We're pretty sure Gerard was only ever depressed in the first place because the world hadn't ended yet.
We don't talk about it, not among ourselves and definitely not to him. He's Party Poison now, bright and serious and wild, and we don't know what would happen if we reminded him that gravity used to matter. We don't want to know. But we think about it, each of us, about why he transformed the way he did, and the only conclusion any of us have ever managed to reach is that he needed an apocalypse to be happy.
Gerard liked stories, when he was Gerard, because they made more sense to him than the real world. He never understood that the stories make sense because they're designed to make sense, that they're appealing because they've been stripped of all the bits of the world that don't fit. If the real world were handed to a decent editor, it would come back covered in red slash marks. Unnecessary. Too long. Summarize. Skip.
That's why Gerard used to be depressed. He thought he was a failure because he couldn't figure out how to skip the boring parts of his life, how to move the story along. He forgot, or never knew, that life doesn't have a protagonist and there's no ultimate climax three-quarters of the way through. He couldn't make his own story make sense, so he lost himself in everyone else's stories instead, in their books and their comics and their art, and he never quite managed to find himself again.
We couldn't do anything, back then. We all wished we could fight his demons for him, Mikey most of all, but we couldn't.
Then the world ended, and the bad guys emerged, and Gerard unwrapped all the layers of other people's stories from his body and rose up to write his own. He never fit in among the mortgages and Shop Vacs filling what used to be the real world, but when everything collapsed into dust and fire and screams, he found his place. He made himself a mask and dyed his hair the color of indiscretion, and he learned what the draculoids wore so he could aim in the right direction, and he marched out to be a hero.
Gerard, who had been so confused by the world when it was neat and structured, took charge of the chaos. Gerard, who had always been so indecisive and anxious, suddenly began to make detailed plans and bark out sensible instructions. He stood up straight for the first time and announced his new name, and we followed him because he was the only one who was sure of anything.
We can do something now. We can donate ourselves to the cause, the cause of good and right, the cause of Gerard. The cause of Party Poison.
It's not like that at first.
"Color!" says Gerard. "You bitches are fucking dreary. C'mon, splash a little life on your asses!"
We still think of him as Gerard, even though he won't let us call him that anymore. It's not that we don't acknowledge that he's changed. It's impossible not to acknowledge that. It's just that Party Poison sounds like a title, a character, and even if Gerard has decided that he's a character now, we still think of him as a person.
Stay ugly, he says. Fuck what you're supposed to look like. Embrace your flaws and celebrate your imperfections. So we do, and we celebrate his imperfection too, his core flaw: that he is real.
"Pick one," says Gerard, pointing to the row of bottles. Half of them are knocked over. They must have been like that since the last earthquake, three months ago. No one has cared about this drugstore enough to straighten the shelves in three months, even though they're still trying to make customers pay.
We look at the bottles dubiously. Gerard has been dying his hair for weeks, lathering it in when his roots start to show and leaving it crusted to his skull until the next time he finds water to rinse it out. We're not so sure we want to subject ourselves to that, especially Ray, whose hair is enough trouble as it is.
Mikey tentatively takes a box of bleach. The rest of us stand resolute.
"Fine," says Gerard. He knows when he can sway us and when it's pointless to try. "Be boring if you want to." He grabs two more bottles of his red dye and struts out of the store. No one tries to make him pay. Party Poison doesn't ever have to pay.
He takes off his shirt that night and sprawls on the rocks, massaging dye into his roots with his bare hands, smearing it over his ears and down his neck and across his chest. He rolls around, leaving smudges of bright red everywhere. He reaches for Frank with a grin, dazzling even in the desert twilight, and Frank barely resists before he's rolling on top of Gerard, squirming in slimy red and getting his clothes dirty with dye and dust. They're laughing, scraping bare skin on the craggy rocks, slipping backwards from full-on wrestling to a giggling slapfight, and then we hear the motorcycle.
Frank jerks up onto his knees, lips pressed together, but Gerard keeps giggling as he raises his blaster and tilts backwards on the rocks to fire upside-down at the draculoids. He laughs and he shoots and they're dead in seconds.
He curls up to a sitting position, abs flexing like they never did before the old city fell. His eyes and his teeth shine in a triangle, lighting up his face in the darkness like an eternally half-faded Cheshire cat. We would never have guessed that he would be such an excellent shot, but he is. He has to be. Superheroes are never incompetent.
"Did you see that shit?" he enthuses, and we nod. We saw that shit. Good work, Party Poison. You saved the day again.
We're still indulging him, then. We're still smiling to each other behind his back, happy because he's not sad, playing along because he needs us to. We don't suspect how twisted our reality can become.
She's seven when we find her, we think. We can't cut open little girls and count the rings, but she says she's seven, and she hasn't yet given us a reason not to believe her.
Her name is Grace. She's guarding a heap of dead bodies when we come across her at the edge of the new city. Battery City, they're calling it. We know that because Ray found a radio and somehow got it to work by sticking foil into the battery compartment. Ray isn't even sure exactly how that helped, but it did, and now we have a functional radio. We've been listening to the frequency they're using to communicate. That's how we know about this particular pile of corpses.
There are eight of them, all dead except her. When we come around the corner, she meets our laser sights with a double handful of gravel and tries to spit in Gerard's face. It barely clears his sternum.
We look at his face, and there's no doubt in our minds that we're keeping her. He loves us, his posse, his motley crew of killed joy, but we're superheroes too in his mind. We're not sidekicks, we're a gang. Grace, she's feisty sidekick material through and through, and he adopts her like a frizzy-haired baby Robin to his technicolor Batman.
His Alfred rolls up on skates six months later, only he's not really an Alfred, because he doesn't belong to Gerard. Ricky is the only one of our group who doesn't, although we don't truly realize yet how completely the rest of us are his. Ricky belongs to Dr. D, who belongs to Gerard, so it's not that different in practice.
We know Dr. D's voice long before we meet him, from the only radio frequency besides the enemy's that produces anything but static. The day we first hear him speak is the day Gerard first tries to sneak into Battery City. He doesn't make it very far before the dracs overpower him and force him to retreat. Grace is with him, which is a sign of how irrational we have already become. We should never have allowed a kid that young on a near-suicidal infiltration mission. But Gerard drew up the plan, and Gerard led us all to our places, and Gerard took Grace and left before any of us thought to question him. And she saves his life that day, that barely-eight-year-old child with her bouncy hair and her electric movements, so none of us ever think of keeping her back again.
She tackles him down and smashes his head into the ground, a thin layer of sand over a thick layer of solid dirt, and the shot that should have killed him sails over their heads. He's dizzy when they finally make it back to our camp. He lies down with his ear propped on his brother's knee and fiddles incessantly with the radio while his head finishes bleeding shadows into his already crimson hair.
We've never expected to hear anything on the radio except dracs, but that evening, Gerard finds Dr. D. "Motorbabies," he calls us, and we know he's talking to us because he says so: "Yes, I'm talking to you," his voice booms from the radio's tiny speaker. "You're out there wondering, asking yourself questions like why and how, and I'm here to tell you to stop asking and start telling. It's a dog-eat-drac world out there, flash bandits, and you know you're not a drac, so stop rolling over and start barking. Divided we fall, and united we most likely fall too, but at least we fall fighting, and that's the most we can hope to be remembered for. Here's a tune to remind you what it means to rebel."
None of us recognize the song he plays, but it's glorious, the music less than the meaning behind it. It means that we're not alone. We could be, because the lone avenger is an archetype Gerard knows well, but it makes more rational sense to build our ranks.
It makes more rational sense to run, actually. If we really thought rationally, we would ignore everything the city tells us about radiation in the outer zones and run away. Things could be worse elsewhere, it's possible, but there's an entire world out there we've lost contact with completely. BL/ind can't have taken over all of it. We could find somewhere, if not safe, then at least better. Better living than Better Living.
We don't, of course. Rational thought exists to rationalize. We're smart, but we only use our intelligence to construct elaborate justifications for the stupid shit we do.
"Where is he?" asks Grace. She's looking at the radio in awe.
We don't know where he is, but we only have to look at Gerard to know that we're going to find out. His expression matches Grace's perfectly, wonder and blind optimism that should look wrong on a face so much older than eight, but doesn't because it's him.
We find them less than a week later. Ray uses the radio's clarity to zero in on the location. When he finds it, Gerard bursts through the swinging plank in the wall of the diner and says to its startled occupant, "Dr. Death Defying, I'm Party Poison, and I am ready to take these motherfuckers down. Would you like a gun? We've got spares, but I haven't decorated them yet."
He exudes an aura, something he picked up somewhere between the first building's collapse and the last time he wore a hoodie. It's hard to resist him, and Dr. D isn't even trying.
"There's rhinestones and butterfly band-aids in the first aid box if you want to pimp out your hardware, but I've already got an old-school Colt that makes holes in people instead of barbecuing them, and I'm happy as a quahog with that, thanks," says Dr. D, and that's all the bonding he and Gerard will ever need.
Party Poison has a theme song.
He doesn't realize we know about it. We don't know the tune, but we know it exists, and we know the beat, because he drums it out against the barrel of his blaster every time he's expecting a fight.
We talk sometimes about what the theme song is. Mikey swears the rhythm matches an old Spice Girls song, but we're pretty sure that's not it. Maybe Gerard made it up, or maybe it's some other tune we're just not recognizing. It wouldn't be surprising if we couldn't identify something familiar. We're rusty; we haven't listened to any music besides what Dr. D plays in years.
Maybe it's just a beat, just drums cheering him on steady and firm in his own mind. But we don't think that's it, either. Too military for Gerard. He needs electric guitars and moaning vocals. He would want his music to be the kind of music that could accompany him cresting a hill, and fighting in a montage, and wistfully staring at the air next to an invisible camera. It would need to be versatile, upbeat but subtly melancholy.
We think he's composed it in his head. Sometimes we listen closely, trying to catch him humming it, but it never works.
Strangely, we sometimes hear Grace tapping the same beat. The third time the dracs show up moments after she starts tapping, we start paying attention.
They know about us now, the dracs. Gerard has made himself memorable, and they remember him. They've started using codes on the radio, and they spend a lot of time trying to kill the Killjoys, from all manner of vehicles, with all manner of weapons. Gerard is always a fraction of a step ahead of them, always dodging their shots by a millimeter.
Maybe that's why we start trusting him so much. He seems invincible, like a real superhero, if that weren't such an oxymoron. But it seems like less of one each day; Gerard is full of confidence and skill, so pronounced that it's hard to believe our memories of him from before.
Their leader is named Korse, or at least that's what they've been calling him on the radio since before they knew we were listening. It's apparent that he's getting frustrated with us, with Gerard, with the Killjoys and all that we symbolize. He's sending more and more dracs out after us, and when they can't take us down, he starts coming out to the desert himself. He's an oddly flamboyant grey ruffle of a man, a ghost without having been ghosted, bald and pale and much more capable than his lackeys.
He comes closer and closer to wiping us out, and the closer he gets, the more vibrant Gerard gets. He has his villain now, the big bad at the end of the chapter, and he's itching for a showdown.
He doesn't realize it's possible for the hero to lose until he does.
They take Grace, and we wake up hung over from the tranquilizer blasts.
It doesn't make sense to us that they would kidnap our baby sidekick and leave us alive. Korse has been after Gerard for so long that waking up at all astonishes us.
Stealing the kid obviously means that he wants us to come after him. There's no question that we will. Gerard isn't stupid, he knows it's a trap, but he's read the stories. The hero is supposed to fall for the trap. Then he's supposed to wiggle miraculously free at the last moment, while the bad guy is still cackling his victory cackle, and prevail. The hero always prevails.
We know he's wrong. We know there's very little chance of our prevailing in this battle. We know that one-in-a-million chances are actually one in a million, that if people beat the odds as often as they do in the stories, then odds would no longer have any meaning. We know we aren't going to win. Korse left us alive because he wants to make an example of us, to show any other potential rebels what happens to people who try to fight.
We also know that Grace believes in Party Poison like kids used to believe in Santa Claus, like adults used to believe in God. She's expecting us to come to her rescue. And Gerard doesn't think to doubt that we will.
So we go. We get in the Trans Am and we drive to the city, we burst through the barricades, we shoot as many dracs as we can and we tear through things that can't be torn. We find Grace and we get her out of there, like she knew we would. Dr. D and his roller-skating Alfred peel up in their van and scoop her in, and it turns out that Grace is the protagonist, because the rest of us die.
Gerard skips the boring parts after all. He wins Grace's survival, and everything that comes after his win is removed, a red slash through the rest of his life. He's probably okay with it. There are plenty of stories about martyrs, even if they do usually get resurrected.
Gerard is not Jesus, and he is not Buffy, and he stays ghosted. We do, too. Our stories go with his: down in history, taken there by a fierce little girl and a gruff DJ with a Colt pistol that leaves holes in everyone who had a part in taking down the Killjoys. They lead the revolution, in the end, and take the world back from the evil corporation.
Probably. We don't know, we're dead. But that's how we'd like it to turn out, and if we've learned anything from Party Poison and his Killjoy bullshit, it's that wishful thinking has more power than reality.