Chapter Four, Part Two

Darry- 9

Sodapop- 5

Ponyboy- 2

Darry, Sodapop, Ponyboy, and their mother began walking to school more and more often over the next two weeks. It became such a regular habit, however, that Pony seemed to have subconsciously remembered how to get there on his own. He would often lead his mother and brothers there, but only after he entreated Darry and Soda to play a few rounds of hide and seek at the Christmas tree area. Which, of course, neither of them turned down.

Christmas was just around the corner, and the Curtis' had recently got this year's tree- which was the exact one little Ponyboy had claimed weeks before. It was a fat, tall tree that's boughs reached the ceiling and brushed up against the wall at the same time. No one really minded, though, and Soda and Pony spent many hours coloring at its base and writing letters to Santa.

The days seemed to fly by faster than anyone really expected, and soon it was already Christmas Eve. Eggnog was poured, carols were sung, and cookies had been baked.

"The leftover trees at the lot are going to the chopper after Christmas," Mr. Curtis said as he sat down his glass of eggnog and scotch whiskey. "Don wanted to know if I could help out, and even said the boys could come and take a look." Mrs. Curtis nodded tucked a strand of hair away from her face.

"That'd be nice, Darrel. The boys can see how it all works." Sodapop and Ponyboy looked up in alarm from coloring on the floor. Even Darry's natural sardonic expression faltered a little.

"Chopper?" Pony questioned softly, sounding out each syllable as he spoke.

"Of course, son!" Mr. Curtis replied. "What else are we to do with all those extra Christmas trees after Christmas? It's natural and safe and good for the environment."

"Is that where we're gonna take our tree?" Soda asked worriedly. Somehow the idea of grounding up their Christmas tree didn't settle well in his head.

"Yes, it is," his mother answered. "People can't keep their Christmas trees all year round, you know." Pony didn't usually understand everything he was told, but right then all he could picture was his tree being chomped and sucked on by a huge red-eyed monster.

"I didn't know that was what we always did with them," Darry admitted. Even to him the idea of that brightly lit and decorated tree standing so tall and beautiful before him was to be ground up into sawdust just later the next week sounded a little… sad.

Mrs. Curtis took notice of her boys' varying expressions -shock, regret, worry- and said, "It's not like it'll be lost forever. The ornaments will be packed away for next year in the attic, and when Christmas rolls back around we'll get an even better tree." This seemed to be enough for Darry. He even asked to help his father grind up some of the trees. Still, Pony and Soda were not satisfied.

"Uncle David keeps his tree all year round," Soda said.

"Uncle David has a big backyard, and a big garden to keep that tree in," Mrs. Curtis said, adjusting her middle-son's collar. "Why don't you visit his tree?" she suggested after a pause. Soda contemplated the offer, then nodded.

"Okay," he said, and resumed coloring. Pony was still not contented. He eventually re-joined his brother on the floor, but looked deeply uncomfortable. After a few minutes, he spoke up.

"Potty, mommy," he said.

"Okay, baby. You know how to go potty," his mother answered. "I'll be in to help you in a minute." Ponyboy nodded quickly, hopped up, and disappeared into the next room. A couple minutes had past until Mrs. Curtis went after her son to check on him, only to come back looking deeply stricken.

"Darrel, he's gone," she whispered in panic.

Mr. Curtis stood up and stretched. "I'm sure he's hiding somewhere. You know how much the boy loves hide-and-seek."

His wife shook her head fervently. "I don't think so, Darrel. I just searched the bedrooms. And- and why would he hide without telling his brothers? Wouldn't he know they would't know where to find him if he didn't tell them where he was?"

Mr. Curtis winked and said, "This'll get him to come out." He went on to yell in a very strict voice that if Ponyboy didn't come out, he'd get no more cookies, and coal for Christmas the next day. Nothing. No response. After a few minutes, he called to his son again, only this time telling him to come out now, and he meant it. The family waited in silence for a minute or so, but still, Pony did not show up. Now Mr. Curtis himself was growing worried.

"I'm sure he's around here somewhere," he said slowly. "But just in case, get me a flashlight. I'm going to search outside." His wife hurried out behind him, handing him a flashlight, followed by Darry and Sodapop. Twenty minutes later, Ponyboy was still not found. Mr. Curtis pressed his lips into a hard line, and instructed his wife and children to keep looking and calling his name, while he called the police. Mrs. Curtis cupped her hand over her mouth and blinked back tears.

"What if we can't find 'im?" Soda questioned softly. Darry shook his head, but said nothing. "He loved hide-and-seek," Soda said mournfully. "I wish we played with him more at the lot."

"Don't talk like that!" Darry snapped. Then, his face lit up like a lightbulb. "Wait- the lot! Soda- don't you get it? Pony's probably run away to the lot to see the trees again before they get chopped!"

"Oh, Darry, ya think so?" Soda exclaimed. "Wait, but if that's really what he was thinkin', why didn't he just go tomorrow, or the next day?"

"He's three. I really don't think he'd have thought about that. But, who cares? Let's tell Mom!" Darry exclaimed. Soda nodded eagerly and ran to his mother, Darry following closely behind, excitedly explaining all he had just heard in his loudest voice as he ran. Mrs. Curtis, now somewhat relieved, nodded.

"Thank God. We need to hurry, though, I'm sure it's closing soon," she said, grabbing both of her sons' hands tightly. They made it to the lot in record time (with the car, of course) just as a man closed the chain-link fence gates.

"Wait- please!" Mrs. Curtis yelled. The man turned around, scowling.

"Can't you see we're closing?" he grumbled. "What do you want? I want to go home."

"We're sorry, sir, really. But we think my little brother might've wandered over here to say goodbye to the trees. Can we see if he's there?" Darry asked urgently. The man scrunched up his face in confusion.

"Huh- what? Say goodbye to the…? Okay, look here. Tree shopping is over. We're closed. You'd do best to go home. If you want a tree, go down to the corner of Apache street, okay?"

"What I want," Mrs. Curtis said shakily, "is my son. Please let us in."

"Come on, mister, you don't wanna little kid to freeze to death because of you, huh?" Soda interjected angrily.

"What I don't want is to be here right now. Come on, the boss said close at 9:30. No exceptions. I need this job, alright?" Everyone started arguing, which soon turned into yelling, which eventually turned into screaming. No one noticed a little figure emerge from a rip in the chain-link fence.

"Oh!" Mrs. Curtis exclaimed, causing a break in the scene. Everyone looked down, to see Ponyboy tugging on his mother's coat.

"I say 'bye-bye'," he whispered.

"Oh, baby!" his mother sobbed, scooping up her youngest son and holding him up to her chest. "My sweet, sweet baby," she murmured as she rocked him back and forth. Darry turned around to say something smart to the man, but he was gone. In the distance, he heard hs tires squealing across the road.

A/N I know they should have told Mr. Curtis where they were going, but I like to think he was busy and they didn't have enough time. Please review!