West Side Story
Running on Empty
Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! I'm not quite sure where this idea came from or what I'm going to do with it now. The first two-thirds were supposed to be its only intended direction: tragic, depressing, and what-have-you. Then I thought of toying with another possibility during a conversation with Ladyamberjo, thanks to her asking if such would be the case. I decided to try it and see how it looked, and now, even though part of me still wants to just keep the original intent by itself, I like the rest of what I did with this and can't bring myself to take the last series of twists away. So make of this what you will.
The fires were burning in fury by the time the police arrived at the scene. Passers-by and teenage gang members alike ran about, yelling and panicking and trying to outrun the blaze.
"It's going to explode!" one man screamed.
"Keep away from the building!" a woman ordered.
"Everyone stay back!" a gruff police lieutenant concurred. He pushed past the crowd, his partner hot on his heels.
A few stragglers were still stumbling out of the warehouse, coughing and gasping. As the police went over, trying to assist them in getting farther away, the lieutenant caught hold of one kid's arm.
"Is everyone out of there?" he demanded.
"I don't know," the teen retorted, jerking away. "If someone's in there, too bad for them."
The lieutenant swore under his breath. They had got there first; the fire department had gotten held up and was still en route to the inferno. By the time they would come, it might be too late for any possible survivors.
"Get them out of here!" he ordered his partner, gesturing to the unsavory firebugs.
"What are you going to do?" the other man demanded.
"I don't know yet," was the answer. "You heard me; get going!"
Covering his nose and mouth with one hand, the lieutenant approached the doorway. Beyond it he could barely see anything but smoke and fire. His eyes watered. "Is anyone in there?" he yelled. When there was no answer he inched further inside.
The frantic punk nearly bowled him over as he dove out of the smoke, grabbing at the plainclothesman's jacket with a mad howl. The back of his red shirt was on fire.
The lieutenant spun him around and thrust him to the ground outside. "Roll!" he directed.
It was the next few seconds that turned the mess into a tragic three-ring circus.
The kid obeyed and rolled, extinguishing the flames from his shirt.
A woman among the alarmed civilians saw him and gave a cry, running forward towards him in horror.
The lieutenant's partner gave chase, calling for her to come back.
The lieutenant himself was trying to get away from the increasingly skeletal building, reaching to pull the boy to his feet as he went. He had heard something, felt something, from inside the structure. Something else was going to give.
The explosion echoed throughout the neighborhood at the same moment the four people converged. They soared in different directions, the force of the blast merciless in its destruction. The civilians screamed.
One of the police was carried much farther than the rest. He slammed down on the pier amid a pile of empty wooden crates and lay still.
The observers were quick to pick up on the horrifying fall. Some tried to run over but were held back by other, arriving police and the fire department. With nothing else to do they could only talk helplessly among themselves.
"Is he dead?"
"No one could survive being thrown like that!"
The other policeman, just rising up from where he had landed, tried to shake the rocks out of his brain. He stared ahead at the sight of his partner, motionless in the mess. The color drained from his face.
In that moment he heard nothing of the cries or the babble or the roaring, spreading fire. He did not notice the firemen's hoses coming on and being aimed in desperation at the building. He did not even hear the teenage kid screaming nearby, "Is he okay? Is he okay?"
He only heard the silence that told him his partner would never be okay again. And that was louder than even his heart pounding in his ears.
Lieutenant Schrank never was the same after Sergeant Krupke's death.
At first the gangs didn't notice much of a change. He was still the bitter, angry, frustrated man they all detested. But before long they started to notice differences in his behavior.
He was more of a loner than ever. He did not get a new partner; instead he worked exclusively on his own. And his acceptance of dinner invitations from acquaintances became more rare. Inviting people himself became non-existent.
Even by his prior standards, he was now colder, harsher, and less tolerant of the street gangs' antics. Krupke's death had been directly caused due to gang warfare. Schrank was not going to stand for it any longer.
Perhaps the most glaring alteration was that the pleasant facades were gone. He no longer tried to convince any of the gangs that he was on their side, extending a hand of friendship and even promising to help them beat their enemies in the rumbles. He did not have the patience or the will to even try to pretend to support any of them. Instead, he was furious right from the start. And some days were worse than others.
They never did learn, did they? he snarled more than once. They didn't care who got killed because of them, as long as they got their cursed piece of asphalt. That was it; the streets were the most important thing. Human life meant nothing to them by comparison.
"You don't understand, Lieutenant," one of the kids told him one day when he broke up yet another fight. "The streets are all we've got." He gestured to the concrete in emphasis.
It was the wrong thing to say, especially that day. Schrank grabbed him by the wrist, wrenching his arm above his head. "So you take away all that someone else has got," he said. "Is that right?"
The punk stared at him, wide-eyed, and tried to pull away. "Come on, it's not like we set out to kill people," he said.
Schrank held fast. "That's the problem with you people," he said. "You don't 'set out' to do anything except keep hold of 'your' precious streets. And whatever happens along the way, who gives a flying fig as long as you still end up with that." He released the boy, sending him stumbling back. "You make me sick."
Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of another gang member lunging at him, furious. He whirled, snatching the boy's arm. Before the kid even knew what had happened, Schrank had judo-flipped him over his shoulder and to the ground. A piece of his already-ratty shirt tore free in Schrank's hand. Schrank tossed it haphazardly away.
"You know," he hissed, "I could leave you in the gutter and everyone would just think it was the Emeralds that did it. After all, they're the ones you're always scrapping with."
The fallen hoodlum stared in angry shock. "Don't even cops have some kind of code of ethics?" he demanded.
Schrank's eyes flashed. "You have the nerve to talk to me about ethics?" he snarled. "After what you do?" He started to raise his foot. "I really should put you in the gutter. Maybe it'd teach you a thing or two, like what it's like to be on the side that gets it instead of the side that dishes it out."
A gang member standing to the side swore under his breath. "I think he really means it," he said. "He's finally snapped."
Schrank lowered his foot and looked to him with a sneer. "Of course I mean it," he said. "I've been too soft on you hooligans all these years. Maybe that's why you feel like you can get away with almost anything." When the teen started to step forward, Schrank struck him across the face. "Violence is the only language you guys understand, right? You're too stupid for anything else."
Fear flashed in the kid's eyes before being replaced by anger. Schrank was unconcerned.
"Do you know how long I've waited to see that look?" he said, advancing on the punk to back him into a brick wall. "Pure, flat-out, unbridled fear. So now you're afraid of me, when before you just laughed at me behind my back. And this is what made the difference, eh? A little violence? So maybe now you'll listen. Maybe now you'll stop beating people's brains out and killing the innocent." Without warning he grabbed the boy's shirt, slamming him forcefully into the wall. "It's too bad it didn't come sooner, ain't it."
The hooligan stared at him, shaking, and grabbed at his strong arms, trying to pry himself free. It was no use; he was not a match for the physically sturdy Lieutenant, especially with these changed policies. Schrank had no intention of releasing him.
"Hey!" another kid exclaimed from somewhere to the side. "Let him go!"
"We can report this, you know," said another. "Police brutality!"
"And who's going to believe a bunch of no-good trash from the wrong part of town?" Schrank shot back. "I think even headquarters will say I'm justified, if it clears you people off the streets. And if they don't see it my way, they can just go rot in . . ."
Suddenly he stiffened, as though something had touched him in the back. His complexion went sheet-white. The hoodlums gawked, bewildered.
"Krupke," he whispered.
He whirled around, his eyes wide and haunted. Upon seeing nothing he looked from one teenage punk to another, as though trying to determine which one was playing such a cruel joke. But there were no answers to be found. All of the kids stared back, bewildered and tense and ready to bolt. None of them were near enough to have made physical contact with him, except the one he had been holding against the wall. And that one could not have touched his back. When he took a step forward the hooligans fled, spreading in all directions.
He was too shaken to even give chase. The fight had left him. Instead he walked past the escaping gang members in a daze, heading for the squad car. He slumped into the driver's seat and leaned forward, out the open doorway. With a trembling hand he covered his face.
The images that had plagued his days and nights were back again, flashing through his mind with insistence. The fire, set off by the gangs' carelessness in that rotten warehouse. The explosion, which had sent pieces of objects flying in all directions.
And people. He still saw Krupke being thrown by the force of the blast, crashing to the ground several yards away. He had run over, checking his partner for injuries and screaming into his radio for an ambulance.
But there was no hope; Krupke had been too badly injured. He had looked up at Schrank, recognition in his pained and glazed eyes, and had wanted to say something. It had been a useless effort; his body had not cooperated with his wishes. He had died then and there as Schrank had looked on, helpless.
And Schrank had died with him. It had been the last straw. That punk was right—Schrank had snapped. Over the more than twenty years he had been with the New York Police Department, the gangs had eventually managed to take everything away from him: his patience, his sanity, the few kids who had started to listen to him . . . and the only real friend he had had.
Captain Black was worried about him and had been for some time. He had suggested that maybe Schrank should take some time off, that maybe when he returned he should think about getting another partner. Schrank had adamantly rejected both propositions. There was no time to take off; he was going to focus all of his energy into stopping the street gangs once and for all. And he would do it alone.
He had thought he had adjusted. He had made himself believe it. He had gotten used to going out on patrol by himself, to driving the car all the time, to not having anyone to talk to if he felt like talking.
And yet there were still times when he glanced behind him, wondering why Krupke was not following. There were still times when he started to talk out of habit, then demanded to know why Krupke was staying silent. There were still times when, while chasing the street gangs, he began to call out directions to Krupke on which way for him to go.
And always reality would slap him in the face moments later. Krupke was not there, he would never be there again, and it was because of those brainless kids fooling around with things they had no business getting into.
Yet, in all of his temporary lapses of memory, he had never once imagined that Krupke was answering his thoughtless comments. But a few minutes ago, Schrank had felt a hand on his shoulder and had heard a familiar voice saying only, "Lieutenant." And it had been more than enough to give him a harsh jolt.
It was impossible. He could not have felt and he could not have heard. And yet he had.
"I don't know what to do anymore, Krupke," he muttered in despair. "I've had it. I've really had it. These kids have pushed me over the edge."
For a long moment he sat there, unable to get the strength to move or the presence of mind to know what to do when he did. His soul had been all but shattered. And only now was he fully facing that fact.
"Lieutenant? Lieutenant, come on, wake up. You have to wake up!"
He looked up with a start. What was this? He was awake, wide awake. He pushed himself out of the car, his heart increasing in speed. He was alone, but he had heard Krupke saying nonsense. And suddenly there was a stabbing pain at the back of his head. He reached out, placing his hand over the tender spot.
"Lieutenant, please. Say something! You've gotta pull through. Speak to me!"
By now Schrank had had enough. "What are you talking about, Krupke?" he snapped. "You're the one who's dead."
But . . . Krupke sounded panic-stricken, even desperate. It did not make sense.
"It's no use, Sergeant. He's gone. That spill probably killed him on the spot."
"Just give me a few more minutes!"
Schrank stared. Those words. . . . Officer Bradley had spoken them to him when he had tried to revive Krupke after the explosion. And he himself had been the one to demand more time.
At least . . . that's how he thought it had been. Could he be mistaken?
The pain in his head was growing stronger. He sank to his knees, then to the ground.
The cloudy sky vanished, replaced by black and orange. The crackling of flames was all around him, as well as what sounded like firemen's hoses. And Krupke was calling to him.
"Lieutenant? Are you awake? Can you hear me?"
Schrank forced his eyes open wider. Krupke was bent over him, the worry and alarm in his eyes. He was alive. . . .
Now Krupke brightened. "You're alive!" he exclaimed. "I knew it was too soon to give up. I knew it!"
Give up? "Krupke? . . ." Schrank rasped. "What happened?"
"What happened? Lieutenant, you don't remember? That warehouse went up and you went flying through the air . . ." Krupke shuddered. "You crashed down and . . . and we've all thought you were . . ."
"But that was you," Schrank slurred, still just semi-conscious. "You got thrown by the blast and died after I found you. . . . And then I was going hardcore on a bunch of punks. . . ."
Krupke stared at him in confusion. "You must've been hallucinating or something," he said.
"Hallucinating . . . ?" Schrank repeated. As he revived more he was not sure what he believed. It had been so real—Krupke's death, his grief, his lashing out against the gang members. . . .
"You . . . really are alive, then?" he ventured. If he were more awake he would have berated how ridiculous it sounded. As it was, he was too groggy and confused and . . . hopeful? Was he hopeful? He, who scoffed at hope and said it was for wide-eyed idiots?
"I'm alive, Lieutenant," Krupke tried to assure him. "And you're lucky to be alive, boy, I'm telling you."
Schrank could not deny that. Everything was still a jumble in his mind, but he remembered seeing Krupke thrown in what was, he supposed, a mix-up of the truth. For anyone to live through that, and if that had been how far he himself had flown in reality, that almost seemed like . . .
A miracle? Was that what he had been thinking?
And why would someone like him—bitter, frustrated, and discouraged—get a miracle? There were plenty of pious people who deserved one and never received a thing. They were the kinds of people who suffered the most from the street gangs, the ones he hated to see come into the precinct. Their pleading, anguished eyes still bothered him after all these years.
He came back to the present as Krupke called for Officer Bradley. "He's alive!" Krupke cried, joyous. "Come here and see if you don't believe me!"
Officer Bradley could not come at the moment, but he looked over in stunned shock from where he was examining a gang member's injuries. Schrank gave a weak, tired wave. Bradley let out a joyous whoop.
"He wanted to believe you'd be okay before, but it was hard," Krupke said.
". . . What about you and those other people?" Schrank mumbled, suddenly remembering that all four of them had been caught in the explosion. "Didn't you guys get thrown too?"
"Yeah, we all did," Krupke admitted. "But we're all okay. Well, the kid cut up his arm pretty bad, but that's it. You must've been standing in the worst possible spot or something."
"I guess." Schrank looked up at him. He had seen a possible future in his dream, hallucination, whatever it had been—a future completely alone, where he had lost everything. In reality, he was not yet to that point. He had not tipped so far off the scale as to have become that hardened. And he was not alone; he still had loyal, faithful Krupke. Krupke's death had snapped his mind and what was left of his self-control, strange as it sounded now that he was back in the real world.
Or maybe not as strange as all that. Krupke had been one relatively positive constant in his life for years. The people who occasionally asked Schrank to dinner were little more than acquaintances. He did not feel close to and relaxed around them. Krupke was probably the closest thing he had to a true friend.
He tried to push himself upright, impatient with lying there. Krupke hastened to help him. "Can you make it?" he asked in concern, drawing an arm around Schrank's shoulders.
"Yeah, I can make it," Schrank mumbled. But he was dizzy, moreso than he had thought he was. And his back was throbbing now in addition to his head. He slumped against the sergeant.
"You should just rest," Krupke said. He lowered Schrank back to the ground. Schrank did not even lobby a protest.
"They were going to leave you and go on looking for any other survivors," Krupke went on, nodding to the paramedics. "They said you were dead. But I didn't want to give up on you yet."
Schrank blinked, looking up at him in surprise. He could scold Krupke for focusing too much on his personal feelings and not joining in the search, but he wouldn't. Schrank himself was far too guided by his feelings, if his inability to control his temper was any indication. And Krupke had very likely saved his life by refusing to leave him.
Krupke was not the closest thing Schrank had to a true friend, Schrank realized. He was a true friend. If there was anything Schrank could take from this experience, it was that knowledge.
And . . . was violence really the only way to make any kind of impression on those kids? Schrank had long thought it. But though he was always seeking some way to get through to them, he did not want to end up completely losing himself while trying, either. He was angry and frustrated with their inability to understand the cold, hard facts, but he was ashamed enough by things he had said and done after letting his temper get away from him in the past. In that frightening made-up future, Krupke had apparently reached out from the grave to stop him before he took his fury and grief too far. In reality, he would have to stop himself if the need ever arose.
Which he hoped it would not. He would also have to hope that Krupke's life would not be taken on one of their assignments, particularly due to gang warfare. It was certainly not something he wanted to see, although he did not think he had ever consciously thought much about it before tonight. It was a mystery why his mind had chosen to make him think Krupke had been the one fatally thrown instead of he himself.
He had to wonder, too, how would Krupke have taken it if he, Schrank, actually had been killed? Krupke was tough on the street gangs, but he had not been through all that Schrank had and he was not anywhere as disillusioned. It was hard for Schrank to imagine Krupke going hardcore, as he himself had in his delusion. On the other hand, in over twenty years Schrank had learned that anything was possible. And the thought of Krupke entirely snapping disturbed him, very much. Krupke was too nice a guy.
Schrank did not see himself as such. Perhaps he had been once, but the long years had worn him down and darkened his spirit. Among other things he was callous, abrasive, and soured. But Krupke saw in him what Schrank could not see in himself—that he was still a good person.
"Krupke," Schrank grumbled as he again fought in vain for the strength to stand, "we've got to find a way to get through to these kids before they're the death of us."
Krupke blinked in surprise. "I'm all for that," he said. "I don't know how we're going to do it, but I'm all for it."
A piece of something fluttered from Schrank's hand to the ground. Krupke watched it fall, bewildered. "What's that?" he wondered.
"That? It's . . ." Schrank glanced at it too. Any color that had been returning to his skin fled again. The object in question was a scrap of red cloth—seemingly inconsequential, and yet . . .
"It looks like what I tore off that one punk's shirt when I flipped him over my shoulder," he muttered.
Krupke gawked. "What? Lieutenant, something like that didn't happen! I'd remember it!"
Schrank passed a shaking hand over his face. "I don't know anymore," he said. "Maybe by tomorrow it'll feel like none of this will have happened. But I'll have the bump to prove it did."
Krupke picked up the cloth, turning it over in his hands. "Hey, that kid you were trying to help," he said. "Wasn't he wearing a red shirt?"
Schrank froze, replaying the incident over in his mind. "Yeah," he said. "Yeah, he was."
Relief washed over him. The scrap had to be from that. His mind had just taken the torn shirt and stuck it into his warped sense of reality, giving it a new and false origin. There was no way what he had thought had happened had really happened.
"Hey, Krupke—you said the paramedics said I was dead," Schrank said. "Was I?"
"You couldn't have been," Krupke objected. "They made a mistake."
". . . Yeah," Schrank agreed then. "They must've. They would've had to."
". . . Unless you . . . came back or something." Krupke spoke slowly, hesitant to even suggest such a possibility. He did not want to think of Schrank having been dead at all. It had been an agonizing, terrifying few minutes.
"If I was gone, I wasn't in Heaven," Schrank said. "I can tell you that."
Krupke rested a hand on Schrank's shoulder. "Well, you're back now," he said. "That's the important thing."
Schrank thought on that. Whatever the explanation was, he was indeed back. Trying to pick apart what had happened was not like him. There were certainly extenuating circumstances, but maybe, even though he was still shaken, he should try to put it behind him. Instead he should focus on the present and the future. His life had been spared. If he was going to believe it had not been mere coincidence, there must have been a reason for it.
"You'll need to get checked out at the hospital," Krupke told him now. "But if they say you're okay to go, I'll drive you home."
"Sure," Schrank consented.