Usual Disclaimers: I don't own, cursing…yada, yada...
"You're kidding me right?"
I grind the cigarette out under my foot. "I'm sorry," I say, and I know I say that a lot. "I picked it up in Miami. I had to blend in somehow."
"Pone," Soda says, coming down the steps. He meets me at the bottom of the porch. "You know what the doctor said."
"That was two years ago," I say, even though I'm sure it doesn't matter. The past is stubborn. It sticks.
"What're you going to do if it comes back?" He crosses his arms. He's not yelling because this is a catch-22. I need something to cope. Smoke or pills take your pick. Soda knows that. He just doesn't like it.
"I'll deal with it when it happens."
"For being such a smart kid, sometimes I just want to smack the hell out of you." Soda's crosses his arms. "Don't make me tell Darry."
I'll give it to him; it's the best threat he's ever made.
"That's what ol' Superman's been working on." Two-Bit gestures grandly as he pulls his truck into the vacant lot.
I prop my elbow against the window, surveying the wide expanse of land that is now my brother's. Sitting a few miles outside of Tulsa, it's a square dirt lot, next to an aging building and a shrub of trees. A small white trailer sits – Darry's mobile office for now. A smile tugs at my face. It's a good place. A real good place.
Before I had left for Miami Darry had been drawing up the paperwork. But now it's real. It's actually going to happen.
Darry's trucked is parked next to the trailer. Having just arrived, he climbs out and waves at us. Smiling broadly, he hitches his thumbs through his belt loop and paces his land.
"Darry's already offered me the vice president position, ain't that right Dar?" Two-Bit says as we stride up to him. I notice the pace Two-Bit's kept to match my limp and I remember when it used to be the other way around.
"Two-Bit," Darry says with a chuckle. "If you're lucky I'll let you answer the phones." He turns his smile on me. "What do you think?"
"It's great, Dar. I can't believe it."
"We start breaking ground next week…the crew comes out and we'll…"
I look away, my chest tightening. Seeing it, hearing it – it's real. How far we've come seems unbelievable sometimes. Darry will own something; it will be his. Overwhelmed, I grip my stick, steadying myself. We're greasers. Greasers don't do stuff like this.
"I'm uh, I'm really proud of you, Darry."
He clears his throat. "Thanks, kiddo."
I sort through the files Max has given me. They're good ones. I choose one and do some digging over the phone. My research takes me to a lead and despite being ordered by Darry to stay home as much is possibly necessary, I call Nick and he picks me up.
I've tried but I can't sit still. Staying at home won't help me heal. I need to work. I need to make money. I need to get out.
I finish the story and drop it off for Max.
Liz greets me at the door that night. She sticks an arm out, blocking my entrance. "Have you told them?"
"Told them what?"
"That you're working already?"
"No," I say. "I think that'd push Darry over the edge."
"I think you're right." She gives me a stern look. "You really should ease up, Ponyboy. You just got home. At least let yourself get better before you go breaking yourself again."
Stepping aside, Liz lets me in. She doesn't say anything more.
It doesn't take long. Hell, it's print. Deadlines come fast. The story's a big front page piece – a bold P.M. Curtis as the byline.
Darry finds me that night and this time he lets it rip. "You're working?" he yells. "I told you to wait it out, to lie low and what do you do? You publish something?"
"It's not about Miami," I mumble, trying to justify. "It's—"
"That doesn't matter," Darry snaps. "If they see your name, they'll know. They'll really fucking know, Ponyboy."
"Darry, stop it," Liz hisses. She's standing in the kitchen; hand on her hip, the other wielding a spatula.
"This is serious," he says, like I don't already know that. "If they find you—"
"I know, Dar. I know."
"I sure as hell hope so."
I've never seen Darry walk out but he does just that, nearly breaking the screen door. Liz gives me a thanks-a-lot look but just goes back to making dinner. She keeps his plate in the oven until he comes home.
Steadying myself against the stick and the counter, I grip the coffee pot and pour myself a large cup. Darry made it and I can already feel my nose hairs prickling. I take a sip.
The back door slaps. "Wakey-wakey, Ponyboy."
"Hey Two-Bit. Want some coffee?"
"Nah. I prefer to live dangerously and wake the all-natural way."
"Beer doesn't count, Two-Bit."
"Say what you will but it gets me moving." He circles the kitchen. "You feel like taking a drive today, kid?"
I lower the mug, setting it on the counter. "Where?" I ask with suspicion. Nothing is ever simple with Two-Bit, including "taking a drive". The last time we took a drive we ended up pushing his shitty pick-up truck out of Lake Elmo.
"I should have known better than to ask you," he says. "The unadventurous sort. You know, you're probably not up for it anyway." He sticks his hands in his pockets. "For one thing it involves walking and seeing how you're pretty hobbled and—OW!"
I lower the stick. Two-Bit rubs the side of his thigh. "That's abuse, Ponyboy Curtis."
I grin. "I knew this thing would come in handy."
Two-Bit laughs, his gray eyes dancing. "C'mon kid. It's time for me and you to go and do grown-up, adult things."
"I don't like the sound of that."
"Everyone else has already been measured," the tailor says in his clipped voice. Amused, I climb onto the raised platform and wait for him to measure me. He stretches out a tape measure. I face the mirror, my reflection staring back.
"Saved the bed for last," Two-Bit drawls. The tailor, a thin guy with a mustache, sniffs. Two-Bit, not very good at sitting still, paces the small room. He keeps touching fabrics and patterns with distracted ease. I watch him in the mirror.
"So what else do we need to do for this shindig?"
"I think just show up."
"It's still January right?"
I smirk. The wedding's been moved so many times, most people in town think they've long since broken up or eloped. Leave it to Two-Bit to keep everyone guessing.
I glance down, frowning as the tailor pats my legs, moving up. He has me lift my arms, and I do, best as I can, and finally he's saying he's finished. He jots down my measurements on a pad and then hands me a dress shirt.
I step into a dressing room to change, wincing as I lift my shirt, preparing to tug it off. You know you're in sorry shape when getting dressed is a challenge.
The curtain whips open and suddenly Two-Bit's there. "Hey, Pone, you think we should get this for ol' Superman…" In his hands he holds the ugliest shirt I've ever seen. White with bright psychedelic splotches and a sparkly kind of material.
Self-conscious, I jerk my shirt back down. "Jesus, Two-Bit, don't you ever knock?"
He stares, dumfounded, unsure what to say next. He presses a hand against the wall and lets out an exhale. "Glory...you clean got gutted."
I don't even have to glance down to know what he's seeing. A raised scar runs from the middle of my back to the front of my stomach, ending right under my belly button. I don't feel embarrassed or ashamed, just tired.
Two-Bit's pale, his sideburns standing out rusty red. "Christ, they sure made a mess of you, Pony."
I clear my raw throat. "Yeah. They sure did."
Two-Bit pulls the curtain shut, stepping in front as other voices filter through the dressing room. His voice is low. "If you saw that person again, the person who did that to you, you'd tell me wouldn't you?"
I frown. "Why?"
"Because," he says, and there's a look in his eyes like I've never seen. "I'd really like to find them, kid. I'd really like that."
After about a month home, August brewing into September, something else starts brewing. Tempers. Tensions. Frustrations. I keep dreaming about men sneaking into my house and stabbing me in the back.
The buzz in my head whines. I turn my throbbing face up to the dying sun and then dip forward, resting my hands on my knees and lowering into a squat. Sweat streams down my face.
It's too early, I know that, but I had thought I could try. I'm a fucking idiot. The Hunchback of Notre Dame could beat me in a race.
I can't run right.
I was fine for about four weeks. Four weeks of staying positive, of thinking I could get back on the saddle, so to speak. And all it takes is for one little thing to make me realize things may never be normal again.
"Hey, dead man walking," Steve drawls as I mosey into the DX. "Ain't you got better places to be?" He points the newspaper at me and I grab it from his hands.
Soda scowls at Steve's nickname. He comes around the front desk. "What's goin' on, Pone?"
"Thought I'd stop in and say hi," I lie. My body's killing me from the run. I didn't think I could make it back without a pit stop, the DX being the closest thing on the way home.
"Yeah, just tired."
I plop on a chair and start reading, noting who made the paper this week. I get to section B-11 before I start to perk up: Teen found dead at Lookout Point.
Walking by, Steve rips the paper from my hands. "You know what we do with these? Use 'em to soak up oil spills. Real good profession you're into Ponyboy."
I give him the finger.
"Easy, Curtis, easy."
"But – but this is news."
"Maybe it is, maybe it ain't. It's only one time, Ponyboy. A kid had a fit or something. Just dropped dead."
I gawk at his calm demeanor. I went into Max's office to claim this story and instead he's shelving it, and it looks like he's shelving me. "Says this from a guy who sent me to Miami to get involved with the goddamn mob." I stand and start pacing his small office.
"You gotta take it easy, Curtis."
My eyes narrow. The voice sounds familiar. "Max…this is my story."
"It ain't a story."
"Another one dies and it's yours." Cavalier, he shuffles some papers. "From now on, you get the Lifestyle stories. Cats on parade, Halloween floats, shit like that."
"Are you joking?"
"Do I look like I'm the fucking court jester?"
I grip the stick. "This is bullshit, Max."
"Softballs," Max says. He takes his sunglasses off. "Just for a few months. Maybe a story about the women's choir." He smirks.
"Don't give me that Curtis. Get out of here. You're lucky you still have a job. Lie low for once."
A light snaps on. Only one person's been repeating that to ever since I came back home and I know just who to blame.
Darry got me benched.
I smoke a pack and head home.
I slam the door. "I don't believe you."
A smile plays on Darry's lips. He's in his recliner, reading the Tulsa Star. "I told you what would happen if you kept going the way you're going."
"So you get me tossed off the paper? You had no right to do that."
Smoke practically billows from his ears. He stands. "I'm not going to sit back and let you work yourself up. I had a talk with Max." Darry looks smug. "It's about time someone did."
"I'm 20-years-old, Dar! I mean, Jesus Christ, how long are you gonna keep this up?" I let my arms drop at my side, the stick hitting the ground. Darry's eyes focus like he's just now seeing it. His eyes dim.
He shakes his head. "Forget about it."
"Forget about what? You mean, my job?"
"That's not a job, Ponyboy."
"You mean it's not the job you want for me." I don't think Darry ever really expected me to stick with the whole writing-journalism thing. Sure, he nodded and agreed and supported a few years ago, but he expected me to get bored. It's not what he wanted.
Darry's face softens. "You should go back to school, kiddo. The war's still on, you could get called up and—"
"You think anyone would take me with this?" I gesture to the side of my body and Darry flinches. "Come off it, Dar. Look, I know you're worried but I got to live my life."
"And what about us?" Darry says, his voice rising. The calm that was there, no longer. "Everyday I'm waiting for something to happen to you. Do you know how that feels? Do you even get that?"
"Darry, I don't—"
"You don't want to talk about it? Tough. And you know what else I want to talk about? How about those cigarettes you've been smoking?"
I raise my eyes to the ceiling but say nothing.
"I knew you were smoking again. I god damn knew it." Darry swears darkly. "You're trying to kill yourself about 15 different ways, Ponyboy. This whole writing thing that you're doing – taking off for Miami. You shouldn't be going around trying to get yourself killed for a fucking story."
"Yeah, because that was the plan."
He shoots me a glare. "You're a writer so act like one for once. Sit at a goddamn desk and stay there."
I stand my ground. "You had no right to do that."
"I don't give a shit," Darry says. "It's done."
I get halfway around the block before I realize it's a mistake. I left the stick at the house. I won't get far. Hell, I don't know if I can get back.
Damn Darry. For being right. For getting involved in my mess. But he sure as hell doesn't make anything easy. He's unhappy when I stay and unhappy when I leave. You'd think he'd be able to let go by now.
Catching my breath, I pat the pockets of my jeans. They're empty. I left my smokes at home. I begin to move again, kicking at rocks. It's dark out, a slight chill in the air. Fall's on its way. The stars twinkle above and I think of that Miami night in the alley. Stars sure look different when you're on your back.
I sink down onto the curb as my stitches cramp up. I rest my head in my hands and don't even look up as the truck pulls up, crunching gravel. It could be them. They could finish what they started and I wouldn't have the energy to move. But I'm not afraid. Just tired.
A door opens, soft boot steps, and then, "It's a sorry sight when you need a ride, kid."
"Can you help me in the car or what?"
He grabs my hand. "Sure thing, Ponyboy."
We sit in his car smoking a block from my house. He doesn't say a word. I'm beginning to like Steve Randle.
"Got to hand it to Superman. He sure knows how to get what he wants."
I grunt and stamp my cigarette in the ashtray. I shift in my seat. "He just doesn't know when to quit."
"Maybe he can't. Ever think of that?"
"Oh, so now you're a philosopher?"
Steve snatches the pack away as I reach for another smoke. "Get out of here, smartass." He presses a car part in my hand. "Give this to your brother."
I give him a sheepish smile. "Thanks for the ride, man."
I go back to the house. Darry's nowhere to be seen but his bedroom light is on. When I shut the front door it clicks off. I bolt the lock and pick up my stick.
I write Max's stupid stories.
I ask him to leave my name off the bylines.
Darry and I regress to how we were before I left for Miami. Him, silent and brooding, me, frustrated with everything in my vicinity. I keep working; keep trying to run, but my body wants to shut off. Give up.
And even though all this time I've been home, been trying to chase away the paranoia, it's still there. My brothers have been breathing easier. I've been telling Nick we're home free. That we both need to forget and move on. I'm good at that. I could live in denial.
It's when I see the black Cadillac again – I swear it's the same one from the barbeque – that I think, We're gonna die. Nick and I – we're already dead.
Thank you for the reviews…more to come…EEEE…
But seriously. I have a ton planned. But just slap me a little bit if this gets boring.