The gang reads

Chapter 13

Chapter 12

A/N: I OWN NOTHING!

"THE HEARING WASN'T anything like I thought it would be," Two-Bit read.

"You watched two hours of Perry Mason shows before the hearing," Soda reminded his brother.

Besides Darry and Soda and me, nobody was there except Randy and his parents and Cherry Valance and her parents and a couple of the other guys that had jumped Johnny and me that night.

"Of course they got off," Tim growled.

I don't know what I expected the whole thing to be like- I guess I've been watching too many Perry Mason shows. Oh, yeah, the doctor was there and he had a long talk with the judge before the hearing. I didn't know what he had to do with it then, but I do now.

"Huh?" Two-Bit asked.

First Randy was questioned. He looked a little nervous, and I wished they'd let him have a cigarette.

"Him or you?" Steve inquired.

I wished they'd let me have a cigarette; I was more than a little shaky myself. Darry had told me to keep my mouth shut no matter what Randy and everybody said, that I'd get my turn. All the Socs told the same story and stuck mainly to the truth, except they said Johnny had killed Bob; but I figured I could straighten that point out when I got my turn.

"Idiot," Tim muttered under his breath. Didn't Pony know that if he said that he'd been the one to kill Bob, that it was a sure fire way to be removed from Darry and Soda? Not that he cared or anything.

Cherry told them what had happened before and after Johnny and I had been jumped- I think I saw a couple of tears slide down her cheeks, but I'm not sure.

"They did," Darry nodded.

Her voice was sure steady even if she was crying. The judge questioned everyone carefully, but nothing real emotional or exciting happened like it does on TV. He asked Darry and Soda a little bit about Dally, I think to check our background and find out what kind of guys we hung out with. Was he a real good buddy of ours? Darry said, "Yes, sir;' looking straight at the judge, not flinching; but Soda looked at me like he was sentencing me to the electric chair before he gave the same answer.

"Sorry Pon," Soda gave a small smile.

I was real proud of both of them. Dally had been one of our gang and we wouldn't desert him.

"Of course we wouldn't," Darry said firmly.

I thought the judge would never get around to questioning me. Man, I was scared almost stiff by the time he did. And you know what? They didn't ask me a thing about Bob's getting killed.

"Really?" Two-Bit raised an eyebrow.

All the judge did was ask me if I liked living with Darry, if I liked school, what kind of grades I made, and stuff like that. I couldn't figure it out then, but later I found out what the doctor had been talking to the judge about.

"He was talking about the fact that you seemed to have gotten the facts jumbled," Darry said softly. "He told me before we went in that day."

I guess I looked as scared as I really was, because the judge grinned at me and told me to quit chewing my fingernails. That's a habit I have.

"Yep," everyone nodded.

Then he said I was acquitted and the whole case was closed. Just like that. Didn't even give me a chance to talk much. But that didn't bother me a lot. I didn't feel like talking anyway.

"You never feel like talking," Steve noted.

I wish I could say that everything went back to normal, but it didn't. Especially me. I started running into things, like the door, and kept tripping over the coffee table and losing things.

"That's not much of a change," Two-Bit tried to insert some humor

I always have been kind of absent-minded, but man, then, I was lucky if I got home from school with the right notebook and with both shoes on.

Darry flinched at the reminder of that. He wished there had been something he could have done for his little brother.

I walked all the way home once in my stocking feet and didn't even notice it until Steve made some bright remark about it.

"Thanks Steve," Pony muttered.

I guess I'd left my shoes in the locker room at school, but I never did find them. And another thing, I quit eating. I used to eat like a horse, but all of a sudden I wasn't hungry. Everything tasted like baloney.

"Ugh," Steve wrinkled his nose. "Don't blame you kid."

Soda frowned though. He'd been very worried for his brother and knew that Steve had been just as worried. They couldn't afford to lose another family member after losing Johnny and Dally.

I was lousing up my schoolwork, too. I didn't do too badly in math, because Darry checked over my homework in that and usually caught all my mistakes and made me do it again, but in English I really washed out. I used to make A's in English, mostly because my teacher made us do compositions all the time. I mean, I know I don't talk good English (Have you ever seen a hood that did?), but I can write it good when I try. At least, I could before. Now I was lucky to get a D on a composition.

"How come I never knew this?" Darry asked. Pony's report card home had been reasonable.

It bothered my English teacher, the way I was goofing up, I mean. He's a real good guy, who makes us think, and you can tell he's interested in you as a person, too. One day he told me to stay in after the rest of the class left.

"That's a first," Two-Bit said.

"Ponyboy, I'd like to talk to you about your grades."

Man, I wished I could beat it out of there. I knew I was flunking out in that class, but golly, I couldn't help it.

"Yes you could," Darry muttered.

"There's not much to talk about, judging from your scores. Pony, I'll give it to you straight. You're failing this class right now, but taking into consideration the circumstances, if you come up with a good semester theme, I'll pass you with a C grade."

"That's a good guy," Soda said. None of his teachers let him do that.

"Taking into consideration the circumstances" -brother, was that ever a way to tell me he knew I was goofing up because I'd been in a lot of trouble.

"Those Socs were in the same trouble but everyone treated them the same," Steve growled.

At least that was a roundabout way of putting it. The first week of school after the hearing had been awful. People I knew wouldn't talk to me, and people I didn't know would come right up and ask about the whole mess. Sometimes even teachers. And my history teacher- she acted as if she was scared of me, even though I'd never caused any trouble in her class. You can bet that made me feel real tuff.

"Could have told me," Darry told Pony. He would have talked to his teachers for him.

"Yessir," I said, "I'll try. What's the theme supposed to be on?"

"Anything you think is important enough to write about. And it isn't a reference theme; I want your own ideas and your own experiences."

My first trip to the zoo. Oh, boy, oh, boy. "Yessir," I said, and got out of there as fast as I could.

"Good," Steve nodded.

At lunch hour I met Two-Bit and Steve out in the back parking lot and we drove over to a little neighborhood grocery store to buy cigarettes and Cokes and candy bars. The store was the grease hang-out and that was about all we ever had for lunch.

"Poor lunch," Darry noted but he was thankful that his little brother was at least eating something.

The Socs were causing a lot of trouble in the school cafeteria- throwing silverware and stuff- and everybody tried to blame it on us greasers. We all got a big laugh out of that. Greasers rarely even eat in the cafeteria.

"Nice!" Tim grinned.

I was sitting on the fender of Steve's car, smoking and drinking a Pepsi while he and Two-Bit were inside talking to some girls, when a car drove up and three Socs got out.

"No!" Soda gasped.

I just sat there and looked at them and took another swal low of the Pepsi. I wasn't scared. It was the oddest feeling in the world. I didn't feel anything- scared, mad, or any thing. Just zero.

Like Dally, Tim thought. While he wouldn't have minded another Dally, he didn't think that the kid would have made a good one.

"You're the guy that killed Bob Sheldon," one of them said. "And he was a friend of ours. We don't like nobody killing our friends, especially greasers."

Big deal. I busted the end off my bottle and held on to the neck and tossed away my cigarette "You get back into your car or you'll get split."

"Wow," Tim raised his eyebrows in surprise.

They looked kind of surprised, and one of them backed up.

"I mean it" I hopped off the car. "I've had about all I can take from you guys." I started toward them, holding the bottle the way Tim Shepard holds a switch-

Tim smirked.

out and away from myself, in a loose but firm hold. I guess they knew I meant business, because they got into their car and drove off.

"You really would have used that bottle, wouldn't you?" Two-Bit had been watching from the store doorway.

"You watched but you didn't do anything?" Soda asked.

"Idiots," Darry muttered.

"Steve and me were backing you, but I guess we didn't need to. You'd have really cut them up, huh?"

"I guess so," I said with a sigh. I didn't see what Two-Bit was sweating about- anyone else could have done the same thing and Two-Bit wouldn't have thought about it twice.

They're not you, Soda and Darry thought.

"Ponyboy, listen, don't get tough. You're not like the rest of us and don't try to be..."

What was the matter with Two-Bit? I knew as well as he did that if you got tough you didn't get hurt. Get smart and nothing can touch you...

Exactly, Tim thought.

"What in the world are you doing?" Two-Bit's voice broke into my thoughts.

I looked up at him. "Picking up the glass."

Darry let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. He didn't want to see his little brother turn into Dallas.

He stared at me for a second, then grinned. "You little sonofagun," he said in a relieved voice. I didn't know what he was talking about, so I just went on picking up the glass from the bottle end and put it in a trash can. I didn't want anyone to get a flat tire.

"Those are expensive," Two-Bit nodded.

"You'd know," Steve shot back.

I tried to write that theme when I got home. I really did, mostly because Darry told me to or else.

"Nice," Steve snorted.

I thought about writing about Dad, but I couldn't. It's going to be a long time before I can even think about my parents. A long time. I tried writing about Soda's horse, Mickey Mouse, but I couldn't get it right; it always came out sounding corny. So I started writing names across the paper. Darrel Shaynne Curtis, Jr. Soda Patrick Curtis. Ponyboy Michael Curtis. Then I drew horses all over it. That was going to get a good grade like all git-out.

"It probably would," Two-Bit teased.

"Hey, did the mail come in yet?" Soda slammed the door and yelled for the mail, just the way he does every day when he comes home from work. I was in the bedroom, but I knew he would throw his jacket toward the sofa and miss it, take off his shoes, and go into the kitchen for a glass of chocolate milk, because that's what he does every day of his life. He always runs around in his stocking feet- he doesn't like shoes.

"Things of evil!"

"We know, little buddy," Darry nodded.

Then he did a funny thing. He came in and flopped down on the bed and started smoking a cigarette.

"In the house?" Darry raised an eyebrow.

He hardly ever smokes, except when something is really bugging him or when he wants to look tough. And he doesn't have to impress us; we know he's tough.

"Thanks little brother," Soda smiled.

So I figured something was bothering him. "How was work?"

"Okay."

"Something wrong?"

He shook his head. I shrugged and went back to drawing horses.

Soda cooked dinner that night, and everything came out right.

"What?" Steve gasped.

That was unusual, because he's always trying something different. One time we had green pancakes. Green. I can tell you one thing: if you've got a brother like Sodapop, you're never bored.

"That's for sure," Darry nodded.

All through supper Soda was quiet, and he didn't eat much. That was really unusual. Most of the time you can't shut him up or fill him up. Darry didn't seem to notice, so I didn't say anything.

"Sorry Pepsi," Darry gave a small smile.

Then after supper me and Darry got into a fuss, about the fourth one we'd had that week. This one started because I hadn't done anything on that theme, and I wanted to go for a ride. It used to be that I'd just stand there and let Darry yell at me, but lately I'd been yelling right back.

"Most annoying month of my life," Soda muttered.

"What's the sweat about my schoolwork?" I finally shouted. "I'll have to get a job as soon as I get out of school anyway. Look at Soda. He's doing okay, and he dropped out. You can just lay off!"

"Yeah but I'm an idiot."

"NO YOU'RE NOT!" both Darry and Pony yelled at Soda. They were near the end of their ropes on that issue.

"You're not going to drop out. Listen, with your brains and grades you could get a scholarship, and we could put you through college. But schoolwork's not the point. You're living in a vacuum, Pony, and you're going to have to cut it out. Johnny and Dallas were our buddies, too,

There was a deep intake of breath from everyone in the room, even Tim.

but you don't just stop living because you lose someone. I thought you knew that by now. You don't quit!

"Good advice," Tim muttered.

And any time you don't like the way I'm running things you can get out."

I went tight and cold. We never talked about Dallas or Johnny.

"You'd like that, wouldn't you? You'd like me just to get out. Well, it's not that easy, is it, Soda?" But when I looked at Soda I stopped. His face was white, and when he looked at me his eyes were wide with a pained expression. I suddenly remembered Curly Shepard's face when he slipped off a telephone pole and broke his arm.

Tim inwardly winced. That had really scared him when it happened. Curly had only been eight when that happened. Tim thought Curly had died.

"Don't... Oh, you guys, why can't you..." He jumped up suddenly and bolted out the door.

"What the hell?"

Darry and I were struck dumb. Darry picked up the envelope that Soda had dropped.

"It's the letter he wrote Sandy," Darry said without expression. "Returned unopened."

"Oh," Steve said softly.

So that was what had been bugging Soda all afternoon. And I hadn't even bothered to find out. And while I was thinking about it, I realized that I never had paid much attention to Soda's problems. Darry and I just took it for granted that he didn't have any.

"That's because I rarely do," Soda said with a small smile.

"When Sandy went to Florida... it wasn't Soda, Ponyboy. He told me he loved her, but I guess she didn't love him like he thought she did, because it wasn't him."

"You didn't have to draw him a picture," Soda told Darry.

"You don't have to draw me a picture," I said.

"He wanted to marry her anyway, but she just left." Darry was looking at me with a puzzled expression. "Why didn't he tell you? I didn't think he'd tell Steve or Two-Bit, but I thought he told you everything."

"Didn't want to dump more on him," Soda said softly. Pony heard and sighed.

WHAM!

A pillow found its way to the back of the second Curtis's head.

"Maybe he tried," I said. How many times had Soda started to tell me something, only to find I was daydream ing or stuck in a book? He would always listen to me, no matter what he was doing.

"Which is saying something," Darry said. "Seeing as you usually talk to him when he's at work."

"He cried

"DAR!"

every night that week you were gone," Darry said slowly. "Both you and Sandy in the same week."

"Sounds like a shitty week," Tim said lightly.

He put the envelope down. "Come on, let's go after him."

"Thanks for remembering," Soda griped.

We chased him clear to the park. We were gaining on him, but he had a block's head start.

"Circle around and cut him off," Darry ordered. Even out of condition I was the best runner.

"No duh," all the Greasers other than Pony muttered.

"I'll stay right behind him."

I headed through the trees and cut him off halfway across the park. He veered off to the right, but I caught him in a flying tackle before he'd gone more than a couple of steps.

"Nice," Steve smirked and leaned over to high-five Pony.

It knocked the wind out of both of us. We lay there gasping for a minute or two, and then Soda sat up and brushed the grass off his shirt.

"You should have gone out for football instead of track."

No, because Darry did football, Pony thought. He liked track mainly because Darry hadn't done it. There wasn't much one could do to make a name for himself when one was the youngest sibling.

"Where did you think you were going?" I lay flat on my back and looked at him. Darry came up and dropped down beside us.

"Took you a while Dar," Pony chuckled.

Soda shrugged. "I don't know. It's just... I can't stand to hear y'all fight. Sometimes... I just have to get out or... it's like I'm the middleman in a tug o' war and I'm being split in half. You dig?"

"Sorry Pepsi," Darry said with a frown. Wow, what a really poor guardian he was. One brother thought he hated him and the other was put in the middle of his fights.

Soda and Pony exchanged a glance with each other and grabbed a pillow.

WHAM!

"What was that for?" Darry asked, rubbing his head as two pillows bounced off of it.

"You were beginning to blame and doubt yourself," Pony said simply.

Darry gave me a startled look. Neither of us had realized what it was doing to Soda to hear us fight. I was sick and cold with shame. What he said was the truth. Darry and I did play tug of war with him, with never a thought to how much it was hurting him.

"Well," Steve said, "you may not have but I've gotten an earful a time or two."

Soda was fiddling with some dead grass. "I mean, I can't take sides.

"We're not asking you to," Darry said softly.

It'd be a lot easier if I could, but I see both sides. Darry yells too much and tries too hard and takes everything too serious,

"Someone has to be," Pony and Soda said before Darry got the chance.

and Ponyboy, you don't think enough, you don't realize all Darry's giving up just to give you a chance he missed out on.

"Well the kid was only fourteen," Two-Bit shrugged. "Darry was twenty. That's a six year difference."

"Who are you and what have you done to Two-Bit?" Steve asked. "If you knew that, then why have you been failing High School all these years?"

"Keeps me here," Two-Bit said simply but everyone knew what he meant. Even though he was over eighteen, he'd been lucky in avoiding the draft. They were all beginning to think that it was the fact that he was still in High School.

He could have stuck you in a home somewhere and worked his way through college.

"But then I'd have to hate you," Darry said firmly.

Ponyboy, I'm telling you the truth. I dropped out because I'm dumb.

"Keep those pillows on the ground!" Soda said quickly as he saw the look Darry and Pony shared.

I really did try in school, but you saw my grades. Look, I'm happy working in a gas station with cars. You'd never be happy doing something like that.

"I dunno. He hangs around the DX enough," Steve chuckled.

And Darry, you ought to try to understand him more, and quit bugging him about every little mistake he makes. He feels things differently than you do."

Darry winced. It stung that he couldn't understand his own brother.

He gave us a pleading look. "Golly, you two, it's bad enough having to listen to it, but when you start trying to get me to take sides..." Tears welled up in his eyes.

"Thanks Pon," Soda said dryly.

"We're all we've got left. We ought to be able to stick together against everything. If we don't have each other, we don't have anything. If you don't have anything, you end up like Dallas... and I don't mean dead, either.

"Though he did end up dead," Steve muttered.

I mean like he was before. And that's worse than dead. Please"- he wiped his eyes on his arm- "don't fight anymore."

Darry and Pony smiled at each other. They'd been good about that.

Darry looked real worried. I suddenly realized that Darry was only twenty, that he wasn't so much older that he couldn't feel scared or hurt and as lost as the rest of us.

"Ah, the perks of being a parent," Darry smirked.

"No, the perks of being an older brother," Soda corrected. "Your little brother thinks you can do no wrong."

"Aw, shove off!" Pony growled, his ears turning pink.

I saw that I had expected Darry to do all the understanding without even trying to understand him. And he had given up a lot for Soda and me.

"Sure, little buddy," Darry said softly. "We're not going to fight anymore."

"They've been good about that," Soda grinned. "I think they've only fought once and that was simply because someone stayed out an hour past curfew."

"My curfew's at eight!" Pony protested. "I'm sixteen, Dar. Don't you think it's time that's extended?"

"I'll think about it," Darry said. Truth be told, he kept it at eight because he didn't want to see his youngest brother grow up.

"Hey, Ponyboy"- Soda gave me a tearful grin- "don't you start crying, too. One bawl-baby in the family's enough."

"I wasn't crying!" Pony grumbled.

"I'm not crying," I said. Maybe I was. I don't remember. Soda gave me a playful punch on the shoulder.

"No more fights. Okay, Ponyboy?" Darry said.

"Okay," I said. And I meant it. Darry and I would probably still have misunderstandings- we were too different not to-

"That's saying something," Tim muttered.

but no more fights. We couldn't do anything to hurt Soda. Sodapop would always be the middleman, but that didn't mean he had to keep getting pulled apart. Instead of Darry and me pulling me apart, he'd be pulling us together.

"That, I can handle," Soda grinned.

"Well," Soda said, "I'm cold. How about going home?"

"Race you," I challenged, leaping up.

"Heh, no thanks," Darry and Soda said and chuckled as Pony pouted.

It was a real nice night for a race. The air was clear and cold and so clean it almost sparkled. The moon wasn't out but the stars lit up everything. It was quiet except for the sound of our feet on the cement and the dry, scraping sound of leaves blowing across the street. It was a real nice night. I guess I was still out of shape, because we all three tied. No. I guess we all just wanted to stay together.

"We thought you were going easy on us," Darry said with a chuckle.

I still didn't want to do my homework that night, though. I hunted around for a book to read, but I'd read everything in the house about fifty million times, even Darry's copy of The Carpetbaggers, though he'd told me I wasn't old enough to read it. I thought so too after I finished it.

"You do use your head," Darry muttered.

Finally I picked up Gone with the Wind and looked at it for a long time. I knew Johnny was dead. I had known it all the time, even while I was sick and pretending he wasn't. It was Johnny, not me, who had killed Bob -I knew that too.

"Finally," they all sighed in relief. That meant that Pony was soon to recover from this experience.

I had just thought that maybe if I played like Johnny wasn't dead it wouldn't hurt so much. The way Two-Bit, after the police had taken Dally's body away, had griped because he had lost his switchblade when they searched Dallas,

"Is that all that's bothering you, that switchblade?" a red-eyed Steve had snapped at him.

"No," Two-Bit had said with a quivering sigh, "but that's what I'm wishing was all that's bothering me."

"How'd you get it back?" Pony asked.

"You don't want to know," Steve said quickly.

But it still hurt anyway. You know a guy a long time, and I mean really know him, you don't get used to the idea that he's dead just overnight.

Like Mom and Dad, all the Curtis brothers thought sadly.

Johnny was something more than a buddy to all of us. I guess he had listened to more beefs and more problems from more people than any of us. A guy that'll really listen to you, listen and care about what you're saying, is something rare.

"Yeah, it is," Soda said softly as he looked at Steve.

And I couldn't forget him telling me that he hadn't done enough, hadn't been out of our neighborhood all his life- and then it was too late. I took a deep breath and opened the book. A slip of paper fell out on the floor and I picked it up.

Ponyboy, I asked the nurse to give you this book so you could finish it. It was Johnny's handwriting. I went on reading, almost hearing Johnny's quiet voice. The doctor came in a while ago but I knew anyway. I keep getting tireder and tireder. Listen, I don't mind dying now. It's worth it. It's worth saving those kids. Their lives are worth more than mine, they have more to live for. Some of their parents came by to thank me and I know it was worth it. Tell Dally it's worth it. I'm just going to miss you guys. I've been thinking about it, and that poem, that guy that wrote it, he meant you're gold when you're a kid, like green. When you're a kid everything's new, dawn. It's just when you get used to everything that it's day. Like the way you dig sunsets, Pony. That's gold. Keep that way, it's a good way to be. I want you to tell Dally to look at one. He'll probably think you're crazy, but ask for me. I don't think he's ever really seen a sunset. And don't be so bugged over being a greaser. You still have a lot o f time to make yourself be what you want. There's still lots of good in the world. Tell Dally. I don't think he knows. Your buddy, Johnny.

"Dally? A sunset?" Tim raised an eyebrow.

Tell Dally. It was too late to tell Dally. Would he have listened? I doubted it. Suddenly it wasn't only a personal thing to me. I could picture hundreds and hundreds of boys living on the wrong sides of cities, boys with black eyes who jumped at their own shadows. Hundreds of boys who maybe watched sunsets and looked at stars and ached for something better.

Kid's got a point, Steve thought. Greasers all over this country are getting dragged over to 'Nam while the Socs get out of it due to their money.

I could see boys going down under street lights because they were mean and tough and hated the world, and it was too late to tell them that there was still good in it, and they wouldn't believe you if you did. It was too vast a problem to be just a personal thing. There should be some help, someone should tell them before it was too late. Someone should tell their side of the story, and maybe people would understand then and wouldn't be so quick to judge a boy by the amount of hair oil he wore. It was important to me.

"Is this how you came up with your theme?" Soda asked. Pony nodded. Darry smiled; he was proud of his brother.

I picked up the phone book and called my English teacher.

"Mr. Syme, this is Ponyboy. That theme- how long can it be?"

"Why, uh, not less than five pages." He sounded a little surprised. I'd forgotten it was late at night.

"Smooth," Two-Bit chuckled.

"Can it be longer?"

"Certainly, Ponyboy, as long as you want it."

"Thanks," I said and hung up.

"Awkward," Soda sang.

I sat down and picked up my pen and thought for a minute. Remembering. Remembering a handsome, dark boy with a reckless grin and a hot temper. A tough, tow-headed boy with a cigarette in his mouth and a bitter grin on his hard face. Remembering- and this time it didn't hurt- a quiet, defeated-looking sixteen-year-old whose hair needed cutting badly and who had black eyes with a frightened expression to them.

Dally and Johnny, the gang thought sadly. No one mentioned Bob; even though it was a shame that he died he had still tried to kill Pony.

One week had taken all three of them. And I decided I could tell people, begin ning with my English teacher. I wondered for a long time how to start that theme, how to start writing about something that was important to me. And I finally began like this: When I stepped out into the bright sunlight from the darkness of the movie house, I had only two things on my mind: Paul Newman and a ridehome...

"That's the end," Two-Bit said.

"Wow," Steve raised his eyebrows. "Kid, you're good."

"Well, I hate to go," Tim said, "but I've got to see a man about some beer."

Everyone waved goodbye to Tim as they made their way to the kitchen.

A/N: STILL ALIVE! *ducks flying projectiles*

Sorry! Had to make sure I wasn't a hermit for the first couple of months in college. That, and I kinda sorta forgot about this story seeing as my Human Growth and Development textbook was hiding my copy of The Outsiders.

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