West Side Story
Call On Your Angels
Notes: The characters are not mine and the story is! This is my annual Christmas story. This year the song A New York Christmas heavily inspired me and I felt it was perfect for West Side Story—both cynical and hopeful in nature. The wonderful police show Adam-12, and its third season Christmas episode, was also partial inspiration. And many thanks to Lady Amberjo! Her interpretation of A New York Christmas's first verse, which became the opening scene, was the final puzzle piece I needed to start my gears turning and working out the plot. This story would not exist without her. Nor, of course, without my Saviour Jesus Christ, for Whom this holiday is for. Merry Christmas!
Christmas Eve in New York, like every other day in New York, is filled with many bustling people. On Christmas Eve, however, they're busier than ever—rushing to find last minute gifts, rushing to meet arriving family and friends. Rushing to fix dinner, rushing to reservations at fancy restaurants. Christmas Eve is often a series of rushes.
The harried residents of Manhattan don't have any idea that they're being watched by those on other planes of existence. But every Christmas Eve finds those who have passed on returning to observe the living. Some watch in malls and department stores, following customers through the shops or sitting on benches and the edges of decorative fountains. Some line up on the bridges as the traffic files past their invisible audience.
Other spirits prefer the tree at the Rockefella Center to be their gathering place. Several were there on this Christmas Eve, observing the frantic crowds. A certain few were not the spirits of those who had lived long, happy lives and experienced decades of Christmases. Instead, every one of them had died young, and from violent causes.
Many were aimless wanderers, their eyes sunken and lost and filled with the memories of their unhappy lives and ends. Three, however, stood apart from them. Their eyes were clear. They remembered too, but their situation was not the same. They had accepted their state and graduated to better things.
"Ah, Christmas. It's a great time of year, isn't it?" A boy with curly hair and an impish grin looked to his two companions. "I'll never forget the year we bombarded ol' Schrank and Krupke with snowballs. What a present that was."
"I don't think they were very appreciative of the present, Riff," a brunet boy said in amusement.
"They invented what it means to be hardnosed cops," Riff said.
The third boy, a quiet Latin-American, glanced up. "They are on duty tonight."
"Oh yeah? Maybe we should drop in and wish them a Merry Christmas," Riff smirked. "Every year Schrank gets more and more grouchy. It's up to us to try to cheer him up a bit."
The brunet looked to the third boy, questions in his eyes. "How do you know that they're on duty tonight, Bernardo?"
Bernardo shrugged. "They're always on duty on Christmas Eve," he said. "And I saw them in the old neighborhood not long ago."
The brunet considered that. "I'm going to drop by and see the old place. Maybe them, too."
"We're due for a visit," Riff said. "But I've already got plans there, and they don't include haunting the local cops." He hopped to the ground. "Don't you and Bernardo have some other visiting to do, Tony?"
Tony nodded, sobering now. "We have important places to visit." And important people to see. "But if we run into the police along the way, it wouldn't hurt to see how they're doing. Just for a minute."
"Okay," Riff said. "It's your call."
"Am I going alone?" Tony asked, looking from Riff to Bernardo.
"Maybe we'll come for a few minutes, for kicks," Riff said. "You've got me curious now."
"I am curious as well," Bernardo said. "But regardless, we will be seeing them whether we wish to or not."
Riff froze. "What are you saying, Bernardo?" He groaned. "It's not another of those mission things, is it?"
Bernardo gave him a much-too-innocent look before sobering. "The main reason I know where they are tonight is because I was told before we gathered here. Our assignment is to shadow them and try to find some way to shine even a small portion of hope in their lives tonight. They are both disconsolate."
Riff gave a low whistle. "Come on, that's a tall order! We didn't even have much hope in life ourselves. How are we qualified to try to pass it on to anyone else?"
Bernardo considered the question. "Perhaps that's exactly why we are qualified," he said. "Perhaps we need this portion of hope as well."
Tony, the only one of the three who had possessed hope in life, nodded. "That sounds about right to me. Let's go."
He cast a glance at some of the other spirits lingering at the tree. He had tried to talk with a few of them, but to no avail. For the most part they just looked through him, either not hearing or not comprehending. They would have to find their own way, in their own time.
He turned away with a sigh.
Riff looked at them as well before he and Bernardo followed. "Were we really like them when we first kicked the bucket?" he mused.
"For a while, yes," Bernardo said. "I remember it; it was a dark and cold time."
Riff shuddered. "I'm glad that's over. I feel sorry for them."
Tony gave a grim nod.
Riff was certainly right about one thing—Schrank seemed to grow grouchier every year. Or at least, every Christmas Eve. But then again, there always seemed to be plenty to be grouchy about.
"Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way . . ."
Schrank glowered at a group of teenagers singing on the street corner. He pulled his coat closer around him in the biting chill. Next to him, Krupke was nervous and on edge, expecting trouble at any moment.
"Just look at them," Schrank grumbled. "Sure, they look like angels now, but wait until we're out of sight. It was just last week I caught them throwing rocks at Old Man Kelsey's warehouse. Then they scrambled to get into position and warble songs of Christmas cheer so I wouldn't suspect."
"They don't look guilty now," Krupke remarked.
"Maybe they're gonna do somethin' and just haven't yet," Schrank said. He went around the corner and then stopped, waiting. Krupke stumbled over near him to wait as well.
The strains of White Christmas came from inside the café they were standing by. Schrank glanced over his shoulder, annoyed. "And that's another thing. How can anyone in New York sit around dreaming of the white stuff when we got buried by it last year? Do they wanna see it happen again?"
Krupke gave a helpless shrug. "They probably don't want that much," he said.
"I don't want any," Schrank grunted. "It's a nightmare to drive through.
"Oh, see? Look, those punks are cutting out." He pointed to where the teens were hurrying across the street. Once on the sidewalk, they looked around furtively and then laughed among themselves before vanishing into an alley.
Schrank swore to himself. "Come on," he barked, heading after them.
Krupke followed, frustrated now. Schrank was often a regular Ebenezer Scrooge on Christmas Eve. But more often than not, he had good reason. Some of their most heart-shattering cases had happened at the holiday season. Once, just once, Krupke wished that they could have a completely peaceful patrol on Christmas Eve, without any of the discouragement and sorrow that plagued them the rest of the year. But it seemed not to be.
They caught up with the kids in back of a restaurant. One of them had just drawn a knife and was reaching for the backdoor. The others, gathered around, snickered to themselves.
Without warning Schrank reached out, snatching the leader's wrist. "Alright, just what are you planning to do with this blade?" He glared as the kid twisted around, glaring right back. "Don't tell us you're on the potato-peeling brigade this year."
The punk sneered. "Okay, I won't tell you, Lieutenant."
Krupke frowned, walking closer to the gang. "What are you guys really up to?" he demanded. "Some stealing? Are you gonna rob the place blind?"
"We just thought we'd help ourselves to a free Christmas dinner," smirked the second-in-command. "They've got plenty."
"Oh sure," Schrank said, the dangerous faux friendliness slipping into his voice. "They've got plenty, alright—for paying customers! Which you guys ain't."
"We're paying with this," the obnoxious leader replied, indicating the knife. "It gets us in anywhere."
"That's a great kind of money," Schrank retorted. "Maybe it does get you in just about anywhere. Especially if you stick somebody with it. You could end up paying for that with your pathetic life and getting a ticket down South. Way down South. A pretty high price for some Christmas Eve kicks, don't you think? Come on, you're under arrest." He pried the weapon out of the teen's hand. "Get your left hand on your head."
The boy complied, but he said something ugly under his breath as he did.
"Are you stupid enough to say that louder?" Schrank growled. He received silence in reply. "Punk."
Dragging a teen gang to jail was frustrating and discouraging on any day. But on Christmas Eve it was that much worse. And it did nothing for Schrank's mood.
"Can you believe this?" he snarled at Krupke, striking the list of phone numbers with the back of his hand. "Half these people ain't answering their phones. Out of the half that did, half of them were stoned out of their heads. Several more don't give a darn. We've only got a handful who are worried or ticked off and actually on their way over."
Krupke frowned. "What a way to spend Christmas Eve."
"No kiddin'." Schrank pushed up his hat, perching on the edge of his desk. "Some of these kids might get out if their folks bother to show up. And then they might go right back to giving us trouble tonight." He jerked his thumb behind him at the booking room. "Not all of these hooligans have rotten families. There's always some with a good deal at home. But they like to spend their time breakin' their parents' hearts."
"It's more that they are troubled and seeking a place to belong," Bernardo said, unseen and unheard, from behind the angry lieutenant. "They don't mean to hurt their families. They never do."
"But their families always do get hurt," Tony added with a frown. "And sometimes other people too."
A commotion outside the door jerked all of them to attention. Schrank looked up with a dark glare. A man's silhouette was just outside the squad room, pulling his arm away from an officer attempting to escort him. The door flew open and the business suit-clad man stormed inside.
"My name is Jasper Fellows. I heard you've got my boy here!" he yelled, marching up to Schrank. Krupke stood with open mouth to the side.
"Darn-tootin' we've got your boy here," Schrank retorted. "And you wanna know why? He was takin' part in an attempted hold-up of a restaurant. He had a knife on him!"
"Oh, that's a lie!" Jasper snarled. "Harvey knows better than that. He'd never do such a thing!"
"We've got at least a dozen witnesses that he had that knife," Schrank said. His patience was bending back further every time this guy opened his mouth.
Krupke could see that Schrank's temper was probably not going to hold. He stepped forward. "Do you want to talk to your son, Mr. Fellows?"
"I want to talk to the arresting officer about false arrest!" Jasper shot back. "I'm going to be suing the police department. Don't think I won't!"
"I'm the arresting officer," Schrank snapped. "So if you want to say anything else, just take it out of here. There's people trying to work." He gestured to the desks. A couple of officers were still trying to discreetly type or go over their files, but most were staring in shock at the scene before them.
"Oh sure, people cooking up more ways to clap innocent kids in jail," Jasper countered. "I've heard about you and the way you handle things at this precinct's Juvenile Division. I don't know why they haven't thrown you out yet. Unless they all agree with what you're doing!"
"Look," Schrank said through gritted teeth, "me and my partner followed these kids around back of this restaurant. The ringleader had a knife and admitted he was gonna lead his pack into the kitchen. When the rest of his gang was searched, several more of them had knives—including your kid Harvey."
"Why you . . ." Jasper spat a filthy name and lunged at Schrank, his fists flying. "This city would be a lot better off without the secret police everywhere, nosing into everything people say and do!"
Schrank was out of patience. As Jasper swung at him Schrank swung back, his fist catching Jasper on the jaw. Krupke immediately grabbed the stunned man as he stumbled, wrestling his arms behind his back to restrain him.
"I'll report you for this!" Jasper caterwauled. "Police brutality!"
"Self-defense," Schrank retorted. "You look like you're capable of dealing out a lot of damage in a fight." He looked to Krupke. "Book him. Assaulting an officer."
Krupke nodded and started to drag Jasper away. But his eyes were worried.
Schrank muttered to himself. He could get in trouble for what he had done, he supposed. He should probably have tried to catch the guy's wrists and wrench them away from him before resorting to using his own fists. And everyone in the room could attest to what he had done, if the situation arose.
He ran a hand over his face. "Oh brother, what a mess."
He looked so tired and discouraged that Riff couldn't even find it in him to make a smart remark.
"He never let us see him like that," Riff said. "But I wonder if that's how he felt back then."
"It probably is," Tony said. "We gave him a lot of grief."
"I actually feel kind of sorry for him," Riff said. "Weird, isn't it."
"Perhaps not," Bernardo said. "Now we are seeing things from his side, something we never did in life."
Now it was the sound of a crying woman that brought them all to attention. Schrank looked up, the silent Oh no written all over his features. First one that infuriated him, now one who was going to pierce his heart. He detested trying to talk with and reason with the visibly heartbroken ones. He always ended up depressed and discouraged—not to mention outraged at the kids responsible for the heartache. They never seemed to appreciate what they had. They were always looking for something else, some little, insignificant piece of sidewalk to own, and letting blood get spilled over it.
"Is it true?" the woman sobbed as she entered the squad room and saw the men looking to her. "My son Stephen was involved in a robbery?"
Schrank got up and went to her. "Attempted robbery, ma'am," he said. "Yeah, I'm sorry, but it's true. Your kid didn't have a knife, though. Some of them did."
"Can I get him out?" she asked, hope in her eyes.
Schrank hesitated, then nodded. "Come back here and talk to him," he said, taking her arm to lead her through the room. "This is his first offense. If you think you can knock some sense into him, you can take him home . . . this time."
"There won't be another time," she vowed. "I don't know how this happened. I just don't!"
"There weren't any warning signs at all?" Schrank pressed.
She shook her head. "If there were, I didn't pick up on them."
Schrank frowned. He would not pass judgment; he understood. There had not been warning signs for the kids he had once mentored, either. But he still berated himself anyway, certain that there must have been something he had overlooked. It was a horrible, helpless feeling.
If his patience was still tipped off the scale he might take out his frustrations on this woman, screaming at her but really at himself. There must've been something there and you just didn't see it. Why didn't you see it? What kind of idiot are you? Are you even capable of holding his life, his future, in your hands?
Now, however, the moment had passed and he was too worn out. So he just led her in silence to the holding tank.
It was close to an hour before Schrank and Krupke got back on patrol. When they did, Schrank looked wearier than ever.
"The Captain's gonna want to know about me hauling off and slugging that guy," he said at last. "He'll say I could've done something else before trying that. And it's probably true. I don't know." He shook his head. "We take his kinda garbage every day. I should be used to it. Usually I don't let it get to me. But tonight something just snapped. We keep his brat from maybe killing someone, at least this time, and then we see what kinda support he gets at home. His old man thinks he can do no wrong, or he's in denial that the kid ain't perfect, and the kid thinks he can get away with anything.
"You know, that kid's been in here way too much. This time it's juvie hall for him. I wish we could do something with his old man, too. He's gotta take responsibility for what's going on here! He's just been making it worse."
Krupke nodded in grim agreement. ". . . Maybe you'll get off easy for hitting him," he said, trying to remain hopeful. "With it being Christmas Eve and all."
"I've had suspension or worse coming to me for a long time," Schrank grumbled. "And I don't think Christmas Eve will play into it. The Captain knows I don't have much reason to celebrate."
"Well . . . maybe that's all the more reason he'll let you go now," Krupke said.
Schrank sighed and leaned back against the seat, closing his eyes. "You've got a big family thing tomorrow, right?"
"Yeah," Krupke said slowly. "My sister's throwin' a deal." He paused. "She said you're welcome to come."
Schrank started and looked to him. "Me? She's only ever met me once or twice."
Krupke shrugged. "I guess it's 'cause we've been partners all these years. She kinda feels like you're part of the family."
"Tell her thanks." Schrank rubbed his eyes. "You know I'm not much for partying unless there's something I really want to forget. And I wouldn't do that to your family, showing up like that."
Krupke frowned. "What are you going to do then? Just sit home alone?" He mulled it over in his mind. ". . . Barbara didn't call you, did she?"
"Of course not," Schrank grunted. "I haven't heard a word from her for years, ever since the divorce. And that was a messy divorce; you know that. Since there were no kids, there's been no reason for us to talk to each other. We're both just fine with that."
"I know." Krupke sighed. "I just don't like thinking that you're going to be alone on Christmas."
"Why should that be different than being alone on any other day?" Schrank countered. "As far as I'm concerned, it is just any other day. I might even put in for a shift at the station."
"Then you'd get roped into an office party with whoever else is there," Krupke pointed out.
Schrank made a face. "At least I know them," he said. "I don't really know any of your family."
"They feel like they know you," Krupke persisted. "They're always asking about you and I tell them stuff."
"Hoo boy. They must think I'm a real piece of work."
"I tell them those news stories almost always get you wrong," Krupke said. "You're nothing like how they try to make you seem."
Schrank gave him a sideways glance. "And they believe you?"
"Well . . . they don't have any reason not to," Krupke said.
"That's not really answering the question," Schrank pointed out.
Krupke never had a chance to reply. As he turned onto the next block, a scene up ahead near the curb caught both his and Schrank's full attention. Two men were locked in a violent struggle, their faces twisted in rage. They fell to the ground, wrestling in desperation.
Schrank swore under his breath. He was out of the car almost before Krupke could manage to fully stop. Once the car was parked, Krupke was right behind him. Above them, the first flakes of snow began to fall.
"Alright, break it up!" Schrank roared. He seized the man on top, pulling him back. The guy yelped and stumbled, fighting against him. Krupke grabbed the man on the ground, restraining him from lunging at the first man.
"What's going on here?" Schrank demanded.
The men glared at each other. "He wants to hang icicle lights on his house!" said the first. "But he knew I wanted them too. And he went ahead and bought the last box the store had!"
"He would've done the same thing if he'd got here first!" said the second.
Schrank looked to Krupke in disgust. "Can you believe this? They're at each other's throats over a hundred and fifty tiny white bulbs?"
"Three hundred," muttered the first man.
Krupke shook his head. "Come on, you guys," he said. "Where's your Christmas spirit? You're not gonna let a string of lights ruin it, are you?"
"This goes deeper than a string of lights!" howled the first. "It's about betrayal!"
"That goes for you too!" cried the second.
Schrank clenched his teeth. "You're disturbing the peace," he snapped. "Are you gonna press charges for roughing each other up? If you're not, I've got a mind to press charges on the both of you!"
"Jail's not a nice place to be on Christmas Eve," Krupke said.
The men frowned, glaring at each other with unsettled suspicion.
". . . You know, if we hurry there might be a store in Brooklyn that'd still have icicle lights," the second man said.
". . . Yeah?" said the first. "You got the address?"
"Sure. How about we take a drive out there and see?" The second man nodded towards the street.
". . . It's worth a try," the first consented.
Slowly Schrank and Krupke let them go, watching as they crossed to an old, beat-up car and slid inside. They pulled away from the curb, driving into the light snow.
"Well, that's settled," Krupke ventured.
"Whaddya wanna bet that in an hour they'll be goin' again?" Schrank grumbled. "You'd think grown men'd be more mature than a couple of five-year-olds."
"At least five-year-olds can forgive and forget pretty easy," Krupke said. "A lot faster than most adults, anyway."
"Eh." Schrank walked back to their car and got in. Krupke followed.
"No sense of humor," Riff said from the back seat. "That always was a problem with you." He glanced at his surroundings. "Now this is a place I never thought I'd voluntarily end up. Being dead does strange things to you."
Tony sighed and frowned. "I don't understand what we can really do to help," he said. "We can't be seen or heard. Do we have the power to give them a miracle?"
Riff glanced to him. "You're questioning all this?" he said. "Usually you're the one encouraging us to keep going."
"I guess it seems harder when it comes to people we know," Tony said. "Especially under these circumstances." He shook his head. "They're having a pretty bad time of it."
"Me, I'll be glad to get this done and move on to other things," Riff said. "I'm going to be late."
"That attitude will only make it take longer," Bernardo said.
"Oh yeah? And what about you, Bernardo?" Riff cast him an inquisitive look. "You were never a big Schrank fan in life. Don't tell me you want to be here."
"If this assignment had come some time back, I would be very bitter," Bernardo said. "But we've seen so much since then. And at least for my part, I feel we've come to know these men a lot better. Besides, it's a simple fact—if you despise what you are doing, the time goes by far more slowly."
"Then time must be almost at a standstill for old Schrank right now," Riff smirked.
"I wouldn't be surprised," Bernardo said.
While they conversed among themselves, Schrank looked up as Krupke entered the vehicle and started the engine. "See how nuts this all is?" he ranted. "People running around, acting like idiots, forgetting the whole reason behind what they're celebrating. If they ever knew it in the first place."
"I can't argue there," Krupke conceded. "Even some of my sister's family, they get all caught up running around in a panic over the gifts and the cards and other stuff. When it's all over, they regret it. Every year they say it's gonna be different." He shrugged. "But it never is."
"Kinda takes all the meaning out of it," Schrank said. He leaned on the door, massaging his forehead. "Maybe stuff like this is the real reason Scrooge called Christmas a humbug."
". . . I wonder if Jesus had any idea how Christmas would explode like this two thousand years after He was born," Krupke remarked as he steered the car away from the curb.
Schrank looked up in surprise. "Krupke, you come up with the craziest thoughts." Unique, though. And interesting, too; he had to admit that.
The radio crackled to life, the dispatcher calling their car's code name. "A church is burning near the corner of 65th and Hollis," she announced. "Probable cause, juvenile mischief."
Schrank slammed his hand on the door. "Now how do you like that?" he exclaimed. He grabbed the radio. "We'll take care of it. Is anyone hurt?"
"Negative, Lieutenant," the dispatcher answered.
"Well, that's something," Schrank said. He looked to Krupke. "Those people are gonna have to find a different place for their services tonight."
Krupke nodded. "And all because of some kids," he said bitterly.
"Didn't their parents ever teach them not to play with matches?" Schrank growled.
"Probably, and they didn't listen," Krupke said.
"What kid does, until he gets burned?" Schrank muttered. "If he's real stupid, not even then."
The orange glow and the accompanying smoke were visible in the sky before they located the building. When they did, Schrank cursed. The church itself could barely be seen for the flames engulfing it. Firefighters were at all angles, attacking the unfriendly blaze with their hoses. Several teens with torn clothes and sooty faces stood to the side in shock.
Behind the lines the arriving police were forming to deal with crowd control, a large number of people from parishioners to passers-by were staring. Some were embracing, stunned disbelief and horror reflected in their eyes. Others were numb. Still others, not knowing what to think, were nevertheless sobered by the sight.
Schrank got out of the car when Krupke parked, slamming the door behind him as he stormed over to the scene. "Police," he said curtly, pushing his way through the group. "Stay back."
One woman reached out, grabbing at his arm. "We've used this church for years," she said, sorrowed. "Some of us grew up here and have never known another building. Why is this happening? And on Christmas Eve of all nights?"
Schrank shook his head. "I don't know, ma'am," he said. "That's what we're here to find out."
The woman drew back, pulling her shawl closer around her. "I just don't understand," she said. "I don't understand why God would let this happen."
"It wasn't God's fault," Schrank grunted. "I'm guessing it was theirs." He indicated the nearby teens.
They jumped a mile when Schrank approached. "What happened here?" he demanded, glaring into their wide eyes. "Did you guys start this?" He gestured at the inferno behind him.
At first no one was willing to answer. Then at last one boy looked down, rubbing uncomfortably at his mostly bare arm. "We were just fooling around," he said.
"Did you all start the fire together?" Schrank pressed. "Or was it just one of you?"
Now they were all silent, exchanging looks with each other. Schrank waved a hand in disgust. "Oh, nevermind," he said. "That's right, you've got that misplaced code of honor of yours. You won't snitch on anyone, even rival gangs. We're the big bad wolves to you guys, more dangerous than a rumble with guns and knives.
"Well, let me tell you something. Your fooling around is causing a lot of trouble for a lot of people. And not just us wolves, oh no. Look at all these people here." He gestured to the shaken congregation. "They're gonna have to live with the consequences of what you did. Did you want them to suffer too? Or were they just not even thought about at all, because you wanted to have your fooling around? Isn't anything sacred to you people? Do you know the meaning of the word?"
They glared at him. "We didn't mean to burn it," one of them mumbled. "But it's just an old building anyway. They can build a new one."
"Yeah? With what?" Schrank snapped. "You think buildings pop up out of nowhere and money grows on trees? You guys believe some really nutty fairytales."
Krupke walked up to him now. "I just talked to the fire chief," he said, keeping his voice low. "It doesn't look like they can save any of the building."
"Figures," Schrank spat. He looked to the gang members. "Well? Do you hear that? Do you even care?"
They responded with what seemed to be their customary sullen looks.
Schrank turned to Krupke. "You can't say anything to them or do anything with them," he said. "You'd have a better chance talking to a bunch of bricks!"
"That's pretty much what you're doing now," came an unkind mumble.
Krupke's mouth fell open. Schrank whirled to look. "Who said that?" he demanded. Again no one would answer.
"Are you calling me stupid?" Krupke cried.
"You said it, we didn't," retorted one of the teens.
"You guys got no respect for authority," Schrank snarled.
"No sense respecting someone who doesn't deserve it," was the reply.
"Whatever. You know, if you don't quit protecting the guy who started this fire, you're all going to jail for it." Schrank let his gaze travel over the deadpan group. "Is that somethin' that doesn't bug anyone? You think we might change our minds if you bug us enough? If you're thinkin' that, you're dead wrong. And take a look at that Dante's Inferno you got going. You're lucky the lot of you aren't just plain dead!"
A scream from the crowd brought everyone's attention up. The fire was at last being wrestled into submission, but any scrap of hope of saving even part of the church was being extinguished with it. The building was beginning to collapse on itself.
A woman near Schrank bowed her head, whispering a saddened prayer under her breath. One child, unseen but very much heard, said, "Mommy, where are we going to go to church now?"
"I don't know, sweetheart," the mother answered. "Something will work out." But there was both sadness and weariness in her voice.
"It was a nice church! Why did they want to burn it?"
"That's a good question," Schrank muttered, shooting a dagger-filled look at the teens. Finally at least some of them looked uncomfortable. Even they were not accustomed to accusations from young kids.
"None of our fooling around caused a building to fizzle out like this," Riff said, tapping Schrank on the shoulder from behind.
"No, we just caused our lives to fizzle out," Bernardo remarked.
Tony nodded in agreement. "Buildings are replaceable. People aren't." He sighed, looking to the blackened remains of the church. "But that doesn't mean this isn't still awful." A thoroughly charred beam tore loose and fell to the floor along with most of the rest of the building.
"I remember when the church in our neighborhood in Puerto Rico burned," Bernardo said. "The people all came together to construct a new one."
"How'd it burn?" Riff asked.
"No one was ever certain," Bernardo said. "Officially it was an accident, but there were those who wondered."
Tony looked to Riff. "Where did you go, anyway?" he wondered. "I didn't see you for a few minutes."
Riff just shrugged, both unconcerned and unwilling to divulge his whereabouts. "Oh, I was around," he said vaguely. "I don't know why you didn't see me."
He glanced at the groups of people. The firefighters were hosing down the last flickers of fire. Some of the congregation was trudging over the gathering snow, wanting to inspect what was left of their church now that the deadly blaze was no longer a threat. The gang members were starting to spread out, apparently to make a break—but the police were right on top of it. Schrank, Krupke, and others grabbed them almost immediately.
"Perhaps we should try to speak to some of these people," Bernardo suggested. "Their emotions are quite high."
Tony nodded. "They can't see or hear us, but maybe they'll be able to sense what we're trying to say."
They hastened towards the crowd, pausing to whisper to particularly upset or distressed persons. Riff watched for a moment before following them.
"What a Christmas Eve, huh?" Schrank said to Krupke. "This is one these people aren't gonna forget any time soon. And not for any good reason." He glared at the smouldering remains. "There's nothing left of this place."
He blew out his breath in frustration. He was sick of seeing things like this happen. When punks like these acted up, they always ended up taking a lot of innocent victims with them. And trying to sweep up the pieces was not the least bit easy. There was not much comfort he could really offer to any of those left suffering. All he could do was arrest the hoodlums responsible. Sometimes they got out again. Sometimes they were put away for a while. Meantime, others took their places.
Krupke's attention was elsewhere. "Hey, what's she doing?" he exclaimed.
Schrank looked up with a start. A young kid had ventured near the ashes of the church. Having found something interesting, she was starting to paw through the debris.
"Maryanne, what are you doing?" a woman cried. She broke away from the group, hurrying to the girl. "Get away from there!"
"Mommy, I see something!" Maryanne protested as she was dragged back. "Something's under there that isn't burned!"
Curious now, a man went to the spot and started to lift pieces of wood away. "She's right," he called. "There is something here." Several other parishioners joined him in the excavation. The more they dug, the more their excitement grew. Maryanne, standing to the side as her mother held her back, watched with wide eyes.
"I've got it!" another man declared at last.
"What is it?" someone further back demanded.
The finder held it above his head. "It's the Baby Jesus statue from the Nativity."
The rest of the congregation began to file over, intrigued and wanting to see for themselves. The pastor, who had been among those digging, took the ash-covered statue with reverence and carried it away from the disaster site. When he was far enough away, he turned and faced the people who had followed him. He ran his tongue over his lips, pondering over what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it.
"This statue has been amazingly preserved," he said. "It is dirty, yes, from the soot and ash that covered it. But it is intact and unburned. And it can and will be cleaned good as new. Perhaps even better than before.
"Let us check ourselves and see that our faith is the same as this statue. Trials large and small may shake it. Sometimes it may even be tarnished. But faith can be renewed. Trials can even make it stronger.
"We're all wondering why this happened. Some of us are likely feeling anger or even hatred towards those responsible. But let us never forget Whose birthday we celebrate during this season, and more importantly, what He taught us. Hatred has no place here."
The others were silent, digesting the pastor's words. Then, timidly at first but soon stronger, Maryanne began to sing.
"Silent night, holy night . . ."
One by one the other members of the congregation joined her. Gradually, some of the police officers and firefighters started to sing or hum as well.
Schrank watched them. Even Krupke had started to sing, albeit under his breath. The gang members listened, their faces unreadable. Slowly, one of them took a step forward. Schrank tensed. The others were beginning to follow suit.
The parishioners were starting to clear away the debris that had fallen over their Nativity. The gang member closest to them suddenly broke away, walking towards the scene. The police officer guarding him gave chase, alarm and concern in his eyes.
The congregation tensed as he approached. Uncertainty and suspicion hung heavy in the air. He bent down and reached out, grasping a blackened beam. The police officer hurried up, preparing to grab it away. But the boy threw it harmlessly into the snow, away from the Nativity. The officer slowly relaxed.
The other gang members joined him now. The one who had broke away first was not their official leader, but they followed him as though he were. Each took hold of some of the mess their mischief had made, dumping it away from the Nativity. The parishioners worked with them, side by side, as their singing continued. Eventually, some of the troubled teens quietly added their voices to the chorus.
Schrank, observing with Krupke, shook his head. "I don't believe it," he said. "I see it, but I don't believe it. They're actually acting human."
"I guess, at least maybe for some of them, there's still hope," Krupke said.
Schrank pondered on that. Deep down, was that why he kept at this job after all these years, never asking for a transfer or trying to quit, despite feeling on countless occasions that he would do just that? Did some part of him still have hope? Did he still see something worth trying to save in these punks?
An innocent girl, much like Maryanne, had once told him that she was certain that police officers were doing Jesus's work, trying to help the bad people turn good again. He had brushed it off, not wanting to face how powerfully it had actually affected him. After all, he was certainly no saint. Nor did he want to be thought of as one; he was a terrible role model, as far as he was concerned. His temper and his mouth were his greatest hindrances.
But no one else was perfect, either. And he was trying to do a good thing in the end. Occasionally, very occasionally, he saw positive seeds begin to sprout. Even more occasionally, they grew.
". . . Franklin," he said at last. "That invitation you gave me for tomorrow. Is that still open?"
Krupke looked to him in surprised delight. "Yeah," he said. "Of course."
Schrank nodded. "Maybe I'll show up. Just for a bit," he added quickly. "If there's too much merry-making, I'll head for the hills."
Krupke grinned. "That's fair enough!"
Riff, again standing apart from the living, studied the scene with satisfaction. "They've got 'at least a spark of hope.' I'd say our time here is done," he said.
"But we didn't even do much of anything," Tony protested. "I don't understand."
Bernardo tilted his head to the side. "Perhaps," he said slowly, "our presence alone was enough to bring hope, when everyone was ready to listen. We were speaking to them, whispering in their ears. But until the little girl found the surviving statue, there was too much confusion for anyone to hear us."
"How did that statue come out of the fire so well-preserved, anyway?" Tony asked, casting a sidelong glance at Riff.
"Don't look at me," Riff retorted. "I haven't got the faintest idea."
"Don't listen to him," Bernardo said in a stage whisper. "It was his doing. I happened to see him by the Nativity as it burned."
"Why, Riff, you're just a big marshmallow," Tony grinned. "I wonder what the Jets would think of you now."
"There's no way they'll ever know," Riff said. "You guys can't tell them. Anyway . . ." He shrugged, looking out at the scene of harmony. "Something about this set-up just got to me. I remembered one of my few happy memories from home, when Ma took me to one of these Christmas Eve services. And I didn't like seeing this one get completely demolished. That's all; no biggie." He turned, shoving his hands in his pockets as he strolled off.
Tony and Bernardo exchanged a look as they followed. Behind them, the little group's strains of O Holy Night rose into the air—praise for their King and hope for a future of harmony and peace.
That night, a small step to that end had been taken.
Then again, could such a step ever truly be considered small?