A/N: The central station of your local city busses is a great place to sit and write a story.
Don't believe me? That's essentially how this tale came to be. You see, I take the bus part of the time to college, and sometimes I wind up taking it after dark. Last semester I had classes every day and had to take a bus most of the week even after getting a car (a used 2003 Kia Spectra if you really must know); this became especially troublesome after I finished my Wednesday Chemistry lab which went until seven-thirty at night, when it was starting to get dark. My college campus is in the downtown area of my city, and while my city's a pretty safe one, it's still troublesome for a tiny girl like me to be taking the bus all by her lonesome. That's part of the reason why this semester, I'm driving twice a week and taking the bus once a week (I only go three days a week but my classes run rather late). The other part is that the busses simply do not run that late at night.
I wrote this tale entirely while waiting for the bus to take me to class. I wrote it at the terminals, on the busses themselves, and at the central station. I wrote it because while my city is a safe one, it still has a Gotham-like aura about it due to its architecture and known "wrong side of the tracks" areas. Like any city, it has its Narrows area, its business area, its historic area, and its museums. It has its own character and flavor to it, and the busses transport not only the people that live there, but the character of those people. And since every city's got its Bruce Waynes and its Jokers, why wouldn't my city as well? And why not, if they were so inclined, take the city bus?
This story is obviously not about my city, but about playing with a fear that some have about the city bus. Is it really safe? Does the bus driver have any power to prevent someone from harming me? Can I trust the other passengers to be on the up and up, or are they really waiting for me to get off the bus so they can follow and possibly harm me? This is obviously a paranoid belief, but a valid one – I've met so many interesting, annoying, and downright strange people on the city bus that I can't deny this belief. You never know who you'll find on the bus at any given time, especially in a city like, say, Gotham. And if that's the case, then why couldn't you run into a stranger on the bus one late, dark evening, and never realize you know them for something illicit until it's too late?
Disclaimer: No part of this story is intended for profit or my own personal gain. I do not own the characters within this story, unless I created them whole cloth for this story. I am not an affiliate of DC comics in any way and I cannot claim otherwise. tl;dr, this is not my creation – only the story's plot is.
I always hated riding the bus this late at night.
Especially here, in this city. It's colder at the central terminal when night falls, almost oilier and grimier somehow, too. Of course, Gotham's grimy even on a good day, a used whore nobody in their right mind would want to pick up, but at night…
It's freezing down here in the Narrows, and dark (of course central station couldn't be located in a nicer section of town). A few yellowish-green lights flickered from under the old, dingy white canopy of the station; some bluish ones peeked from building windows, casting purple-grey shadows onto the overwhelming brown of the bricks and mortar of buildings and stony tone of cracked cement sidewalks. An old homeless man slept fitfully against the rusted metal post of the Bus 9 terminal; as far as I know, he always sleeps there, every night, and has for years now. A few buildings beyond the station demanded attention with neon signs, some advertising the lewd and others advertising cheap booze, and not far from there was the expressway, running alongside the station like a river of stone and steel. Further back still little star-like lights shimmered along the city skyline, backlit dramatically by smog clouds and light pollution. A feeble attempt at beauty, I suppose. And I, in my thin blue hoodie and faded blue jeans, sat on a bolted down cold metal bench, a black backpack of textbooks resting at my feet and wisps of condensation floating like clouds from my chattering mouth.
I'm alone tonight, as usual. That is, nobody else I know takes the bus home this late at night – too dangerous, they tell me. But what else can I do? I had no other way to get between school and home, and I don't have a car. Besides, my university's only a short bus ride from here, and a bus that goes directly to central station stops right in front of my house – what more could I ask for?
That doesn't mean I'm not still shit out of luck. My bus, Bus 18, isn't due for another ten minutes, and I can't go into the station to get out of the cold because it's closing in five minutes. I literally have the last ride of the night because I'd stupidly decided that having all night classes was a good idea. Damn my stupid planning; next semester I'll have to organize them better.
I check my phone's clock. Ten twenty-five. That's what I was afraid of - not enough time to start on my homework, the bus'll be here soon. Might as well just pull out that graphic novel I've been reading in my spare time. It's a great story, too, almost enough to make me wish I lived in that town instead of this one, despite the supervillainy. It's sure as hell better than living in Gotham.
Then again, anything's better than living in Gotham.
I flick to the spot I'd bookmarked earlier and began to read. Sure, some might call me weird for liking superhero comics at twenty years old, but I love 'em. It's a great way to escape from this shitty city, a good excuse to get excited when good triumphs over evil. And of course, none of the bad guys are really all that bad, not like the psychotic freaks we have here. There's no coin-flipping madmen, no plant-based eco-psychos, and absolutely no creepy, purple-suited cl-
"Excuse me, do you have the time?"
I jump slightly at the unexpected voice, peering up from the current panel. There's a man standing there, half-concealed by shadows; funny, I never noticed him standing there before now. He's wearing a long, dark overcoat and a broad-brimmed hat of an older style. I can't tell the color of either very well with how dim the light is (they don't change the bulbs for the lights as often as they'd like you to think), but I think it might be… some shade of purple?
Little alarm bells go off in my head. I don't like this one bit. But… no, it couldn't really be…? Lunatics don't just take the city bus, that's ridiculous. But who else wears that kind of jacket, in that particular color? Not a lot of Gothamites I know wear the color purple…
"Odd color choice," I observe, raising a skeptical and slightly unnerved eyebrow.
"I know, isn't it?" the man responds amiably, apparently not catching my drift or noticing my unease. "Such a unique color, purple. It was once the color of royalty, you know. So regal. So… unmistakable."
Indeed, I thought, returning to my comic, yet peering out of the corner of my eye at him. He seems nice enough, sure, but he's a little too friendly. Sure, maybe he's from out of town and doesn't get the culture here, but I still don't like it. If that makes me a xenophobe, then so be it. There's still no reason to be rude and ignore him, though…
"It's ten twenty-seven," I murmur, peering at my phone again.
"Beg your pardon?"
"Ten twenty-seven. You asked me what time it was."
"Oh. Thank you. And do you know if this bus goes past Hall Avenue?"
"Yeah, but why do you need to go there? The banking district's closed this time of night."
I see him tilt his head slightly out of the corner of my eye, and I realized I still hadn't gotten any eye contact from this guy. In fact, I hadn't even seen much of his face – it's half-hidden behind that hat of his, and he's got a scarf pulled up over the bottom half to keep warm.
I raise an eyebrow and look at him oddly. It's not all that strange to have a scarf and hat on during a cold, windy autumn night, but it is very strange to not give eye contact at all…
"I have… business there," he replies nonchalantly. "Non-banking business. I need to pick something up from a supplier, you see, and this is the only available time I have to do so…"
I shrug and return to my reading. It's your funeral, dude – loitering around Hall Avenue will get a cop on your ass faster than the speed of light. Ever since that huge break-in a few weeks back, security's been as tight as they can make it. Which isn't very, but what else do you expect from this place?
"So, where are you from?" I ask, still reading. "You don't act like a Gothamite."
"Oh, not far," he responds, and his overly cheerful tone sounds vaguely familiar. "Not far at all…"
He chuckles slightly and leans against the terminal post, and I shudder. It's a friendly-sounding laugh, sure, but somehow it just gives me the creeps. Like there's something else he's laughing at, something darker and more dangerous…
"Well, don't you look jumpy!" he quips, turning to peer at me from beneath the brim of his hat. "What's eating you, huh? I don't bite!"
"Nothing," I lie. "I just… always get a little nervous about waiting here alone at night, that's all. It's dangerous down here at night. You never know who you might run into… or who'll run into you."
"Oh, I completely agree with you, that's always something to be leery of," the man whispers back, lowering his voice like some sort of conspirator to another. "You just never know who's on your side and who isn't. Oh, especially with what just happened a few days ago…"
"What?" I ask, genuinely curious now as I tear my gaze from the page again. Must have been something pretty bad if word of it was spreading this fast…"
"You haven't heard yet?" His tone sounds incredulous. "Why, I thought just about everyone had! You know where Arkham is, right?"
"The crazy house? Of course. Everyone knows where Arkham is…"
"Well, I didn't tell you this, but not two or three days ago, there was a mass breakout. Several of their more… high-profile patients escaped. They've found a few but not all of 'em."
"Yeah, but a breakout there's pretty much expected by now. I mean, look what kind of freaks they're dealing with."
"You didn't let me finish," he murmurs, moving in closer and lowering his voice further. "The whole ward escaped. Every single one of the patients in the most restricted ward was gone within one night. And they suspect that the Joker facilitated it. Of all people, can you imagine?"
My heart pounds. The last thing we need right now is the entirety of the worst criminals in the city running around right now. Especially not the Joker…
"Was… was he in Arkham at the time?" is my hushed reply. "I mean, as a patient? Why hasn't the news heard about it yet?"
"They're keeping it quiet so as not to panic everyone," responds my mysterious conversation partner. His deeply violet overcoat flutters nervously in the cool air. "And yes, he was. Scary thought, isn't it, him out in the streets again? Any of them, really, but especially him. After all, he could potentially be anywhere – in an alleyway, maybe, or driving the car you just cut off. Or maybe he's some guy you meet at the bus stop…"
I really don't like his implications, or the way he peered towards me at that pause. Or his strange fascination with talking to me in general – strangers striking up conversation with you never meant anything good in this town, especially not if they were mysterious men in purple overcoats…
Oh, thank God, here comes the bus. It pulls to the curb slowly with a quiet whine, and I quickly grab my things.
"There's my ride," I point out obviously, already starting towards the doors of the vehicle.
"Well, what a coincidence," the stranger humorously observes. "It just so happens to be mine, too. I have a bit further to go than you do, but that doesn't mean we can't still chat…"
Yeah, whatever. I don't want to talk to you anymore, just leave me alone and we'll be just fine, pal.
The fare machine takes my dollar bill and coins like a hungry beast, allowing me the privilege of getting home. I always like to sit towards the back of the bus, in those sideways aisle-facing seats. It's warmest at the back during a cold day, and provides an easy way to stretch your legs.
Not that I didn't have my pick of the seats – there's nobody else on the bus but me and the strange man in the purple overcoat, and it is purple; I can clearly see it now. He and the driver seem to be having some sort of skirmish; over fare, it sounds like.
"Now listen, buddy, ya wanna ride, ya gotta pay fer it. I ain't drivin' no freeloaders."
"Oh, but I did pay for it. See?"
"No ya didn't, ya freeloadin' son of a… uh…"
A slight pause.
"Y-yeah, I guess ya did… m-my bad, sorry ta bother ya sir… P-please have a seat…"
"Thank you, sir."
The two say nothing more, and I hear footsteps. I peer up to see the mysterious man starting towards the back of the bus, and I shuffle uncomfortably. This is just great. Of all the seats on the bus, he has to sit near the back, where I am.
I immediately feel bad for thinking such hostile things. What if the guy just likes companionship on the road, or just likes having a friendly conversation with someone every once in a while? And if either of those are the case, then why is everything about this guy screaming wrongness to me, like some sort of Lovecraftian horror in disguise?
I unconsciously set my backpack on the seat directly right of mine. When it comes to how people tend to sit on the bus, I've noticed that they tend to follow a few patterns. For one, they rarely like to sit next to other people unless they have to or they know the person, but I'm not taking any chances here – this guy gives me the creeps and I want to be as far away from him as possible. For another, they tend to sit to the right of a person, with a seat in between. Since I'm sitting in the middle of the three aisle-facing seats and the right one is blocked off, I'm hoping this guy follows the same predictable pattern as every other bus passenger I've ever seen or met and chooses another seat further away from me.
But he isn't. He's climbing the back stairs now, and carefully surveying the seat choices… only to settle on the leftmost seat nearest to me - the Claustrophobe Seat as I like to call it, so named because there's a seat back squishing you in on the left side and usually another person to your right preventing you from stretching out your arms. I can't imagine anyone choosing to sit in that seat unless they have no choice.
The man turns to look at me, or at least he moves his head – he hasn't removed that hat of his yet despite being somewhat indoors, or the scarf. I guess the guy's just really cold or something...
"You don't terribly mind if I sit here, do you?"
Yes. Yes I do mind, but since nothing I do seems to persuade you not to sit here, I guess you're just going to do it anyway.
"Sure, why not," I murmur, and he sits down. Hey, what the Hell else am I supposed to say? No, go sit somewhere else, you creep? Just because he freaks me out is no reason to be a jerk to the guy…
All the same, though… he didn't follow the patterns. He wasn't predictable. He's not behaving like a bus patron, he's behaving like I'm some long-lost friend of his, or an ex-girlfriend he ran into two years later. But I swear I don't know this guy… and yet, I feel like I should…
Now that I can actually get a better look at the guy, he's got the longest legs I've ever seen, which I guess makes his slouching, consistently relaxed posture make more sense. Hey, if I were as lanky as this guy, I'd probably slouch and stretch my legs all the way into the aisle, too. His pants cuffs are a much lighter violet color, with pinstripes up the sides. Didn't anyone ever tell him that pinstripes were last season by the time 1925 rolled around? He smells kind of off, too – not bad, just odd. The closest I can equate it to is some cross between an acidic smell and the strong smell of bleach. Maybe he cleans for a living, or works at a chemical processing plant…
"… Who's the worst of them?" he asks me, entirely derailing my train of thought.
"I beg your pardon?" is my cold-shouldered reply. Maybe if I brush him off enough he'll leave me alone.
"Who's the scariest of the high-profile inmates, I mean. Who's the one guy you'd really hate to run into in a dark alley at night…?"
"I'd rather not talk about this," I respond flatly, gazing out the window across from me in an attempt to ignore him. Neon lights and grimy yellow backlit windows zoom past, highlighted with the occasional streetlight-thrown shadow. "And if you really have to know, I wouldn't want to run into any of them."
"But say you had to pick," he insists. I can feel his eyes on me now, and I don't like it. "Say you ran into all of them at once and they said you had to pick…"
I continue staring out the window, doing my best impression of a person entranced by the moving scenery. He doesn't look away; I can feel the air buzz with the tension of his desire to know. What is this guy's deal? Why is he so interested in me, and why does he keep returning to the subject of Arkham crazies?
"I said that I don't want to talk about it. Now leave me alone."
"Come on," he whines, "Just… humor me a second, would you? It's only a question…"
I sigh and give him an annoyed glare. He's really not going to give up until I answer him, is he?
"… Two-Face," I say, blurting out the street name of the first criminal that comes to mind. "Or the Joker. Or Zsasz. There's your damn answer; does that humor you enough?"
"Two-Face, really?" He sounds ever-so-slightly surprised.
Then he chuckles softly, that weird dark semi-laugh from earlier that gave me the creeps then and still does now.
"Well… I suppose I'll have to tell him that…"
"What do you mean, tell him that?" I ask, my curiosity overwhelming the sense of dread hovering somewhere near my small intestine. "You… you don't mean to say that you… actually work at Arkham, do you?"
"Oh, you might say that I'm… familiar with the place, yes…"
I don't like the way he trails off there. It's like he's… somehow amused by my query, like he's hiding something. Something suspiciously important, and severely disquieting… It's bad enough that I still haven't seen this guy's face, and now he's hiding even more from me?
Don't be paranoid, I tell myself. Who would ever want to admit an affiliation with a place that can't even keep the worst of the loonies locked up inside?
It doesn't matter, I'm getting close to my stop now. At least we're in my neighborhood, anyway – and I live in a relatively safe part of the city. Relatively. And as soon as it's my turn to leave, I'm getting off and never thinking about this freak again.
Speaking of that freak…
He's staying silent, but his hidden gaze is still trained on me, and it hasn't left yet, not even for a moment – and it's sending the worst chills down my spine. He just keeps staring at me, as if fascinated by my very presence.
No, not staring.
"It's the smile, isn't it?"
"His smile," he says, and I get the impression he's smiling as well under that hat. "That's what scares you the most about the Joker, isn't it? That he's always smiling, and he doesn't. Stop."
Okay, now he's really starting to freak me out. This guy just went from creepy to scarily accurate in one fell swoop, and he's still watching me from under that hat with that unwavering gaze. And I don't like it.
"Please don't," I plead, making every attempt to sound as calm as possible even though my heart's about to leap out of my throat in a frenzied panic. "I really don't want to talk about this anymore…"
"Or that laugh, maybe," he continues, setting his hand just next to mine on the armrest. "That'd do it, alright. That mad, shrieking cackle… chills the very bones, it does…"
"Seriously, cut it out. This isn't funny anymore!"
"Or maybe," he murmurs ominously, leaning in close – too close – "Maybe it's how ruthless he is, isn't it? His persistence. His ability to be anywhere at any time… perhaps even breathing down your neck right now…"
"This is my stop," I lie, quickly tugging on the Stop-Request line, my backpack already halfway slung onto my back. This stop's actually nowhere near my house, but there is a McDonald's nearby where I can waste time. I'm hungry anyway, though the butterflies in my stomach are making it extremely difficult to focus on eating at a time like this.
"Oh?" the stranger says, watching as I stand up and gather my things. "A shame you're leaving so soon. It was nice talking with you…"
I move to take the first step towards the doors.
He grabs my arm, clenching down painfully. My stomach somersaults in panic.
"Oh, I almost forgot to introduce myself!" he exclaims, and his grasp tightens as I tug wildly in an attempt to free myself. "That would have been terribly rude of me, wouldn't it?"
And he stands in a single, fluid motion, peering at me from under his hat's brim, and pulls me closer – too close. He's a very bony man; I can feel it in his absurdly strong grasp. He's very tall, too – incredibly so. I'm not a short woman, but this guy still towers a good foot or so above me. It's so intimidating, how hadn't I noticed it before…?
And he knows it's intimidating, too. He knows it's freaking me the fuck out, and he's loving every second of it. He won't let go; every time I struggle even a little bit his grasp tightens further, like a vice.
"Th-that's fine, it's nothing important…" I whimper, and I'm surprised at just how frightened my voice sounds. I can't even bear to look up at him; I just keep staring at the ground, too afraid to move anymore. "J-just please let go of me… Please… I want to go home…"
"Oh, but I can't let you leave just yet," he replies coolly, tilting my head up to face his hidden eyes. And with his one free hand, he begins to unravel the scarf around his mouth and nose, layer by layer.
"The thing is," he continues, shifting his grasp to my upper arm, "I have far too many names to choose from, and it seems like just about everyone has a different name for me. I've been called a Clown Prince, I've been called a Harlequin of Hate, I've been called Jack… But you, of course, needn't be nearly so formal…"
His scarf rests unfurled in his gloved hand now, and what it reveals is startling. It's almost as if he's applied make-up to the whole lower section of his face and powdered far too heavily; his wide grin is surrounded by lips that are blood red. Unnaturally red. Almost like…
Like a clown.
And suddenly, horrifically, it hits me. I do know this stranger…
And like an absurdist Don Juan, he removes the hat with a dramatic flourish, his verdant hair mussed from hiding so long beneath such a cap.
… I'm going to die. The Joker really has escaped, and he is really grinning down at me, right now, holding my arm in a death grip to rival Death's grip. I'm going to die, and the last thing I'm going to see is the mad laughter glinting in his toxic eyes, so very black even with his neon green irises. I don't even understand how one man's eyes can hold that much unrestrained insanity…
I… I can't move, I can't even struggle; all I can do is tremble like a terrified blob of gelatin. It's as if my legs are bolted to the floor; I couldn't run away even if I wanted to. He has me exactly where he wants me, and there's not a thing I can do about it. Any moment now I'm going to feel the sting of a knife in my gut, or the horrible, aching thud of a bullet through my skull, or worse yet…
Impossibly, his freakish grin widens further. And suddenly, everything from the conversation earlier makes terrible, specific sense.
He could be anywhere…
I stare at him in fearful astonishment, and apparently, something about it strikes him as utterly hilarious. He cackles, and the sound is as grating as it is terrifying. Any moment now, I'm going to die. I'm going to die here…
… It's how ruthless he is, isn't it?
But he doesn't kill me. He doesn't. Instead, he leans in close, just enough to whisper in my ear.
"… It's been nice meeting you," he murmurs, and every word sounds like a threat.
And then he lets go of my arm, and I stumble awkwardly backwards a few steps before bolting through the double doors of the bus as if possessed.
… Maybe he's the man at the bus stop…
I make it halfway. Halfway to the corner pizzeria where I can hide and forget, and then I hear gunshots.
And I turn to glance back in morbid curiosity, and the bus isn't moving. All I see is silhouettes of the Joker and the bus driver, like some bizarre and twisted shadow puppet show. He's advancing on the poor bus driver, who drags himself towards the doors in an effort to escape death. The previous shots must have left him too crippled to walk. And still the violet-clad predator stalks eagerly towards him, continuously advancing, toying with his prey to make them think that they, like me, might just escape alive…
Another gunshot sounds, and a burst of gore that used to be the bus driver's head sprays the inside of the front windows.
And then the Joker peers up at me through the side window, the blood stark and surreal against his pale face.
And he waves at me.
Five seconds later, the bus suddenly speeds off, presumably driven by him, destination unknown. And I don't want to know. Dear Lord, I don't want to know…
I've never felt this shaken and traumatized before in my life. Never.
I want to hide. I want to crawl into a little hole and never, ever come out. I'll run into the little corner pizzeria, call mom, tell her there was an accident and that I would be late. After all, there's no fucking way she'll believe I just had a whole conversation on the bus with the goddamned Joker and lived…
You shouldn't be alive.
… I'll do my homework, anything to forget this whole ugly, awful mess. I'll get a slice of pizza to fill the hole in my rumbling stomach, dampened by adrenaline and terror…
You're too damn lucky.
… Catch the next bus home, go to bed, and forget all of this.
You won't be so lucky next time…
Dear God, I hope I can.