Title: the damned
Notes: A sort-of companion piece to goodbye, farewell and amen. Inspired by listening to the WSS soundtrack on repeat; was going to be far more Tony/Maria central and then got stolen by the Jets...
If I had ta go, Riff drawls as they slouch from the candy store (well, he and Ice slouch; Action is still pinned between the boys like some kind of mad dog, man, a real wild animal, hurling abuse at anyone who so much as looks at him), if I really had ta bite it, I'd want it to be from one of those guys.
The PRs? Ice snorts. Man, you're crazy.
From real down boys like that, yeah, why not? They got class, in their own stinkin' way. I wouldn't have nothin' against them if they'd keep off from our turf. But goin' in action, yeah, that's the way I want to go. Who wants to rot in some crummy apartment until you're so old you can't even spit straight. Riff laughs at his lieutenant's expression. Don't worry, Ice-boy. I'm in no hurry to kick off any time soon.
They sit side by side on the bed as they have done on so many nights, the scratch of the record player buzzing through the tiny room, and if Velma's hands are shaking more than usual as she brushes through the other girl's brilliant hair, well, Graziella's not gonna complain. Fair fight, but who can trust those spics? She wouldn't put it past any one of them to be taking razor blades to the highway tonight, razor blades and knives and even guns. It's Vel's man on the front line tonight. So she sits patiently even as the comb tugs and scratches at her scalp, and mouths the name of every boy in that gang, every boy who ever shared a coke with her and used to pull her pigtails in the playground. Every boy.
Not her Riff though. She never has to pray for him. Riff's got magic, the kind no other girl could understand, nothing can touch him.
Rat-tat-tat. When Velma turns it's to see Ice, scrambling up the fire escape as he's done a hundred times, a beautiful shiner on his cheekbone and some other guy's blood clinging to his hair.
Velma's shriek is so loud it's likely to wake her parents, and for once Ice's own ice-queen isn't able to hold herself back but wrenches open the window, flings herself at her man as if he's been away for years, as if he's some long-lost soldier come back from the wars. She's laughing, great delighted screams of laughter, and even Graziella can't help clapping her hands in sheer delight. Ice is back, Ice is here, and that means everything's ok. How could it not be? How could the Jets ever lose? How could she ever think it? And Ice is here, and Velma's happy, and all throughout their turf each one of her friends will have their boys' come home tonight. And Riff – her sweet, brilliant, thoughtless Riff - will be here in a minute, just you wait and see.
"I'm alright," Ice gasps. He clutches Velma tight, so tight Graziella can hear her gasp even from here, and Jesus, but suddenly he looks about five, clinging to his momma, to his teddy bear, to anything that will give a poor kid comfort. Like a drowning man clasping a lifebelt. "I just…I had to come."
He looks, she realises, like death.
"I had to come," he repeats, and it's not Vel he's looking at, it's her.
Why is he looking at her? He's alright, he's alive, and if Ice is alive then Riff's alive, and who cares about anything other than that? Riff will be coming, she just knows it. He'll be along, late as usual, with that guilty half-smile which means he knows he's screwed up, and she'll hit him lightly and pretend to scold for keeping her waiting – oh, and then everything will be wonderful and everything will be forgotten. He's coming now, wait and see. He'll be taking his time, of course, he'll be with his boys – teasing Action, laughing with Snowboy, reassuring Baby John that he's a real tough guy, that he really came true this time – because that's what Riff is, a leader. He'll be there with his boys, but before the night is through, he'll come to her. She knows it.
"Graz." Ice swallows, hard. "Graz, I have to yell ya – "
There's sound in her ears, no words or tone, just empty, echoing sound. Ice is still talking, she can see his lips move. And she sees Velma gasp, put her fingers to her lips and shake her head, and all she can think is no, no, why're you acting like this? Today's a good day, the Jets won and the Sharks lost, it has to be this way. But no, she can't speak, her tongue is dry and swollen and numb in her mouth, and her limbs have lost all feeling, and this noise keeps filling her ears like the roar of the tide, so loud she just might cry from the pain. But that's pointless, because what's there to cry about? Riff will be coming. Just wait and see.
Let go, Mouthpiece thinks suddenly as he swings by his fingertips, hanging suspended like some kind of chump, like an idiot. All around him boys are scrambling down the side of the wall, leaping across dustbins, getting out, getting away. All he can do is hang there. Just let go. It won't be enough to kill him, but the drop would certainly hurt like hell, and right now he can't feel a goddamn thing.
Sirens, lights, the heavy thud of footsteps.
He can't think. Can't move, can't speak, can't think. Mouthpiece just hangs there, staring into space, watching his buddies retreat further and further away, until blinding pain slashes through him like a tank and his fingers give way of their own accord and – damn, but it does hurt, smashing against the ground, legs buckling under him, rolling in the dirt where he belongs. He should stay there, goddamnit, just stay in the dirt, what else are you good for when everything else in the world doesn't make sense anymore?
What's a gang without a leader? What's a Jet without his buddies? What are they, he thinks, without Riff?
He's running, he don't know where to or where from, all he knows he has to get away, has to get rid of all this feeling inside of him, has to get it out otherwise it'll tear him apart. It's always there, always burning inside of him, this anger, against every stinking PR that thinks they can take away what little he's got, every cop and wiseacre that thinks they can treat him like shit and not answer it, against a father that's never there and a mother who's been looking for something better than him since the day he was born, against a whole goddamn world that doesn't want him around, that has no place for him here. He's been angry since before he can remember, but oh Christ Jesus, now… Riff would laugh right now, would slap an arm around his shoulders and pin him still even when he tried to spin away, cool it Daddy-O, ain't no-one here your enemy. We're all brothers here. Riff would chuckle, Riff would sing, Riff would, Riff would…
Riff would throw his hands back and say he was a Jet. That Jets were untouchable, so what are you so mad at, Action-boy, what is it you're scared of? Untouchable, the Jets are untouchable. Only they weren't, were they?
Untouchable, he thinks, and spins like a cat outside a dingy grocery-store, twisting on his heels as he bends down low, finds a brick. Hurls with all of his might, until the window splinters like ice, until glass rains down, until the entire sidewalk is jagged and razor-sharp with pain. Christ, he hopes the storeowners shred their hands cleaning up this junk, until the sidewalk – almost beautiful, now, glittering beneath the streetlight, and what the hell right does anything have to be beautiful here – is stained red. Another brick crashes into the cash register, renting metal, spilling coins. He wants to punch and rip and tear, to smash until his hands are bleeding and his body's broken, to not leave a single building in this whole city standing, to treat every lousy creep on this entire island as an enemy – because that's what the world is, his enemy, it's been treating him that way since before he could talk, the only buddies he's ever had are the Jets and now the best one of them is gone.
Goddamn Bernardo. Goddamn Tony. Goddamn the whole shitty lot of them, every last one.
"You stupid sonofabitch," he spits out, and he's no longer thinking of Bernardo or Tony or anyone in the world but Riff; Riff who swore blind everything would be alright, who refused to ditch that miserable no-good Polack even when everything around him was telling him to, who gave Action the brush off even when he begged him to reconsider. Take me, Riff, I'll be your lieutenant, I've got form, I won't let you down. I'll show those PRs we mean business, I've got your back. Or take Ice, I don't care, take anyone you want, but don't take Tony, don't pretend he's still your boy.
Riff hadn't listened. He didn't listen, and now look at him. Look at him now.
"You stupid, goddamn turkey, you jerk, why the hell didn't you listen to me? I'd have sorted things out, we'd have had our rumble, we'd be flying high right now and you know it. You goddamn liar, you promised everything would be alright."
Tiger's no brain – he'd be the first to admit that to anyone, and 'sides, the guys have told him enough times for it to sink in – but the one thing he can do is fight. It's all he's ever been able to do, since he was a kid. His fists are scarred and misshapen, his body is a battlefield of old bruises, but it's what he can do. He's never had time to think, never needed to think, because all he had to do was line up behind Riff and do whatever the guy told him to do. Riff had enough brains for the two of them, for the whole gang.
And now – now what?
He had only one job to do, and he blew it. Riff only asked one thing of him, and he couldn't even do that. His fists might be legendary over the whole west side, but they couldn't even keep Tony from getting involved.
The guys don't say it. None of them do. They don't have to.
His fault. Oh God, his fault. Riff's death, and – even if he'd happily strangle the filthy spic for what he did to his leader – Bernardo's death too. Riff only asked one thing, and he was too stupid even for that.
This wasn't supposed to happen. This was never supposed to happen.
When hell explodes around them it's A-Rab who dives for the ground, twists Riff's body so his face is no longer pressed into the tarmac. Even when he puts his ear to the figure's chest and mouth and hears nothing, even when he shakes Riff's shoulders so hard that his head thuds against the ground, it's not real. Nothing about this is real. C'mon, c'mon, this isn't happening, this can't be happening, you're just going to sit up and laugh that goofy, dumbass laugh and everything's going to be fine. C'mon Riff, don't do this to me buddy, don't just lie there, can't you see we need you?
It can't be happening. It can't be. This is all wrong.
Oh God, this can't be happening.
He repeats this in his mind even as he smashes a pair of iron knuckles into some faceless Shark's guts, even as the sirens echo in his ears, even as he runs until he barely knows where he is anymore. This isn't real, Jesus, please don't let this be real. Let it all be a dream, let him be imagining this. Let it all be turned around – maybe Riff's only faking, maybe he's just passed out from the pain, maybe the cops will get him to the hospital in time, God, he'll do anything only please don't let this be real. He's the joker of the pack, he has fun, that's what he's here for, and he just doesn't know how to deal with this, he can't.
He's no good on his own. None of them are, not one, not even Riff or Ice or Action, because when they're together they're the Jets, they're somebody, but on their own they're just one dumb kid at a time, running through the streets without anything, without nobody. And now he's here, and he ain't got nobody, and it's not right, he can't bear to say it, he can't bear to even think it…
"Riff," he speaks through bloodied lips; the words swell in his throat, so loud and so painful he thinks he might choke on them, but when he finally speaks his voice cracks in little more than a whisper. "Riff's dead."
It's the first time he allows himself to think it – really think it – let alone say it: Riff's dead, Riff's gone, there's a Riff-shaped whole in the world and he's never, ever coming back, no matter what you do or say he's never going to be there. It physically hurts to allow the thought into his mind. And now it's all he can think about – Riff, dead Riff, Riff with his limp body and his glassy, unseeing eyes staring up at A-Rab as if begging him to do something. As if he could do something, as if he was anything more than some powerless, stupid little kid who can't even protect his friends.
He's no coward. One time three of the Emeralds pinned him to the sidewalk, pushing his face into the tarmac until he couldn't so much as breathe, and let their leader grind cigarettes into the back of his neck. Five, one for each week that the Jets had resisted those mick bastards' attempts to move into their turf, their home. Five cigarettes, and he didn't cry out once. He still has the scars.
But this – Jesus, even he's not brave enough to do this.
Joyboy watches as the gang comes through the alley in dribbles and drabs, ones or twos, and hell, but he's never heard them so quiet. Mouthpiece, Tiger, here they come. He looks at his brothers' faces – because that's what they are, brothers, the only brothers worth a damn any of them have – and sees a mirror. Sees his own face reflected in them. Grimy, bruised, anguished, tired. Empty, so completely empty. Action, shifting and twitching like every shadow's his enemy. The knowledge that Riff's gone, actually gone, burns in his mind like a brand, like some hot glowing ember that you can't bear to touch. You know when a drawer's fully jammed with junk and you can't so much as open it? Yeah, like that. The thought – Riff's done, Riff's dead – is so big that he can't think it. It's impossible. Riff was like the sun, man, you can't get rid of the sun.
Ice, Velma. Graz.
He's never had much time for Graz, not for any of the dames – Action's right, what d'you need for dumb broads when you've got your buddies with you? – but now…well now's different. Now is a completely alien world, far far away from the country where you dance and cheek the cops and follow your leader, because in Now you don't have a leader. And Graz, Graz with her pale face and wide, staring eyes and the quiet whimpers of a madwoman, she don't have a man either.
Shaking, panting, because every step he takes is as exerting as running a mile, Joyboy crosses the alley to where she's sitting, holds out the bomber jacket he caught back when Now was unimaginable. "Graz."
She looks up, but he doubts like hell that she can see him. Her hands paw blindly at the jacket before drawing it slowly to her chest, those soft whimpers escaping from her lips. There's nothing, no recognition, and even when Velma gives him a brief smile and Clarice nods in approval, well, that's nothing compared to the ache of failure driving through his gut. Christ, he's not brave enough for this, he never signed on for this.
It's a filthy thought, too filthy to blossom in her mind for more than a second, and she hates herself – oh God, really hates herself – for even thinking it, but there it is. There under the highway, with Bernardo's body splayed on one side of him and Riff's on the other: Thank God. Thank God it wasn't Tony.
She won't be the only one who wings a swift and thankful prayer to the great beyond, Anybodys is dead-on certain of that. Velma's certain to weep for miserable joy when Ice returns tonight; Clarice will pray until the cows come home that any boy but Gee-Tar is hurt, even Minnie will thank God that her jailbait boy is safe and sound. Maybe even some girl will thank their lucky stars when A-Rab shows his ugly face tomorrow morning, although she can't think who. But then all those girls love their boys, openly and honestly and she has no right to love Tony.
But it is her, miserable little Anybodys who isn't anybody's, who sees him there and nearly cries with sheer relief. And it is her who lurks in the shadows – where no-one, not even the Jets, dare to tread – and hears Chino's words, more bitter than poison, vicious and dark.
You hurt him, you spic, and I'll kill you, I don't care if I die for it, she whispers. No prayer has been mouthed this frantically before.
Don't you let him die, you up there, anyone up there, don't you let him get hurt. I don't care what happens, I don't care if the gang breaks up or if I never become a Jet, just don't let him die. Don't you let him go.
Snowboy ducks and runs and flinches every time a light flickers – because Ice might be willing to show himself to every cop in town but your man Snowboy ain't about to paint himself like a target and dance around just to let Shrank see that they're not afraid, no siree – but it's no good. Once again Tony's the invisible man, and when the Polish Panther don't want to be found, boy, he really don't want to be found. He tries, damn it, he really does try, but when he's gone through the docks and no sign, well, he can't help but feel a guilty gnaw of relief. Every one of these shadows could have a cop or a Shark lurking within them, every box or bundle looks like a prone body. Get out, buddy boy, get out while you still can.
The thing is, though, Baby John's right. He came through for the Jets. At the end of it all, Tony was one of them. And that was what being a Jet meant, that there was a them to be part of – a them that welcomed you in, rather than kicked you out, left you alone in the cold. Because that's what the rest of the world was, a great big Beat It sign. The Jets were family – they were better than family, because what did families give you, anyhow? – and they came through for their own.
He wants to go home. Like a kid, like some scared little boy, all he wants to do is draw the covers over his face and make everything go away. The world wants boys like him gone? Snowboy's more than willing to comply.
But Tony's Tony. A Jet. Family.
With a sigh Snowboy turns on his heel, ready to jog the length of the docks once again.
It's perhaps the first time they've filed out from Doc's in this way, slowly, gingerly, as if walking in new shoes, in new feet, new legs, new bodies. Which, Gee-Tar supposes, in a way they are. This isn't them. This isn't who they are. They have girls, they have mothers, sisters, cousins. They were the good guys. Good guys don't do…this.
No-one speaks. No-one so much as coughs. Anybodys is the first to break away, running fast, running scared, and if once upon a time they'd be grateful, now it stings. It physically hurts, like acid. The kid runs as if there's monsters on her tail.
They were the heroes. The Jets. They flapped their mouths and used their fists and anyone who got in their way, well, better think again buddy-boy, 'cos we'll make you regret it. But they never – never – did this. Would never think it.
Gee, Officer Krupke, he thinks, reaching for a smoke, we're very upset. We never had the love that every child oughta get.
His mother's banged up in Lexington for two years now trying to ditch a heroin addiction, and his pa works nights down a tyre factory that only gives him half a day off every week. Riff's stepdad threw him out when he was thirteen, Ice's brother committed suicide when he was twelve, Mouthpiece's old man sells American flags to tourists and counts himself lucky when he makes a profit. Action's ma walks the streets. A-Rab's pop is an unrecognisable stranger when he drinks. All the family he's got is here, right here, and oh God, but it used to be so much better.
We ain't no delinquents.
Gee-Tar has a dim memory, as vague and insubstantial as cigarette smoke, of being in a classroom when he was eight, painting. Some kind of farm yard scene. He'd enjoyed it. He'd wanted to spend the whole day just painting and the teacher had laughed, she'd lent him a book of famous painters to read. He'd spent hours tracing his fingers over the colours.
The day he brought the book back to class some older boys had torn it from his fingertips, torn the pages and kicked it in the dirt. He'd been forced to pay for it, every cent, and when his pa found out what this week's wages were going towards he clocked him so hard the boy's head had spun, but that wasn't anything compared to the look on Miss Biggs' face…
Joyboy – though he went by Bobby, back in those days – spat when he heard. "Them bastards," he growled, and gave a two-fingered salute to Miss Biggs' back, though he was still a month shy of his eighth birthday, "they always blame us, don'tja see it. We're the ones they don't want."
Deep down inside us…Deep down inside us…
He pictures Riff, and Bernardo, and Tony, and Chino, but mostly what he pictures is Anita – tear-stained, weak-limbed, stumbling from one Jet to another not because she wants it, not because she likes it, but because she's just unable to fight anymore.
Deep down inside us…
She'd been crying as she left.
He flicks the cigarette away in one bitter, fluid motion. But last night was a long time ago, when they thought they were perfect, the ones who were wronged, when they honestly believed they could do nothing wrong.
Go for it, Ice thinks wildly as the Puerto Rican girl snatches up the gun, points it from side to side as if she can barely keep hold of it. Damn it, someone deserves it. Maybe we all do.
He won't look away. Not even when she advances on him, arms outstretched, tears frozen in her eyes until they're as glassy and unseeing as a doll. She could be a puppet, some child's toy positioned in place; every moment jerking and unnatural. He won't look away. He owes her this much, at least. And he can't, can't look back to that slumped figure, bathed in moonlight and stained in blood, laid out on the hot tarmac. Lying there. Blaming him.
Do it. He's not shaking, not backing away, but staring down the gaping mouth of a gun and some dull, aching part of his mind is just thinking, do it. Go on, pull the trigger. It'll be better for all of us. This shouldn't be happening, Tony can't be lying there, Jesus Christ I was the leader, I was supposed to stop this, if I can't look after my boys then what the hell else is left?
He won't say anything. Not when they demand his name for the records, not when they pile question upon question on him, not even when the cute little receptionist who doles out biscuits and doughnuts – as if the fat-asses need them! A-Rab would holler, but A-Rab's in a different room, they all are, he has no buddies at his back this time – asks if he'd like a cup of coffee. He won't say anything, he won't. He might be banged up in some dark cop-shop with no-one but Shrank for company – oh, and a state social worker in attendance to make sure he's not ill-treated, yeah that's a joke, the scrawny little jerk'd probably just close his eyes if Shrank got to heavy with the nightstick – but he won't talk, he won't.
Everyone knows, you don't talk. They'll try and break the gang up, everyone knows it, they'll take him away from his buddies and some will be thrown in the slammer and some won't, and they'll all be split up, and they can't take this away from him, they can't. Everything else has gone. Just let him keep this, let him keep his pride, let him be able to say that he held out even when the cops were putting the heat on. Let him have this one thing.
"Just tell me," Shrank mutters. His head's in his hands and his hat and tie have been discarded hours ago, but the thing that strikes home the most is his voice. He sounds tired, Big Deal realises, nearly as tired as he himself is. He doesn't know the last time either of them has slept. "Goddamn it, Big Deal, just tell me what happened. Just tell me how the hell this happened."
He shakes his head, but his throat aches and every muscle in his body is weak and his eyes sting, and when he opens his mouth to talk he feels scalding tears already roll down his cheeks. "I can't," he mumbles, not I won't but I can't, and there's no real difference now anyway.
The light's thin as water and tinged – like everything else in this place, he supposes – with smoke and grime by the time they file out from the police station. In a line, like soldiers. Why do you kids act like there's a war on? But this time they stagger like drunks, inebriated by exhaustion and heartbreak, through the streets, one boy splintering off at a time from the group, until it's only Baby John left standing in the street, staring into space.
Superman would know what to do. Captain Marvel and the Batman would come down and save him, if only they knew where he was, if only they were real. But he's alone in the streets that he'd wandered since he was a kid, alone and abandoned and utterly without hope, and the tears that he's wept for hours now have dried like snail tracks on his cheeks. This is, he thinks, what it's like to be alone, without a gang, to be an orphan. But Tony and Riff – man, they had a gang, they had a somebody, and still… He doesn't know what to think about that. Everything he believed in – that the gang had your back, that the gang always knows what's best, that nothing, nothing will ever go wrong with the Jets backing you – is a lie.
His heroes, both real-life and make-believe, have deserted him, let him go and cast him out to drift aimlessly, a ship without an anchor. He walks slowly, one foot in front of the other – just one at a time, only think about one step at a time and the rest'll take care of itself – feeling his way down the hot pavement. He's tired, so very tired, and lost, and it was easy being the baby when he had the guys to tell him what to do and where to go, and without them…well, what's a kid supposed to do? The tears are sticky and stale on his cheeks; maybe he oughtn't have cried them but he couldn't help it. Even a real tough guy might cry for his ma or poppa if they were knifed or shot, anyone could see that, and Tony and Riff were like parents to him, honest to God they were.
Tomorrow, he thinks sadly, is a brand new day. It just doesn't feel like one.
Maybe he'll go home. Maybe tomorrow he'll seek out A-Rab, and together they'll find Ice, or Action, someone, anyone who knows what happens now.
Maybe tomorrow he'll find answers.