Almost a year had passed since Riff and Tony left the scene. Ice did well enough to lead the Jets since then, but Baby John always felt some level of unease whenever a new gang got too close for comfort. Riff was smart about things. A jump or two was usually all it took to send their rivals packing. He never even thought about war until the gang actually moved in. The first gang to ever do that was the PR gang. The Sharks, remembered Baby John as he walked through the dark playground, his best friend, A-Rab at his side.
"What's a matter with you, Baby John?" he asked. "You ain't said a word since we left Doc's. Something eatin' you?"
"Aw, nothin's wrong, A-Rab. I just been thinking is all," he replied honestly, coming out of his thoughts.
Baby John paused, not sure if he should say anything about it, but when A-Rab asked again, he answered, "Mostly about Riff. What he woulda done about the JP's." A-Rab bit the corner of his mouth, considering the question himself.
"He probly woulda called those phony Jet Packs to a war counsel, same as Ice." He shrugged.
Baby John felt a pinch of anger and disappointment in his answer. "You know Riff wouldn'ta done that, A-Rab, and so does Ice. So, why would he want to do what Riff don't want?" When they reached the gate out of the play ground, Baby John stopped to show A-Rab that this was important to him. A-Rab went past the gate and turned around, reaching up to hold onto the chain-link fence. The shadows of the fence covered his face as he spoke.
"I don't know why he wants to do this, Baby John. And we don't have to worry about it for a while anyway. Velma's got him busy enough for us to figure out what we're gonna say to him, alright?"
Baby John nodded, "Okay." He stepped out through the gate and joined A-Rab, who thumped him on the back. Nobody understood Baby John as much as A-Rab, not even Minnie. He winced a little, remembering how Minnie left Manhattan shortly after Tony died.
They stood near the high way, watching the cops take Riff and Bernardo's bodies away. Baby John had tears in his eyes, but he tried to ignore them so he could comfort Minnie. "Come with me," she said for the fifth or sixth time. "We can go somewhere far away and forget about everything."
"But I don't want to forget everything, Minnie," he said sadly. "The Jets are my brothers. I can't leave them. They need me."
"Please?" she asked desperately. "I need you."
"Th-then prove it," he said, feeling a little bold. "If you really need me, stay with me." He took her hands in his. "I'll take care of you as long as you need me to. Only just stay here."
Minnie yanked her hands away, making Baby John jump. Angry, she turned and walked off into the darkness, never to be seen again.
In some ways, Baby John blamed himself for what happened, but he also knew that he couldn't have stopped her from leaving. "She always liked Tony," he said in a daze of thought.
"Who did?" A-Rab asked. "Maria?"
Baby John shook his head, realizing that his last thought was out loud. If anybody else was there, he would have taken the easy way out, but this was A-Rab. Baby John couldn't lie to A-Rab. "No. I mean Minnie..."
"Oh." They didn't speak again until they got to the hideout-an old parking garage the gang always met at when they needed a place to go cool down. A-Rab lit a truck's headlights to signal their arrival. Tiger and Action came out first, then Snowboy showed up, fitting a deck of beat-up cards into a dirty old card box. "Hey, buddy boys," said A-Rab, "Where's Ice?"
"Where else?" said Snowboy, tossing the deck to the side, "with Velma at the dance hall, patrolling for JP's."
"He wanted us to help," Big Deal joined in, coming into the light, "but we don't think they're even here yet."
"They haven't been for weeks," said Snowboy, leaning back against a mail truck.
Baby John looked around. "Hey. Where's Anybodys?"
Mouthpiece jumped down beside him from on top of a car, making him yelp a little. Some of the guys laughed. A-Rab smiled, he saw. Baby John tried to make light of it; even he knew he could be a bit sensitive. Mouthpiece spoke. "'In and out of the shadows.' Same thing Ice always tells her."
Tiger added, "He's got her wrapped around his long, skinny finger."
"She's just trying to do good for the gang," Baby John jumped to her defense. "Remember how long she waited before she became a Jet?" He looked around at all of them. "Nobody even gave her a chance until Ice stepped in."
"Aw ain't that sweet," Joyboy teased as he walked in. "A man stepping in to defend his woman. Baby John, your chivalry abounds." He bowed mockingly. Baby John blushed. He never really liked Anybodys that way, but some of the boys still teased him for being too nice to her. The truth was that Anybodys was a tough woman with a short fuse and Baby John respected her for it. Well, feared was probably the better word, but he never wanted to admit a thing like that to himself.
"Sh-shut up, Joyboy," he said with his embarrassingly unconvincing stutter.
"Sh-shut up, Joyboy," he mimicked.
"Hey, knock it off!" A-Rab intervened, stepping forward. "Baby John don't need this. He's got a lot on his mind. We all do." Everybody went silent for a moment, not really thinking about anything. Snowboy picked up his cards again, shoving them into his pocket. Baby John looked around again at everybodys' faces. Tiger's Snowboy's, A-Rab's. Action, Big Deal, Mouthpiece. Joyboy. Gee-Tar was the last to show up again. He lived the farthest away and had the longest to walk to get there.
"What I miss?" he strolled in, looking around. "What's going on?"
"Nothin'," A-Rab said. "Just talking."
"Just finished," Joyboy corrected, walking off into the shadows, Snowboy and Tiger close behind.
"I guess we're just waiting for Ice and Anybodys to show up?" Baby John shrugged.
"They're the only ones left," Mouthpiece pointed out, turning the truck's lights off again. To keep the place lit enough to play a game of cards, they switched between different cars' head lights to avoid killing any of them over the night. Snowboy shuffled like a pro, dealing five cards out to each member except A-Rab and Baby John, who liked to watch the games more than play them.
"You sure you don't want a hand?" Snowboy asked them before dealing out again.
"I'm alright," Baby John said quietly, watching the game with interest.
"Go ahead," A-Rab nodded. Not only did they have more fun watching the Jets play Poker, but they also learned a lot themselves about reading other people and hiding their own expressions. Games between Baby John and A-Rab went on for hours, most of that time just them playing mind games with each other.
"Ooh! Who's winning?" Anybody's slid in on her knees right next to Tiger, looking at his hand. Tiger pulled his cards back, hiding them against his chest. Snowboy handed her five cards to join the game. "Gimme four," she said, laying three cards down. Baby John smiled, trying to suppress a laugh. Snowboy handed her three cards, a smirk on his own face. It was easy to tell who all had a bad hand, because the ones who all had good hands allowed themselves to smile at Anybodys' joke. Tiger was in trouble. So was Gee-Tar. They all revealed their hands. Most of them had nothing good. A pair of threes here, three twos there. Joyboy barely won with four sixes. Mouthpiece clicked his teeth in disappointment at his four fours. The games would have been more interesting if they had money to bet, but since a lot of them were broke most of the time, they just played for fun.
"Any JP's out tonight?" Snowboy asked, shuffling his ratty deck.
"One," Anybodys admitted. "I think it was Tawny."
"You jump him?" Tiger asked, leaning in.
"Nah," she waved him off, dismissing it. "He wasn't anywhere near our street when I found him. And he had a girl with him. I don't think he'd be stupid enough to bring a girl into Jet territory."
"Don't tell Ice you saw a JP and didn't bring him down fighting," Joyboy warned.
"I don't plan on it," she said. "I don't know what's got into him, but he's not as 'cool' as he used ta be."
"I think it's 'cause he's leading us now," Baby John said from his place beside A-Rab. "He's under a lot of pressure. He's never dealt with another gang before." He shrugged. "I still think he's doing it the wrong way though."
"He's doing it the only way he knows how," Anybodys said from behind her cards. "The only way any of us know how. We ain't Riff an' we ain't Tony neither." All of them went silent.
"Hey, c'mon guys. It's been a year," A-Rab said, stepping forward, turning one car's lights off and moving to another's. "Riff don't want us crying over him. He wants us to keep going. He wants us to be the best we can be. Tony too. Am I right?" Nobody said anything. "Am I right?" he asked again, waiting for some kind of response. Nothing. Baby John could feel himself getting emotional. He knew he had to leave before the others had a chance to see him cry. Without a word, he slipped off through the garage and out the barely-cracked door. He wiped his eyes with the back of his hand, mad at himself for letting his emotions beat him up again. He heard A-Rab call after him, not sure where he had gone. He took off, hoping to get away before anybody had the chance to see him.
He walked down the barely-lit street, trying to find some way to take his mind off of Tony and Riff, and even Bernardo. Baby John saw all of them die. All of them, and-he shook his head, gasping and trying to control himself. He broke out in a run and before he knew it, he had a police car on his tail. He thought about running, but then he decided against it. He hadn't done anything wrong, and running from the cops would only make trouble for him that he didn't need. He slowed down and wiped his face again. Lucky for him it had rained not too long ago when he and A-Rab were at Doc's, so he could at least pretend that's why his face and hands were all wet. The car pulled up behind him and Lieutenant Schrank stuck his head out the window; Officer Krupke was driving.
"Hey there, Baby John," Schrank said, trying to sound nice.
"L-l-lieutenant Schrank... O-officer Krupke..." The cops were all used to Baby John's nervous stutter, so he didn't have to worry about hiding it. Schrank glanced at Krupke, then back at Baby John.
"What's a fine young boy doing out so late, uh? Where's your buddies?"
"I-I think Ice is at the social hall with V-velma," he said, staring down at his feet. "I was with A-Rab at Doc's...but I don't know where he is now." None of that was a lie exactly, so he was able to say it without giving anything away.
"You wouldn't be lying to us, would you, college boy?" Krupke said insultingly. Baby John was finishing high school with a full art scholarship waiting for him before the Jets' rumble with the Sharks a year ago. His scholarship was taken away right after that and his chances for college were ruined. He balled his fists, trying to keep himself under control. There's nothing the cops like better than a reason to lock up a kid from the streets.
Schrank raised his hands, palms out. "Easy now, Johnny boy, we want to help you. We can get you that fancy art scholarship back if you just work with us a little. The station got a report of a gang jumpin' on a couple a good, decent school kids. Just tell me who it was, and I can clear your record," he snapped his fingers, "like that."
Baby john tightened his fists. "Th-That ain't the Jets!" he shouted, offended. "That was them crummy JP's. The Jets never attack nobody that ain't a threat, so if you want me to tell you we did something bad, come back when you actually see one of us doing all the things they say we do!" He noticed then that he lost his nervous stutter, but he was shaking and his cheeks were hot.
"Calm down, Baby John. We just wanted to ask you some questions."
"So far they're questions I ain't got the answers to. You want your answers; go find Tawny. I heard he was here."
Schrank looked at Krupke for a moment. Krupke shrugged. Schrank turned back to Baby John. "Thanks for the heads up, son. Stay out of trouble."
"Yeah, stay out of trouble," Krupke repeated, driving away, to find Tawny, Baby John hoped. The cops really didn't like the JP's either. Rival gangs meant more work for them. Baby John kicked rocks into the road as he walked along, feeling worse than when he left the hideout. He thought about the song the Jets wrote about Officer Krupke a year ago when Riff was still alive. Nobody could sing it better than Riff. Baby John tried his hand. That made him glad he was alone. He wasn't a bad singer, but nobody should ever try to sing when they're angry.
"College boy," he spat, kicking a pretty large rock out into the street. "What does he know? I don't have to go to college to do somethin' with my life. A lot of great guys never went to college." He didn't even try listing any. He wasn't very gifted for remembering names. A sniffeling sound caught his ear, making him stop in his tracks.
A stifled sob sounded from a nearby alleyway. Someone was hiding and trying to keep quiet. A smart guy might just let them hide. Baby John didn't know much, he thought, but he did know that whatever happened here, somebody needed help. He couldn't turn away; his big heart would never let him. Cautiously, he stepped closer to the alleyway.
Some of the street lights had gone out, leaving very little light in the alley. A lump rose in Baby John's throat as he stepped into the darkness. He would never forget what he saw there.