Under the Red Sky

Under the Red Sky (Joker) Part 30.a.

Outside the sky stretched on for miles, gray and blotchy with brown haze. The snow fell down silently upon the countless rooftops and built up along the street corners, clotting the sidewalks, muted, unheard, yet another passive moment of nature that man overlooks.

But for me, there was panic. Sheer, unadulterated panic.

I awoke with a jolt, my heart beating wildly in my chest though moments ago I had been buried deep beneath the black waters of sleep. My breath came in sharp, rattling bursts as I sat up, the covers falling away from me.

I rubbed the grit from my eyes, the last horrible images of my nightmare dissolving like ink as my conscious mind became clear, blanching like the sky after a storm.

How could the mind produce such a terrible sequence of memory, of fear, of disgusting filth?

My horrid mind was split down the middle, like some desolate mass of land, transformed by the turn of time. A crevasse, deep, black, endless, and into it fell the empty shell of what used to be my sanity.

It was then I realized I was alone, the bed empty save for myself. My hands grazed lightly over the spot beside me, tracing over the imprint the body had left behind. Faintly warm.

I slipped from the mattress, throwing aside the sheets which reeked of putrid sweat and fear. The stench made my stomach churn and I hurried to the bathroom, eager to wash the smell from my skin.

My shower was brief, and after yanking a somewhat clean towel off the rack, I stood before the foggy mirror, hair dripping, beads of water coating my shoulders.

I took a deep, shaky breath. Exhaled.

I closed my eyes, almost afraid that the horrors of my nightmare had been burned onto my eyelids. But I saw only black and swirling silver. And then slowly, carefully, as though handling something fragile, my hands found my womb, my fingers moving nimbly over my most sacred.

The scar was where it had always been, a constant reminder of my irreversible decision. Of the operation that had gone so horrible wrong so suddenly. Of the procedure that had left me hollow, empty.

And infertile.

My eyes flickered open, blinking back the sour shame that burned beneath my dry lashes. My hands fell away from my center, clutching the hem of the towel indecisively, my wary reflection staring at me through the steam.

I turned away abruptly, pattering out of the bathroom, exhaling sharply. I could bear myself no longer.

I moved to the dresser, the chill of the bedroom finally setting in, but my fingers lingered on the handles as I heard something emanating from down the hall.

Music. And over that, raucous yet jovial, singing.

I smiled, tugging an old undershirt and a pair of sweats from one of the dresser drawers. I dressed quietly and quickly before ambling out of the bedroom, through the office, and into the hall, the jolly, off-key chorus drawing me in.

Everyone it seemed was gathered in the kitchen, unmasked, the smiles on their faces replacing the cheerfully fake grins of their masks, mugs of coffee and orange juice in each of their hands. They didn’t notice me at first, where I stood in the doorway and I observed the scene with quiet amusement.

The whole kitchen was rosy with flushed, orange light and the air seemed to vibrate with boisterous, happy chatter. I spotted Sam fiddling with a transistor radio, which was perched on the wooden island, the opening notes of “Jingle Bell Rock” crackling from its speakers. Heat was coming off the stove, filling the room with a soothing warmth, and suddenly my nightmare, my chilling fear seemed very far away.

Something sweet was burning in the oven, but nobody seemed to care. Not even the man standing before the stove, his back to his goons, the blackened oven mitts on his hands placed comically, almost femininely on his hips.

“Now, boys, try it again. And this time, try not to sound like a bunch of tone-deaf idiots.”

The Joker spun around, his greenish hair smacking him in the face, and he raised the mitts as though to conduct his goons, all of them groaning in good humor, Sam grumbling the loudest. There was a smirk on his clean face, healthy color in his cheeks. He opened his scarred mouth as Brenda Lee started on the second verse, but paused suddenly, his bright eyes finding me in the doorway.

“At last,” he cried, making his voice audible over the music. The goons turned to look at me, smiling and calling out their own greetings as the Joker rushed over, a stupid grin stretching the scars on his face.

He took me in his arms and without warning, crashed his lips onto mine, our teeth knocking together painfully, wonderfully, perfectly. His mitted hands found my sides, and for a moment, I felt absurdly as though I were kissing a theme-park character, their furry arms holding me close.

The henchmen hooted and hollered, applauded and raised their glasses to toast to bedlam, to folly affection. The Joker sealed the kiss with several fervent pecks, before breaking away and grinning at me.

“Merry Christmas, dear,” he laughed, a familiar mocking tone in his voice, “You’re just in time. The cookies are almost...What’s the matter?”

Overcome with emotion I didn’t know I possessed, I had flung myself on him, wrapping my arms around him, holding him in a drowning grip. I clutched at the back of his shirt, as if I’d rather face death than let him go. Perhaps it was the fear. Perhaps it was my emotions, thrown out of whack by my nightmare. Or maybe, I just needed to be held. After all the withdrawal, I needed him.

“Hey, hey, hey,” he fussed in my ear, patting my back with confused hesitation. I only held tighter. He shot a look at Sam, who nodded in understanding, before drawing the attention away from us by ordering a couple of goons to get whatever was stinking to high heavens out of the oven.

“What’s the matter? What’s wrong?” he asked gruffly, pulling away to look at me. There was sincere concern in his face. I was sweetly inundated.

I lied without a second thought. “Nothing. I suppose I just….It’s nothing.”

He took my words for what they were, but did not press me for the truth. After a moment, I felt safe enough to unhook my claws from the thin fabric of his under shirt, and I took a small step away from him as the high color left my face.

He was staring at me, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at him. Neither of us was accustomed to this needy sort of affection, but we had both sought it as a relief for the terror that had been lurking behind our tired eyelids. Fear turned us both into children, whimpering under the covers, bleating about the monsters under our beds. Except the monsters weren’t under the bed. They were in our minds, writhing in our subconscious. The only thing either of us was really scared of was…ourselves.

I sighed, gazing out on the scene in the kitchen to avoid looking at the Joker. Sam was treating everyone to eggnog and what used to be in the oven was now set out on the counter, the goons giving the trays a wide berth because they were still so hot. And because they stank like decay and ginger.

“You made cookies?” I murmured, smiling wistfully at the oddly shaped red-brown men lined up on their burnt silver platforms.

“Yes…yes I did,” he said, the pride evident in his voice, “Always the tone of surprise. If you ask me, I think they came out pretty swell.”

“Oh yes, the burnt sugary carcass smell is really kicking my salivary glands into high gear.”

He smiled wryly, reaching over and cupping my chin in his hand, forcing me to look at him. His eyes searched my face for what felt like an eternity. I barely noticed as the henchmen trekked out of the kitchen and across the hall into the television room. Johnny Mathis was on the radio, crooning about silver bells.

“No. There’s nothing seriously wrong,” he muttered finally, as if quelling his own disquiet, “You’re still a bitch.”

I bit his hand playfully and he withdrew, smirking as he sauntered into the deserted kitchen. I followed after him, watching with vague amusement as he attempted to pry a small part of his disaster off the tray.

“You were talking last night,” he said suddenly, and my eyes snapped up to his face. His eyes met mine. “In your sleep, I mean.”

“About wh-"

“Your mother,” he muttered, eyeing me warily, “And something about a baby.”

My mouth suddenly went dry, my eyes falling away from his face. How could I explain this without bursting into hysterics?

“It was a long time ago. I made a terrible mistake,” I murmured, picking at an unfortunate gingerbread man with my dirty nails, “Two terrible mistakes really...”

“Then that makes two of us,” he countered, locking me with his gaze, “I saw your scar. You don’t need to explain.”

I stared. “Thank you.”

He shrugged, tapping his fingers on the dirty ceramic mug in his hand and moving to meet me on the other side of the island.

“Just…try and smile for me today, hmm?” he murmured, shoving the mug into my hands. “It’s Christmas, remember?”


And I did try. I really did. In fact for the rest of the morning and the majority of the afternoon, my spirits lifted considerably.

It seemed that on account of the fact that it was Christmas Eve, the Joker had declared the day an “off day.” Meaning basically that nobody did anything. We all lounged around the warehouse, most of us sprawled out in front of the television, laughing and talking over the family Christmas specials. A number of goons had taken off; headed home to their families, I supposed.

In the far corner of the television room, there sat a scrawny Christmas tree, its needles already starting to brown. It was sparingly decorated, a thin string of lights draped along its spidery branches. I hadn’t the slightest clue who brought it in, or where the heck they had gotten it, but it looked so beautiful sitting there in the corner. So eerily enchanting.

Some time later, when the sun began to slip beneath the line of the horizon, bleeding orange light through the small, rectangular window in the kitchen, several henchmen were called from the television room by the Joker, who after our brief conversation had retired to his office. They lumbered out and were gone for maybe twenty minutes before they came back, plodding right past their other comrades and myself in the television room, headed straight for the door. One of them, I noticed, was carrying the bottle of Clyburn. They left their masks behind.

A moment or two after I heard the front door slam, I left the room myself, moving down the hall until I reached the office. I knew full well that the plan the Joker had concocted was about to unfold.

He wasn’t in his office, but there was sound coming from the bedroom: incoherent mumbling and vague tuneless humming. The bathroom light was on. As I moved through our darkened room, I paused when I came to the dresser. There, sitting near the edge of the bureau, was a bottle of nail polish, the light dancing on the glossy glass pot. The color was a rich, sensual shade of red. Blood in a bottle with a little black brush.
“No offense, but I think it your nails might clash with your suit,” I ribbed, peering into the bathroom at him. He looked at me in the mirror, lipstick poised at his mouth.

“It’s not for me,” he murmured, running the red paint over his lips and smacking them loudly. “It’s for you.” He paused, glancing at me over the purple shoulder of his coat. “Merry Christmas.”

I made a face, picking up the bottle and turning it over in my hands. “For me?” I mused, twisting off the cap and examining the polish more closely, “You shouldn’t have. Is this for the party?”

“You could say that,” he muttered, turning back to the mirror, “I thought it might give you a bit more of an edge. The paint is tainted with lye and caustic soda. Otherwise known as sodium hydroxide.”

“You forget I’m not the one who used to be a chemist.”

“It’s a chemical that, when it comes into contact with human flesh, results in extreme burns, scarring, and permanent injury,” he explained screwing the tops back onto his own paints, “Pretty dangerous stuff at your fingertips. Literally…”

I laughed. “Merry Christmas is right. This will certainly make things interesting...and painful.”

The Joker moved away from the mirror, looking at me as he leaned up against the doorframe. “And, uh…what about my present?”

I smiled wickedly, catching that wild glint in his eyes as I crept closer. “Well, we’ll have to see about that. Have you been a good little boy?”

He peered down at me, smirking as he wound an arm around my waist. “What do you think?”

My grin widened for a moment before fading away into a frown as I tugged at his tie. “Is this party really the place to be tonight? I can think of about a million other places I’d rather be. Like right here…in this room…”

The Joker sighed, a faint chuckle on his breath. “No, no. We made a promise to this city. Can’t go breaking promises. I gave them my word.”

“Fuck your word,” I said sourly, “And fuck you too.”

He smiled, smacking my arm playfully. “All in good time, Bijou. Be ready in twenty.” And with that he strutted past me and out of the room. I heard him resume his tuneless humming as he made his way through the office and into the hallway. I looked after him for a moment, thinking of his words.

He was right. We had made a promise to the city. To kill those we deemed necessary. To make a point, one the citizens of this God forsaken place would not forget so easily. To send them a message with the crack of whip, a little scratch, and a lot of laughter.

I sighed, the smile returning to my face, my lips curling balefully. I moved across the room, taking the dress down from the hook on the door. Ripping off the plastic cover, I examined the dress. Strapless, velvet, beautiful.

The Joker had nice taste. In women’s clothing at least.

Tonight is going to be fun I thought, absentmindedly running my fingers over the smooth fabric of the dress.

And yet I could not ignore the feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach, or the small doubtful voice in the back of my mind. I could not help but feel that something was going to happen. Something none of us could have expected as though Fate, that twisted woman, might wink a pretty eye and change everything. For better or worse, I hadn’t a clue.

I tried to quell these thoughts but they lingered like a bad joke in the quiet, dusty bedroom as I laid my dress across the bed before doubling back to the bureau and taking the small bottle in my hands. I looked it over once more, sighing wistfully.

“It’s going to be a hot time on a cold town tonight,” I murmured, a grimace on my lips as I unscrewed the top on the polish, set my hand flat on the worn wooden surface of the bureau, and began to paint my nails.