She hated him.
She hated him with all the passion and fervor that a six year-old girl could muster. Everything about him drove her crazy. The way his lips would so infuriatingly curve into that arrogant, knowing smirk, the way his impossibly dark brown eyes glimmered from beneath dark, long lashes. She hated the way he cocked his head to the side and brazenly stared at her in that cold, calculating manner, as if sizing her up, as if silently suggesting to her that she wasn't good enough. She hated everything about him, right down to the tiny freckles that were scattered across the bridge of his nose.
Jack had been twelve at the time—almost double Harley's age—and was mature well beyond his years. His family was moving into the house next-door, something she had initially been looking forward to, excited over the prospect of meeting the new neighbors and possibly making a friend. She only hoped that the new family had a girl her age. With no siblings and no friends other than the very few she had at school, she was desperate for someone to play and interact with.
On the day of their new neighbor's intended move, she woke up bright and early, disappointed to find that it was raining and had thus hindered her from going outside. After she had gulped down her breakfast as quickly as possible, she jumped down from the barstool at the counter and raced into the living room. Cassie, her thirteen year-old babysitter, followed behind her at a bit more leisurely pace, plopping herself down on the couch and turning on the television. Since it was only seven in the morning, there really wasn't much on other than infomercials and the local news, so she settled for watching a reality show on MTV that wasn't very appropriate for either of them.
Not that Harley was watching anyway. Eagerly, she climbed onto the bench beneath the windowsill and pressed her hands against the glass pane, watching for any activity next door. The only thing that had changed from yesterday was that there was a navy blue pick-up truck sitting in the driveway.
"What're you looking at?" Cassie wondered aloud, fighting back a yawn.
"The new neighbors are supposed to move in today," she explained without turning around. She transfixed her eyes on the house next door, not wanting to miss even the slightest movement should one occur.
Behind her, Cassie snorted. "They moved in at like, three in the morning, Harley." She kept her gaze fixed on the television as the small girl turned around to stare at her. "Didn't you hear them last night? There was lots of yelling and banging around and stuff. I think the dad was wasted or something."
"Are you sure?" Harley's tiny voice piqued.
"Of course I'm sure. I live six houses down the street and I still heard it."
Harley wasn't exactly sure what "wasted" meant, but she had a pretty good idea after having been to a friend's birthday party and watching firsthand as Caroline's dad stumbled around on the back deck with his friends, laughing raucously and smoking cigarettes. Caroline had whispered to the girls that their dads were "getting drunk." Harley's own father hadn't been present at the time so she couldn't know for sure what it meant, but she began to wonder if the new neighbors had been doing the same thing last night.
Disappointed that she had slept through all the ruckus, she turned around and sighed against the window, watching as her breath fogged the glass. She decided that she was still determined to keep watch regardless that she had missed their move, so she propped her elbows onto the sill and let out another dramatic sigh, secretly hoping Cassie would notice her distress and ask what was wrong.
When she didn't, Harley moped and slumped against the window seat for the remainder of the morning, watching as small drops of rain raced down the window pane, tracing the droplets with her finger as they slid against the glass.
Later in the afternoon and after much protest, Cassie finally managed to pull her away from the window for her nap. After Cassie had tucked her into her bed and closed the door, Harley pushed away the covers and, after much strenuous effort, scooted her heavy wooden toy chest beneath the window. Carefully, she crawled up onto it and continued staring. She refused to leave her perch until she had at least caught a glimpse of one of the family members. She might have missed all the excitement of their move, but she was still desperate to know if the new family had a daughter her age that she could play with.
As she sat at the window, she imagined a girl with long, straight brown hair—like her mother's—and pretty green eyes. The two of them would become fast friends after meeting, and Harley began to picture all the fun things they'd do together. They could have tea parties and play tag at the park, search for cool bugs in their backyards and ride bikes down the street. They could bake cookies and play dress-up, build snowmen during the wintertime, and color with chalk on the sidewalk in the summer.
Harley's daydreamed fantasy was perfect, and she thought that she couldn't have imagined a better one if she tried. She desperately needed a friend, and she was already certain that the new neighbors next door would provide one.
She loved her parents and wanted to spend time with them also, but they rarely were at home since the two of them had high-profile jobs in the city. Her father was a respected lawyer and her mother worked in the senator's office. Since there wasn't much time for them to do anything else, Harley spent most of her days with a babysitter, even on the weekends.
It never occurred to Harley that the new neighbors might be an older couple, or perhaps it was a single adult who didn't have any kids, but she refused to relinquish her hopes until she had absolute proof of the matter.
Later that afternoon, she was surprised when her mother arrived home early from work. The small girl eagerly bounded down the stairs to meet her as she was putting away her umbrella. She tugged on her mother's arm with breathless excitement.
"Mommy, can we meet the new neighbors today? Please?"
"Well hello to you too." Sharon patted her daughter on the head and then took a second look at Harley, a crease forming between her perfectly arched brows. "Darling, you know I don't like it when you wear your hair like that."
Harley self-consciously tugged at one of her pigtails, twirling it around her finger as she bit her lip. "Sorry."
A few minutes later, after Cassie had left, Harley followed her mother into the kitchen, her earlier question still left unanswered. She hovered nearby as Sharon began pulling out papers from her briefcase and laid them onto the table.
"How was your day, sweetie?" She didn't glance at her daughter as she perched her reading glasses on the tip of her nose.
Harley studied her mother closely as Sharon paid her no mind, only half listening to Harley's eventual response. Her gray, pinstripe skirt fit snugly as did its matching jacket, and her glossy brown hair was pulled into a tight, smooth bun. Her makeup had been applied with the utmost precision and her dark, mascara-coated lashes fluttered like butterfly wings from behind her reading glasses. She looked every bit the perfect, successful business woman; regal, polished, and poised. Harley only hoped to one day look as beautiful as she thought her mother did. She loathed her limp, blonde hair and cool, icy blue eyes—genes she had inherited from her father.
Distracted momentarily, she forgot her mother's previous question and repeated her earlier one instead. "Mommy, can we go meet the new neighbors today?"
Her mother's pen faltered and she paused, sighing ever-so-slightly through her nose. Harley's mother didn't lose her cool, and her face seemed always to be a pallet of only one emotion. It was a moment before she replied. "Harleen, sweetie," she began slowly, "I don't really think that'd be a good idea."
Harley's face fell. "Why not?" she whined.
Sharon measured her reply carefully, removing her reading glasses from their perch on her nose. She'd heard the new neighbors yelling at each other quite violently all throughout the early hours of the morning, and she was certain that the father had even been intoxicated at the time. She found the overall situation rather distasteful and uncouth, and she didn't particularly want to go over and meet this new family. She was already certain she knew what kind of people they were, anyway. The neighborhood they lived in tended to attract families on lower-income, families which usually entailed a slew of alcoholics, poor, single mothers, abusive fathers, and troubled teenagers, among other stereotypes she wasn't the least bit fond of.
She kept these thoughts to herself though and lied instead. "I'm too busy at the moment, darling. I have paperwork to do, you know that."
"You're always doing paperwork," mumbled Harley in response. When Sharon turned away to glance back over her work, Harley buried her face into her mother's side, whining. "Please, mommy? I wanna make new friends."
"Harleen, I said no."
The small girl huffed exasperatedly and folded her arms across her chest, stomping off into the living room as loudly as she could. She flopped herself onto the window seat with a frown and rested her head in her hands.
It was like this every day. Her mother would come home from work, (though usually at a much later time,) and bury herself in her paperwork—or a fashion magazine, when she knew no one was looking. And if it wasn't that, she'd be on the phone for hours on end, claiming to her daughter that it was a "business call" when Harley knew she was really talking to one of her girl friends. She wasn't stupid.
Her father, on the other hand, (who was home considerably less than her mother,) would lock himself in his study with a book and a bottle of wine. Harley would beg him to play board games with her, kindly request his attention when she wanted to model her dress-up clothes, and ask him to read her a bedtime story—but nothing would tear his gaze away from whatever it was he happened to be doing. He scarcely even spared her a second glance.
Desperate for his attention but knowing she wouldn't receive any, she resolved to simply spending time with him, even if that time was spent in utter silence on his part. She'd sit in the leather, overstuffed chair in front of his desk while he sat behind it, biting on the tip of his glasses as he read. Harley would stare up at the ceiling and tell him about her day, hoping for a response but never obtaining one as she rambled on about the bullies in the neighborhood and how some of the boys were always pulling on her pigtails or pinching her arm. Her father had once interjected, addressing her in the masculine, business-like tone that he always spoke in, and suggested to her that perhaps the boys only teased her because they thought she was pretty—but Harley vehemently denied the notion and that was the last he spoke of the matter.
She was still sulking in her own misfortunes when something outside from the house next door suddenly caught her eye. Swallowed within the confines of a huge, oversized jacket was a small body trudging down the front steps. Harley watched, fascinated, as the figure plodded down the sidewalk in the pouring rain, seemingly oblivious of its surroundings. She craned her head to see further as the figure began to abscond from her field of vision, but the last she saw of the mysterious stranger was when it disappeared near the bus stop at the end of the street. Harley swallowed, barely able to contain her excitement. Was this the new friend she had been desperately waiting to meet? Was this the girl who would become her best friend? Was it even a girl to begin with? And why was this person walking all alone and in the rain?
Her mother would never approve of such a thing, Harley knew. She wasn't allowed to go outside unless there was an adult with her. In her neighborhood, it just wasn't safe. But at the moment, Harley could care less what her mother thought. She raced up the stairs and tore open her closet, tugging on her daisy-yellow rain boots and matching coat. As she crept down the stairs, listening carefully for her mother, the sound of laughter floated from within the study. Probably making another one of her "business calls," she bitterly thought.
She quietly opened the front door and stepped out into the torrent of rain, shielding her face from the sudden onslaught. It was coming down a lot harder than she thought. She was determined not to give up though, and so she pulled her jacket tighter around her small frame and raced down the sidewalk towards the bus stop. Her shoes squeaked nosily with every step as she splashed down the sidewalk, but she just hoped that the stranger hadn't gone too far else she wouldn't be able to catch up with them.
As she neared—breathless from her run with strands of hair plastered to her forehead—her heart began to drum faster within her chest, anticipation coursing through her. There, lying just ahead, was the bus shelter, a small, white building that was littered with colorful graffiti.
What if they were sitting inside there, waiting for the bus? Her breath quickened at the mere thought of being so close.
This was it, the moment she had been waiting for ever since she had found out that her old neighbors were moving away. She hurried closer, smiling to herself in the rain. Her heart thudded anxiously in her chest, the sweet anticipation almost too much to bear.
And then... it was over.
Beneath the bus shelter, Harley's smile faded into a disappointed frown. It wasn't a girl, but a boy, and in that moment, her hopes were completely dashed.
Slowly, the stranger raised his head, looking up at her blankly through a mop of curly blond hair. Harley's stomach dropped into the pit of her stomach then, and for a moment, she was without breath.
The boy, who was clearly a lot older than herself, had a thin, gaunt face, his lips pulled tight into a deep frown. His eyes—a deep, troubled brown—looked as if they had seen all the horrors of the world and then some.
She let her gaze roam lower, taking in his lanky frame. He looked tall, even while sitting down. Harley dared a small step closer as the stranger began to eye her with a bit more interest.
"Hi," she said softly, a little unsure of herself. She swallowed, not sure why she was felt so shy and timid. It wasn't like her at all, and she wondered why she found it so hard to form words. Pushing back a strand of hair, she summoned the courage to speak. "My name's Harley." She bit her lower lip and waited for the stranger to respond.
But he never did. He simply eyed her disheveled appearance with a blank expression, the space behind his eyes entirely empty. His gaze roamed over her flushed cheeks, soaking wet hair, and drooping pigtails, lastly settling on her bright blue eyes that were blinking at him from beneath wet lashes. She bowed her head to the pavement under his scrutiny, feeling her cheeks turn pink when he continued to stare at her.
Since he hadn't spoken, Harley decided to try again. She swirled the toe of her boot in a small puddle that had gathered beneath the bus shelter.
"I'm your next-door neighbor," she explained. "My house is the one with the red car in the driveway." She turned around so she could point it out to him but was disappointed to find that she was farther away from it than she had thought. "You can't see it from here, though," she trailed off uncertainly, not sure what to say next. The boy was a good few years older than her, that much was obvious, and Harley got the feeling he didn't want to talk to her. Even so, she summoned the hope that had buried itself deep within her chest and dared to ask one more question. "Do you have a little sister?"
Slowly, the boy shook his head, his eyes still not leaving hers.
Harley gulped and felt her hopes collapse like a wilted flower. Why did everything always turn out against her favor? She didn't understand it. She had wanted a best friend so badly. In her small, naive scope of the world, it felt like everything and everyone was against her. She had never felt so utterly alone.
Everything was ruined now. Nothing had gone the way she had expected it to and she felt crushed. She was convinced that now she'd never make a best friend. Nobody on the street was her age—save for the rowdy boys who always ignored her and only wanted to play with themselves—and she had never fit in with the girls at school.
They teased her about her appearance, excluded her from their games at recess, and rolled their eyes whenever she tried to speak to them. She could never have realized it at the time, but her personality didn't match her stereotype. She grew up in a wealthy family, but didn't live in the suburbs of Gotham. She didn't attend any of the father-daughter charity balls, didn't have roles in any of the school plays, and her parents never took her to any school functions. She was an outsider by all means, but most of all, an easy target for the other girls to pick on.
She cautiously slumped down onto the bench next to the boy, brushing her pigtails over her shoulders as he watched her from the corner of his eye. She scooted back so her legs were dangling above the ground, her boots dripping with excess rain. They two of them sat in silence for a considerable amount of time, but Harley was never one to keep quiet for long, especially when it came to fishing for information.
"I'm seven," she declared, the pride in her voice unmistakable. "How old are you?"
She was met with silence. Her shoulders slumped, and for a moment she stared out into the street. Two seconds later, she sighed in exasperation.
"Do you even talk?" She turned her head to peer at the boy next to her, who hadn't moved an inch since she had sat down.
"You talk too much." He turned to face her as well and Harley was startled by the sound of his voice. It was deep—too deep, and he sounded ten times older than what he appeared to be. He was like a man trapped inside a boy's body, and had Harley realized this at the time, she would have run away without another thought.
But she didn't.
Pulling the sleeves of her jacket up to her elbows, she studied the boy carefully. "Well, what's your name then?"
Harley bit her lower lip, pondering. Jack was a nice enough name, she thought. She had never met any Jacks before, save for her uncle, but she never really saw him much. Since she attended an all-girls private school, she didn't know any boys from there, obviously, and never got the chance to interact with them much outside of school. Maybe Jack could be her first friend who was a boy?
Twisting her hands in her lap, she stared up at the sky. She hadn't even realized it had stopped raining. A group of geese squawked noisily in the milky gray overcast above, and she watched them until they disappeared from sight.
"Do you... do you wanna be best friends with me?"
Jack replied in an instant, startling her.
Harley was taken aback by his blunt reply and she clearly let it show, her nose scrunching in distaste. "Why not?"
Jack didn't respond, choosing instead to stare at the drooping telephone wires that lined the street. Harley folded her arms and pouted with an exasperated huff. She was starting to not like Jack, not at all. He was being awfully rude and she didn't understand why. She stole a sideways glance over at him only to see that he was now staring in the opposite direction. This left his face open to her perusal, and Harley was intrigued when she spied a small, y-shaped scar on his lower lip. She was surprised she hadn't noticed it before since it was so obvious. The scar was crusted over in a deep shade of red—dried blood, she realized. She stared at the strange scar unabashedly. The sudden urge to reach out her hand and run the tips of her fingers over his lower lip was overwhelmingly strong. She yearned to feel the puckered flesh there.
Slowly, she determined to do just that.
Jack's hand shot out faster than she could have ever thought humanly possible, and he captured her small wrist in a vice while Harley stared at him in terror. If she thought his eyes were dark before, they were absolutely black now, a color so deep and fathomless she thought she would drown. She cried out weakly and tried to pull away, but he only tightened his grip and pulled her closer, bringing her face mere inches from his own.
She could smell him, now that she was so close. He was a mixture of sweat, wood, and smoke, an odd scent that Harley didn't understand. She crinkled her nose in distaste but was too terrified to look away.
"Go. Home," he ground out in a voice far too mature to belong to someone his age, his mouth pulled into a deep frown. Roughly, he let go of her wrist and she toppled to the ground in her struggle to pull away, landing in a puddle. She gasped and let out a small cry when her arm scraped against the side of the curb, but Jack didn't move to help her. She struggled to hold back tears as she stared up at him through blurry eyes, mud smeared against the side of her face.
Too scared to scream at him in anger, she scrambled to her feet, holding her bleeding arm, and took off down the sidewalk. She cast a glance over her shoulder only to see Jack staring after her... smiling.
When she returned home, crying and out of breath, she immediately flew up the stairs. The bathroom door shut in the hallway with a bang and she collapsed against it, gasping hard and blinking back her tears. When she had caught her breath, she stared down at her arm, crying even harder when she saw how much it was bleeding.
Carefully, she stood and peeled off her raincoat, letting it fall to the floor. Her small chest heaving in panic, she grabbed a washcloth from the sink and dabbed her arm with it. She was horrified to find that it wouldn't stop the bleeding, however, and she let out a wail of pain and frustration just as her mother knocked on the door.
"Harleen? What's the matter with you?" she asked brusquely. "Why are the steps out here so muddy? You unlock the door this instant."
With a sob, Harley opened the door and stared up at her mother through the tangled strands of hair plastered to her face and her blurred tears. Spots of blood were trickled on the floor and the bath rugs, and Harley's muddy raincoat lay next to the toilet.
When Sharon's eyes landed on Harley's arm, her mouth opened in a silent gasp.
"My God, Harley, what have you done?"
Harley was good at lying, always had been. She had once blamed the family dog (who had since passed away) in a moment of panic when her mother realized that her favorite makeup brushes had gone missing. Harley explained that Toby had snuck into her parent's bathroom and jumped up onto the counter and ate them. Her mother was easily convinced of the story, and later that night Harley retrieved the stained brushes from her art box and buried them deep in the trash. They hadn't made very good paintbrushes for her art easel, anyway. Toby, bless his soul, was sent to another family.
Harley was so good at lying, in fact, that it was no surprise that she was able to convince her mother that the gash on her arm was because she had slipped in a puddle and fallen on the curb. The story was partially true, she had fallen on the curb; she just hadn't explained to her mother that the new neighbor boy, Jack, was the one who had pushed her there.
In truth, she was scared to tattletale on him. She didn't want her mother to get upset, tell her father, and then have him go over and talk to Jack. Nick was angered easily, and he sometimes acted rashly and on impulse. It was a rare occurrence, but his calm, cool, and collected demeanor could shatter in only an instant if he was angered enough.
After her mother had driven her to the emergency room for stitches, they returned home where Harley was sent to her room for leaving the house without permission. After her mother had closed the door, Harley spit her tongue out in silent defiance and then trudged towards her bed, flopping down on it after kicking off her boots. She stared up at the ceiling while her newly-bandaged arm lay across her stomach, watching as the colorful mobile above her bed spun in slow, lazy circles.
Her thoughts drifted to Jack and she reflected on how much she despised him. He had refused her request to be friends and then had pushed her into the curb. She hated him for giving her stitches, but most of all she hated him for not wanting to be friends with her. Was something wrong with her? None of the girls at school liked her and only ever wanted to tease her, and Jack apparently despised her. Was it something she had said? Was there something wrong with the way she looked? Was it the way she did her hair? Maybe she was just ugly, like all the girls at school whispered behind her back.
With that final weight resting on her mind, she cried herself to sleep and slept the rest of the evening away.
The rest of spring break went without incident. Harley returned to her all-girls boarding school the following Monday, and life entered the same old routine. Since Cassie had softball practice after school during the weekdays, Harley spent her time after school with an elderly woman who lived only a few blocks down the street.
Miss Lenora was gentle and kind, and Harley enjoyed being with her. The two of them would spend hours in her backyard together, playing in her garden or watering the flowers while Miss Lenora taught Harley all their appropriate names. She had one of the most beautiful gardens Harley had ever seen. There were white trellises (which Harley had helped paint,) with pink roses crawling up its sides, immaculately trimmed bushes, and scattered all throughout the garden were some of the prettiest flowers she had ever laid eyes on. Bright yellow daises, cherry blossoms, calla lilies, blue bells, lantanas, and stunning, red and orange ixoras all helped to fill the lush, colorful landscape.
Miss Lenora was her closest friend, and Harley viewed her as the grandmother she never had but had always wanted. She helped Harley with her homework, cooked dinner for her, and let her sleep in her guestroom on the nights when her parents would be working especially late. She was more of a mother figure than Harley's own mother had ever been, and it was in times of despair and loneliness that Harley would sneak away from home to visit Miss Lenora. Her warmth and liveliness was contagious, and it usually took only a hug and a kiss from her to cheer Harley up.
Other times, when Harley was especially sad, she'd cradle Harley while the small girl cried in her arms. Miss Lenora would assure her that everything would be okay, that her mother and father did love her but couldn't be with her all the time because they had important jobs.
Harley knew Miss Lenora was right, but she still harbored feelings of resentment in her heart towards her parents. Which was why, on Saturday, when the two of them were both miraculously home for the day, Harley didn't want to have anything to do with them.
This was, of course, decided after she had tried countless times to get their attention. Harley's mother had spent all morning in the bathroom, preparing for an outing with her friends. Harley's father was in his study, as usual, and he didn't answer her when she requested that he teach her to play catch outside.
"Daddy, please? We never play together." She put her hands on the edge of his desk, (he wouldn't allow her to come behind it,) and gave him her best puppy dog eyes.
When Nick let out a heavy sigh, Harley inwardly cheered, excited that she had gotten a reaction out of him.
"Harleen," he began, and her heart sank. He only called her by her full name when he wasn't in a good mood. "I'm tired. I've been working all week, and I just want to unwind."
With drooping shoulders, she left his study and decided to go outside by herself. The rays from the sun shone brightly as she sat on the porch steps and absently fingered the laces on her sneakers, squinting into the sunlight as she studied the bustling neighborhood. A few houses down from hers, the Gibson's were cleaning out their garage, and directly across the street the neighbor boys had gathered at Allan's house and were playing some kind of game in the front yard.
She stole a glance over into Jack's yard, but it looked the same as it had for the past week, save for the fact that the blue pickup truck was absent from the driveway. They probably weren't home.
Harley let out a sigh as she looked back across the street, wanting more than anything to just talk to someone.
Determinedly tucking a strand of hair behind her ear, she jumped down from the steps and made her way over to Allan's house. She made sure she looked both ways before crossing the street, (not that it was ever that busy with traffic anyway,) and decided that she was going to make friends with the boys today, even if it killed her.
As she stepped onto the grassy yard which was in desperate need of being cut, all four boys turned towards her.
"What are you doing here?" Allan—who was only a year older—folded his arms across his chest and looked down at her as she stepped closer.
Harley puffed out her chest and pursed her lips, trying to look brave. "I want to play with you," she announced, folding her arms also.
Allan opened his mouth to speak when one of the other boys, Shane, interjected.
Shane, who had red hair and lots of freckles—and who was almost always chewing gum, snapping it in the most loud and obnoxious manner, which Harley hated—was looking at her bandage as if it were infected and oozing green slime.
"Ewe! What is that?"
Harley swallowed, feeling uncomfortable under the sudden scrutiny. She dropped both arms and hid them behind her back.
"I fell on the curb," she replied quietly.
"Girls are so clumsy!" Thomas cried. He was a dark-skinned boy whom Harley had never seen before, and he spit out his tongue when she pursed her lips at his insult.
Harley wanted to reply with a comment that was equally insulting, but she realized that if she did it would only decrease her chances of becoming friends with the boys. She smartly bit her tongue and chose to ignore Thomas's comment.
"What are you playing?" she asked, eyeing with interest the toy guns they had fashioned out of sticks and fishing string.
"We're playing police officer," Guy, the quietest one of the group, kindly spoke up. His hands were crossed behind his back, shoulders relaxed.
"Yeah, but it's for boys. Girls can't play," Thomas sneered.
"Why not? I can be a police girl," Harley insisted.
"Don't worry, Harley, you can play with us," Allan announced, his voice deceptively smooth and cunning, earning a confused look from his three other friends.
"Really?" she chirped. Her cheeks were already flushing with excitement.
"Yeah," he said, "but you can be the bad guy. We'll be the police officers."
Harley wasn't thrilled with the idea, but if that's what it took for her to fit in, then that's what she would do. She would play the villain.
"Well, okay," she shrugged. "Do I get a gun, too?" she asked hopefully.
"You can use mine," Guy said shyly, offering forward the makeshift toy, but as Harley reached for it, Thomas snatched it away.
"She doesn't get one."
The notion didn't bother Harley a bit; she was just excited that the four of them were going to include her in their game.
"What do I do first?" she asked eagerly.
"Well, you have to pretend to do something bad, and then we'll chase you," Allan informed.
It started out innocently enough—at first. The five of them moved into the fenced in backyard where they could use Allan's swing set and its adjoining tree fort as the police station. Harley, across the yard, pretended to rob a convenience store—since that's what all the bad guys did on the cop shows she sometimes watched when Cassie fell asleep—and she announced just as much to the boys.
"Okay, I'm robbing a store!" She bent down and started plucking blades of grass, as if she were picking items that she wanted off the shelves.
"Pow! Pow pow!" The boys imitated the sound of gunshots being fired, and Harley skillfully pretended to dodge them all.
"Hey, I just shot you! You have to fall down!" Shane cried in indignation, but Harley pretended not to hear him.
She spit out her tongue at the red-haired boy and laughed as they all began to chase her around the yard, firing their stick guns. Filled with adrenaline, she fumbled with the latch on the wooden gate and flung it open, racing out into the front yard as the boys trailed at her heels.
Her laughter was suddenly caught in her throat when someone tackled her from behind, pushing her into the grass. She cried out in surprise and twisted onto her back, staring into the eyes of Allan who was quick to straddle her waist.
"I got her!" he yelled over his shoulder, grinning at her with a cruel upturn of his lips when she began to swing at his chest.
Harley was suddenly aware of how much bigger all the other boys were, especially Allan, the oldest of the group. He was heavy and it hurt. She heard the other boys coming closer and her breath quickened in panic.
"Guy, Shane!" Allan called, "Come here and hold her arms down!"
Shane was quick to respond, kneeling down next to Harley's head and pinning one of her arms to the grass as she struggled furiously.
"Guy, come on! We need help!"
Instead of joining in, Guy stood off to the side and bit his lip as he watched his friends pin Harley to the ground. He didn't want to hurt her. She was pretty and nice, and his mom had always told him never to hurt girls. He looked on in embarrassment, not sure what to do.
"You're such a baby!" Thomas shouted at him as he ran over. He grabbed Harley's other arm and pinned it to the grass.
"Let me go!" she shouted, wrestling for all she was worth. She kicked her legs into the ground, but it didn't usurp Allan from his perch.
"You're so weak, Harley." Allan sneered. "Come on, fight back! What's the matter? Too weak to play with the boys?"
Harley closed her eyes and let her head fall to the grass, letting out a shrill scream that was quickly muffled by Allan's palm.
As she writhed in earnest, the boys laughed at her, tugging on her pigtails as Allan sneered in her face.
"Stop it!" she cried. "I don't want to play anymore!" She screamed from behind Allan's hand, but when the boys didn't listen and their laughter only increased, Harley began to cry.
She hated herself for it, for not being strong enough to play with the boys, but she didn't stop fighting through her tears, even as they slid down her cheeks and Shane and Thomas continued to tug on her pigtails and shower her hair with grass.
When Allan grabbed her jaw, she screamed and turned her head to the side, tasting dirt on her lips and feeling sharp blades of grass cut into her cheek. She gave one final scream into the dirt and closed her eyes, expecting the worst.
Allan's weight, though, was torn away from her before he could strike and she heard him topple to the ground.
Breathing hard, her eyes fluttered open and she squinted against the blinding rays of the sun, staring into the face of her savior.
Harley's cheeks were flushed from crying and dirt was smudged around her jaw where her tears had trailed. Blades of grass had ruthlessly been dumped on her hair and her clothes were disheveled and wrinkled. Jack took all of this in as he pulled Harley out of the grass and to her feet, fuzzy black dots momentarily blurring her vision. She wobbled as Jack maintained his grip on her upper arm, not saying a word.
"Hey! Who are you?" Thomas demanded.
Jack was much taller and much older than all four of the boys, which was something that should have relieved her, but succeeded only in making her feel more terrified. She looked up into his face, squinting as the sun cast a glowing hallow behind his head.
When he looked up, he locked eyes with Allan, giving him the same look he'd just given Harley; a silent warning.
And then, he was gripping her arm with bruising force, pulling her after him and towards the street.
"Hey, where are you going? We were just playing!" Shane called after them, but Jack would have none of it. He didn't even look over his shoulder.
The boys began to mutter amongst themselves, wondering who Jack was as Shane began to worry that they were all going to get in trouble. When Harley looked over her shoulder, she watched as Guy disappeared inside Allan's house, covering his face and ultimately, his tears.
She hung her head in shame and disappointment, wiping her eyes and further smudging the dirt on her face as Jack all but dragged her across the street. She cried out when she scraped her knees against the asphalt of the driveway.
"Ow! Slow down!"
But Jack didn't stop until he had dragged her up her porch steps, by which time he more than willingly released his grip.
Without saying a word, he began to descend the stairs, but Harley angrily grabbed onto the back of his shirt, stopping him.
He whirled around to face her, eyes livid, and Harley stumbled back a lit, her bravado shaken but not lost.
"Why did you do that?" she cried. "Now they'll never let me play with them again!
"They were trying to hurt you," Jack managed through gritted teeth. His voice was quiet, and even despite the fact that Harley was so warm, goose bumps rose over her arms and legs.
She opened her mouth to retort but was cut shut when the screen door behind her squeaked open and her dad stood in the doorway.
"Harleen, what on earth are you yelling about?"
Her father stopped short when he noticed Harley's appearance, and she could only hang her head in embarrassment and cover her eyes. It wasn't because she was so dirty and disheveled, but rather because her father had just used her full name in front of Jack. She felt her cheeks burn in anger when she slid one her fingers out of the way so she could peek at Jack, noticing a smirk tugging at his lips.
Anger boiled within her and she screamed. "I hate you, Jack! I hate you and I never want to see you again!" For good measure, she stuck her tongue out at him before storming past her father in the doorway and bounding up the stairs. All was silent until the sound of her door slamming made her father grimace. Nick buried his face in his hands in exasperation, pushing back his hair.
"Look, I'm really sorry. Harley's a bit—" when he looked up again, he realized that the boy was gone. "Temperamental."
When Sharon returned home later that night from her outing, she knocked on Harley's door to show her the new dress she had bought for her. Harley, however, lay on her bed and was staring up at the ceiling in barely contained fury, refusing to unlock her door and shouting to her mother to "go away".
When Sharon questioned her husband about Harley's behavior, he explained to her what Harley had said to the neighbor boy, and Sharon was outraged. She held herself with class and dignity, and Harley's little temper tantrums were embarrassing, to say the least. She only hoped that none of the other neighbors had seen the incident.
When Harley awoke the next morning, she wasn't surprised to find Miss Lenora in the living room; Cassie almost always had softball games on Sunday and could never babysit on that day. The television set was off and Miss Lenora was knitting contently. She sat in the rocking chair by the window that nobody ever used, humming a soft tune that was as sweet as honey to Harley's ears.
When Harley jumped off the last stair and landed on the living room carpet, Miss Lenora's knitting paused and she looked down her nose where her glasses were perched, smiling when she saw her favorite little girl. Harley's hair was done up in pigtails and she had dressed herself in a short-sleeved pink shirt and blue-jean overalls.
"Well good morning, Miss Harley," she greeted. "You sure are a late sleeper. I was worried you were going to miss lunch."
"My stomach started growling and it woke me up!" she explained. "Hey," she said, moving to stand by Miss Lenora's side, "whatcha makin'?"
"Just a little surprise for you, my dear. Now you stop your poking around and head to the restroom to wash your hands. We're making pizza for lunch."
Harley smiled and raced off to do as she was told. After they had made the pizza and set it in the oven to cook, Harley sat down at the dining room table as Lenora followed suit, gingerly folding her hands in her lap.
"What'd ya wanna talk to me about?" Harley asked, folding her arms over the table and propping her chin atop them. She loved talking to Miss Lenora and always gave her friend her full attention.
"Well," she gently began, "your mother informed me that you said some rather nasty things to the neighbor boy yesterday... and she said she'd like you to go over and apologize to him."
Harley sighed, closing her eyes dramatically.
"Why did you do that, Harley?"
"Because... " she trailed off, delicately tracing the bandage that covered her stitches.
"'Because' is never a suitable answer, Harley," she said softly. "There's always a reason why." After a moment of silence, Lenora sighed, rising from her seat and perching her glasses back atop her nose. "But you don't have to tell me about it if you don't want to, dear. I only ask that you do as your mother requested."
"Do I have to?" she whined.
"Your mother would appreciate it," Lenora moved closer and put a gentle hand on her back, "and it would mean a great deal to me, too."
"Why? You don't know Jack," she said, spitting his name out with disgust, as if the very word was sour acid on her tongue.
"You're right, dear, I don't. But I do know that everyone deserves a second chance." She let Harley savor those words as she soothingly brushed the young girl's hair aside. "You think so too, don't you?"
"I guess so," she mumbled, sliding off the chair and hanging her head so her chin touched her chest.
Lenora smiled at Harley's dramatics. "The pizza won't be done for another fifteen minutes, so why don't you go over there and by the time you get back, I'll have the pizza all ready for us. That sound alright?"
Harley nodded her head and made her way back into the living room, planting herself on the steps as she tugged on her sneakers. She expertly tied them the way Miss Lenora had taught her to and then kissed the elder woman goodbye. Lenora suddenly called to Harley as she trudged down the porch steps, stopping the young girl in her tracks.
She turned around, watching as Miss Lenora smiled at her from the door.
"Have I told you yet today how much I adore you?"
Harley couldn't help the blush that crept up her cheeks and the small smile that followed after. It was something Miss Lenora said to her every day they saw each other. Miss Lenora never once forgot to utter the words, and Harley always loved hearing them.
She smiled halfheartedly as she waved the elderly woman goodbye, and Lenora watched as Harley marched through the yard and went next door.
The small girl wasn't nearly as confident as she looked, however. As she neared Jack's house, she noted that the blue pick-up was in the driveway. It was very old looking and had various dents and scratches, unlike her parent's car, which was unblemished and nearly perfect.
Jack's house, along with the car, also looked rather unkempt. The elderly couple who had inhabited the house before him had always done a nice job of taking care of the landscape. Every first Saturday of the month, the hired help would come and trim the bushes, mow the lawn, and then power-wash the driveway since Mr. Danvers was physically unable.
Now, however, the bushes in front of the porch were wild and un-groomed, the grass hadn't been cut since Jack's family had moved in. Dead leaves leftover from winter were scattered in the bushes and on the porch.
Fear and apprehension breathed like a monster into Harley's ear as she climbed the porch steps, swallowing hard. Even from outside she could hear the television blaring, and when someone yelled from inside, Harley nearly jumped out of her skin. She thought about turning back and going home, but she knew she wouldn't be able bare the disappointment on Miss Lenora's face if she did.
Cautiously, she reached forward and rang the doorbell.
Several moments passed before anything happened, and Harley waited with bated breath for someone to answer the door. She secretly hoped that nobody was home, but she knew that wasn't the case.
Finally, after what felt like an eternity, it opened.
Jack stood before her, his hair ruffled and his hands and arms smeared in patches of black grease. Sweat stains had gathered beneath the sleeves of his gray shirt, and Harley wondered what on earth he had been doing to look so dirty.
He licked his lips and wiped his brow, closing the door a little behind him to shield the inside of his home from her view. It was dark inside, and Harley couldn't see much.
"What are you doing?" he asked gruffly, his voice pitched into that strange, low decibel that boys his age weren't supposed to have.
"I... I came to say that I'm sorry."
"Sorry?" Jack repeated, his forehead creasing. "Sorry for what? That you said what you really felt? Why be sorry for that?"
"Well I—I don't know. Miss Lenora said that everyone deserves a second chance."
Jack snorted, his eyes shifting from her face to the white bandage wrapped around her arm. He smirked.
"How's it feel?" he nodded towards the appendage.
Harley protectively hid both arms behind her back, for some reason finding herself embarrassed that Jack had noticed the damage he had caused.
"It itches," she sighed.
The two of them settled into an uncomfortable silence then, the hot rays of the sun beating down on the back of Harley's neck and legs. A car drove by on the street in front of the house, and she briefly turned to watch it disappear around the corner.
As always, she didn't let it stay silent for long. She turned back towards Jack, staring up into his dark eyes that were still focused on hers.
"Do you forgive me or not?" she wanted to know.
Jack smiled, only the second smile he had offered her since their first encounter, and Harley was entranced as the dried, bloodied scab on his lower lip—now practically black—shone in the sunlight. He leaned forward, putting his hands on his knees and leveling their gazes.
"Sure Harley-girl, I forgive you." Sarcasm was laced within his voice, but it went unnoticed by Harley.
"You do?" she gushed, suddenly ecstatic. She smiled at him, her eyes full of warmth. "Do you wanna be best friends now? We can catch bugs in my backyard," she offered, wiggling her eyebrows as if she just knew the offer was one that he couldn't pass up.
Jack, however, did just that.
He straightened and went to close the door, but Harley let her temper get the best of her. Grunting, she pushed on it with all her might, and Jack was forced to open it again.
"Why don't you want to be friends with me?" she cried, stomping her foot like the petulant child she was.
"Harley, go home," Jack ground out through his teeth. It was the second time he had uttered those words to her, but they didn't have the same effect as the first.
Harley stood her ground, glaring at him, when suddenly, a voice called from inside.
"Jack? Who's at the door, boy?"
"Great," he muttered to himself, hanging his head. Harley noticed he suddenly looked stiff and uncomfortable, his Adam's apple bobbing against his throat when he swallowed. "It's no one," he called back.
"Don't tell me that when you've been standing there talking for the past five minutes!" the voice shouted. "You bring our guest inside and make them feel welcome, you hear?"
Jack sighed and reluctantly pulled the door opened wider, motioning for Harley to come inside.
Harley, intrigued, stepped over the threshold and entered Jack's house, her lashes fluttering as her eyes attempted to adjust to the darkness. She heard the click of the door close behind her as she folded her hands in front of her, curiously inspecting his home.
All the blinds were drawn closed despite it being the middle of the day, only letting in a sliver of afternoon sunlight. A golden strand of it hung suspended in the air, caught between the panels of the plastic blinds as it illuminated the dust particles that floated in the room. Harley swallowed and licked her chapped lips, the house unbearably hot and turning her throat dry.
The smell of cigarette smoke was overwhelming, and she coughed and scrunched her nose, the scent of it entirely unpleasant to all her senses.
The TV glowed from within the living room, providing the only source of light, and as Harley crept closer, following at Jack's heels, she spied the top of someone's head from the recliner that sat in front of the TV.
"Who'd you bring in here, boy? Let me see."
Harley slowly inched forward, finally coming to a stop next to the chair that his father was slumped in.
He looked just like Jack, Harley noticed; or rather, Jack looked just like him. She could tell he was tall like Jack, even slumped over as he was, but his face was more defined than his son's. His jaw was bigger, stronger. His eyes were the same deep brown, but his hair, while still blond, was cut shorter and was straight. He was very handsome, even if Harley didn't realize it at the time.
When she came into his view, he tilted his head at her and smiled broadly, his beer bottle coming down on the glass coffee table with a sharp clink that made Harley jump.
"Well well well," he said, still smiling, "look at you. Aren't you just a pretty little thing. You must be the little girl that's got Jack's head all wrapped up in the clouds." He grinned, and Jack looked away. "What's your name, girl?"
Harley opened her mouth to speak, but for the life of her, she couldn't force any sound out. She had never been so nervous in her life, and she didn't understand why. Perhaps it was because Jack's house was so dark and she could hardly see anything, or the fact that Jack's father was staring at her with an unwavering gaze. He was too overbearing, and as Harley's voice continued to fail her, she felt a hot blush stain her cheeks.
"Don't be shy, sweetie, I'm a nice guy," he assured her. "C'mere." He gestured for her to come closer, but Harley's small legs felt like deadweights and she remained rooted to her spot.
He only smirked and scooted forward so he was on the edge of his chair, reaching out for Harley's wrist. He pulled her forward as she made a small noise of discomfort in the back of her throat.
Jack looked on with an unreadable expression, and when Harley craned her neck to see him, she almost thought he looked worried, a look that, coming from him, was entirely foreign to her.
When she was face to face with his father, he let go of her wrist. "Come on now, tell me your name," he urged, staring at her with rapt attention. Harley felt like a doll on display under his unwavering scrutiny.
The small girl swallowed down the dry patches in her throat and blinked.
"My—my name's Har—Harley," she stuttered, pressing her lips together when she had finished.
"Harley, huh?" He leaned back in his chair, eyes briefly flickering to the TV behind her. "You mean like the motorcycle?"
She shrugged her shoulders and bit her bottom lip, not sure what he was referring to.
He laughed sharply at her response. "You're a doll, aren't you?" He smiled and snatched his beer from the table, taking a swig and then resting it on his lap. "Hey," he suddenly said, his demeanor changing in an instant and his smile gone. He turned and flicked on the floor lamp next to the recliner, creating a strange, pale glow. Harley thought it was odd that the lampshade was crooked. "That's a nasty bandage you got there on your arm," he nodded. "Where'd you get it?"
Harley looked down at her arm, staring at the white bandage as if she didn't know quite what to make of it. She then looked up at Jack who was standing off the side behind her. They locked eyes and she immediately knew that she had to tell the same story she had told her mother.
"I fell on the curb," she explained quietly, not meeting the older man's eyes.
"Did you?" he inquired, his head tilted to the side. Harley feared that he could somehow see past her lie and knew the truth. Nervous butterflies began to settle in her stomach because of it, their imaginary wings flapping around her intestines and making her squirm.
She swallowed and averted her eyes to the floor, wrapping her arms around her middle as she observed the carpet in great detail.
"Well Harley," he said, crossing his ankle atop his knee as he reached for a pack of cigarettes that had been on the floor, "pretty girls like you shouldn't be falling on curbs. Don't want any nasty scars like Jack's now, do you?" He laughed at his joke, as if somehow the insult was terribly amusing.
Harley watched, fascinated, as Jack's father brought a lighter to the cigarette held captive between his lips, giving it a few clicks before a flame emerged.
"Let me tell you something Harley," he began, mumbling around the tobacco lodged in the corner of his mouth as smoke wafted around him, "there's nothing better than—"
"Harley has to go."
Jack's father looked up at his son almost lazily, his eye twitching in irritation at having been interrupted.
"Mm," he mumbled gruffly, "that she does." He let a string of smoke descend from between his lips and then rolled his cigarette between his slim fingers. Harley stared at his large, strong hands, captivated by the way the light from the lamp reflected off his silver watch. "Jack's got an air conditioning to fix after all." He looked pointedly at Jack and then turned his attention back to Harley, grinning. "And you, pretty girl," he leaned forward so that Harley could taste the smoke on his breath, "probably have somewhere to be, don't you?"
Harley vigorously nodded her head, stumbling backwards as Jack grabbed her by her arm and began pulling her away.
Jack's father called after her, looking over his chair as Jack pulled her along.
"See you around, kid."
Outside, the sun was blinding and Harley shielded it with her arm as she was shoved onto the porch. She turned around to face Jack just as he shut the door and grabbed her by the collar of her shirt, hauling her in front of him. She gasped as he pulled her face closer to his own, the tips of her toes just barely brushing the ground beneath her. She panted heavily and grabbed his hand, hoping to lessen the pressure as Jack searched her eyes.
"Don't ever come back here," he growled, his face so close that she could have counted the freckles on his nose. "Do you understand me?"
"W—why?" she stammered.
Jack's hard, tough façade nearly crumbled at her question, and she saw something change in his eyes.
The moment was gone in only a second, disappearing as quickly as a flash of lightning, and Jack narrowed his eyes at her, tugging harder on her shirt and sneering at her.
He let her go then and she stumbled to the concrete porch, landing on her bottom.
Harley watched, mouth agape and eyes wide, as Jack turned and slammed the door in front of her. She heard the lock turning from the other side and could only stare in shock.
Swallowing, she shakily got to her feet and retreated down the steps. She ran home as fast as she could, her legs nearly giving out beneath her at every step.
She crumbled on the steps of her own porch when she reached it, feeling too many emotions to be described at once. Her chest heaved as she struggled to catch her breath. Her whole body felt numb with a sick sense of dread, an emotion she hadn't ever felt before.
Jack was unlike anyone she had ever met. It seemed like no matter how hard she tried, he kept pushing her away; it didn't matter how nice she was, didn't matter what she said or what she did.
She had even apologized. Had that not meant anything to him?
Harley didn't know what to make of what had just happened, but if there was one thing she did know, it was that that she hated Jack.
The following two months passed in slow succession. Harley kept busy with school and spent the remainder of her time at Miss Lenora's house, while Nick and Sharon were consumed with work.
Harley had scarcely seen Jack after their last encounter. She would occasionally catch a glimpse of him walking to school in the gray, early hours of morning as her mother drove her to her own school, but he never glanced at her or even acknowledged that a car had just driven past.
It made Harley hate him even more. She wanted to forget about him, forget they had even ever met, but it was hard to do when he lived right next door.
In early May, Jack's grandparents moved in. She wasn't sure why, but she had overheard her mother whispering to her father in the kitchen one night that Jack's father was "in Blackgate".
Harley furrowed her brows at that, not understanding. She'd never heard of Blackgate; it must have been a town outside of Gotham. But what about Jack's mother? She hadn't been there the day she had gone to his house. Perhaps she had been sleeping or out running errands?
Regardless, Jack's dad was gone—somewhere, she didn't know where—and his grandparents had moved in without much ado. It was a quiet affair, and the other neighbors on the street either didn't notice or didn't care.
Harley had only seen his grandparents once. She caught a brief glimpse of them on the day they had first moved in, and all she could gather was that they were both old and fragile looking, like a strong wind might blow them over; she remembered his grandfather had been trailed by a tank of oxygen.
For a month, she didn't see Jack at all. It was almost as if he had disappeared. Harley would glance over into his yard every afternoon when she returned home from school or ballet practice, but nothing ever changed except for the grass. It continued to grow, and the house began to look more unkempt than it had in years.
She figured that it would appear vacant to any random passersby, and indeed, after a while, even she herself forgot that the run-down house was inhibited. The driveway was always empty, the blinds permanently closed, and Harley noticed that even the mail had ceased to be delivered anymore, something she found incredibly odd.
Most days, she pushed Jack to the back of her mind where it was easy to forget about him. But in the dark, she couldn't help but let her thoughts stray to him before she went to sleep. His garage light shone in her window every night as she lay under the covers and kept her awake. The light bounced off the mobile above her head, creating strange, distorted shadows on her wall.
She had become so accustomed to the light that, on the night when it wasn't on, Harley knew something was wrong. An uncomfortable weight settled heavily in the pit of her stomach, forcing her to curl into a ball and hold her tummy as she stared at the wall for what felt like hours.
She was surprised when she woke to the sound of voices outside. She groggily opened her eyes, where her room was a pallid shade of gray. It was four AM; she didn't have to be up for school for another three hours.
She tried drifting back to sleep, but when the voices wouldn't go away, the same nervous feeling crept into her stomach once again and she crawled out of bed, pushing the covers away and padding over to the window. She gripped the sill and stared down into Jack's yard, surprised to find several cars parked in the driveway and on the street.
Harley spotted a police car in the driveway, its blue and red lights flashing silently.
She pressed her face closer to the window and watched as two people conversed on the porch. She didn't recognize either of them and moved her eyes elsewhere, looking for a familiar face. Where were Jack's grandparents? Where was Jack?
It was then that she noticed an ambulance parked near the side of the curb, nearly hidden by the tree in the front yard. She craned her head to see it better, but all she could see were two stretchers inside the vehicle just as the doors where being closed.
Harley backed away from the window, confused. Her heart began to pound in her chest and she raced into her parent's bedroom. Her mother was away on a business trip, so she roused her father and pulled him out of bed after much frantic pleading.
He pulled on his bathrobe and Harley trailed at his heels as he leisurely made his way down the steps.
"Move faster, daddy!"
She irritably squeezed passed him and jumped from the last step. She pulled on her sneakers, tucking the laces inside her shoes in her frantic haste.
Harley watched her father's face as he looked out the bay window and into the neighbor's yard, desperately trying to read his expression. He didn't say anything as he moved towards the door and slipped on a pair of shoes.
Harley was prepared to follow him out the door.
"No," he said, sighing. "You wait here. You don't need to be outside."
"But daddy—" she whined.
"Harleen, I said stay here. I'll be right back."
She watched her father disappear outside, closing the door behind him. She crawled onto the seat beneath the bay window and tried to watch the proceedings from there. Her father was standing in Jack's driveway, conversing with a police officer. They spoke for a lot longer than Harley thought they would, and she began to grow antsy when she still couldn't figure out what was going on.
She wondered if something had happened to Jack. Perhaps he had gotten sick and they were taking him to the hospital? She secretly hoped he had contracted one of those diseases she'd learned about in school.
He deserves it, she thought bitterly.
When Nick made his way back towards the house, Harley raced to the door and opened it for him.
When her father explained to her that Jack's grandparents had passed away, Harley felt a strange pang in her chest. She had never met his grandparents, but she felt oddly affected by the event all the same. Almost as if in a daze, she solemnly returned to bed, crying herself back to sleep but not understanding exactly why.
Things were different after that. School had let out for the summer, but Harley was unusually unenthusiastic about it.
The death of Jack's grandparents had affected her in a way she couldn't have possibly described. It was the first major death she had ever witnessed. That night—with all its red and blue flashing lights in the pale gray of morning, and that sick, rolling feeling in her gut—it was all burned in her memory. Her lack of acquaintance with Jack's grandparents had little effect on the way she felt; it was a loss all the same.
Perhaps her discontent and feelings of unease over the situation were compounded by the fact that Jack had disappeared—for real this time. In the coming summer months, his house had been put up for sale, foreclosed, and then abandoned. Sharon complained about it often, how "that decrepit house" lowered the property value of the whole street. To Harley it looked haunted, and for several weeks it was all the kids on the street could talk about. Some of them took to throwing rocks at the windows, but when a few strays rocks started landing in the Quinzel's yard, Sharon quickly put a stop to that and every other act of vandalism. Now the house just looked broken, sad, and empty.
For a while that was exactly how Harley felt. She couldn't explain why Jack's absence had left such a gaping hole inside her, why she felt sad that the boy she hated with all her guts was no longer around. She realized—belatedly—that perhaps the reason for her sadness was due in part to her having taken solace in the fact that the two of them were both so alone. There was somehow... comfort to be found in that. Harley knew Jack didn't have any friends—at least, she never had seen him with any—and because Harley didn't have any either, she had always felt that a silent bond had existed between them, an unspoken understanding, perhaps. They were both alone, but alone together, united by their solitude. It was a solitude they had unconsciously shared. Harley wondered if Jack often felt the way she did, if he missed her presence in the way that she often found herself longing for his.
Being alone wasn't half as miserable if you could be alone with someone else, even if that somebody else was someone you hated.
And she did still hate him. She didn't know if she'd ever forgive him for giving her stitches, for telling her that he didn't want to be friends.
It wasn't until Miss Lenora began to turn increasingly ill that Nick and Sharon began to pay more attention to their daughter. Harley's attitude had deteriorated greatly, and she no longer took pleasure in any of the things that used to make her happy. She was sullen and depressed all throughout the day and cried herself to sleep every night before bed.
It was on a rainy Wednesday night in June, several months after the death of of Jack's grandparents, when things took a turn for the worse.
Cassie was babysitting that evening, and she sat on the couch, painting her nails in a sparkly midnight blue as the TV quietly droned in the background. Harley sat on the bench beneath the window, unusually silent as she colored. At seven o'clock, it was raining hard, and Harley sighed as she turned away from the bleak weather outside and picked up a green crayon, filling in the grass beneath Scooby Doo's paws.
Suddenly, the shrill scream of a siren met both of their ears, and Harley's head shot up at the sound.
"Ugh, I hate that noise," Cassie complained, only pausing for a moment before dipping her brush back into its diamond-shaped tube for another glob of paint.
Harley frowned, getting to her knees so she could stare out the window. The wail of the siren became even louder, and with surprise, she realized that an ambulance was turning down their street.
"Cassie, look!" she cried.
Cassie blew on her nails to dry them, and then gingerly capped her paint before getting up from the couch to stand behind Harley. The flashing, wailing lights of the ambulance sped by on the street just a second later.
Cassie didn't appear to be very concerned, but Harley was nauseous. Her house was nearly at the very end of the street, and only three others followed after it.
Miss Lenora's was one of them.
She watched in panic as the ambulance turned onto a driveway, disappearing from view.
"No," she whispered.
Her breath began to quicken as she jumped off the window seat, her box of crayons spilling to the floor as she raced towards the door. She tugged on her rain boots, putting them on the wrong feet in her haste as Cassie yelled from behind her.
"Harleen Quinzel, don't you dare go outside, do you hear me?"
Harley wasn't listening. Cassie's voice was merely a blur of sound in her mind, and as she opened the door, not evening bothering to put on a raincoat, she rushed down the porch steps, Cassie screaming after her to come back inside.
Rain poured down all around her, stinging her face as her blonde, braided pigtails whipped behind her in her frenzy.
Harley would always play a game every time she was on the sidewalk. She made sure that she always avoided the cracks, even if it meant standing on her tippy-toes or occasionally placing one foot in the grass to avoid a particularly nasty, spider-webbed crack.
This time, however, the game did not register in her mind, and she ran as fast as her legs would carry her. Her rubber rain boots pounded into the concrete with determined, frantic force, rain splashing around her and soaking her pink pajama bottoms.
Two police cars sped past her, their sirens wailing as Harley followed the lights with her eyes.
Her worst fears were confirmed when she saw the two cars park on the curb right outside of Miss Lenora's house, the flashing lights of the ambulance parked in the driveway.
A sob tore its way past Harley's throat and she tried in vain to hold back her tears as she neared Lenora's home, running faster.
The scene was horrifyingly familiar to her. She remembered the way the same red and blue lights had flashed in Jack's driveway on that fateful night, remembered the way the medics had loaded his grandparents, already dead, into the back of the ambulance and cruelly slammed the doors shut, their fate forever sealed.
She was out of breath by the time she had reached the front porch, and she could hear several officers shouting for her to stop as she squeezed passed them in the doorway and raced to Lenora's bedroom.
The distinct, pleasant scent of Lenora's home filled Harley's nostrils, and she would have reveled in it had the situation not been so dire.
Lenora's room was on the first floor, just outside the living room, and Harley rushed through the open door, ignoring the stares of all the strangers surrounding Lenora's bedside.
"Hey, you're not supposed to be in here," someone said to her, but she ignored it, hurrying to be by her friend's side.
"Miss Lenora," she gasped, startled to find that the woman's face was nearly as pale as her white bed sheets. She pushed her wet braids behind her, moving closer to the bed.
"Harley?" Her voice, as delicate and fragile as China glass, was nearly a whisper as her watery eyes searched the room for her favorite little girl.
"I'm right here, Miss Lenora," Harley cried, tears filling her eyes as she gingerly held Miss Lenora's, soft, thin hand in her own. "I'm right here."
"Who is she?" she heard someone ask from behind her, but Harley tuned their voices out, only focusing on the ailing woman—her friend—in front of her.
Harley watched the sweat glistening on Miss Lenora's forehead and above her brows, her silvery, white hair frazzled. Harley stroked her hand, feeling the blue and purple veins there and all the freckles she had grown to memorize.
"Miss Lenora," Harley whispered, "please don't go," she choked out. "I—I need you."
A small smile flickered across Miss Lenora's thin, cracked lips, and she gave Harley's hand a weak squeeze. It was as much strength she could muster.
"Oh, Harley," she whispered, "have I told you yet today how much I adore you?"
Harley closed her eyes and cried. Tears slid down her cheeks in hopeless abandon. She crawled up onto the bed, the medics too stunned by the scene to stop her, and gingerly wrapped her arms around Lenora's middle, burying her head in her bosom as she sobbed.
"I love you."
They were the last words Harley uttered to her friend before the room erupted into a frenzy.
The slow, beeping machine that Lenora had been hooked to suddenly droned, the mountain peaks on the screen dipping into a thin, straight line.
Harley knew what had happened then, and she was quickly pulled off the bed, crying, as several medics tried to revive the elder woman, yelling words and asking for instruments she didn't understand.
Everything else seemed to follow in slow motion. She was carried out of the room in a stranger's arms—but not before seeing the white sheet thrown over Miss Lenora's body—and into the living room, where Cassie was near hysterics. She was crying also, uttering something along the lines of, "I thought I had lost you," and "don't ever do that again".
It was, single handedly, the longest night of Harley's life... and it irrevocably changed everything.
Nick and Sharon tried in vain to console their daughter, but, as they were never home, there wasn't much they could do to help her. They couldn't give her their time, so they substituted by giving her their money in the form of presents and toys that all ended up in the back of her closet within the week. She didn't want Barbie dolls and stuffed animals—she wanted a friend. Her closest one was gone forever, and now Harley didn't know how to cope because of it. Her parent's lavishing of gifts didn't help the situation, and only provoked her to anger because they didn't understand, couldn't allow her to cope and process her loss in the way she needed.
And in the weeks that followed, time was as unforgiving as it had always been. Harley's behavior changed little. She remained active with school and participated in every competition, sports practice, social outing, and assignment, but at home, she had become withdrawn and reserved. She found ways to put up barriers and fought constantly with her mother.
Her parents, for their part, knew that a change needed to be made. It was during Harley's last week of school before summer break that she began to notice her mother bringing home much more paperwork than usual. She'd wake up an hour earlier than usual just to sort through them and make phone calls. Sometimes, as her parents prepared for work, she eavesdropped from the stairwell as they whispered in the kitchen, their hushed voices discussing topics she didn't understand; they were snippets of an ongoing conversation that had originated months ago.
It was soon after that Nick and Sharon sat her down at the dining room table late one evening and explained to her what was happening.
Harley could only listen in shock.
She was told that Jack had been bounced in and out of the foster system for the past month and a half and had not yet found a stable home. She was told that her parents were quite wealthy and therefore perfectly eligible to adopt. She was told that Jack, the boy that she despised and hated, would be moving into her house.
And He was going to be her big brother.
Author's Notes: This is the first Joker/Harley story I have ever attempted. I wanted to provide "Nolanverse" Joker with a suitable Harley Quinn that was both realistic and gritty. I wanted to give him someone who had garnered a close but unwarranted relationship with him from his very beginning. Harley meeting the Joker in Arkham worked in the comic, Mad Love, but for Nolanverse, I wanted to give the pair a radically different origin. I hope this doesn't ruffle too many feathers, but again, I wanted to experiment with something different. Please feel free to share your thoughts, and thank you for reading.
Special thanks to my dear friends/fellow authors: FreakwriterCHM, Lorien Urbani, and Virusir for all the helpful advice they provided me with during the creation of this story.