Under the Red Sky

Under the Red Sky (Joker) Part 29


I was dreaming.
I stood on the shore, feeling the gritty white sand run under my feet, looking out over the viscous surface of the lake. The wind screamed through the dead brush that encircled the sludge, whistling across the frozen gray sky.

And suddenly I saw her. A white figure lazing on the shore from across the span of the lake, more beautiful, more horrifying than I thought possible.


She didn’t see me, didn’t even know I was there.

Her wild hair bristled, and she cocked her head toward the wind, scenting the air like an animal. Her flesh was dripping with what looked like tar, and I watched with heavy eyes as she began to lick herself clean.

Not tar… maybe chocolate…I like chocolate…


I whirled around and she was there standing amid the dead shrubbery, thick, white cobwebs binding her to the spindly, leafless trees. Her yellow hair hung around her face, lank and boring, her pallid skin covered with small red bumps. Her empty blue eyes were suddenly filled with furious envy, glaring at me.

“Jack!” she screamed again, her voice like nails on a chalkboard, “What are you doing looking at that whore? I’m your wiiiiiiiiiffffeeee…”

I shuddered, my hands gripping my face. Clean, unscarred. “No, you’re not! You’re dead, you’re dead and GONE!”

She laughed at my misery, her voice as loud as the sky. “You’d like to think that. So you can have her.”

I watched in horror as her skin seemed to simmer, bubbling and festering; one of the spots on her face swelled and suddenly erupted, thousands of tiny spiders spilling from her open flesh.

“Do you like the way she touches you, huh?” she hissed, the miniscule creatures crawling across her face, “Do you like your little whore? No, that’s not right. You don’t like her. You loooovveee herrr…”

Her voice was a chorus of shrieking, sighing wretched ghosts, howling through the trees.

“Shutup, shutup, shutup!” I screamed at her, clawing at my face. “Don’t talk of that…don’t talk of love…”

“You can’t have her, Jack,” she bellowed, her voice suddenly black, “You’ll kill her. Like you did all the rest.”

She pointed over my shoulder and I whirled around to see the sewage was stirring, moving. Up rose, the bodies, the countless bodies of my victims. Men, women, every race, every creed, young and old. Their flesh was blue and moldy, drenched in thick, putrid slop, torn away in several places and revealing ghoulish white bones, bloated black innards.

The places where I had run them through.

They trudged through the slime, their milky eyes fixed on me, rotting hands outstretched. The tar fell from their lips like vomit and the surface of the lake began to smoke, the sudden smell of tobacco overwhelming and stifling.

“You’ll kill her, Jack,” Jeannie repeated suddenly in my ear. I felt the mild, tickling sensation of a spider creeping along my neck. “Your madness will swallow up everything in black, and you will rip, tear, burn, kill herrr….”

“Rip, tear, burn, kill. Rip, tear, burn, kill.”

The corpses chanted with her, slogging closer, closer. I squeezed my eyes shut tight against their horrible moaning, screaming in terror and panic and rage.

I looked back to Jeannie and she was cackling, smiling into my face, spiders crawling across her yellow teeth, a cigarette clamped in between them. “I just hope she doesn’t get you first, Jackie Boy. With that temper of hers…who knows what could happen.”

I felt slimy hands grab me from behind, clutching at my face, my neck, my chest, and then, with one great heave, the dead pulled me down into the lake, under the surface, into the black…


Bijou was calling my name, that voice I knew so well wracked with concern with affection. But still I fought, writhing in my bed, kicking, scratching, thrashing as though I were possessed.

Wasn’t I?

I felt her arms around me, the feathery warmth of her voice in my ear telling me to wake up, to stop screaming.

My eyes snapped open to see her face, her blue eyes wide with alarm and bright with panic. Her cheeks were flushed from the cold outside and with the effort to calm me down.

“They had me,” I muttered wildly, just barely settling back into reality. “They were gunna drag me back with them. Into the filth…”

Her eyes searched my face, her pretty lips turned down in a worried frown. “Shh, shh. It’s alright It was just a dream.”

“No,” I shook my head, rocking back and forward in her arms. “Nightmare.”

“Sh, sh, sh,” she cooed, nuzzling her head against my own. I caught her scent, a warm, musky, almost animal smell and for a moment things got a little fuzzy.

“I won’t do it,” I muttered, nestling my face in her hair, savoring the feel of it on my scars, “I won’t.”

“You wont’ do what?” she asked, concern spiking in her voice again.

“Kill you.”

She pulled away to look at my face. She blinked. “Neither will I.”

We stared at each other then. I could see she was worried, maybe even a little scared. But she stayed, holding me, calming me with her noxiously wonderful scent. I buried my face in her hair and breathed, feeling the panic in me fade.

I pulled away after a moment, swallowing painfully. “Water,” I croaked and she nodded, leaving quietly, the unease still evident on her face.

I wrung the sullied sheets in my hands, instantly regretting sending her away. I didn’t want to be alone with my thoughts. Not yet. I could still hear them, groaning, sighing, gurgling, the sewage spilling from their mouths…

She returned after what seemed like an eternity, glass in hand. I took it from her gladly, letting the cool water slide down my throat. She watched me drink, her hand to her mouth. Like a worried mother.

I set the glass aside, burying my face in my hands. Scarred, jagged, ugly. Everything was back to normal. Whatever the hell normal was.

“If I had known you were screaming like this I would’ve come home quicker,” she murmured, offering a small smile.

I veered the conversation off track. “How did it go? The, uh… little outing I mean.”

She shrugged. “It went fine. We didn’t run into any trouble.” She paused, slipping out of her coat and laying it on the end of the bed. “Out of curiosity, what was with your phone call? Sam said you had it handled, or something along those lines.”

“I went out for a while after you left. Ran an errand or two.”

She made a face. “Did you walk?”

I shook my head, my lips twitching. “One of the guys has a van.” I paused to blow my nose. “Bought myself a new suit. And I got you a dress.”

She blinked. “You didn’t have to-"

“But I did. It’s over there.”

She turned, glancing around. The dress was on a metal rung on the back of the door, wrapped in protective plastic. She approached it slowly, pulling the plastic back and running her fingers over the soft velvet.

“It looks expensive,” she murmured, looking back at me.

“No worries. I used the five-finger discount,” I muttered, holding up a hand, but there was no humor in my voice.

Her forehead crinkled as her eyes narrowed. “Are you going to be okay?”

I shrugged. “Probably not. But, it’s nothing I haven’t been through before. I just need…to forget. So, uh drop it, okay?”

She nodded, moving toward the door. Damn it.

Get back here….

“Thanks,” I blurted suddenly, staring down at my hands, cracked and smudged with makeup. “For getting me out of that. For waking me up.”

She smiled this time, the worry nearly gone from her face. “Of course. I know you’d do the same for me.”

And then she left, and I could hear her as she moved through the office, pitter-pattering back toward the hall. I fought the urge to call her back. Because that would mean so much in itself. That would make her right. That would mean that I…

I heaved a sigh, burying my face in my hands once more, thinking of her words.

I know you’d do the same for me.

But would I? Or would I-

Rip, tear, burn, kill.

I moaned, my stomach turning over. I only barely made it to the restroom, before I emptied the contents of my stomach. I retched until there was only bile bubbling up from the back of my throat, and when I was through, I collapsed beside the bowl, my knuckles rammed in my mouth to hold back the screams.


“He’s never screamed like that,” I murmured to myself, standing before the kitchen sink, turning over a dirty glass in my hand before filling it with water.

I had only ever heard him mutter in his sleep. He’d laugh once in a while, spit a few curses. But never had I heard such an agonizing sound as that escape him. It chilled me to the bone and I swore I could still hear it, ringing in my head.

‘They had me’ he had said, his voice hitching in terror. I had never seen such horror in his eyes. The way he clung to me, the almost desperate fear in his shaking voice as he pressed his face into my hair. He had once more transformed before my eyes into the helpless man I had seen this morning. It sickened me to see him this way. It simply wasn’t right.

And what of that bit about not killing me?

He had sworn himself against it like a witness on the stand under the pious, accusing eyes of a jury.

They had me.

I put it from my mind, downing the rest of my water, and setting the glass in the sink before joining Sam and the others on the couch. A few hours of nonsensical television would take my mind off of things. For now, at least.

Sometime later when the eight o’clock news anchors signed off, smiling their toothy grins as they bid us good night and assured us that we’d see them tomorrow at the same time, I slipped from the room, moving down the hall with quiet poise.

I found him sound asleep, much to my relief, tangled in the sheets once more. He had actually showered I could see. His hair, still wet, had soaked the pillows. His face was clean, handsome as always yet haunting still, his lips parted slightly, a light snore stemming from deep in his throat.

How can he be so peaceful when just a while ago he was screaming as though he were being skinned alive?
I sighed, shaking my head briskly as I slipped silently into the room. I assumed my side of the mattress, my back to him, wincing at the painful whine of its metal springs. It was just as my eyes began to feel heavy that I felt him stir, turning toward me. I stayed perfectly still as he wound an arm around my waist, pulling me to him ever so slightly. I dared not even breath, afraid that it would rouse him from his peace.

The soft purr of his snores began again, this time in my ear, and my eyes fluttered as I breathed in his familiar, comforting scent. I spiraled down and fell like a sliver of ice through the thick darkness, heavy and oppressive as the breath of the beast.

And almost immediately, I began to dream.

But it was more memory, than dream, for all was black and white and silver glass.

The Avalon Diner lay on middle grounds between the college and my sleepy hometown and the place was mostly empty save for a few business men sitting at the counter, sipping their coffee and chatting amiably with the aging, busybody waitresses. Mother and I sat in a booth near the door. It was a slow night and I could see the graying dishwasher standing at the mouth of the kitchen, eyes on the clock, waiting.

I stared down at the smudged black tabletop only to catch my own reflection. I hated to look at my own pitiful face but I did not want to look at mother.

She wanted to talk about the baby.

I could remember now, stirring the second pack of sugar into my coffee idly. The biting guilt that had plagued me for weeks, distracting me from my studies. The sheer, insurmountable horror of having to face him in the hallways, or on campus after that night when I’d let him lead me away from the party, upstairs, giggling and stumbling and hiccupping.

But how could you blame me? After he’d said all those pretty words about my eyes and my face and my name? After he’d offered me a sip of that sweet fire and then a glass and then two, three?

Mother could blame me. And, oh, she did. She’d been so angry when I told her, so disappointed.

That had stung me the worst. Her disappointment. It killed me.

“You know what you have to do Selina.”

I dragged my gaze away from the tabletop, clutching my coffee cup to stop the trembling in my hands. “I don’t have to do this, Momma. There are other optio-"

She held up her hand, silencing me. “We’ve gone over this before, dear. There are no other options.”

I glanced back down at the table, shifting uncomfortably in my sticky, rubbery seat.

“Think of the child, Selina. You’re twenty-one years old and still in college. You haven’t a house or steady income. You’re not even well acquainted with the father. Do you want to bring a baby into that? Of course, not. It would complicate everything. You can hardly take care of yourself, for Christ’s sake.”

“But it’s a person, Momma. A living, breathing human being,” I attempted feebly, looking up at her with sad, pleading eyes.

“Not yet it isn’t,” she countered shortly, her regal face void of emotion.

I stared at her miserably. Did she not know the gravity of what she was asking of me? How couldn’t she?

“I think it best if we just rid ourselves of this little problem as soon as possible,” she stated promptly, taking a long sip from her coffee, eyeing me over the rim of the mug with those blue eyes that mirrored my own.

This little problem.

Yes, the little problem. The little problem living inside of me. The little problem round and pink, not even near human in appearance, floating in quiet existence, unaware and innocent.

And mother wanted me to get rid of it.

‘We’ she had said. As if what she wanted me to do would affect her in any way…

“It could hurt me, Momma. The procedure could…damage me,” I whispered, glancing around shamefully as though someone might hear.

“I’ve done the research, Selina. Don’t think I haven’t,” she replied, her lips a thin, taut line. “Nothing could possibly go wrong.”

You said something like that once before. On that night, years ago, when you put a gun in my hand with a smile. Remember, mommy?

I tried to see it her way. Tried to think of the small form of life nestled inside me as something inhuman, something like a parasite. Something that I couldn’t one day hold and kiss and love. Something that wasn’t a part of me, a thing whose heart did not beat in time with mine.

“Do as I say, Selina and go through with it,” she said, drawing me out of my thoughts with her gentle, reassuring tone of voice. “I’ll even call the clinic, make the arrangements if you want.”

I looked up at her, almost angry, hot tears stinging my eyes. I knew that tone well. It was the whisper of the snake in my ear. The sly voice of false reason goading me on, softly pushing me onto the tight wire toward a fate unknown. It’d be wise to fight back, to argue, to say something. But…

I fall every time.

How romantic.

“Do it for yourself, Selina. If anything, do it for you,” she went on, gazing at me with those fallaciously sympathetic eyes.

Do it for me. She means, do it for me…

I felt myself nod slowly, my eyes glazed, fixed on nothing. My mouth tasted coppery, like I’d been sucking on a mouthful of old pennies. That was the tang of self-loathing.

She reached across the table to seal the deal. She touched my left arm and her face broke a sad, heartening smile. I was gagging on the metal taste on my tongue, but I couldn’t cry, couldn’t scream, couldn’t run away.

My other hand fell away from the table and lay across my stomach, in an almost protective manner, but I jerked my arm away almost instantly. Staring down at myself, I could’ve sworn I felt the blip of a heartbeat. Or heard the low, inaudible echo of a tiny scream…

Faintly, over the thump of blood in my head, I could hear mother. Her voice was eerie and sounded as though she were far off.

I looked up at her to find that I was no longer in the diner. Rather I was standing in the bottom of a well, up to my knees in thick black sludge. I peered up to see mother standing at the mouth of the well, miles away it seemed, smiling down at me.

The sewage began to stir, began to move as though I was not alone down here in the dark. It was then I realized that I wasn’t.

In my arms, clutching my shoulder with tiny hands, was the child, small and red and weightless. And dead.

My eyes found their way back to the mouth of the well as the slop around me began to smolder and bubble with blood. The familiar stench of tobacco filled the close air and with fleeting panic, I looked to mother for deliverance. She offered none.

Her smile only widened, revealing rows of sharp yellow teeth. A forked tongue, scarlet and horrible, slipped between her lips as she bent low to hiss into the well.

“It’ll be fine, Ssssssselina. Mother knows best….”

A shadow fell over the well and I saw that mother was not alone. Standing beside her was the woman from the photograph, Jeannie, smoking and carrying her own bundle of joy, blue, and shriveled as her lungs.

They waved to me cheerfully as though they spotted an old friend. And then in a whisper they were gone. And there was only sky, violently red, bruised with black clouds.

And suddenly, I found, glancing around, that the child, swaddled in eternal sleep, and I, choking on my own fright, were not alone. Standing in the shadows, leaning demurely against the grimy stones, clawed hands set on her hips, was the monster from my nightmare that I’d had so many nights ago.

But it couldn’t be the monster. It had to be…me.

Like looking in a mirror…

She smiled at me in an almost patronizing way, before looking up and examining the sky, her white blue eyes narrowed. She sniffed the air, her gaze snapping back to me. A worried frown had replaced her Cheshire grin, and I felt my heart sink to the bottom of my stomach, where it burned and shuddered in acid, aching for what she might say.

And then quiet simply, her hair bristling wildly, she opened her red lips and breathed, her words tumbling out all at once, filled with sad wisdom that somehow foretold the imminent horror, looming on the red horizon.

“Storm’s coming.”

The air crackled with thunder, the fiendish howl of the beast blowing through the darkening clouds, shrieking across the desolate, black haze as purple lightening split the crimson sky.

And the heavens rained blood.