in a different life, when you went to school like a halfway normal kid who didn't hustle for drugs or stab people in the stomach, you failed math. you could never wrap your mind around orderly progressions of numbers, pristine logical systems, when your own world was a fucked-up kaleidoscope where two plus two might equal five or six or ten.
it's too bad, really, that you never learned logic. maybe if you did, then you'd know that when a boy runs into a burning church to save some snot-nosed kids he feels guilty about and breaks his back in the process, death is an almost certain outcome.
johnny babbles a nursery rhyme at pony— "stay gold", whatever the fuck that's supposed to mean— and then he dies in that hospital bed, not so much as a word to you. it's not like you've never stumbled upon a body before; you found your mother's corpse once upon a time, heroin swooping through her veins, and she looked exactly the same, hollow eyes and loose jaw. you can tell that the lights have gone out, but refuse to believe it. how can johnny be dead and you're sitting here, still conscious of your own thundering heartbeat?
ponyboy is staring dazedly into thin air, beyond speech. you want to grab him by the shoulders and shake him until his teeth rattle, just to wipe that stricken, pathetic expression off his face, but instead you reach over and smooth johnny's mussed bangs— they're still awkward and choppy from his fugitive days, cloaking a pale, waxy forehead. "never could keep that hair back," you say, swallowing hard, "that's what you get for tryin' to help people, you little punk, that's what you get…"
you hit the wall and barely register the dull pain that courses through your knuckles— you're sweating like you're on fire, burning from the inside out. "dammit, johnny… oh, dammit, johnny, don't die, please don't die," you beg, but god is and always has been a merciless bastard, unwilling to return those he's already claimed, so you turn around and bolt out the door. the sickly smell of antiseptic and cheap flowers mingles with that of death in your nostrils— you stop to vomit, heaving on your knees, and when a stray nurse places a comforting hand on your neck and offers you some ginger ale, you pull out two-bit's switch and watch the blood leave her lips.
there's hot liquid on your cheeks. you're bleeding, you think, but your fingers return clear and you realize that you're crying. you didn't cry when you trembled on a jail floor, ten years old and not nearly as brave as you'd hoped, or when you shattered ribs jumping off of a freight train, or when your father threw a beer bottle at your head and told you to go be a worthless piece of shit somewhere else, and now you've turned on the waterworks just because johnny's—
no. johnny's not fucking dead. you swipe at your face so hard that you break the skin, then keep running through the dark, empty streets— feel the ache in your bones, the familiar tightness in your throat. if you'd just grabbed that idiot's collar instead of letting him—
it's not your fucking fault. if anyone's to blame, it's darry-child-battering-curtis, who couldn't keep his hands fixed to his sides and made everyone else pay the price, or ponyboy, who had to be a dramatic little bitch and run off into the night, or even johnny himself, the damn punk, who tried to play the hero and went up in flames—
oh, who the hell are you kidding? you sent them on their way to windrixville with a fifty and a pistol, you had one job— protect johnny— and failed—
because now johnny is d-e-a-d, and you have nothing left.
(what's love like?)
you want to fuck somebody's shit up. it isn't an honorable desire, but it's an honest one, and it's the reason why you have a gun up to a convenience store cashier's head.
he's pissed himself and looks dangerously close to hysteria— his fear energizes you, sends electric jolts down your spine. "why don't you do me a little favor," you snarl, getting close to his tight, pale face, "and point out where you keep the money in this sorry-ass joint."
"over th-there, in the storage room safe. the combination's six-nine-four. take all of it, just please don't—"
hurt me? hurt me? if you made him feel a fraction of your pain—
no. focus, winston. you need to be calm and controlled, like you always are— your hands are trembling, and the thought of this pussy cashier noticing makes you want to scream. you slowly remove the gun and sprint to the back, pulling out wads of bills and shoving as many into your pockets as you can. the more the better— maybe you should just hop a freight train and get out of this shithole southern hick city tonight. to denver, los angeles, chicago, some place where johnny's specter can't lurk behind your eyeballs anymore.
you're a couple hundred dollars richer, moving down the street once more, covering as much distance as you can. you're also just starting to realize that the cops probably won't take your saving-kids-from-a-burning-church thing into consideration when they shackle your wrists.
jail never used to bother you. sure, the food was terrible and the company worse, but it's an occupational hazard in your neighborhood, a badge of honor. this time, though… you might be going away for a while. six months, a year enclosed inside barbed wire— blind panic is starting to overtake you again, filling the pit of your stomach with cold iron.
shit. how far have you even gotten, three blocks? with your luck, that clerk contacted the police the second you ran out the door, ill-gotten gains in hand, and you can't remember for the life of you where you stashed buck's car. it's long past time to call someone, you think, wrenching open the door of a phone booth and throwing a few coins into the machine, long past time to call someone who can drag you out of this mess. the only question is who.
it takes you half a second to start dialing darry's number.
"i've really done it," you babble once he picks up, not waiting for so much as a hello, "i just held up some convenience store and the fuzz—"
"dallas!" he shouts back, voice crackling with static. "johnny, is he—"
"yes," you cut off, and there's a strangled gasp from the other end. "fuck, you have to help me."
"of— of course. just tell us where you are. we'll hide you, i promise."
you tell him and slam down the receiver, breathing hard. a dirty hypocrite, that's what you are, or the best example of your own philosophy. don't get attached, you'd told johnny last year trying to light a cigarette in the rain, scowling as it smoldered. that was the year mrs. curtis's coffin was nailed shut. don't get attached, kid, don't be so damn emotional because of every kicked puppy, the way you are. in this neighborhood, you toughen up or it all eats you alive.
he looked at you then, all wet clinging hair and long scar and naiveté. you wondered if this was what it was like to have a little brother and immediately tried to dismiss the thought. but come on, dally, he protested, even you've got to care about something.
you laughed, once. you laughed, a lifetime ago, feeling the invincibility, tasting victory copper-sharp on your tongue.
you aren't laughing now.
boy grows up in the slums of new york. boy's mother dies; boy's drunk father couldn't give less of a damn. boy lives on the street, goes to jail, becomes as hard as a diamond. boy moves to tulsa and meets another boy with gentle doe-eyes and soft lines around his mouth. boy starts to love him.
other boy dies.
boy falls apart.
well, now it's the showdown that was always meant to be— dallas winston, lone(ly) teenage hurricane, scourge of tulsa, versus the law. you're done running, and you don't feel much. it's as simple as a mathematical equation in your mind. johnny is dead. you want to die. if you want it, you get it, come hell or high water.
you raise your gun with shaking arms. consider shoving the barrel into your mouth and pulling the trigger, give the fuzz a nice show of blood and bone and brain— then you realize it isn't even loaded. ah, well. doesn't make a difference.
(remember my last. you might think you've won—)
"even you've got to care about something, dally."
the first bullet takes your breath away; the second one just makes you smile. you spin under the streetlights like a doll with its strings cut, and you are (were) dead long before you hit the ground.
(but i threw the game.)