Author's Notes: This chapter is dedicated to SillySpring and also SavvyJackie, who both left me two of the most incredible and enthusiastic reviews, and, well, it was an enthusiasm I found absolutely contagious! Dear readers, thank you so much for your kind words.
To those of you still waiting on review replies from the last chapter, you will receive them soon. I apologize for the delay.
Some of you have voiced questions about the Joker's age, and I just wanted to say the following: the Joker has aged since Clockwork, but not by much, or rather, physically speaking, the change in the Joker is nothing significant. He's not an old man as he ought to be, considering the time jump between the two stories. I know that realistically speaking, this is impossible—we as mere humans cannot stop time—but because I've always seen the Joker as a sort of immortal villain, I've chosen to keep his age close to the one he was in Clockwork. I sincerely hope this will not put anybody off—I simply don't want the age difference between Taylor and the Joker to be too drastic. Also, I cannot fathom seeing the Joker walking around with wrinkles and a cane. That's a picture I did not want to create!
With all that being said, if you have questions, concerns, or just comments... please feel free to leave them. I love hearing back from you all. Your support is inspiring and gets these chapters moving more quickly!
Additionally, if you'd like to chat, or ask personal questions that do not pertain to the story, you can find me on Tumblr at engagemachine.
Taylor's hair was still wet from the shower, and she brushed it back over her shoulder as she sat down, occupying the seat that Dr. Shaw had been sitting in.
"I saw a car parked in the driveway. Who was it?"
Austin cleared his throat. "Dr. Shaw, the psychologist that spoke to you the other day?"
"Yes, I remember." Taylor studied her husband, with his creased brows and weary expression, knowing that something was wrong as he stared into his lap. Goose bumps rose over her flesh despite the heat, and she rubbed her bare arms as she leaned forward in her seat. "What's the matter?" she asked, hoping her voice did not reveal her worry, even as her heart leapt into her throat. "What did he say?"
Austin took a deep breath. How on earth was he supposed to tell his wife that the trauma she'd been through had been a figment of her imagination? That she'd made everything up in some kind of attempt to combat her stress, her anxieties.
He steeled himself, straightening in his chair, and decided to give her the easier news first.
"He said he'd like you to start seeing a psychologist again. And I know you don't want to, after what happened last time—and I'm not sure if I really want you to either—but I'd be willing to go with you, if you think that might help. You don't have to go through his alone, is what I'm saying." Taylor watched his Adam's apple bob when he swallowed. "Repressing everything can only be making things worse—talking about it only seems logical."
Taylor was silent, and Austin waited patiently for her response. She stared at the floral table cloth in front of her, tracing red petals and green stems with her eyes. When she spoke, her gaze remained fixed on the table.
"I thought that's what would be best for me too, at first," she whispered. "It sounded like a good idea, like it made sense. But the more we dug," she paused to release a shaky breath, "the more I started to remember. And I don't want to remember. The fear I feel... it's paralyzing." She felt tears lodged in her throat and she closed her eyes as she attempted to swallow them back down. "I've spent my whole life trying to forget everything—and these—these people want me to relieve it all, all the stuff I've buried away. I can't go back to who I used to be, to the panic attacks, the insomnia..."
"I know, baby, I know," he said gently.
The silence ticked on. When she had composed herself, she let out a deep sigh.
"What else did he say?" She knew from Austin's troubled expression that he hadn't told her everything. At his silence, however, fear clutched at her insides, an emotion that often like to don sharp claws that threatened to puncture her lungs.
Austin met her gaze, and she noticed the way his hands trembled, just a fraction, as he removed his glasses and set them on the table.
"They found... no fingerprints, no evidence that those men had been here at all."
Taylor nodded, though was still confused because she had expected as much. For whatever reason, they had left the place spotless, most likely to cover their tracks so they couldn't be identified. They'd even taken the clothes she had been wearing the night they'd abducted her, which is why she had woken up in her bed in nothing but her undergarments.
"And?" she prodded, holding her breath.
"Taylor... they think it was a hallucination, that you dreamed the whole thing as a way to... I don't know—" he shook his head, "—deal with stress, the repressed emotional baggage... " Austin trailed off at the look of sheer horror on Taylor's face, and he realized he couldn't have worded that any worse than he just had.
"W—what?" Taylor straightened in her chair, hands falling into her lap, and Austin could see her heartbeat thudding against her ribcage, her skin turn ghost-white. He opened his mouth to speak, fumbling and tripping over his tongue for useless words, for any words, but Taylor shook her head to stop him. Her chair scraped against the floor as she pushed it back, but she did not stand. "They think I'm lying? That I made all this up?" Austin cringed at the hysteria in her voice, the utter disbelief laced within her words, yet he remained silent, his vocal cords failing him. "How can they—I don't—" She broke off into a sound that was something between a sob and a choked breath. She pressed the flat of her palms against her temples, applying enough pressure to make her skull feel as though it were about to crack. "Do they think I'm crazy?" She looked up sharply, staring at Austin as a sudden wave of cold, paralyzing fear washed over her. "Do you think I'm crazy?" Before waiting for an answer, she found herself fumbling as she pushed her chair back from the table, standing, even as her legs threatened to give out beneath her. Fear swam in her peripheral and breathed down her neck. "Do you think I'm insane?"
"No!" Austin stood too, nearly as startled by the tone of his voice as Taylor was. "No, no, I don't."
Taylor shook her head, tears spilling from her eyes. "It was real, Austin," she cried. "It was real, I swear it." Her hands were trembling as she released the back of the chair she had been gripping, the only thing that had kept her on her feet. She backed into the wall to separate them more, as if she couldn't trust Austin, as if he were going to take her to the nearest asylum and leave her there. "I'm not crazy, I'm not."
Austin felt his heart shatter as Taylor pressed her hands to the wall. She looked every bit ready and willing to sink into that plaster, to try and escapehim.
He would not be made a monster.
He moved towards her, despite the fear in her eyes, and shook his head as if to erase her doubts. "I know that, I know," he insisted. "I know that you're not crazy. But you—we have to consider the evidence. I didn't want to believe it myself," he paused, swallowing, "I want more than anything to believe you, but the police have spoken to Jason, and to Dr. Bishop, and nobody knows what papers you said you had found. The hospital has no records of them. And there are no fingerprints in the house—and for the Joker to return you unharmed—Taylor, he hasn't been seen or heard from in months. Your story, it just... the pieces don't fit." He looked down, then up to meet her eyes. "You have to understand where I'm coming from."
Taylor shook her head at him, frantic. "It happened, Austin! I did not—I did not do this to myself," she sobbed, referring to the scars on her back.
Austin's expression was torn with sadness as he looked at her. "I want to believe you, I do," he said, more heartfelt than he'd ever been before, "but we've never been apart for so long, it seems... possible that you could have hallucinated this because you were frightened. We need to consider that." Austin struggled to keep his tone collected, but seeing his wife look so desperate made his heart crack. He could see the trust slipping from her eyes, and it was the most painful thing he'd ever witnessed. It'd taken months to gain her trust, to build a stable friendship between them and for him to convince her that he was not going to hurt her or use her like so many had before. It was months before she even allowed him to touch her.
He remembered the first time she had, in the dim lighting of the movie theater, her hand seeking out his with an almost childlike shyness. She carefully intertwined their fingers as the movie started, and Austin had never felt so ecstatic, his heart thrumming pleasantly in his chest. And they didn't look at each other, didn't exchange pleased little glances, but he held onto her hand for the entire movie, fighting back smiles, and refused to let go even when they were in the car and he was driving her back to her dorm. In that first initial moment of contact, he knew he had gained her trust, and it was something he never wanted to lose.
And yet, he was losing it, and guilt flourished at the thought that he was the one who had caused this breakdown. If he would have just stayed, if he hadn't of left her alone for the weekend, she wouldn't have hallucinated, she wouldn't have hurt herself.
When he took a step towards her and cautiously raised his hands, as if surrendering and asking for permission to hold her both at once, Taylor turned her head away. She slumped into the wall, boneless, and covered her face with both hands as tears spilled between the cracks of her fingers.
When he came to her, his weight pressed her into the wall and she couldn't breathe, but she let him as he whispered promises in her ear and smoothed her hair. They stayed like that for a while, until the room was black and the sun had gone and Taylor had calmed enough to find the strength to push Austin away.
"It happened," she whispered to him. "You have to believe me, you have to. I didn't imagine it, Austin. It was real, I swear to you." She was beginning to shake again, and Austin moved to grab her arm, but she tore it away as if his fingertips had burned her.
He tried his best to mask the expression of hurt that flickered across his eyes. "Taylor, I know this is a lot to take in, but you need to calm down. Please let me help you."
He blindly reached for one of the dining room chairs, unwilling to take his eyes of her for even a second. His fingers wrapped around the wooden spokes of the back, and he tugged it in front of him, gently reaching for Taylor's arm as he urged her to sit.
She eyed the chair with a wary expression, but at his gentle persistence, she turned and sunk into it. New tears welled behind her eyes.
"How can you not believe me?" she whispered.
Austin knelt down in front of her, his hands on her knees as he looked up into her face. "We're going to get through this, okay? I promise you. I don't think you're crazy. I know you're scared." He was babbling, he knew, but he continued to grapple for more words. He felt instead as if he were sifting through grains of sand. "I'm not going to let this happen again."
Taylor shook her head in disagreement, and Austin's brows drew together. "Taylor, please look at me."
She would not meet his gaze.
"Look at me, please, just look at me." He murmured it over and over again, brushing his fingers beneath her chin, trying to tilt it up. When she did lift her head, her eyes were bloodshot, her expression worn, and Austin cupped her face in his hands, bringing their foreheads together. "I love you. I need you to know that. I love you so much."
He waited for her response, the one she always gave him without fail. "I love you more," she said, just above a whisper.
Austin forced a weak smile, pressed away her tears with his thumbs, and his response rolled off his tongue as easily as it always did. "I doubt that, baby."
Only this time, he really did.
The next morning, Austin was up before the sun in order to prepare for work. He knew he couldn't afford to take another day off; he'd already used all of his vacation time for the entire year and it was only June. He longed to stay in bed, to be with Taylor all day, but he knew he couldn't risk it, and with her taking some temporary time off until she felt emotionally well enough to return, the bills were piling up. As he buttoned up his shirt in front of the bathroom mirror, he made a mental note about calling the bank to see about refinancing the mortgage on the house. It was a last resort option, but if it'd lower their monthly payment, it was worth it.
He spent an hour in the dining room organizing his papers, scribbling notes, researching for an article he had due in two days. His boss was going to kill him if he didn't at least have a rough draft put together. He mulled over burnt toast and cold coffee until five thirty, then he needed to go.
He crept up the stairs to where Taylor was still in bed and gently roused her from sleep, crouching by the side of the bed.
Taylor rubbed the sleep from her eyes and sighed. "Hi."
"Hey, what are your plans for today?" he asked softly.
She eyed his suit and the briefcase at his feet and frowned. "Are you going to work?"
He nodded. "I've already used up all my vacation time."
Taylor knew that was her fault. She clutched the pillow and felt her lashes brush against it as she blinked. "I'm sorry," she said.
He laughed gently, bringing up a hand to brush the hair from her eyes. "Don't be. It's all right," he assured. "I might have a few sick days left, I'm not sure." He paused to pull the covers up to her arms. "Your plans?" he reminded her.
Taylor was quiet for a moment. Her eyes drifted towards the ceiling as memories from last night's conversation came flooding back, how hysterical she'd been, how Austin had not believed her. She swallowed as goose bumps rose over her flesh. Suddenly she did not want to be alone.
"I think I'll spend the day at dad's house." Anywhere but here, she didn't add.
"Will you call me when you get there?"
"Alright. I'm going to have my cell phone on me, so if you need anything, you just call, alright? I made sure your cell phone is charged. It's in the dining room."
Taylor nodded. "Thank you."
He smiled at her and brought a hand to cup her face, kissing her softly. "I'll pick you up tonight on my way home from work?"
She nodded and watched him leave, closing the door softly behind him after parting with a small, reassuring smile.
In the silence that followed his departure, Taylor realized it was the first time she had been alone since the incident.
... The incident that no one believed had actually happened. It dawned on her then that she had been so distraught and frantic last night, filled with such disbelief, that she hadn't actually processed everything Austin had told her.
Suddenly wide awake, she peeled back the covers and padded towards the window, catching the back end of Austin's car just as he left the driveway.
When he was gone, she called the hospital and asked for Jason.
He was the one who had begged her to take this ridiculous case in the first place. Austin said Jason had no recollection of the papers she had found—and Taylor knew that was not right, because he had to know about them, he had to know because he was the one to tell her his concerns about the fear toxin.
And then there was the patient, Floyd Lawton. Did his breakdown, his incarceration into Arkham... could that possibly have something to do with the fear toxin? Had Dr. Bishop been administering the fear toxin to him?
She didn't have time to ponder her question when her call connected and she heard a voice on the other line. She did not recognize the receptionist. At her request to speak to Jason, she was told that he had left yesterday for vacation. Taylor frowned into the phone, unable to ignore the way her stomach suddenly dropped.
When she asked to speak to Dr. Bishop instead, the nurse informed her that he wouldn't be in until later. Secretly, Taylor felt relieved. She didn't know if she wanted to talk to him anyway. She knew that whatever he was doing, it was something dangerous, and she wasn't about to question him. For all she knew, he could have been working with the Joker. She did, however, need to speak to Jason. She knew he was the only one who could help her now. Not the police, not Dr. Shaw, and not... not Austin.
For a while, she paced the living room, weighing her options. She knew that, before she took any course of action, she needed to do it somewhere safe. She needed to go somewhere where she could think without the constant blood-rush and panic she felt at being alone in her own house. She wondered, vaguely, if she'd ever be able to be home alone again for any long period of time. After what had happened only days prior, the very idea terrified her.
Back upstairs, as she pulled on a pair of shorts and a teal colored blouse, she realized how quiet the house was without Austin. He normally didn't make a lot of noise when he was home to begin with, but his presence was noticeably absent all the same. Taylor willed the hairs on her arm not to stand on end when she heard a noise outside the house—and she summed it up as a branch scraping against the side paneling.
After she had changed, she called her father. The anxiety at being home alone was only getting worse, increasing by the second, and she knew she needed to get out of the house. It was suffocating her, and every sound, no matter how small, made her heart leap in her chest.
When she asked if she could spend the day with him, William seemed surprised, but delighted. She promised she'd fix him breakfast when she got there.
She called a cab, and arrived at her childhood home in no less than thirty minutes, though she had waited in morning rush hour traffic for the majority of it.
Outside, she climbed the old, familiar steps to the front door, trailing her hand along the railing which was rusted now and had become wrapped in vines that snaked around the door frame and up the drainage pipe that led to the roof. She felt herself smile a little when she remembered how she used to sit on the steps with Terrance and his friends.
She rarely let herself think about her brother these days, because it saddened her to know she'd likely never see him again—she didn't even know if he was still alive—but she did cling to the good memories, to the days when her mother was still alive and for that brief time when they had been a picture-perfect family.
When she knocked and her father answered, Taylor was stunned to see that he had dressed for her and looked more presentable than he had in years. She smiled at him and pulled him into a hug.
"You look good, dad," she said, kissing his cheek, and when she pulled back, his eyes were shining with something other than tears for the first time in ages.
In the kitchen, Taylor let him ramble about nothing and everything as she prepared pancakes and eggs for them over the stove. She listened contentedly, knowing that he no longer spoke with friends, and she and Austin were the only ones he ever engaged in face-to-face conversation with. It was good to hear him talk, and even though he was a quiet man, he had no qualms about opening up to his daughter—so long as it was nothing too personal—and had quite a lot to say.
When he told her about the police that had come to question him the other night, Taylor tensed, fearing a conversation she didn't want to have. She was thankful when she learned they had kept their questioning very routine, and consequently he had no idea what had transpired to her over the past few days. She felt relieved, knowing that he probably wouldn't have been able to handle the news. She could hardly handle it herself, and even here, in the calm safety of her kitchen in her childhood home, her muscles still felt too tense and her hands jittery. And if that weren't enough, she felt the cuts on her back with every fractional movement of her waist, when she twisted to reach for something or bent down to reach a pan from the lower cabinets, or sat down and pressed her back against a chair. Each time, she was stabbed with pain, and instantly she thought of 'Ace' and his weight straddling her legs, and the way the blade had felt slicing through layers of her skin, and the fear—intoxicating, like some drunken stupor, a stupor that cast a veil of panic over her already-fragile mind.
She took a deep breath and instead focused on giving her father her utmost attention. He deserved that.
They spent the entire day in each other's presence, and she'd nearly persuaded him to take a walk outside with her, but in the end he had declined. It was alright, though. He was far more cognizant and aware than normal, and that was good enough for her. She didn't want to get ahead of herself, but she dared to hope that maybe her father's depression was finally reaching its end.
At some point during the afternoon, when William had accidentally drifted off in a much-needed nap in his recliner, Taylor let him be and decided to wander through the house. She went to her room first, climbing the forest-green carpeted stairs and counting the steps as she went, just as she had done as a child. When she pushed open the door to her room, it was as if she'd stepped back in time. Nothing had changed. She hadn't stepped foot in her room in years, and yet everything was exactly in its place. Her plastic horses, which she had loved so much, were carefully arranged on the white shelf that her father had built and mounted for her. Her curtains were sheer and pink, and pushed aside to let in the sunlight, which trickled through the gaps in the blinds. Colorful stickers decorated her oval mirror above the dresser, and her wooden jewelry box, which she had bedazzled herself, lay just beneath it.
There were pink and yellow paper chains strung around the window frame—she'd made those in art class in eighth grade, she remembered fondly—and her bed was neatly made as it almost always was. She went over to sit on it, the wooden frame creaking beneath her weight. She splayed her hand across the quilted bedspread in reverence and picked at one of the loose threads. How many times had she curled in this green quilt with its paisley designs and cried herself to sleep?
She went to Terrance's room next, where even more memories came flooding back to her. She had spent a lot of time in her brother's room. The walls were dark blue and offset by dark, cherry brown furniture, a stark contrast to her pale room with the clean white dresser and bedside table. She read the plaques on his sports trophies—he had loved baseball—and stared at the drawings on his wall, as well as his impressive stack of video games by the old, box TV. She smiled at the antennas that protruded from it like proud, crooked bunny ears.
When she arrived at his desk, she trailed a finger across the spot where he'd always kept his comic books. She left a cleared, circle path amidst the gathered dust in her wake.
Out of curiosity, she opened the top drawer to his desk. She had no idea what he'd kept in there because she'd never been nosy enough to check when she was younger. She'd never had a desire to. Now, though, she was curious about what kind of trinkets she might find.
The drawers was filled with regular things that one might come to expect—sheets of notebook paper, a myriad of pens, markers, and pencils, a lone sock tied in a knot and was filled with loose change, an empty lighter, movie stubs, and lastly, a collection of loose, miscellaneous baseball cards. She sifted it through it fondly, smiling a little when she recalled how important Terrance's baseball cards had been to him.
She was about to leave when the sound of the recliner squeaking downstairs met her ears, but that thought was forgotten when she noticed something that had fallen between the desk and the wall, a book of some sort.
Her brows drew together as she bent down to retrieve it. It was a small, spiral-bound notebook, the size of a paperback, with a dark blue, blank cover. She dusted off the front before opening the first page.
She realized she had discovered Terrance's journal. Her brows rose in surprise at the finding; she didn't know he had kept one.
She swallowed and let herself sink to the floor, pressing her back against the wall with her knees pulled to her chest as she held the book in her hands, pressed against the front of her thighs. The pages were yellow and some of them stuck together—as if he'd spilled water on them or the book had gotten caught in the rain—and she had to peel the pages apart slowly so they wouldn't tear.
She skimmed through his entries with a cautious sort of eagerness, almost fearful of what she might find. Terrance's entries were far and in between, and the dates he had scrawled at the top of each paged indicated he wrote every one or two months, or whenever he felt distressed or simply needed to vent.
When she stumbled upon an entry dated on the day she'd been adopted by the Borden's, her heart skipped a beat and she paused, unable to catch her breath. For a moment, she closed her eyes, wondering if she should dare read his secret words, knowing that he would have mentioned her in his entry—but she couldn't contain her curiosity, no matter the uneasy feeling that had settled in her stomach.
His handwriting, even as a boy, was practically immaculate. She was surprised by this because her own handwriting had looked like chicken scratch at his age, but Terrance's penmanship was quite impressive. She'd never really noticed it when they were younger.
She read his words carefully.
I have a new sister today. Her name is Taylor. She's not my real sister, because she's adopted, but mom and dad really like her. They've wanted a girl for a long time, and I guess mom can't have one for some reason. Taylor is quiet. She has blonde hair and mom and dad told me that we look alike. She's spent a couple weeks at our house before, to see if she likes us, I guess, but today she is my sister for real. I showed her my room and all the video games I would teach her to play, but she didn't say anything. She doesn't know what Star Wars is, but I promised her we'd watch it soon.
I hope she'll like me. Mom said it might take some time, because she's shy and she didn't have a good mom and dad, but mom said she'd come around eventually, and that I have to be patient. Taylor cried today when the firehouse sirens down the street went off. I don't know why. Mom hugged her and said it'd be okay.
I'm really happy I have a sister now, even though she's shy. I'm going to be the best big brother ever.
Here Taylor stopped, tears blurring her vision so much that she couldn't read. She let the notebook fall closed and leaned her head back against the wall. She wondered how different her childhood might have been if she would have just accepted her new family with open arms, instead of being so skittish and afraid. Maybe it wouldn't have caused Clara so much stress and worry, maybe she wouldn't have had a stroke and died. Maybe Terrance wouldn't have run away, and he'd still be living in Gotham, and they'd be friends and have family dinners at each other's houses every Friday night.
Taylor brushed away her tears with the back of her hand and, after she had collected herself, carefully lodged Terrance's notebook between the wall and his desk, just as she had found it. Maybe one day he'd come back for it.
In the hallway, she paused at her parent's closed door, hesitating. She wanted to look inside, to see if her father had left the photos of him and Clara on the walls, to caress her mother's jewelry and spritz her perfume around the room as she'd done as a child.
Instead, she decided against it. She didn't know if she was ready to experience the flood of emotions she knew she would encounter if she stepped inside that room. Terrance's journal had already brought back so many things she had forgotten, little memories she had tucked away in the back of her mind for later but had never revisited.
She made her way back down the creaking staircase and into the living room where her father was still asleep. She smiled fondly at him and kissed his forehead, before planting herself on the couch to nap as well.
When Austin arrived to pick her up at six, William was surprised but pleased when she told him she'd be back tomorrow. Taylor found she was genuinely looking forward to it.
At the doorway, her father smiled at her, almost as if embarrassed. "Thank you," he said, and he didn't have to elaborate what he was thanking her for, because she felt his gratitude as clearly as she felt the summer heat on her skin.
She smiled back and kissed his cheek.
Austin was chatty on the way home, and after telling her about his day, he was eager to hear about hers, and she told him that her father looked good—and yes, agreed Austin, he had looked better than usual—and Taylor said she was looking forward to coming back tomorrow.
She did not tell him about Terrance's journal. Somehow it felt too personal of a thing to share. Terrance and Austin had never met, and though she spoke of her brother little, she suspected that Austin resented him for leaving Taylor and her father in the state that he had. But Taylor felt no such resentment or animosity towards him, because he was her brother and she'd always care for him, even if she was sad and hurt that he'd left without so much as a goodbye.
Austin groaned when the car pulled into the driveway and he cut the ignition. "The house is going to be scorching," he muttered. He knew he wouldn't have time to work on the air conditioning unit now, not with the sun setting and the sky beginning to fade into dark shades of blue.
She didn't respond as she followed Austin up the porch steps and he unlocked the door.
"Damn," he muttered when they stepped inside. He pushed his hair back from his forehead and laid his briefcase by the door, shrugging out of his suit. The house was humid and muggy, even worse than it was outside. "I'm going to try and get it fixed this weekend," he promised, watching Taylor as she undid the straps from her sandals. "Should we open some windows?"
At Taylor's short reply, he paused, fingers lingering over the buttons of his dress shirt. "Are you okay?" he asked.
"Just tired," she said, and it was true. She felt emotionally drained, and she couldn't stop thinking about Terrance.
But that wasn't all of it. She hadn't felt the same since last night, since Austin had told her that Dr. Shaw thought she had hallucinated her kidnapping. She felt that she couldn't trust him anymore.
In the following two weeks, their relationship became noticeably strained because of it. Taylor tried to be indifferent, tried to pretend she was okay and that she was "recovering" and that she trusted Austin—but she didn't. And she wasn't recovering, and most of the time she felt sick to her stomach and on the precipice of feinting, because she was so worked up and anxiety gnawed at her flesh like parasites and every muscle felt tense, drawn tight like a bow. She couldn't make herself relax if she tried.
And the worst thing was not being able to talk about it with him. She couldn't tell him that she feared this wasn't over, that whatever she'd gotten herself into was only just beginning, and the cipher—which she still remembered despite having destroyed the paper—was still important and they needed it, the Joker needed it. She felt she couldn't tell Austin any of this because she knew he didn't believe her.
For the first time in years, she felt that she had no one to turn to, no one to trust. The only comfort she felt was when she was with her father. She enjoyed spending time with him and escaping from her anxieties for a while, temporary though her escape was. And when she returned home at the end of the day with Austin, the anxiety returned and the sickness crept in again. The knowledge that she couldn't trust him anymore frustrated her, because she wanted to trust him and she wished more than anything she could force herself to feel differently than she did.
More than all that, though, was the sinking suspicion Taylor had that she was still being watched. She no longer saw the black car anymore, but she couldn't help but feel that something was not right. She heard sounds outside the house, and sometimes things in the garage fell without any explanation at all. The neighbor's dog from across the street barked much more than usual.
She dared to voice her concern to Austin, but he only assured her that she was overreacting.
Austin was also oblivious to the strain between them, or at the very least, had pretended not to notice in an effort to mend what had been broken, and to return to normalcy as soon as possible.
The tension though, as it was want to do, escalated. It happened when they were lounging on the couch one night after he'd picked her up from another day at her father's house. The air conditioning was still broken, and the house was torrid. Taylor was wearing the thinnest summer dress she owned, with spaghetti straps that kept slipping down her shoulders, and Austin dressed in cargo shorts and a t-shirt. Still, their clothes clung to their skin, and Taylor exhaled, barely audible, as she reached for the newspaper on the coffee table, folded it into a rectangle, and fanned herself with it.
With the TV on, an infomercial for OxiClean droned listlessly in the background, though neither paid much attention to it. Austin sat straight backed against the couch, a notepad resting on the arm of the couch as he jotted down notes for work, and Taylor lay sprawled at his side, her head resting in his lap as she stared up at the ceiling.
It was dusk outside, and the sky was turning brown. The heat of the day wore on, relentless to abate.
Taylor was just starting to drift off to sleep when she heard Austin set his notebook on the coffee table, his pen following with a small thud, and then he was gently threading his fingers through her hair. When she felt his fingers trailing down the side of her face, dipping to trace the curve of her neck, she pretended to be asleep. But he was gently persistent, and he whispered her name to rouse her, lowering his face to place kisses along her hairline, her cheek, and then her mouth.
"I've missed you," he breathed when she opened her eyes, and she let him maneuver the two of them so he was on top, knees digging into the couch on either side of her hips.
Taylor felt guilt curl in her gut when she realized she could not return the sentiment. It was true they hadn't been able to spend much time together, and she supposed she would have missed him if she'd been thinking more about him—but her mind had been constantly plagued with other thoughts: with Terrance, with her dad, with fear, with the Joker. She nearly drove herself mad trying to figure out why he hadn't killed her, and why his men had gone through all the trouble of making her kidnapping look as if it had never occurred. She could not understand the purpose of it, the motive. There had to be a motive, didn't there? Aside from wanting to cover their tracks, surely there was another reason for all this? She'd seen too much, knew that something with the fear toxin—and possibly with Dr. Bishop—was going amiss. Why, then, had the Joker decided to let her live? Maybe she'd only scratched the surface, maybe she didn't know as much as she had originally thought?
She gasped when Austin's teeth scraped against her collarbone, not gently, and his tongue darted out to lap at the small patch of redness that bloomed over the area.
"Sorry," he whispered, smiling a little as he planted a kiss on the underside of her jaw, and Taylor wished she could smile back too, indulge in his sweet touches. And she wished she wanted to wrap her arms around his neck and pull him down to her.
But she didn't. Instead, he came of his own volition, slotting their lips together and breathing hard into her mouth as his hands sought purchase in her hair. He curled a finger around the elastic band of her ponytail and slid it free. When Taylor let out a small sound beneath him, he took it as an opportunity to deepen their kiss, groaning as his tongue swept with abandon against the roof and sides of her mouth, as if drunk on the pleasure of it.
Taylor pressed her hands against his abdomen and left them there, almost as if to push him away, to make him draw back, but he was too caught up in fumbling with the buttons on the front of her dress, sliding them through the holes with hands that trembled in anticipation.
When the buttons were mostly undone, he forwent the rest by tugging the thin straps down her arms and pulling the remainder of the dress past her hips and off her legs. She watched where it pooled to the floor next to the coffee table, her eyes snapping back to Austin's only when she heard the clink of his belt buckle coming undone. This was moving far faster than she had anticipated.
Her words were lost in his mouth, in a kiss that became quickly heated by no fault of her own. When he pulled away to shuck his shorts the rest of the way off, his t-shirt following soon after, Taylor lifted her head in an effort to voice her discomfort—but her head dropped back against the pillows when he cupped her breasts and lowered his head to mouth at them.
And she didn't fight him after that, despite her discomfort and the surge of guilt she felt for not wanting to be intimate with him, for not trusting him.
She gasped when he aligned himself and the warm pads of his fingertips were digging into her hips, pulling her closer so her lower half was pressed against his.
And that was when she heard it, a strange noise that might have been brushed off as a figment of the imagination had she been somebody else, but for Taylor, it sounded anything but imaginary. Every muscle in her body went rigid.
"Stop!" she gasped, just as he had prepared himself to enter her. Austin grunted, his breath coming in heavy pants as he reluctantly drew back.
He wiped the sweat from his brow with the back of his hand, panting. "What's the matter?"
Taylor struggled into a sitting position beneath him, though he was hesitant to let her get up. "Did you hear that? Did you hear that noise?" Taylor's heart was suddenly beating a mile a minute, her eyes wide with panic as she strained to look behind her towards the hallway that led to the stairs.
"I didn't hear anything," he told her. He put a reassuring hand on her shoulder, a touch that Taylor interpreted as him trying to push her back down into the couch so they could continue. "Just calm down," he urged. "It's alright."
But she didn't calm down, and her hands shoved on his chest with enough force to startle him.
"Get off me!"
Her words, loud, clear, and deafening, rang in the silence for several seconds after she had yelled them, mingling with their heavy breathing in the semi-darkness of the room. The intensity of it took both of them by surprise. She had never yelled at him like that.
Austin looked at her, completely at a loss for words. His hands were still on her thighs, and he removed them with something akin to caution, as if the slightest movement might set her off.
"Taylor," he swallowed thickly, "Taylor, I—"
Her sudden sob cut his words short. Her hands rose to her mouth in an effort to stifle the noise. "I'm sorry, I'm so sorry," she gasped, her tongue tripping over her hurried apology. She shook her head as tears spilled down her cheeks. "I didn't mean to shout."
Still hesitant to touch her, Austin swallowed and nodded his head. "It's okay. I didn't mean to... force you." In all of their years of marriage, Austin never thought he would have to utter those words to the woman he loved so much, the woman he would never dream of hurting.
"What did you hear?" he asked her.
Taylor shook her head in response. "It was nothing," she lied, even as her heart thudded painfully against her ribs in a panic that was slowly beginning to ebb. In the back of her mind, she realized the sound had probably been imagined.
Maybe I am crazy.
Taylor pushed her bangs back from her forehead, suddenly nauseous. "I'm going to go to bed," she murmured.
Austin nodded, a bit dumbstruck, as she got up from the couch, slipped on her dress, and padded towards the hallways and up the stairs.
He didn't turn away until after she had disappeared. He pulled on his briefs and sank back onto the couch, scrubbing a hand over his face in exhaustion.
Time, Austin, he reminded himself. She just needs more time.
Things were not quite the same after that. The tension between the two of them felt more palpable and stifling than the endless summer heat.
Austin realized she had not meant to yell at him as she had, but he still felt somewhat ostracized by her in the days that followed. Engaging in conversation was impossible. She was short with him, and distant, and flinched away from each one of his touches. Every evening on his way home from work, when he picked her up from her father's house to take her back home, the ride was mute. The car was filled with an all-encompassing silence that not even the familiar songs on the radio could crack. He chattered to her about work, tried little anecdotes about his day to make her laugh, but the smiles she cracked were halfhearted. For the first time in a long time, he felt completely at a loss of what to do.
And if he were honest with himself, he couldn't blame her, he understood her behavior. He often found himself thinking back to the moment where he had seen the trust slip from her eyes, and the way his stomach coiled in shame and disgust and sadness when he'd told her she'd been hallucinating. He yearned to be on her side, and it felt startling cruel to believe an outsider's words over his own wife's, no matter the outsider's status or the prestige of the Ph.D. that hung framed in his office.
He wanted to believe her, but he also couldn't ignore the facts in front of him, the fact that they'd found no evidence, and that Taylor had been acting antsy even before he'd left for his trip, and that neither Jason or Dr. Bishop had any idea what paperwork she had been talking about. It wasn't completely absurd to think that perhaps her paranoia and fear had culminated into a sort of violent crescendo the night he'd left, the first night they had been apart in years, and she had unconsciously acted out a scene from her past.
And stress from work must have been added to that as well, because the story she had told was nothing if not bizarre. She had mentioned a cipher that had to do with the fear toxin... but the fear toxin incident, what little he knew of it, had occurred years ago, when he was just a child. He'd been living in Delaware, where he'd grown up, and though New Jersey was close, the incident hadn't exactly made their local news station, not that he had watched the news much at such a young age anyway.
To add to Austin's increasing concern, he'd seen the strange scribbling of symbols she'd made on a piece of paper, hidden in the bedroom in their bedside drawer, and without thinking he scooped up the paper and tucked it safely in his briefcase. He was going to ask Dr. Shaw about it later; perhaps he could make something of the strange symbols?
The tension between them had culminated, for a second time, late one evening in the kitchen. Austin had had a particularly stressful day at the office, and the house was torrid, only adding to his sour mood.
After dinner, he'd changed out of his work clothes and gone outside to tinker with the air conditioning before the sun fell and it became too dark to see. When he came back inside, needing water, he found Taylor at the sink washing dishes. He entered without a word, fixing himself a glass of ice water and downing it in one gulp. He let out a deep sigh as he placed the cup on the table, beads of sweat trickling down his neck and between his shoulder blades beneath his shirt.
Taylor's back remained towards him the entire time.
"Hey," he said as he stepped behind her, wrapping a forearm around her waist and pulling her into him slightly as he planted a gentle kiss on her jaw. He felt her body tense up instantly, and he frowned as she peeled herself out his embrace. She mumbled a weak reply that he didn't quite catch.
His brain-to-mouth filter had apparently stopped working, because angry words were suddenly forming in his throat and they came spilling out before he could stop them.
"Is this how it's going to be from now on?" he yelled, regretting the words the instant they left his mouth, but too upset to care. "Are you going to flinch and pull away every time I touch you?" Taylor looked at him, tears welling in her eyes, but he couldn't stop. "Damn it, Taylor, I miss you. You won't even look at me anymore and I—please tell me how I can fix this," he said, desperate, hopeful, tired. He gestured between them in a quick flurry of hands. "Tell me how I can fix us."
Taylor shook her head and closed her eyes. Believe in me, she wanted to say. Instead, she bowed her head, her voice a whisper.
"I don't know."
She slept on the couch that night, with the mumbled excuse that it was too hot to sleep upstairs, and Austin was too tired to argue with her. It was the first time in their five years of marriage they had not slept together while under the same roof.
The next day, Taylor felt sluggish and her back was aching from twisting on the couch all night. When she heard the shower upstairs running, she kicked off the throw blanket and draped it over the back of the couch, padding into the kitchen.
She retrieved yesterday's paper and was sitting at the counter with a glass of orange juice when Austin came in. His hair was still damp and his dress shirt was unbuttoned and un-tucked from his slacks, revealing the white t-shirt he was wearing underneath it. After pouring a glass of orange juice for himself, he joined her at the counter. Silence rested between them for several moments.
"I called someone to fix the air conditioner," he said at length. "Figured we might as well stop fighting with it. I just can't do it myself and I know how much the heat's been bothering you... "
Taylor took a tentative sip from her glass and spoke without meeting his eyes. "Thank you."
Austin watched as the sun beams from the kitchen window caught on the wedding ring on her left hand, making it gleam. From the front porch, he could hear the wind chimes clanging gently together as they jostled in the wind. He tore his gaze away from her hand and turned in his stool to face her.
"I won't be back until very late in the evening."
"There was an opportunity to interview one of Republican candidates for the upcoming election. We need the extra money, so I volunteered. It's in Allentown, in Pennsylvania. I think it's about three or four hours from here," he said, scratching the back of his neck. "I haven't put it in the GPS yet."
"Anyway, my boss offered to put me in a hotel, but I told him that wouldn't be necessary, and I could just drive back once we've wrapped up the interview." Austin paused, watching her expression carefully. "Are you okay with this?"
"Of course," Taylor said, and the small smile she offered him seemed like the most genuine one she had given him ever since the incident.
"I just wanted to make it back as soon as I can so you won't have to sleep alone... and I'll leave the car for you if you want to go to dad's house. You could spend the night there, if you wanted?"
Taylor's brows furrowed together. She was perfectly capable of taking care of herself—she was not a child that had to be coddled and fussed over. "That's alright. You'll only be gone for a few hours," she said, a bit stiffly, though he failed to notice.
He smiled, feeling relieved. "Okay."
With that, he finished dressing, gathered his briefcase, and stood on the porch with Taylor to say goodbye. Her hands were in her pockets as she looked out over the neighborhood.
Austin stood by her side and watched her, longing to pull her to him and kiss her, run his hands through her hair, to just... touch her, but he knew he was going to have to work to gain her trust again, to make things better. He was determined to sort everything out once he returned home.
He felt himself smiling as he watched the sunlight tangle through the strands of her blonde hair.
"You are so beautiful," he told her earnestly. She turned to look at him as he stepped closer. "Can I kiss you before I go?"
Taylor nodded. Gently, he clasped her elbow and leaned in, planting his lips over hers in a kiss that lingered only for seconds, but felt wonderful to him all the same. He smiled as he pulled away.
"I love you," he said, making sure to catch her eyes as he spoke. "Please call me if you need anything. I'll keep my phone on for you."
From the cul-de-sac, the cab driver waiting for Austin honked twice.
He offered her a loving smile, and she watched him go.
As soon as the car was out of sight, Taylor showered, dressed, and got in the car. She had planned to call into work, to put herself back on the schedule after almost three weeks of being out, but she could not get the nagging feeling out of her head that she needed to speak to Jason first. She had to question him about why he had lied about the documents. He knew something was going on, so why had he denied it?
After procuring the address to his apartment—which she soon discovered was not very far from her father's—she parallel parked on the other side of the street, leaning forward in her seat so she could look out the passenger window in order to assess the building. It was large, old, and unassuming, easily blending in with the other red-slabs of concrete housing on either side of it.
With a determined frown, she unbuckled her seatbelt and opened the car door, jogging through the minimal traffic on the street to reach the complex.
When she noticed the gate out front, blocking the main entrance, and then the buzzer located nearby, she cursed.
With no other options, she decided to wait—as inconspicuously as possible. She was fortunate when, only five minutes later, a bald, middle-aged man came jogging around the corner, dripping with sweat from his workout, and as Taylor watched him punch in his code and open the gate, she waited until it was almost closed before silently slipping in after him. He took the stairs leading below and disappeared almost instantly. Taylor's destination, however, was up, and after casting a sidelong glance at the questionable-looking elevator, she took the stairs two at a time, idly mumbling Jason's apartment number under her breath as she climbed.
On the third floor, the plaque on the wall read Apts. 45-60. She double-checked the address she had written down, and then stuffed it in her pocket.
The carpeted halls were mostly silent as she padded down them; she could hear the distinct buzz of a vacuum from a floor above, but otherwise all was silent. When she reached Jason's door, she paused, looked both ways, and gave a cautious knock.
She wasn't quite sure what she was expecting. If he was really on vacation, as the receptionist at the hospital had said, then it had been useless coming here. But perhaps he lived with his mother, or a girlfriend, and they could give her a number to contact him.
But nobody came to the door.
Frustrated, Taylor turned, running her hands through her hair, feeling at a loss. If she didn't speak to Jason, she didn't know who else she could turn to.
Before leaving, she turned back towards the door, and just for curiosity's sake, decided to try the knob.
It was unlocked.
Unbelieving of her own luck, she paused in the hall, looked both ways once again, and then entered. She closed the door softly behind her with a click.
The apartment was dark and the blinds were drawn, and Taylor groped the wall in for the nearest light switch. When the light flicked on, her eyes scanned the apartment eagerly.
What she found shocked her.
It was a disaster. The couch was flipped on its side, the cushions strewn about the floor with its stuffing pouring through the torn-open holes, like wounded soldiers that had been abandoned to bleed to their deaths. Broken plates, cups, and other kitchenware littered the linoleum in the kitchen, and the bookcase, entertainment system, and desk had all been knocked to the floor. Pages from books were strewn everywhere, a graveyard of tangled stories and words.
She tried her voice, to call for Jason, but the words would not leave her throat. She knew immediately that something was not right.
Everything in her was telling her to leave, to run away quickly while she still had the chance, but the curiosity in her burned. She had to keep going.
And that is when she wandered into his bedroom, which was in much the same disarray, and then into the bathroom.
That is where she found him—hanging from the steel shower rod from what looked to be a self-made noose.
Taylor clasped a hand over her mouth and gasped. The leather belt dug with a vice into Jason's neck, leaving red welts that contrasted sharply with the ghostly pallor of his face. With his mouth open—as if frozen in an attempt to gasp for air—and his glazed, vacant eyes directed skywards, Taylor felt bile rise in her stomach at the sight of him.
Sobbing into her hand, she drew back and forced herself to look away, but it was too late, and the image was already burned into her memory.
On the counter, she spotted a sheet of paper torn from what looked like the back page a book. She gripped the edges of the counter and pulled herself too it, not trusting her legs be able to stand on their own.
On the blank side of the paper, in shaky pen, was written, Dear Julia, but the letter had not been finished.
A suicide note?
But what had made him change his mind? Why had he not finished it? And what had compelled him to destroy his apartment beforehand?
Or had it been destroyed by someone else?
It was with that burning thought that Taylor's blood ran cold, a sudden surge of ice through her veins that stopped her heart in its tracks.
She was breathing hard as she stared at the unfinished letter. Her eyes drifted towards the opened bottles sprawled across the glossy counter, where pills had spilled out in a hurry. She grabbed for one and read the label. Digoxin.
It had been prescribed to Lydia Goodall. Taylor did not recognize the name, but she was familiar with the drug and knew that it slowed the heart.
She gripped the edges of the counter and looked down, into the sink, squeezing her eyes shut tight, and willed everything to go away, for this horrible reality to become a dream, a hallucination, anything.
Then she heard a voice behind her.
The sound made her eyes shoot open and her heart stop, point blank. She kept her head bowed, paralyzed with fear, but she recognized the drawl instantly, the slow, sickly-sweet sharpness of a voice she had hoped to never hear again.
Her eyes slowly, slowly, crawled to meet his, sliding up the mirror until she saw him there, standing behind her in all of his glory—tall and menacing and terrifying so up close, punctuated by such blinding white fluorescents. She stared at him. She couldn't breathe.
He took a step closer and leaned into her before she could stop him, arms sliding against either of hers, trapping her against the counter. She felt the length of his thighs pressed solidly against the backs of hers, and she leaned forward, in an attempt to distance him, but he only followed her motion, draping his chest across her back. And he was hot, with blood on fire and a body that reeked of smoke and gasoline and made her eyes burn with tears.
She watched in the mirror—speechless and horrorstruck—as his mangled, blood-red mouth descended towards her ear. His tongue, a serpent's tail, flicked across the cartilage there in his efforts to wet his own lips.
His breath on her skin was searing.
"They're coming to kill you," he whispered, and she had to grip the rim of the sink to keep from collapsing into it. "But I've come for you first."
She gasped, suddenly twisting to get away, but the Joker's gloved hand gripping the back of her neck gave her no time to react. Before she could brace herself and offer resistance, he slammed her head into the mirror with a brutality that stunned her. She cried out sharply, a choked gasp tangling in her throat. The left half of her forehead took the brunt of the impact, and she heard glass shattering around her, falling onto the counter as the smaller pieces slid down the bowl of the sink and crackled like fireworks as they collected in the drain.
She was blind. Blood marred her vision, its coppery warmth sliding over her left eye, nose, and lips. Blood filled her mouth when she opened it to cry, and it tasted warm and sour and metallic, like her mouth had been flooded with liquid hot metal that had been left too long in the sun.
A thousand black stars burst behind her lids when the Joker's fingers curled around the back of her neck—readjusting his already impossibly-tight, spine-damaging clasp—and yanked her backwards, away from the mirror. She could feel glass embedded in her forehead and she sobbed, lifting her arms that felt like deadweights, trying to grasp for something, anything, to keep her steady.
When the Joker spun her around, moving his hands to grip her upper arms, her head lolled back without his support and she was helpless to stop it.
"Oh, I have missed you," he growled with a cruel, damaged grin, even as her head lolled back and her neck felt as if it might snap from the angle. "You just couldn'-t stay away, could you? Could you!?" he giggled, shaking her in time with his words.
Taylor's world spun. She could hear him speaking, but his voice was a roar in her ears, like ocean waves crashing against the shore. Her vision swam in a sea of red.
"Please," she felt herself mouth around the torrent of blood that had flooded her mouth. She felt herself falling, falling, falling, and she reached out to grasp the lapels of the Joker's suit, gripping until her knuckles were stained white. She could not lift her head and blood was sliding down her throat, giving her no choice but to swallow it down or else choke on it.
Something must have caught the Joker's attention, because his head snapped to the side, towards the open bathroom door, and his mouth broke into a slow grin.
"Time to pla-y," she heard him sing-song, sounding far too chirpy and pleased considering the amount of blood gushing from her forehead and sliding down her face.
Her world somersaulted and the ceiling dipped then rose as the Joker shifted her again, turning her around so her back was once against pressed against her chest. He supported her this time by cupping an arm beneath her breasts, which forced her into him. Taylor's head lolled forward and she struggled with all of her might to lift it, even as a wave of dizziness threatened to black her vision. She felt like a shield.
And it was at that moment, when another figure entered, pointing a gun at them—that she realized she was a shield.
"Dr. Bishop, is it?" she heard the Joker say, and she felt herself blanch at the name, her heart dropping into the pit of her stomach. "So good of you to join us. Do you want to play a little game?"
"Not with you." Dr. Bishop kept the gun trained on them, arm steady and his gaze blue-eyed and focus. "I thought you might make an appearance."
The Joker considered him, cocking his head to the side. "You've been following her," he said.
"So have you," the doctor replied, smug.
"She has something we both want," the Joker replied, and Taylor couldn't stop her head from lolling forward, as blackness crowded around the edges of her vision, "but it seems since I arrived first," he emphasized, "well, as they say... you snooze, you lose."
"Trite," Dr. Bishop replied, not missing a beat. "But it looks as if the only one losing is you. You're not exactly in a position of power over me," he laughed, indicating to his gun which was still trained at the Joker's head.
The Joker frowned, his face a mockery of confusion. "Aren't I? You see, I've. Got. The girl. And the girl has what you want. Right here." He tapped his gun—which he had discreetly pulled from his jacket—against the side of her head. Dr. Bishop eyed the weapon with narrowed eyes. The Joker continued on. "Now... I can kill her right here—" he jabbed the barrel into her skull, making Taylor cry out, "—and your work will be for naught. Or," he said, "you can follow by my rules, and maybe I won't put a bullet in her skull."
For a moment, silence reigned.
"And why would I do that?"
The Joker cracked an ear-splitting grin. "Because," he said as he lowered his gun, clicked open the chamber, and emptied his bullets onto the hardwood floor. The clanged like metal drums in Taylor's ears as they hit the floor. "I'm about to make you an offer you can't refuse."