Whatever Doesn't Kill You
This is random, but I suppose most of this journal will be from now on. It's just a little moment in time, but it stuck with me, so I'll write it down.
Harley and I have silently agreed that the best way to deal with pre-show nerves is to not think about it, so one of us often ends up in the other's trailer while we prepare for the coming performance. We've shared some pretty diverse conversations this way—talking about anything from politics and philosophy to exchanging silly jokes and teasing little ribs—and today was no different.
I was lounging in front of the lit mirror, my feet propped on the vanity table as I absently played with a deck of cards. Harley was to my side, fussing with her costume—it was skin-tight and green with copper-colored sequins, and I didn't think it suited her nearly as well as the red and black one, but she knew that already and it was her way of teasing me.
"You know," she said suddenly, "for as often as I see cards in your hands, I've never seen you play a single game with them. Why is that?"
I shrugged easily, continuing to shuffle the deck. "I've never been particularly fond of card games."
She frowned. "How can that be possible? You're always using cards in your act."
"You misunderstand me," a smile played about my lips. "I like cards, but not most of the games."
"Why's that?" She began fussing with her hair now, twisting it into two tight buns so that it wouldn't get in her way when she was performing.
I took my feet off the table. "There are four face cards, but you only play with three of them: the King, the Queen, and the Jack." As I listed each of them, I laid them on the able before me. "But what about the Joker?"
She smiled bemusedly. "What about the Joker?"
"There are only three face cards for every suit," I indicated the cards before me, " which makes them obscure but not rare. There are only two Jokers in the entire deck," I held up my hand, the two Joker cards between my index and middle fingers, "which makes them the rarest card. They used to be a trump card of the highest order, but these days Jokers are usually used either to replace missing cards from the deck or as a wild card."
She cocked her head to the side, meeting my eyes in the mirror. "Is that where the saying, 'Joker's wild' comes from?"
I nodded. "It is."
"You said you don't like playing most card games," she pointed out, turning back to her preparations, "so what are the ones you do like?"
"Chase the Joker," I answered immediately, reshuffling my deck. "It's essentially Old Maid, except with Jokers instead of Aces. And War, I suppose, with Jokers as trumps."
"It's a pity there are only two of them per deck," she commented, smiling as she began to apply her makeup—which was now less clownish and more smoldering since her routines had changed.
"No, Harley," I shook my head. "That's the beauty of them."
It was easy to get caught up in life at the circus, to forget how things had progressed. That thought struck me once, as I watched Harley perform. To the crowd, her motions looked effortless, almost ethereal, but from the side-ring I could see her muscles working and the sweat building over her. She made everything look so easy, from the Spanish Web to a back flip on the tight-rope, but I knew the struggle that had gone into learning and perfecting each trick, I knew the pain that each one had caused her. Harley was a brave woman who was constantly pushing forward, always looking for something bigger and better no matter how much it scared her, and sometimes it was easy to forget that she hadn't always been that way.
Harleen had come to me as a timid little teenager, unsure of herself and everyone around her—except me. From the very first, her and I had connected, and through that relationship we managed to uncover the true woman in her. She still had her fears, they would always be a part of her, but the hellcat in her—Harley—was a woman of action and unwavering bravery. Harley Quinn and Harleen were both the same woman, and yet two very different people at once, and I often wondered if it would be possible for them to coexist indefinitely or if one of them would eventually have to take over.
That thought spins me in a different direction, to my own plight. I'm like a coin as well: Jack on one side, The Joker on the other—and I know which side is facing up less and less as the days go by. I find my thoughts getting muddled, slipping into irregular patterns that are unfamiliar and yet somehow fitting. At times, it frightens me, and at others… See, the problem is that I'm not frightened enough; there are parts of The Joker that feel like home. I often worry that I'm getting used to the temporary bursts of strangeness, but The Joker can make the world easier to deal with, in lieu of alcohol.
I compared The Joker to a mask earlier, but it probably would have been better to say he was a mindset—he wasn't (isn't) something that I just slip on that allows me to act out a part. When I become him, I can feel my thoughts changing—
The entry broke off abruptly there, but Harleen knew what Jack had been trying to say. In some ways, she had noticed his transition into The Joker, had recognized that there were times when Jack didn't act very much like himself at all. She hadn't been worried about it at the time because she'd known they were both going through periods of upheaval but, with the clarity of hindsight, she knew she should have been more concerned about his state of mind.
The phone rang again, a shrill wail that prompted her to turn off the ringer—she didn't need pity today.
Harleen turned back to the journal with a contemplative eye, her thoughts returning to what Jack hadn't been able to put into words. Looking back, it was easy to pin down the times when he had started to become The Joker. She had thought of him as a nuisance at first, a pushy, aggressive bully who wanted nothing more than to pester her about overcoming her fears—and that's really all he had been until later, until closer to the end when it had started to become obvious that something was wrong with Jack, but she'd been too far gone herself by then to notice.
Jack had been serious, a little quiet, and very sympathetic, whereas The Joker was a bit of a bastard who loved nothing more than to make people uncomfortable. One of the things that had always frustrated her about The Joker was his unerring response of, "Why not?" Nothing had been out of bounds for that man; he'd had no limits and he'd seen no reason for other people to have them either. Whenever she had frozen up while learning a trick and had dared to utter the words, "I can't," he had always returned with, "Why not?" and had listened to her answers with the most insufferably mocking air she had ever seen. The Joker didn't stop to think about if something were wise, healthy, or even ultimately possible—he simply acted, if for no other reason than because he could. It had been frustrating to work with him, but she'd seen the necessity of it; she had needed his devil-may-care attitude to motivate her, but she hadn't realized how much that side of Jack hadn't been an act.
What truly scared Harleen, though, was that the journal had already made allusions to that fact that The Joker was becoming a stronger presence in him, almost as if the split personality was solidifying and becoming self-aware. As she had watched the news over the past months she had often wondered when it was that she'd first seen that lazy look in his eyes or that graceless shrug of his shoulders—when was it that The Joker had gone from annoying mentor to appalling psychopath?
I think I lose another little part of myself every time I have to do the knife-throwing act, and it leaves me wondering how long it will be before there's nothing left of me. Without the luxury of alcohol, I have no way to buffer these thoughts or dim the memories of my sick pleasure, so I offer them up to The Joker instead.
I know that's the absolute worst thing I could be doing. I'm just feeding the monster—looping the pain and uncertainty back in on itself, until it magnifies my stress and seemingly glorifies the pleasure I know I shouldn't be finding in the dangerous performance. When I throw a knife at Harley, a part of me wonders, "Will it hit her?" and a different part of me purrs at the knowledge that I can't answer that question. The Joker loves my uncertainty, my lack of control once things have been set into motion. And the more of myself I give up to him, the more I find him guiding my actions, steering me toward recklessness.
I had promised myself from the first moment I knew I'd be working with Harleen that I would do everything possible to make sure she was never hurt, but I begin to wonder now, in the face of The Joker, if she's really safe at all.
I have long been of the opinion that only certain battles are worth fighting, but I think it's time to scrap that idea. Why? Markel Dientz.
It's so simple that it's idiotic, and I think you know it, Markel. You're making a war out of nothing—I don't like you and you don't like me, but that doesn't mean we have to resort to blows, does it?
I suppose it does, because you fired the first shot with unerring accuracy. You knew exactly where to hit to cause me the most pain, and I can't ignore that. Or, rather, I won't ignore that. I wouldn't have cared if you'd chosen to attack me—that might have actually been interesting—but you've proven to be a bastard. You went after the woman.
What you choose to do behind closed doors is your own damn business; I really couldn't care less. So why did you choose to come bragging to me about it? I know you hate me, you know you hate me, so I can only assume that your idiotic chest-pounding was just a show meant to get under my skin.
Well, it worked. Consider the battle begun. I'm going to crush you, Markel, with all the brutality and dispassion I can manage—you really should have known better than to fuck with my Harley Quinn.
This was downright chilling. Harleen remembered Markel Dientz—he'd been one of her fellow acrobats, a fit and charming man, just slightly older than her. He hadn't been her first lover at the circus, but he'd been her last, and she'd never understood why until just now. She had never made a habit of sleeping around, never garnered a reputation for being a slut—when Harleen took a lover it was exclusive, and it was serious. For a while, she'd had no end to hopeful admirers, but one day it was as though a switch had been flipped: she'd started seeing Markel and then three days later people had barely even wanted to be her friend, including her lover. At first, she'd thought it was because of Markel—but he was an old hat at the circus and had no enemies, although it was fairly well known that he didn't get along with Jack. But Markel had left her too and, as the days progressed, it seemed as though men avoided her more and more.
Harleen had accepted the oddity gracefully, despite her confusion, knowing they had all just been replacements for Jack anyway. She had been too much of a coward to approach him though, too afraid of messing up their easy-going friendship. And while she had known that Jack had always wanted more from her, she hadn't realized how possessive he had become of her.
Or, rather, how possessive The Joker had become of her—there was no mistaking who had written that last journal entry; it was much too confrontational to have been Jack. And there was certainly no mistaking that The Joker had done something to Markel, something that had been guaranteed to scare him and all the other men away. But what? She'd never seen any physical evidence of fighting on either man, so how had The Joker terrorized her erstwhile lover? It was a chilling question, only made palatable by the fact that she knew The Joker hadn't yet worked himself up to committing murder at that point.
I can be subtle when the mood strikes me, and I can be terrifying when I put my mind to it. But Markel danced into trouble all on his own and then presented me with the perfect opportunity to send out a clear warning.
I was juggling knives for the hell of it—I had some downtime and there wasn't much else to do. My peace was short lived though, because the bastard cornered me again and started bragging about the wonders of Harley's bed. I won't even repeat any of what he said; it was too crude and disrespectful to Harley.
Markel wanted some kind of a rise out of me, and for a while I tried not to react, but the rage was building in me. I could accept that Harley had a lover who wasn't me—that was her choice and her right—but I would not accept that it was someone who was such an asshole.
He turned to leave after some time, disappointed that I hadn't indulged him. The moment his back was to me, I let myself go—one of my knives sailed through the air, singing a sweet song as it imbedded itself into doorframe beside Markel's head.
He stared at the quivering blade, his throat working reflexively.
"Sorry," I said, standing up and moving to retrieve the knife, "must have slipped." I withdrew the knife, but let it hover between the two of us, an ominous presence. "You can't imagine how hard it is to control these things sometimes," I continued warningly.
I was worried about the glaze in Markel's eyes as he left, but he understood me just fine—he stopped bragging. The fact that he stopped seeing Harley entirely and quietly warned some of the other men that, "Jack's losing his mind," was just a bonus.
Fuck all happened today, or really any day this week and, here's a guess, I think the trend will continue on for several days to come. I'm beginning to have doubts about this whole journal thing, Harley.
She was right though, and that kills me: she's always right. Even if I say nothing important in this stupid book, it still helps me in the fact that I at least have something to pour my thoughts out to.
For such a broken little girl, Harley sure seems to have all the answers to life's problems.
No, I didn't mean that. Harley isn't broken or damaged or any of that other garbage she's constantly trying to put herself down with—I'm only saying it because she keeps bringing it back up. We were doing so good for such a long time, and now I can't figure out what went wrong. Her performances are as spectacular as ever, but outside of them it's suddenly like she's that timid nineteen-year-old all over again; she's pulling back into her shell and I don't know how to stop her, or why she's even doing it.
At times like this, my throat itches for the burn of whiskey, and I think that today I'll lose that fight against the bottle because the sad truth is that when her resolve gets shaken, so does mine.
In hindsight, it's almost like Harley's foul attitude was some kind of premonition. Maybe we both should have taken it as a sign that she needed to step back for a night or two.
There's no easy way to recount this…
The performance tonight started out like any other—it was completely identical to all the other shows we'd put on over the week.
Until the tight rope act.
I've never been afraid for Harley's safety while she performs, there was never any need. She was a talented young woman, and there were precautions put into place, like a safety-wire and a net. So what happened tonight was just…
Words fail me. Life went from normal, almost downright boring, to pure horror faster than anyone could comprehend.
Harley was halfway through her act when it happened. Just as she was straightening out of a back flip, one of the stage lights broke partially loose of its scaffolding to swing around in wide and uncertain arcs. Her scream pierced through the din of the circus, echoing around the enormous tent as the light hit her head from the side and sent her plummeting off the tight rope. My heart stopped as I watched her, but my body was already racing toward the net.
But Harley didn't land in the net; the stage light's blow had sent her just off course enough to bounce off the side of the net and into the support rigging. She never reached the ground—her safety-wire prevented her from going that far down—and so she hung like a limp doll in a nest of conflicting wires.
This image is burned into my mind, and I can't get rid of it. The support rigging of the net was tied to one of the main tent pillars, and the thick, rough cables bent and connected at all angles. In the middle of the mess was Harley—a marionette without her strings. She was limp and pale, hanging unevenly as her arms and legs had all caught on different wires. Her hair had come free in her fall, and it curled about her head in a blonde cloud, the ends of it stained red where it had touched her face. Harley was bleeding—she'd been cut and scraped in many places, and there were trickles of blood running down her arms and legs. It was nothing compared to her face though; blood was pouring from somewhere around her cheeks, running down her chin and throat and soaking into the front of her costume.
Time stood still as the patrons began to scream and the management rushed to contain the situation—someone must have called the paramedics because an ambulance arrived a little while later, but I didn't wait for them. Staring up at Harley—at the poor, trapped and broken hellcat—I knew I couldn't let her go; someone had to save the girl, and it was going to be me. The wires bit into my hands, but they were superficial cuts and I would ignore them for her; in fact, I ignored everything for her, all the noises and sights exploding around me, absolutely everything except for the fear that she might be dead. Even when I finally had her in my arms and back on the ground and I knew for a fact that she was still breathing, my panic didn't subside.
Faster than I was capable of comprehending at the time, I was surrounded by people, all of them poking and prodding and shouting and I couldn't understand a damn thing that was happening other than the fact that someone was trying to take my Harley away.
It turned out to be the paramedics, and when that was finally communicated to me I relinquished her. They chastised me later for moving her, but what else could I have done? I couldn't have left her stuck in the rigging, bleeding out or possibly dead.
Watching Harley be put on a stretcher, looking so fragile and brutalized, was like a physical blow. Something within me was pulled tight as she was taken away, loaded into the back of the ambulance and driven off to the hospital. I watched the flashing lights fade off into the night, standing silently as sympathetic hands clasped my shoulders.
What the hell had I witnessed? Even now, hours later, no one has been able to piece it together completely. So here I am, sitting in a hospital ward and scribbling furiously away in this journal because it's the only thing keeping me sane while I wait for her to come out of surgery. I'm not alone, her family and a few other concerned coworkers are here as well, but I think I'm the only one who's about to have some kind of nervous breakdown.
I hate hospitals—they've got too many rules and regulations that serve no purpose other than to annoy and frustrate everyone involved.
So what happened? Well, it was just after midnight when the doctor finally came out to talk to us. Tempers and fears were running high, but we all faced his news with whatever hopes we could.
"She lost a lot of blood, but she was lucky—none of her injuries were life threatening." The doctor's tone was soothing and professional, but there was a dark undertone that said he wasn't done talking. "However, the lacerations and burns to her face were severe; we did what we could to close everything up and stop the bleeding, but the disfigurement may be permanent."
Her mother—a pretty blonde woman who bore a striking resemblance to Harley—looked aghast at the idea, and I hated her in that moment for being more concerned about how her daughter looked than the simple fact that she was alive. As far as I was concerned, a miracle had happened.
"You could look into skin-grafts, but there's only so much that cosmetic surgery can do, Mrs. Quinzel," the doctor replied quietly, no hint of personal emotion in his voice, "and she'll have to be awake to make that decision."
Her father stepped forward; he was a stoic man in his sixties, but he finally seemed concerned about the situation. "She still hasn't woken up?"
"She's not in a coma," the doctor assured. "She did wake up briefly, before the surgery, but we had to anaesthetize her, and she has yet to fully recover from that." With his soothing act more or less complete, the doctor dropped his mellow tone and dove into strict authority. "Right now, the best thing for her is as little stress or stimulation as possible—if you must visit, I advise you do it one at a time, and family only for now. We don't know her state of mind at the moment, so we're trying to minimize exposure to anything that might upset her."
I could have accepted that—I would have, in fact, and I was prepared to spend the next day or two waiting for her—if that had been what she actually wanted. But not ten minutes later, she was opening her eyes and screaming for me. At the time, I didn't understand it; granted, the only one of her blood relatives that seemed like a decent person was Mr. Charmich, her Uncle and the circus manager, but they were still her family. Why would she want to see me over them? I was important to her, I knew that much, but I hadn't realized that I was more important than her own parents. But whether I understood it or not, I knew one thing: if Harley had asked, then I would oblige.
So, of course, the gracious and efficient staff at Gotham General had to intervene. "Family only," they maintained, despite the fact that she was apparently throwing some kind of fit the longer I wasn't in that room. They wanted her relaxed and resting, but refused to grant her the one request that might have actually brought her some kind of peace.
Mr. Charmich protested on my behalf, saying that I was like family to the girl, but her parents remained silent and cold. I think they came to hate me in that moment, just as I had already come to hate them. Not that I blamed them for it: we were all fighting for the attention of the same amazing woman. But the difference was that they had already blown their chance, and Harley was the center of my world now, which made her my responsibility in some sense.
I was about a minute away from just walking into Harley's room whether I had been given permission or not—at that point you could hear her screaming from halfway down the ward—when I was politely but forcefully told to go home.
"Don't go far, Jack," Mr. Charmich advised, clasping my shoulder as I turned to go. "She's not going to stop until she's seen you; they'll have to give in sooner or later. I'll call your cell phone when they do, so stay close."
I always liked Mr. Charmich; he was a practical sort of man and it was a pity that he didn't have complete control of the circus.
He was right, too, although it took everyone much longer to break than I would have expected. I wasn't admitted into Harley's room until nearly five in the morning. And it wasn't any sort of great victory because, while I wanted desperately to see her, I was still afraid of what I might be walking in to. As it turned out, my fears were well founded.
Harley looked tiny on the utilitarian hospital bed. She was riddled with bandages and gauze-wraps, her pale face almost completely covered. An IV trailed from one arm and a heart monitor beeped steadily in the background. But all of that faded away as her blue eyes locked on me—they were glazed and ringed in bruises, but relieved to see me.
"They wanted to sedate me," she said, her voice horse and raspy.
I almost laughed. "Maybe you shouldn't have screamed so much."
An awkward paused stretched out between us then, with nothing to mark the time other than the rhythmic beeping of the heart monitor.
"Jack," she finally pleaded after several moments, "what happened?"
My heart broke at the question—didn't she remember? "We're not entirely sure, sweetheart," I replied as I sat down on the edge of her bed and carefully took one of her hands into my own. "What's the last thing you remember?"
"I was on the tight rope," she said uncertainly. "Then," Harley struggled, her mouth moving soundlessly as the words slipped by her. "Just pain," she finally concluded.
I sighed heavily, gently running my thumb over her fingers—more to comfort myself than her. "One of the lights came loose from its scaffolding," I replied carefully. "It swung in an arc and hit you from the side."
Her free hand rose up to touch the bandages on her right cheek, the light of remembrance in her eyes.
"You fell," I continued, feeling a little sick, "but the safety-wire and the net didn't save you like they were supposed to. You bounced off the side of the net and ended up in the rigging. Something must have been wrong with your safety-wire; you shouldn't have been able to get that far."
Her had moved to her left cheek, a silent question I wasn't sure how to answer.
"I don't know," I said after a moment. "It could have been rope-burn from the net or a cut from one of the rigging cables. Everything happened so fast, Harley, it was hard to see."
"The doctor said the cuts didn't go entirely through my cheeks," she murmured, her grip tightening on my hand, "but they might scar very badly anyway." Harleen paused, her breathing slow and uneven. "Does that bother you?"
It was her mother; I knew it. The woman had probably come in and spent more time worrying about the bandages than her own daughter's wellbeing. And, unsurprisingly, those thoughts had been pounded into Harleen's fragile state of mind. She should have known that I would never turn away from her like that, but the circumstances made her doubtful enough to ask. That simple question filled me with so much impotent rage that I was choking on it.
In a flash, The Joker was there—larger than life and unstoppable, claiming a permanent part of me.
Her recovery took several long, hellish weeks, over which I became increasingly manic without her presence. I visited her every day, but outside of her company I turned back to the bottle.
Alcohol has never tasted so sweet or brought such fiery clarity before.
The world is fucked—society has set up all these rules meant to help things run smoother and safer, but in the end they won't save you. There had been solid contingencies in place to prevent an accident like Harley's, but it had still happened anyway and now, through no fault of her own, she's being forced to suffer the consequences. It's madness. What's the point in all that planning, in all those rules, if they don't make a bit of a difference when everything is said and done? All it takes is for one thing to go wrong, and the entire system collapses.
And in the end, it just proves that I've been right all along—it is better to savor that sweet moment of chaos. You never know which rules are going to help you, if any do at all, so why put your faith in them? At least anarchy has never flown itself under a white flag of innocence—it promises you nothing, which makes it honest and fair.
Harley wants to come back to the circus, which I find surprising—an accident like that is enough to end a career. From visiting her, I know that in many ways she has pulled back into being Harleen, but this might be a step in the right direction.
Or it might be an unmitigated disaster.
People crowded her at first—supposed friends and well-wishers—but they really only came to see the scars. And I won't lie, they aren't pretty: one scar stretches across her cheek and goes almost to her ear, while the other curls from the corner of lips and ends just under her eye. But that doesn't mean she has to be an attraction to them; she isn't a freak show that they can gawk at. Not so long ago, she was everyone's sweetheart, and I find it sickening that they've all decided to forget that.
Her name has turned into a whispered joke around the circus—Harley Quinn, the clown that never stops smiling. She has enough trouble to face without people being assholes, but it seems like the entire world is suddenly against her. All the girl wants to do is get back into the saddle, to prove that no matter how many accidents she has to suffer through she will not be beaten down—but no one will let her. Her parents want her to quit and move back in with them, her fellow acrobats are suddenly treating her like a leper, and the management (save her Uncle) is turning a blind eye to the blatant discrimination she's facing.
And me, useless fucking Jack, can't do a damn thing to help her.
Markel Dientz, the filthy little prick, suggested today that Harley's new appearance might be better suited to just the knife-throwing act. Disfigurement automatically disqualifies her from working with the acrobats? And it's all just because they no longer consider her pretty.
But she's still beautiful to me, and she always will be—and if the only thing I can do for her in this whole mess is to keep the knife act going then that's what I'll do.
Even if it kills me.
His journal entries were becoming shorter and more fragmented, Harleen noticed. Most of his entries had been Jack telling a story, but now his thoughts were coming out at random. Was it the alcohol he had fallen back into, or was it The Joker taking him over?
She wants to give up, to step down from the ropes, and I can't think of anything that would piss me off more at the moment. This isn't my Harley—it's Harleen, and I can't stand the thought of her.
"Civility is a mask, Harleen," I try to persuade her. "Under their skin, everyone's just a wild animal waiting to be unleashed. They felt sorry for you yesterday, but today you're nothing more than a joke to them. Society is an illusion, a game that they can play when it's convenient."
She shakes her head. "What do you want me to do, Jack? I mean, maybe they're right; maybe it is time for me retire from the flashier performances."
"Don't play by their rules," I snap, my temper flaring for a moment. "You've got better chances of survival if you take matters into your own hands."
"How?" she asks.
But I can't answer that question—it isn't my choice to make.
She's withdrawing from everything, and the harder I try to motivate her, the further she slips away from me. I don't even know how to reach her anymore, and she isn't listening to me—she's quitting the acrobatics entirely, she won't even tumble anymore. Harleen is doing less now than when she first arrived at the circus.
And as if that weren't bad enough, people are giving her hell over the knife-throwing act as well. All she has to do is stand there and not get hit, but somehow the scars are a clear signal to everyone that she can't do even that.
The audience doesn't give a fuck; most of them can't even tell she's injured because the face paint covers it up. But the performers are howling for her to be replaced, and she just smiles her way through the whole damn ordeal, pretending that it's not killing her on the inside.
"It's alright, really." Harleen pulls out some greasepaint and cakes a generous helping of white around her face. "There, you can barely see it when I'm covered like this. See? It's fine."
No, it isn't fine—she shouldn't have to hide her face, she shouldn't have to hide her scars. It wasn't her fault, why has everyone forgotten that? "No matter how you cover it up, you'll always know it's there, Harl," I tell her. "And, no matter what you do, no matter how much you prove yourself to them, you'll always know that they thought of you as a freak, that they wanted to replace you."
"It's a circus, Jack," she sighs in frustration. "Everyone wants to be at the top, to be in front of the crowd—you can't blame them for wanting me gone."
"Yes, I can," I answer immediately.
Her eyes soften, and a sad smile plays about her twisted lips. "You take things too hard, sweetheart. You're a clown," she puts her fingers to either side of my mouth and forces my lips into a smile. "Why so serious, Jack?"
"Think of it this way, Jack: you don't have to worry about hitting her anymore. It's not like a little slip's gonna make much of a difference now."
I don't even know who the hell said that, but Harleen heard it and now she's started wearing a mask during our act—like she's the fucking Phantom of the Opera or something.
Don't hide from me, sweetheart. Don't you dare pull away from me!
Why so serious? That's a damn good question, Harleen—thanks for pointing it out.
Twisted little Anna
Wanted somebody else's place
But she said the wrong thing to The Joker
And now she's locked up in a case.
Why so serious, little Anna? I thought you wanted to play with The Joker.
Harleen shivered. If the events that had unfolded at Gotham City's circus could be likened to a three act tragic play, then it was clear that Anna had been act two.
Anna Finkle had always rubbed Harleen the wrong way—she was dark and voluptuous, had a penchant for using and abusing men, and she had slowly been working her way through the male stock at the circus. They hadn't crossed paths a lot, but they had shared a notable animosity.
And then, one day, Anna had just been gone, never to be seen again. Of course, people were coming and going all the time at the circus, so no one had batted a lash, but Harleen had always found it a little strange. Anna had been ambitious, more than willing to use her skills both in and out of the sheets in order to make her way to the top, so her disappearance had never made much sense and Harleen had always wondered what had happened.
Now she knew.
Gone. Barely a tip of the hat to me, her trailer empty, her act already recast. Harley Quinn is gone in every sense of the word.
She gave everything she had to this circus, sometimes more than she could spare, and all it did was chew her up and spit her out, beat her down until she was too broken to stand back up. Where are the rules that are supposed to save her, or the authority that's meant to protect her?
I get it now—to live within the frame of the social norm is insanity. To live freely, to live happily, you have to stay ahead of the system. It isn't a matter of living by your own rules—they'll catch you at that game—it's a matter of living without them entirely.
So what are my rules? Never show up drunk to a practice or a performance, and never take pleasure from the fact that someone might get hurt; I think it's time to break those rules.
My new 'assistant' makes the decision pretty damn easy, too. She had howled and moaned for Harleen's job for ages, but now that she's part of the knife-throwing act, she doesn't actually give a damn. The twit barely shows up for practice. "I've got it down," she tells me, "there's no need to practice."
Yes, darling, there is, because this Joker doesn't think you know the act so well—in fact, tonight I'll prove it.
The next page was blank, and it gave Harleen pause. She knew what had happened, of course; she hadn't been there, but some friends had stepped forward to tell her the story. It was the finally act of their tragedy: the night that Jack had truly become The Joker that Gotham knew and feared.
With shaking hands, she pulled out the recording—when she'd left the circus she'd still had a few friends, and they had been kind enough to tell the whole story to a camera, so that she could hear what had happened in privacy. Or maybe they had been too scared to tell her face-to-face; it didn't really matter.
As she set the tape up, she couldn't help but remember how she'd felt all those months ago. The newspapers had run the story the very next morning, and Harleen had mourned for the dead and for the circus—she knew this wasn't an accident that it would recover from. But the paper hadn't named any names—it had only said that several people had died, the main tent had sustained heavy fire-damage, and an unknown member of the circus had perpetrated at least one double homicide. The ambiguity of the articles had frightened her; she needed those details. She had spent the rest of the day in a whirlwind of fright, desperately trying to reach Jack by phone, but he hadn't answered so she had assumed the worst. It wasn't until nearly a week later that the tape found its way to her apartment, explaining everything that the papers didn't know.
Harleen sat back down at the couch as her television screen filled with the image of two men: Philip Straulss and Rudy Glassinch. Philip was a fair-colored man, but he was layered with muscles from his work as one of the set and props handlers. Rudy was Philip's opposite: dark and wiry, but what he lacked in strength he made up for in speed.
"This is going to be hard for you to hear, Harleen," Rudy began, a haunted look in his eyes. "It will be hard for us to say too, so we all just have to try our best here." He paused and ran a hand through his short hair. "By now, you've probably heard all the reports about what happened at the circus—but no one is telling the right story, Harleen; no one has got the right story other than us, and we think you have a right to know. Or maybe, you need to know, for your own safety."
Philip shifted uncomfortably. "It was raining on the night of that last performance; coming down by the bucket, if I recall." He shifted again, then sighed—this was obviously difficult for him. "Wasn't anything unusual, at first." He shrugged. "Jack showed up for the performance in a mask, but we all just assumed it was his quiet way of protesting how you'd been run out." Philip frowned, a far away look entering his eyes. "He was kinda jittery though, bursting at the seams with energy. But you know how things are: no one at the circus questioned any of it once he said he was good to perform."
"The act was nothing special," Rudy picked up the thread of the story, "they performed the first two rounds without a hitch, but then it came time for the near-misses. Jack was hitting close that night, and we could all see Lisa getting nervous, but we figured it was just because she was new to the act." His voice became soft and low, but it didn't make what was to follow any easier to digest. "He threw left and she feinted right, then she started dodging the other way since it was routine, but Jack threw left again." Rudy swallowed thickly and closed his eyes. "The blade sank into her throat, straight through her neck and into the board behind her."
Harleen remembered crying the first time she'd heard this—crying so hard that she'd had to pause the tape. It still brought tears to her eyes, but they were more angry than sad now. She wanted to rage at Jack—what had he been thinking, why had he done it?
"Everyone froze," Philip whispered, his voice sounding reedy over the recording. "The patrons couldn't believe what they were seeing, and we all thought that Jack had forgotten the routine and was panicking now." He shook his head. "But he just lurched forward, grabbed one of the fire-breather's torches, hurled it into the crowd, and walked out."
Rudy cringed, his eyes becoming glassy, but he continued the story. "The fire consumed the tent in the blink of an eye. People were running this way and that, not sure which way was out or which member of the circus it was safe to be near. There were children crying, mothers shouting, it was all just a horrible ruckus of pain and bewilderment." He shook his head as he remembered, his throat working convulsively as though he were going to be sick. A moment went by, then two, but Rudy pulled himself together and continued. "A group of us rushed after Jack, wanting to get answers or hoping to hold him until the police got there. But he didn't go far, just stood in the rain, laughing as he watched the circus burn." He shivered, fear in his eyes, "I'll never forget that laugh—it was chilling to the core."
Philip took over once more. "He'd kept his mask on through the whole of the disaster, but he removed it then. For a minute, it was just Jack, but then his makeup started to run from the rain, and that was when we could see what he'd done. The scars were terrible, Harley, and I mean no disrespect to you by saying it, but when we saw them we all knew he'd come for revenge that night, come looking for a way to call in the debt he thought you were owed." There was a sadness in Philip's pale eyes—the sadness of a man who had witness a tragedy that couldn't be understood. "I remember, as I watched him, that I couldn't help but think it was lucky you weren't there, that it was a good thing you wouldn't have to see first hand what your Jack had been turned into."
At the time, Harleen had almost been thankful that Philip had said that but now, months later, she thought it was naïve of him. If she had been there, Jack wouldn't have flown off the handle; if she had just stayed at the circus like he had asked her to, then Jack might never have completely succumbed to The Joker.
"The three of us jumped him after a moment," Rudy recovered enough to say, "but he was stronger than any of us were anticipating and he was still armed with one of the knives from the act. Danny—I don't think you knew him, but he was a good kid, God rest his soul—went down pretty quick." He choked again, sickness and pain etched across his expressive face, but he carried on. "Philip and I took some wounds to the chest and arms, and Jack… Jack just seemed to be enjoying himself. It was inhuman; the harder we hit him, the more he'd laugh, and his energy level was just something else. He turned the tables on us in no time at all, getting the two of us to our knees like it was the easiest thing he'd done all night." Rudy paused, confusion replacing everything else. "For a moment he stared at us, then he shook his head and just walked away, slipping into the stampeding crowd before the cops could even get there."
It was Philip's turn to look sick now. "We gave the police the run-around when they asked everyone questions. No one said it out loud, but I think we were all afraid that giving up Jack's name would just make us next on his list." He shifted for the third time, no position comfortable enough to soften the story. "When the police asked, we told them what happened, but we all pretended we had no idea who had been behind the mask. The cops didn't really think twice about it—Jack wasn't the only member missing that night and, well let's face it, Gotham's Finest doesn't exactly have the best record when it comes to investigating homicide cases."
Harleen tuned the tape out, her thoughts turning inward. The Joker had started appearing in the news shortly thereafter in one terrible, heartbreaking report after another. But the news never mentioned who he was, in fact they made a point of saying they didn't know—but there were people out there who did. An entire circus had suspicions, at least three people knew for sure, and yet no one had come forward or given the police the proper details of Jack's story. Why? Were they really all that afraid that he would come after them for their betrayals?
The sad truth was that, yes, they were. Just like Philip had said, every last one of them was waiting for The Joker to show up at the door one night, ready to call in their debts. No one had given the police the full story on Lisa's or Danny's murders—they'd all known it was Jack, but none of them had dared to mention his name.
"Harleen," the tape called her back. Philip was alone on the screen now, looking scared and concerned. "I know you—I know you've probably been in a panic all week over Jack, wondering if he made it out of the circus alive—but this isn't a problem you can handle. Don't go looking for him; he isn't the man you were friends with anymore, and I don't think he wants to be saved this time. For your own safety, keep your head down and don't go looking for trouble." The recording cut to black, automatically rewinding as it reached the end of the tape. The familiar whirl and click of her VCR did nothing to distract Harleen.
She had followed Philip's advice, although a lot of it had had to do with her depression rather than fear of Jack. That fear had grown over time though; with each new report on television, with each new layer of insanity she saw wrapping around The Joker, her nerves would jump and increase. And she knew it would only get worse now that she'd read the journal, now that she knew the advent of The Joker had been entirely her fault. She'd always suspected it, of course—it was kind of hard not to when she saw the mirror of her scars on his face—but now she knew beyond any doubt. Did he blame her for it, though? And if he did, was sending her the journal his way of telling her that it was time she paid her dues?
Harleen turned back to the leather-bound book, but there were no clues to be had. The remainder of the journal was blank, except for a scribbled message on the very last page: Check your voicemail.
She moved to her phone with dread. Harleen knew she had been shutting herself away from the world at large; she only left her apartment when it was necessary or unavoidable, and she sometimes went weeks without answering her phone. She'd been in one of those phases now, and her machine had nearly two-dozen messages waiting for her. Most of them were pleads and bargains from friends and family, hoping to draw her out of her shell—but there was one, toward the beginning of the set, that stood out.
"Let's conduct an experiment," The Joker's voice filled her apartment, setting her on edge. It was like hearing the voice of a ghost—although she knew it wasn't really Jack; Jack's voice had been sweet and deep, The Joker's was just nasal and piercing.
"By now, you've probably read the journal," he continued. "Jack wanted you to have it if anything happened to him, and since he's just as dead as my Harley Quinn, I figured, 'Why not?' But therein lays the heart of this experiment: is my Harley really dead?" He chuckled. "The journal was just the beginning, a way to remind you that there are always two Jokers to every deck, sweetheart, and I seem to be missing my other half. Did you remember what it felt like to be fearless, to be Harley Quinn, as you flipped through those pages? If she's still in there somewhere, if you can still feel that rush of joy in the face of danger, then maybe we should get together sometime and play. So I suppose my question is: are you still brave enough to be anyone other than Harleen?" He paused. "But if you'd rather not join the game, then I guess this is goodbye." The Joker began to laugh, an eerie, shrill sound that had her shivering. "At least until the next time we cross paths, anyway."
The machine switched over to the next message, but Harleen was no longer listening. She knew that The Joker wouldn't purposefully come after her, but as long as she remained in Gotham there was always the chance that they would bump into one another, and what then? He wouldn't pursue her, but that didn't mean he wasn't above taking advantage of a situation that she happened to be in. Former friend and love interest today, alluring hostage tomorrow. Gotham wasn't safe for someone like her—she didn't have the courage to stay.
But Harleen didn't have the courage to leave, either.
A/N: I initially started Whatever Doesn't Kill You about a year ago, during the time I was writing Broken Boy Soldier, but it took a while for the heart of this story to really develop, so it fell to the side for a bit. There will be a sequel (Simply Makes You Stranger), but I don't know when that will be out, seeing as I haven't written it yet. For some reason, I have to write my Joker stories completely, from start to finish, before I can post them.
This story is really something of an experiment for me. First, I'm writing primarily from The Joker's point of view, which I've been very hesitant to do up until this point. (I don't think I can do him justice, but my friend very aptly pointed out that if I told the entire story through Harley's eyes I'd be too tempted to focus on her as the main character, which is true.) Second, this story, or at least part of it, is being written in first person narration, which I have not attempted to do since I was still very wet behind the ears. Unfortunately, it was necessary, logistically speaking, so if it doesn't float your boat, I apologize.
I'm a little divided on this tale, personally. I really liked the fact that we never learned anything about who The Joker was or had been; that added bit of mystery worked really well for his character. So, from the very beginning, I've been writing a story that I don't think needs to be told, which is kind of a mark against me. But, at the same time, I'm interested in the idea that maybe Harley Quinn created The Joker, rather than the other way around.
I feel that I need to tip my hat to Mirror Mask—because that's where most of my circus reference comes from—and to The Prestige—because I loved the dueling journals and, while I don't have that same element in my own story, I am sort of trying that style of narration.
Also, much kudos to the same friend who always helps me out with all things Batman or Joker related: Kratos Hates Tomatoes (formerly Metanaito-sama).
Disclaimer: I own a plethora of side-characters, but Harley, Gotham, and The Joker belong to DC Comics and Warner Bros.