After all this time, Ponyboy never thought Darry would lose.
It’d often been a thought in the back of his mind. A niggling, vicious, horrible feeling that sometimes left him anxious and irritable. But Darry had fought for him, for Sodapop, so hard. Won custody and became their legal guardian. Ponyboy still remembers finding out in the hospital lobby, his knees tucked up on the chair. Remembers when Darry gave up everything for them.
They tell him to pack his bags. Ponyboy’s almost 15 and numb, and Sodapop’s 18 now. They can’t touch this Curtis brother.
So it’s Ponyboy who barely stuffs his suitcase. Ponyboy who walks out that door knowing he can't bolt back inside, Darry and Soda both at his shoulders.
“It really is what’s best for him,” Mr. Harrison smiles.
Darry’s jaw thumps, his face pale. Hands in his pockets so he doesn’t deck this man into next week. “No,” he says, tightly. “It’s not.”
“What about school?” Sodapop asks. He’s irritated but he’s keeping his temper on a leash. Ponyboy looks at him, trying not to cry. Studies him in case it’s more than a week before they next see each other. “He goes to Will Rogers. It’s close.”
“There’s a school at the boy’s home,” Mr. Harrison waves him off. “Plenty of boys his age, some older, some younger. Variety. A new scene, if you will.”
“I like my school,” Ponyboy says quietly. It’s a lie and he knows his brothers see through it, but Mr. Harrison doesn’t. He hates it, in fact, because here there are socs and greasers. The same inevitable class division he’s known his entire life. But it’s here. At home with his family.
“I understand,” Mr. Harrison says, even though he doesn’t.
The empty feeling in him grows. Mr. Harrison pops the trunk, tells him to put his things in the van.
They get five minutes to say goodbye. At this point Ponyboy still believes they’ll win. Tells Darry and Sodapop he’ll be waiting. Darry tells him resolutely he’ll get him home as soon as he can. Soda’s earnest, hanging on to every word their older brother says.
“I love you, kiddo,” Soda says, squeezing him too tight. Darry’s too rough with him like always but it just makes Pony hug him harder. None of them want to let go and standing on the sidewalk he feels very small.
Looking up at them, he says, “Soon, Darry. Please.”
“I promise,” Darry says. “I’ll get you back, I swear it.”
When he’s forced to leave, Mr. Harrison wants to make conversation. He’s not an unkind man it seems but he truly could care less about Ponyboy. He’s a minion to the State and Ponyboy can do nothing about it. Nothing he can do will ever change his mind.
“How long have you been under Darrel’s care?” He asks, steering towards the boy’s home.
Ponyboy doesn’t answer for a long time. At last, leaving their neighborhood, he says, “forever.”
Sodapop’s streaming face. Darry’s reassuring, but numb voice. The way he’d sat limply in a chair across from them, one hand supporting his head. He'd looked ancient and Ponyboy had stared at his brothers, gaze darting back and forth between them.
“What are we goin’ do?” Ponyboy remembers asking. His legs were cramping in the stupid hospital chair but he’d rather have that pain over the one in his chest. “Where are we gonna go?”
Soda had clung to him. Pressed himself so tight against Ponyboy he’d thought they were one. Sometimes he wishes they were. Things would be easier that way.
“They can’t split us up, right, Dar?” Soda was worrying his lip. Asking the questions none of them had the strength for. Then more hesitantly, “...Right?”
“I’ll take care of you now,” Darry said, and almost as an afterthought, “I got custody. That’s where I’ve been the past several hours. They’ll let me take care of you guys now.”
Soda’s glare, the way he’d been angry but not at Darry. At the State, upset they’d been forced to run to them. At their parents for dying, even though it hadn’t been their fault and Ponyboy was supposed to go with them.
“This isn’t fair!” He’d cried. He’d practically pulled Pony in his lap at this point, and Pony’d thrown his arms around his neck, face buried in his chest. Soda smelled like home. Soda always smells like home. “Darry, what about school? Your scholarship.”
Darry was quiet, thumbing a loose string on his pants. Silent. Then: “I’m gonna put it on hold for a bit. It doesn’t matter right now.”
Ponyboy remembers feeling strangely and wholly guilty. How he stared at Darry, who could go so far. Darry who works too hard already. Thinking, it does. It means everything.
The boy’s home’s fine. Except it isn’t.
At the door they take his suitcase and pilfer through it, taking his cigarettes and lighter. They ask if he has anything sharp and he has half a mind to keep his switchblade.
But he forks it over. They’d find it later anyways and accuse him of lying or trying to hurt someone, maybe even himself. Ponyboy’s upset but he’s not suicidal.
He catches the woman checking his bag roll her eyes, listens to her snort. Something muttered about hoodlums under her breath.
Ponyboy likes her, honestly. Nothing feels better than being torn from your brothers’ arms and then being thrown in a boy’s home in one day. Everything Darry fought to avoid in the gutter. What Sodapop feared manifesting into a physical threat. What Ponyboy knew was a long time coming hitting him with the strength of an 18-wheeler. And now this woman who calls herself Ms. Hord, who has already decided who he is, is just the cherry on top.
Feeling lousy, he heads towards his room, passing through what feels like an endless stream of boys without homes. Boys who prefer living here over living there. Boys who he know would kill to be here. He is an outsider here, too.
A security guard who calls himself Mr. Mark shows him which bed is his own.
Curfew doesn’t exist here, because they don’t get to leave. Ponyboy curls up by the window in a rotting wooden chair and stares at the high gates, black metal upon red brick. They don’t even get to go outside. Too much influence in the world, Ms. Hord had said. Too much access to young boy’s who’d hang onto every word. Pony thinks maybe she's delusional.
“You’re new here,” someone says.
When Ponyboy looks over he rubs a hand down his face, unsure if his eyes are red or not. Despite himself, he’d cried the entire ride here.
There’s a boy. Much older than him, he thinks. Maybe Sodapop’s age, which makes something in his heart spasm. Wild haired like Dally but dark like Johnny’s, like Steve’s. Something in the shape of his face that feels strangely like it belongs to Two-Bit only.
But eyes like Darry. Not in color but in element, in texture. Solid, crystal clear ice.
“I said, you’re new here,” the kid repeats, like he’s deaf or dumb. “What’s your name?”
“Ponyboy,” he says, waiting for the usual snickers. He doesn’t feel up for the string of explanations, so he says quickly, “You?”
“Jim,” he says. “They keep tryin’ to call me Jimmy even after all this time. I hate that.”
Ponyboy nods, loosens the white knuckled grip he has on his curled up knees. Lowers his feet to the floor and watches Jim flop down on the bed beside him.
“Why’re you here?” Jim asks. He’s fiddling with something in his hands, gripping it, twirling it like a butterfly knife. Long like a fresh pencil but rounded at both ends, cylindrical in a sense: silver. When Ponyboy’s silent, he raises a brow. Says, “They’ll ask you soon enough, kid. Might as well get it over with.”
It’s December. Ponyboy watches the snow begin to fall outside the window. Three months ago Johnny died and Dally was murdered. Shot down by police.
If he’s being realistic, it was suicide.
“The State took me away from my brothers,” Ponyboy says, and then tries to sound hopeful when he adds, “I’m supposed to get to call them in two weeks. Darry promised he’d get me before then, though.”
That’d been the rules. No outside visitation or phone calls for a two week adjustment period. Ponyboy remembers Sodapop throwing the words “bullshit” and “family” at Mr. Harrison, but he’d hardly been paying attention. He was busy watching his family and wondering when he’d see them next.
“Rough two weeks for some,” Jim says, digs between his teeth with a fingernail.
Uncertainly, unknowing of his place, Ponyboy asks, “Was it for you?”
Jim shakes his head, eyeing him. It could turn into a scowl, but it doesn’t. “Nah, kid,” he says, leaving it at that. “I was glad.”
At dinner, Jim sits next to him. A younger boy, Jesse, a brown-haired kid with a smattering of freckles, joins them. Wide blue eyes watch as Ponyboy barely picks at his food.
“You’re new,” Jesse says, a lisp on his “R”s. “Aren’t you hungry? I sure am.”
Ponyboy gives the younger boy his dinner, hardly listens as Jesse tells him about scheduled feeding times, no snacking, or asking for treats. They don’t get anything but breakfast and dinner. 9 and 4.
Ponyboy’s stomach growls but he ignores it. Jesse’s handing him something, poking Ponyboy so softly in his side he hardly feels it. His carrots. Pony smiles at him thinly. The 12 year is scrawnier than he is, and he's heard a lot of comments thrown his way about his weight over the years.
“No,” Ponyboy says, gently pushing them back. Clasps his shaking hands together on his lap. Yearns for Sodapop’s crazy, wacky colored cooking. “Thanks, but I’m not hungry.”
Jim eyes him, but says instead of anything else, quite lowly, “you smoke, kid?”
Ponyboy nods, then hesitates. Wonders if his nicotine withdrawal is that obvious. “They took my cigarettes, if you wanted to bum one off me.”
Jim shakes his head, actually chuckles. “Nah, kid,” he says. “I’ve got some. I was offerin’ you one for later.”
Ponyboy flushes. There are no adults in the room, except a single security guard at the door. The man named Mr. Mark, who had been quiet but not mean-spirited. Harbored the same lost look the boys here wear like clothes. “Okay,” he says. “Thanks.”
Jim nods. “I’ll give it to you later,” he says, chewing on his toothpick. “We go to our room’s at 8 but the staff hit the hay at 10.”
Ponyboy’s starting to understand what he means. Remembers suddenly a staircase at the end of the second hall, leading somewhere above their rooms. “The attic?” He asks.
“Nah,” Jim says. “You’ll see.”
“Why can’t we smoke here?” Ponyboy inquires. He’s nervous somebody will hear but mostly anticipating a cigarette. He'd even been allowed to smoke in the hospital. During lunch back at school.
The older boy purses his lips. Sticks the toothpick out of the corner of his mouth and then says, quietly, maybe quiet enough Jesse won’t hear, “Kids lose hope here, Ponyboy. Sometimes they do really stupid things.”
Ponyboy pales. “Oh,” he swallows, getting it. “Like, on purpose?”
Jim nods. “More often than not. Windows bolted, no sharp objects. No cigarettes, no lighters. No more than one sheet per kid. Gotta be extra careful in this place.”
“Sometimes,” Jim says. “Listen, don’t worry about all that. It’s been fine for a while. No one’s antsy but you and me, kid. Everyone else here right now would rather be here than anywhere else. No matter how much this place blows.”
Mr. Mark looks over at him for this comment. Instead of running over like Ponyboy fears he will, to scold or hurt, the security guard actually nods. Looks sad, or at the very least, unhappy. Turns towards other boys and back to his job so monotonously Pony winces.
“See?” Jim faces him again. “Everybody hates this place. But we’d rather be here than there. Savvy?”
“Yeah,” Ponyboy says.
There’s a ten minute warning overhead on some sort of speaker and he winces at the interference.
“They have a radio here?” He asks, suddenly.
“One in the rec room. Old but not bad. Still works.”
Ponyboy tries to grin. “They only play Elvis, right? Tell me they only play Elvis?”
“Shit,” Jim barks out a laugh. The first Ponyboy’s heard. “Kid, The Beatles are outlaws here. Don’t mess around with anyone but Elvis.”
Jesse’s even more quiet than Jim is, but he pokes Ponyboy in the ribs just before dinner ends. Gives Ponyboy a few of his carrots anyways. “For later,” he whispers, even though it’s against the rules.
Ponyboy thanks him, even though he’s not sure he wants to eat carrots handled for an hour or so in the warm air. Later, he eats them anyways. He does it for Soda, for Darry. Consumes the carrots because he'd promised he'd eat.
After they eat, Jim tells them it’s free reign in the rec room, which is less that and more of a lobby they’ve locked up. And there aren’t many games, mainly Jenga and cards. Checkers, a bent and folded up Chess board. Ponyboy watches one boy eat the queen. Same kid follows that piece with a rook.
"Should somebody say anything?" He asks. Jim shakes his head. "They'll get 'em back."
Ponyboy stares at him, "That's not what I-"
"I know," Jim cuts him off. "Trust me. That's Teddy. He can eat anything. I once watched the kid choke down an entire pair of sunglasses. Just - poof - broke them apart and ate them. It was wild. He was fine."
Pony'd laugh but it feels morbid to, so he says instead, "Uh? They know about that?"
"Yeah," Jim says. "Everybody here knows everything."
He and Jim sit in a corner, and Jesse, who seems slower than some of the other boys, lays his head on Ponyboy’s legs. He doesn’t make him move, wishing he was laying with Sodapop instead.
Jim’s got a book, but he’s not reading. Staring, flipping aimlessly.
Ponyboy touches the cover of a dictionary from 1949 and trails his fingers over the scribbles of boy’s from before. When he stumbles into some kid’s sketched pornography on a random page, he slams the book closed and blushes.
Jim laughs at him. “Kid, that’s all the action you’re gonna get here. Might as well enjoy it.”
He’s almost angry. Wants to be. But it sounds like something Two-Bit would say. Two-Bit who he misses deeply, the same Two-Bit who became his best buddy after Johnny.
“I’m 14,” he snaps, wishing he were older. Very briefly he panics about this being how he spends his next four years. Being teased about girls and waiting for his brothers.
Jim cocks his head at him. Leans back against the wall and crosses both legs at the ankle. Hands folded over his stomach. “Ah. Explains it.”
Ponyboy stares at him incredulously. “Explains what?”
“The innocence,” Jim says.
It’s 11:13 when Jim shakes him roughly on the shoulder. He mumbles something about following him, and with a busted up, flickering flashlight, leads him upstairs. Shows him what steps to avoid so they won’t creak and attract unwanted attention.
This floor is just an empty wing, with rooms that used to be lived in. Ponyboy follows Jim to the other end, chills down his spine even though he’s not cold.
“What is this?” He asks.
“Abandoned floor,” Jim says, chewing on a finger nail he bit off an hour ago.
“Where are the people?” Ponyboy asks. One of the doors looks partly open and he instinctively walks faster, spooked in the dark, nearly bumping into Jim. He's grateful Jim never shines the light on any of the doors.
Jim looks down at him from the corner of his eye. Says at last, “They moved out, kid. Gone. Not much else to do when you hit 18.”
Ponyboy says, “they don’t get more kids?”
“Not so much anymore,” the older boy replies, dark eyes even darker in the gloom. Ponyboy thinks they might be green like his. Maybe green eyes aren't so bad after all, not if Jim has them. “You’re the first one in a while. Since Jesse came about 3 years ago. Kid’s better off here anyways.”
“How old are you?” Ponyboy asks, softly. Sees the same odd item Jim was twirling around in his hands this morning snug in his back pocket. Wonders what it is.
“18 in two weeks,” Jim says, oddly quiet.
“Oh,” he says lamely.
Ponyboy thinks he’ll be here a lot longer, no matter what Darry says. And then he feels really bad because he knows his brother is trying. Knows Sodapop’s doing what he can too.
“I think they’re gonna draft me,” Jim says, eventually. "After this place."
They reach the end of the hall and Ponyboy’s still curious about where they’re going, but his stomach curdles. Sodapop’s 18 now, just turned. Ponyboy hopes to God his brother won’t go to Vietnam. Wonders if Darry can pull the “our parents are dead” card and the “my other kid brother’s in a boy’s home” special. Maybe they won’t take Sodapop because he’s all Darry has left.
“Do,” Ponyboy swallows, “do you want them to?”
“Shit, kid,” Jim says, forcing a grin. He reaches out towards the wall and very slowly Ponyboy recognizes old blinds. They slide upwards and then Jim’s pushing the window open, straining when it won’t budge. Eventually they get it open and he says, “I figure war suits me better anyhow.”
“How?” Ponyboy asks. Panics when he watches Jim slip one leg up on the window sill and over it. But when he forces himself to look past it there’s a flat parapet below. Just enough room to stand.
“Because I’m a fighter,” Jim says, leaning against the bricks. “It’s what I’m best at. Sometimes, even here. How do you think I got here, kid?”
Ponyboy doesn’t answer. A million things zip around in his head but he can’t assume. Jim smiles at him, genuine, like he’s pleased somebody didn’t.
“My dad’s a bastard,” he says, and Ponyboy sits half in and out of the window. Can’t bring himself to follow through. “I finally got tired of it, the same bruises, the same lies. He drank all the time, and one day when he came home he hit me with a bat to shake things up a little. Fractured my skull and broke my teeth. State apparently don’t appreciate when you beat your kids like that. He’s in jail and I’m here.”
He opens his mouth, pulls his cheek away from the right side.
Ponyboy counts the missing teeth and shudders. “Golly. That must have hurt real awful.”
“Can’t tell on the outside, huh?”
"No,” Pony says quickly. “I didn’t - I wouldn’t have noticed, if you didn’t tell me.”
“Don’t sweat it, kid.” Jim grins, the ice in his eyes thawing. “It’s easy to hide. I woke up in the hospital and they're tellin' me I'm goin' here, and I said, really? Glory! Can’t eat on that side though.”
Ponyboy shakes his head, closes his eyes. Things like that aren't supposed to happen. Lives aren't meant to be lived this way. Somehow he doesn’t think Jim would appreciate any pity so he doesn’t offer any. Jim hands him a weed as promised and lights it up for him. Ponyboy watches the sparse traffic below. Wonders if people can see two figures so high above, two orange lights gleaming, passing for monstrous eyes. He turns back to Jim.
“My parents are dead,” he blurts out all of the sudden. He doesn't know why but Jim told him everyone here has a story, so he figures he better follow his advice and spill it. “I live with my brothers, Darry and Sodapop. Three months ago I ran away from home because my buddy… My best buddy, Johnny, killed a kid tryin’ to drown me. He had to run away, and I went with him, stupidly, because Darry hit me. Once. And I panicked.”
“I think the State thinks he abuses me or somethin’,” he adds. “Darry got to keep custody of me and Sodapop but I still wound up here.”
He’s almost desperate for someone to understand. Jim watches him, and then after a long moment, says, “Ponyboy, you know you didn’t kill anyone, right? You didn’t have to go.”
“Yes,” he says. Whispers. “But Johnny did, so I went with him. Because I thought Darry didn’t love me anymore. I was so stupid. And then Johnny died because of the fire. Because of that, Dally died too.”
“Dally?” Jim says, ashing his cigarette beneath his boot.
“Dallas Winston,” Ponyboy says, not sure why he gives him his full name. Maybe because Dally’s dead and no one can hurt him now. Get tough and no one can touch you. “He got shot down by police. Couldn’t take it after Johnny died and robbed a convenience store.”
Maybe someone needs to ask him. And maybe Jim knows it, why he says, “Why?”
“Because,” Ponyboy says. “Dallas Winston only loved and lived for one person, and he was dead.”
In the morning, it’s Jesse who wakes him, something about breakfast. Ponyboy shivers under his single sheet and wonders where Jim is.
He must look confused, because Jesse says very solemnly, “He’s already down there. You’re late. We have to go.”
Ponyboy sits up. Tugs on each Chuck Taylor and rubs his eyes with his hands. Yearns for a smoke and remembers he can’t have any anymore. He's sweating buckets but Pony thinks he can spin it in his favor. Maybe sick kids get to call their families. “They mad?”
He's ashamed. What a horrible thing to think. He's lucky he's not sick.
Jesse hesitates, but shakes his head. “They don’t get mad here.”
“They don’t?” Ponyboy says, maybe a little surprised. He lets the younger boy lead him downstairs even though he knows where the dining room is.
In the doorway Jesse shakes his head again, brown hair wild. “No,” he says, matter of factly. “That’s why I’m glad I’m here. Everyone is mad everywhere else.”
A day later Ponyboy has his first nightmare without his brothers. The same dream he can never remember but the one that leaves him screaming.
Someone yells at him to wake up and when he comes to it's somebody's hand striking his face. He flounders in the night, looks up to see somebody other than Jim or Jesse. Another older boy, hard eyed and aged beyond this place, no matter the year he was born.
“Can you shut the Hell up?” The kid shakes him by his t-shirt collar and Ponyboy pushes his hands off. Lays there panting for a moment, trying to gather his bearings. “Christ, it’s like Billy all over again.”
He can’t see him, but Jim says, snaps, “Andrew, get the Hell outta here. Billy couldn’t help it and neither can he.”
“Cap it, Jimmy,” the other boy snarls.
“Ah, fuck off,” Jim returns easily. To Ponyboy, “I told him not to hit you, kid. Sorry, Pony.”
There’s a light in the hallway now. A woman comes in and checks him all over, asks if he’s hurt. Ponyboy shakes his head numbly, wishing it had been Sodapop who’d woken him up instead, or Darry.
“Are you sure you’re not hurt?” She presses.
“No,” he mumbles, not really the right reply. Embarrassed, he adds, “I just get them sometimes. I'm sorry I woke everyone up. I didn't mean to.”
She tells him to follow, and when Ponyboy passes Jim’s bed his friend is staring at him, mouth quirked to the side. Blank faced, like he’s indifferent. Maybe Ponyboy’s already ruined everything between them.
He feels very, very alone all of the sudden.
At the door, Andrew spits at him, and Jim tells him to get out again.
The woman dragging Ponyboy along tells him to go, too. It’s not until Ponyboy’s at the end of the hallway and near the stairs that he turns and sees. Andrew’s getting the door slammed in his face, the sound echoing around in Pony’s head. And then the floor below swallows them up.
The woman must be the nurse. She sits him down on an examination table in her office and flicks on the blinding overhead light. When he can see again, she’s checking his blood pressure.
“Do you frequently have nightmares?” She asks. Pulls the cuff off his arm and throws it back in a basket. Removes the stethoscope from around her neck, but doesn’t use it.
“No,” he lies, not sure why. Some instinct tells him he should. “Just sometimes.”
“Do you wake up screaming every time?”
“No,” he repeats. A voice shrieks in his head, yes, glory, yes. But it doesn't matter if Pony dreams and tells. Ponyboy has two weeks before he can even see his brothers again. Can’t even call home until then. Not even after this whole showdown.
“I see,” she says, scribbling on a post it note. The pen is a god-awful pink. It burns his eyes and he looks away, out into the hallway past her. “I’m the nurse here, Ponyboy. My name’s Ms. Wiley. Something tells me you’re not telling the complete truth.”
His gaze settles on his lap. He mutters something about it being nice to meet her. Adults always think kid's are polite when they say it first. Ms. Wiley lifts his chin up and squints at him, inspecting, scrutinizing. Finally she smiles.
“Ponyboy,” she says, “You can always come here to talk to me. But for tonight I’ll let you go. Take this, okay?”
There’s a pill rattling around in a plastic cup. Another half-filled with water. He wonders where she got them from, but then he sees her close her desk drawer with her knee. She's a nurse so it makes sense why she'd have them, but he's only been here a few days. Shouldn't she know more about him before letting him guzzle down pills?
“What is it?” He asks.
“A sleeping aid,” she says, “to help soothe your nerves.”
He’s had one cigarette in one day instead of an entire pack. He’ll take anything at this point, but then something tells him Darry would say no.
“My brother doesn’t like me taking pills,” Pony says, at last. “My doctor wanted me to, but Darry said no.”
“You’re in our care now,” she returns, her smile tightening. He definitely doesn’t like this woman either. Something about her, something off. Something wrong. “Take the pill, Ponyboy. Darrel isn’t here. You want to sleep, don’t you?”
He wants the sleep but not the pill. But she’s forcing it into his hand, offering to help him take it, which is definitely something he wants. Ponyboy closes his eyes and remembers Darry taking him to the doctor after Mom and Dad died. Nightmares solved by playing and running more, drawing and studying more. Solved by being so tired he can’t dream.
Ponyboy swallows the pill, and hopes Darry won’t hate him for it.
The pill worked like he thought it might. Like the doctor back home prescribed, the one Darry said no to. Ponyboy walks around the next day like a zombie, eating and drinking when the time comes, trying to concentrate. They make him lose track of time.
It’s Monday. They’re supposed to have school, but when Ponyboy gets ready and grabs his backpack, the one Soda packed for him, Jim shakes his head. “Not here,” he says.
Won’t look at Ponyboy, but checks his watch. “You won’t need that here.”
Pony drops it. He used to enjoy school, even thought about his old one when Mr. Harrison told him he’d be leaving. Of all the things to panic about, Ponyboy wishes that it hadn’t been that. Time wasted then, and now. He could have spent those precious minutes plotting to escape this place.
Ponyboy sits in the same room for four hours. 4 o’clock is when dinner is supposed to start, but he can’t force himself to eat, even though his brothers asked him to eat well. He’s locked up in his head. When Pony nearly walks straight into another boy leaving the dining room, Jim’s tight grip on his bicep is the only thing that stops him from getting jumped.
“They dope you up?” Jim asks, looming in his face. "Is that why you've been stumblin' around all mornin'?"
Ponyboy blinks back at him sluggishly. “To sleep,” he says, answering the first part.
Jim runs a hand down his face. Shakes his head, jogs his leg. “I can’t believe this,” he says, then a little louder. “After Billy, they said they’d back off. No more pills, they'd said." Under his breath, "Bunch of hopped up bullshit."
“What happened to Billy?” He asks. The spark of fear draws a touch of his concentration to the surface. Ponyboy stares at him. “What happened?”
Jim looks away, jaw tight. Through clenched teeth, “They doped him up, got him addicted to somethin’. Somethin’ mean. He turned 18 and they sent him on his way. No one’s heard from him for years. Hell, after how he left, he probably preferred it that way." Then, very bitterly, "Maybe a small part of me does too.”
Ponyboy shakes his head, wishing he misheard. He touches his chest, pats his hand against it a few times. The terror is buried 60 feet under but he still feels it. “How long?” He asks, then says, frustrated with himself, “how long does this take?”
“To wear off?” Jim says. Concentrates. “Uh, Billy burned it off in a day I think. But you’re a lot skinnier than he was. Just, don’t take anymore pills Wiley offers you, okay? Pretend to swallow ‘em. Throw ‘em up if you have to.”
“I can’t help dreamin’,” Ponyboy says. Jim steers him into the room and he wonders how they got upstairs.
He must say it aloud because the older boy looks at him warily, and goes, “Kid, seriously. Don’t take the pills. Probably past date anyways.”
“I can’t help dreamin’,” he repeats, miserably this time. Puts his head in his hands, bends over at the middle on the edge of his mattress. “Darry doesn’t want me takin’ pills.”
Dryly, Jim says, “I can see why.”
When Ponyboy doesn’t move at all, he sighs and forces him to lie down. Looks at the closed door and tries to open a window in their room. Pony thinks he remembers hearing that they were all bolted shut, and then Jim wiggles a little harder and there’s a pinging noise as a nail falls off onto the sill outside. Window open, the air fresh and cold, Jim hands him another cigarette.
Must have kept it hidden in here after the other night, or maybe he’d always had one on him. Ponyboy lights it up and closes his eyes. Tries to focus on how good it's supposed to make him feel. It only makes him feel worse, like he's on the verge of something unsettling. The tiny hairs on the back of his neck lift.
“Listen, kid,” Jim says, stiffly. “I’ll try and keep you from screamin’, but I can’t promise anything. I’m outta here soon.”
“I won’t keep you up too,” Pony says, and then, almost begging, “Jim, please... Don’t let me keep you up.”
The pills are making him fuzzy. He's trying to remember why he feels so disturbed. When Ponyboy finishes his cancer stick, Jim takes it from him before he burns his fingers and chucks it outside. Pony remembers the church, and sits up, blanching. Johnny had been careless before.
“We can’t smoke inside,” he tells Jim. Throws himself together like a puzzle pieces not quite right for each other. "Did it go out the window?"
When Jim doesn't respond, just staring at him, mouth gaping, he presses. "Did it go out the window?"
"Glory," Jim bites back. "'Course it did! I made sure."
"Good," Pony says. Repeats, "We can't smoke inside."
“Why? You didn’t have a problem last night, or just now.” Jim’s staring at him now. Away from the window and the traffic and the nearby rooftops. “Kid, you’re not makin’ much sense. You’re really flyin’. Motherfuckers.”
“Johnny lit the fire,” Ponyboy says, shaking his head. He pushes past the vertigo and gets to his feet. Legs wobbling, he begins to pace. “His last cigarette ever burned him and the church down to the ground.”
Jim extinguishes his smoke. Clenches his eyes shut. “Okay, kid,” he says, like Ponyboy isn’t ruining everything. “Alright. No smoking in the room. Outside only.”
4 in the morning, Jim’s hand is clamped over his mouth. Panting through his fingers, Ponyboy’s eyes fly open and lock onto the older boy’s face. He jerks upright, and when Jim asks if he’s alright, Ponyboy nauseous, only gives him a thumbs up. Asks for the trash can and dry heaves, but nothing comes up.
Unknowing of just how badly his words sting, Jim mutters, “Christ, how do they do it?”
Ponyboy doesn’t fall back asleep. Can’t. Won’t do that to Jim. Not like he did Sodapop, and to Darry.
He keeps vigil and in the morning when Jim wakes up he finds Ponyboy in the rotten wooden chair, in the midst of withdrawals. He leans against the wall next to him and twirls the same silver object in his hand. Offers Ponyboy another smoke that he hides for later.
Doesn’t use his words, but apologizes all the same.
The days pass in similar fashion.
A week later Ms. Wiley sees him in the mess hall and pulls him out of his book.
He’s mostly alone because while he doesn’t have visitation, other people due every Monday and Friday. Both Jesse and Jim have gone to check but later tell him no one showed. And he doesn't know anyone else, aside of Andrew. Looking at the guy still embarrasses him, not matter how rude he may be.
Shiny heels in his line of sight first, and then when he looks up she’s smiling. Offering him a chance to talk. Maybe even offer him advice while she's at it, if he'll take the bait. He's no minnow.
“Have you had anymore nightmares?” She asks, sits at one of the tables near him. Turns the chair around and crosses her legs prim and proper, just to focus on him. “You can tell me, you know. I’d love to help if I can.”
“No,” Pony says, tightly. He sticks his nose back into a beat up copy of Catch-22 despite having read it before. “No dreams.”
“No,” he grits out. Lies between lies.
She nods, steeps her fingers on her knee. He tries to get her to leave her by pointedly ignoring her, reading whatever lines he can focus on. But she’s still studying like she's got a final, green eyes sharp and unblinking. Watches him turn pages.
“Lying’s very bad, you know,” Ms. Wiley chides him at last. “Why don’t you come with me? I’ve got more of those sleeping aids. You can take one every night, if you’d like.”
“No,” he says. Never again. “I’m good. I don’t want any - I don’t need any.”
“Alright,” she says, slowly standing up. The stupid pink pen she used before to write on her notepad is back, flashy in her pocket, tucked against her white blouse. Ms. Wiley looks at her watch and pats him on the arm. “If you’re sure. If not, my office is always right down the hall.”
When she’s gone, Ponyboy finds he can breathe easier.
It’s the final day of his two week exile. Ponyboy’s finally allowed to see his brothers. He nearly takes out Jim when he throws himself out of bed, flinging open the door. He’s got the jitters and he also kinda has to pee.
“Woah!” Jim says, standing aside as Ponyboy races past him. “Slow down, kid!”
He throws an apology over his shoulder, and when he returns to their room Jim’s getting dressed. Scarred back turned to Ponyboy, he says, “Your brothers?”
Ponyboy nods, then realizing he can’t see it, says, “Yes! They’ll finally be here.”
And then he remembers his friend's leaving, just when Jim opens his mouth to remind him. “I’m glad, kid. I’ll say ‘hi’ before I get out of here, alright?”
Something inside of him deflates. He knew it would happen, that Jim would be going, would be forced to, but it still stings. When Jim turns around he’s smiling, no matter how empty it feels.
“Um, do you have any plans?” Ponyboy asks him. He sits on the window sill and stares at the older boy. Jim’s packing his bags literally and metaphorically, the same silver rod in his back pocket like always.
“I dunno,” Jim says, thinking. After a while his eyes light up. “Might head to California. Got a buddy there that might let me crash with him.”
Ponyboy thinks about the ocean, the vastness of it and how infinite the sky seems there. He remembers hearing once in a documentary that the world drops off. Curls over the distant horizon. He always wanted to go there, and he thinks maybe when he gets out he'll convince all of them to go, Steve and Two-Bit included. The five of them in a foreign world.
“That sounds real tough,” Ponyboy tells him. Smiles for real now. Doesn’t want to assume, so he says, “Maybe I’ll see you again sometime.”
Jim looks closely at him, and he wonders if he said the wrong thing. But then Jim’s grinning ear to ear at him, finally looking happy. Ready to get out of here, his eyes glowing. Ponyboy envies him and doesn’t all at the same time.
“Sure, kid,” Jim says easily. “I’ll write down his number. When you get sprung outta here, just call and ask for me.”
He does so on an old sketch of some kid long past they find in a drawer, and Ponyboy slips the piece of paper into his back pocket. Then thinking about it, relocates it to his suitcase, not wanting to lose it.
“Thanks,” Ponyboy says. “For making things easier here for me.”
“Shit,” Jim says. “I didn’t do nothin’.”
“Everything,” Ponyboy corrects him, grinning right back.
He and Jim go down to breakfast, pushing and shoving and nudging each other on the staircase. It’s probably dangerous and not a good idea, one Darry would scold him for, but they’re both on fire. Exhilaration fills Ponyboy’s belly.
Jesse’s down there, pale, but he smiles when Jim sits next to him. Throws his arms around his waist. Jim pets his hair, brushes the beautiful brown waves out of his eyes.
“Be good while I’m gone,” Jim says, like he’ll come back. Ponyboy hopes he will, but maybe not to this place. Maybe anywhere but here. “Listen to Pony. He’s smart.”
Jesse nods, shares that tiny smile he does for Jim only. His baby blues focus on Ponyboy and he gives him a little wave.
“While he’s here, he’ll help you out, I promise.”
Ponyboy only partially minds being volunteered. He thinks about what Jesse will do without Jim and him, what he’ll be like. Darry and Soda’ll be here today. He’s going to go home. But he nods, says, “Sure I will, Jesse.”
The kid, who’s not really that much younger than him in age and body but is in spirit, puts one of his hands on Ponyboy’s. Jesse eats and doesn’t say much.
When the three of them are finished, they go to what the workers call school, and play finger football with a folded up coloring worksheet. Pony doesn’t learn anything here because no one cares, so he doesn’t feel bad. A tiny part of him wonders what Darry would say. After dinner, Friday's visitation time begins.
Jim follows him in, not that he’s got anyone to see, but because he promised before he’d be here.
When he sees them, Ponyboy runs to them. They look like themselves. Darry with his hands folded on top of the table, Sodapop fidgeting, rubbing the back of his neck and checking his watch every five seconds.
Darry in that old man jacket, the beige one with the black inside and the cuffed, stringed wrists, and Sodapop with his DX shirt beneath the blue-black coat Dad got him one year. When they hear footsteps approaching, it’s Soda who realizes it’s him. He twists around and throws himself at him. Pony's older brother nearly topples himself and the chair.
Before Ponyboy knows it Soda’s scooping him up in his arms, his feet off the ground, and laughing wildly. Kissing his forehead, brushing his hair from his eyes. Darry hugs him so hard next he’s out of breath, but relieved. Happy.
“You’re lookin’ a little thin,” he says, frowning. “Are you okay here? No trouble?”
Ponyboy doesn’t tell him about the pill Ms. Wiley gave him, about how fuzzy it made him. When he opens his mouth to answer, he hears Sodapop’s sharp, but interested, “Who’s this?”
Ponyboy turns to look at Jim, and introduces him. “He’s my roommate,” he says, a rueful smiling stretching across his face, “or well, until today.”
Jim grins, reaches a hand out to shake Darry and Soda’s. “Jim Edwards,” he says. “Or James. But between us I’m changin’ my name to Tyler.”
“What happens today?” Darry asks, concerned. Pony looks at him and wants to say, you're taking me home. But doesn’t. Something in their faces stops him. Instead, he waits for Jim to explain.
“My time here is up,” Jim says, tapping on his watch. “They kick me out today. At last the moment's come.”
When they sit back down, the four of them, it’s Soda who speaks first. Sodapop’s chocolate eyes are dark, but happily he regards Pony with the same love he always has. His handsome face is still the same, still so good and young looking.
“Are you okay here?” He repeats, asking Darry’s question. Ponyboy listens to him speak because he's forgotten how soft-spoken Sodapop is, how sweet. “You look thin. Kinda pale. They feed you alright?” Pony nods.
“I eat fine,” he says, and Jim coughs. Glaring at him, he adds, “Jim’s just worried because I won’t have a roommate anymore. One that's a terrible influence.”
They both laugh, even if Darry and Soda don't find it as humorous.
“Kid eats like a mouse,” Jim says, answering his brothers' question, rolling his eyes. "Nibbles here and there. Grazes, if he's really part horse. Mainly storing for winter, I suppose."
Maybe Ponyboy really likes him because he's funny without trying to be, like Two-Bit. Always adding his two cents, now that they're close. Pony bites his thumb thinking about Jim leaving.
Darry frowns again, brows drawn tight. There are new wrinkles at the corners of his mouth. “Ponyboy?” He says, looking to him.
“I eat,” he clarifies. “Maybe not as much as I did at home, but it’s just different here. Not as good, I guess.”
Both of his brothers look concerned, and then Soda says, grinning, “No worries. I’ll fatten you up again.”
It’s Darry’s turn to snort. “Soda, please don’t feed him anything new. He needs to get used to eatin’ your food again.”
Sodapop tries to persuade them both. “I bet you miss my cookin’. When we take you home I’m addin’ gummy bears to the mash potatoes.”
Darry and he groan at the same time. Jim raises an eyebrow. “Gummy bears?” He asks.
“Soda’s cookin’ is wacky,” Pony grins. “He always dyes the food different colors. It's unnatural.”
Soda pretends to be hurt. “I’ll have you know this kid eats all my cookin’.”
Darry puts his face in his hands, his shoulders shaking with what sounds like a laugh. It’s the first time Ponyboy’s seen him feel humor in a long while. It’s feels like a gift.
It's better than the tight lipped, white mouthed smile he's been wearing, whatever he's feeling.
“Soda,” Darry says, clearly reminiscing. “Pepsi-Cola, Pony’s lucky to have survived that gummy bear lasagna fiasco.”
Jim’s face twists, maybe in disgust or intrigue, but he smiles, puts his hands in his pockets. He leans back in his seat and tips it off the ground. The only thing that keeps him from wiping out is one foot hooked around the table leg.
“Well, kid,” he says, abruptly. The watch on his wrist makes Ponyboy’s heart beat faster. He always knew it was borrowed time, the whole two weeks, today especially, but it still catches him off guard. “I gotta scoot. Gotta go find me a car. Ain’t gonna get to California by foot.”
Ponyboy’s expression crumbles a little. Sodapop must notice because he slings an arm around his shoulders. Even Darry looks a little taken aback. Mainly because they've been out of the loop on his life. Not purposefully, he tells himself. They don't Jim at all, except that Pony likes him and now he's up and leaving.
“Okay,” Pony says, standing up. Looks back at his brothers, and then throws his arms around Jim’s torso. The older boy stiffens at first, surprised, and then he’s hugging Ponyboy back just as hard.
“Don’t forget to call,” Jim says, then, “you still have that number?”
Ponyboy nods, then hesitates. Pats his back pockets just to be sure it's still in his suitcase. A little lower he asks, “Jim, what’s that thing you always carry around? If you don't mind me askin'?”
Jim’s face doesn’t fall. In fact, he looks sort of proud.
“It’s a pin,” he says. “Used to keep my dad’s leg together when I broke it. They removed it and I may have taken it. Stole it, maybe. Probably stole it. Yeah, most definitely.”
Ponyboy laughs, much to his brothers' confusion. Definitely morbid, but it's Jim's victory. “They let you keep it?”
He’s not sure if he means this place or the doctors who removed it.
Jim leans in, mocks hiding their conversation behind his hand. Smirks. “You can hide lots of stuff in lots of places, kid.”
Ponyboy shoves him backwards with a loud, laughing the whole way, “Gross!”
Sobering a little, Jim pulls it out of his pocket, flashes it briefly, and hugs him one last time. He smells like their room but also like the outside. Like he's just so much closer to freedom his body knows it. “Seriously, kid. Don’t forget to call. If I get drafted I’ll write you wherever we both end up.”
He doesn’t say it, but he hopes Jim doesn’t go to war. He’s fought hard enough.
“Stay safe,” Pony tells him instead, watches the older boy salute him.
“Try to stay alive,” Jim returns, tipping an imaginary hat. Says goodbye to both of Ponyboy’s brothers. Polite when he turns away. Ten seconds later and Jim’s gone, bag tossed up over one shoulder, the same metal pin in his back pocket. Somehow, knowing what it is makes Jim closer and further away all at the same time.
Ponyboy stares in the doorway where he was, and when he collapses back in his seat he can’t help but feel bummed. Looks at his hands because he can't believe he's gone, just like that.
“What was that about?” Darry asks him, gently. He and Soda share a look, one that makes his stomach curdle.
“He’s a good guy,” Pony says, simply. “And my buddy.”
“You got others, right?” Sodapop asks, worrying his lip. Ponyboy knows he's not asking him to forget Jim. So they don’t worry any more than they already are, Ponyboy nods, says, “Jesse. Younger than me.”
“What’s he like?” Darry asks, clearly interested. But Pony shakes his head, chews on his thumb nail. Enough of here.
“Tell me about home,” he says instead, desperately. Leans forward in his seat so he's even closer to them both. "Anything. Just talk about out there."
Something flashes across Sodapop’s face, like he wants to dig around more, but he starts talking anyways. Tells Ponyboy he got a raise, that Steve's fixing to marry Evie. He doesn't look any worse for wear talking about it, even though Pony knows they both flash to Sandy. Sandy who never deserved Sodapop.
“Two-Bit got a job,” Darry says, slowly, finishing their news.
“Really?” Ponyboy asks. He’s shocked, maybe in a state of disbelief. Because while he’s stuck in here, doors locked, no access to the world outside, his family is moving on. Maybe it's selfish to think or wish they wouldn't. Finally, he says, “I didn’t think he would get one right now.”
Sodapop’s fingertips brush back his hair, far from his eyes. Maybe to see if Ponyboy’s okay, if he’s upset. He does his best to smile and Soda reciprocates. It's good Two-Bit's able to get a job and what seems like keep it down. Pony's happy for him, he really is.
“Yeah, somethin’ about bein’ lonely without you at home,” Soda’s hugging him again, probably for the same reason he’s claiming Two-Bit got a job. His tongue suddenly feels too thick in his mouth for words.
Swallowing, Pony asks, “Are you guys okay? They don’t charge you for this, right? This place?”
Darry’s smile is strained again. “No, Lil Colt,” he says. “They don’t charge us a cent.”
“Oh,” he says, relieved. “I guess I thought they might.”
Soda slugs him on the arm. “Quit worryin’ so much. We got this, honey.”
There’s a five minute warning overhead. The same speakers that always dictate where Ponyboy’s going. He looks at the table and his hands shake under the it. He wonders if Jim left him any cigarettes in the upstairs wing or in their room.
“Are you okay, Pone?” Darry asks, leaning his head down to follow Ponyboy’s glazed stare. “You sleep okay?”
He bites his lip. Stiffens, straightens his posture. “Just fine,” he says, voice cracking down the middle. Clears his throat. “I promise, Dar. It just ain’t home.”
“Any nightmares?” Soda’s big chocolate eyes are watery. His beautiful calloused hands find Ponyboy’s under the table, and he jerks as they tremble. Brings Pony’s hands topside and holds them, studying them like it’s the world’s greatest mystery. “Pone?” He asks, and then licking his lips, “What’s wrong, baby?”
“I just want to come home,” he says, and damn him if his eyes water. Tears well up, hot and cloudy, but he blinks them away. Looking at them both, he hears the one minute warning and gets unwillingly to his feet like a puppet on strings.
“I promise we’re workin’ on it,” Darry says, almost pleadingly. “We’re talkin’ to a lawyer and everything.”
Ponyboy hugs them both one more time. He’s all torn up inside but he gets it, he does. But a big part of him is still crushingly disappointed. A week, they'd said. “I understand,” Pony says, for them. “I think they’ll keep me here until then. Until to you can get me back.”
As an afterthought, he adds, shuffling his feet, “Some of the boys who come here, Dar?”
His brothers share a glance again. There are a million answers that can follow this. Knowing them they assume the worst has happened, or might yet. “Yeah?” Darry prompts.
“They would rather be here,” Ponyboy mumbles, rubbing the back of his neck. “That’s why Jim was here. His dad… and Jesse is… I don’t know about Jesse’s family but no one visits him.”
Darry holds him, and Ponyboy pushes his face into his chest. Inhales deeply when his cologne washes over him. Sodapop smells like cars, new and unfinished projects, and when the voice overhead tells him he has to go Pony turns half-away with his head down.
“Please come get me soon,” he begs. “I miss you guys so much.”
“I promise,” Darry says, like the breath’s been knocked out of him. Soda looks equally as pained. His fingers linger on Pony’s cheek and when the security guard calls for him again he has to go. Goes slowly, just to hold onto them.
Ponyboy looks over his shoulder one last time at them, and then Mr. Mark shuts the doors behind him and locks them. Through the window, he sees them both, neither of them blinking, stiller than a Polaroid.
He goes to his room thinking about his brothers standing there in the visitation room, Darry’s lost look, Sodapop’s open mouth, his quivering lower lip. It haunts him. Rots in him like that damned chair in the corner. The same one he bets hundreds of boys have sat in before and cried similarly.
At 10, Ponyboy goes against himself and finds Ms. Wiley. He asks for one of those pills. Obviously upset, she gives him two, and he takes them both in their little cup as a doggy bag of sorts and goes back to his room.
He doesn’t even care in the moment. Doesn't even ask himself what Darry would think, watching him down the sleepers dry without a second thought. Just takes them both.
The next morning, he finds out he missed breakfast. School, too, if it can be called such. Pony’s withdrawing and every part of his body aches. He wants a smoke and another pill. Jesse comes by his room around 4, trembling like he usually is. Both of them lonely without Jim.
"I don't have anyone else," Jesse tells him. "Most of the time I like it that way."
"The other times?" Ponyboy asks, grimacing at his hoarse voice. Clears his throat, watches the other boy curl up on the matted rug and try to comb the threads, coax them into order. He's cold sweating but he doesn't think Jesse notices, which relieves him more than he'd like.
"I want a family," Jesse says. "My family."
When Ponyboy doesn't know how to answer, he says, very quietly, so soft that Pony's not sure he's even heard him right, "not the first one. The next one. The right one."
"You'll get it," Ponyboy promises him. If any kid can get out of here, it's sweet, quiet Jesse. No matter how slow anyone might think he is, there's more to him. Feeling bold he sits on the rug beside him. It's tedious but it's what Jesse wants, so he sits their and helps him brush out that damn rug with his bare fingers.
Mr. Harrison is downstairs when they call Ponyboy down for dinner. Smiling, he’s busy talking to Ms. Wiley and some of the other workers. Maybe their boss.
When he sees Pony, he beckons him over, and Ponyboy goes to him like a dog with its tail tucked between its legs.
“I have wonderful news!” Mr. Harrison says, and Pony doubts it. And then he says the words, the ones that crash land in his heart. The ones that make the room spin. “I’ve found you a foster family!”