I am a seamstress.
I've been sewing for so long that I can't remember a time when I wasn't holding a needle in one hand, a piece of fabric in the other, threading through it deftly and creating something new, be it a table cloth, a handkerchief or a skirt. A needle, or a sewing machine, feels like an extension of my fingers. Sewing is a very handy talent, too. I almost never have to buy clothes, but make them myself instead, exactly as I want them.
After graduating from Gotham's College of Art and Design, becoming a designer, my dream came true: I opened my own store. I sell made-to-measure and off-the-rack clothing items, and although some time had to pass before people began to notice my store located on the brink of the upper-middle-class paradise that is East Gotham Village, I have many loyal customers now and I have made my name. I earn more than enough and I live well. I even have seven employers: five wonderful seamstresses, an accountant and a salesgirl. Gotham's socialites come to my store, ordering tailor-made clothes from expensive fabrics, and sometimes – much to my secret dismay – a member of the mob will be my customer. But I don't ask questions; I am silent, I sew and I sell. Occasionally, sewing suits for a mobster overwhelms me with discomfort and guilt, but then I remember that I am living my dream and the feelings ebb away. After all, I have many respectable regular clients. And, I may be a rabbit-hearted girl, but my survival instinct always instructs me to conform to certain situations.
Since the opening of my store five years ago, I haven't had a proper vacation, if I exclude the forced "vacation" four months ago when I had my appendix removed (and even then, the timing couldn't have been worse), so for the first time in five years, I am going to close the store for a whole week. I and my employees deserve to recharge our working batteries and relax our fingers. Still, I have to go to my store before I leave Gotham to visit my sister, who married two years ago, moved to Metropolis and is expecting her first baby. I want to organise my latest sketches, scan them (because I always fear that papers might get lost) and put the folder into the safe. I don't keep a safe in my store for money; I keep it for my sketches. I still have enough time because it is almost five in the afternoon and I am expected for dinner at my sister's at 8:30. It only takes an hour and a half to get to Metropolis by car.
I enter the store through the back entrance, lock it behind me and walk through the dark to my office. Once I'm in the office, I turn on the light and then my computer, shrugging out of my winter coat. I look through the small window overlooking the narrow back street, noticing tiny cotton fluffs swirling through the dark air and landing on the concrete, melting. They're not strong enough to last longer yet, but I am hopeful that we will have a snowy Thanksgiving. Although I love snow and I like to observe its progress, I pull together the heavy blue curtains. The idea that there is a chance someone might see into my illuminated office and watch me from the winter darkness is always unnerving.
I turn on the small TV in my office to watch the 5 o'clock news as I go through my sketches and begin to scan them. I hear that the notorious criminal known as the Joker escaped the Arkham Asylum in the early hours of the day and I look up in surprise, a chill settling at the pit of my stomach. I remember the chaos that this man – if one can call him a man – was wreaking four months ago, destroying our city, playing with its citizens and killing them. We were all very frightened then; it happened four months ago, as I've said, and I had that operation in Gotham General that does not exist anymore. I can remember the dread when we were moved out of the hospital, the anxiety that every moment could be our last. Fortunately, I was one of the lucky patients who didn't end up as that man's hostages, but still – it was a time when I realized how much I liked my life and how I didn't want it to end so soon and because of one madman's crazy, dystopian ideas. I feel slightly frightened again, as the thought of the Joker traipsing around the city is quite daunting, but luckily I will be spending the next few days away from Gotham and I am hopeful that by the time I return, this terrible criminal will have been apprehended. The news is a little bit too disturbing, so I turn off the TV and proceed with my work in silence, humming a well-known tune to myself for distraction.
Suddenly, I hear a meowing sound under my office window and I am so startled that I jump up in fright, knocking over my chair. Then, I laugh at myself and my silliness, hitting my forehead with the hill of my palm, as I remember that the sound belongs to the stray tabby that I have managed to partly domesticate. One day, I will take it home and it will truly become my cat. Until then, I will have to shower it with cat delights, buying its love. Dogs are blindly loyal; cats are speculative creatures. I prefer felines to canines because when I was little girl, I was attacked by a dog and I have resented that species ever since.
I'm glad that the cat – I simply call it Tabby – jerked me out of my working mode because it is time I left for Metropolis. It is almost half past five now and I don't want to be late for dinner. I am never late. I always come on time, or early; but never late. I grab my coat off the chair at my office desk, put it on and walk towards the back door, turning off all lights on my way out. I have a purse in one hand and a can of cat food in the other. I unlock the back door and the cat snakes around my ankles, purring in delight. I kneel down and scratch her head (Tabby is a girl); she likes that.
"There you go, Tabby," I say, open the can of cat food and place it on the sidewalk, right next to the door. I can't let her stay inside while I'm away, but I trust she will find a warm place and food while I'm not the city. I scratch her head again, crouching by the animal, and then I rise on my feet to lock the door, looking up.
Everything that follows happens in slow motion. I am so surprised that I can't scream and my brain has difficulty processing the situation. All I know is that I am in a lot of trouble; in grave danger; mortal danger. And still, I can't scream. My vocal cords shrink, the keys rattle on the concrete as I drop them on the ground, and all I am capable of doing is gasp. This resembles a situation when you are swimming in the ocean, far away from the safety of the beach, unaware of the possibility of a lurking danger, and then suddenly, a gray, glistening triangle slices through the surface of the water and you know before you can even realise it that the triangle is a shark's fin and the chances of your dying are very high. You know the shark will come closer and sink its teeth into you, but instead of thrashing in the water and trying to swim away in a useless attempt to save yourself, to escape the inevitable, you grow perfectly still, hoping that the shark won't notice you; hoping that the shark is not interested in you at all and will simply swim away.
The fin I notice is the red, eternal smile one can never forget, a smile that can be recognised by anyone, anywhere. Then, the whole body of the shark is in my view and his name is the Joker. I can hardly believe it. I am standing in front of the Joker, staring right into his eyes that I now notice are so darkly brown that they are almost black. No, they are black, and the only other colour in them is the poisonous absinthe encircling his endless pupils. His face is painted, but he is dressed in a shock of orange, courtesy of the Arkham Asylum, no doubt.
Finally, my mind has processed the situation I have just fallen into and the need to survive finally kicks in. I don't scream; that would only alert and irritate the shark. Instead, I twirl on my heels as quickly as I can and run back inside, grabbing the door with one hand and pushing to close it, thinking all the while, Oh my God! What the hell is the Joker doing here? But I am not fast enough. His body crushes into the wood of the door violently and the movement propels me a few steps backwards, making me land on my back painfully.
"Is this how you greet all your customers, hm? It's not ah, good for business, y'know."
His gruff voice slithers into my ears and before I know it, his hands are grabbing the lapels of my coat and pulling me up, none too gently. He is taller than me and he lifts me high enough to level our faces, making me hover on the tips of my boots. I can't look into his eyes, I can't, but his are boring into my face. They scare me. They are so empty, truly like a shark's eyes. They are empty because there is nothing good in them, nothing human. It's almost as if he's not human. At the thought, I whimper and he breathes out a soft giggle, unnerving me even more.
"Hey, hey, puppet," he says, shaking me just a little, then lowering my body, so that I can at least stand on the soles of my shoes. His hands are still squeezing the lapels of my coat. "Open your eyes, c'mon, open 'em up."
His voice sounds almost kind and strangely indulging, but underneath there's a layer of menace and I know he won't wait a second longer; he won't ask me again. I'm too afraid to not listen to him and do as he says. I don't want to die, so I flutter my eyes open, my insides shivering. I have never been so scared in my entire life as I am now.
"That's more like it," he comments and pats my cheek with one hand as if I were an unruly child he managed to tame. "Meghan's Fabrics, huh? Nice little place. You ah, you Meghan?"
I nod several times, very eager to avoid being killed. I know how this man kills from newspaper articles and I don't want to die like that. He lets go of my coat for a moment. He hits the door into place with one foot, his eyes never leaving my face. He looks exactly like an experienced predator and I'm sure I'm pretty much the epitome of a scared, shivering, miserable and very unfortunate prey. He takes a step forward and bends a little, his face only inches from mine. I wish he didn't stand so close. My God, I'm so very scared and I can't scream. I can't even fucking scream.
"So, Meghan," he chirps like someone in a good mood, "I'm ah, I'm sure you know me. And I bet you can see a little something's...missing." He lowers his voice dramatically on the word missing, tilting his head just a little, his eyes sinking into mine. I feel so strangely violated in his presence. "I need...a new suit," he announces matter-of-factly.
Now, I have to stare at him in disbelief. He wants...a suit? He has got to be kidding me! I have to wonder: am I stuck in a grotesque alternate universe? Apparently, since of all the people in the world, I get to be stuck with the Joker and I have just been chosen to be his personal seamstress. I don't think that I entirely understand what he has just said.
He licks his lips really fast, like a snake slipping out its cleft tongue. It's funny how I keep comparing him to animals.
"Y'see, someone took it away and dees-troyed it," he says, contained rage evident in his voice. "But I need. My. Suit. So," his voice becomes pleasant again – or at least as pleasant as the Joker's voice can possibly be, "you will use your little fingers and make it." He wiggles with his own fingers in front of my face, as if to remind me what fingers are, in case I forgot. "The exact replica of my suit," he adds in a voice that is almost sinister. It definitely makes the hairs on my arms rise. He offers me a challenging look of amusement. I conjure up his possible words in my head: Can you do it, hm? I dare you. If you can't, well, your loss. The loss of my life, I imagine. And if I don't do it, exactly the way he wants it... I'd rather not be thinking about the consequences. He is clearly a man who wants something and has to get it when he wants to, the way he wants to.
"M-me?" I stammer out, my voice barely above a whisper. It's hard to talk normally when you're shivering.
He rolls his eyes impatiently and I flinch, fearing that I said something very wrong and that he will punish me for it, but he does nothing, simply breathes out and says, "Yeah, you. Do you ah, do you see anyone else in here?"
He looks over his shoulder and then over my shoulder and shakes his head playfully. "See, the tailor who made my first suit for my grand entrance into Gotham's society is...dead, un-for-tu-nate-ly. But I'm thinking, if little Gambol thought this place," he waves his hands around, his eyes darting across the room, "was good enough for him, then it's definitely good enough for little old me."
I have to wonder – did he kill that tailor to shut him up or did the tailor actually not die by the Joker's hand? There's no way to tell and I'm not going to ask the man standing in front of me, so I keep quiet. The truth is, I don't really want to know. The less I know, the better. I know that I don't want him to catch a whiff of my fear in the air quivering around us, so I have to be good and play my part well. This is about survival, after all. Luckily, the daze of shock is leaving my head and I can think more clearly. I know what I want to do and it is simply to survive. For that, I mustn't resist and I have to be brave.
It is very difficult to do this, but I swallow and say, as calmly as I can, with a bit of the authority of the businesswoman that I am.
"Can you pay?"
For a moment, I fear his reaction. Perhaps I went too far too soon. But then, an unexpectedly brave thought enters my mind: If I am meant to die, I want to go with dignity.
He is looking at me with amusement flickering in his eyes, as if deciding whether I'm fun or not.
"Oh, I have a recompense in mind," he answers. "Y'know, I really am an honest guy. I always give people only what they...deserve. I'll give you," he says and jabs an index finger into my shoulder, making me gasp at the rough, unexpected touch, "what you deserve." Then, he nods.
The answer is vague and scary, and I don't like it. I force myself to ask, "What do you mean by that, sir?"
The word sir comes out of my mouth automatically and again, I feel like I said something wrong, but once more, I'm lucky that I didn't, apparently. He lets out a guttural chuckle.
"I go by Mr J," he informs me. "Sirs are too...formal and pre-dee-cta-ble."
"Then...what did you mean by that...Mr J?" I manage to ask again, surprised that I even dared speak again.
He shakes his head, closing his eyes for a second, and focuses his gaze on me again. "Business first," he demands. "How about we go to your...sewing workshop first, puppet?"
"O-okay." I hate myself for stammering, but I would like to see someone, other than Batman, who wouldn't stammer in the Joker's presence. I don't really think that such a person exists.
"This way," I manage to add, pointing my thumb behind me, over my shoulder.
He smiles, stretching his eternal grin into something wider and more grotesque. I manage not to flinch this time, at least.
The fingers of his left hand create a vice on my right arm, just above the elbow, and I panic. He is touching me again and I hate it.
"C'mon," he prods, shaking me a little, and I begin to walk, my small steps out of sync with his long ones. I try not to trip very often, but every now and then I do and when that happens, he always pulls me up roughly.
As we walk towards my sewing workshop, I feel his menacing presence next to me, as our sides are more or less fused. He is humming a melody to himself, creating a falsely relaxed atmosphere, and all the while I am thinking: the Joker wants me to make him a suit. I haven't even asked him why and when. My face is hidden behind the maroon mane of my long, brown hair and I allow a tear to trickle down my cheek, but I keep the rest of them clogged. If I start truly crying, I will not be able to stop and something tells me that he wouldn't like that, so I don't want it, either. I am just so scared and I just want to go to my family. I want to escape, but there's no way that I can think of.
I can think of a lot of if's, though.
If I didn't try so hard to be acknowledged by the best, I would never have accepted a mobster's order for a suit.
If I wasn't such a coward, I would never have accepted a mobster's order for a suit.
If I'd never accepted a mobster's order for a suit, my store would be exempt from crime and Gambol wouldn't have come to my store.
If Gambol hadn't come to my store, the Joker wouldn't know about it and he wouldn't be in here right now.
I wouldn't be in danger.
And I wouldn't be in danger if I wasn't so obsessed with my work and if I refrained from organizing and scanning the sketches today. I should have just forgotten about it and gone to Metropolis at noon, to spend some quality time with my relatives in the afternoon already, and not in the evening when everyone will be tired and will go to bed soon.
But those are if's and the reality is different: the Joker is inside my store and he wants me to make him a suit. I can't decline because he'll kill me in that case. He might even kill me anyway. I want to be with my family and I want to be safe, but I can't have that.
Today, absurdity has reached a new level.