Author's Note: Through writer's block, through sweat, frustration, and debilitating anger I have finally given you the fourth installment of this irreverent monster, in my quest to murder the Mary Sue. Beware: it's terrifyingly long.
P. S: If you could count how many times the word 'death' appears in this chapter and tell me, that would be great. Just for the sadistic statistics.
"Wild animals never kill for sport. Man is the only one to whom the torture and death of his fellow creatures is amusing in itself."
James Anthony Froud
Day Two, part 2: Admonition
The garage door slid down to the pavement and closed the path to liberation forever. He picked up the brown bag and tucked it under his arm.
"After the explosion, I could swear that your son was pile of cinders," the Joker whistled, "Lucky you.."
The woman let out a ragged breath of astonishment. "What are you talking about?" she cried.
The Joker tilted his head. "See, I can be the bearer of good news, too."
Regurgitated blood and saliva drowned out her voice. Her sore throat felt like a dry patch of fire inside her, a malnourished tube that burned, burned, burned..
Unable to handle the excitement, her breaths came out in wheezes. A painful vertigo unleashed unholy fury on her senses. Colors came to life, dancing. Sounds of whirring machinery and wailing pounded her eardrums mercilessly. In this cacophony of threatening sound and surreal imagery, one notion remained intact:
There's no way. No way he could have survived the explosion..
He smiled. "Allow me to elaborate." Out from his jacket pocket came a bloody, half folded assortment of papers.
Her eyes relayed his image vaguely. A swaying clown in a purple suit. White, pink and green papers flapped in her face. Judging by the blood, they had been seized forcefully. The Joker flattened them out and grinned. "I checked on your son this morning."
Her eyes widened.
"He's in the hospital—comatose. The right side of his face is pretty crispy and he's on a machine, but hey—at least he's alive!" He breathlessly laughed.
The outcry was too much for her vocal chords to handle and her voice cracked. Her aggravated stomach kept sending up the blood, the vomit.. She tried to lift herself off the floor, but the Joker pressed his boots into her back. Whimpering, she withdrew.
"No, no, no...lemme explain. I got these papers especially for you." He giggled, relishing that unrelenting terror in her eyes. "Lemme explain..."
He brought them to his view. "Says here that your son was trapped underneath a car—a teal Ford Mustang—for 3 hours before the firemen heard his muffled cries."
God. My car.
"When they found him, the left side of his face was terribly disfigured, and his right hand is so charred it's unusable—"
While she wept, he sifted through the highly technical speech until he happened upon something particularly traumatizing. "Immobile—charred—contaminated—"
"Ah! Here's a good part! Says the kid 'descended into a state of shock' soon after he was rushed into the paramedics. His left arm is so crushed from the impact the nerve damage is catastrophic—and the doctors are considering amputation.."
He shook his head in feigned sympathy with that abominable grin of his. "Eww.."
The woman covered her ears and closed her eyes tight. Both of her hands were slapped away. "Listen, Bo—this is for you—not me. You are the one that decided to run away—you are the one who wanted to back out on our deal."
She bit her lip and drew blood. More than anything she wished she would go deaf.
"You've never been blown to bits, so who are you to think it isn't painful? That's what you wanted, wasn't it? To die a painless death? Honey, bombs are all about pain." He held her hand as if he intended to propose.
He then whispered his loathsome breath into her ear: "The nurse told me that it's likely he will be comatose until his prepubescent years..."
She tried once again to lift her hand to her ears, to which he squeezed harder.
"Do you know how uh, easy it is to end your son's life? All it takes is pulling out a tube. Just one little tube!" He held out a finger. "And he'll stop breathing. And I'll make you watch me take your son off of life support." He narrowed his eyes. "...Is that what you want?"
"No..." she mouthed.
But what did it matter? She didn't want any of this, though she found herself here anyway...
"You were trying to kill yourself because you thought your son was dead—but now that you know he's alive...well, you seem to have a little more color in your cheeks.." He pinched her cheek. Her gaze remained downcast and she said nothing.
"You know what else I noticed? Your son means everything to you. When I showed you the news, your sanity really seemed to wither. You thought he was dead. Then I drove up and saw you runnin'...all because you thought there was nothing to live for. But you didn't know he was dead—you thought he was dead. There's a big difference between thinking..." he waved his finger to one side, then the other, "And knowing."
Foolish Bo Peep.
"You didn't realize I uh, gave you something to live for. What kind of life were you living in that place, with a whiny brat of a son and an asshole of a husband giving you a hard time? Face it, Babs, this is the most fun you've had in a looong time."
With a face devoid of emotion, tears slid down her cheeks. He aligned her face with his and his stare grew stern. "I'll let this slide, since it's only been two days since you've been here, and I'm hungry for a good game. But if you disobey again—it's either the life support or this."
The Joker yanked her to her feet as one would have a puppet hanging in subjection to its strings. Disregarding the difficulty of her standing up, he dragged her by her hair into a darkened, narrow hallway with dusty strobe lights on the ceiling.
Mice squealed. Cockroaches and water bugs scurried across her feet. Rats jumped into holes they'd dug for themselves. As he smashed a rat's abdomen under his boot, it was finally clear to her that he truly lacked a conscience. The humans whose lives he took were no more significant than the insects and rodents he crushed under his feet. In his eyes, she was worth no more than them. The apathetic stance he took against any form of life was revolting in every way imaginable.
It was terrifying beyond belief to know that the man she'd once seen in the news taunting Batman was now holding her hostage at the exchange of her child's life.
Those fists, those infuriated eyes of her husband were no longer of any importance now, nor worthy of fear. There were terrors far exceeding petty domestic abuse.
The light was close ahead. Just a few more feet of walking in this inconceivable filth, and they'd be at their destination.
She was brought into sunlight. Not anticipating such a sudden change of atmosphere, she was rendered temporarily blind. During this brief sightless interlude she tried to analyze her surroundings with her remaining senses. Wet straw sifted beneath her feet. The chilly air caused goosebumps to materialize on her skin, and she shivered in response. The smell was horrendous.
The colorful dots behind her lids dissipated and she found herself in a diminished stable.
His hand swept the area to intimate that she investigate. Deducing it unwise to disobey, she stumbled forward.
Broken down, wooden stalls held wailing animals within them. She gaped at the skinny limbs of a dying horse, trying to drag itself out of its confinement, but an array of chains held it in place. It whinnied frantically, then suddenly died. A small pool of blood seeped onto the ground, completely robbed of the normal crimson color. Almost black. Its pale, emaciated tongue hung limply from its discolored lips. The teeth of the beast were yellow and decayed. Its black eyes were lifeless pools of ebony. Bile beckoned to her as she saw that rusty fishhooks were latched deep into its skin. The loops of flesh they penetrated were a reddish purple hue—a color endorsed from infection.
She moved on. In the next stall, an even more vile stench assailed her. She lurched back and covered her nose. A rotting lamb, long since dead, was being feasted on by a starving mare whose skin clung to its bones. A blood-caked noose hung from the lamb's neck. It had been hanged. The horse fully immersed its mouth into the lacerated belly of the lamb. It seemed that the horse had tugged at the lamb's skin with its teeth until decay had made it possible to tear through. After it fully devoured a long strip of the lamb's bluish intestine, it peered at her with wild eyes—horribly blood shot. Rays of light from the fragmented roof of the stable shot down on its face; in turn, the horses eyes immediately dilated.
It whinnied and whimpered, thrashing itself against the wall of the stable, hooves outstretched. Crying for help. For the briefest moment she was tempted to release it, but feared that removing the fish hooks from its back would kill it.
This one outcry sparked many others: horses and pigs cried behind her too, screaming... The livestock had been weakened not only by extreme exposure to disease, but unsatisfied hunger. Had they the strength to liberate themselves, they might have tackled her to the ground and devoured her.
She backed away clumsily and caught her hair in a dangling fishhook. She grasped the chain and squirmed helplessly and screamed incoherent, religious gibberish.
The Joker yanked her hair from the fishhook and took her hand in his, swinging her around in a merry dance. Maniacally he sang:
"Hush a bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby,
When you wake, you'll have cake—
And all the pretty little horses.
Way down yonder, down in the meadow,
There's a poor wee little lamby—"
He glimpsed at the flies resting comfortably in the lamb's empty eye sockets.
He continued to sing:
"The bees and butterflies picking at its eyes,
The poor wee thing cried for his mammy.."
Now weak and weary, she fell onto his chest, sobbing helplessly into his coat. She no longer possessed the strength to pull away from him. No matter. He would force her back into his embrace again. The repulsive monster..
He whispered into her tendrils the last verse of the song:
"Hush a bye, don't you cry,
Go to sleepy little baby,
When you wake, you'll have cake—
And all the pretty. Little. Horses.."
An eerie silence elapsed.
"Look—see, what I'm going to do..." he pushed her away and she stumbled onto the floor. Her sharp yelp of pain was ignored. He snatched a broken bowl, slapped her face to receive attention, and displayed it before her. She trembled and looked warily up at him.
"See, what I'm gonna do is tie each of your limbs to the leg of a horse, and put four bowls of food at each corner of the room—" He indicated every corner with his finger. "That will coax them into a canter...and what will happen to you?"
The thought drove her over the edge. Her chest and neck were splattered with vomit. He smiled and brought her face to his, while completely disregarding his now bile-covered glove. "Tell me...what happens to you?"
His eyes widened as he waited for the answer.
The Joker nodded. "That's right."
"You're afraid. Why?" he asked, tilting his head. "Didn't you want to die in the first place?"
He lifted her chin to his level, as he often did. She had the bad habit of not looking him in the eyes. "What does death mean to you?"
Such a peculiar question. Of course, her answer would be wrong. She was always wrong.
"It means...you don't suffer anymore." she managed.
"Is death a place, or a state?"
"A state..?" she answered warily. What if it was a place? What really was death? Was he going to tell her? Did he know?
"What does death mean to you?" she mumbled, subtly afraid to ask. How she wished to tell him that she didn't fear death, but only the pain death brought with it.
A moment of contemplation. A thought flickered in his usually hostile eyes, now softened by his musing.
He replied, "Death means little to me. It's the last joke in a series of bad jokes."
She snapped out of her dream-like state. He was rattling her shoulders again. When she immersed herself too deep in thought, he was always there to bring her back to sordid reality.
She scanned the room. Usual torture devices abound. The iron maidens looked as bloody as ever. On the table where the rigged television sat, the contents of the brown bag was revealed to be groceries. He had a strange taste in food. The bag was torn in the middle, revealing a jar of mixed peanut butter and jelly, baked beans, a loaf of bread, vanilla ice cream, a bunch of yogurts, from Danimals to Trix, raw bacon, Doritoes, Purina Dog Chow, and to top it all off: a can of spinach with Popeye the sailor on the cover.
In his hand he held a sloppy salami and peanut butter and jelly sandwich in his hand, and when he put it on his lap to get her attention again, black finger prints were left on the bread. Without any warning whatsoever he began poking and fondling her bruised and discolored breasts. "Huh...you're really sore. Does this hurt?"
He tugged at her dirty bra, "You're no stranger to pain, are you? You've gone past the point of screaming and crying. You're used to this. You've had practice. That's why you can take it."
"I have to do what is necessary for the safety of my child," she said. Her lips trembled with something like bravery.
The Joker tilted his head back and forth lazily and peered up at the ceiling. "What's necessary..." he rocked his head from side to side, echoing, "Necessary.."
Then he added: "I hope it's a long week, because you've given up the necessities. No food or water 'til your son turns three."
She barely had time to protest when he pressed a button and nudged her backward. A slot on the ceiling withdrew, and a gargantuan bird cage was hoisted down by ropes and chains. It hit the ground with a massive thud, disturbing dust, shaking tables and setting off bear traps.
She was going to be put in there. Still a slave to instinct, she tried to flee, but the Joker was quick to voice his vehemence. She backed into the wall, shivering.
He spoke slowly. "I think you should uh, know by now that—after that little stunt you pulled on the ground floor...I'm not in the mood for any more of your shit. I don't think you know how fragile this is..." He pointed to himself. "You swim in my sea."
Tremors shook viciously the fragile frame that was her body.
"Get in. Before I have to get really nasty."
She stumbled into the bird cage and collapsed onto her knees. He locked the door and tossed the key into his jacket pocket. She ran up to the bars and grasped them tightly. "What did you do with my son? Did you leave him there?!"
He swiped out a pair of cuffs and latched them onto her wrists and, in turn, enclosing them around the bars. She gasped and pulled at them frantically, but with a flick on the forehead, a thousand cries died on her lips.
He sang again in cheerful taunting:
Had a wife and couldn't keep her.
He put her in a pumpkin shell,
And there he kept her very well."
He giggled and threw a blanket over the cage, shrouding her in darkness.
Day Three, part 1: Valley of the Shadow
There was nothing to be done but wait. Wait to die. Wait to live. Wait for an absolution that may never come.
Time encased her in a veil of dread. There was a terrible, terrible sickening of the stomach; the pain from the unwelcome explosive wedged in her uterus paled in comparison. Her psychological wars were mighty and many, and her physical pains few. Fear was a state of mind, but that didn't make it any less harder to fight off than a palpable threat. Of course it came with the delightful side dish of her son's state.
Wait—weren't people in comas unresponsive to pain...?
He didn't feel anything.
'What kind of a life is that?' the Joker jeered.
Her son's life depended on hers. But was it really necessary for him to live any longer? He would be horribly disfigured for the rest of his life. He would have no left arm. He's in a deathly coma. That coma would last until he's ten years old, maybe even twelve at the very latest. And these are just conjectures of ill-placed optimism. Doctors with realistic opinions theorize that he'll never wake up.
She could die, and then that would mean that his suffering would end also. This wasn't a suicidal thought to her, but an inevitable turn of events. There was no real chance of the Joker's letting her go. Hence, their heads were both laying expectantly at the guillotine.
The Joker didn't need her for anything; she needed him for everything.
Surprise, surprise. The cover came off and an unprecedented light attacked her vulnerable irises. She cried out and blinded herself.
The light wasn't from the bulbs. It was dawn. Dawn had come. Just when she thought the world had ended.
The metal shackles were removed, no longer permitted to fuse her wrists onto the bars and make her veins protrude from hindered circulation. Her hands fell to her lap with a fleshy slap. The metal clanked on the floor. Slowly she brought her eyes to that unbearable sight. The man that, with only a set of impossibly black, observant eyes, set the fatality of her existence. She soiled herself, though she really didn't take note of the piss staining her already tainted undergarments.
He was a glowing demon in the potent sunlight—his eyes bright with the terror of evil and the bloody red smile giving it a sinister finish. She faintly thought that someone else had dreaded that smile once. Someone who spent a day or a night in his iron maiden or thrown into that door with the exit sign above it.
The Joker opened the cage, but she didn't want freedom. Freedom was death; and the cage was a sanctum.
"Bo Peep, my darling, you pretty thing.." he croaked softly, "You know it's time to play. Entertain me, and you'll stay on my good side." He made sad eyes, a gross incongruity of the scarred happiness extant on his face. "Don't make my smile disappear."
He beckoned with a bending, gloved finger.
Why did her deepest instincts choose to emerge in a situation where death was the only option, the only outcome? His smile was just as deadly as his frown. Any expression he made spelled death.
She obeyed. He surveyed her with obsessive precision. A rubber band was pulled out from his jacket pocket with a painful snap, and he tied it around her hair and alleviated her of the black, curly burden. With a lick of his lips, a stern eye, and a thumb placed thoughtfully on his chin, he came to some decision. He drew away from her and shrouded himself behind a curtained-off room.
He reappeared with a brown bottle and a few cotton balls. Without so much as warning her he dipped what she immediately identified as alcohol on a cotton ball and placed it on her lips, hard. It soaked. And she bled as a result.
Her mouth remained closed. She only prayed her tightly shut eyes would not provoke him to irritation, or worse, violence. As it was, she was in for something malignant. This was, after all, a game.
He slid it from one end of her Glasgow to the other, until it was sated in blood. She opened her eyes to see him carelessly discard it somewhere and take another in between his pinched forefinger and thumb. He used the second one to dab at her serrated wound until it was laden with puss, old bile and blood.
Her lips felt dryer, and though she would never show it, she was grateful. And there was also some kind of tension between them that she wouldn't will herself to recognize. She only hoped it wasn't mutual; when he felt something, he acted upon it fiercely.
As a finishing touch he imbued the last cotton ball with alcohol and dabbed her Glasgow one final time, from end to end. Her eyes had softened; so had his. If for only a minute, there was no threat of imminent harm. He was just cleaning her up.
"You know," he pointed at her face, "Your smile isn't pretty when it's got all that nasty shit caked to it. Just makes ya look like you got a bad outbreak."
The woman abstracted her gaze from him.
He dropped the last cotton ball on the floor and placed the bottle of alcohol dangerously close to the rigged television. She briefly wondered if liquid could set off an explosive. But then that wouldn't explain why her stomach acid hadn't detonated hers...
She noticed he had a vicious looking device in his hand that had been taken from the bear-trap collection on the table. It looked like a metal, mechanical muzzle with inverted teeth pointing to the roof of the mouth. He strapped it onto her face, restraining her with a choke-hold grip around her neck. He pulled a notch on it, causing a green and red button to light up on the mask and tighten around her mouth. "Ahh...there we go. Little present for you. Just so you know, it has more of a kick then the one in your belly. If it isn't deactivated within the next day, you're through."
She wriggled herself free and briefly tried to pry it off. The little spear-like teeth were digging into her gums, and the screams only exacerbated the pain. The device was devouring her head jaw first.
"I wouldn't do that if I were you. She doesn't give up without a fight. The more you resist, the harder she bites." He deliberately rhymed with a soft, reprimanding smile.
Her hands fell defeated to her sides. The device did not loosen, but only beeped twice and whirred.
"There's a good girl," he approved. "Bad thing is, you defied me earlier, and I'm afraid I can't let you get away with that."
He pointed behind him at the heavily barricaded entryway.
She cried out—which sounded more like a panicked muffle—and shook her head fervently.
"Ya either get going or I off you and pull your kid's plug!" He roared. "Move your ass!"
Defiance was never an option. In agony, she ushered herself to the barricaded door. She stood there, wondering, fearing, dreading every thing that could lay behind it. The possibilities were endless, but either way she was investing in excruciating pain of some unthinkable kind. The real question was if these were her last hours.
His footsteps stopped just behind her, and he nuzzled his chin into the crook of her sore neck. His cakey, sweaty make-up smeared onto her neck and shoulder as smoothly as lotion. It revolted her beyond compare.
"You're taking a little walk down the Yellow Brick Road. I call it the Fun House."
The door swung opened seemingly of its own accord. She knew it was probably initiated from yet another remote he had: he probably had a remote for everything imaginable save a television set.
He removed himself from her shoulder and pushed her along. "Get goin'."
Warily she stumbled inside and, as soon as the interior was graced with her presence, the door slammed shut behind her, leaving only a fatal echo to resound throughout her surroundings.
She found herself walled up inside a small alcove of pure steel. On the window of the thick metal door, there was a blood stain. It was arctic cold; her feet had already begun to numb.
The intercom blared: "No need to worry—yet. This is a resting chamber. The panic rooms are far more worrisome, trust me."
She turned to the intercom and listened critically to the voice.
"Lend your ear, maggot. The Fun House is essentially a huge labyrinth—and believe me, it's easy as hell to get lost. It's worse than a house of mirrors. But here's the crucial part: your son is at the end of this maze, waiting for you. And, of course, you're being timed. You can see the time in the little red box above your head."
The clock read 6: 01 am.
"If you fail, your son will be taken off of life support and you'll die just as quick. So think fast. You'll be delighted to hear that you have until tomorrow to find him. I'll be monitoring your progress. If you manage to survive come dawn, I'll meet you at the end. Have fun!"
The woman had literally no time to think this through before the metal door swung open. Only darkness there. She really wasn't going to go through this maze in the dark, was she?
Alarms sounded and the resting chamber began to fill with gas. She jolted down the cold, frozen hall made of steel as arrows began to shoot out from the walls.
They were not easy to dodge. A few had torn through her skin like paper, others had grazed, and two seared niches into her flesh. The woman stumbled and fell, but not a moment later she sprung up again, sprinting to nowhere. Perdition? Death? Her son? Running was a necessity in this situation; there was no time to investigate, for her sense of wariness and self-preservation. This was about panic, about quick thinking and improvising ways out of the impossible.
The arrows were just as bountiful as the Joker's laughs. "Mmm!" she shrieked in alarm.
She turned the corner. The structure of Fun House was beginning to take shape. It essence, it was a maze embroidered with obscene artwork, with a dead meat smell pervading over the atmosphere. The walls were littered with mocking graffiti of clowns in the act of murder, rape, vandalism, looting, and every other vile act under the sun. The citizens of a city had the faces of pigs and cows with stupid, bewildered expressions as they were being tortured. In one scene, a pig-faced woman was sprawled out on the floor as a tall clown with long purple hair was feeding her piglets to a machine that turned them into bacon when they came out on the other end. Also among the depictions were families of cows trapped within crumbling houses, ferocious Jack-in-the-boxes, and exploding balloons filled with acid.
The ceiling grew spikes and began to descend. The hallway was closing in on itself. Her adrenaline took hold, filling her veins with fuel that compelled her to run faster than she'd ever done before and manage to speed-crawl to a doggy door before her weak, famished frame could be crushed into a stew of smashed vital organs and powdery bone.
Space was scarce, so she folded herself into a fetal position. The hallway closed off just seconds after. She squeezed her eyes shut and waited for the vent to collapse onto itself as the hallway had. Nothing happened. Was she safe? Through the plastic strips of the doggy door, the walls whirred as they began returning to their intended positions. A few minutes passed, and all was quiet and sickly serene.
It was safe. Couldn't she just wait here until tomorrow—?
No. That definitely wasn't wise. He clearly expected to find her at the end of the maze, dead or alive. Her son was waiting for her. If she stayed here in the vent until morning, the very life she suffered for would be undone.
Stillness made the anxiety too much to bear. The device barely permitted the mouth as a air outlet, so she was forced to rely heavily on her nose. It was so quiet she could hear the bomb ticking away, ever nearer to disassembling her entrails. Had he activated a timer? Was this to ensure she wouldn't waste her time wallowing in fear? That settled the matter.
She had to move.
Before she could, however, wound maintenance came to the forefront of her concerns. She needed to check if her skin had torn. Indeed, it had. But the damage was not so horrific as she had initially imagined. There were only little tears along the stitched road that encompassed the lower region of her stomach. It appeared more as if a surgeon had done a horrible job at sowing her skin after a gruesome Cesarean Section than a bomb implant. The staples held fast, but in so doing, the surrounding skin was all the frightening shades of purple, blue and red that you could imagine. Trickles of blood from the wound had ascended even so far as her hips. She stretched out the tattered white beater she was wearing and dabbed it against the wound—it wasn't very effective, having already been saturated in older blood, sweat, and more recently, vomit.
Attention was averted to her right shoulder and forearm, which had been punctured by two broken arrows. Fortuitously, the tips of the blades were not fish-hooked, so they wouldn't rip through the meat of her muscles too badly. But that in no way reconciled to the fact that it would hurt like hell.
She breathed hard in preparation. It was not wise to pull them both out at once because they were a considerable distance from each other. The act had to be quick and thoughtless. Arrows could not be pulled out little by little, like a piece of dead skin on your toe or an ingrown toenail. They were something you had to pluck swiftly and resolutely, like the hair of an eyebrow.
Her trembling left hand slowly enclosed its fingers around the shaft of the first arrow. She squeezed the shaft, nudged it slightly, and gasped to the sharp jolt of pain she received. The nudge was so subtle, yet it hurt horrendously. It gave her a taste of what she was in for when she actually dislodged both of them from her skin.
She had to do this.
But when she started to pull, the sweat beginning to formulate on her forehead, the veins of her temples emerging, and her skin reddening from exertion, the arrow was making little progress, and the pain was only increasing in severity.
"Oh!! Ah, fah.... Moah! Ergh...!" The device's teeth clenched her gums and restricted her the intensity of her screams.
"A-aa-aaah!!" And the arrow was finally freed from its fleshy prison with a juicy splish sound. The woman bit her lips and squeezed her knee caps instead of her throbbing arm. The ebbing blood flowed to the next destination. The arrow at her forearm.
One arm felt just as sore as the other, as if the pain had transmigrated to both to compensate for the overwhelming sensation on her right. She squeezed the arrow, gritted her teeth, and banged her foot on the vent so she wouldn't have to hear the arrow sliding out. It hit the top of the vent with a resounding pang.
It was over.
Another fifteen minutes or so was taken to relax and physically and psychologically prepare for horrors she couldn't possibly anticipate.
The woman pushed herself down and slid into the sweeping roller coaster that was the vent. She banged against the walls at times, and even had to push herself a few times to retain inertia, but after a while she slid to a slow stop at the end. She repositioned herself head-first and pushed aside the plastic tongues stapled over the exit and peered through.
A steep fall awaited her into a vat of brown liquid and pig intestines. The carcases of pigs, cows, chickens, horses and ducks floated around, some newly killed, others in the advanced stages of decomposition. Elevating clouds of steam brought the nauseating smell to her nose and a convulsive shudder overwhelmed her.
Were these dead animals being cooked? Would the vat be scorching hot like the waters of a hot spring? Was it toxic?
There was no way to avoid falling in. It was the only way of escape. She couldn't land unharmed on a hard steel floor some 7 feet below. But wait: the rim of the vat. It was thick enough to allow her to walk around it, and from there she could reach the ladder!
It could work, she thought.
Slowly she repositioned herself again to feet first, and dangled her body over the edge. She theorized that if she kept a firm grip on the wall as she descended, her feet would land on the rim.
With the thought of her suffering son ailing her conscience, she executed her plan. She let go, but nearly filed her nails out of existence trying to cling to the wall with as little traction as she could manage. She didn't have time to scream to the feeling of her finger-pads being singed off by sliding down a flaming hot rope, owing to abruptly losing her balance. Her arms flailed futilely, trying to grasp impalpable air. "Noooo!"
Right in the act of falling, one of her arms caught hold of the rim. The propulsion of her frantic movements almost heaved her body into the vat. She swung back and forth, staring wide-eyed at its repulsive contents boiling into a simmer, and threw her other arm over the rim. The bomb's ticking intensified. There wasn't much time left. He had to have set something off. The ticking had never been this loud before. Was it her panic? Or were the red clocks on the ceiling not the only things that had her on a time limit?
Dangling miserably close to a seething hot death was hell on her limbs. Suddenly depending on your arms to hold the weight of your entire body was a task best left to an acrobat. The gashes in her injured arm were stretching; she had to hoist her body on the rim, and fast. The strength was leaving her arms quick. All the adrenaline and self-preservation in the world wouldn't be able to save her if she didn't use her time wisely.
Her feet could not get a firm hold on the wall and only slipped time and again; the evaporation of the simmering brown liquid was causing a coat of dewy moisture to accumulate.
"Dammit...phwease dount...ah!" She cried, when her foot lost the battle again. "Augh...no..."
This needed a change of strategy. Resolving to swing her feet to the edge of the rim instead of climbing to it, she was closer to attaining her object than before. Finally, after what seemed like a good 50 tries, her foot hooked on the rim, and with arduous effort, she was able to pull her body onto temporarily safe ground.
Unfortunately, the rim was too skinny to lay her whole body on; she tottered back and forth, dangerously close to falling in. With her hands clenching the metal with a death grip, she was able to assume a squatting position. With the aid of the wall, she stood. Now she had to pull off a circus trick that the average person could not accomplish: the precarious balancing act.
She was terrified, not knowing how to go about it. Would constantly looking down affect her performance? Should she stick one foot in front of the other, and go at a snail's pace, no matter how much time it took? The rim was so skinny that swimming through the filth at the bottom of the vat appeared more logical. Between breathing sporadically and hyperventilating, she advanced a step. Then another. Then another after that. Her balance was still feigned at best, but at least it was progress. Her stomach churned at the long circle of rim she had to tread to get to the ladder on the other side. The bomb was still ticking. Concentration was a labor for Hercules.
Another step. Another. Slowly she began to pick up her pace, growing more bold, stretching her arms out.
Beneath her, the stew was beginning to froth at the edges of the tub. A herd of giant brown bubbles formed, struggling to keep their spherical shapes. The unexpected explosion of the gas bubbles startled her out of her wits, and she trembled wayward. The shock had come too quick; she wasn't prepared at all for such a jolt.
The moment of helpless terror finally arrived. She plunged screaming into the scorching hot temperature of the putrid cesspool.
Her feet hit the sludgy meat of an animal's backbone and slammed it against the bottom of the vat. The meat broke apart into gooey strips of fat and slowly floated to the murky surface. A wave of the unholy soup splashed on her chest and bubbles exploded in her face. Brown water, feces, melted carcases and half-cooked intestines bumped into one another and bobbed around her. The woman gasped and trembled as the water burned her legs. She trudged through the corpse-ridden concoction, keeping her mouth closed and ceasing her breathing for dear life. If she inhaled this gas, she was sure to asphyxiate. Her slippery hands grasped the railing of the ladder and she drew herself upward with almost inhuman strength.
A cool blast of air blew onto her frame, and she exhaled. She could breathe again. "Magh..." she groaned as she heaved herself to the other side of the ladder and descended to the ground. She collapsed into an exhausted heap. Steam was emanating off of her legs, and several water blisters reared their bulbous heads. Being utterly soaked in unnameable grime, she could barely stand to touch herself.
Tick. Tick. Tick.
The woman rolled over on her stomach and searched around for a red clock somewhere on the story-high ceiling. She located one at the far end of the room. From where she lay, the numbers were only blurred dots. She had to limp closer to get a good look at it. Only when she came into about three feet of it did she see it clearly.
5: 37 pm.
Pm? she inwardly cried in astonishment. How was it physically possible for that much time to pass? She entered the steel resting chamber around 6 in the morning, didn't she? Was she delusional, or did the Joker purposely alter the time to get her going quicker?
From 6 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon...how many hours was that? If her sense of time was that distorted, then she better get going. Who knows that by the time she remembers to check the clock again, it could be going on 5 in the morning! And wherever her son was, he was bound to be in some kind of warped death trap that she was yet to discover.
Painfully she turned around and threw together a combination of walking, limping, and jogging to get to the end of the warehouse. It was...getting colder, somehow. She peered up at the walls and saw that the vents were letting in increasing amounts of freezing air. Slots on the walls let out an assembly line of suspended rib-cages and gutted cows and pigs to obviate her course to the exit. She smashed into the back of a cow and stumbled to the ground. They were moving in a thousand different directions. There was no way around them; she had to charge them head on to get past them. Where the hell was she going? The arctic temperature wore her down, making her sleepy. More than anything, she just wanted to rest. The critical importance of finding her son began to wane.
Again and again fortified slabs of meat smashed into her wounded limbs suffering just as much as the more enduring ones.
Why get up? He obviously wanted to her to die, and took every vile step to ensure it. Her cries turned to sobs.
'Mommie...' he drawled over and over again.
She'd crawl her way there, no matter what.
'Happy birfday!' he cried, clapping for his own cake, 'Happy birfday, Mamma.'
She laughed gently. 'Adrian, it's not my birthday, it's yours...'
The exit came within view. The door was barricaded, just as its fearsome predecessor had been.
What was she to do now? Did this mean this wasn't the way out, and she had to take another route? She looked around. The interconnecting assembly lines blocked the majority of her view, so she turned back and studied the door. It was tightly secured with an array of metal bars. A control panel was built into a wall, waiting for a correct code. How was she going to find it?
It was getting colder by the minute. Soon the temperature would drop so low she would freeze to death. Her limbs were numbing. The brown gunk in her hair was turning to frost. The floor was accumulating a thick coating of ice. As much as she wanted to act fast, her body heat was dropping at a dangerous rate. Despite terror, confusion and cold, she knew she couldn't be rash. What if, in her desperate state, she punched in the wrong code, and set off an explosive of some kind? What if she had to get it right the first time?
Everything was an explosive in her mind..
The code! Where the hell was a hint when you needed one? She sifted around the crates. The ticking grew louder. It became harder to breathe. Her lungs were freezing.
The Joker chimed on the intercom: "Someone needs a code before they turn into a Popsicle! Hahahahaha! Don't worry: Daddy's here to help! What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the day, and three legs in the evening?"
A riddle? Four legs in the morning... Two legs in the day...
And then three in the evening? What the hell was he talking about?
With great effort she stood and dragged herself with the aid of the wall to the code pad again. The pandemonium of the assembly line had stopped, thus allowing her to think more clearly, but it was the cold that was going to have her pushing daisies in a matter of minutes...
She had to squint, but she saw that the pad had both numbers and letters on it, mimicking the order of a keyboard:
! 1; 2; # 3; $ 4; % 5; ^ 6; & 7; * 8; ( 9; ) 0; - _; + =; [arrow] backspace; q; w; e; r; t; y; u; i; o; p; a; s; d; f; g; h; j; k; l; ; ' "; z; x; c; v; b; n; m; , ; . ; ? /. [enter] [shift]
The answer to a riddle was most often a simple concept exaggerated into a mystified, abstract metaphor. She closed her eyes and slid onto the wall. Would that she had more time and a clearer mind, she could figure it out faster. She stared at her feet. Two legs. A glimmer of understanding graced her. Two legs? People walked upright on two legs. But in the day time? What did he mean by the day time? She pressed her unfeeling palms onto the floor. Four legs. How could you change the amount of feet you needed just by the time of day?
Wait. Two arms, two feet. Four 'legs'. An animal uses four legs because it can't walk on two. But to her knowledge, an animal couldn't switch to three limbs, unless one of its limbs was taken by disease or something...
No, that wasn't getting her anywhere! Back to the beginning of the riddle. What else walked on four legs?
Her son when he was an infant.
A baby walks on four 'legs'. You've got to learn to crawl before you walk, and walk before you run. Yes!
A human is an infant in the beginning—the morning. It crawls on all fours. Then when its an adult, it walks on two legs. The day. But what gives it an extra limb in old age, the night?
She stood up abruptly and broke the ice off of the pad. Swiftly, she typed in 'human', and pressed enter. Denied. She groaned. Her lethargy was starting to win the battle, underpinning her movements and deadening her resolve.
'A person'. Denied. "Mmf!"
A person! A person walks on four legs in the morning, two legs in the day, and three in the night! Why wasn't it accepting the answer? Did she need numbers or an answer more specific than that? A woman definitely wasn't the answer. Women aren't the only ones who walk—so it had to be a person, a human!
If it wasn't that, she would die never fully knowing the answer.
It became increasingly painful to move.
'A man'. Denied.
God. I'm done.
In despair, she smashed the pad with her fist, and quickly typed in 'human'. Denied. Then she switched to 'man'.
The red turned to green. Accepted.
Though the occasion certainly warranted it, the woman hadn't the strength to weep for joy when the bars hastily withdrew, revealing to her another hallway similar to the one she just came through. She dragged herself into the hallway and collapsed from exhaustion. The metal door locked itself only moments later. But she was safe...at least for...
Day Three, part 2: The Yellow Brick Road
He knew what made his daddy mad and what made his daddy happy. Dinner on the table every night made him happy. The people playing football on the TV made him happy. But Mommy complaining...
Well, that was worse than no dinner on the table and the off-season combined.
'What?' He inquired at first, calmly. 'What is this? What are you talking about?' But he knew exactly what she was talking about. It was just a warning that he was going to hit her soon if she either didn't take his plate from the couch or walk away. She resolved to do neither. Instead, she said, 'You can't smoke around Adrian. He's a little boy. The smoke will—'
'The smoke will what?'
'The smoke will hurt him.' she murmured, turning her cheek his way for an expected slap.
'He'll fucking live. He's not even that close to me.' And he stood, sizing up the competition—another warning.
Either she must've lost her mind or had a death wish, because she replied, 'I wonder why.'
Hours later, Adrian picked a piece of glass off of her cheek. He quivered as his father stepped over him and his mother and slammed the front door behind him. 'Yer hurt.' The sight of blood bewildered him. 'Mommy...?'
The cameras had been showing the same image for 10 hours: black. If there was anything he hated more than law and order, it was quiet. What was good music but shrieks and screams?
The motion sensors went on standby when he found that the blow horns failed to wake her. He considered the possibility of his beloved playmate having retired permanently, but her heaving chest convinced him otherwise. At long last, the motion sensors activated and lit up the hall. The first indication of a stir in what he considered an unforgivable lapse of time. The Joker nearly popped out of his seat. "Hey! That's right; get up you—" Then he remembered he hadn't turned the intercom on yet. "Oh yeah—" The button clicked.
"—Rise and shine, Bo Bitch."
"Mmm!" she started.
"You've been idle for a good forever! I would've woken you up sooner if you could startle someone out of unconsciousness!"
The woman's muscles were stiff from sleep. Moving was like using bones a thousand years old. She rolled onto her back, rather than picking herself off the ground as she intended to do. Ten hours had given him too many provocations for a hundred fiery deaths, but her body refused to work with her. The neurons fired, saying 'get up', but her body was a disobedient vessel.
'I'm awake! I'm awake! Please!' she fervently desired to shout.
The Joker, of course, could care less, and displayed his ire with gusto. "Look alive! It's three in the morning! You better work twice as hard to make up for those hours of boredom I had to suffer through. Be grateful I didn't kill you in your sleep. Get your saggy ass through this maze in real time, before I give your son an early birthday present!"
Trembling, she clawed her way to composure by aid of the wall, but in disagreement it grew spikes that punctured her hand. The pain lit a fuse in her and the blood started to flow to where it was supposed to. This place was heating up. She turned around to see the vents distributing lethal gas. So she ran, wondering how she had survived thus far.
"Don't run through there blindly, you nut," he spat to himself as he swiveled in the chair, "Look at the passage ways."
And indeed she met them. There were four different ways out. The gas was advancing and the spikes were growing in size. She had to choose. Wasn't there any way she could judge their merit? The hallways were all dark, awaiting her presence with their motion sensors. She searched sporadically. "Komon, Kommmauhhn!"
Then she noticed that there were markings all over the floor. But not just arbitrary, meaningless markings.
All the possible trails were marked in suits.
Red diamonds. Green spades. Yellow clovers. Purple hearts. And the monarchy followed them. A purple queen of hearts here, a red jack there. It indicated her path.
But which one was the right one?
"You're taking a little walk..."
Red diamonds? The bricks? Green spades. The toxin being fed into the room was green. Didn't seem like a promising color. Who knows but she would land up in a gas chamber as a result? Purple hearts. His purple jacket... No, that monster. That horrible color.
Yellow clovers. Clovers. 'The luck of the Irish.' Clovers. Luck.
The Yellow Brick Road.
She invested dwindling, last minute faith in this assertion. A smudged, yellow 1 card pointed to the 2nd entry way. The order of the suits guided. She dove in and the door trapped her in. The motion sensors gave her light and activated death traps. Saws whirred in the walls and closed in on her; hooks dangled precariously from the ceiling; slippery corpses of lambs turned to slush under her feet. Yellow two down the line. Yellow three. The pattern interrupted. Green spades abound, purple three. Where was four?
Dammit. She didn't know where she was. What if this happened the precise moment she had to make an ultimate decision?
Hah! Yellow four! Yellow five! Yellow six!
Seven... Eight... Nine...
Too many reds, too many blues, too many clubs. A headache emerged.
Ten. Jack. The pattern dissolved. What happened?
Another four hallways to choose from. Where, where, where....
A yellow queen. Route 3. The door closed.
All she had left to discern among the colorful array of poker cards were the King and the Ace. She was that close either to perdition or to her son.
She found the King in a confluence of 9's, 10's, and Queens. They were all dead ends. If she were following the purple suit, it would lead her to this freezer room, but she'd have to wait and freeze to death—if she really felt that the Joker would meet her here with her son in tow. She shook her head and passed on. Fat chance.
The final yellow Ace led her down a narrow hallway. It was definite. Quiet. No more steel, no graffiti. No traps. No gas. Just cold marble floor and arid air. She was close. The entryway was covered by tattered blinds.
She brushed them aside and entered the room.
A wooden board bore a sinister message in blood red spray paint:
YOU HAVE REACHED ENLIGHTENMENT.
When she looked down, it was more appalling than anything else.
Situated in the hollowed out recess of a gargantuan, golden statue of Buddha, was her grand prize.
It was not her son.
No, it was a child much older than Adrian.
And the child wasn't even a boy.
It was the blond girl from the day care center. The one who told her to pay attention...
The girl was stripped naked, blond hair black with ash, skin scorched to hell, crippled and covered head to toe in duct tape—wrapped like a mummy before the burial. She was positioned as a meditating monk.
The girl's eyes were sowed shut, as was the woman's mouth held closed by the bomb mask she wore. Verbal communication was henceforth eliminated between both victims. The girl screamed and cried; the woman muffled indecipherable gibberish.
At the feet of the Buddha the final card manifested itself. The Joker screeching to the sky.
'Will the real Batman please stand up?'
There was no one sitting at the computer screens.
Mechanical razors rose from hundreds of slots on the ground, revving as a warning. The woman's eyes widened in disbelief and horror. She grabbed the child from the belly of the Buddha and darted around it, through another cold, dimly lit hallway. The floor razors followed in close pursuit. A few skewered their way through the walls, one managing to slash into one of her shoulders.
The only way of escape was the metal pipe at the end of the maze. With the floor razors a hair-breadth away from decapitating her feet, she held the girl tight to her chest and flung herself down the pipe. Not to be defeated, one of the razors sliced its path into the pipe and cut it in half almost as fast as they were falling. Were these vicious implements possessed? How could a razor follow her down the pipe and pursue them like prey?
Just as they were about to elude the dreadfully close weapon, the razor slashed through the girl's back and whizzed out the other end. They violently flew out of the pipe and slid to a chafing stop in a resting chamber.
Blood gushed out of ripped flesh in an unstoppable river. The woman's heart beat in her ears. She tore her white beater in half and wrapped it around the girl's abdomen. The girl's fingers helplessly clawed at her, pleading in blood-filled sobs. She could no longer speak.
"Ggh....hhahh..." was all she could get out.
The girl trembled, and fell still.
The razor sliced its way down the hall, past the Joker's feet. He glimpsed at it briefly and turned back at the woman to smile. He pressed a button on his remote, and her mask disengaged its timer and dropped off her jaw. "Now you can holler all ya want," he said.
The woman was in unbearable hysterics by the time he approached; she cradled the dead girl in her arms, completely unwilling to let go, wallowing in the child's dark, ebbing pool.
She hadn't even took notice of his presence when he made it known by pushing her face into the blood as if she were a dog who peed on the carpet and tearing the small corpse from her arms.
"Ghrrreahh...flff...aa—aaahhh!!!" She squirmed until he released his grip on her head, cackling up a storm.
"Well look at that! You're worse than a fish out of water! Look at you, flappin' around!"
He dragged her away with brute force, but she continued to writhe and shriek for the girl. He whistled. Not a few seconds later, a herd of hyenas trotted out, eyes sowed shut, claws bared, their teeth meat-ready...
"I had Purina," he murmured, "But I guess she'll do."
It was 4: 25. That left almost 2 hours to spare. "Not bad for you, Bo," he nodded. "But too bad for Little Miss Muffet! Hyaaahahahahah!"
The door of the resting chamber closed just as the beasts began nibbling on the child's pale fingers.