Arthur lies on the bathroom floor. Above him, the light bulbs flicker. His nose is leaking, his face a mess of tears.
Fuckin’ sissy, Hoyt jeers in his head.
Maybe this was inevitable.
He doesn’t want to move. There’s something soothing about the cool tiles against the back of his head. But he can’t stay here. Wincing, he pushes himself to his feet. Pain flares in his head. He grabs a handful of toilet paper, wipes the worst of the blood from the cut, and shuffles out. His vision keeps blurring. He’s not sure if it’s the withdrawal symptoms or if he gave himself a mild concussion, banging his head on the wall. Wouldn’t be the first time.
On the way to the subway station, he stops at a payphone, drops in a few coins, and dials Travis’s number.
There’s a click. “Travis Bickle.”
“Hey,” Arthur croaks. “It’s me.”
“Arthur. What’s wrong?”
He lets out a cracked laugh and covers his eyes with one hand. “Everything.” He leans his bloody head against the glass wall of the phone booth. “I...I don't know how much longer I can do this.”
A brief pause. “I’ll come pick you up. Are you at home?”
Arthur opens his mouth to tell him. Then he catches a glimpse of his reflection in the glass of the phone booth.
His eyes are sunken and glazed, the flesh beneath them dark and bruised-looking. His skin is waxy, his cheeks hollow, his wrinkles deeper and more pronounced than they’ve ever been. Greasy, stringy hair hangs down around his gaunt face. He looks like a skeleton with a wig. Like a dried-out husk draped in saggy skin. Blood still oozes from the cut on his forehead, and white greasepaint streaks his cheek.
Arthur’s never considered himself attractive. He’s all too aware of his many physical imperfections, and he knows that Travis loves him in spite of—maybe even because of—those imperfections. It is Travis’s love that makes Arthur beautiful to him, like a magic spell.
But right now, he’s hideous. There’s no way around it. He doesn’t want to be seen like this…not even by Travis. Especially not by him.
But it goes deeper than that.
Travis has seen him lose control before, but he’s never seen Arthur at his absolute worst—never seen him having a full-blown meltdown. Arthur doesn’t want to inflict that on him. And he's so close to falling apart.
“You don’t have to come here,” he whispers. “I just…needed to hear your voice. That’s all.”
“I don’t think you should be alone right now. Where are you? Which payphone?”
“I’m fine. I can get home. I’m almost to the subway station.”
“The phone near Ha-Ha’s, on the corner?”
Arthur doesn’t answer.
“Stay there. I’m coming to get you.”
“Just wait. I’ll be over in—”
Travis falls silent.
Arthur struggles to control his voice. “I’m telling you, I need to be alone. You aren’t listening. Just—just stop. Stop pushing so hard.”
Arthur squeezes his eyes shut.
What’s wrong with him? His mind is coming undone, and he’s pushing away the one person who’s trying to help him. But he just…can’t. He can’t be seen this way. “I’m sorry,” he whispers. “I’m in a really bad place right now. I shouldn’t have called. I know I’m being awful.”
“You’re not being awful.” But Travis sounds uncertain. Off-balance. “Sorry. I know I’m pushy, sometimes.”
“You’re trying to help. I'm just...I need to get home.”
“Okay. Call me back soon. All right?”
“I will.” He swallows, throat tight, and hangs up before he can dissolve into a laughing fit.
He didn’t mean to hang up without saying I love you. He didn’t want to end the conversation that way. But he can’t think clearly right now.
He walks out of the booth, head throbbing.
* * *
When he opens the door to his apartment, Penny asks, “What happened to your head?”
He touches the cut on his forehead. He spent the entire subway ride with a wad of tissues pressed against it, trying to staunch the bleeding, ignoring the stares of the other passengers. It’s mostly stopped, now. “I ran into a door.”
“A door?” She scrunches her brows together. “How did that happen?”
“It was a glass door. I didn’t see it.”
“That cut looks pretty bad. You should clean it out. Put some alcohol on it.”
“I’ll do that.” He walks toward the bathroom.
“How was work, by the way?” she calls.
He pretends he doesn’t hear her. He retreats into the bathroom and shuts the door before she can ask him any more questions.
He cleans out the cut as best he can, tapes some gauze over it. Shivering, he strips off his sweaty clothes and gets into the shower. He sits on the floor of the stall and lets the water beat against his back. He stays there even after the spray turns cold.
He knows he’s making this worse. Pulling away from everyone, spiraling deeper and deeper into a black pit of self-loathing. But he can’t bring himself to talk to anyone or touch anyone right now. It hurts too much. He feels as though his skin has been peeled away, leaving him a raw, disgusting mass of naked meat and exposed nerves. Any contact brings pain.
He curls up, draws his knees to his chest, and presses his hands against the sides of his head.
When he finally gets out of the shower, he heats up a TV dinner for his mother and brings it to her on her tray. He avoids eye contact.
“I’m just having a hard time, Mom.”
“Because I’m mentally ill. Because I’m depressed.”
She looks down. She doesn’t like hearing this, he knows. But he needs her to hear it. "You don't seem depressed, most of the time," she says.
“I’ve been this way for years and years. Sometimes I have bad days. I’m having a bad day now. Just leave it at that.”
After a few seconds, she nods.
He knows he should tell her that he lost his job. But he knows, too, how she’ll react. She’ll want him to start looking for a new one right away. Which, of course, is what he should do. He should open up the paper and start reading through the help wanted ads tonight. There’s no time to waste.
But the thought makes him so tired. What good will it do? The very idea of anyone hiring him—an aging, emaciated, depressed party clown—seems like a joke. They’ll take one look at his spotty job history—with the several-year gap he spent in Arkham—and reject him outright. And even if they don’t, even if he somehow makes it to the interview stage, he’ll be pale and shaky, he’ll lose control and start laughing. He was lucky to get the job at Ha-Ha’s, and he was in better condition, then. Why put himself through the humiliation, the rejection?
“Watch TV with me.” Penny pats the bed.
“I’ve got a headache. I might just go to bed early.”
“Are you sure? Murray will be on any minute. Watching him always makes you feel better.”
He forces his lips into the shape of a smile. “Tape it for me. I'll watch it tomorrow.” He bought a VCR recently, and some blank tapes. Now, he wishes he’d saved his money. He doesn’t know how they’re going to make it through the next month.
He curls up on the couch, listening to the familiar sounds of the Murray Franklin show from the other room.
He thinks about calling Travis back. Then again, he usually waits until Penny is asleep, and he’s not sure he can stay up that long. Tomorrow morning, maybe.
He doesn't want to worry Travis. He feels like he's worrying and disappointing everyone right now. But everything is just...too much.
He touches his face, feeling the grooves and looseness of his own skin.
Hoyt’s voice echoes in his skull: You’re a grown man but you act like a goddamn kid.
Anger burns a hole in Arthur’s gut. A part of him wishes he’d done worse than grab Hoyt’s shirt. In that moment, he wanted to hurt Hoyt. Really hurt him. But he’s terrified, too, of his own rage. Of what it’s capable of. If he ever really let go—went under and didn’t come back—what would happen?
He descends into a foggy half-sleep plagued by troubled dreams.
* * *
Penny shrieks from the other room, jolting him awake. Arthur bolts upright.
It’s dark outside. In the faint light from the hall, he can just make out the clock. Two-thirty in the morning.
Penny wails again—a long, tremulous, pained sound.
He leaps to his feet and runs to the bedroom, mind racing. Did she fall on the way to the bathroom? Did she—
When he turns on the bedroom light, she’s sitting up in bed, gasping, face streaked with tears. Her eyes stare blindly into space.
“I was pregnant,” she whispers, her voice wavering, “with you, and…I was in the hospital, giving birth…and…the baby, it was…”
He sits on the edge of the bed and puts a hand on her shoulder. She flinches. “You had a bad dream.”
She looks at him, her gaze unfocused. “He was dead, when he—when you came out. The baby.” Her face contorts. She starts to sob. “You were born dead.”
A chill runs through him. “I’m not dead. It was a bad dream. I’m right here.”
But she keeps sobbing. She won’t stop. It scares him.
He wraps his arms around her, drawing her head to his shoulder. She bawls like a small child—helpless, primal sounds. “It didn’t happen that way, Mom. It's not real.”
“Arthur, why is everything this way? Why does it hurt so much?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know.” He hugs her, not knowing what else to do.
After what feels like an eternity, the sobs taper off, and she falls back asleep. He turns off the lights and leaves her there in the bedroom.
His hands shake. The air whistles in his throat.
He can’t hold still. Can’t even sit down. He paces the living room, pulling at his hair until the strands come out, clinging to his fingers. He lights another cigarette and puffs at it in the darkness. His gaze strays to the naked, wax-white skin of his arm.
He grinds the lit end of the cigarette into his skin, and his eyes roll back at the warm, shuddering wave of pain that rolls through him.
But even that doesn’t bring much relief. Not for long.
He wants to bang his head against the wall. Wants to punish his own brain for being so broken and useless. The only thing that stops him is knowing that the sounds will wake Penny. So instead, he burns himself again. Then again, and half a dozen more times, until the red burn-marks wander up his arm like tiny footprints.
Hell is not a place, he thinks. It is in the brain.
You were born dead.
He sits on the couch, grabs a pillow and shoves it against his face, muffling his laughter.
He’s so close to breaking. He can feel it. He’s starting off the edge of a deep, dark chasm, and all he has to do is jump. A part of him wants to. Maybe it won’t be so bad. Maybe he’ll discover that he can fly. Or maybe he’ll plunge into nothingness and be swallowed. Either fate sounds preferable to this. This skin-crawling horror. This cage of flesh and anxiety.
His gaze strays to the phone.
If he hears Travis’s voice, he’ll be able to hold on for a little longer. Travis will pull him back from the edge, hold his pieces together.
But he can’t keep relying on Travis forever. There will come a point when Arthur breaks. Sometimes, he feels like he’s just delaying the inevitable.
If he jumps…what then?
The most basic definition of sanity, he thinks, is being in control of your own actions. Lunatics are sent to Arkham and regular criminals are sent to prison, because crazy people can’t be held accountable for what they do. They’re too broken.
Or maybe the idea of being in control is an illusion to begin with. Maybe sanity is a mass hallucination, and the whole world belongs in a lunatic asylum. But if the doctors are mad, too, then who will be the madmen’s keepers?
No, no. He has to believe there is a difference. He has to believe there is a version of himself, a sane Arthur that is in control of his own actions. The sane Arthur is like a set of restraints on his mind. A list of rules wired into him. Barricades and locks. An emotional shock-collar that gives him a jolt of guilt when he does something bad. It keeps him tame.
But there is another Arthur, a deeper Arthur, like a vast, shadowy form beneath the surface of a lake. When he is not restrained, he hurts people. He’s done it before.
He thinks about the file. The one Dr. Kane gave him. He hasn’t opened it even once.
The truth is there. His past. Everything that took place in Arkham.
A pain has taken root in the back of his neck, like a hot metal rod fused to his spine, so just turning his head sends skewers of red lightning through the muscles and nerves there. Pains everywhere. They fill his body. What is Arthur Fleck? A skin-suit stitched around a man-shaped mass of pain. Yet there is something beneath the pain.
He has to know.
He can’t keep putting this off.
That file isn’t who you are, Travis told him. It’s just your past.
But the past can’t be cast aside that easily. It roils beneath the surface, always. It pushes its way up.
He opens the cabinet and retrieves the file. He sits down at the kitchen table. Slowly, deliberately, he lights another cigarette and takes a drag, fingertips resting on the red cover. The file seems to pulse with dark energy. It whispers. The whispers slither like black snakes up his arms and through his skin, twining through him. Beckoning.
He opens it.
* * *
Travis stares at the phone, rubbing one hand over the other.
It’s been over a full day since he last heard from Arthur. He didn’t call last night. Morning came and went. Travis was out working for most of that time. Now, afternoon inches toward evening.
Travis wanted to call his apartment last night, but he held back.
He keeps thinking about the panic in Arthur’s voice. Just stop. Stop pushing.
He thinks about Betsy. About the fear in her eyes when Travis showed up at her workplace after she stopped answering his calls. His own voice, unhinged and ragged: You’re in a hell. And you’re gonna die in a hell.
He knows the monster inside himself. By now, he’s familiar with its whispers, its rationalizations. So when Arthur told him to stop pushing, he stopped. Ignored his instincts. He held back and held back. He stayed awake last night listening for the ring of the phone that never came and he fought the temptation to call. He’s fighting even now.
But it’s been too long. Something is wrong.
He is already reaching for the phone when it rings. He grabs it. “Arthur?”
“Travis?” It’s Penny.
“Oh. Uh. Hey. Listen—”
“Is Arthur with you?” she asks, her voice breathless and a little frantic.
His insides go still and cold. “No. I thought he was with you. He’s not there?”
“When I woke up this morning he was gone.”
“Does he have work today?”
“I don’t think so. Anyway, if he did, he should have been home by now. And it’s not like him to leave without saying goodbye. We usually have breakfast together.”
“You haven’t seen him at all?” she asks. “He hasn’t called you?”
“I talked to him on the phone yesterday morning. I haven’t heard from him since then.” He tells himself not to panic. It hasn’t been that long. But he knows Arthur’s in a bad state. His instincts are screaming that this is serious—that Arthur is in some kind of danger.
“What about you?” he asks. “When’s the last time you saw him? Or talked to him?”
“Last night. He went to bed early. Then I woke up in the morning and he was gone.”
“He say or do anything unusual? How’d he seem?”
“He seemed…sad. He said he was having a hard day. He wasn’t himself.”
Travis takes a slow breath. “All right. Listen. I’m going to Ha-Ha’s. I’ll find out if anyone there’s seen him today. Can you think of anywhere else he mighta gone?”
“No. I was so sure he’d gone to you. I thought…” Her voice wavers. “Do you think he’s angry at me?”
“Why would he be angry?”
“I don’t know.”
Come to think of it, Arthur mentioned a conversation about his father, the other day. Does that have something to do with this? But he didn’t seem all that upset, when he talked about it before. Then when he called Travis yesterday, he was a wreck. Something else must have happened.
“I’ll call you back in a couple hours,” Travis says. He hangs up and heads down to his cab.
* * *
Travis parks his cab in a metered spot outside Ha-Ha’s and walks in through the front door. It’s not locked or anything. Lax security, he thinks—especially for Gotham. Though he supposes not many people would want to rob a clown agency.
He walks up the stairs and finds himself in a—he’s not sure what to call it. A dressing room? There are mirrors, guys in clown makeup sitting around tables. Lots of clown stuff on the walls. A few heads turn toward Travis.
He stands there, wearing his usual brown jacket and a pair of sunglasses. “I’m looking for Arthur Fleck.”
A stout, balding man frowns, looking him up and down. “You with the police or somethin’?”
“I’m a friend of his.”
“Didn’t know he had friends,” a guy calls from the other side of the room.
A few of the others snicker. A muscle at the corner of Travis’s eye twitches.
“So, if you aren’t a cop, what makes you think you can just waltz in here?” the balding man asks.
“Door was unlocked. Don’t want people walkin’ in, maybe lock it. So where’s Arthur? He workin’ today?”
“I guess you didn’t hear,” says a soft voice with an accent. Travis looks around for the source of it. Then looks down. A dwarf stands nearby, a Styrofoam cup of coffee in one hand.
“Didn’t hear what?” Travis asks.
“Arthur got fired yesterday.”
Travis’s shoulders tense. “Fired? For what?”
“Not sure. He left right after Hoyt gave him the bad news. Seemed upset.”
“Upset?” The balding guy snorts. “That’s one way to put it. He nearly killed Hoyt.”
“Doesn’t surprise me,” another man chimes in. “I always had a bad feeling about that guy. He just put out a creepy vibe, you know?”
“Yeah, gotta say, I won’t miss him,” another clown says. “That fucking laugh.”
“Well, there’s zero chance of him coming back after he flipped out like that,” the balding man says.
Travis’s hands tighten into fists in his pockets. “What did he do, exactly?”
“Arthur just grabbed Hoyt’s shirt,” the dwarf says. “Didn’t hurt him. Randall was exaggerating.”
“You still defending that prick?” The balding man—Randall?—snorts.
“I’m not saying it was all right, what he did. But he wasn’t trying to kill anyone, for god’s sake.”
“You must be Gary,” Travis says. “Arthur’s talked about you. He didn’t mention you were a dwarf though.”
Gary raises an eyebrow at him.
“I mean, nothin’ wrong with being a dwarf. But it is kinda noticeable.”
“Wait,” Randall says, “if Arthur didn’t mention that, how’d you know it was him?”
“’Cause he said Gary’s the only one here who isn’t a cunt.”
Arthur didn’t use those exact words. He said that Gary was the only one who was always nice to him. Close enough.
Randall scowls. “Get the hell out of here.”
“I will, in a minute. So Arthur didn’t come in at all today?”
“He showed up this morning for a few minutes, just to grab some of his stuff from the locker,” one of the other guys says. “Didn’t say anything to anyone. After yesterday, no one was too keen on starting a conversation with him.”
So he was here. “Where’s the boss? I wanna ask him a few things.”
“Why? What’s going on?” Gary asks.
“I don’t know where Arthur is right now, and neither does his mother. And last time I talked to him, he was in a bad state. Just trying to figure out where he might have gone.”
“Look,” Randall says, “you’ve got a lot of nerve—”
“Hoyt’s office is down the hall,” Gary says, pointing.
“Thanks.” Travis turns and strides out of the room. He can hear Randall muttering behind him.
The door to the office is open. He finds Hoyt at his desk, leafing through a magazine. A porno, judging by the naked redhead sprawled across a bear-skin rug, spreading her thighs. Travis steps into the room and eases the door shut. Hoyt doesn’t look up. He moves quietly, sidling closer. “Hey,” he says.
Hoyt gives a start and looks up. He shoves the magazine into a drawer. “Who the fuck are you?”
Travis smiles, just a tightening of his lips. “Sorry to startle you, sir. Just spoke to your boys in the other room, and they directed me to you. I wanna ask a few questions, then I’ll be out of your hair.”
Hoyt frowns. He seems unsure. A little nervous. Good.
Randall mistook Travis for a cop. Maybe if he plays the part, Hoyt will answer him without giving him any shit. Travis leans over the desk. “When’s the last time you saw Arthur Fleck?”
“Yesterday. When I fired him. Why? He do something?”
“No. He’s missing.”
Hoyt inches his chair backwards. “Look, can you back up a little?”
Travis takes a step back. “I’m just looking for any information.”
“I don’t know where he is. What are you? Some kinda PI?”
“Somethin’ like that.”
“Yeah. Well. Sorry. Can’t help.”
Travis studies him through his shades. “If you don’t mind me askin’, why did you fire him?”
Hoyt snorts. “God. I could give you a list. He was bad news. Shoulda known that from the beginning. But the official reason is that he collapsed during the latest gig. Came into work the next day lookin’ like roadkill. Sweating, shivering…just a mess.”
“So you fired him for having health problems.”
Hoyt squints. His lip curls in a sneer. “You aren’t a PI. What’s this really about?”
“I’m just trying to find Arthur.”
Hoyt stares back at him—a long, searching look. An unpleasant smile creeps across his face. “Oh. I think I get it. You’re the reason he was limping when he came into work that one time. Is that it?”
Travis says nothing.
“Holy shit, I’m right, aren’t I?” He chuckles flatly. “You got some pretty weird tastes, I’ll tell you that.”
Travis takes a step toward him.
“Ah-ah-ah.” Hoyt pulls a .38 from his drawer and waggles it at Travis. “Decided to take some precautions, after Laffy Taffy flipped out on me.”
Hoyt doesn’t know how to handle that gun. Travis can see that. Probably never fired one in his life. He’s just waving it around for effect. Armed or not, this man doesn’t scare him. He’s a yapping little dog. “Fine, I’ll keep my distance. Just tell me exactly what Arthur said to you, before he left.”
“Why should I tell you anything? I don’t give a shit if you find your butt buddy or not.”
Travis’s molars scrape together. “He’s depressed. He might be a danger to himself.”
“Great. I hope he does the world a favor and jumps off a bridge.”
A dark fog boils behind Travis’s eyes. “Arthur is a good man,” he says.
Hoyt snorts. “Some twink walks in off the streets and thinks he can lecture me? For firing that loony? What, you think the jacket and shades make you intimidating or something? Yeah, I’m real scared.” He raises the .38, smirking. “Now get out, or I put a hole in your fucking skull.”
Travis stares down the barrel of the gun. He smiles tightly, baring his teeth. “Thanks for your time.” He starts to turn.
Then, in a flash, he lunges forward across the desk and slams his fist into Hoyt’s teeth. The impact knocks him backwards in his chair, and his head slams against the wall behind him. The gun flies out of his hand, slides across the floor and lands in the corner.
“Fuck!” Hoyt gasps. He scrambles toward the gun on all fours, mouth dripping blood.
Travis kicks him in the chest, knocking the wind out of him. Hoyt lies on his back, wheezing, fingers scrambling at the floor. His eyes rolls up toward Travis. “Help,” he tries to shout, but his voice is a hoarse gurgle trickling out through a mouthful of blood.
He opens his mouth again, and Travis steps on his face. He shoves the heel of his shoe into Hoyt’s mouth, forcing his jaws wide open. Hoyt lets out a muffled cry, flailing and clawing at Travis’s leg. Blood and froth drools down his chin.
Travis could kill him. It would be easy. He wants to. But that won’t help the situation. Hoyt is trash—he’s nothing. He’s not even worth killing.
He removes his shoe from Hoyt’s mouth and presses it down on his throat instead. “Where’s Arthur?”
“I don’t know,” he wheezes. “I don’t know anything.”
“You sure?” He presses down a little harder.
Hoyt’s eyes bulge. He croaks out, “I s-swear.”
Travis studies his terrified expression. Decides he’s probably telling the truth.
Travis gives him another kick—he hears the crack as a rib breaks—then turns and strides out of the office, down the stairs and out the door.
He gets into his cab and starts driving.
Probably shouldn’t have done that. He didn’t give any of them his name, but still, they could give the cops Travis’s description. It could complicate things.
Well, he can claim self-defense. Hoyt did point a gun at him and threaten him, after all.
He could check Pogo’s. Would Arthur actually go back there, after what happened last time? Worth looking, anyway. Worth asking around, seeing if anyone’s seen him.
He drives there. Surveys the room. No Arthur. He asks a few people if they’ve seen a skinny guy with shoulder-length, wavy brown hair and greenish eyes. They shake their heads.
He gets back in the cab and keeps driving. He drives past the diner where he and Arthur first exchanged journals. He checks the theater where they saw Fox and the Hound together.
God. That feels like so long ago now. Like another lifetime.
He even checks the alley where he first found Arthur, after his beating. No sign of him. He could be anywhere in Gotham.
Travis drives and drives.
* * *
The sky is dark. A light snow falls, settling onto the streetlights and awnings. Pedestrians are bundled up, wrapped in coats and scarves. The temperature is dropping rapidly. It’s not officially winter yet, but it’s supposed to be near freezing, tonight. Arthur is out there somewhere, wandering around in the cold.
And of course, the cold isn’t the only threat in Gotham.
He stops at a payphone and gives Penny another call. “Has he come back?”
“No. You didn’t find him?”
“Not yet. They saw him at Ha-Ha’s this morning, though. He went in to collect his stuff. Got fired the other day, apparently.”
“He didn’t tell me.”
“Didn’t tell me, either.” He rubs his forehead. “Listen. I’m gonna keep looking. I’ll check back in another two hours. Call the police, if you haven’t already.”
He hangs up. He doesn’t actually expect the police to do anything. The cops in Gotham are a joke. They only get off their asses to investigate a crime if the victim is rich and famous, or well-connected. But it can’t hurt to put out a missing person’s report, anyway.
He keeps driving. With each passing minute, the weight in his stomach grows heavier. If something’s happened to Arthur…
He pushes the thought away. Keep searching. That’s all he can do.
* * *
By the time Travis returns to his apartment, it’s close to midnight. He checked in with Penny again, about twenty minutes ago. No Arthur.
Travis didn’t sleep last night. His reflexes are shot. If he keeps driving around in this condition he’s liable to get into an accident. He’ll nap for a couple of hours and then go back out.
He trudges up the stairs. Unlocks his door. Steps in and shuts it behind him. He looks up.
Arthur is sitting on the couch. He’s facing away, so only his shoulders and tangled brown hair are visible.
Travis takes a step forward, almost afraid to believe in what he's seeing. Somehow, it never occurred to him to check his own apartment. Even though Arthur has a key now. “Arthur.” His voice comes out hoarse. Weak.
Slowly, Arthur’s head turns.
He’s wearing his makeup. But it’s different. Red paint on his nose. The same blue diamonds, the same red smile, but without the black outline. Somehow the simple lack of an outline makes that crimson mouth look…feral. Like his lips are smeared with blood.
“I was starting to think you’d never come home,” Arthur says softly.