Ponyboy knew that everyone thought it was Soda, that it had been the last straw and that he was just broken now, in some fundamental way that couldn’t be fixed. Well, he knew that’s what Darry thought, at least, and Darry was the only person whose opinion mattered in the least to Ponyboy anymore.
But it wasn’t Soda. Well, at least not directly. His brother being drafted and then dying in some God-forsaken country halfway around the world had certainly lessened Ponyboy’s interest in college and making something of himself. But it wasn’t like he’d had anything else to do, and he didn’t return to school after the funeral formulating plans to bail out on everything and everyone.
Strangely enough, it had been Steve Randle, who had returned from that same draft and that same God-forsaken country alive but destroyed. Ponyboy had never liked Steve, but he’d been Soda’s best friend, and they’d grown up together, and somehow he and Darry kept finding themselves looking out for Steve, sobering Steve up, bailing Steve out, trying to find him some kind of help. Some part of Ponyboy disliked Steve even more than usual, because he’d been with Soda, he’d shared a whole part of Soda’s life that was lost to his brothers, but despite that, no one deserved whatever had happened to wreck Steve like this.
Sometimes, when Steve’s hands were shaking and his eyes were wide and bloodshot, he would grab hold of Ponyboy’s shirtfront and tell him that they’d come home with him, some of those other poor kids who’d been sent a world away to die, that they followed him around and wouldn’t leave him alone. Ponyboy found that easy to believe – he saw Soda everywhere he looked, every day.
“Can you see them, Ponyboy?” Steve would rasp. “It would be you, if anyone could. Soda always said it was you, you were the one.”
“Yeah, I see him too,” Ponyboy would say, and then put Steve to bed and do his dishes and stock up his fridge and then let Darry know he was set for now before heading back to school.
Over Christmas break though, crashing on Steve’s couch, he started to think Steve meant something else. Either that, or lunacy was catching, because Ponyboy woke up one night to see a lanky guy in fatigues, dogtags and a cowboy hat sitting in the armchair, watching him sleep. The guy tipped his hat to Ponyboy and disappeared.
He thought it was a dream until two nights later, he turned around from the fridge and a squat Italian-looking guy with a broken nose was playing solitaire at the table. He acknowledged Ponyboy with a flick of his eyes before fading away.
“Tex and JT,” Steve said, when he was sober and Ponyboy had worked up the courage to ask him who, exactly, he kept seeing. “Lost them with Soda, but I never see him.” Steve went into the bedroom and dug around in the top drawer, coming back out with two sets of dogtags. “Four of us, pinned down, and I make it out without a scratch. How’s that happen, huh? How’s that make sense?” He sat on the couch, staring at the tags, running his thumb over them like good luck charms.
“I don’t know,” Ponyboy said, because it made no sense, it was horrifically insensible, and if he thought too much about it, he would end up like Steve. He reached out and took the tags from Steve’s hands, because he couldn’t stand to see him finger them anymore.
“Supposed to take them to their families,” Steve said hollowly. “Can’t make myself go see them, not when I’m still here and they’re still back there. They’re never going home. None of us are.”
On New Year’s Day, feeling overcrowded in the tiny apartment with Steve and the ghosts, Ponyboy made Steve put his coat on and took his car keys and drove them to Texas. Tex’s mother served them strong, scalding coffee and wept over the tags. Steve averted his eyes and called her “ma’am.” Ponyboy drank the wretched coffee, kept his head down and drove Steve home.
New Jersey was way too far to drive, so he made Steve write to JT’s folks, then put the letter and the tags in an envelope. They walked to the post office together in silence and then back at the apartment, Ponyboy let Steve drink his way through a whole bottle of Johnny Walker and then covered him up with a blanket and left him to sleep it off.
He never saw the ghosts again.
* * *
Back at school, there was an urban legend about a girl who hung herself off the rail of the fourth floor stairwell in Wayburn Hall. Coeds refused to take those stairs at night, taking the long way around the building to the south stairs instead. Rumor went, in the right moonlight, you could still see the body, swinging by its rope.
The stairwell was always cold, but that could have been a draft, or poor insulation, or any number of things. Ponyboy lingered until closing on several nights and all he saw was the janitor.
“What’s your deal?” asked his study partner, Linda. “It’s just a stupid story. I wouldn’t have told you about it if I’d known you were going to start lurking in stairwells.”
Ponyboy shrugged. “Just want to know if it’s real, I guess,” he said lamely, but the truth was, he kept thinking about Tex and JT, and Steve saying that Soda knew it was him, that he was the one.
It was easier than he thought it would be to hide in a classroom until the janitor locked up. He’d brought a flashlight, his history book and a thermos of coffee, and all that happened until about 1 a.m. was that he got a lot of reading done.
It wasn’t until he stood to stretch and crack his neck that the movement caught his eye. Back, and forth. Back, and forth. Her tongue lolled out of her mouth. Her eyes bulged. Her feet kicked.
After shimming out a window at Wayburn Hall, Ponyboy had to shimmy into one at his dorm, because it was way past hours and no way was he explaining to anyone where he’d been.
* * *
There was nothing worthwhile about ghosts in the school library. It all just had to do with stories, tales, yarns. There wasn’t anything practical, like how to get rid of one.
“Sweetie, you know this ain’t real, right?” said Clarice the palm-reader in her husky cigarette voice. She waved a bright red fingernail around to indicate her tiny room of gauzy tapestries and muted lights. “You want someone real, you ain’t gonna find it in the phone book. You tried just askin’ the ghost to leave?”
“Um, she’s kind of hanging,” Ponyboy said. “I don’t think she’s a talking-to ghost.”
Clarice lit a cigarette and studied him. “You seen some others?” Ponyboy nodded. “You get rid of them?”
Ponyboy cleared his throat. “They needed something done,” he said.
Clarice nodded. “And this one? Offed herself? Creeping everyone out?” At Ponyboy’s confirmation, she drummed her fingers on the table and hummed to herself before crushing out her cigarette.
She gave him a name and address. Ponyboy was a little shocked when he realized it was in the colored part of town. He was also surprised by how nice the little houses were. It looked a sight better than his old neighborhood. White trash, a memory echoed in his head, and he shivered.
A teen-aged girl answered the door, and then yelled, “Gamma!” when he said that Clarice had sent him. Gamma had no teeth and used a cane, but her eyes were sharp. She didn’t invite Ponyboy in, but she did ask him to sit in one of the porch chairs with her. To his surprise, he found himself telling her everything – Soda and Steve and the dogtags, and now the hanging girl, and how Soda said he would be the one, he’d be the one to know, and he couldn’t explain why, but it was important, that he put this ghost to rest.
“Well, chile,” Gamma said when he had finished, “you dig up that body, and you salt and burn those bones, and that girl won’t bother no one no more.”
“What?” Ponyboy said, feeling as if she’d asked him to sacrifice a puppy on a tombstone at midnight.
“You ain’t willing to do that, then it ain’t so important to you as you think,” Gamma said. “Girl ain’t hurtin’ no one but herself, so’s up to you what to do.” Then she sat back in her chair, conversation over.
Ponyboy wiped his sweaty hands on his jeans and stood. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said, and went down the steps.
“Boy,” Gamma called, and he turned around. She was leaning forward again. “Salt is mighty pure, mighty powerful, you find yourself in need of protection.”
He nodded. “Thank you, ma’am,” he said again, and left.
* * *
The old house was too crowded, even though Judy was just starting to show, but it was Darry’s house now, and Ponyboy couldn’t settle in there, so he found a farmhand job up in Nebraska for the summer break. Working outside in the cool Nebraska air, the blue sky and sun above him – there were worse ways to spend the summer, he thought. The other hands were coarse, and called him college-boy, but they liked him, could smell the childhood poverty on him, knew he was closer to their breed than most college students. He’d always liked the country, wanted to spend more time there, and sometimes when he woke in the bunkhouse, he thought the rafters overhead belonged to an old church, long burned down.
Old farmhands like to talk, like old women. They were also superstitious, like old women. When the Van Ansel boy went missing, they muttered that the child’s parents should have kept him from playing in that Massey Lane underpass, that it was evil, wouldn’t nothing grow around it, was something lurking under there. Luke, the other young summer hand, laughed at them, said they were scared of trolls under bridges, but Ponyboy didn’t say anything.
He watched them carry the Van Ansel boy from the river a few days later, watched his mother wailing and reaching for her child, watched his father fall to the ground.
It was cold under Massey Lane. No living thing grew or lived there. Ponyboy felt like an idiot, clutching the salt shaker he’d lifted at dinner.
The hand on his shoulder was heavy, and he tossed the salt right into the malicious, grinning face before running at top speed back to the bunkhouse.
He spent his next afternoon off at the local library. Andrew Massey had no children of his own, but he took in orphaned or abandoned boys, to help on his farm. When he died in 1896, the church refused to bury him in its graveyard. The old records didn’t say why, but they did say that the minister and the gravedigger were the only people in attendance at his funeral at the old farmstead.
If Ponyboy had felt like an idiot with his salt shaker, he felt like a deranged criminal with his shovel. He dumped real salt on the body, intended for the winter saltlicks, once he’d bashed through the simple, half-rotted pine box, and then squirted charcoal fuel on it.
As he watched the body burn, he wondered if he’d lost his mind.
No more children went missing from Massey Lane that summer.
* * *
Ponyboy only went back to school once, to track down a name and address. He had to break into the Registrar’s office in the middle of the night, but once he had a hometown, he was able to go through old obituaries.
It didn’t feel as crazy this time, digging up the body in the dead of night. Or did it feel crazier? Ponyboy wasn’t sure.
Darry blew a gasket. He had every right, Ponyboy figured. Ponyboy was all set up with a free ride to school, a way to make something of himself, while Darry worked his way through night school and tried to support his little family. All he needed was his kid brother messing everything up, causing him headaches, throwing away his future.
Ponyboy used the money he’d made at the ranch to buy a beat-up old truck. He started by looking for lost kids. He found some more bodies to dig up and burn. He also found that not all monsters are already corpses. He did odd jobs for money, slept in the cab when it was warm enough, ate in greasy diners.
He liked the smell of the road, the low rasp of trucker’s voices, the kind faces of diner waitresses. He liked the stories old folks had to tell, whether they led to a real hunt or not. He felt, for the first time, like he was living his own life, like he was doing something that mattered to someone other than Darry.
Maybe he was crazy, but crazy seemed to be suiting him just fine for now.
He went home to visit at Christmas. Steve had lost the apartment and was living with some woman who didn’t welcome visitors, so he crashed on Darry’s couch. The baby was cute, and Judy seemed glad to have him, even if Darry was clearly bottling up a whole lot of things he had to say.
When it felt too tense, he’d walk down to the old empty lot, lie down and look at the sky like he and Johnny had done so many evenings. For the first time, it didn’t make him sad.
Two-Bit showed up one night, fresh from jail for fighting or drinking or speeding, or probably all three. “Boy-howdy, Ponyboy!” he yelled across the lot. “I’d’a come by the house ‘cept I think your big brother mighta bashed my head in for delinquitizing his baby.”
Ponyboy sat up on his elbows and grinned at Two-Bit. “Naw,” he said easily. “You should come by and see him. Looks like Darry.”
Two-Bit flopped down beside him. “Mr. Responsibility and his all-American family,” he said, but there was no bitterness in his voice. “Guess he’ll be selling the house and moving along before too long.”
Ponyboy didn’t answer, because it was true, and while he was glad for Darry, he was a little sad, because then all of this would be gone for him, forever.
Two-Bit was peering into his face keenly, and Ponyboy could smell the liquor on his breath. “I’d call you college-boy or somethin’, but I guess you ain’t anymore,” he said.
“Nope,” Ponyboy answered, and Two-Bit nodded.
“Darry and Judy think you’re one of those hippies now, spreading free love or some such,” Two-Bit said, and Ponyboy shrugged.
“You still seem like a greaser to me,” Two-Bit concluded. “No flowers painted on your face, no funky clothes.”
They both laughed, because of all the things Ponyboy might become in his life, hippie wasn’t one of them. When they had stopped and were lying side-by-side, watching the darkening sky, Two-Bit said, “Now, Steve, Steve says you’re hunting ghosts.”
Ponyboy’s breath caught in his chest. “Almost as crazy as me being a hippie,” he finally said.
“That’s what I said,” Two-Bit answered. “Although I reckon the world might need some ghost-hunters. Can’t figure out the use of hippies.”
Two-Bit stood and looked down at Ponyboy. “You like it?” he asked, curiously. Ponyboy nodded. “You happy?” Ponyboy nodded again, because, yeah, he was happy. “You crazy?” Ponyboy shrugged.
“All right, then,” Two-Bit said, and shoved his hands in his pockets. “I’ll be seein’ you, kid.”
“Not if I see you first,” Ponyboy called after him, and Two-Bit laughed without turning around.
* * *
Motorists kept turning up dead along the same stretch of highway in Missouri, but nights of camping out in the truck along it proved fruitless, so Ponyboy started scouring the nearby countryside. That was when he almost stumbled over the bodyless head and fell on his ass screaming like a girl.
He kept screaming when someone grabbed him from behind and put a large, long, sharp knife to his throat.
“Shut up and show me your teeth,” a man’s voice said, and Ponyboy was astounded enough that he stopped screaming.
“Wha-?” he started, but then a hand grabbed his face and pulled up his lips and prodded along his teeth. The knife disappeared and the body behind him let go.
“What are you doing out here, kid?” the voice asked.
“Walking,” Ponyboy gasped. “I, I – ran out of gas, and I was looking for a phone and –“
“Bullshit,” the voice said, and the tip of the knife prodded Ponyboy’s back.
“People kept disappearing out here,” Ponyboy said. “I just want to help.” When there was no answer, and the knife didn’t go through him, he got bold and asked, “What are you doing out here?”
“Hunting vampires,” the voice said, and kicked over the head on the ground. It turned toward Ponyboy to reveal gleaming, lethal teeth.
* * *
The man’s name was Daniel Elkins and he said he was a hunter. Ghosts, werewolves, demons, monsters, but above all, vampires.
Ponyboy would have thought he was crazy, but for the vampire head in the woods. Apparently, wooden stakes didn’t work – vampires had to be decapitated.
Ponyboy said he was a hunter too, and Elkins laughed. “Fledgling,” Elkins said, and then asked what Ponyboy had hunted. “Not bad,” he said thoughtfully once Ponyboy had finished, then added, “For a fledgling.”
Two nights later, Ponyboy helped Elkins clean out the nest. They went back to Elkins’ campsite covered in blood and gore and got very, very dunk.
Elkins said that Ponyboy needed some real weapons. Elkins said that Ponyboy needed to know about rituals and wards and protection. Elkins said that Ponyboy needed to know what to look for. Elkins said Ponyboy needed to pull his head out of his ass before he got himself killed.
“You gonna help me with that?” Ponyboy asked, and it turned out that Elkins would.
* * *
The woman kicked Steve out and the Curtis brothers lost track of him. Two-Bit went back to jail for fighting and drinking and speeding. He also married a bleached blond named Donna and they filled up a single-wide with scabby little red-headed kids except for one who was born with dark skin and an Afro while Two-Bit was doing a two-year stint for bootlegging but who still called him Daddy. None of these happenings seemed to affect their happiness or their ability to produce more scabby little kids, and their door was always open to Ponyboy.
Darry finished school and sold the house. Ponyboy went back one last time, after Darry and Judy were already gone, climbing in through the bedroom window that had never closed right. The house looked smaller, empty, which seemed wrong to Ponyboy. He lay on the living room floor all night, hearing the front door bang and smelling chocolate cake.
He aged, to his own surprise, but found he didn’t mind much. He still liked the smell of the road, and diner coffee. The truck ran aground and he worked steady for a while until he could get a new one. He rescued a little beagle pup from a wendigo lair and named her Scarlet. She loved to ride with her head out the window, smelling adventure and the road and the hunt.
* * *
He ran into other hunters and had beers with them. He heard about other hunters who had gone off to the last hunt. It was a dangerous business, after all, and someday soon Ponyboy would be an old-timer in this business. He met an occasional fledgling himself, and told them to pull their heads out of their asses before they got themselves killed.
Winchester wasn’t really a fledgling, more of a late bloomer, but his head sure was up his ass, because his two kids were in the backseat of his sweet 1967 Impala. Ponyboy told him that he needed to remove it before he got his kids killed, but Winchester shook his head.
“The thing that killed my wife, you see, it was in Sammy’s nursery,” Winchester said. He still had that fledgling manner of looking down a lot, not certain that he wasn’t crazy. Ponyboy glanced in the backseat, where the younger boy was valiantly trying to get out of his carseat to get to Scarlet, who was clamoring over both boys with excitement and yipping her delight. She liked kids.
“I’m real sorry, John,” Ponyboy said. “I lost my folks, I know it’s rough on your boys. But you ought to leave them with someone, you’re gonna take to the hunt.”
Winchester shook his head. “No,” he said. “You don’t understand. She was over Sammy’s crib. It was in his room.” It was over his crib, Winchester didn’t say, but Ponyboy looked at the wild-haired toddler, now triumphantly free of his constraints, laughing and petting Scarlet.
“It’s my family,” Winchester was saying. “I’m just trying to save my family. Splitting us up – we’d be so vulnerable.”
Ponyboy nodded and looked away from the little boys. “Scarlet,” he called and whistled, and the little dog jumped out of the car and came running over to the two men. “Good luck to you, John,” he said, and shook his hand.
* * *
Darry lived in a yellow ranch house, and if kids still used the old labels, his kids would have been called Socs. Ponyboy didn’t care much. The kids were happy, and healthy, and loved playing with Scarlet and riding around in his beat-up old truck. He’d take them out for an ice cream and they’d fight about who got to sit next to him in the cab. There were Curtis boys again (and a Curtis girl), and that was a good thing.
Judy, who was good and sensible and gracious, always made him feel at home, and had eventually stopped looking at him with pity. Things were what they were.
Ponyboy couldn’t tell what Darry looked at him with anymore. It had been years since he’d been able to read his brother, if he’d ever been able to. Still, it was enough, to sit on the steps of his back porch and share a beer, watch his kids running and screaming in the yard, Scarlet yipping and running with them.
Maybe he was broken, Ponyboy thought, but then maybe everybody was. It wasn’t such a bad life, either way.