeezes me so tight I almost can't breathe, and I drop my cigarette.
"Soda..." I say, try to get free, and that's when I realize he's crying.
Darry's truck pulls in on the driveway, and he jumps out faster than I have ever seen him, and he runs, all pale.
"Oh my fuckin' god, I can't believe it," Soda manages to say, still refusing to let me go. And then Darry is next to us, and he throws his arms around us both, making it even harder to get air.
"I was so fuckin' scared, you don't know what I imagined - just, damnit, Pony, what happened? I can't believe this, you're fuckin' home!" Soda rambles through sobs.
"I'm home all right," I say. "Soda, you're squeezing me. I can't breathe."
They both let go, but Soda puts both his hands on the sides of my face instead, stares at me. His cheeks are wet. "Are you hurt, Pony? What did they do? I swear, if you're hurt-"
"I ain't hurt. I'm fine."
Darry puts a hand at the back of my neck, caresses it smoothly. "Let's go inside and talk." His voice is different. Strained. If I hadn't known better, I had thought he was close to tears.
We move into the house, Soda holding my arm, and for some reason we end up in the couch with Darry in the recliner.
Soda wipes his face with an arm, laughs. "You scared me to death, kiddo. We just talked to the cops about you and-"
The word 'cop' almost makes me jump up and run, and I look around nervously. "Why?" I ask warily.
Soda looks baffled. Darry frowns, leans a bit forward. "Ponyboy," he starts, but Soda interrupts, talking fast.
"Why? You were fuckin' kidnapped, that's why. What do you think, Pony?"
I feel myself go blank. "I wasn't kidnapped."
It's someone else talking. I'm not here. I give them an innocent look, trying to sound like me, because I know I have to. "It was the state. Our social worker came and- what?"
I have never seen these looks on their faces before. They scare me. I clamp my mouth shut, stare down at my hands.
What the hell did you do?
"Pony," Soda says, and his voice is so small. "Pony, what's wrong?"
I shake my head. "Nothin'. Nothin's wrong. Can you please stop nag about it?"
Soda eyes Darry, and I don't miss how scared he looks. Darry clears his throat, lands a hand on my shoulder.
"Pony, she wasn't from the state. We have talked to Mrs. Garcia. They-"
"She was from the state," I say stubbornly. "I should know."
"Pony," Darry says again. "We know she wasn't. If she was, you had been in a home right now." He sounds like he talks to a little kid.
"I - it was a mistake." They have to believe me. "She said it was a mistake and she drove me home again. I promise, that was what happened!"
I have never seen Soda so pale before. He locks his eyes with Darry's once again. My older brother sighs, shakes his head. "Pony, we know that's not what happened. Stop lying to us."
"I ain't lyin'!"
I cross my arms, glare at them. Soda makes an almost unnoticeable gesture with his head, and Darry hesitates, but then he nods too, and rises.
"I - uh. I'll be right back."
I know what they're trying to do. They think I will talk if he leaves. Soda is the one who always can trick me to talk.
Darry disappears down the hallway. I watch him go, hear him open the door to the bathroom. I avoid Soda's gaze. I can feel how he stares at me, and I know he searches for something to say. He opens his mouth and closes it.
"Pony," he starts, but then there's a sound of hurried steps. We both look up. Darry appears in the doorway, holding a bundle in his hands.
"What is this, Pony?" he says, sounding so broken, so scared it hurts. "What is this? Ponyboy, you have to talk to us! Now!"
That's when I see what it is. It's my clothes, I forgot them on the bathroom floor. They should be blue, jeans and a sweater, but they're not. The other color is more rusty than red, but it's obvious what it is.
My world starts spinning.
As always, thank you so, so much for reading and reviews and everything!