Under the Red Sky

Under the Red Sky (Joker) Part 3

I was unpleasantly surprised.

It was only 7:30 and the sky had already settled into a sullen gray fog.

This must be the norm I thought to myself, as I brought the porcelain mug in my hand up to my lips to finish the last of my poorly brewed cup of coffee.

I ignored the bitter taste and squinted out the window in my bedroom against the harsh light of the early morning at the city before me.

There was really no denying it. Gotham was ugly.

Skyscrapers cracked the murky sky above, which was slightly tainted with a brownish haze. The lesser buildings were crammed close together like strangers on a subway. My eyes followed the gray ribbon of street below my window until they settled into the nest of industrial clutter where the roads were swallowed up and lost from sight.

In the center of downtown was Shrek Tower. I marveled at its height. The very tip looked sharp enough to pierce the sky. There weren’t any buildings like that in Braidal, that’s for sure.

“There weren’t any police chases at 3:00 AM either,” I sighed to myself as I turned away from the window and made my way toward the kitchen.

The floor was chilly beneath my feet even with stockings on and as I passed the restroom in the hall I caught a quick glance of myself in the mirror on the wall, a malevolent reminder of how terrible I looked in my dull yellow skirt suit.

Why had I let Charlotte buy me this?

Because she knows better than you what “city folk” wear.

Yeah, sure. Just because she read fashion magazines once in a while didn’t mean she was an expert. Besides, she only read Vogue for the free perfume samples.

I frowned down at my outfit, which in my opinion looked ridiculous, as I stepped into my new kitchen and headed for the sink. I set the empty mug on the counter and turned the rusty faucet until there was a steady gush of warm water. I held the dirty porcelain under the flow until the brown bits of coffee grounds were washed away.

My wet hands found a raggedy dish towel and soon became dry. My eyes wandered to the window above the sink, where a light breeze was biting at the houseplants that weren’t mine.

Should I leave it open?

I decided against it. It was already freezing in here.

But as I leaned across the sink, my arms outstretched ready to close the window, something came to mind: the cat.

Would it come back?

I stood there for a second, thinking. I decided to leave the window open. She was friendly enough. Even if she didn’t stick around to help unpack.

I chuckled to myself as I turned away from the sink and the open window, thinking about the night before. But the smile slowly slipped from my face as I caught sight of the clock on the wall opposite the kitchen.

I had exactly five minutes to get to Shrek Tower.

I cursed under my breath as I leapt for the hall closet, where I had meticulously hung my coats. I wrenched the door open and grabbed the first thing in sight that looked like it would keep me warm. I slipped on the first pair of shoes I could find in the dark space: a frumpy pair of patent leather slip ons.

I moved for my purse and my car keys which I had placed on the seat of one of the abandoned chairs in the living room, ignoring the open closet door. I grabbed them up and rushed out the door, nearly forgetting to lock it behind me.

I sighed inwardly as I raced down the drafty hallway of the second floor and then down the rickety stairs that I had pounded all last night.

I hadn’t even started working in this city and I was already rushing around like a crazy woman.

But if I thought I was losing my mind now, this was nothing to what was coming.

My ashen skin looked a shade paler in the dim light of the elevator.

There was no escaping my sickly appearance.

There were gold plated walls surrounding me, a box of beauty with a nothing inside of it.

Why was I so nervous?

Because I was late? Or because I looked like an underdressed simpleton compared to everyone about ten floors below me in the main lobby?

With a ding, I reached the eleventh floor.

I tore my eyes from my disappointing reflection and checked my watch anxiously.

Six minutes late and counting.

I swallowed what little saliva was in my mouth and I cringed as my stomach let out a growl. If my new boss didn’t kill me, I would probably die of hunger. I didn’t remember eating dinner last night and I most definitely didn’t eat breakfast. I had been too busy trying to beat time. Guess who won.

Another light hearted ding. Floor twelve.

One more floor. I was sure I would heave. But there was nothing to be rid of. I bit at the side of my thumb, my teeth gnawing at the little pinch of skin that hadn’t already been chewed off.

What would Mr. Shrek be like?
I tried hard to remember all of what Sandra had told me about him.

Nothing came to mind.

More importantly, what would Mr. Shrek think of me?

What every man thought of me: mousy, quiet, invisible, easily bossed around.

I bit down a little harder on my thumb and withdrew it from my mouth suddenly, as I felt the bitter taste of iron fill my mouth.

I looked down at my finger, concerned, worried about how much blood stood out against my white skin.

Ding! Thirteenth floor.

I tore my eyes from my newest little problem just in time to see the golden doors part, like the gates of heaven.

If only, I thought dejectedly, as a gust of A/C generated heat swept over my face. I tucked my thumb into my hand, ashamed of my bad habit, before taking a deep breath and stepping from the glossy walled lift.

The minute heel of my shoes clicked on the reflective surface of the marble floor as my wide, curious eyes wandered about the most beautiful room they had ever seen.

The ceiling was high and made up of a thousand little mirrors. I watched myself walk across the spacious lobby, a faint smile playing across my heavily chapped lips. I lowered my head, ready to take in more of the place where I was to work. And here I was thinking this was going to be hell.

The walls, which were painted a sophisticated shade of smoky grey, were bare. All except one, that held something that quite literally stopped me in my tracks.

There on east wall opposite the large windows and a moderately sized desk was the outlandishly huge portrait of a man that could only be my new boss: Max Shrek.

He was much younger than I had pictured. Handsomer too. Scarier.

He sat, almost perched, in a grand leather arm chair. His lean frame was dressed in an expensive looking suit that only added to the luxury of the room. At his feet sat two monstrous Boxers, guarding their owner, their floppy mouths turned down in disgruntled frowns.

Mr. Shrek’s strong jaw and thin lips were set in a deep glower which was almost a glare and as I peered up at his blue eyes I felt like they could see right through my skin. I pulled my tweed coat closer to my body, as if it would make a difference.

“Excuse me? Can I help you?”

I jumped, startled that I wasn’t the only one in the room, but the crisp voice was enough to break me from my strange reverie.

I stepped away from the portrait of Mr. Shrek, almost embarrassed that I had been staring at it so intently. My attention instead turned to another small desk that I had not noticed before, where a young woman, about my age or so, sat, staring at me like I was crazy.

With my windblown hair, my snazzy yellow clothes, and my eyes like saucers, I didn’t blame her.

I found my voice, finally, as I moved toward the reception desk. “Yes, you can actually. I’m Selena Kyle.”

The young woman’s face remained blank, save for the small amount of suspicion in her blue eyes, as I came to a stop directly in front of where she was stationed. It was obvious she had no idea who I was. Which meant Sandra had never mentioned me at all. Great.

“I’m filling in for Sandra Kelley?” I offered.

The woman blinked and her blue eyes filled with comprehension. And disgust.

“Oh. You’re Sandra’s temp?”

I nodded slowly, smiling and adjusting my purse on my shoulder.

“Well, I can see Sandra’s odd sense of humor will be missed,” she observed, the evidence of a stifled laugh in her words.

The smile slipped from my face. What was that supposed to mean?

“I’m Sylvia Ross, Mr. Shrek’s personal assistant,” she explained, extended a dainty, manicured hand my way. I gave her my own, making sure it wasn’t the one that was bleeding.

Sylvia’s blue eyes found the designer watch on her slim wrist.

“My, my, a punctual girl aren’t we?” she scoffed, her sharp British accent cutting into me like a scalpel, “Mr. Shrek will not be pleased. He’s in a meeting at the moment, but I don’t see why we can’t pop in and say hello.”

And with a toss of her fiery red pin-straight hair, Sylvia stepped from behind her desk and began to make her way across the room toward the pair of black glass doors, that I had also failed to notice.

Something about the tone of Sylvia’s voice made me think that “popping in and saying hello” to Mr. Shrek, whilst he was in a meeting was not a very good thing.

But I followed anyways, because to be painfully honest, Sylvia intimidated me with her stylish clothes and her 4 inch heels. She was the chic executioner, I the awkward prisoner.

We reached the doors in a matter of seconds, and after the echo of Sylvia’s heels died down, she whirled around suddenly, causing me to nearly run into her. Her brilliant white face was dangerously close to my own, and I clumsily took a few steps back, almost struck dumb by the potent aroma of her perfume.

“Do not speak unless you are spoken to. Mr. Shrek is not a patient man, and has much to do. He cannot waste time on your ignorance. Look him directly in the eye when, if by a slim chance, you are spoken to. Keep you answers short and to the point,” she muttered, her cold eyes fixed on my face, holding my own in an intense stare.

I nodded to each thing that she said, my heart rate steadily increasing. Who the hell was I going to be working for?

Sylvia took a deep breath, let it out and turning back around to face the doors she placed both hands on the steel door handles. She peered over her shoulder, sharply, as if to check if I was still there.

“ And try to do something with your hair. You look like a bloody troll doll,” she added, causing my pale face to fill with color. She turned her face back to the door, to hide the mean smile creeping across her red lips.

When I was sure she wasn’t looking, I hurriedly ran my fingers through my hair, making sure to lay flat all of the pieces that had been blown about by the wind.

My thumb had stopped bleeding, but I tucked it into the pocket of my jacket anyway.

There was a quiet sound, much like that of a squeegee on a window, as Sylvia pushed open the doors, to reveal a long elegant hallway, with floors of black marble and walls of off-white plaster.

The clicking of her heels and the hushed squeak of my own started up again, as she led me down the vestibule to God knows where.

I kept my eyes on the floor, trying hard to ignore the writhing ball of anxiety in my stomach that had replaced my gnawing hunger. I felt the burning urge to just turn on the spot and leave this cold, gray, marble embellished building. I don’t think Sylvia would mind much.

But it was too late for that. I nearly ran into the woman in front of me, as she came to a stop in front of another pair of doors. On the wall beside the entry way was a plaque that read Meeting Room.

I swallowed slowly, gulping down the fear that was threatening to escape.

She wasted no time in telling me what to do. There was another quiet sound like the one before as she swung the doors open and lead me into the room.

It looked a lot like the reception area, minus the giant portrait of Max Shrek.

No, in this room I saw the real thing, for which the painting did no justice.

He sat, more intimidating and regal than any man I had ever seen, at the head of a long, luxurious table. Several exquisitely dressed men sat all along the sides, their hands and arms placed comfortably on the rich, smooth surface. At the sound Sylvia’s heels, they turned to look at us. But I hardly noticed them. My eyes were locked on Max Shrek.

And his eyes were on me.

Sylvia took a step forward, as if to separate herself from me.

“Good morning, Mr. Shrek-″she began, but was swiftly cut off by the very man she had addressed.

“I thought I made it very clear that I was not to be bothered, Sylvia.”

His voice was nearly identical to his appearance: cold, harsh, and commanding. His eyes left my face and I relaxed. Sort of.

Sylvia’s pale cheeks filled with color and she shifted her weight slightly, in her uncomfortable looking heels.

“You did sir-″

Her attempt to explain was abruptly stifled.

“And yet here you stand,” mocked Shrek, his icy blue eyes leaving Sylvia’s slim figure to settle on his fingernails.

Sylvia’s face practically matched her hair, as a few chuckles ran around the table.

I had many a time seen men use this technique. It was supposed to make women feel like idiot. Not a lot of them could pull it off.

To Shrek, it seemed second nature.

And Sylvia had just been reduced to nothing more than an airhead. Lower than me even. If I wasn’t completely paralyzed by the mere presence of Mr. Shrek I probably would have even smiled at her embarrassment.

She deserved it. For reminding me of how pathetic I was.

“Yes sir. I know sir,” repeated Sylvia, her once barbed voice coming out more like a whimper.

I watched Sylvia closely, all the while taking mental notes in my head, knowing full well that I would somehow get myself into a similar embarrassing situation.

But despite the attentiveness I had shown in the last few moments, I was unprepared for what Sylvia did next.

“But it was the new girl sir. She insisted on meeting you,” she exclaimed, her confidence returning with the assistance of a quickly formulated lie.

My jaw dropped in shock and protest, my head swirling like a stew full of things I’d never have the courage to say and insults I’d never be brave enough to spit.

But before I could utter even the lamest of objections, I inadvertently captured the precious, ever fleeting attention of Mr. Shrek.


“New girl?” he inquired, lowering his hand from his face, his fingernails forgotten.

“Yes sir,” replied Sylvia, who was practically glowing with pride at having me put on the spot, something she had accurately assumed was not my favorite thing in the world.

Mr. Shrek’s eyes fluttered to me and I felt my stomach drop to my knees.

Sylvia turned her face to me slightly, piercing me through the heart with one ice blue eye. Her look said it all: “Go on. Pet the beast. He doesn’t bite. Much.”

And now everyone waited.

Waited for me to speak, move, breathe at least.

But I did nothing.

The wet in my mouth was long gone, and my tongue was thick and fat. I didn’t know how long I stood there, like some pale plastic mannequin. It could’ve been days. Weeks, months, years. Time was too lazy and heavy and awkward to zip by.

But the last ounce of my dignity found a way.

It unthawed my knees and freed me from my rusty shell, like the Tinman in the Wizard of Oz. Except my heart was beating faster than that of a rabbit on heroine, threatening to leap out of my chest and flop about on the floor like a fish.

My knees wobbled and my legs shook as they moved me forward, a child walking for the first time in a scary place.

My hands robotically found their way out of the home they had made in my coat pockets. They were warm and clammy. I dried them hurriedly on my sides.

I opened my mouth, clever words and slick phrases shooting across the vast open space of my mind, like shooting stars. I wished I could say them.

“Hi,” was I all I could manage to choke out.

There were more minutes of silence.

I glanced quickly at Sylvia in my peripherals. She was biting back a laugh.

More air rushed out of my lungs and they brought words with them.

“I’m Selena K-kyle. It’s v-very nice to meet you, Mr. Shrek.”

It was quiet again but this time everyone waited for the man at the head of the table.

He was still staring at me, this funny sort of look in his eye. I’m pretty sure it was amusement. Pity. Something of that nature.

“The pleasure’s all mine, Ms. Kyle.”

There was a laugh, a chuckle, on the edge of his voice.

And all of the business men were staring at me too. With that same superior look.

There was a growing feeling in my stomach and I wanted to melt into a puddle, just turn into a goopy mess on the floor.

But Sylvia wouldn’t have that.

In a moment, she was at my side, her blood red nails grinding into my arm.

Before I could even bid goodbye to Mr. Shrek or his guests, I was swept from the room like dust.

Through the doors we went, then down the hall, headed straight for the black glass doors.

Sylvia swung them wide, sending a gush of cool air across my face. It felt amazing. Having so much blood rush to your face at one time can make you quite warm.

The grip on my arm loosened and I watched as Sylvia began to make her way back over to her little desk, as if she hadn’t left me standing there like a perplexed fool.

A couple minutes passed, and I was still gawking at her. She was shuffling papers and going about her work. She looked up suddenly as if hearing a strange noise. She caught sight of me.

“Well, go to your desk!” she barked, frightening me into movement.

I didn’t even see where I was going. My legs simply moved me along the grand space of the room until I was settled into a chair behind a desk.

I stared straight ahead at the woman nearly a mile away from me, on the opposite side of the room, not really looking at her.

Suddenly my eyes grew round and watery from all that they had seen, and slowly I laid my head down on the glass surface of my new desk.

I breathed for the first time this whole morning.

I jumped and ripped my forehead from the desk as the phone next to my left ear let out a generic ring.

“Answer it!”

I did as I was told.

Like so many times before.