Fire. It started with fire.
She was deathly small; a lethal little girl wrapped into a skeletal bundle. Muscle existed but was nowhere to be seen. Snow White skin and charcoal hair that was cut haphazardly with an exacto knife. Fingernails cut short so as not to get in the way, grown on the small hands that were holding the culprits of a crime.
This was my reflection in the glass window of the parked police car. The culprits of the crime, a lighter and a container of gasoline, stayed by my side like the friends they were. It was interesting how certain sights and smells turned into comforts as you aged. The pungent gasoline was as welcome as a father’s frequented cologne. The heat of the fire eating through the car seats was as pleasant as a parent waiting to pick you up after school.
Lighter made his way back into my pocket, a small bulge in the floral summer dress that was a ritualistic pleasure to its purchaser. The equivalent of a Monroe gown in the eyes of its consumer. I dropped the can into the car through the broken window and wandered towards the entrance to the police station. The doors were big and see through, as if to say “we have nothing to hide.” As if to promote “we are strong and honest just like we’re paid to be.”
Telephones and gruff voices and coffee being poured and the scratching of pens slurred together to form the soundtrack to the station. Fire! I screamed. There’s a fire in the parking lot! Rushing bodies. They all run because they don’t want to be last. If they are last then they are disloyal. They are so scattered. Scattered like the wanted posters for the goons and villains of Gotham. So many policemen against so few villains. United good against divided evil, and yet the battle was still lost.
In the mad rush of passing people one only has to hold out their hands and see what they can catch. Items dislodged from utility belts fell to the ground in a shower of selection as a smile danced onto my face. The last man hobbled out and I looked down at the stash. A few phones, handcuffs, a few sets of keys. I took a pair of handcuffs and all the keys as I wandered through the deserted station.
A sign mounted on the wall was embossed with the letters COUNTY LOCK UP and an arrow that pointed right. I followed it, descending a few flights of stairs and arriving at my destination. There were multiple jail cells full of the scum of the city, these petty thieves and publicly indecent individuals. I went up to the first cell and tried a few of the keys until I located the winner.
They spoke to me but I paid no mind, only continuing to release the men one by one. They did not hesitate to run as fast as they could out of the building. When I got to the last man I paused with the key in the lock, looking up at him.
“Would you happen to know where Arkham Asylum is?”
“Uh…Well, sure I do.” The man looked feverishly from the key to me and back again.
“Would it be any trouble for you to take me there?”
“Can’t you take a cab or somethin’?”
“I don’t have any money, I’m afraid.” I then unlocked the cell and he pushed his way out, panicking as he looked at the exit. He made a decision and beckoned me to follow him. He led me up to a room I hadn’t seen and smashed into the door’s glass, reaching through and turning the knob. I assumed this was where the felons’ possession were stored, because he took a few boxes off of a shelf and rummaged around before producing some money.
“Thanks for springin’ me, dollface.” And just like that, he disappeared. I smiled lovingly at the paper sitting in my palm. I delicately placed it into my pocket before returning to the place I’d come in and lighting a few stacks of paper and chairs on fire. The smile now permanent, I exited the station and turned down the alleyway. It didn’t take long for a yellow car to halt beside me and I stepped into the front seat.
“I would like to go to Arkham Asylum, please.” The man looked at me anxiously, and it was now that I remembered patrons usually situated themselves in the back seat. But it was more than just this; his eyes were glued to my bare arms and my abdomen.
“Miss, you’re uh…you’re bleeding…Can I drive you to the hospital?”
“No, Arkham will do fine, thank you.” I replied, fastening my seat belt and looking out the windshield as he hesitated to press the gas. It was always my appearance that caught people off guard. This is because, by means of word association, little girl is always tied to the idea of innocence. Therefore, if one appears to be a young female void of all societal abnormalities, she is whole and complete.
This is rarely ever the case. What was so innocent about little girls anyway? Who ever deemed them to be so appropriate? With their dolls that they stripped at night, practicing peeling clothes off of bodies as if predicting their futures. Furnishing the doll houses and keeping them tidy as if they were already adults. Swapping lunches with friends and snickering at the boys because they could get away with it. These devious little creatures disguised as dolls; a generation of anything other than innocent.
But a guilty heart still beats. A guilty heart still bleeds. This is why it is easier to not have one at all. This is why it is easier to burn yourself down. To burn the tips of your fingers and dye your hair and talk differently. If you change yourself enough, people don’t bother to read too deeply into your history. If you become too much work, then there’s nothing to fear. No one in your way.
“Thank you, sir.” I handed him the necessary bills and exited, apologizing for the blood that had gotten on the seat. The building was large and ominous, it would be beautiful empty. I found my way to the front door and wandered inside. The front desk was occupied by a young girl, a few years older than me. 24, perhaps 25. I watched as her hand flew to what I assumed was the emergency button and she asked if she could help me.
“Yes, I’d like to speak to the head doctor please.”
“Sure, just have a seat.”
After a minute or so a man appeared donning the typical white coat, a set of silver-rimmed glasses, and hair that had hands run through it frequently. He smiled, a dishonest gesture, as he came up and stood before me.
“Hello, I’m Dr. Jonathan Crane.” He held out his hand and I shook it gently. His hands were cold against my recently heated ones. “Shall we go to my office?” I followed him past cells full of screamers and looky-lous, many lockable doors and bullet proof panels of glass. There were orderlies in all white, the harmless colour, standing at attention throughout the building. And finally, a door. His nameplate on the front in golden letters.
We entered and he led me to the paper covered patient’s bed. I laid down, keeping eye contact. His eyes, these giant blocks of impermeable ice situated in his head, they looked all over me. Analyzing. He applied pressure at different parts. Assessing. I smiled as he watched me watching him.
“I’ll need you to lift your dress, please. I can’t get the bandage on any other way.” I nodded, sitting up and slipping the dress over my head. I watched him hesitate at my rash act before I laid down once more. Blood was smeared all over my abdomen, the black thread I’d sewn into myself having failed as an appropriate suture.
“Am I fixable?”
“Yes, but what happened?” He questioned while he got some supplies.
“I was building a card tower and it toppled over.” I smiled as he sterilized and removed my stitches to replace them with new ones. Every now and again his eyes met mine, anxiously. He went to wrap me in bandages, and so I arched my back for him to make it easier. “What’s the policy on checking yourself in here?”
“Well, we do an assessment and if you meet a certain criteria then you’re admitted. But if you’re a certain type of patient then you won’t be able to leave whenever you’d like, I’m afraid.”
“I’d like an assessment, please.” I asked as he finished mending me, his eyes dancing up and down my arms, flirting with all of the bruises shaped like overgrown fingers.
“Why do you believe you should be here?”
Because I’ve no place to go and no money for a motel.
“I’ve just set a police station on fire and freed all the criminals inside.” I informed him, letting my bare legs dangle over the edge of the bed. He blinked at me before settling down on the edge of his desk.
“What’s your name?” He was paying a great deal of attention now that I had sufficiently passed the limit of most of his visitors.
“I am glorious.”
“Your real name.”
“I am glorified.” He raised his eyebrows at me impatiently. I smirked, leaning my back against the wall. “I am Gloria.”
The rain pelted down onto the pavement, making it difficult to get any traction as I ran. The sirens wailed from the cop cars that chased me, this perfectly common sound that made a pattern as often as my heartbeat. If I were to look back I would see a familiar sight: flames devouring a large building, smoke billowing out the windows like curtains. I couldn’t hold back my laughter; it erupted from me as I slipped further and further out of the police’s grip.
I would make quite an alarming sight; what once was an anatomically correct skull face drawn atop mine was now just runny black eyeliner. War paint, some called it. Gotham’s Grim Reaper, they called me. This was the odd thing that I noticed, the fact that everything had to have a name. Name a person, name a pet, name a building, name an enemy. If there was no name, it was so much more difficult to have emotion toward it. So much more difficult to hate. Imagine if every villain that graced Gotham’s papers was referred to by their real name? “Oscar Leefeld, father of 2 darling little children, has murdered another man today in the Narrows.”
No one wants to believe a human being can be anything less than kind.
I was focusing on this so much that I barely noticed as a hand reached out in the dark and yanked me inside an open door. The reflection of light on lenses at once denied any possibility of his identity remaining a secret. I watched him as he held a finger to his lips and stared out into the rain.
Crane had become my shadow. Or at least taken shelter in it. It began after I left Arkham, four months after checking myself in. He spent all those weeks trying to play doctor and break into my mind. But what he couldn’t get past was the fact that being in an asylum does not make you crazy, and Rorschach tests do not work on everyone. But he’d told me all about himself by the third month, as if I would be truthful in his quid-pro-quo. This deviant doctor. This shameless stalker. Following at my destructive footsteps like a lost puppy. But I enjoyed it.
“They’re coming.” He whispered, gently closing the door to this abandoned townhouse and leading the way up a flight of stairs. There was a room at the end of the hall that he turned into, taking sturdy steps as I danced after him. He opened the door that led to the balcony so it would seem like we’d left, and then beckoned me into the closet. The doors were wooden and similar to blinds, so that you could see through them but only at the right angle.
He stood with his back to me as he waited patiently for a noise. I inched my fingers up his back and out of reflex he spun quickly and pinned my hands behind my back. He was inches from me and I smirked up at him, my guilty face cursed with innocent eyes. The door was kicked in downstairs and the smile faintly spread to his face.
“Tell me, Doctor, what do you fear?”
The sound of heavy footsteps and of police codes being called into radios sounded in the floor below. Crane’s eyes stayed on me, though; these perfect medusa eyes, carved out of stone. He pressed his body against mine so that I backed up against the wall.
“Losing you.” He breathed. My smirk grew.
“You’re lying.” I whispered back, bringing my lips so close to his that they touched as I spoke. “I’m not yours to lose, and that’s what you fear. You fear not having control, you fear being incomplete.”
“And you fear being complete.”
“To be complete is to be perfect, and to be perfect is to be unattainable.” The boots of the policemen clunked as they came up the stairs, crying out CLEAR! As they came closer to our hideaway. “I was attainable, once.”
“Before what?” He prodded, his grip loosening on my hands. I gently wriggled them free only to place them around him.
“Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, set fire to Gloria’s insides we must.” As they entered the room, I pulled him toward me and melded our lips together. Here, I gave him a dilemma. To give in to this physical aspect of me he wanted to badly, or to deny himself this and keep us both quiet. It took a few moments but the more logical side of him gave in and he pulled away, once again pinning my arms against the wall. His head was beside mine, his body leaning against me as we waited quietly for our intruders to leave.
They took the bait and believed I’d left, leaving us alone. He kept my hands pinned as he moved back a little. This was his other dilemma, his greater issue: the Gloria Problem. He wanted me. He’d fallen for me since the Arkham days. But Crane was a dominator. With his small frame and lanky body, it was no surprise that he so greatly desired power over others. But with me it wasn’t enough to just take things, to just have the upper hand.
If that was the case, he would have raped me long ago and then reported to the police that I was Gotham’s Grim Reaper. However the Gloria Problem was more complicated. He needed me to want to submit; the desire to give in on my part had to equate to his desire to dominate. I let him control me in increments. Things like restraining me, holding me up against walls. These were his favourite rituals. And as a reward for restraining himself I would give in just a little. Let him have a taste.
I leaned forward to connect us once more, his hand reaching behind him to open the closet door. He immediately spun around so he was the leader, taking me through this dance that ended when I collided with the bed. This piece of furniture that was witness to so much history; this bed that had been through countless couples and loners and cat lovers and bed wetters, it finally had met us. Dr. Jonathan Crane, more commonly known to Gotham as the Scarecrow, and Gloria, Gotham’s Grim Reaper.
Death is on the tip of her tongue and dangers at the tip of her fingers…
He was hungry as he kissed, coming at me again and again as if he could actually devour me. This was Dr. Jonathan Crane testing his boundaries. This was the Scarecrow pushing his limits. As things progressed his guard slowly dissipated, his hands releasing mine and traveling all over my body. I smirked, gently rolling over to remind him this was not defeat. He held me down against him, giving me very little wiggle room to remove the handcuffs from my pocket. These handcuffs that had travelled with me for so long and graced the wrists of countless victims.
I reached up and wove the cuffs between the headboard posts. I then rapidly brought his hands up to meet them, catching him in a position he no doubt fantasized about having me in. It was only now that he broke away from me, his glasses fogged from the heat and his chest heaving. I smiled, removing his glasses and beginning to clean them with the edge of my shirt.
“How long did it take to fix my room again, Dr. Crane?”
“Everything burned, you know that Gloria. Give me my glasses back.”
“Would you let me have my room back?” I teased, lying down on him and sliding his glasses back on.
“They’d send people to hurt you. You’re safer out here.” A sigh escaped his lips as I tangled my fingers into his hair.
“They would hurt me? Would they rough me up? Would they punch me and slap me and pull my hair?” I brought my lips to his and trailed my hands down until they rested on his chest. “Would they do all the things you wish you could?”
“Take the handcuffs off, Gloria.” I held his stare for a few moments, wondering what was running through his mind. These eyes focused on me, these familiar globes that were perfectly crafted to haunt dreams were the only part that remained the same when he transformed.
“Are you ready to talk about what brought you here, Gloria?”
The restraints on me were more secure than ever; kill one annoying inmate and they act like you’re Satan. It was ridiculous. Satan wouldn’t kill just anyone, he would hurt certain people. Gloria didn’t discriminate. But Dr. Crane knew that. He knew all of these surface details about me: age, height, weight, eye colour, dental imprints. What bothered him was that bruises and stitches and cuts couldn’t tell stories. No amount of evidence stains on my dress could read like a proper biography.
“Does this straight jacket make me look fat, Dr. Crane?”
“Gloria, please answer the question.”
“Does the off-white colour compliment my eyes?”
“Limit your responses to yes or no, please.”
I smiled, looking lovingly at the lie detector needle barely moving as the paper rolled and rolled and rolled; this would-be book with nothing on its pages. The white wires fed my brainwaves to the machine, this stream of white noise that was indecipherable. This measurement of my heart beat that couldn’t sell me out if it wanted to.
“Yes, Dr. Crane.”
“Did you kill Stephen Ogslode?”
“Yes, Dr. Crane.”
“Did you choke him to death with a shoelace?”
“Yes Dr. Crane.”
“Did you get the shoelace from one of the orderlies?”
“Would you like to hear a story?”
“Limit your responses to yes or no, please.”
“Yes, Dr. Crane.”
“Which of the orderlies was it?”
“I must limit my responses to yes or no, Dr, Crane.”
He raised an eyebrow at me; an action always associated with his being impatient, and licked his lips. He let out a sigh and rested his clipboard on the edge of the table and got up, walking over to the doorway and pressing a button. The red light on the corner camera turned off and I smiled, wondering what would happen next. From under the table Dr. Crane removed a silver briefcase. He placed it on the table beside the beeping machine and opened it.
“This is a free response question Gloria.” He fiddled with its contents as he spoke to me. “What do you fear?”
“Pretty butterflies and rainbows.” I smiled, challenging his psychiatric tests. He smiled back, a devious grin that insinuated he was bringing a gun to a knife fight.
“Would you like to see my mask?”
“Yes, Dr. Crane.”
He pulled out what seemed to be a potato sack covered with poorly executed stitches. It was void of any holes save two small ones for his eyes. It was being weighed down by something. A mechanical device, judging by the clicking sound that came from within as he did something to it. He then placed it over his head and I focused on his eyes. Then his fingers reached for the briefcase and a puff of white smoke came barrelling towards me.
The machine indicated that my heart was beating faster and I struggled to stay calm. The white walls around me began to breathe, heaving in and out like my own chest. A demonic voice sounded from somewhere in the room and I spun in my chair to locate it. The white of the walls melted away and revealed a familiar sight: dirty yellow wallpaper covered with a design of roses and years’ worth of sweat and other bodily fluids. A paint job of a different kind. The chair I once sat in was now a familiar bed and it squeaked with the same demonic laughter that illuminated nightmares. And then entered the eyes. Blue flames amidst the darkness. An anchor.
“What do you fear, Gloria?”
I smiled, reeling myself back in and watching as my senses floated back to reality. Back to the slightly shifty face of an old scarecrow, the brainless character off to see the wizard. All I was left with was the once-again calm beep from the machine and the increasingly anxious Dr. Jonathan Crane and the sickeningly boring white padded walls of the third interrogation room to the right in the East Wing of Arkham Asylum.
“Pretty butterflies and rainbows!” I sang, keeping my eyes locked with his. “What do you fear, Dr. Crane? Gotham’s finest discovering your fetish for destruction and handcrafted masks?”
That was what got him, hook line and sinker. After that I became a challenge. An obsession. It was two months after that I knocked out one of the orderlies and stole their lighter, setting the padded walls of my room on fire and narrowly escaping capture. Three and a half months later and he still lurked around every corner; showed up at every crime scene and intercepted any time I came close to capture.
Every time he found me, the same questions. Come stay with me. What do you fear? I’ll keep you safe. What do you fear? Tell me why you came to Arkham. What do you fear, what do you fear, what do you fear? And as always, disappointment. Never the answer he came looking for. I knew so much about him and he knew so little of me. He was no good at bargaining. But the biggest difference was I didn’t have the desire to know the depths of his mind. He let me in without any work.
“The handcuffs, Gloria.”
“Would you like to hear a story?”
“After you let me go.” A buzzing noise pierced through the silence and I smirked, sitting up and moving my hand down to his waist. I slipped my hand into his pocket, warning him not to get too excited as I took his cell phone from him. “Gloria, don’t—”
“Dr. Crane.” I said professionally into the receiver.
“Put him on the line.” A rough voice commanded.
“He’s tied up at the moment, but I’d gladly pass on any messages.” There was silence for a few moments and then a large exhale.
“You tell him Falcone’s got 2 crates of it and they drop goes down west side at 2:30, dark side in four.”
“Yes, Mr. Falcone.”
“Repeat that back to me.”
“Carmine Falcone has acquired two industrial crates full of the minimally tested fear toxin and it will be delivered in Gotham’s crate yard located on Sternahm road at approximately 2:30 am in four business days. Have a good night, Mr. Falcone.”
He abruptly hung up and I smiled, turning back to Jonathan and returning his phone. I straddled his hips, flattening my hands on his abdomen and looking down at him. My hair drip-drip-dripped onto his dress shirt, this camouflage he so perfectly wore to blend in with the world. In the darkness they could have passed for blood marks, just as the smeared makeup that transferred to his face could have passed for bruises.
“Does this make you nervous, Dr. Crane?” I asked, tapping my fingers on his middle. “All this control that I have?”
“You shouldn’t have done that, Gloria…Let me go now.” I giggled, bringing my lips to his once more and musing as he tried so desperately not to give in. It reminded me of the following five times he tried the fear toxin on me, and how with each time I had more and more resistance. The most rewarding time was when I had enough control to walk over and sit on his lap, his eyes flaring up with such a high amount of jealousy. All that envy of my control.
He couldn’t help himself, he never could. It was moments like these I wondered what it was like to need someone. What it was like to want and desire someone so desperately. To need, not be needed. To have so little freedom. The handcuffs may as well have never come off. Even as he was restrained he tried to push himself closer to be dominant. Hungrier and hungrier he became, pulling so hard on the post that it broke; the wood snapped but his handcuffs remained, and he slung them around me as we rolled over. At last, his wish was granted. He indulged himself for a few more moments until he truly felt in control again.
“You shouldn’t have done that, Gloria.” He growled.
“Is Mr. Falcone angry with me?”
“Does he want to kill me?”
“How exciting.” I mused, wrapping my legs around his middle and pulling him towards me again. He stopped me though, holding me away as he tried to be serious.
“You know too much Gloria…you should have left when you escaped. There are too many people in Gotham like us and it’s getting competitive for him. He questions my loyalty.”
“Jack and Jill went up the hill in the opposite of si-lence, Jack was knee deep in drug deals but Jill just wanted vi-olence.” I sang in an airy voice that only made him sigh. He sat up, pulling me with him and shook his head as I sat in his lap.
“He doesn’t understand that, Gloria.”
“What isn’t to understand, Dr. Crane? Not all villains are so predictable. Money and power isn’t what everyone wants. Some of us just want to watch the world burn.”
“He’ll find you, eventually.”
It ended with fire.
“Gloria? Gloria can you hear me?”
I couldn’t differentiate between the multiple injuries on my body; what was bleeding or what was burning, it all felt the same. A general pain. An overall hurt. Jonathan, of course, had been right. Falcone eventually caught up with me. It was while I burned down one of his warehouses, I hadn’t run fast enough. They caught me and beat me and punched me and pulled my hair. They cut me and chopped me and carved me up. The burned my skin, seared my skin, marked my skin with their tools. Tools used to make up for their inadequacies. Tiny details they focused on, but I was more about the big picture.
“Gloria, darling please answer me.”
“Darling?” I mused aloud as the glare from the fire I was left amidst reflected on a familiar pair of glasses. As usual, he’d found me. By the looks of it he had suffered some beatings too, but all I could do was laugh at his choice of words. “Darling, you sound as if we’re an old married couple living in a beautiful house and living on pensions. Darling. What an obtuse word.”
“I’m going to get you out of here.” He looked around for an exit before carefully picking me up. “Stay with me, Gloria. Talk to me.”
“Would you like to hear a story?”
“Yes, tell me a story Gloria.” He struggled as he carried me through this brilliant house of flames, this box of embers ready to give up. There was a van nearby with someone in the driver’s seat that ran out and opened the back doors. Jonathan lifted me inside and laid me down on a makeshift bed, barking instructions at the man.
“Once upon a time there was an innocent little girl.”
“Lacerations, blunt force trauma, fractured ribs, abrasions and first degree burns.”
“She lived in a beautiful fairy-tale home with two parents that loved her very much and a kitten that had been a stray.”
“Go to 34th and call Adrian.”
“One day on her way home from school a car stopped beside the little girl and a man came out.”
“Tell him I’m bringing her in and we may be followed.”
“The man smiled at the little girl and then picked her up and brought her into the car. She screamed and punched and bit like she would have been taught to, if she was older. But the man was strong and she was small and eventually she couldn’t see anymore.”
“Stay with me, Gloria.”
“The man kept her in a basement for four years, until she was twelve and ready to make him happier. This was when she was introduced to a girl named Sara who wore a very pretty floral dress. The man made her sit in the corner and watch as Sara laid down on the bed and took off her dress. The walls were yellow, a faded ugly yellow that the little girl never liked. Then the man put a pillow over Sara’s head until she stopped kicking.”
“Until she stopped kicking. And then he took the dress off the ground and handed it to the little girl, stroking her hair and calling her sweetheart and promising her the world. The room became hers and the dress became hers and the wallpaper became hers. There was no window to look out, but when she turned eighteen he let her into the living room sometimes. He let her read and watch television and eat dinner with him. Like they were married. Like they were actually mommy and daddy. And then one day he wanted a baby, so he gave her one. But before it was ready he wanted it back, so he cut-cut-cut and pasted it into his hands. Then he took the crying thing away and put it where Sara went. And then a fire started, but the little girl could never remember if it was her or not. The man rushed to get her out of the burning house that was not a home. He got her far enough and she realized she was free. She realized she could escape. And beside her was a rock and so she threw it at the man. He fell down and she rolled him over so she could see his unconscious face. And then she found the lighter in her hand and poured the gasoline within it down his throat. And then she lit his tongue on fire and ran. And ran. And ran. And ran. And then she found a police station and she knew she was safe.”
“Is that what happened to you?” I smiled, weaving my bloody hand into his. “Jesus…”
“Be careful Doctor, your sanity is showing.”
I had finally given in. I had finally given everything worth giving. He wiped away the tears that I didn’t know I was shedding and brought his face close to mine. I was at peace. I was free. If I died, it wouldn’t matter. I had fucked over Falcone and I had confessed my sins, I was ready to leave. But something told me that this anti-hero before me wouldn’t let such a predictable ending ensue. Together we were such a deadly dynamic duo. This constant war of fire against fire. These individually ironic incendiaries.
It ended with fire.