Under the Red Sky

Under the Red Sky (Joker) Part 25

The bar was small and noisy with rowdy chatter, the air muggy from the lingering cigarette smoke which hung like a thick fog in the atmosphere. The gloom was oppressive, casting shadows over the bulking figures that huddled in grimy booths and slouched over the bar, amber filled glasses clutched in their hands like Bibles. Peanut casings littered the floor like dead flies and a ragged tune slurred from the glowing jukebox in the corner, playing for the lonely soul.

I gazed out through the murk from my spot in the corner, my collar turned up to the inquisitive eyes of passing strangers. I had ignored their curious glances when I had first come in, some twenty minutes after storming out on the Joker. But now they paid me no mind, having turned their attention instead to the ball game and their poison.

I had wanted to drink. A glass of wine or two would’ve calmed me, would’ve steadied my shaking hands. But I couldn’t bring myself to approach the bar. Something kept me in the darkness, holding myself together as if I might break. I laid my head back on the cakey plaster of the wall and let the filthy air roll down my aching trachea and into my lungs.

What if I never went back? What if I slunk back to flat nine, lived the rest of my life like a shut in, hiding from the light like some ashamed animal? Would that be so bad?


And what if I did go back? What would happen then?

I sighed, closing my tired eyes. It was hard to say. I had never been completely sure of the direction in which I walked, teasing along the tightrope, tempting fate. But where would I go from here, my knees shaking and my eyes searching for someone to catch me if I should fall and yet finding no one?

My ears pricked up, hearing a loud voice from at the bar. My eyes fluttered open.

“What the hell is this?”

“Breaking news, dumbass. Now shutup!” countered the man seated beside the shouting idiot.

They were both silent then, heads turned up at the television. The bartender raised the volume and the prattle that filled the bar was hushed, the attention turned to the screen.

I watched with faraway eyes, wholly uninterested. It was probably just some massive wreck on the freeway or the most recent scandal in high class society. But as the camera panned in on Engel, looking worried and slightly disturbed, I knew it was something else entirely.

The ribbon rolling along the bottom of the screen only confirmed this.


I straightened up, my attention captured almost immediately. I held my unwavering gaze on the screen, my brows knit together, my lips turned down in a frown of concern.

“….Police released video footage concealed on the body found just hours ago hanging from the central office building of Mayor Garcia,” Engel went on, glancing down at the paper on his desk. He looked directly into the camera after a moment, his voice quivering. “Sensitive viewers be aware: the footage is disturbing.”

The camera cut to the shaky shot of a man wearing a plastic cowl, his face bloodied and bruised, tied to a metal chair in a bright, fluorescent lit room. He wore a makeshift Batman costume, hockey pads lining his rotund body. And around his thick neck hung a sloppily painted sign that read: HAS ANYONE SEEN MY PUDDYCAT?

Guess what I caught, Bijou?

I stared at the screen, my breath catching in my throat, feeling as though I might vomit and burst into ferocious giggles at the same time. I gripped the underside of my chair with jittery hands, my nails splintering the wood.

That sign was for me. The Joker knew I would be watching…

“Tell them your name,” came a voice from off-screen. It was unmistakable. I had heard it so many times. Laughing in my dreams, ringing in my head, whispering words in the crook of my neck…

“B-Brian Douglas,” the man replied weakly.

The Joker adopted a tone of mock curiosity. “And are you the real Batman?”

Brian shook his head feebly. “No.”

“NO?” the Joker cried, giggling madly as he rushed towards Brian, the camera jostling violently, “Then why do you dress up like him?”

He screamed with laughter, ripping off Brian’s mask and wiggling it in his sweaty face. He tossed it aside and quieted down, taken aback as Brian spoke out.

“He’s a symbol that we don’t have to afraid of scum like you,” he murmured proudly, blinking the perspiration from his eyes.

“Oh, but you do Brian,” the Joker growled, clutching Brian’s chubby face with a free gloved hand, “YOU REALLY DO!”

Brian began to whimper and the Joker caressed him almost lovingly, shushing him.

Laughter burned behind my lips, rattling my teeth. But I was silent.

“So,” the Joker murmured, smacking Brian’s face lightly one cheek and then the other, “You think Batman’s made Gotham a better place?”

Brian nodded uncertainly.

I could almost see the darkness brewing in the Joker’s eyes.

“Look at me,” he commanded, “…..LOOK AT ME!”

I felt a small bubble of fear erupt in the back of my throat and goose bumps raked my flesh. My hair bristled like that of a frightened animal. That voice held all the black, monstrous rage in this world. The men around me stirred uncomfortably, but dared not look away from the screen as if the Joker might somehow know.

The camera swung around and the screen exploded with his face, makeup smudged, his red lips pulled back to reveal a yellow leer. Dried blood streaked his face from when I scratched him, adding to the effect of his war paint.

“You see,” he called, holding the camera up, making sure we got a good look at the madness, “This is how crazy Batman’s made Gotham.

“You want order in Gotham, ban the Bat. So,” he leaned into the camera, “Batman must take off his mask and expose himself for what he is: a FREAK. And every day he doesn’t, people will die…starting with Brian here.”

He leaned in closer, if possible, fogging the camera with his breath. “I’m a man of my word.”

He cracked a wicked smile before bursting into horrible, screeching laughter. He swung the camera back around and Brian’s agonized screams could be heard over his mirth as the clip cut to static.

The room was silent for a moment. The men looked at each other expectedly, disgruntled frowns on each of their faces. A couple of them took a swig of their beers, as if to wash away the bad taste the video had left.

My mouth had gone dry, my throat heavy once more. The walls suddenly seemed to close, the ceiling too low, the room too crowded. The stench of cigarettes and sour alcohol was choking me, seeping through my skin, stinging my eyes. I needed to get out of here.

I stood abruptly, sending my chair screeching back. The men at the bar looked over at me, surprise on their pallid faces. They had forgotten I was here, watching them from the corner with haunted eyes.

As the dim light overhead illuminated my face, their eyes flashed with apprehension, as if for an instant they saw who I was. A few of them who had turned away threw a second glance my way. But I dismissed their looks, making swift strides toward the door.

“Hey lady!” one of them called but I did not look back.

“Let her go, man. She’s got somewhere to be,” said another, dismissing his friend.

And I did.

I looked out at the dark street, dancing with fat, icy, raindrops pouring down from the sky, my breath pluming out in front of my mouth. I took off down the sidewalk, the rain like cold bullets on my skin, running into my eyes and down my face like tears. Cars rattled along the road, their orange and yellow lights bobbing by like colossal fireflies from some distant planet. Other people, stooped under their umbrellas, bundled up in their coats, hurried past me, paying no mind to the criminal in their midst.

Night had fallen but I knew the way the home and it wasn’t long before I came upon the mouth of an alley, reeking with the familiar stench of garbage, gasoline, and wet concrete. I was drenched to the bone and shivering madly. Pushing my matted hair away from my face, I peered into the break and frowned as I caught sight of a hunched figure standing a yard or two from myself.

He was waiting for me.

The flickering street light to my right buzzed on, illuminating most of his face. His makeup was running badly, and his hair stuck to his forehead which was slick with rain. I couldn’t figure how long he had been out here. But then again I didn’t care too much.

“You knew I’d come back,” I called, the question coming out as more of a statement. A fact.

He shrugged. “I figured…where else would you go?”

“I’m more than capable of being on my own, you know. I don’t need you,” I spat bitterly, as the sky rocked with thunder. The rain came down harder.

“I know. But you want to.”

I narrowed my eyes. “I want to what?”

‘You want to need me. You want to say those words and not care what they would mean. Not care what would happen if you said them.”

I threw my hands up in aggravation, “That doesn’t make any damn sense.”

“Nothing makes sense any more,” he exclaimed, almost yelling now, “Look where you are, Bijou. And you’re doing things….doing things to my head. You don’t know it, but you are. And sometimes I can’t take it.”

I realized now that the wet on my face was tears, pouring down my cheeks, running together with the rain. I couldn’t exactly say why I was crying. But it felt as if all the tears I had held back were finally coming, seeping from my eyes like rain from the black, billowy clouds above me.

All of it came back to me then: the youth spent under the manipulation of my mother, the guilt of killing my father, the horror and humiliation of my own death, the fearful pride at what I had become, the terrible want I had for this man who I might even love.

“And I hate you for it. Sometimes I want to kill you. I really do. But…,” he blinked, pausing for a moment as if searching for the words. “But….then again, I can’t. I can’t…not have you. You’ve changed things. Forever. Going back is no longer a choice for either of us. So don’t try and make sense out of all this...Now I want you …to come inside. Come with me.”

I hesitated for only a moment. And then I moved to him, slipping into the shadows, taking the hand he had to offer and at the same time letting go. Of the fear, of the indecision.
Letting it roll of my skin with the rain.

And then suddenly, I felt no more of the cold, of the biting wind, of the cold pitter patter of rain on the roof of my skull. There was dull light above my head but then that was gone too.

Into the office. Or what was left of it. I glanced at the destruction passively. The desk, overturned, like a slain beast. The hundreds of papers, torn to shreds, littering the floor like the bodies of fallen soldiers. The shattered glass of a lamp glittering in the rosy glow of a single bulb overhead.

And then into the bedroom. His hand fell away from mine and he went to the window, turning away from me. I moved to the end of his bed and sat down, grasping the iron bedpost absently.

“Tell me,” I said, and he did.

He told me about what I had discovered earlier. About the wife he had had. Jeannie. About the child she had slowly killed, shortening’s its chances of survival each time she brought the poison to her lips and sucked the sickness into her steadily blackening lungs. About flat number nine that had at one point been his own. He went on about his mundane job. A chemist, a Mr. Jack Napier, in a factory on the edge of town. Just another face behind a mask, trying his hand at comedy by night in smoky clubs filled with faceless people. None of them laughed, he cried. None of them.

He had needed money. Jeannie was dying. The child was dying. He had turned to the mob. They wanted to break into the factory, for drugs maybe, or money. He couldn’t remember.
But Jeannie died before the plan could unfold, before he could back out of it.

Then there was a fire, and the mobsters ran, leaving him for dead. He survived. But he was dead, his reason for living gone, now a ghost of the ghost he had been. So depressed. So serious.

He turned to me, finishing his story with a short, barking laugh. He rubbed his scars as if to pacify himself.

“I did this to myself. I just wanted to be happy again. I just wanted to smile…”

He sat down beside me, the thin mattress screaming under him. I didn’t look up, gazing down at my hands folded in my lap, trying not to start crying for him. I could feel him staring at me, his eyes boring into my face. He began again, lingering no more on the topic of his past.

“I was there the night you…fell.”

I looked up at him, eyes wide with disbelief, my lips slightly parted, a million questions on the tip of my tongue. But I found myself incapable of saying anything. I let out a short, shaky breath and he went on, looking away from me.

“I was on my way to a meeting with Shrek. I was walking through the alley next to his building when I found your body. I assumed you had been pushed. Or maybe you had jumped. I thought you were dead. God, you still looked so beautiful, lying in all that bloody snow. I felt something for you, even then. Pity maybe or a little sadness. And I hated that.”

He stopped for a moment, tugging at his hair and sending a shower of raindrops onto the bed which was already wet because of me.

“I was going to leave you there when…the cats came,” he went on and I frowned in confusion, “There were so many. All of them crying and making so much damn noise. They were crawling all over you, biting you, nuzzling you. One of them, the one at your apartment I think…breathed into you, maybe. And then you started having a fit or something, shaking and twitching, ya know? Guess it had been a concussion because…you woke up. You didn’t see me so I followed you back to your apartment. I watched you tear it apart from down on the street corner. I came back the next night. And then the night after that…I took you.”

He glanced back at me, turning slightly so he was facing me. He reached out to stroke my face but I shrunk away from him, unready for him to touch me just yet. I was suddenly aware that I had silently begun to cry.

He looked almost angry as his eyes searched my face. “I knew, Bijou. From the moment I found you, I knew I couldn’t just forget about you. It could never be that easy. You haunted me…. your face, your screams, your eyes. It was as if you had died and this ghost, this monster had come back for me. ”

“Finder’s keepers, right?” I whispered and he grunted, smiling grimly. “Why didn’t you ever tell me?”

He shrugged. “What we don’t know won’t kill us. And I always liked to think that knowledge was a lot like a bad day. Too much of it can make you a little….nuts.”

There was a silence between us then and I knew it was my turn. My turn to tell.

About mother and her necklace, father and his bottle. About the accident with his gun. About my torment, my loneliness, my hopeless, insignificant existence that I had possessed up until my mother’s death. Up until my own death. Or rather my resurrection.

I lay back on the mattress, when I was good and done, watching him with heavy eyes tired from crying. He lay down beside me and I let him hold me. I was still as he hesitantly wrapped his arms around my waist, daring to show affection.

And for a moment in time, I felt neither rage nor fear. Nor lust or panic.

I felt only content as the sky fell down outside.

I slept. And eventually so did he, neither of us dreaming of much at all.