A/N: This is an idea I just had to write. If there is any interest, I can easily post the next few chapters as they are pre-written. Hope you enjoy!
I was thankful my first name was normal.
That's about the only thing I had to thank for my father for— that he didn't screw up my life by making my first name something inescapably awkward like his and his brother's, Ponyboy and Sodapop. Don't worry, the weird name was in there, hidden safely between the wonderfully bland "El" and the commonplace "Curtis". I made sure in first grade that the teacher only ever saw the middle initial "D" because if it had escaped into public knowledge even for a second that my father had intended to call me El Dorado Curtis, I'd have been humiliated by giggles that day and followed by it for the rest of my education. Kids learned to do a lot worse than giggle.
El Dorado. It didn't even sound feminine. The only time I even sort of liked it was in middle school when we read Poe's poem El Dorado. Now, that was kind of cool. I knew my father had been an avid reader and I wondered if he knew the poem, if that was why I was named that. I imagined my father liked Poe a lot, and I liked him too, so in a strange way we had something in common. In the poem, the knight keeps searching for El Dorado, but the journey just keeps dragging on, so I pictured my father out there looking for me. Maybe he was trying to find me and he just couldn't yet, I had thought then, like the knight in the poem. Maybe that's why he chose the name.
But that was over a year ago, back when I used to hope my dad would come walking down the block, smiling big, with some epic story of what kept him away, like Odysseus or something. I don't picture that anymore, and I don't imagine he named me El Dorado because he was out looking for me, unless the bastard already planned on leaving when he picked out my name.
But I didn't need him.
I had an uncle, Daryl Curtis, dad's oldest brother. He ran a roofing business and was sort of quiet and stern at once. I had an uncle named Two-Bit too who used play with me and watch Mickey Mouse cartoons, but he got in a wreck while driving drunk and went to prison for a while. Turns out he wasn't really my uncle, just friends of my dad and his brothers. Uncle Sodapop, who looked really friendly in his pictures, died in Vietnam when I was little. I didn't remember him at all. There was another not-uncle, Steve Randal. He was rather mean and grumpy, sometimes buying me treats and sometimes yelling at me for no reason. Darry said he didn't know how to treat kids because he was never treated right as youngster and he missed his best friend Soda, who I kind of looked like me with my blonde hair. I didn't care. I didn't mind that Steve wasn't my real uncle one bit.
Then, there was my mom. I didn't even resemble her. "If you hadn't come out of her, I wouldn't believe you were related." Her best friend Marcia teased me as usual that fateful summer between Jr. High and high school. My mom was very pretty with red hair. I was thin, freckly, and blonde. "You look like your father, or even your uncle Sodapop. We used to all think he was so cute!" Marcia giggled. I shrugged.
"Thanks for meeting me, Marcia." Mom had said, fanning herself with the diner menu.
"No problem." Marcia sipped her coke. "What do you want, sweetie?" She asked me. "A big slice of pie? It's on me."
"No, Marcia, really."
"Oh, Cherry, why don't you let me at least get hers? I never see her." Marcia called my mom Cherry even though he name was Sherrie. She said it was because of her hair, that everyone called her that in high school. No one called her that anymore. Her boss, the bank manager, just called her Ms. Valence, which wasn't her name either.
"Thank you, but no. She's my daughter and what I can afford is good enough for her." Marcia winked at me subtly and ordered herself some pie.
I sometimes wondered if my mom was some sort of secret agent like on TV because she was always working late and busy and knew people from all over town and each of them called her something else.
"I need to know if you and Randy can do what we talked about when El was born." My mom suddenly announced. Marcia stared at her. I was confused, but I knew what she'd say if I asked, 'never you mind'. The food came and I ate, watching them in silence.
"Cherry, what are you talking about?"
"Darry can't do it; he's too busy and he's got no woman around, but you and Randy, you're married. She's about to start high school. It wouldn't be long."
That did it. I couldn't hold in my curiosity any longer because they were clearly discussing me. "What wouldn't be long?"
"Hush and eat your lunch."
"Well, Cherry, I—I don't know. I'd half to talk to Randy."
"Ok." Mom nodded. "Well you do that and let me know what he says. I need to know soon."
"Cherry, what—?" Marcia began to ask; her voice full of concern alarmed me. I looked at mom. She was stoic and simply shook her head.
"Sweetheart, would you go and buy mama a paper please?" She handed me the change and pointed outside. I got up slowly. Outside, I watched them talk through the window with the corners of my eyes. Mom's face stayed normal, she even sort of smiled, but Marcia's expression didn't match. She looked pale.
I took my time coming back, not wanting to interrupt them and dragging my feet. I sensed something was wrong.
"Thank you." She shoved the paper in her purse without even glancing at the headline. I sat down and started poking at my burger again. "What's the matter, you don't like it?" Mom asked, getting angry.
"I don't feel good." I mumbled, unable to say what I was really feeling.
"Here," Marcia slid her pie to me. "I'm too full. Can't waste food." Her glance, uncharacteristically stern, matched my moms and cut off her protests. I looked to my mother for permission and she nodded, smiling defeated. I happily devoured my pie while the two sat in silence watching me. I tried to let whipped crème distract me from my feelings I didn't understand, the feeling that something bad was being hidden from me. The feeling that my life was about to change drastically.
I was right.
Six months later, my mom climbed from her old sting-ray with me in tow and walked up to a great brick mansion on the other side of town. I felt out of place and embarrassed. Mom looked determined, fuming, her scarf fluttering in the breeze and making the sun catch patches of her baldhead. An old woman answered the door.
"Sherry!" she exclaimed in surprise. Her wrinkled face grew cross. "What have you done to your hair?"
"I lost it from the cancer treatment." Mom answered hurriedly, no time to waste with all that. The woman's mouth closed with a snap, her expression unreadable. "Now, mama. This is your granddaughter. This is El." She jerked up my wrist the hand she was holding and the woman looked at me. I knew she was thinking I didn't look anything like my mama.
"Why are you here, Sherry? Do you need money for doctors? We can help." She seemed nice.
"No. I don't need anything. It's El here that does. I don't have long left and I've been to everyone I can think of…can you take her?"
I knew as well as she did this was not fair.
The old woman seemed confused, pained, as her voice answered slowly, "No. No, honey. We can't. Where's her father?"
Mom just stood there, her scarf flying angrily about her glowering face. "We are trying to get in touch with him. No word back yet. If he doesn't make it back in time can you take your grandchild?"
Grandmother explained, "We are too old to raise a child."
"She's in high school now!"
"Well, she's been raised in a different world. She wouldn't be happy here. She wouldn't do well. We're complete strangers to her."
"Strangers? You're her grandparents!" My mother was so angry she was whispering, her voice harsh. "A different world? Try five miles away her whole life and you've never even seen her since she was a baby!"
"Because you took her away!" Grandmother shot back, hurt. "We told you then that you couldn't come back if you went to live in sin with that useless father, who ran off and left both of you. We gave you some money, let you take that car, and your father got you that job at the bank, but if you weren't going to live properly and raise that child right," she pointed a thin finger at me. "We weren't going to stick around to watch it. Can't you see we were right?" She said sadly, her voice soft again. She reached for my mom, who snatched her arm away.
Grabbing my arm forcefully and wrenching me around, my mother fled down the stairs and back to the car, tears spilling down her thinning face.
"Sherry!" The voice called behind us. Mom ignored it, peeling out of the neighborhood.
"It's ok, mama. I can take of myself." I told her to stop her from crying. She pulled over, sobbing, and pulled me into a hug. "I mean it. I do my homework on my own. I walk to school. I keep my room clean. I cook. I can do all that."
"Can you tell yourself I love you every day?"
"Okay." She said, wiping her face. "I did for myself; I don't see why you can't do the same."
That's just what I did. After a month passed, I walked to school and did my homework and cooked and kept my room clean at Uncle Daryl's. After more time passed, those things became easier. The part that got harder was looking in the mirror every day at that face so different from my mom—at that blonde hair and freckles—and saying where no one could hear, "I love you."
Before I knew it, it was Thanksgiving, and I was working after school at the diner where my mom and Marcia had met up that day. I was about to end my shift as the evening crowd came in, mostly rough boys and families who had burned dinner.
I was trying to list what I was thankful for, as I was supposed to turn in a paper on it tomorrow. All I could think of was that I didn't have to live with my rich grandparents and no one knew my deadbeat dad was nuts and named me some made up name. And my job. It was a good place to work and the boss was fair, partial to me actually. Thankful I had straight As even though I couldn't play sports after school, or be in plays, or run for student government because I had to work.
I stayed in Darry's house mostly, so I didn't have bills or anything grown up to worry about. I ate at school and the diner so most of my money was saved, for college. The Socs I handed milkshakes to had no clue I had bank account with the same interest rate as theirs and probably as much in college savings. They didn't know I lived alone, free. They didn't know I had a secret name. Of that I was thankful. And I was thankful, truth be told, my dad had not showed back up when my mom died. Because I'd hate to have some stranger waltz into my life and start telling me what to do. I didn't need him anymore.
I wiped the counter and slipped out of my apron just as a thin man, middle aged, graying hair walked in. I didn't recognize him. I was not about to let last Stacey start her shift late again. She pouted as I pointed him out.
I hopped up onto a counter stool to wait for customers to slack off so I could order some dinner as usual. The boss didn't mind. In fact, Lois insisted.
I half noticed the man sat next to me because I was watching a group of seniors from school getting too loud in the corner.
"What can I get you?" Lois's lazy niece asked, bored.
"Ladies first." The man said, gesturing to me.
"Oh no, customers first." I told him. "House rules."
"Well, what are you having? What's good?"
I wasn't thrilled that this old guy was chatting with me. I'd had them offer to drive me home, pinch my leg, and all kinds of weird stuff hit before. He seemed like a gentleman though, new to town or just passing through. I thought I'd help him out.
"Well they are having Thanksgiving stuff tonight, but I wouldn't risk it personally. They make a mean bacon cheeseburger, but I like the Monte Cristo. It's a grilled cheese with tomato and bacon."
"Sounds good! I like the name. What do you get with it?"
I shrugged. "I get tomato soup."
"I'll have two of those please, and two soups. And a strawberry shake."
"Hungry?" I laughed. Stacey glared at me.
"No, one is for you. My treat."
"Oh no, you don't have to."
"I know. For the favor… and the holidays." He seemed to really want to, so I let him since Stacey had already snatched the money from his extended hand.
"Two Counts and a couple of 'mater soups. Pink shake." Stacey yelled, yawning as she pinned the order.
Her aunt reached from the kitchen and whacked her, jolting her awake. "Cover your mouth!" She yelled.
"You not spending the holiday with family?" I asked, trying to make small talk as we sat there in silence, the only people at the bar, neither with anything to read.
"Actually," he shifted in his seat, looking at his hands. "I'm on my way to see family."
"Oh. That's good." I said. I guessed that's what you said to that.
"What about you? Your parents let you work Thanksgiving night?"
I shrugged, not feeling like explaining since he already pitied me and I saw no reason he should know I would go home alone either. "They are working too."
"I see." He answered, but he sounded unconvinced. I looked at him in surprise as I was usually a fantastic liar. We were interrupted by our food being set unceremoniously before us.
"Let me know if you need anything…" Stacy was already walking away as she recited.
He put up his hands. "A knife?"
I rolled my eyes ducking under the counter and retrieved him one along with a straw.
"Thanks!" He smiled. "This is good."
I nodded. I didn't speak anymore after that because the moment the food touched my lips I suddenly realized I was starving. I ate ravenously. I think he was looking at me, but my self control was gone. He didn't say anything more either. Maybe he'd find it unattractive and leave me alone.
"But he insisted on buying hers too!" Stacey was emerging from the kitchen with her aunt Lois, whining.
"Now, El, what have I told you about flirting with the customers?" Lois joked carrying apple pie out from the back. She stopped when she saw him. I wondered if she was worried because he was so old, like he might try to grab me. She just sort of stared, then, not saying a word, put the pie on the counter. It went fast.
The boys from the table in the corner arrived too late and were angry, like brats.
"Hey! We want some pie!" They pounded the counter I had just cleaned with their gravy fingers.
The man next to me stiffened, frowning at them.
"Well you'll have to wait until the next one comes out. It'll be ten minutes and I'll have a coconut crème."
"We want apple."
"Well too damn bad." Lois told them, unimpressed.
The kids, rich jocks by the looks of it, shared an expression like a pack of stray dogs, then approached a poor family with too many kids piled into a booth. "Hey you're not going to eat that, are you?" he poked a scared looking kid with his finger. The kid flinched. "I'm talking to you."
"Just eat your dinner." His thin father instructed, looking nervous in his corner, his arm around the little girl.
If I had been a dog, I'd have been growling.
"You want this?" The man slid the shake my way. "I've lost my appetite."
I shook my head, lying. He did not slide it back toward himself. I watched the boys harass the family for a few minutes, then take the apple pie from the boy's plate. He whimpered. They laughed and mocked him. The boy looked pleadingly to his father, a string bean of a man compared to the jocks, who shook his head and told him, "Share with your sister."
Fathers. Even when they hung around they were useless. Filled with sympathy for the kid, I stood up. I didn't even know why or what I planned to do,
"You mean this?" another boy asked, stealing her piece as well. The little girl started to cry. The father shushed her, refusing to look at the crooks now guffawing with their crimes.
Stacey came in obliviously with the pie. I put a finger to my lips and took it from her. She blinked dumbly. In my other hand, I carried the shake I didn't want.
The man was watching me curiously until he saw I was headed toward the table of conflict. He whispered, reaching to pull the back of my shirt, "No, kid."
I gave him a look meant to indicate I could handle it. And a few seconds later everyone was looking at me. I stood before the family, looking puzzled, and the teens who looked amused. I had a pie in one hand, a pink shake in the other, and was filled with rage.
"Hey," one of the boys laughed. "Thanks for bringing us our pie, babe."
I hated that name. Defiantly, I set the pie at the far end of the table. A three-year-old boy instantly threw his hands over it to protect it.
"Hey! That was ours! You stole our pie."
"No you stole theirs. Now it's even. Pay Lois for the pie."
"No way!" one shouted, shoving forward. The room changed. The man at the bar stood and Lois appeared. "Like hell." Another one vowed.
"Yes way! And you can put a nickel in the jar for swearing in here too." Lois informed them.
"The hell I will, lady. This brat just gave my pie to this trash." He grabbed my arm and without thinking, I threw the milkshake all over his face. So that was why I brought it. Nice thinking, subconscious me.
Or maybe not. He squeezed my bicep hard. I tried not to wince.
"Keep harassing my employee and see how fast I call the cops on you!" Lois shouted, grabbing the phone.
He angrily wiped the frigid milk and ice cream from his eyes, his clothes stained pink, his friends laughing. He lifted me clear off the ground and my eyes filled with tears I refused to let fall. The kids below me gasped. Lois was on the phone.
"Hey!" The man yelled, suddenly standing close, right over my captor's shoulder. His hand, rather large for such a slim man, squeezed just above the collarbone, getting the jock's attention. "Let her go."
"What's it to you?"
"I said let her go. Stop bullying children and young girls. You're hurting her."
He twisted my arm a little and I gasped, my knees giving.
"So?" He asked, his voice dark and dangerous.
I was not about to be beaten like this, not in public in front my boss, Stacey, and a total stranger. My face was somewhere around his waist. I did the only thing I could. I bit. I bit down at whatever was near my face as hard as I could stand and didn't let go. I wanted to feel my teeth come together. I want to taste blood.
He yelped like a little hound dog. Then, he jumped around doing a little dance until my jaw cramped up and I let him go. I tried to dart away but his friends grabbed me from behind.
"Hey!" There was a hard, crunching sound as the stranger's fist collided with the side of the speaker's face. Both were covered with blood instantly, like a magic trick. "Don't you dare call my daughter a bitch."
I was in shock from my own actions, from the pain in my shoulder, from the sight of the blood, and the commotion that followed. Sirens approached. I looked up at the stranger from where I found myself sitting on the floor and vaguely remembered he'd said the strangest thing a moment ago. Something which could not possibly be, but what was it?
"Are you okay?" he was asking me now, kneeling before me. "She's in shock." He told Lois.
"You better get out of here. The boys are long gone. They'll take our statements." She nodded to the family, not giving them a choice.
"No, we'll stay. Won't it look bad if we run?"
She narrowed her eyes at him a little. "It will look worse if you stay. They know you, Ponyboy Curtis."
He nodded, looking a little abashed, and helped me up as gingerly as he could. "Through the back." I panted.
"No, they'll be expecting that. We'll walk down the street normal." He murmured close to my ear as he helped me up.
We did as he said, treading slowly down the sidewalk as sirens screaming closer and closer. "Don't look back."
"In here!" Lois was waving them down, trying to divert their attention. We rounded the corner, slipped into an alley behind the laundromat, sprinted, made another turn and then another and ended up taking the long way back to Darry's neighborhood along the train tracks.
I was thankful I wasn't arrested on thanksgiving.
A/N: Thanks for reading. Please take a second and leave a review!