Disclaimer: Characters created by SE Hinton. I just love them and occasionally borrow them.

Her Boys

Sunrises were her favorite. Each morning she rose in the whispering dark and set to the tasks of the day, comforted by the violet-grey shadows and dim kitchen light. By the time she cracked the first egg into the skillet and heard her boys begin to stir, that fresh glow was blossoming on the horizon. She toasted bread and quartered oranges as the sky washed dusky pink, then icy peach, then into the clearest, palest blue as the crest of the sun appeared. There was a stillness to sunrise, and she bathed in it as she set the table.

Then Sodapop clattered down the stairs and blasted across the room to kiss her, already a whirlwind of energy even so early. Soon her husband would make his way down, then Darry. Ponyboy would come last to the table but would always be there, awake an hour earlier than he needed to be so he could eat breakfast with them. A touch of melancholy drifted toward her when that quiet sunrise moment faded, but the glowing morning and all her boys around the table filled her up with sweet, subtle joy.

Still, when her husband and Darry had gone to work and the schoolboys had hurried off, she found her mind quite full as she washed dishes and cleaned up the morning's disarray. Thoughts of their home, for instance, as she took her hands out of the dishwater and peered through the doorway into the living room. The wallpaper was peeling in the upper corners and the door-frame paint was chipped down by the floor, the old armchair was saggy and sharp-edged through the cushions, the den doubled as Ponyboy's bedroom; but by God, their home was clean and impeccably neat. There was no dust on her coffee table, no empty cans and magazines strewn across the kitchen table. She emptied and cleaned the ashtrays whenever they looked even faintly snowy, just to be sure. She would not claim dignity nor class nor high intelligence, though perhaps she had every right to, but let no one say she was not a respectable wife and mother, with the cleanest home and the warmest meals in the neighborhood.

Maybe that was why boys like Steve Randle came around so often.

She liked all her sons' friends, from Darry's old football buddies to the Cade boy with shadowed eyes. The dearest, though, were those from the neighborhood who hung around closer and stayed longer than any others. They were her boys as much as her own family was. Steve had been aroung the longest, as Soda's partner in crime since the second grade. She had seen the serious nature he carried as a child darken into bitterness. His eyes burned with all the things he would never say with his words, only with his fast and desperate actions. He felt strongly and darkly, but he kept his door shut, locking it all in and turning it back upon himself. That was why she loved Sodapop being so close to him. Sodapop, aptly named, bubbling and sparkling and overflowing. Her golden boy could hide nothing even if he wanted to. "You're so good for Steve," she would have told him, wanted to tell him; but she kept her silence. Steve and Soda balanced perfectly because they did not think about the balance, and her mention of it would upset the fragility of it all.

We're all so fragile, she thought, wiping traces of dust from the picture frames. She saw it in the relationships interconnecting like spider-threads between all her boys, crossing one another all over their home. She saw it in herself, staring at sunrises. She saw it in her youngest son.

If Darry made her proud and Sodapop filled her with warm joy, Ponyboy made her heart ache and her breath catch with the thickness of tears.

They were young, so young, but the had the same quiet, Ponyboy and Johnny. She tried not to break her heart over her son. She know Ponyboy was just different, deeper, a rare kind in this neighborhood, not like Johnny, scarred and salt-crusted and rusted nails trying to protect a fragile heart. She spent her nights and days spinning warmth and love throughout their home, and that was their protection, that would save her son from the shadows Johnny bore. But somehow, somewhere in her sweet young son she saw tragedy as deep as the Cade boy's bruises. Every picture he drew, which she so proudly praised if he let her see it; every book he brought home and told her about while she made dinner; every star he gazed at through the window, she saw with all the more clarity what he was. An endangered species.

Johnny was hunted by time, by an inevitable future as sure as the ocean's swelling. Ponyboy was hunted by his own so beautiful heart.

Dear God, she wondered, the broom clutched in her hands. Dear God, why do I cry for my son when he is happy?

So she thought instead of what to make for dinner.

Sodapop had warned - mentioned, really, but any such mentioning was an unintentional warning - that Mary Anne's boy might come to dinner. She always had to think deliberately to remember his real name - Keith - for all the boys called him by his nickname. Even his mother had given in. But who could resist that boy, deny him anything? His face was one big smile, his body one big laugh. He had developed bad habits - they all had - but she couldn't bring herself to worry because his heart was good in the ways that counted, and he was smart, if not in the right ways to keep from failing half his classes. She loved him, the dear wisecracker whose boyhood freckles had all but faded, who carried a picture of his eight-year-old sister in his wallet. She wanted him to come for dinner, even if that surely meant it would be an incessantly eventful occasion.

There was another boy she would like to come to dinner. She invited him each time she saw him, but she knew he would never accept.

It was strange how her heart broke more for her soft-hearted, sweet-natured youngest son than for much-arrested, ice-eyed Dallas.

Sharp knuckles rapped on the door. She leaned the broom against the wall and went to the front door of the house, shaking off her thoughts and putting on her hello-mailman smile. But when she opened the door it was not the mailman, nor a neighbor woman sniffing out advice. Speak of the devil, she thought; aloud she said, "Good morning, Dally."

He ducked his head in a kind of half-nod. "'Morning, Mrs. Curtis."

There were shadows under his eyes, dark purple-grey stark against his fair skin. A sick-colored bruise was spread along the side of his chin and jaw. She opened the door a little wider and asked, "Would you like to come in?"

His head tilted slightly to one side as his gaze skirted away to the doorframe. "Sure, yeah." Hands stuffed in pockets, he passed over the doorstep. She shut the door behind him.

"Some breakfast?"

"Sure."

The kitchen was full now with bright morning light. Everything seemed to glow, and when Dallas sat right in the light at the kitchen table his pale hair and white hands seemed to create a half-angelic light of their own. She did not ponder this incongruity. She merely cracked a new egg into the freshly-cleaned skillet, fried the egg and buttered the toast and gave him the last orange whole, not quartered, so he could work the peel off in one long spiral as he liked. He did not lift his head to thank her when she set the plate before him.

While he ate she moved through the house, tidying up the boys' rooms, reorganizing the now-disheveled bathroom, and she made it back to the kitchen just as he was finishing his plate. She took it up wordlessly and went straight to the sink, heard the chair creak slightly as he settled back, noticed the faint hiss of striking flame and the odor of matches that blossomed from underneath the leftover cooking-smells. These were the fragrances of a household, she thought, dish soap and hot water, old carpet and cigarette smoke. She closed her eyes as she scrubbed the egg residue from the skillet, and she slipped back inside herself to not so long ago, not so far away, to a household that had smelled of furniture polish and clean linen, lavender and fresh spring air that stirred white cotton curtains.

She wondered if Dallas had memorized the fragrances of the house he had grown up in. Or perhaps there were other smells he knew better.

But the dishes were done and she couldn't distract herself with them any longer. So she turned and put her hands on her hips. "Is it this lighting," she asked, "or have you not slept in a day or two?"

Without moving he looked up at her, narrow eyes staring hard from behind side-swept hair, faint ghosts of smoke curling around him. For the space of many breaths he did not reply; then he looked away, crossed one leg over the other knee and crushed his cigarette against the sole of his shoe. "I'll crash later."

She opened a lower cupboard and took out an olive-green ashtray, held it out to him. "In here, not on the floor, please." Wordlessly he finished putting the cigarette out in the ashtray, then left it lying there. Even as she put the ashtray on the counter behind her, she did not turn her gaze away from him. He lifted his cold eyes and stared back.

Darry was a good boy with a good head on his shoulders and nothing but good intentions. He was strong and smart and never did less than his best, and her heart broke with knowing they could not give him all the opportunities he deserved to do his best. Sodapop could never inspire sadness in her, not with his sunlight and laughing eyes, but she always had to snatch back her hands to keep from holding him back in fear that the world would sully his bright spirit. And her heart ached for Ponyboy, her sweet son that she wanted to hold close to her forever, never let him venture any further into the world than he already had, never let him risk breaking his own heart.

And her other boys-Steve with his soft bitter voice and violent eyes, Johnny with his gentle spirit chiseled into sharp edges for the sake of his survival, Two-Bit who gave her melancholy only when she realized she could not guess in what direction his life might go. All her boys, all who had at some time or another caused her chest to clench with regret or fear, or perhaps caused her eyes to sting until she pressed her face into the pillow and remembered that this is the nature of life and she cannot control it, so let her not grieve it.

It was strange that of all her boys, Dallas Winston was the one who least broke her heart.

Staring at him now in the stillness of the morning, she thought that perhaps Dallas was the one who gripped her heart most fiercely after all, wrapped it in climbing thick branches of ivy and thorn. But that was the difference. Her other boys did not take her heart in their own hands, though she knew they loved her by their glowing faces when she welcomed them to her table, her home, her time-to-time embrace. But they did not take her heart - she reached it out to them of her own accord. Dallas had no such courtesy. He grasped, he took, he kept, and even when the taking was not a conscious action, he never gave back. He had taken over too closely for her to see tragedy or beauty or regret in his desperation, his coldness, his empty hard eyes.

How could you cry for the tragedy of something when you were standing inside it, looking out at the world?

She stepped away from the kitchen counter. "I'll get the afghan for you." And she did not wait for an answer before leaving the room and heading for the hall closet.

The hall was dim and quiet, the closet dark and musty. She pulled the afghan down from the shelf and held it close to her, breathed in the smell of cotton and wool kept in storage. She imagined lying snuggled under the warm red-and-white patterns, pulling the blanket up to her nose, the old smell comforting as her weary body relaxed and her aching mind slipped toward sleep. If I were Dallas Winston, she thought, this blanket would make me forget who I was for that last blissful moment just before sleep takes you away.

By the time she got back to the living room he was sitting on the edge of the couch, his shoes kicked off and lying under the coffee table. Without speaking, she handed him the afghan. Without speaking, he laid down facing the back of the couch and pulled the blanket up over his shoulders until it nearly hid his face.

The light was angling differently across the floor now as the sun climbed in the sky. Soon his soft, whispering breathing was regular and slow. She stood in the stillness, listening to her own breath as well as his, her mind quite full. And when she uprooted her feet moments later and slipped out of the room, she paused only a moment, slender hand alighting on the doorframe, to peer back at the boy before she went on through the house.