Disclaimer: I own the following words in the order in which they appear. DC owns the universe in which I've set them.
A/N: The following story is based almost entirely on actual events, which have been shifted to take up residence in the DC Universe. Actual events are almost always more interesting that way.
"Do you even know where we are?"
"Of course I know where we are," I responded, doing my best to keep my tone of voice from turning snippy. Driving the rain slicked streets of an unfamiliar city at three in the morning was not high up on my list of favorite activities. Like most people, when I'm forced to do things I don't particularly like to do out of necessity, I tend to get a little…ill-tempered. There was little point taking it out on my passenger, though.
"Now, when you say, 'Of course I know where we are', do you mean 'Of course I know where we are' or do you mean, 'I have no idea where we are and I'm scanning the area for road signs hoping to figure it out before Lorraine realizes we're lost on the outskirts of Gotham after midnight'?"
I tried not to growl.
"Ah," Lorraine replied sagely. "The second one, then."
"We. Are. Not. Lost." Every word fought its way past gritted teeth and I kept my eyes fixed firmly on the stretch of blacktop in front of me. My rickety old Chevrolet, a rusted out showboat from the early sixties with bad shocks, wasn't much good in the rain—and the fact it was a model from the days before they made seatbelts mandatory certainly wasn't helping my peace of mind. My hands stayed locked on the steering wheel—at the ten and two positions—and I started wishing I'd taken my daughter up on that St. Christopher medal she'd wanted to hang from the rearview mirror before we started this madcap 'adventure'.
"So where are we?"
A trip to Atlantic City to celebrate my divorce with my best friend had seemed like such a good idea at the time…
"We're in Gotham. We're driving in a general north-easterly direction. We'll either hit civilization or the ocean sooner or later."
"And that's the extent of your knowledge?"
"Hey, know what? Why don't you tell me where we are, if you're so smart?" I ground out, swerving to avoid a cat that skittered into our path. At least, I think it was a cat. It might have been a really big sewer rat, but I didn't want to entertain such a notion. Never mind how likely it may have been. "Just take one of those tourist maps you keep insisting on buying and pinpoint our location, lickity-split."
I heard the glove compartment click open but didn't dare glance over. I didn't need to. I could hear the three dozen crumpled maps exploded forth from their tiny cubby hole.
"You know I'm no good at maps," she responded, sifting through the wrinkled paper. "Reading 'em or folding 'em."
"Then I suggest you stop being a front seat-backseat driver, 'kay, Lorraine? ' Cause otherwise, I'm gonna swerve us right into the nearest—Jesus H. Christ!"
I slammed on the brakes and the car slid alarmingly on the pavement. The brakes were wet, and therefore sluggish to respond, but I managed to keep from colliding with the broken down Oldsmobile that was stopped in the middle of the street. Lorraine had braced her hands on the dash to keep from flying out of her seat and I had done the same with the steering wheel. We were still about twenty feet away from the Olds, but it felt like a much closer call. For a few seconds, the only sound I heard was the pattering rain and the windshield wipers squeaking against the glass.
"What the hell was that, Delores?" Lorraine squawked.
"That was me trying to keep us from dying, Lorraine," I breathed, slumping forward in my seat and resting my forehead on the wheel. I gave my heart a few more seconds to calm down inside my ribcage and sat back up to look at the road.
The taillights from the Oldsmobile glared angry red in the storm. I realized they were the only source of illumination in the area and I cursed under my breath. My headlights were on the blink, again. Of course. They couldn't die when we were in Keystone, they couldn't blink out when we were in Metropolis, no, they had to give up the ghost in Gotham. Utterly God damn typical.
In the gloom, I made out the outline of the driver's side door of the Olds as it swung open. The driver, a man who I'd have to describe later as 'nondescript', stepped out into the torrential downpour. He wore a coat that went all the way down to his knees, but that was all I could make out. He didn't acknowledge our presence—given the near total darkness, the rain and the fact my headlights were dead, I wasn't terribly surprised—and strode around to the hood of the car, popping it open.
"We should help him."
"What?" I looked over at Lorraine and caught sight of the same look she wore whenever she saw a stray cat or a single man in his mid-thirties. Given the fact that she had seven cats and just as many ex-husbands, it was a look she wore a lot. A look that I, her friend of twenty years, knew well. A look that spelled, in no uncertain terms, "DOOM."
"I said we should help him."
I heard the words, but a part of me didn't really believe them. "Help him? And how do you propose we do that?"
"I don't know," she said with a single shouldered shrug, "but we should."
"His car broke down, Lorraine," I responded, preparing to launch into a list of logical reasons why it was completely out of the question. "We don't have any tools or automotive know-how. Hell, we don't even have a pair of jumper cables. Come to think of it, we probably don't even have a tire gauge."
The man with the Oldsmobile slammed the hood shut and stalked around to the driver's side door, giving it a furious kick.
"But look at him, Delores," she nodded in his direction, like I hadn't registered his pathetic display of justified temper. "We could at least call somebody for him or help him to push. Maybe even give him a ride home."
"It's the middle of the night and we're in Gotham, Lorraine. I shouldn't have to tell you just how stupid that kind of thing would be. You watch the news. We're a statistic waiting to happen. A couple of defenseless old biddies—"
She pursed her lips and gave me a no-nonsense glare. "You're forty-three, Delores."
"Yeah, and I'd like to see forty-four," I snapped, shifting my foot from the brake to the gas, effectively ending the argument. "We're not stopping and that's final."
Lorraine sighed. "Yeah. I…I guess you're right."
My Chevy slipped past the man and his broken down car at a steady fifteen miles per hour and I was careful not to look his direction. Evidently I wasn't careful enough, because I caught a glimpse of his forlorn face by the glow of his taillights as we passed. He waved a hand and swept off the hat that was perched atop his head, trying to flag us down. I just pressed the gas pedal into the floorboard and sped away with as much haste as the weather conditions would allow.
I tried not to look in my rearview mirror, I swear I did, but I caught sight of his silhouette as he ran in front of his own car, still waving his hat. I also saw his shoulders slump when he realized I had no intention of stopping.
Lorraine was eerily quiet and I didn't have anything to say. Silence reigned for two miles. Unbidden, a chant started repeating itself inside my head: I feel nothing. I feel nothing. I feel nothing.
"I feel like a heel," I muttered, my voice coming out so thick it had a hard time forcing its way out of my throat and into the open air.
"Me too," Lorraine replied. "But you were right. It is stupid to try and help somebody in Gotham. Especially at night."
"It really is," I agreed. "And I'm sure someone else will come along and help. A busload of big, strapping young college students, for example. Someone who could actually defend themselves if that guy turns out to be a psycho."
Silence again. Another mile ticked by on the odometer.
"Of course, that's what everybody probably says to themselves when they see someone else in need." I could hear her chewing on her bottom lip—a nervous habit that I first noted when we were in college together. "I just…"
"God, what, Lorraine?"
"I just keep thinking of how if it were me, I would really, really like somebody to stop and help."
I cringed and pretended I hadn't already suffered from the same conscience-pricking thought. "I know, me too."
"We should go back."
"We really shouldn't," I grumbled. "Every logical synapse in my brain is firing, saying it's an incredibly stupid idea. I mean, sure, it feels like this was one of those karmic opportunities—one of those tests of your mettle as a decent person that will count in the long run—but my Common Sense is seriously tingling, Lorraine."
"Yes, well, yours never does, now does it?"
"You're right, you're right, I know you're right."
And even more silence.
I stared out the windshield for another mile and then huffed angrily, swinging the Chevy into an extreme U-turn that must have been illegal in at least one state. "God damn it. We're going back."
"Oh, good," Lorraine sighed with obvious relief. "I don't think I'd be able to sleep if we didn't."
"Tell me about it," I groused. "But for the record, I want you to know the sensible part of me is doing this under protest. I still think this is one of the dumbest things we've ever done."
"What's the worst that could happen?"
"That guy could be anybody," I stated rationally as we retraced the last mile we'd traveled. "Sure, he could be an aluminum siding salesman or a banker with a wife and bushel of kids, but he could also be a serial killer or a rapist wanted by the police. He's probably wanted by the police."
"He's not wanted by the police," Lorraine answered dismissively. I could practically hear her rolling her eyes.
"This is Gotham. Everybody's wanted by the police."
"Don't be dramatic, Delores, plenty of people live in Gotham who are just people. They aren't all crazy. They can't be."
Another mile slipped past. I sighed and glared at the rain in silence.
"I'm starting to get nervous. Maybe this is a bad idea," she said anxiously.
"Of course it's a bad idea."
"Maybe we should turn around and keep going."
Without even registering the movements necessary to do it, I swung the car into yet another U-turn. I blamed my own extreme reluctance to go through with the whole thing on my body's slipping into auto-pilot. Instantly, I felt better, like a weight had been lifted from my chest. I always listened to my instincts—they had guided me well—and going against them was like going against my very nature.
It was a little under thirty seconds later when the hail started pelting the windshield that I felt like a heartless monster again.
A golf ball sized piece of hail hit the hood of the car.
"We're not going back," I said aloud, more to assure myself than to remind Lorraine.
"That…that sounded like it left a dent," she remarked.
"We already got karmic credit just for considering going back."
"That sounded like it left a dent in steel, Delores." She sounded genuinely distressed.
"I don't care," I snarled, angry at the hail for making me feel guilty.
"Hail that left a dent in nineteen-sixties Detroit steel, Delores."
I growled and jerked the steering wheel. I didn't even tap the brakes to keep the car from doing donuts; I just slammed my foot against the gas and took my chances. "Alright! Fine! But this is the last time!"
The two and a half miles between the last U-turn and the Oldsmobile sped past and I slowed down just enough to be sure I wouldn't accidentally hit the poor guy when we finally found him again.
Instead of almost hitting the Oldsmobile, though, I almost crashed into a different vehicle altogether. I never thought in a million years I'd ever hear Lorraine scream the words, "Watch out for the Batmobile!"
My headlights, ever the enthusiasts of ironic humor, chose that precise moment to sputter back to life. I swerved with inches to spare, barely missing the Batmobile, the Oldsmobile and the Batman himself. He was wrestling the owner of the Oldsmobile—or, more likely, the thief of the Oldsmobile—to the ground. In a flash of recognition, I realized that the little man in the hat was the Mad Hatter, even as my car door ground against the guardrail that separated the highway from the steep drop-off that I hadn't even been able to tell was there, thanks to the dark and the rain.
Metal on metal sparked and the sound, like fingernails on a chalkboard, set my teeth on edge. It was over in seconds, but it felt like we were trapped on the shoulder next to the rail, squeezing past the other two cars for an hour. Once we were clear, I veered back onto the paved road. My chest ached and after a moment of panic during which I worried I might've been having a heart attack, I realized why: I'd stopped breathing. I gasped in a gulp of air, wheezed with the shock of it entering my lungs and then pulled over in the first parking lot we came across, a little over two miles later.
We sat there, not speaking, shivering and shaking from what had very nearly been a near-death experience.
At least three minutes passed this way, before I gulped noisily. "Are you okay?"
"I...whew," she flopped back against the seat and I thought for a second she might have swooned right into a faint, but she just let her eyes drift shut and continued, "I think so. Are you?"
I nodded a bit more vigorously than was necessary and, noticing that my knuckles were white, unclenched my hands from around the steering wheel. "I'm fine."
Lorraine nodded and that near omnipresent silence descended again.
When Lorraine started laughing hysterically, I looked over at her, wondering if she'd just cracked under the strain.
"Well," Lorraine managed to get out between the giggles bubbling up, "I was right."
Tears started streaming down her cheeks. "He wasn't wanted by the police."