"Anything good?"I ask Nick, sliding into the chair across from him. Max passes by the window, raps on it once, mouths coffee and disappears.
"Asshole," Nick mutters. He shuffles papers around. "The news is dry, Curtis."
I sit back in my chair. Nick pulls a cigarette out, lights it, blowing smoke into a haze above his face. His hair's greasy, eyes dull. Guilt and worry on his mind.
He's still doing this.
"You ain't been around to the house much." When he's silent, I continue. "You don't have to stay away, Nick. No one knows anything." I stretch across the table, my side giving a cramp. "You're still blaming yourself. You gotta stop. It's gonna make you crazy."
Nick laughs; it's a disgusted sound. "How come you're taking this so well?"
"I'm not," I say, my voice thin and dry. "I just don't think about it."
"I shoulda been there," Nick says. He looks on the verge of a nervous breakdown and he's not making me feel any better. "And I wasn't. And I'm so fucking sorry about that Ponyboy. I'd tell it to Darry if I could."
And Darry'd put a fist through your face so fast…
I'm so sick and numb to all of this. I run a hand through my hair. "Cut the shit, Nick. You don't owe me or anyone else an explanation. You were just doing your job. We both were."
I pull out a cigarette and light the bastard up.
"Table," Liz says.
"Five o'clock, Dar," I say as my brother hunts around the house for his car keys. He snatches them off the coffee table, shoving them into his pocket with a sheepish grin. Darry breaks ground on the site today; I've never seen him so nervous. Amused, I just watch from my spot at the kitchen table.
Liz takes the coffee cup from his hands, standing on tiptoes to give him a kiss. I turn the newspaper over, trying to stay out of their way.
"Good luck," I shout as he heads out.
He tosses me a grin, finally speaking to me, caught up in the excitement of today. "Thanks kiddo. See you tonight."
"He's so excited," Liz says, turning around and walking into the kitchen. She starts cleaning up the breakfast dishes. I check the clock on the wall, her shift at the law firm probably starts soon.
"I can't think of anyone who deserves it better than Darry."
"It's all he's talked about," she says, opening the fridge to stick the orange juice in. "He's got his business. And you're back, you're safe. Now he's got all he wants."
I drink my coffee. He gives me too much credit.
A few days later, fate throws me a bone. I've been stagnating, taking the shitty stories Max has been doling out when I stumble upon something wrong. Very wrong. And I mean stumble in the literal sense of the phrase.
Trying to work on what little running moves I have is not easy. Christ, to be back in high school. To be back on a red, clay track with a healthy body. That's what I'm aiming for.
Instead, I briskly walk across the gravel road of Old Cavern Ridge – a long and winding path made up of trees and deep sloping ledges that careen into brush down below. The walking makes me impatient, I'm better than this, but I will myself to go slow. Get the strength back for now.
I go for about a mile before needing to call it quits. I'm already thinking about trying to hitch a ride back into town when a dusty Camaro zips by. I feel the brush of the mirror against my elbow. Shocked, I jump, and go stumbling back.
"Shit," I swear when I realize what's going to happen. I drop and trip over the low edge of the ditch. I take about three rolls and then land on all fours in grubby brush. I swear again, and dip low, stretching out my throbbing side, placing my hands above my head.
I stiffen as my hands touch something wet. Something fleshy. Curious, pain forgotten about for now, I straighten up, peering forward. I move the weeds and leaves aside and—
My eyes shoot open. "Oh, Jesus Christ."
There, lying in the brush of Old Cavern Ridge is a thin, white arm. A bloody stump.
The chair's uncomfortable, the police station hot and stuffy. My right leg's bouncing a mile a minute, and all I can think about, the sickest thing in the world, is that this story better be mine. Max better beg me to write it.
The old secretary brings me a cup of coffee, pats my shoulder. "There you are, honey."
The police officer comes back from the front desk. "Sorry about that son."
"It's okay." I sip my coffee.
"Now where were we…"
He squeezes himself into a chair beside me, his gut spilling over his pants. We're having this conversation in the general waiting room of the station, something that leads me to believe they don't know what they're doing yet. Which is a relief because I'd rather not get hauled back to an interrogation room. That's one place I don't need to end up.
"Oh yes…you were out on a run…some Evel Knievel scared the bejesus out of you and you took a tumble down into the Ridge."
He chuckles. "A mighty unfortunate tumble I might add."
"Yes sir." I move to pull out another cigarette when I realize I've smoked the entire pack. I chew my nail. "Say, do you think this is related to that murder the Ridge?"
"What murder?" he says and then laughs, his belly flopping around. "Oh you mean the Lincoln boy? That was an accident. Think he was sick or somethin'. Just keeled over." He shakes his head, his jowls wobbling. "This. This here's different. A lone body part don't count as murder. Foul play, sure. But not murder."
So when does it count as murder, when the head shows up? I sit up straight, instinct kicking in. "So it was just an arm?"
The cop scratches his head and I can't tell if he's playing dumb or not. "That's what we found."
The hunch inside of me deepens. It's connected to the Ridge. I know it is.
"You need a lift home, son?" the cop asks, done with the conversation, and I rip my attention from my thoughts.
"No. No thanks," I say. Pulling up in a police car is not something Darry needs right now. I stand, wishing I had my stick for balance.
I call Soda from a payphone outside of K-Mart. "Can you come get me?" I ask him.
He's there in ten.
"Whoa, Pone," Soda says when I tell him about what's happened. He frowns, his forehead crinkling. "That's pretty goddamn serious. Where's the body?"
"They don't know."
His lip curls. "So how'd a random body part end up at the Ridge?"
"That's what I want to know too." It's not every day an arm winds up in my lap, I want to say but don't. Soda pulls himself up off the couch. His apartment is dark, Steve still at work.
"You sure you're okay?"
"Sure I'm okay." I rub my hands on my jeans. I haven't had enough time to really process the last four hours and now I'm feeling slightly sick about all of it. I still need to call Max though. I've got the firsthand account of his next big story. The buzz begins its droning.
Soda brings me some water. "You wanna stay here tonight?" When I nod, he says, "I'll call Darry and let him know."
He leaves the room. I try to stretch out on the couch, the weight of my body heavy and numb. I think about the arm. I think about Miami.
"So you go tripping over a dead body and you think I'm going to publish this shit?" Max snaps but he's smiling that smile that tells me he'll publish it.
This morning, I had gone back to the police station to interview the cop and when I told him I worked for the Tulsa World he immediately had clammed up. Eventually, I got him to talk.
"Just publish it, man. It's a story. Better than anything we've had lately."
He takes his shades off. "What about softballs?"
"Screw softballs." I limp across the room, lean down in that familiar motion designed to stretch out my back and rest my palms on top of his desk. "C'mon, Max. My brother doesn't have anything to do with this. I'm a writer. So let me write."
"Fine. You got it. But when that big brother of yours starts yelling his head off, leave me out of it."
"How come you keep stumbling into shit like this?"
"Just lucky I guess."
Max's smile dies. "Curtis, I'd hate to see the day when you're unlucky."
BODY PART FOUND AT THE RIDGE
By P.M. CURTIS
TULSA, OK — Police found a human limb Wednesday, two miles past the grove at Old Cavern Ridge.
An unnamed source stumbled upon the part at about 2:30 p.m. The police were immediately summoned.
"Only one body part was found," said Police Lt. Ollie Newman. "Right now we can't determine the cause but we suspect foul play is involved somehow."
Investigators don't believe the parts had been in the sewer too long, Newman said.
The medical examiner's office is examining the pieces. Authorities are also checking on missing person's reports. Persons who may have information pertaining to this case are urged to contact the authorities…
Liz is shaking her head as Darry reads the paper during dinner. "I don't believe this," she says with a grimace. "How sick someone can be…"
I think of Wilkes. I can believe it. Darry must be thinking about it too because when I look over his blue eyes are on me. He lowers the paper, clears his throat. "I hope the police can dig something up," he says, his meaning clear. He's fed up with me—this close, I can feel it.
How Darry's holding it together, I don't know. I've heard the talk around town – that I'm a college dropout, that I'm on drugs, that I really just got back from Vietnam – and I know Darry has too. Most of it's laughable, reminding me of the rumors in high school, but Darry doesn't find it funny. For once, I just want my brother to focus on himself instead of me.
I take a bite of green beans. They taste tinny and I push them away.
Another Sunday rolls around, another barbeque. It's still warm out, winter won't hit until October, and so we're out on the porch, getting in the weather while we can.
I take a swig of my beer, envious as Soda takes a dive to catch the football. I don't even bother attempting to play. And no one asks. They're good about it though, hiding their worry. They keep the how-do-you-feels to a minimum. Two-Bit hoots and dodges a punch from Steve. I smile and rub my jaw. Being home feels good.
The steel is cool and slick. The blood's sticky. I'm drowning in it. I hear the laugh, a laugh I'll never get out of my head. Malicious and dark. It's definitely me there on the ground. There's a shout and disappearing footsteps and the blood—
"The blood, so much—"
"There is no blood, Pony. Wake up, c'mon..."
I open my eyes. Fly up, my hands moving to my side, my back. There's nothing. No stickiness. Just a raised scar and a tender pain. I touch my brow. Darry's looking at me with sorry eyes.
"You're okay," he says, stretching a tentative hand out. He squeezes my bicep. The light in the hall is on and I see Liz's shadow against the wall.
"Don't be sorry. Go back to sleep, okay?"
"I'm here," Darry says, getting up to go. He touches my shoulder. "You holler if you need anything, kiddo."
After a few seconds, the light in the hall clicks off. I let out a breath. I'd really like to stop dying every night in my dreams.
Nick and I are going over a possible story when Max strolls into the small office we share. It's so small our desks are pushed together but it's all we need. Max sits on the edge of the desk. "I got a tip today, from someone claiming they know something about the Arm case."
So far the cops haven't been able to ID a body or a person with the arm I found at the Ridge. Something I'm not surprised about. Tulsa cops aren't something I have a lot of faith in.
Nick, scribbling on his arm with a pen, shoots me a glance. "What'd they say?"
"Well, here's the thing," Max says. "The guy won't talk to me. He won't talk to the cops. What he wants is to talk to you, Curtis."
"Read your story. Looked you up. Said he liked your name. That it interested him."
I laugh. "So let's talk. Get me the phone and I'll call him."
The smile grows on Max's face. "Well the thing is…he wants to see you. In person. He's claiming he's…" Max jumps his fingers in the air. "A psychic or some shit like that."
Nick sits up. "What's that now?"
"Says he can give you a lead. Tell you about the story."
"Okay," I say with a shrug. "I'll meet him. What?" Max is still smiling, broader now.
"He's in Oklahoma State Penn." Nick groans. Max slides off the desk. "How do you feel about going to prison, Ponyboy?"
It could be good, Max had argued, real good if this story turns out to be something. But now, beginning the drive down to the prison, I'm beginning to doubt my boss's words.
"This is going to be a waste of time," I mutter.
Nick rolls his eyes. "C'mon where's your sense of adventure?"
I laugh. "I'm trying to be a journalist, Nick. You think Woodward and Bernstein got anywhere by interviewing psychics?"
"You never know."
"Hate to break it to you, but you've already got one. Had since you were 14." Nick pulls his truck onto the freeway. "You tell the Big One where you're headed?"
"No way, man. Things just barely settled down at my place. I ain't itchin to start anything again." I lean my head back against the seat and shut my eyes. Beside me, on the floor of the truck, the stick's propped tall. I rest my hand on its smooth handle.
"He's says he's psychic, Nick, things don't get much shittier than that.
"Why're you arguing, Curtis? It's what you wanted. It's a story."
"This'll be nothing," I say. "Not even worth mentioning."
It's about a 90 minute drive to McAlester, OK, where the Oklahoma State Penn, the state's only maximum-security prison, sits. I do the sign-in thing, Nick hovering in the waiting area. Max pulled some strings and managed to get me added to the guest list for our "psychic" Willy Wiese.
A guard stops me before I can go through. He points at the stick. "No weapons."
"But it's just a—never mind." Turning back, I give the stick to Nick. He shoots a scowl at the guard but says nothing.
"Ask him what the winning lotto numbers are," Nick calls out before I leave.
Willy Wiese is on death row. Scheduled to be executed soon. This whole conversation, him claiming to have information, strikes me as a last ditch effort to pull some strings and avoid the electric chair.
I scan his file. My stomach roils. He killed his family in cold blood. Twenty years ago, bashed the brains out of—
I turn away. Shut it. I'll read it later.
I'm waiting in a small detention room, sitting across the table waiting for Willy Wiese. I'm beginning to wonder what in the hell I'm doing here when a buzzer sounds and I start. I knock my pencil off the table. Irritated, I stare at it, knowing it's going to take a hell of a lot of effort to pick it up.
The door opens and a tall, thin man shuffles in with a guard. He's balding, his cheekbones practically jutting out of his skin, eyes hollow. His handcuffs clank, his orange jumpsuit the only spot of color in the gray room. His first words are: "Here, let me get 'dat for you, because I know you can't."
And then he dips, grabs it and sets it back on the tin table. The Number 2 Pencil begins to roll toward me.
Aha...and the plot thickens.
Please pardon typos.
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