A Portrait of the Joker as a Young Man
Disclaimer: I don't own anything that you recognize.
How had it come to this? Delirious with medication and only slightly aware that he was in a white room, Jack Donahue repeated this question over and over again in his head. As the anaesthetics wore off, he became aware of the tubes connected to his body and the soreness of his swollen face. Slowly, he reached up. His fingers came into contact with stitches on his cheeks. The memories came back. Jack groaned and tried to sit up, but his body was still uncoordinated for the anaesthetics were still in his system.
"Mr. Donahue?" said a voice. "Don't try to move. You've lost a lot of blood." A hand pushed him back down onto the hospital bed. Jack did not resist. As consciousness returned, so did the memories. A tear slid down his face. He wished he could forget.
Jack Donahue was always the popular one. Girls chased him for his looks and his sense of humour, guys laughed at his jokes. He was always sure of himself. That did not change when he came to Gotham University to complete his Psychology degree. The human mind had always fascinated him. What made people behave the way they did? How did people create new ideas? Where did humour come from? These were questions which he wanted to answer and he felt as if he could only find the answers in a big city where there were lots of people for him to observe. The bigger the sample size, the better.
Gotham was an awe-inspiring place for this boy from the country. He had never seen such grand buildings. The skyscrapers of Gotham reached up like hands trying to touch the clouds. Jack was sure that some of them reached the clouds and beyond. Everywhere he looked, there were people hurrying to and fro. No one looked at each other, as if the people of Gotham didn't care about what happened to their neighbours. Was it just Gotham, or were people this distant in every big city? In the little town Jack had come from, the residents always greeted one another on the street, even if they didn't know each other.
The sights and smells overwhelmed him sometimes, but as a young man, Jack liked this atmosphere. It was exciting, whereas his hometown was probably good for old people who were in retirement, but not for a young man thirsting for life.
Jack's apartment was on the forty-seventh floor of one of the older skyscrapers, and he shared it with a friend who worked as a clown on the weekends, entertaining young children at their birthday parties. His friend, Patrick, always returned with his face still covered in red, white and black paint. "Hey," Patrick had said when Jack had teased him about his dishevelled appearance. "I look a sight better than all those poor buggers out there sitting on the streets begging after they lost their money in the casinos. No one gives a damn about how you look in this city. They only care about your credit card balance."
Casinos attracted Jack the way fire attracted moths. Their neon lights seemed so welcoming, and he loved the thrill of not knowing whether he would win or lose. He had first gone with Patrick, just for the sake of being able to say that he had been to one of Gotham's legendary casinos. The smoky interior was loud, filled with the shouts and groans of people as they played and exchanged money. Jack soon got involved. He wanted to be able to say that he had played and not window-shopped. One small victory led to another game, and another. The cards he got dealt seemed to become worse and worse. Soon, he emptied his pockets of all the cash they'd had. It seemed easy to borrow from one of the money lenders who wandered from table to table. Jack knew they were loan sharks; his parents had warned him against them, but he was going to pay them back right away, so he wouldn't have to pay too much interest, would he?
Cash flowed from his bank account like water from a broken dam, and he was borrowing more and more money from the loan sharks. His situation became desperate as his debts accumulated. He needed cash, and he needed it quickly. Jack spent every spare hour at the casino, trying to win back his losses, but each game he played resulted in more losses. The loan sharks seemed sympathetic, and he always managed to use his humour to persuade them to lend him more money. "Consider it a big long term investment," he told them. "I'm a man of my word; of course I'll pay you back."
"You're a joker," said one of the loan sharks. "How do I know that this isn't all a joke?"
Jack laughed. "You'll see. I'll win a big one soon and I'll pay you back, interest and all."
Jack just wouldn't believe it. He kept on playing even though common sense screamed at him to stop. He just had to win one more time and prove to fate that it had no control over his life. He was the master and he was in control. He dropped out of university, for he had no money to pay for the fees. He barely had enough to buy food. He worked two jobs during the day, and went to the casino during the night. It became his life, his prison and his hell. It was like a twisted ironic joke and he was the punch line. Did luck really run out like this for all gamblers?
The glaring neon lights became garish and piercing. They were warning signs. The sounds of dice rolling and people dealing out cards drowned out his senses and made him want to just run. What would he give for a bit of quiet? But he had to keep on playing. He had to win back his money, and then he would leave the casino for good. Until then, it was as if he had manacles around his wrists and ankles, chaining him to the poker tables. No one could help him; not his parents, who would be ashamed of him, not his friends, who would only tell him to quit. No, only he could help himself.
It was in a dark alleyway. Bits of scrap metal and old posters littered the sides. A mangy stray dog crossed his path, searching for something edible amongst all the refuse. Jack kept his head down. Smoke veiled the pale morning sun, just risen from the east, not that anyone could see the sunrise in Gotham; it was always blocked by the huge dark skyscrapers which marred the horizon like barbed wire sticking out from the ground and trapping the inhabitants in their own hellish existence.
Hands grabbed him from behind. Someone wrapped an arm around his neck, almost cutting off his breath. "Well, well, Mr. Donahue," said the oily voice. Jack recognized it as belonging to one of the loan sharks at the casino, but he couldn't remember who. "You're a hard one to invite."
"What do you want?" gasped Jack.
"Let's just say I'm curious as to when my investments will pay off."
His heart thudded wildly in his chest. He heard blood roaring in his ears. "I swear that you will get your money back!" he said. "Please, just let me go!"
"And how long have you been saying this for, Mr. Donahue?" said the man. He had pulled out a scalpel now and was testing the sharpness of the blade with his thumb. "Three months, four, perhaps? I'm getting impatient, and you don't like it when I'm impatient, do you?"
"Please," whispered Jack. "No, don't do this."
Rough hands squeezed the hinges of his jaw and forced his mouth open. A credit card was slipped in to stretch his lips so that they were taut. "Not so confident, are you now, Mr. Joker Donahue?" said the loan shark. Pedro Menendez; that was his name. Jack remembered now. "Where's your sense of humour now?" asked Menendez. Jack shook with fear. What were they going to do with him? He cursed the day he first set foot into the casino. If only he had stayed away from there, then he would have been safe, just concentrating on his studies and trying to find the meaning of life. He felt the cold blade of the scalpel being placed against the corner of his mouth. "You have been rather serious and sad of late, Mr. Donahue," said Menendez. Jack could feel his breath against his ear. "Let's put a smile on your face again, shall we? A young man like you should not be unhappy."
Jack screamed as the blade of the scalpel cut into the tender flesh at the corner of his mouth. He struggled and kicked, but Menendez's thugs held him down, rendering him completely helpless. Blood and saliva dribbled from his mouth. Some of the red liquid trickled down his throat. He could taste the metallic saltiness.
They left him there, lying in a half-conscious heap on the street amongst the old refrigerator parts, curled up in a ball, his life bleeding away. He was barely aware of someone screaming, and then the sirens of an ambulance. Someone stuck a needle into his arm, and blissful unconsciousness took him. His problems would trouble him no more.
In the dim bathroom, Jack stared into the mirror on the medicine cabinet's door. His mouth was stretched in a permanent extended grin. The scars almost reached his ears, but Menendez had been careful enough not to cut him too deeply. The loan shark had wanted him to live to remember it. With a shaking hand, he touched his face, running his fingers along the hard ridges. Why did Menendez do it? What good was it to him to see him so disfigured? These scars were not going to give Menendez his money back, so what was the reason behind this cruelty, or did cruelty not need any reason at all?
'It's best not to dwell on it,' said a voice inside his head. 'What's done is done, and you can't change it, not unless you had a million dollars to pay for a new face, but you're not Bruce Wayne, are you?' Slowly, Jack smiled and opened the medicine cabinet. Inside were a few pots of Patrick's face paint. 'This is a chance for you to start a new life, Jack,' said the voice inside his head. 'Go out there and show them what you can do. You will have the last laugh.' What had Menendez called him? Yes, Menendez had called him 'Mr. Joker Donahue'.
Jack put on the face paint the way he had seen Patrick do it, not caring if he did it all wrong. He covered his scars up with a slash of red across his mouth and cheeks. The black accented his eyes and white covered the rest of his skin. He might not have Bruce Wayne's money to pay for cosmetic surgery, but who said he couldn't have a new face anyway? He was in control, not fate and certainly not anyone else.
A pack of cards lay on his bedside table next to his painkillers. Jack searched through them until he found the jokers. They were so often overlooked, and they served no purpose in a game. He slipped them into his pockets. Well, he was going to prove the world wrong. Jokers did have a purpose, only it was a purpose known to the joker only. Others saw him as an outcast. Jack slipped on his best clothes; a custom made suit which his mother had ordered for him so that he could attend his sister's wedding in style. It was black and rather sombre, but it would do until he had the cash to buy more clothes more suitable for his new occupation. He found some knives in the kitchen.
As he slipped out of the door and locked it behind him, Jack Donahue died, and from his ashes, The Joker was born, and he was here to put humanity to the test. First subject: Pedro Menendez. Perhaps he could get that serious sardonic loan shark to grin just as he was grinning right now. After all, life wasn't just about money, was it?
A/N: This is my first foray into the 'modern' world, as in it is my first story set after the eighteenth century. Some of my language might be a bit archaic but I've tried my best to use language which would suit Gotham City. If you feel there's anything that needs fixing/improving, please do tell. I consider every suggestion. If you know which book title I ripped off, then kudos to you. ;)