The pain from the wound was overwhelming. Off in the distance, the Hawks’ and the Emeralds’ gang members—including the one who had just shot him—were yelling and running away. Krupke was yelling after them, but he was ignored. Somewhere in his mind, Schrank was aware that Krupke was calling to him now, pleading for him to stay awake, but he could not. His consciousness was claimed in the next moments.
Slowly he sat up and then stood, awkward and confused. “What the . . .” he breathed, turning to look back. He was not bleeding. But he was also transparent. His body was still lying on the asphalt. Krupke was screaming in desperation into his radio for an ambulance. When he set it aside, he went back to trying to cut off the bleeding in his partner’s chest.
Schrank reached for him, but his hand passed through. In shock and horror he held it up to his eyes, trembling.
“Well, if it isn’t Lieutenant Schrank. Don’t worry, you’re not dead.”
Schrank jumped a mile. He whirled, his eyes wide and filled with disbelief. Riff, the former Jet leader, was coming towards him, smirking and nonchalant as he had always been in life. Schrank fell back, his thoughts racing.
“What is this?” he demanded. “I can’t be seeing you. In fact, none of this can be happening. It’s not possible!”
Riff stopped in front of him, crossing his arms with a self-assured smirk. “What’s so hard to believe?” he said. “You took a slug in your chest, you passed out, and now you’re talking with me, another victim of gang violence.”
“More like a victim of me goin’ out of my head,” Schrank growled.
“Completely out of your body, rather,” another voice said from behind him. Schrank spun around, in equal shock to see Bernardo approaching from that side. “Oh, don’t look so surprised, Lieutenant. This is not a hallucination.”
“Well, if it’s not, and I’m not dead either, what’s left?” Schrank retorted.
Riff shrugged. “It’ll be over soon, and then you’ll be right back in your body. Of course, you’ll still have to fight like heck to stay alive.”
Bernardo nodded. “The bullet lodged quite close to your heart. You’re just blessed it wasn’t a few inches over.”
“Then I’d be playing a harp with you guys, eh?” Schrank said.
Bernardo smiled or smirked; it was hard to tell which. “You have a chance at life that neither of us did,” he said.
“Oh, so that’s it,” Schrank shot back. “You’re jealous? Well, let me tell you, if you guys had just listened to me in the first place, neither of you would be here! You wasted your chances to live. It’s not on my conscience.”
“Whoa, whoa, cool it, Lieutenant,” Riff said with a smooth gesture. “The sad fact of the matter is, you’re right.”
Schrank blinked in utter astonishment. “You admit that?” he said in disbelief.
“Sure.” Riff glanced to Bernardo. “The only good thing that came out of the mess was that all us Jets and Sharks finally patched up our differences. But we would’ve rather stayed alive to do it.”
“The problem is, it never would’ve happened if you had,” Schrank retorted. “I’ve seen it over and over. The only thing that gets through to your kind is violence. All the talking in the world for years and years don’t make a dent in your thick skulls, but the damage one weapon can do in five seconds can suddenly bring it all into focus.”
Krupke abruptly cut into their conversation with a despairing plea. “Kurt, come on, don’t do this. You can’t just die on me!” The cloth was already soaked through with blood.
Riff shook his head. “You got hit pretty bad.” Then mirth flickered in his eyes. “But your name is Kurt?”
Kurtis, actually, but it was not his business. Schrank ignored him, watching Krupke instead. They rarely, if ever, called each other by their given names. Krupke called him “Lieutenant” or “sir”, out of respect. And Schrank just called him “Krupke.” But they had become very close during the ten-plus years they had been partners on the force. Through a strange experience, Schrank had already discovered that if anything happened to Krupke, particularly due to the gangs, it could very likely send him over the edge. And Krupke was devastated over this having happened to Schrank.
Schrank reached out, trying in vain to touch Krupke’s shoulder. “Krupke . . . Franklin . . . I’m here. I . . . I’m not gonna die.”
Krupke shuddered, as though he had felt something pass through him, but otherwise did not respond. Schrank let his hand drop, giving up.
“It’s strange,” Bernardo said at his side. “Perhaps, if we had seen how our deaths would hurt those we care about, we wouldn’t have been so quick to try to solve our problems with knives.”
Schrank heaved a tired sigh, a sigh that bespoke of all the years of pain and sorrow and that was maybe an indication that their deaths did indeed weigh on his conscience. “Well, it doesn’t matter much now, does it?” he said. “You guys are dead and nothing will bring you back. I don’t even get why you’re hanging around me. One thing all you street gangs have in common is that you hate cops.”
“Oh, you’re not so bad, sometimes,” Riff smirked. “A guy can get kind of attached to someone if they’re around long enough. I think the Jets would miss you if someone else took over. At least, maybe some of them would.”
“Yeah, right,” Schrank sneered. “You don’t really expect me to believe that crud, do you?”
“Very well.” Bernardo came around to face him. “We were assigned to you.”
Schrank rocked back. “Assigned to me?!” he exclaimed. “Now what kind of garbage are you trying to get me to swallow?”
“This one’s true, Lieutenant,” Riff said. “We were told that you were gonna get shot and that we should come here and hang with you, since it was bad enough that you’d be able to see us for a while.”
“They didn’t think being shot was torture enough?” Schrank retorted.
Bernardo looked more amused than anything else. “Apparently they thought there would be some benefit to all of us sharing a conversation.”
“Well, you can tell them that I don’t find any benefit in it,” Schrank snapped. He watched Krupke in helpless sadness. “I need to be there, not here.”
“You will be able to get back, Lieutenant.” Bernardo studied him for a moment, thoughtful, before speaking again. “I saw how you helped my sister during that storm. I must admit I was surprised.”
“I know, you thought I was some kind of monster,” Schrank grunted. He turned away, uncomfortable as he debated with himself. At last he faced them again. “Look, I’ve said things to both of you and your pals that I shouldn’t have said. I’m sorry.”
“That bullet must have affected you all over,” Riff commented. But then he sobered. Schrank was not an apologetic person. To actually offer regret for any past hurt he had caused was a huge thing for him. Riff did appreciate, and was even touched, by it. Not that he would ever reveal the full extent of his feelings out loud.
“Your apology is accepted, Lieutenant,” Bernardo said. “I have seen on more than one occasion that you are not as I thought you were.” He held out a hand.
Slowly, hesitantly, Schrank acknowledged him. They shook hands firmly.
“You guys are different here,” Schrank commented. “The same, but different.”
“Sadder but wiser, I suppose,” Bernardo said. “Lieutenant, will you take a message for me to Maria?” he queried.
Schrank stared at him, stunned. “What kind of message?” He was noncommittal. Even if he managed to see Maria again, there was no guarantee that she would even believe him if he delivered a message from her departed brother. In addition to how crazy it sounded in general, coming from him in specific added a whole new level of off-the-wall.
“Tell her that I am proud of her,” Bernardo said.
A hand came down on his shoulder before he could reply. “Hello, Lieutenant. I guess I’m late.”
Schrank whirled to look. This voice belonged to Maria’s ill-fated love, Tony. He looked well; he was even smiling, but there was sadness in his eyes.
“Would you take a message too?” Tony asked.
“What am I, the afterlife mailman?” Schrank remarked. He sighed in resignation. “What’s yours?”
“Tell her that I’m watching over her,” Tony said. “Tell her I love her.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” Schrank said, looking from Tony to Bernardo. Then he glanced to Riff. “What about you?”
“I don’t need you to take a message to anyone, Lieutenant,” Riff said. He gave a mischievous smile. “I’ll take it myself.”
“Yeah, sure, whatever. That’s great.” Schrank was perfectly fine with that arrangement. Maria, he was certain, would not mock him, even if she thought him mad. But he could not say how Riff’s girlfriend, or whoever else he wanted to get a message to, would react.
“The ambulance is almost here,” Tony prompted. “The pain should be quieting down enough that you can go back.”
“That’s just fine by me,” Schrank said. He started to walk away, then paused. “Hey, wait a minute,” he growled. He looked to Bernardo. “Just how much do you guys spy on me anyway?”
“Spy?” Bernardo said lightly.
“You act like you’ve been watching me off and on since you kicked the bucket,” Schrank said.
Bernardo smiled. “You will never know when we’re around, Lieutenant,” he said.
“Oh brother,” Schrank muttered. “I should’ve known.”
The near-fatal shot left Schrank teetering on the brink between life and death for hours. When the doctors were finally sure that he would live, it still took days and weeks after that to recover.
In his tortured and pained mind, he did not remember the strange conversation that had taken place that night. But slowly, as his strength returned, pieces of the experience started to come back to him. He remembered Krupke’s desperation and his own apology to Bernardo and Riff. And the messages.
He would prefer not to do anything about them, really. What had he been thinking? What had happened to him was so strange and so personal. It was not something he wanted to share. But he had said he would do what he could about getting the messages to Maria, so what could he do but try to tell her?
When he was out of the hospital and able to move around on his own, it was as good a time as any. Taking a deep breath, he left his apartment and started down the street. He could have asked Krupke to drive him, he supposed, but he could use the therapy of walking. Besides, he did not like asking Krupke for rides, especially concerning something like this. “I need you to drive me over there because I promised I’d give her some messages from her dead brother and her lover.” Oh yeah, that would go over well.
It was a relief to see Maria outside her apartment complex when he arrived on her block. She was standing and craning her neck up, apparently at nothing. The wind rustled her hair, but she seemed not to notice.
Feeling awkward, Schrank approached her. “Hey, uh . . .”
She started and turned. “Lieutenant,” she said in surprise, cutting off his feeble attempt at a greeting. “How are you? It’s so good to see you around again.”
“I’m fine,” Schrank said, pushing back his hat. “Look . . . I know this sounds nuts, but I have something I need to see you about. Where we won’t be bugged by anyone,” he added.
She blinked in surprise. “Of course,” she said.
She led him around the back of the building, into the alley. It was deserted, much to Schrank’s relief. But he stayed on his guard. Alleys were among the many places he did not trust in the city. Someone could appear at any time.
He sighed, shifting his weight. “I don’t know how to say this,” he said. “Funny how that works. I always know how to blurt out junk I shouldn’t be saying in the first place.” Maria kept looking at him, expectant. Finally he determined that the best thing would be to simply say it right out.
“That night when I was shot, I don’t know what happened. I left my body or something. I saw the old leader of the Jets and your brother. And . . . I saw that guy you cared about, too.”
Maria’s mouth fell open as her eyes got wide. “You saw Bernardo and Tony?!” she gasped.
“Yeah,” Schrank said. “They both wanted me to tell you something.”
Maria stared. “What did they say?” she said, her voice hushed as though it would be sacrilege to speak louder.
“Bernardo said he’s proud of you,” Schrank said. “And Tony . . . he said he’s always watching you. And boy, I believe it,” he grumbled as an aside. Louder, he finished, “He also said he loves you.”
Maria stared at him for a long moment, unable to react. Schrank grew uneasy. “Hey, I know it sounds crazy,” he said. “If you think I’m ready for the funny farm, just say so.”
Abruptly she came out of her daze. “No,” she choked out. “No, I believe you.” Much to his shock, she leaped and threw her arms around his neck. “Thank you!” she fervently breathed.
Schrank’s cheeks were flaming. “Okay,” he said, trying to disengage himself from the embrace. “So you believe me. I’d like to keep breathing now that it’s over!”
Maria stepped back, releasing the pressure. Bittersweet tears glistened in her eyes. “Thank you, Lieutenant,” she said, her voice overflowing with emotion. “Thank you for telling me. I know it must have been difficult.”
Schrank adjusted his hat so the shadow of the brim was over his eyes. “You’ve got that right,” he said. “I don’t even know that I really believe it happened.”
“I believe it happened,” Maria said quietly.
“Good,” Schrank returned. “That’s the most important thing, ain’t it?”
“How were they?” Maria asked. “I mean . . . did they seem alright?”
Schrank nodded. “They were okay. They didn’t want to be dead,” he added honestly, “but they were making the best of it. And it looked like all of them were getting along fine. No turf wars over there, I guess.”
Maria smiled, a comforted but still bittersweet smile. “I’m glad,” she said.
“Me too,” Schrank grunted.
When he walked out from behind the building, Krupke was driving past in the patrol car. He stopped, staring in stunned shock. “Lieutenant?!” he gasped. “What are you doing over here?!”
Schrank froze and looked over. He had been caught. He had not intended on that.
But then, unbidden, came the memory of Krupke kneeling beside his wounded body, pleading for him to live and even, in utter grief, addressing him by his first name. Krupke had been loyal all throughout the long weeks of that trial. If it had not been for him, Schrank was not sure he would have survived.
He could tell Krupke what had happened to him during that time. Of course it would be awkward; it could never be easy to relay something so deep and shocking. But Krupke would believe him. And Schrank trusted him, more than he trusted anyone else.
He walked over with a calm and casual air. “I just . . . had to see about something I promised I would,” he said.
“Oh yeah?” Krupke watched as he opened the passenger door and climbed in. “What was it? You’re not usually over this way if you’re not on duty.”
“I’ll tell you,” Schrank said, and meant it. “But . . . hey, we’ve known each other more than ten years,” he said, both gruff and sincere. “You don’t havta be so formal all the time.”
Krupke blinked in surprise. “You really mean that, Lieutenant?”
“Yeah,” Schrank said. “Sure . . . Franklin.”
Krupke broke into a wide grin. “Okay then . . . Kurt.”
Schrank smiled a bit himself as they drove off.