Chapter 1: Trouble on a Subway
The man sat on the subway, his unblinking green eyes – a sea of unfathomable loneliness – staring absently forward. His lips were coated in a bright, red, over exaggerated smile, outlined thickly in black. But there was no hiding the waves of sadness splashing about in his eyes; they were as plain as the carefully painted makeup on his face. Being a party clown, he always wore a happy smile, hoping he could spread joy and laughter to the world.
But at the end of each day, off came the mask that concealed the broken man beneath.
He wasn’t just a clown.
He was Arthur Fleck – lifelong resident in the cold, dark, unforgiving city that was Gotham.
Arthur sighed quietly, his tired eyes shifting to the woman sitting opposite him. She raised a pencil-thin brow, as if to say what’s with the costume? Arthur said nothing, dropping his gaze awkwardly. The woman snickered under her breath and shook her head. He was used to being stared at as if he were an alien creature who didn’t belong in Gotham; it was a sad, but inescapable part of his life. It didn’t help when he’d plunge into unstoppable, uncontrollable fits of laughter. That earned him strange, unkindly stares by the bucket load.
His mind flickered back to that morning. He’d been riding the bus to work, like he did every morning. He'd noticed a young boy staring at him, his face a mixture of pity and childlike confusion. Arthur loved making kids laugh. It was one of his favorite parts about being a party clown. Seeing the boy’s face light up in an amused smile as he played peek-a-boo with him, Arthur too had felt a smile creeping onto his face. Adults might not have found him amusing, but he never failed to send kids chuckling. In that moment, it had crossed Arthur’s mind: maybe today will be a good day?
Like a vase smashing to pieces, those thoughts were shattered when the boy’s not-so-kindly mother snapped, “Could you stop bothering my kid?”
Even when Arthur presented a small card to her, still the woman's annoyance didn't vanish. It was a card he carried with him wherever he went, for there wasn’t a day that passed, sadly, when his uncontrollable laughter didn't pay him a visit. Despite offering her his card, still she’d shot him another look that screamed: freak. Without handing the man his card back, she wrapped an arm around her son's shoulders, as if Arthur were some dangerous, villainous monster.
Again Arthur wondered: why? Why did people treat him so cruelly? For one who only wanted to spread joy and laughter to the world, why was it that the world had only apathy and nastiness to spit back at him? It was a question he could never find an answer to. Maybe, he thought wearily, it was a question that would remain unanswered forever.
Pulling the laminated card out of his pocket, Arthur re-read the card for what felt like the hundredth time.
It’s a medical condition causing sudden, frequent, and uncontrollable laughter that doesn’t match how you feel. It can happen in people with an injury or certain neurological condition.
Slipping the card back into his pocket, Arthur frowned. He wondered if he could just maybe make it home without drama wrapping its tendrils round him. He shuffled in his seat, knowing the odds were dreadfully slim. Asking for a drama-free ride home was like asking for Thomas Wayne to help make the lives of Gotham’s less fortunate even a tad easier. Not going to happen.
Letting out another sigh, Arthur returned to staring out the window, lost in his tangled web of thoughts. How long the ride lasted, he couldn’t say. So hopelessly lost in his own world, it was like time screeched to a stop.
At one point, Arthur heard a startling screeeeech. He yanked himself out of his thoughts. Was time actually screeching to a stop?
Just the subway stopping to let passengers off and on. He yawned and rubbed his hands over his face. He hadn’t realized till now how tired he felt, though he doubted he’d sleep much that night. It wasn’t often he got more than a few hours of sleep each night. Already he knew what that night would look like: him sitting at the wooden table in his living room, scribbling down jokes in his journal, hoping with everything in him that one of these days his dream of becoming a stand-up comedian would come true.
Arthur watched absently as the woman across from him rose to her feet. Snatching up her gold, diamond-studded purse, she swept past Arthur without so much as a backward glance. He wasn’t certain, but he swore he detected a slight, but arrogant “humph” as she departed the train. It was like she was relieved at finally being able to get away from the freakish clown.
Before the doors closed, a young woman hurried on. While catching her breath, she quickly grabbed a seat. Setting her purse down beside her, she tucked a strand of hair behind her ear.
Arthur watched her curiously. She looked to be in her twenties, with coal-black hair falling past her shoulders like a dark waterfall. Her small frame was covered in a pink turtleneck and grey leggings. His lips curved up in a small smile. Her flamingo-pink sweater was the only colorful thing in that dingy, smelly subway. When her gaze fell downward, Arthur felt a pang of sympathy. He was no stranger to the deepening frown now etched on her face; that same frown greeted him every morning when he looked in the mirror.
She must have sensed she was being watched, for she silently cast her gaze onto Arthur. Immediately he forced his gaze back onto the floor, trying to pretend he was interested in the newspaper. He was thankful his face was painted white, otherwise she would have clearly seen the red blossoming on his cheeks. He suddenly felt like a shy little boy, and had to fight the urge to not burst out laughing.
Don’t laugh, don’t laugh, he thought desperately. Please don’t laugh. He swallowed hard, and distracted himself by fiddling with his thumbs. Deep in his throat, he felt an all too familiar sensation bubbling into existence, climbing its way up towards his mouth. He coughed loudly, praying his laughter wasn’t about to break free of the cage he struggled so hard to keep it in.
A minute later, he let out a silent sigh of relief. In his moment of relief, he chanced another look at the woman. She was reading, though it didn’t look to him as if she were fully absorbed in the story. Her gaze kept jumping about, bouncing here and there, as if she were only half interested in what was happening on the pages. Arthur kept his gaze on the window across from him. Keep on staring at her, he told himself, and she’ll think you’re a creep. J-Just pretend you’re sleeping or...or something like that.
Before he could think anything else, Arthur heard the sound of a door opening. A quick glance to his left showed three men entering the compartment. Dressed in wrinkle-free tuxedos and wearing toothy smiles, these new arrivals had cocky written all over them. The tallest of the three remained standing, leaning casually up against the silver pole, chatting loudly. The other two – a blond man in suspenders and a curly-haired man – were already sitting.
“Are you nuts?” the blond one exclaimed. He threw his hands up for emphasis. “Did you see how close we were dancing? She was in love!”
The tall guy scoffed, saying, “Right, right.” He cuffed the curly-haired guy on the shoulder. “That’s crazy. Tell him what you saw!”
But the other guy wasn’t paying attention. In his hand he held a crumpled bag. With a small smirk, he waved it in front of the woman, who was once again staring down at her book.
“You want some French fries?” he said in a slurred voice. Again he waved the bag, more forcefully. “Hellooooo?” When the woman lifted her gaze nervously, he went on, “Hey, I’m talking to you. Want some French fries?”
“No, thank you,” she said, her voice shaking slightly.
“You sure?” the guy asked, holding up a fry. He wiggled it and lifted his brows, locking his gaze on the woman. He licked his lips and added, “They’re really good.”
“Don’t ignore him,” the blond guy said. “He’s being nice to you.”
When a fry was thrown at the woman, she gasped in surprise. Immediately the three men burst out laughing. Shuffling uncomfortably in her seat, the woman shot a nervous glance at the clown.
Arthur watched her, his expression a combination of mounting fear and empathy. A small chuckle rolled off his lips, but his thoughts weren’t on the fact that an inevitable bout of laughter was on the way.
These men were drunk; that much was obvious.
They were drunk...and eyeing the small woman with wolfish grins. Instantly Arthur’s mind leapt into overdrive. He might not have been a genius, but it didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize what these men had on their minds.
It wasn’t French fries.
Arthur exhaled shakily. His heart pounded against his chest as the imminent danger this woman was in became startlingly clear. He could hear the clock tick-tock-tick-tocking down to...he didn’t want to think about what he feared it had to be counting down to.
He had to do something.
But what could he do?
No way could skinny, frail Arthur Fleck fend of three strapping young men! But he sure as hell couldn’t sit there and do a big, fat nothing. He had to get up and do...do...what? Tell them to get the hell away from her? As if these drunks would actually listen to some man in makeup and a clown suit? No doubt they’d knock him to the ground and introduce him to their kicking feet.
But it didn’t matter.
He had to do something...anything.
“H-h-hey!” he shouted. He covered his mouth momentarily, feeling that nagging urge to break out laughing. “G-get away from her!”
The woman took a deep breath. Her wide eyes landed on Arthur, and though she said nothing, he could hear the silent “thank you” falling off her lips. Just as quickly, her eyes were back on the three men. They were all standing now, closing the distance between themselves and the shaking woman.
“S-stop!” Arthur shouted, rising to his feet. “O-or I’ll—ha-ha-ha-haaa!”
It was instantaneous. All three men turned and shot Arthur expressions that each said the same thing: what the fuck? Arthur meanwhile, buried his face in his sleeve, unsuccessfully trying to silence his laughter. He took a breath and removed his face from his sleeve. Seconds later, once more his laughter grabbed hold of him, showing him no mercy.
“Is something funny, asshole?” the tall guy hollered.
Arthur waved his hand “no.”
The woman in the pink turtleneck watched him in silence. Unlike the men, who stared at Arthur with growing smirks, her expression was one of...compassion. The two’s gazes locked, and while no words were spoken, Arthur could tell she was scared.
The train was coming to a stop.
Arthur kept his gaze on the woman. He opened his mouth, trying to speak, but all that poured out was a louder, more painful laugh. He could hear the men snickering among themselves, but Arthur did his best to block them out. His focus was on helping the woman. Seeing the men sneering at him in unison, a light bulb went off in his head.
While still laughing, he cocked his head to the right. He didn’t need to speak to get across to her what he wanted to. Go! he thought urgently. With their interest now shifted to the laughing clown, no longer were they eyeing her.
When they train came to a stop, the woman rose to her feet. Before leaving, she shot Arthur one last glance. Again he motioned to the doors, silently insisting that she hurry out of there. Her eyes swam with waves of conflicting emotions. Finally, after what felt like eternity, she turned and exited the train.
A minute later, the train was moving.
“Isn’t it rich?” the tall guy sang, sliding his way over towards the clown. “Are we a pair?” The other two remained sitting, covering their faces with their hands, howling with childish laughter. "Me here at last on the ground, you in mid-air."
"Send in the clowns!"
Before he knew it, Arthur was surrounded. Gone was any chance of distancing himself from these three. All he could do was sit there and laugh and pray this would all be over with soon.
The curly-haired guy snatched Arthur’s wig of green hair off his head. Onto his own head he placed it. Sticking his tongue out, he gave Arthur a mocking smile. The other two snorted in approval.
“So, buddy, tell us, what’s so fucking funny?” the tall guy demanded.
"Hah-hah!" Arthur’s hand went to his throat. His laughing was slowing – he could feel it. Taking a shaky breath, he reached into his pocket where he kept his little card.
“I..I have a condition,” he said, his voice quavering. No sooner had he pulled the card out of his pocket than he felt it grabbed out of his hand. The tall guy tossed it aside, and winked at the other two. The next thing they tossed was the duffel bag.
“I’ll tell ya what ya have, you asshole,” he laughed.
With that, Arthur was grabbed from behind as the chaos began.
What happened next Arthur only remembered bits and pieces of. Such a blur time became when he was knocked to the ground. In the minutes that followed, he remembered only pain and loneliness as he lay there, the men’s feet kicking mercilessly. With each kick, Arthur winced, which only cranked up the volume on the trio’s laughter. Such sniggering spilled off the men’s lips that Arthur’s ears rang with the sound of it.
“STAY DOWN, FREAK!”
Again he wondered: why?
Why do people treat me so badly?
Why is this my life?
He stared sadly down at the floor, wondering how many more kicks it would take until death came to fetch him. If they didn’t stop, he figured it wouldn’t be long. There was only so much a man as skinny as Arthur could take.
It felt like forever when the men finally left. But even as they darted off the train, still Arthur could hear them tittering, their voices thick with cruelty. Arthur meanwhile, stayed on the ground. The pain coursing through his body was ruthless. But even so, his thoughts wandered to the woman. She was safe. He might not have been able to physically stop those men, but laughter had proved just as effective a weapon.
Laughter had drawn those creeps away from her. He was glad he’d been able to help. He was no knight in shining armour, nor was he a fearless superhero. He was, however, a romantic at heart. Creeps and thugs wandered the streets of Gotham like hungry, greedy rats. If people like Arthur didn’t step in to try and protect those preyed on by predators, then who would?
When he reached his stop and slowly stepped off the subway, Arthur stopped. It was nighttime. A light breeze kicked up, blowing his greasy brown curls across his forehead. He shivered, zipping up his brown sweater to ward off the autumn chill. Above him sat the moon, lounging about in a starless sky.
He tucked his hands in his pockets, staring aimlessly skyward.
He and the woman on the subway hadn’t spoken a single word to each other.
Yet he couldn’t get her out of his head. Something about her he just couldn’t shake. Unlike all the others he bumped into day to day, she hadn’t shaken her head in disapproval when he’d been visited by another one of his laughing fits. Not even a little. Nor had she sneered and laughed at him like he was the definition of a pathetic joke.
Arthur’s lips curled up in a small smile.
In the few minutes he’d known her, one thing he felt sure of: she was different.
He wished he could see her again. But he knew that wasn’t likely. Gotham was a big city. The odds of bumping into her again weren’t in his favor.
And yet still, this didn’t stop lonely Arthur from hoping all the same.
Chapter 2: An Angel to the Rescue
The clown spun the large yellow sign this way and that, twirling it as easily and gracefully as if it were the most natural thing in the world. Painted on the sign in large black and red letters were the words: EVERYTHING MUST GO!! He was performing beside Kenny’s Music Shop, a small business no one seemed to be paying much attention to as they strolled past. It was like the shop was invisible.
Arthur didn’t let the smile on his face disappear. When he wore his clown costume and bright makeup, he slipped into a different identify entirely. On that cloudy morning, he was no longer Arthur Fleck, but a happy clown who’d stop at nothing to spread joy and laughter to the world.
On his right, an old man played a piano. Arthur shifted his feet in tune to the song, letting the music guide him.
When a father and his two children walked past, Arthur lifted the sign high above his head in a dramatic fashion. Making a silly face at the kids, the boy chuckled. The girl clapped her hands in evident delight. Pleased by their responses, he stomped his jumbo red-and-blue shoes, mouthing the words, “If you’re happy and you know it, stomp your feet!” Both kids immediately stomped their feet, watching the performing clown with obvious excitement.
The unamused father, meanwhile, scowled at the clown and nudged the kids to keep moving. The little girl stole a quick glance over her shoulder. Arthur frowned briefly, but wiped his frown away, reminding himself that he was a happy clown. You've got a purpose, he reminded himself: to spread joy and laughter to the world. Forcing his lips into a broad smile, he held up one hand and waved at her in a friendly, silent “bye!”
That was Arthur Fleck’s clown name. It had been his clown name in the many years he’d been a party clown.
His smile widened as he recalled how he’d come up with the name. Growing up, he’d always longed to visit a carnival. A magical place chock full of sleepless fun – what greater place was there for a kid? But his mother had always struggled, financially, to support she and her son, so Arthur had never taken even one step inside a carnival. He could only imagine what it would be like to bite into a crisp, sweet candy apple, brave a thrilling roller coaster, to see nightly fireworks of all colors light up an evening sky. At thirty-five, still he longed to visit one, but times were hard. Life was difficult enough as it was; he could barely afford the apartment he and his sick mother currently lived in.
For now, he could only keep dreaming.
People of all sorts passed by Carnival as he danced to the music. In the sea of faces, Arthur noticed expressions of every kind.
So much negativity. It didn’t matter what face he looked to; it was all the same. A never-ending sea of negativity. Gotham was a city weighed down by such hopelessness, Arthur was surprised the city hadn’t yet crumbled.
As one spindly woman strode towards him, Arthur offered her a toothy, clownish smile. As expected, the woman ignored the smiling clown and picked up the pace. Though he wanted nothing more than to spread joy and laughter to the world, it was somewhat difficult when the world didn’t seem to care.
But he couldn’t stop trying. He refused to.
It’s a new day, he thought, injecting as much positivity into his brain as he could. Considering his head was filled with enough negative thoughts, he knew the importance of digging deep for even the smallest bit of positive thinking.
Kids, at least, always seemed to enjoy Carnival.
That is, most kids.
Carnival was spinning his sign over his head. Up and down, left and right went the sign, the focused clown slowing his pace for not even a second. Too absorbed in his sign-twirling, he didn’t notice the group of teenagers strutting directly for him. Only when he heard a cocky voice call out to him did Arthur swallow nervously.
Trouble was on its way.
“Yo, what’s up with your shoes, bro?”
He’s talking about me, thought Arthur, his chest tightening with fear. He’s definitely talking about me. He’s gonna...gonna... He hated thinking of what might be in store for him. Afraid of sending his gaze elsewhere, he focused only on the sign. The guys approaching him were the very definition of troublemakers. The way they carried themselves, the smug smirks glued to their faces – it didn’t take a genius to see these teens were hungry for an extra large helping of trouble.
And Arthur Fleck was on the menu.
“Hey, if you’re gonna be a clown,” the same voice shouted with a sneer, “at least you can be a good one, you know that, right?”
Poor Carnival had no time to react. The only noise that slipped from his painted lips was a startled, surprised, “ahh!” One minute he was spinning the sign round and round, lost in the world that was Carnival the Clown’s. The next it was knocked right out of his grasp. Lightning quick, one of the teens grabbed hold of the sign and bolted off, the other boys sprinting after him. Arthur reached out desperately for the sign, only to slip like a clumsy, confused camel.
“Hey!” he shouted in a hoarse voice.
Just like that, the chase was on.
Arthur knew he’d never catch them. Running in his jumbo clown shoes was not like running in comfy running sneakers. But he couldn’t let these kids run off with the sign. If Kenny came out and realized his sign was missing, the blame would fall all on Arthur and Arthur alone. Not to mention his unfairly strict boss, Hoyt, would not be pleased. The man had already given Arthur many chances. One more disappointment, and Arthur feared he’d lose his job at Ha-Ha’s before he’d have time to so much as blink.
“STOP THEM!” he hollered. Over and over again he called out for someone, anyone, to notice the pleading clown.
But they didn’t.
Because no one cared.
No one cared anymore.
“Come on, Clown!” the oldest guy taunted, laughing meanly. “We got the sign!”
Arthur ran as fast as he could, his lungs aching the faster he ran. Being a heavy smoker, it didn’t take much for him to get out of breath. But it didn’t matter. He was responsible for Kenny’s sign. He had to get it back.
Down the busy sidewalk Arthur ran. The teens kept looking back at him, the sneers on their faces refusing to die. How he managed to avoid knocking into people, Arthur wasn’t sure. With unexplainable speed, he weaved in and around men, women and children, praying he didn’t tumble and crash to the ground and break both his legs.
“Where’s your sign, Clown?”
In your hands, thought Arthur miserably. Determined to get his sign back, Arthur raced out into the busy street, not realizing at the time how dangerous a thing this was to do on a busy Monday morning.
Arthur cried out in alarm as he barely avoided being slammed into by an oncoming car. A few steps forward and another vehicle slammed on their breaks. The embarrassed, fear-stricken look in his eyes went unnoticed by the peeved driver, who honked harshly at the clown. Before Arthur hurried off the street, the cabbie rolled down the window to yell out, “Watch where you’re going!”
Arthur felt his legs starting to cramp. He doubted he could run much longer until his fuel tank ran out and he’d have to stop. His lungs were screaming for air with each step he took.
Faster, run faster! he thought in a panic, quickening the pace. The teens were a few yards ahead of him. Again and again Arthur pleaded for them to give back the sign, but his efforts were in vain. No way were they returning this clown’s sign willingly. If the clown wanted his sign back, then he’d have to take it from them.
Down the sidewalk Arthur ran, pumping his aching legs as fast as he could. He couldn’t let them get away! More than once he almost tripped, but somehow, he managed to stay on his feet. The longer he ran, the more it seemed he’d never catch these speedy kids. It was like a tiring, terrible game of Tag, and Arthur was It. They were simply too fast for him. Between not being as young as he used to be and wearing shoes not at all fit for running, how in the world was he supposed to catch them?
“SLOW POKE!” one guy yelled, laughing at the insult.
The other boys chimed in with equally-mean remarks of their own.
“Stop them!” Arthur shouted, feeling as invisible as a ghost. A few people strolling by cast him quick, curious glances, but nothing more.
Seeing the guys disappear into an alleyway, Arthur sped forward.
“HEY!” he yelled, nearly tumbling onto the grimy sidewalk. Wasting no time, he sprinted down the alley, relieved that he’d finally get his sign back. The group was standing beside a dumpster, sneering and making faces at the approaching clown.
“You fuckers!” Arthur panted.
So out of breath, Arthur didn’t notice the sign had disappeared. In the seconds it took for this to finally occur to him, it was too late. Out from behind the dumpster stepped the oldest teen, his face lit up in a satisfied grin. Up, up, up went the sign, right over poor Arthur’s head.
Then, with a sickening WHACK, down, down, down came the sign on Arthur's head. The boys cackled as the broken pieces fell to the ground. Even harder they laughed at the defenseless clown now at their feet.
“Come on, beat his ass up!” the oldest boy ordered.
Knowing what was coming, immediately Arthur shielded his head with his hand. The other he slipped between his legs, knowing one kick was all it took to cause serious damage down there. Having no chance of fighting off predators, all he could do was protect his head and privates as best he could.
“This guy’s weak!” Arthur heard the leader shout. “He can’t do nothing!” How many times those nasty kids kicked Arthur, he couldn’t say. Judging by the sharp pain radiating through his body, it felt like fifty. Though with how frail he was, even a few kicks or punches felt like a mountain of pain, pushing down upon him.
Arthur squeezed his eyes shut, breathing hard. Frantically he tried thinking of something happy. He imagined himself sitting cross-legged on his mother’s bed while the two of them watched their favorite TV program, The Murray Franklin Show; dancing in his living room as he let the music in his soul free and watching the smiling faces of kids as he sang “If You’re Happy and You Know It”, danced and made balloon animals for them.
Think of happy things, he thought, tears welling up in his eyes. Happy...happy...happy.
That was when he heard a voice.
Not a cold, cruel voice like so many in cold, cruel Gotham.
No, this voice banished Arthur’s fears instantly. The moment it reached his ears, he felt an unmistakable sense of comfort wash over him.
“Get away from him!”
Arthur’s eyes fluttered open. It took a moment for things to snap into focus. What he saw were the boys standing round him, staring in disappointment at the woman now a few feet away from them. Her mouth hung open in palpable shock.
“M-Mrs. Speck?” the boys shouted in unison. There was no masking the shock on their faces; it was as clear as the clouds in the sky.
“Is this what you boys do when you’re not in school?” she scolded. “Going around beating up on someone like it’s some kind of...of”—she let out a disgusted scowl—“joke?”
The boys said nothing. The oldest one merely stood there, hands shoved in his pockets, mumbling sulkily.
“And speaking of school,” the woman went on, staring sternly at the busted teens. “You should all be in Mr. Blackburn's class right now.” Her eyes fell on the bleeding clown, whose face was stained with tears. Arthur stared up, open-mouthed, wide-eyed, wondering if he’d somehow slipped into dreamland. "Though I guess math's just not as fun as beating up on a total stranger...is it?" She crossed her arms, saying, "Bet you weren't planning on coming to my class, either, huh?"
Arthur's eyes widened. This was the woman from the subway! She was even wearing the same pink turtleneck! A week had passed since that night. Since then, more than once she’d slid into Arthur’s mind. And now here she was, coming to his aid like an angel from the heavens. Too tired and dazed to lift his head off the ground, he laid there, staring at nothing else but her. She was scolding the teens, but Arthur couldn’t help taking in the sight of her.
She was small and skinny, like himself. Seeing her more close up, he couldn’t say for sure how old she was, but he guessed she was somewhere in her twenties. In this dark and dingy alley, her flamingo-pink turtleneck seemed to shine with color. If this was all only a dream, thought Arthur, he only hoped he could hold onto the image of this woman, whoever she was. He didn't want this precious picture to fade.
“I hope you know your parents will be hearing about this,” she said firmly. “This is beyond unacceptable! And don’t think Principal Parker won’t be giving you all a proper punishment. This kind of behavior is disgusting!"
Saying nothing, the group left. A few muttered sulkily, but most kept quiet. The oldest boy threw the woman a peeved look, but didn't dare say anything.
A moment later, the boys were gone.
Arthur opened his mouth to speak, but coughed painfully. He groaned softly, laying his head back on the wet pavement. Still he hadn’t taken his eyes off the woman. How had he managed to bump into this same woman, one whose name he didn’t even know? After wishing he could see her again, it seemed, somehow, amazingly, his wish had come true.
“I-I’m sorry,” she said quietly, rushing to his side. She locked eyes with the clown, shaking her head empathetically. “I’m a teacher at Hillridge High. Those...those boys are always getting into trouble at school."
“You,” Arthur uttered softly. “You saved my life.”
The woman’s gaze softened. Staring long and hard at this clown, it took only a moment for the light bulb to go off in her head.
“The...the subway,” she whispered in realization. “You’re the clown I saw on the subway last week.”
Arthur nodded, wincing slightly. His entire body was a throbbing, tender mess.
“You saved my life,” she told him, her quiet voice mirroring his own. For a moment, it looked like she might tear up.
“We saved each other’s,” Arthur commented, offering her a small, tired smile.
She returned his smile with one of her own.
“Guess we did.”
There was a brief pause.
“You’re hurt,” she said, looking Arthur over with palpable concern. “We have to get you to a doctor. You might need—”
“T-that’s okay,” Arthur answered softly, struggling to sit up. With the woman’s help, he managed. “I...I’ll be okay.”
“But you’re bleeding!” she cried, her eyes flickering to the blood at his feet. “You really should see a—”
“Nothing’s broken,” Arthur assured her. His face scrunched up in discomfort. Yes, he was bleeding, but it wasn’t anything a wet facecloth at home couldn’t fix. If he could just make it back home, he could clean himself up in the bathroom and rest on the couch.
The woman bit her lip. “Are you sure?” she said finally, eyeing Arthur’s bloody lips with a frown. “I’d be more than happy to drive you to a hospital.”
Arthur smiled in appreciation.
“That’s sweet of you,” he said kindly, feeling suddenly shy. He wasn’t used to anyone showing him such kindness. It was such a strange, but absolutely wonderful feeling. Despite his aching body, never had he felt so...happy. “B-but I’ll be okay...really.”
For a minute, neither Arthur nor the woman said a word. From outside the alley, the noise of honking cars, arguing pedestrians and barking dogs was all that could be heard.
Finally, the woman asked him, “What’s your name?”
“Arthur,” he answered, sounding like an innocent boy meeting a pretty girl. “Arthur Fleck.” Always in the mood for a joke, he put on his most clownish smile and added, “Well, actually right now I’m Carnival the Clown!” He squeezed his squeaky clown noise. It sounded like the horn on a child’s bicycle. “What’s your name?”
She smiled briefly. “Aubrey.”
Aubrey. Arthur replayed the sound of her name in his thoughts, loving the way her voice sounded. It was soft, like birds chirping early in the morning on a spring day. It was comforting, like the world’s most comforting blanket, one that’s fleecy and wraps around you on a cold winter’s night. He’d heard many sounds in the many years he’d been a resident of Gotham: the sound of one’s fist punching him in the face, the cruel laughter of those who showed him no empathy, fighting in the streets late at night...the list went on.
What he heard in Aubrey’s voice was that of an angels’ voice. No, she might not have had fluffy wings white as snow, or a shiny yellow halo hovering over her head...but what Arthur saw when he looked at this woman was an angel.
Just as quickly she was frowning again.
“You're in pain,” she said, focusing on his face. Arthur might have said he was fine, but his grimaces told her otherwise.
He sighed wearily. “It was just a bunch of kids,” he said, sounding visibly guilty. “I should have left it alone. Maybe if I hadn’t chased them for my sign, they wouldn’t have—”
“Wait,” she interrupted. “They stole that sign from you?”
Arthur shrugged silently.
“It’s completely their fault, Arthur!” she argued, laying a hand on his arm. “Don’t go and blame yourself for what they did. Those boys have gotten suspended more than once. Not surprised they went and did something like this but...but no way is this your fault. Okay?”
Arthur nodded meekly.
She’s beautiful, thought Arthur, unable to take his eyes off her. Not just physically, he thought, but beautiful for what she’d done: saving his life. Unlike the countless people who passed him everyday, indifferent to his endless suffering, she had noticed him. More than that, she cared. She could have easily ignored the suffering clown in the alley, but no, she’d noticed...and done something to help him. She didn’t have to help me, but...but she did.
“I-I’m kind of embarrassed,” Arthur said in a low voice. He dropped his head, his red lips sinking into a large frown. “I’m a grown man, I...I should have been able to fight back or...or—”
“But it was five against one!” Aubrey exclaimed. “They had you outnumbered. And it’s not like we’ve all got black belts and can defend ourselves.”
After a moment of unbroken silence, Arthur was back on his feet.
“I can’t thank you enough,” he told Aubrey kindly. “You didn’t have to do what you did. Those guys could have come at you, but you...you still helped me.” He fixed his sea-green eyes on her, his expression morphing into one of deep curiosity. “Why?”
“You needed help,” was her simple answer. “Not enough people in this shitty town help each other. Most only care about themselves.”
The words not you fluttered through Arthur’s mind. You stopped to help me. Again the word angel popped to mind. Never could he have expected to meet an angel when he set out that morning for work. Having met only uncaring devils, such an enormous, but wonderful surprise it was to have had an angel come to his rescue.
“Well, thank you again,” said Arthur, wincing at the pain in his shoulder. “I...I’ll just go wait for a bus to take me—”
“If you, I mean,” Aubrey started awkwardly. “If you want, I”—she ran her fingers through her long black hair. Arthur watched her, saying nothing. He wasn’t an expert in many things, but he could tell when one was feeling nervous. “I could drive you home, if...I mean, if you—”
“Oh, no...no, I couldn’t have you do that,” Arthur said. “You’ve already done enough. And...and anyway, I...I have to fix Kenny’s sign and get it back to—”
“Don’t worry about the sign,” she said, helping him pick up the broken pieces. “I can help you fix that. I’m sure with some glue and tape, we can at least put it back together."
“Really, you don’t have to,” Arthur quietly argued. “You’ve already done so much for me. I’m sure I can”—He grimaced as a bolt of pain ripped like knives through his shoulder.
“Where do you live?” asked Aubrey, holding him steady.
“Winslow Avenue,” Arthur said, gritting his teeth together. He was trying not to let on how much he was hurting, but there was no hiding his pain. “Near Robinson Park...”
“That’s perfect, then,” said Aubrey. “I’m on Winslow Street, too. I can drive you home.”
Again Arthur said under his breath, “You don’t have to do that.”
Aubrey’s cheeks flushed cherry red. “It’s okay. I...I want to."
She can’t be real, thought Arthur in denial. This can’t be real. I’m just dreaming. I’m gonna wake up and this’ll all be gone.
Aubrey’s car was parked on the opposite side of the street. After helping him across the street, Arthur found himself seated in the front seat of her small car. Dangling from the rear-view mirror was an air freshener. He inhaled, catching the definite scent of cinnamon. He wondered if she liked baking. As she settled in beside him and started the car, he suddenly felt shyer than ever. Here he was, a stranger, sitting in the car of a woman who’d shown him more kindness than anyone. He didn’t know what to say or do. He just wasn’t used to people showing him even an ounce of compassion.
What if she's not a smoker? he thought nervously. Being the heavy smoker he was, Arthur couldn't shake the smell of smoke from his clothes. What if the smell bothered her? What if she kicked him to the curb, telling him to find his own way home? He wouldn't have blamed her if she did it. He wished he had some cologne on him, something that could help mask the smell of nicotine.
Much to his surprise, she said nothing. Perhaps the smell didn't bother her? Or maybe, he thought, staring at her like a little boy with with an unshakeable crush, she's just a nice person.
When she drove off down the street toward Winslow Avenue, again Arthur told himself this was all a dream. A wonderful, too-good-to-be-true dream.
But even so, if it all truly was a dream, it was the most beautiful dream he’d ever had. And however much longer it lasted, he wanted to enjoy every single second of it.
Though he was in pain, he wasn’t thinking about this. He closed his eyes, letting a sleepy, relaxed smile spread across his face. For the first time in his life, Arthur Fleck felt something he hadn’t felt in a very long time.
He felt safe.
Chapter 3: Next-Door Neighbours
For much of the ride, Arthur was silent. More than once he opened his mouth, so badly wanting to say something, anything, even if it was just another simple, grateful “thank you.” But each time his shyness took hold, forcing him to go on staring wordlessly out the window. Say something! he kept thinking.
He inhaled, breathing in the scent of cinnamon wafting from the air freshener. He hoped the scent was strong enough to mask even a bit of the smell of nicotine he’d brought into her car. He shifted slightly, trying not to fret over it. But in the back of his mind, he kept telling himself he was stinking up her car. If only he hadn’t smoked so much that morning. If Aubrey was a non-smoker, then no doubt she was fighting the urge to plug her nose to block out the stench.
She’s just not saying anything, he thought, picking timidly at his fingernails. To be polite. He ran his fingers along the car seat, surprised at how much softer a material it was than seats on the bus. Sitting on the hard, not-so-comfortable seats of a bus for even twenty minutes was enough to make Arthur long for his couch at home. He hated taking the bus. But with no vehicle of his own, that, the subway and cabs were his only ways to get around the city.
“Something wrong?” asked Aubrey, finally breaking the silence between them. She kept her eyes on the road, but shot Arthur a quick, concerned look.
“I...” Arthur began. He took a nervous breath before continuing. “I-I’m sorry about the smell. I...I’m a smoker and I...should have asked you if you minded.” He suddenly wanted to kick himself for not having asked. No, he wasn’t smoking in her car, but it wasn’t like he smelled like a fresh bouquet of flowers on Valentine’s Day. He smelled like...like...like Arthur Fleck who’s smoked one too many cigarettes. Sure, he had an old shampoo he used to wash his hair. But it wasn’t like it was an expensive shampoo with an irresistible aroma that would drive ladies crazy. The minty scent was probably gone anyway.
Aubrey didn’t answer immediately. After a minute that felt like a painful eternity for Arthur, she said softly, “I don’t mind, Arthur.”
He wasn’t expecting that. What he'd expected her to say was something along the lines of "As a matter of fact, I do mind. Now could you get out of my car and find your own way home?" Too often he'd attract nasty stares from those passing by him on the streets, disgusted by the smell wafting from his burning cigarettes. Somewhere inside him, he feared her words were simply a polite, neatly wrapped up lie. He was used to lies being shoved in his face.
“I...I know I smell like cigarettes,” he confessed quietly. He avoided her gaze, looking not unlike a little boy who thinks he’s done something horribly wrong and is putting more blame than necessary on himself. “It...it’s not a nice smell.” He paused, wishing he’d declined her offer for a ride home and taken the bus. Besides, it wasn’t like she’d care to see him once she’d dropped him back home. They'd part ways and she'd vanish from his sad and lonely life like a speck of dust, never to be seen again.
Who, he thought sadly, would want to see someone like Arthur Fleck again?
Who’d want to see a nobody again?
Nobody, that’s who, he thought glumly.
Coming up to a red light, Aubrey slowly eased on the brakes. Picking up on the guilty tone in his voice, she laid a hand on his forearm. The touch sent Arthur's heart beating a little faster. Gooseflesh rippled down his arms.
“Trust me, Arthur,” she said sincerely, holding his gaze. “That doesn’t bother me.” Seeing the frown etched on his face, she didn’t look away. She kept her blue eyes on his green ones, speaking not only with words, but with her expressive eyes. “You could have died back there. You needed help and I’m gonna give you that.”
“You smell fine, Arthur,” she calmly argued, cutting him off. Both hands were back on the wheel, but while her eyes were on the road, her words were for Arthur alone. “You”—she felt a small smile tickling at the corners of her lips. She paused, falling silent. Arthur watched her curiously. For a second, he thought he noticed her cheeks reddening slightly, but he shook that off as impossible. Not a chance would this woman feel anything for someone like him. He was the farthest thing from Prince Charming. Thinking of an old nursery rhyme he’d read as a child, he thought: more like the Ugly Duckling. Yes, that was him. The Ugly Duckling of Gotham City. Odds were she was thinking of her handsome boyfriend, who probably smelled fresh and certainly not like Arthur.
Whatever it was she was about to say went unspoken. Arthur kept glancing at her, struggling to read her expressions. Her face was like a jigsaw puzzle, filled with so many pieces and expressions, none of which he knew quite how to read. Was she regretting having invited a total stranger into her car? His shoulders slumped as he resumed staring out the window. Was she annoyed at the fact that he reeked of cigarettes?
Not much was said for the remainder of the drive. Arthur was too busy convincing himself Aubrey would want nothing to do with him as soon as she dropped him off at his apartment. What would a teacher want to do with a party clown? Not in a million years could a woman ever be attracted to unattractive Arthur. Dream or not, he knew it would all end soon, anyway. The minute they reached his apartment, it’d be goodbye to the only woman who’d shown him more kindness than he felt he deserved.
Finally, when the silver car was pulling onto Winslow Avenue, Aubrey asked him, “Which house is yours?”
“I...live in that apartment building,” Arthur told her quietly. He pointed to the large, brick building standing tall on their left. “Over there...”
Aubrey flashed him a surprised look. “Really?”
He nodded in silence.
It was Arthur’s turn to flash her a surprised look. “But...but I’ve never seen you around.” Arthur didn't talk much with the other residents, but he did recognize most of them. He couldn't recall ever bumping into her.
“I just moved in,” she answered, pulling into the parking lot. “Few days ago. I’m not working as many hours as a teacher, so I”—she shrugged—“I couldn’t afford to keep my house. Downsizing to an apartment was my only option. Working part-time as a teacher, I just wasn’t making enough money.”
Arthur felt a mixture of emotions rushing through him.
Part of him felt sorry that Aubrey had been struggling financially. Most who lived in Gotham were struggling financially; it it was an unfortunate, but inescapable truth. He knew the feeling all too well. He didn’t bring home much money as a party clown, so supporting both he and his ill mother was never easy.
But he also felt...glad. Of the many residents living in his apartment building, not one ever took the time to say so much as “hi” to him. With how much notice they gave him, he felt more like a ghost of Gotham than a living, breathing human being with feelings. But here was this woman who’d not only saved his life, but offered him a ride home. Maybe, he thought, unable to keep his excitement from ballooning, she’ll want to hang out with me?
No, don’t be stupid, he thought quickly. No one’s ever wanted anything to do with me. Why would she be any different? As he stepped out of the car and followed Aubrey down the sidewalk, he tried shaking off the burning pain in his shoulder. And anyway...she’s probably got a boyfriend and will forget all about me once she’s back in her own apartment.
“You okay?” she asked, watching him closely. “Need some help?”
“N-no,” he said, taking it slow. “I’m okay, just...a bit sore in my legs, is all.” He gave her a small, reassuring smile. “I’m okay...really.” She watched him closely, walking alongside him in case he stumbled.
When she saw his shoulders fall at seeing the intimidating stairs before them, she jumped in, saying, "Here, lean on my shoulder." Step by step by step by step, the two started their way up the enormous staircase. Every day Arthur trudged up these stairs, always feeling like his feet weighed heavier than bricks. But he wasn't alone. With Aubrey walking alongside him, she supported him, helping him reach the top without stumbling down, down, down to the bottom. Arthur knew without her help, he probably would have have tumbled down and broken bones on his way to the bottom.
A few minutes later, they were on the main floor of his apartment. His eyes took in the chipped walls covered with graffiti, words and images, most of which Arthur couldn't quite make out. It was all such a mess and blur of colors. But then wasn't that Gotham City itself? A mess and blur of colors, swirling round and round in sleepless chaos?
“Which apartment’s yours?” she asked.
“8J,” said Arthur, hands buried in his pockets.
“That’s funny,” she commented thoughtfully.
“What is?” He sent a confused look her way. For a minute, he feared she was laughing at him. Had he done or said something stupid? He wanted nothing more than to have people laugh at him, but because they thought him humorous. Not some bumbling buffoon who couldn't tell left from right.
“You and I are next door neighbours,” was her answer. When Arthur turned, he saw a small, subtle smile sneaking onto her face. For the second time, he thought he caught her pale cheeks turning rosy red. Quick as lightning, he reminded himself not to think so foolishly. “I’m 8I.”
Next-door neighbours? Arthur felt something warm and fuzzy stirring inside him. So badly he wanted to believe he and this woman could become friends. How nice, he thought longingly, would it be if she actually wanted to spend time with him? As if he were an interesting person who she wanted to get to know. If she wanted to listen to his jokes, jokes that he was striving so hard to perfect in his tireless efforts of becoming a stand-up comedian? He couldn’t help imagining he and Aubrey sitting side by side on his living room couch, watching the Murray Franklin Show together.
Before entering his apartment, again Arthur told her, “Thank you...for giving me a ride home and everything. You didn't have to do that.” Already he’d thanked her probably ten times, but he wanted her to know just how much he appreciated it. It was so much more than a kindly gesture; it was the most kindness anyone had ever shown him in thirty-five years.
“Of course,” she said, smiling coyly.
Chapter 4: Tenderness
As he opened the door to his small apartment, Arthur swallowed hard. In a matter of seconds, he’d gone from feeling thankful that this woman would be stepping foot inside his home...to feeling downright terrified. Alarm bells rang loudly in his mind.
She was going to be entering his home!
What would she think when she found out he lived with his mother? It wasn't often men still lived with their mothers at thirty-five but he couldn’t just leave his mother. She needed someone to care for her, and her son, Arthur, was the only person she had. He bit his lip, wondering what she’d think of how small their apartment was – how he didn’t even have a bedroom to call his own.
Before he could say even a single word, already she was following him inside. Arthur swore his stomach did a flip. It was official. She was in his home. At least there’s no dirty underwear on the floor, he thought, breathing a silent sigh of relief. If there was one thing Arthur wasn’t, it was a slob. It was true his apartment wasn’t much, but he did his best to keep it clean and tidy.
When Arthur entered the living room, he expected to see his mother sound asleep in her easy chair. She wasn’t, which told him she must already be in bed.
“Happy,” called a woman’s voice. “Did you check the mail before you came up?”
“Yeah, Ma,” he called back. “Nothin’.”
He turned to Aubrey, tucking his hands inside his pockets. No matter how hard he tried, he could never look like anything other than a shy little boy.
“I live with my mother,” he explained awkwardly. He felt a familiar sensation slithering up his throat. Not now! he thought, his panic swirling like a tornado. Please, not now! “She...she’s sick and can’t do much for herself, so I...I take care of her.” He hung his head in shame, averting his gaze downward. “I-I know it’s embarrassing. I’m thirty-five. I...I shouldn’t still be living with my mother...”
“There’s nothing wrong with that,” was her answer. Arthur listened, searching for a hint of laughter in her voice. He was used to people giving him strange looks or laughing at the fact that a grown man still lived with his mother. But Aubrey spoke with sincerity; there wasn’t a hint of laughter in her voice. “It shows you care about her. Not everyone would do the same. Not everyone would care for their parents like that.”
Arthur shrugged, saying nothing. He wanted to believe what she was saying. He wanted nothing more than to. But the uncertainty clinging onto him seemed unbreakable. Still there was a part of him fearing she was saying what she said only because she didn't want to hurt his feelings.
“Let’s go to the bathroom,” Arthur suggested, leading the way. “Mom’s a chatterbox. If she knows you’re here, she’ll talk the ear off you.”
Luckily, his mother was one who slept like a rock. It often took something loud to yank her out of sleep.
Much to his relief, moments later, he heard the familiar sound of her snoring.
As he led her into the bathroom, Arthur heard another familiar sound. The small radio he kept on the table was playing a favourite song of his mother’s: The Moon is a Silver Dollar. The song played quietly as the two stepped into the room.
Not knowing what to say or do, Arthur stood there, praying he didn’t burst out laughing. She’ll leave for sure if she finds out about my condition, he thought, forcing a particularly large lump down his throat. If he could just keep his laughing locked up, but too often it broke free of its cage. What made him think this time would be any different?
“Here, why don’t you sit down?” said Aubrey gently, helping Arthur into a wicker chair. “That should be more comfortable.” Like an obedient puppy, he took a seat in the chair, wincing as his shoulder rubbed up against the back. He leaned forward, grimacing quietly.
“I’ll help you wash the makeup off,” she said in as soft a voice as Arthur had ever heard. She took a facecloth, ran it under the tap until it was lukewarm and brought it up to the man’s face. All the while, Arthur kept staring at her in a dreamlike state. Still afraid he’d wake up from this seemingly impossible dream, he wanted to hold onto every second and never let go.
Without a word, Arthur removed his wig of green hair, placing it on the floor beside the little brown hat. Next he pulled off the red nose, and his white gloves. The joker in him couldn’t resist squeezing the nose, the honk-honk sound eliciting a smile on his face. To his delight, even Aubrey broke out in a small smile at the silly sound. Seeing her smile, Arthur felt his own smile broadening. If only he could take her smiling face, frame it and hold onto it forever.
“Tell me if it hurts anywhere, okay?” She took a seat on the edge of the bathtub and leaned forward.
Arthur nodded. Without needing to look, already he felt his cheeks burning with red. He prayed she didn’t notice. The last thing he needed was having her think of him as a freak. Enough people at Ha-Ha’s already saw him as a freak. He couldn’t bear the thought of the angel who’d saved his life seeing him that way. Over and over again, he kept thinking desperately: please like me...please like me...please like me...
More than ever he craved for the one thing he’d never been granted.
Gently, as if afraid even the lightest touch would hurt him, she placed the warm facecloth against Arthur’s cheek. Slowly, ever so slowly, the white paint began fading. Bit by bit, the pale color beneath became visible. Arthur said nothing, sinking deeper and deeper into a state of...calmness. A few times he winced quietly when she'd gently dab at the cut on his lip, but still he said nothing. Having been his mother’s caregiver for most of his life, never had Arthur known what it felt like to be cared for. So busy trying to spread joy and laughter to the world, so busy looking after his mother – not once had Arthur ever had anyone do something kind for him. No one ever took the time to return the favor.
Till Aubrey came along.
“There,” she said, wiping off the last of Arthur’s face paint. With the white paint now gone, Arthur felt suddenly...naked. With the makeup gone, she was now saying goodbye to Carnival and getting her first look at the man beneath the mask: Arthur Fleck. He worried she’d look away in disgust and get up and leave right then and there.
But she didn't.
Her eyes were glued on Arthur, taking in his face and all its details. The mesmerizing green in his eyes – so soft and mysterious, a complex puzzle all on their own. Expressive beyond description. Eyes that had so much to say, they didn’t know where to even begin. The beautifully long lashes that only made his eyes that much more entrancing. The brown curls in his hair. Even the scar above his lip didn't go unnoticed. The way his face would absolutely light up when he’d smile, how his dimples would come out of hiding.
The radio started playing a different song, but Arthur barely noticed. The only sound he could hear was the pounding of his heart in his chest. She was staring, staring so deeply at him that he swore it was like she was staring straight into his soul.
“You’re...” Aubrey squeaked, but quickly slammed on the brakes. She gave a little cough, smiled bashfully and uttered, “Your face, it...it looks okay. Just that little cut on your lip, but the bleeding looks like it’s stopped.”
Arthur studied her expression with childlike curiosity. The way she’d said “you’re”, it almost sounded as if she were...in awe. But that was ridiculous, thought Arthur. There was nothing about him that would make anyone lay their gaze on him as if he were some colorful, beautiful work of art in a museum. Not a chance. He wasn’t anything special. He wasn't even average. He wasn’t like the attractive, confident men that could sweep women into their arms with their natural charm and good looks. He was just the opposite: not confident, not attraction and unable to sweep any woman into his skinny arms, for he had no natural charm and zero good looks.
He was just...Arthur. A passionate party clown and aspiring comedian struggling just to get by.
Not knowing what to say, Arthur uttered a simple, quiet, “thank you.” In the short time he’d known this woman, already he’d lost count of how many times he’d thanked her.
Shifting in his seat, Arthur let out a small whimper. The pain radiating in his right shoulder was worse than he’d thought. He figured it was only a bruise, but with how much of a beating he’d taken, it was bound to be a big one.
“You should take your shirt off,” Aubrey suggested, watching Arthur with growing concern. “We need to get some ice on that, to help with any swelling.” She shot a sideways glance at the white cabinet and asked, “Do you have some Tylenol? That'll help with the pain.”
Arthur nodded, saying, “Should be some up there.” He laid a hand upon his shoulder and winced. He wondered how long it would take for the pain to fade.
A moment later, she returned with a bottle of Tylenol.
Arthur, meanwhile, was feeling a sudden, overwhelming sense of...self-consciousness. He knew he was a skinny man, not at all muscular or athletic like so many others. The thought of Aubrey seeing just how thin he was sent his stomach in knots.
He took a breath, chuckled, and started unbuttoning the plaid tux. Hardly had he finished with the first button when another chuckle rose up into his throat.
“Hmm,” he uttered, squeezing his eyes shut in embarrassment.
“Ha-hah-hah....hah-ha....hah!” So hard he tried suppressing the laughter that took such joy in popping up at all the worst times.
“Happy?” came his mother’s voice. “Are you okay?”
Arthur covered his mouth, waiting for the frustrating laughter to pass.
“Fine, Ma!” he called out, hand now touching his throat. “Hah...just taking a bath. Go back to sleep."
“A-are you okay?” asked Aubrey, her voice a mixture of concern and confusion.
“I’m sorry,” said Arthur, dropping his head in shame. “I...I’m not laughing at you. It’s just...I have a condition.” From out of his pocket he pulled out the laminated card. He handed it to her, hoping he could survive the rest of the night without plunging into painful laughter. He hoped she’d believe him; he hated thinking she might think he was a liar and was laughing at her.
After reading the card, she returned it to him. Giving Arthur a reassuring smile, she said, “Don’t be sorry. There’s nothing to be sorry about.”
Arthur smiled in appreciation. Hands down, he thought, this is the best dream of my life. Instead of staring at him like he was a strange creature, Aubrey’s reaction was just the opposite. She was treating him in a way no one else had ever bothered doing.
She was treating him like an actual person.
And he was eternally grateful for it.
Nervous though he was, Arthur slowly undid the rest of his tux. Next he unbuttoned the orange vest beneath, placing it in a pile along with the plaid tux. Also joining the pile was his striped tie and red flower that squirted water. When only his white shirt remained, he started undoing the first button...and paused. He exhaled softly, silently hoping she wouldn’t find him repulsive. He thought of his ribs, how they were so prominent, what with the lack of fat on his body.
But there was nothing he could do about it.
All he could do was hope she didn't look away in disgust.
Heart hammering in his chest, Arthur worked his way down his shirt. His hands trembled slightly, but he kept going. There was no turning back now. Stopping now would only make things worse.
Fighting back an uneasy laugh, he pulled off his shirt. It fell to the floor, joining the pile of clothes that were Carnival the Clown's.
Arthur stared down at the tiled floor, waiting for a gasp of disgust from Aubrey.
But it never came.
Instead she walked behind him, inspecting his back and how badly he was hurt. Resting her fingers lightly – her touch light as a feather – on his right shoulder, she told him, “We need to get some ice on this. It’s a bruise, but there’s a lot of swelling.” Beside her she picked up the ice pack she’d retrieved from the cabinet. Gently she placed it on his shoulder.
“Ahh,” he winced, squeezing his eyes shut. Too many times he'd been beaten and made to feel like dirt. Yet each time he was battered felt like a new stab to the heart, a fresh helping of pain, each one worse than the last.
“I know,” she said in understanding. “I’m sorry...but the ice will help take down the swelling. And the Tylenol will help with your pain.”
As she kept the ice against his bruised shoulder, soon Arthur felt a welcoming sense of relief. Slowly the pain was fading, but he knew the healing wouldn’t happen overnight. But right then, his focus wasn’t on the pain to come.
It was on the simple, but wonderful fact that she was taking care of him.
Not once had she commented on his skinny frame.
Not once had she called him sickly.
In that moment, her focus was solely on caring for a man who so desperately craved whatever kindness he could get. So starving he was for it that even the smallest shred of kindness meant the world to him. Little did this woman know what taking time out of her life to help him meant to him.
It meant everything.
While she kept the ice pack on Arthur’s shoulder, he felt an overwhelming sense of shyness. Something about being alone with this woman, with his shirt off, with her touching his chest and back with her hands made him feel unshakably shy. Never had he had a woman touch him like this. Not, he thought quickly, that there was anything sexual unfolding. But something as simple as a woman's hand on any part of him was a foreign feeling.
How he hungered for more. Thirsted for her fingers against his skin, even if just for a moment longer. How he wanted to close his eyes and drink in the simple, lovely feeling of her hand upon his skin.
“So, um...d-do you like being a teacher?” he asked, trying to make small talk. Being socially awkward, he wasn't an expert when it came to initiating conversation. He just never knew what to say to people, and was always convinced he kept on saying all the wrong things.
She shrugged halfheartedly.
“I dunno,” she answered with a sigh. “Sometimes...but”—there was a brief stretch of silence—“sometimes I wish I wasn’t. I mean, it’s not that I don’t like what I do. I do. It’s it’s just...kids can be so...exhausting. Especially when they’re in high school.”
Arthur was no stranger to that truth. The kids that stole his sign and beat him like jelly were proof of it. Down the busy sidewalk he’d ran, running so hard his legs and lungs had screamed for him to slam on the breaks.
“What if you taught younger kids?” Arthur suggested. “You know, like preschoolers?”
“Wish I could,” was her answer. “But jobs are tough to find these days." She sighed wearily. "There’s just not a high demand for teaching jobs right now. I’m lucky I even have a job teaching, even if it’s only part time.”
He nodded in agreement.
“What about you?” said Aubrey, looking over the pile of Carnival’s clothes. “Do you like being a clown?”
“I do,” he quietly replied. “I like making kids laugh. It’s always easy making them smile and laugh, but I”—he ran his fingers through his mop of unkempt brown hair—“what I want more than anything is to be a comedian.”
“Really?” Aubrey said, giving him a small smile. “That’s awesome.”
Arthur gave a small smile, but said nothing.
“I...I just wish I was funny,” he uttered under his breath. “I mean...I’m just not funny like the guys at Pogos. They always get people laughing. They're just so good at what they do."
“True,” she said thoughtfully. “But ya gotta start somewhere, right? I’m sure it took them a while to get where they are. Nothing happens overnight. I want to be an artist, but I’m still learning how to use colors and strokes and—”
“You paint?” said Arthur curiously.
She nodded. “Trying to get better at it though.” She chuckled, saying, “I got a long way’s to go...”
That was when Arthur got an idea. He could feel his nerves bubbling inside him like soup on a stove. Before he could chicken out, he squashed his nerves and dove into the freezing cold water that was courage.
“Hey, uh,” he began, hoping he didn’t sound too nervous. “If you like, we...we could maybe help each other. I wouldn’t mind taking a look at your artwork, if you wouldn’t mind hearing some of my jokes. That way, we could, uh...well, I mean...we could sort of help each other, ya know?” This is coming out all wrong! he thought, failing to stop his panic from exploding. She’s gonna think you’re an idiot! You just met the girl and already you’re asking if she wants to...to hang out...like...like friends?
At first, Aubrey said nothing.
Instantly Arthur felt his hopes deflating, like a popped balloon. She wanted nothing more to do with this man. He wanted to kick himself for thinking she’d want to hang out with someone like—
“Okay,” she said in a quiet voice.
Arthur swore the bathroom was spinning. Had he heard right? Did this woman actually want to see him again? It sounded so impossible, yet it wasn’t, because a small smile was stuck to her face.
“N-not that I know much about art,” said Arthur quickly. “I...I don’t. I really don’t know anything about art, but”—a little smile tugged at the corners of his lips—“I wouldn’t mind taking a look anyway...”
After a few more minutes of talking, the afternoon was drawing to a close. Arthur wished this could go on forever, but he reminded himself not to feel sad at Aubrey leaving. If she meant what she’d said, then they’d be seeing each other again. After all, he thought gleefully, we’re next door neighbours now!
Before leaving, the last thing Aubrey did was help Arthur fix Kenny’s broken sign. Of course there was no fixing it completely, but it was certainly better than nothing. Arthur hoped Kenny wouldn’t think he was lying about having been jumped...but he’d just have to deal with that when the time came. Tomorrow morning, he’d explain the situation to him and hope he wouldn’t flip out like an angry chimp.
For the rest of the night, Arthur sat on the couch, staring with unblinking eyes at the TV screen. Not caring what show was playing, he replayed that day’s seemingly impossible events over in his head. Far from tired, he remembered her face, how pretty she was when she smiled, how much she’d done for a man who had only dreamed of what it felt like to have one care for him.
If it’s all just a dream, thought Arthur, propping his hands behind his head, I just hope it doesn’t end.
Before finally nodding off, his last thought was that he couldn’t recall the last time he’d smiled so much.
Chapter 5: A Man and his Journal
It was midnight. Arthur sat at the small table in his living room, shirtless, a pen in one hand and a burning cigarette in the other. He’d spent the past hour sitting there, unable to do anything other than stare in frustration at the ceiling. While his mother slept like a log in her bedroom, snoring away, Arthur replayed that day’s events over in his head.
He’d woken up that morning feeling fresh and ready to take on the day. If not for Aubrey having strolled into his life, he would have tackled the day the same way he always did: with little hope the day would have anything good to offer him.
So hopeful he’d been today would be the start of something new.
How totally wrong he’d been.
Today had been as shitty as any other.
Tightening his grasp on his ballpoint pen, Arthur spilled out his emotions the way he always did: through his journal. At the end of the day, he always had his notebook, a private place where he could let loose all his frustrations. His sadness. His desperate, sleepless longing to be accepted by society. The constant hunger to find someone who could rip out the layers of loneliness buried deep inside him.
Flipping open to a blank page, Arthur wrote:
Truth is a
weerd funny thing. I was always told to tell the truth and to not tell lies. But this morning when I gave the sign back to Kenny, he didnt beleeve me when I told him I got jumped. I tried telling him about the kids that stole the sign and hit me on the head with it, but he caled me a liar. Didnt care I tried putting the sign back togethur eiether. He was anoyed, but thats not the wurst part. He caled Hoyt and Hoyt didnt beleeve me either! Now hes take taking money out of my pay chek, but I dont understand why! I gave the sign back! Its like no mattur what I say, people think Im lieing...but Im not! You try telling the truth and its like NO ONE KAR CARES!
Taking a puff of his cigarette, Arthur inhaled, then exhaled deeply. He tossed his pen aside and shook his head in frustration. Both Kenny and Hoyt didn’t believe him. The words ‘liar, liar, pants on fire’ jumped to mind. Even as a kid, Arthur had always told nothing but the truth. But sadly, telling the truth didn’t always keep you out of the choppy seas of trouble. Sadly, more often than not, it was the slippery, sneaky liars that snuck under people’s skin, getting away with almost anything and everything.
Even if Arthur did want to kiss the truth goodbye and try his luck at lying, it was no use. Between his uncontrollable laughing, people constantly seeing him as weird and not feeling comfortable around him, how could he ever lie successfully?
Breathing out a thick cloud of smoke, he picked up the pen again. Twirling it between his fingers, he cast his gaze back onto his journal. As terrible as the day had been, he felt a ray of warmth trickling through him. All through him it flowed, kissing every part of him like joyous sunshine on a summer day.
It wasn’t long before his frown swapped places with a smile. Slowly his lips curled upward, while the soft green of his eyes sparkled with flecks of...happiness. A rare, but lovely happiness that didn’t visit often. Tonight, it was knocking on his door. And he was all too thrilled to let it in.
Feeling suddenly awake, Arthur opened to a blank page. Still smiling, he began writing:
Her name is Aubrey Speck. Shes the angul who saved my life. Id be
ded dead if she didnt stop those kids. I still cant beeliev beleve she drove me home when Im just a strangur. Then she helped cleen me up, and didnen didnt even seem to care how skinny I am...or that I smell like smoke...or that I live with my mother. Shes like the person I didn't know existid. And the best part of all? I think she actually wants to see me again! Me! ARTHUR FLECK! A nobody. A freek. Nothing spechal at all. I cant wait to see her again. As bad as today was, I couldnt stop thinking about her. I hope I wont scare her off or do anything stoopid or embarissing. I reel really, really hope she likes my jokes and finds me funny.
Unable to wipe the smile off his face, Arthur closed his notebook. Tapping his feet against the carpeted floor, he made up his mind then and there: tomorrow he was going to make the first move. No hiding under the covers. No chickening out like a certified coward. How could he when she lived right next-door? She could have lived deep in the city, an hour away, but she didn’t. She was now his next-door neighbour, and he couldn’t be happier.
I’ll just knock on her door, smile, and ask if she wants to hang out, he thought, finishing the last of his cigarette. Piece of cake. Somewhere inside him he felt the spark of something that was all but foreign to him: confidence. It was a fresh helping of confidence, kindly dished up to a man who was practically starving for even a morsel of it.
Shutting off the lights, Arthur packed it in for the night. Settling down in his usual spot on the old, but comfy-enough couch, he prepared for sleep. But he’d gotten himself too worked up, and he was now less tired than ever. He couldn't push her out of his mind. She was stuck there like crazy glue. And the thought of what tomorrow could bring, well...how could he possibly nod off when he’d be seeing Aubrey again?
Needless to say, Arthur was a very light sleeper that night.
Arthur had it all planned out. Knock on Aubrey’s door and ask if she’d like to hang out for the day. Before leaving his apartment, he made sure to spend an extra minute brushing his teeth. The last thing he wanted was the girl next door catching an unpleasant whiff of morning breath mixed with the distinct smell of nicotine. Afraid that wasn’t good enough, he swished around with a bottle of minty mouthwash. He even refrained from having his morning cigarette, difficult as that was. If he was going to be seeing this woman again, he wanted to smell nice.
Walking up to her door, he held up his hand to knock...and stopped. He briefly looked himself over. Though his clothes were old and nothing fancy, he’d dug through what clothes he did have, desperate to find something nice. He’d picked out what he hoped was his nicest white shirt and navy-blue cardigan. He debated about wearing a tie, but decided against it; he was aiming for casual, not fancy.
It’s not a date, he reminded himself, hand hovering in front of the wooden door of apartment 8I. You’re just hanging out...that’s all...nothing more. Don’t...don’t get carried away.
What Arthur wanted most in the world was to knock on this woman’s door.
He was standing right there!
“What’re you waiting for?” he whispered, slipping his fingers through his curls of brown hair. “Just...just knock!”
He tried. Truly he did.
But he couldn’t.
Whatever confidence he’d had last night had gone adios. See ya later. Too-da-loo.
Arthur wanted to cry. So badly he wanted to see this woman again, yet he was too cowardly to even knock on her apartment door! How in Gotham was he going to get to know this girl if he couldn’t even make the first move?
With a defeated sigh, he turned and left.
Back into his apartment he went. What it took for him not to slam the door shut behind him. But his mother was still sleeping. It wouldn’t be fair to disrupt her sleep because he couldn’t keep his emotions under control.
“I’m a coward,” he uttered, flopping down on the couch. Over and over again he kept thinking: Coward...coward...coward. His eyes fell on the satin, white pillow beside him. With an angry cry that couldn't be contained, he grabbed the pillow and flung it across the room. Hands trembling in frustration, he reached for his lighter and cigarette.
Today was supposed to be a Saturday chock full of wonderful possibilities.
Now it was going to be yet another extra-large heap of disappointment.
What else is new? thought Arthur in discouragement.
In his journal, he scribbled furiously:
I cant believe I fucked up! How did I fuck up something as simple as knoking on someones door? Guess Im a bigger coward then I thought. All I want is to see her again, yet I cant even reach out to her. And if I dont make the first move, what if she
doesn’t forgets about me? I really hope she doesnt. I dont wanna lose her. I know we just met but...but this is the most anyones ever talked to me. I dont want this to go away. I just have to hope she meant what she said when she was over here. If Im too scared to do anything, maybe shell come to me? I think wonder if shes thought about me at all?
Arthur spent the rest of the day thinking of Aubrey. So hard he tried distracting himself, keeping busy in whatever ways he could. But the girl was like sticky peanut butter; he just couldn’t shake her from his mind. When he dished his mother up a simple TV dinner for supper, he wondered what kind of foods Aubrey liked eating. Even setting his eyes on the paintings in their apartment, Arthur couldn’t help wondering what her paintings looked like. The longer he thought about it, the more he longed to see even one of them.
Slipping deeper into his fantasies, he imagined what it would be like to have her paint a portrait of him. To watch her study his face with unbroken focus, as if he were a complex, gorgeous work of art. How lovely that would be.
When evening arrived, Arthur told himself not to panic.
Not yet anyway.
“Tomorrow,” he whispered, settling in for another sleepless night. “Tomorrow I’ll talk to her. And if I don’t, maybe...maybe she’ll make the first move? Maybe she’ll remember me and want to talk to me again?”
Sunday unfolded no differently than Saturday.
Again Arthur made the short walk to Aubrey’s apartment.
Again he stood there, hand hovering inches in front of her door.
Again he tried knocking.
Again he couldn’t bring himself to.
Again he felt like a total and utter coward.
Storming back to his own apartment, he slammed the door shut behind him, not caring who heard.
Later that night, Arthur was writing furiously in his journal. While his mother slept soundly, he wrote and wrote until he felt his fingers would fall off.
Its been two days since I met Aubrey. I...I thought she wanted to see me again, but guess she was just lying so she wouldnt say how she relly felt: that she didnt want to see me again. I cant blame her. Im
not boring and not speshal or atractive like other guys. I wish I was...but Im not. I never will be. If only I wasnt so fucking scared to knock on her door and say hi. I wish I had her number. I want to call her so badly, but I know Id just hang up the minute she picked up anyway. Maybe she reelized how lame it is I still live my mother and would rather keep her diss distance. I guess theres always tomorow. I dont want to forget about her...even if shes forgoten about me. I hope I get some sleep tonight. At least I can still see her again in my dreams.
When Monday rolled around, Arthur waited for Aubrey to come knocking on his door. Knowing he’d never work up the courage to knock on her door, he hoped she’d come by and pay him a visit. Even if it was just a short visit. By that point, he craved her company so fiercely, even a minute with her would be like a minute in heaven.
Much to Arthur’s disappointment, she didn’t.
Tonight, he didn’t feel like watching the Murray Franklin show. He didn’t feel like anything or anyone could put a smile on his face. It was starting to become clear Aubrey didn’t care to see him again.
And it killed him inside.
Guess there’s always tomorrow, he thought tiredly, though his hope was draining fast.
But when Tuesday arrived, he heard no knocking on his door. Nothing but awful, terrible silence.
Still he held out hopes that maybe, just maybe, she’d pop over Wednesday.
As he feared, he didn’t hear from her Wednesday.
By the weekend, Arthur’s hopes had been crushed into a thousand pieces. So painfully obvious it now was that when she’d said she’d see him around, she hadn’t meant spend time together. What she'd probably meant was: see you around when we bump into each other in the elevator after work. He felt his heart aching. How foolish he’d been thinking she’d want to take time out of her life to spend time with awkward, uninteresting Arthur Fleck who smelled like nicotine. He realized she likely forgot about him the moment she left his apartment that night she’d helped tend to his injuries.
It hurt like hell, but it didn’t surprise him. How could it when he was as forgettable as yesterday’s newspaper? He just wasn’t naturally funny like his favorite comedian Murray Franklin. Wasn’t confident like his constantly cocky co-worker at Ha-Has, Randall.
At the end of the day, Arthur Fleck just wasn’t memorable.
After preparing the usual TV dinner for his mother, Arthur sank down into the couch. Normally, he’d join her on her bed as they watched their favorite show together. But he wasn't in the mood tonight. After having no choice but to accept that Aubrey was now gone out of his life, he needed some time to himself.
On the table in front of him was his journal and pen.
He sat upright, staring down at them as if spiraling headfirst into a trance. A slight chuckle fought to climb up out of his throat, but he covered his mouth. No go. In seconds, he was laughing away, riding out his uncontrollable laughter as best he could. Tears welling up in his sea-green eyes, he snatched up his pen, leaned over, and let all his anger, puzzlement, and loneliness out:
I shuld have known this was too good to be tru. No ones ever wanted to do anything with me. Why did I think shed want to here any of my jokes when shes probbly got a funny boyfrend who can make her laugh? I never shuld have let her drive me home. I shuld have just taken the bus. Then I
never wouldnt have met her. I just wish I culd get hur out of my head and cuz it hurts to much thinking about her. I was so happy seeing her smile at me, but I was stuped thinking Id ever see her again. Im sad, but Ive always been alone. For my whole life, I didnt know if I even relly existid...and obeeusly I dont...cuz people dont notice. Shes forgoten about me, just like everyone else dos does. If I can somehow just get her out of my head, maybe I can move on and pretend we didn't never even met and I can just stop hoping Ill ever meet someone who actually cares about me :(
Tossing the pen aside, Arthur rubbed his face tiredly. So caught up in his own emotions, he hadn’t noticed the tears sliding down his cheeks. The page in his notebook was wet with his tears, the black writing from the pen now smudged. With an annoyed groan, he flung the notebook across the room.
“I never should have gotten in that car,” Arthur murmured, sniffing back a fresh bout of tears. “Then I never would have met her, and wouldn't be sitting here thinking how much of an idiot I am cuz I thought she—”
Arthur’s eyes flickered lazily toward the door. He couldn't imagine who’d be knocking on his door. No one ever cared to swing by and see Mr. Fleck. It wasn’t like he was a popular guy who residents always enjoyed chatting with. Most a
Probably just some kids, he thought, slowly making his way toward the door. Probably knocking on the door and running away. It wouldn’t surprise him to see a bunch of pranking kids hurrying down the hallway, sniggering in amusement. Gotham was littered with troublemakers, after all.
When he opened the door, his mouth fell open. Immediately he pulled himself together, not wanting to look like the world's biggest fool.
“A-Aubrey!” Arthur stammered, sounding as surprised as he looked. “It”—he cleared his throat—“nice again to see you.” He wanted to kick himself for stumbling on his words like a babbling idiot. Get it together, man! “I mean...it’s nice to see you. T-that’s what I meant to say.” Desperately trying to do damage control, he put on a small smile.
“Hey, Arthur,” she said quietly. “I, uh...I meant to come by earlier this week, but, um—” She dropped her gaze and bit her lip. Arthur watched her silently, and for a moment, it looked like she was going to cry.
Not knowing how to react, he stood there awkwardly.
“Sorry,” she said, wiping a tear from her eye. She recollected herself and asked, “Are...are you doing anything next weekend, for Thanksgiving?”
Arthur knew exactly what he’d be doing next weekend. It would be the same as every other Thanksgiving. Not being much of a cook, Arthur would prepare the simplest meal he could make for his mother – the one meal he could make and not mess up – a turkey TV dinner. It was as close to a homemade turkey dinner as they could get: slices of turkey, dressing, gravy, a helping of mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and a small serving of vegetables. Of course, it could never compare to the fresh, mouth-watering taste of a freshly-cooked feast prepared at special holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. But it was the best he could do.
“Well, uh,” he said, his cheeks flushing red. “My Mom and I’ll just have a small dinner here, but nothing big. We don’t usually do anything big for holidays or—”
“Do you want to come over?” she asked suddenly. “For Thanksgiving, I mean?” Arthur listened to the tone of her voice. It almost sounded as if Aubrey wanted him there for Thanksgiving. “I..It’s just going to be me, if you and your Mom wanted to join me.”
Arthur tried forming a response, but his mouth had gone dry. Just minutes ago, he was convinced he’d never see or hear from Aubrey Speck again...yet here she was, at his door, asking if he wanted to spend Thanksgiving Day with her. Talk about a total three-sixty! It was all happening so fast, he didn't know quite what to make of this.
Aubrey shook her head and smiled nervously. “I-It’s okay if you don’t want to. If you guys would rather—”
“I’d love to!” Arthur blurted out a little too enthusiastically. He gave a fake cough and spoke in a calmer, more casual tone. “I mean, yeah, we’d love to. Sure. Sounds good.” He ended with a smile, but had to force himself not to smile like it was one of the happiest days of his life...because it was.
Aubrey smiled in return, but Arthur saw something deep in her eyes. Somewhere in the soft blues of her eyes was that unmistakable layer of...loneliness. He could read it plain as day, for he saw the same loneliness in his own eyes every day. All he wanted was to ask her if she was okay and if there was anything he could do, but he stayed silent. It's none of your business, he thought, keeping quiet.
“Great,” she said, her voice barely reaching a whisper. “See you next weekend then?”
“Yeah,” Arthur quickly replied. “Yeah...of course.”
Giving one last smile, Aubrey turned and left. Arthur wanted to keep staring at her, but closed the door behind him. No doubt, he thought, she’d think him a creep if he stood there watching her like a little boy slammed with the biggest crush. And if they were going to be spending the holiday together, no way did he want her thinking negatively of him.
Unable to stop smiling, he returned to the couch.
He was laughing again. Not the painful, irritable laugh that pounced at all the worst times.
This was real, genuine laughter. Laughter so deep it brought tears to his eyes, but not tears of sadness - tears of joy. Joy that dances round and round in your heart, swinging you round in circles until you're dizzy, but still bursting with joy.
For the first time in forever, he was going to be spending a holiday with someone besides his mother.
For the rest of the night, he started planning.
I'll have to wear something nice.
I should probably get some new cologne.
And make sure my hair's slicked back so I don't look scruffy.
Finally Arthur dozed off with a smile on his face.
Chapter 6: Thanksgiving Day
It was the twenty-sixth of November. Arthur was up bright and early. Thursdays weren’t usually special days for him. He’d wake up, get dressed, take the bus into work, then take the bus back home, cook his mother supper, spend some time writing in his journal, then try and get some sleep. One Thursday was no different than the other.
Today, however, was going to be quite different.
It was Thanksgiving Day. Normally he and his mother celebrated the popular holiday in their apartment, quietly enjoying a not-so-festive TV dinner. With no other family to join them, it had always been he and his mother, just she and him for years and years.
Later that afternoon, he and his mother would be sharing Thanksgiving Day with their next-door neighbour, Aubrey Speck. From the minute he sprung out of bed, Arthur’s excitement was at an all-time high. Finally he was going to see the woman who’d saved his life again! Gone were his fears of Aubrey wanting nothing at all to do with the man next door. Shocking as it was, she’d invited him – a man who, up until then, was never invited to anything.
Gone were the days of feeling like insignificant wallpaper.
A new day was dawning.
The day Arthur Fleck felt noticed for the first time in his life.
“How’d you meet this girl, Happy?” Penny asked her son as he helped wash her hair. Her voice was filled with curiosity. “Does she work at Ha-Has with you?”
Arthur filled the bucket with warm water, raising it over his mother’s head. “Look up,” he instructed. As she lifted her head, he gently splashed the water over her face, trailing his fingers through her hair.
“No,” he said, Aubrey’s shy smile still glued in his mind. “We met on the elevator one night when we were getting off work. We talked for a bit, and she asked if we wanted to go over for Thanksgiving.”
Of course he didn’t tell her how he’d really met Aubrey. Not wanting to pile any more worry onto his mother’s shoulders, he never told her how society treated him. All the beatings, the name-calling, the rejections – he kept it all buried deep inside. Penny Fleck was a frail woman. He feared learning how difficult her son had it would cause her stress to skyrocket. He didn't need her health getting any worse.
So to protect her, he kept it boggled up inside.
“But she doesn’t know you,” his mother said, blinking the water out of her eyes. “And you don’t know her. Why would she invite us over?”
Arthur shrugged silently.
“Well,” he said thoughtfully, rubbing conditioner into her hair. As he did with the shampoo, he gently laced his fingers through her hair. “Maybe she’s lonely like us. I...I don’t know if she has any family around, so maybe she just doesn’t want to spend the holiday alone.”
Penny considered this, then nodded.
“I’m happy you’ve found a friend,” she said to her son. “And one who lives so close, too.”
Arthur smiled, but he knew it was too early to call he and the girl next-door friends. Yes, she’d intervened when he desperately needed help, drove him home and helped tidy him up, but that didn’t automatically make them friends. Of course, he wanted nothing more than to have Aubrey like him enough to call him a friend.
For that to happen, he thought, he’d have to make a good second impression.
No, he quickly told himself.
Not just a good second impression.
If he wanted friendship, he’d have to make a great second impression.
“Uh, Ma?” said Arthur as he squeezed the water out of her hair. She tilted her head up and raised a brow expectantly.
“When...when we’re there,” he said, fidgeting with his fingers. “Can you maybe...well...what I mean to say is”—He dropped his gaze when he felt his mother staring up at him firmly—“can you, um...can you try not to ask too many questions?"
“What makes you think I’d do that?” she asked in a shocked tone. It was like he’d asked the most ridiculous question in the history of ridiculous questions.
“No, I...I just meant,” he stammered, still keeping his gaze on the floor. “Well...this is the first time I’ve ever had dinner with someone, and”—his cheeks flushed cherry red—“with it being a woman and all, I...I just don’t want her feeling uncomfortable, that’s all.”
“Happy,” Penny told him, laying a hand atop his. “I can assure you I’d never do such a thing.” Arthur could hear the radio swapping out The Moon is a Silver Dollar for Send in the Clowns. He could vaguely hear the lyrics of the popular song, but his focus was on his mother. Believing his mother wouldn’t bombard Aubrey with a boatload of questions wasn’t easy. The woman was obsessed with billionaire Thomas Wayne. Day after day, she’d mail him a letter, convinced the man would respond to at least one of her letters. Time and again Arthur told her not to get her hopes up, but the woman was stubborn. Despite her son recommending she not pin all her hopes on such a busy man taking notice of their living conditions, still she refused to listen. Still she went on writing more letters than Arthur could keep count of.
“Mom?” said Arthur, keeping his tone calm. “Just promise me you won’t ask her any personal questions, okay? We don’t know her enough to start asking stuff like that. Let’s keep any talking simple, okay?”
“What do you suggest we talk about then?” she said, elevating her brows. “If we’re meeting someone, shouldn’t we at least get to know them?”
“Well, sure,” Arthur answered. “But slowly. I...I’m not that good at social stuff, but I think we should stick to talking about stuff like...I dunno...the weather.”
“But, Happy!” she protested. “The weather’s so boring. Everyone talks about the weather...”
“Exactly,” said Arthur, carefully helping his mother out of the tub. He handed her a towel, which she wrapped herself up in before stepping out onto the striped mat. “That must mean it’s a good conversation starter.”
“A boring one...” his mother mumbled.
Arthur watched her make her way into her bedroom. He really hoped his mother wouldn’t blurt out anything embarrassing about him. What he wanted more than anything was a normal, drama-free dinner with Aubrey. But knowing his chatty mother, he wasn’t convinced she wouldn’t ask the girl whatever she felt like asking her.
He sighed and made his way into the living room. He was suddenly wishing Aubrey hadn’t invited his mother. As much as he loved his mother, what if she ruined everything? Here he had a real shot at planting the seeds of a friendship – a real friendship – with Aubrey. How unfortunate it would be if his mother scared her away, obliterating any hopes of lonely Arthur finding even one friend in the world.
Or worse, he thought with growing dread, what if he pushed her away? His insides twisted into painful knots at the possibility. He was already an expert at having people keep their distance from him, as if his strange and awkward ways were contagious.
Say the wrong thing, he thought, his panic escalating. Ask the wrong thing...look at her in a weird way...and she’ll never want to see or talk to me again.
Arthur inhaled deeply. He held his breath for a few seconds, then exhaled. Worrying about what may or may not happen wasn’t doing him any good. Instead of fretting over all the ways tonight could turn out disastrous, he shoved it out of his mind.
It was Thanksgiving Day. And he certainly had much to be thankful for today.
The only person who’d ever shown him such kindness had invited him over for dinner.
He smiled softly and let out a chuckle.
Yes. He had lots to be thankful for.
While Penny did her hair and picked out some clothes, Arthur did likewise.
He didn’t have many clothes. Where most had a closet stuffed with clothes, Arthur had only a few of everything. A few sweaters, some cardigans, a couple of shirts and just enough pants to get him through the workweek. His clothes weren’t fashionable, but functional and what most in Gotham would describe as...boring.
He couldn’t be boring. Not tonight. Not when he’d be sharing dinner with the next-door neighbour he hadn’t stopped thinking about since he’d first laid eyes on her in that damp, smelly alley.
I have to be interesting, he thought desperately, flinging one of his old shirts onto the threadbare couch. Beside this he threw a sandy-brown hoodie. Or she’ll never wanna see me again!
“What to wear?” he murmured, sitting on the edge of the couch. “What do I wear?” Laid out in front of him on the coffee table were two cardigans. One was a navy blue, the other bright orange. Back and forth went his rapidly blinking eyes. “Blue or orange?” He shook his head, rubbing his forehead as if he had a giant migraine. “I dunno...”
After a stressful few minutes, he went with the blue. He trailed his fingers down the fabric. Both the cardigan and white button-up shirt were wrinkled and looked like they’d been trampled on. Arthur quickly remedied this by grabbing the iron to smooth out every wrinkle. Soon his clothes were without a wrinkle and looking ready to wear.
Running his fingers through his mop of unkempt hair, he frowned. No way was he going to spend Thanksgiving dinner with Aubrey without tidying up his hair first. Normally Arthur didn’t do much with his hair. Most days it was greasy and dishevelled, but today was a special occasion. In preparation of such an occasion, he’d bought himself a new shampoo and conditioner. Showing up at Aubrey’s apartment with unwashed, uncombed hair would never do. The last thing he wanted her thinking was that he’d crawled out of bed and was too lazy to so much as shower.
Holding up one of his mother’s mirrors, he styled his hair as best he could. He took his time, weaving the comb through his hair, hoping he could somehow pull off the ‘slicked-back’ style that was so popular amongst the comedians at Pogos. Striving for perfection – or as close to perfection as Arthur could get – he slapped on a bit of hair gel. At first, he feared he’d used too much. But he realized it was the butterflies fluttering madly about in his stomach, pushing his anxiety meter higher and higher.
Holding the mirror up for a closer look, he sighed. An enormous weight of relief lifted off his shoulders.
For what felt like the first time in his life, he actually looked...presentable. It wasn’t perfect; he wouldn’t say he looked ready to sweep a girl off her feet and take her on an unforgettable date. But he had succeeding in swapping out his normally tired appearance for something fresher and more energetic.
Staring more closely at the man in the mirror, Arthur noticed something.
He looked alive. Something in his green eyes seemed to be sparkling. They say eyes are windows to the soul. This couldn’t be truer with Arthur. Deep in his eyes shone such excitement, he swore his eyes looked three times brighter.
Pleased though he was, he reminded himself not to get too excited. He still didn’t possess that irresistible charm so many lucky men seemed born with. That seemingly effortless sexiness that made women weak at the knees with so much as a flirtatious wink. But for Arthur Fleck, it was enough to make him feel like he might just have a chance at feeling something he rarely felt.
“Happy, are you ready?”
Arthur turned to see his mother emerging from her bedroom. She was wearing a black silk blouse, grey trousers, and a necklace of coal-black pearls that had been passed down to her from her mother. Arthur noticed her face was awash with makeup – mascara, rosy pink eye shadow, and ruby-red lipstick. He wondered if she’d maybe gone a little overboard with the makeup, but said nothing; he was no expert on women.
He was surprised. His mother usually dressed in more festive colors in celebration of holidays – red and green for Christmas, orange and black for Halloween, red and pink for Valentine’s Day. On Thanksgiving Day, she’d always gone with orange, yellows and browns.
There was none of that today. From head to toe she was dressed solely in various shades of black, grey and white. Looking his mother over, the one word that jumped to Arthur’s mind was: solemn. Instead of going for bright, cheery colors, the woman was dressed like she was on her way to a funeral.
“Yeah, Ma,” he answered.
“You look nice,” she commented. She sounded surprised. “You’re all dressed up like this is a big date.”
“It’s not a date, Mom,” he corrected. “It...it’s just dinner, that's all.” He shrugged, saying, “Besides, I know she’s probably already got a boyfriend and”—His voice grew quieter—“who’d want me as a boyfriend anyway? I’m nothing special.”
“Well, you’re a very special son,” Penny told him, laying a hand on his shoulder. “I couldn’t ask for a better son than you, Happy.”
Arthur smiled in appreciation.
There was a brief stretch of silence.
“Ma?” said Arthur awkwardly.
“Do you think, maybe,” he began, buttoning up his cardigan. “Well, could you maybe not call me Happy in front of Aubrey?”
“What’s wrong with me calling you Happy?” she shot back, sounding hurt.
“Nothing,” Arthur quickly replied. “It’s just...maybe it would be better if you just called me Arthur tonight.”
“I don’t see what the problem is,” she muttered. “It’s just a nickname...”
“Please, Ma,” Arthur pleaded softly. “I...I just want this girl to like me.” He didn’t know Aubrey. For all he knew, she’d think a mother calling her thirty-five-year-old son ‘Happy’ was weird. More than ever he feared his mother would send tonight plunging straight into the deep depths of disaster.
But he could be worrying for nothing. Perhaps Aubrey was as nice as she seemed and wouldn’t mind his mother’s quirkiness. If he was lucky, maybe she’d even think his mother giving him a nickname was cute. He figured that was pushing it, but it never hurt to hope.
“We should head over now,” Penny said, already making her way to the front door. Arthur knew she’d heard him, but knew she was just being her usual self. “She told us to be there for six.”
Arthur nodded silently.
Before following her out into the hall, he shot one last at himself in the mirror on the wall. There was no turning back now. Waiting for him next door was a woman Arthur hoped would become part of his life. Having grown up without a single friend (aside from his mother), more than ever he longed for friendship. Where some had scores of friends, he’d be on top of the world with even a single friend.
After all, he reminded himself, one true friend was all he needed to cast aside his layers of loneliness.
“Alright,” Arthur said, letting out a shaky breath. “Let’s go.”
A minute later, the two were standing outside apartment 8I.
“Aren’t you going to knock?” said Penny, raising a brow.
“Y-yeah,” said Arthur, shaking himself together. “Yeah, of course...”
Arthur’s hand was shaking. But it didn’t change what he had to do.
He knocked on Aubrey’s door, heart pounding in his chest.
He tapped his foot nervously. What it took for him not to beeline back to his apartment, shut the door and call the whole night off.
But he was here now.
When he heard a familiar voice call “coming” he stood up a little straighter.
Seconds later, Aubrey was opening the door.
Arthur’s first thought was: she’s so beautiful. Her hair was curled tonight, each lock shiny and so silky black, all he wanted was to weave his fingers through it. Unlike his mother – who’d slapped on more than enough makeup – Aubrey’s was much more subtle. A little mascara, just enough to lengthen her lashes. A light coating of Bubblegum-pink lipstick. She wore a simple dress, red as roses that fell to her ankles. Dangling from her neck was a diamond necklace shaped as a tiny silver heart.
His second thought was how small she looked. She was shorter than him by a couple inches, but what stood out was her tiny frame. For a brief moment, he wondered if she – like him – was self-conscious about her appearance. He could see it in her eyes – that recognizable flicker of insecurity that he was no stranger to. All he wanted was to blurt out how beautiful and perfect she looked, but he kept his mouth shut. While he wanted nothing more than to do so, tonight’s goal was to make her like him, not have her think he was hitting on her.
Aubrey swallowed and gave a small, welcoming smile.
“Hey, Aubrey,” said Arthur, his lips curving up in a smile. He feared he’d never make it through the night if this girl kept smiling. Something about her smile, the way it lit up her face made him unable to think clearly. He wanted to blurt out “you’re beautiful” but bit his tongue. It didn’t help that as he inhaled, he caught a faint, unmistakable whiff of perfume. He was reminded of sweet flowers in springtime.
He gestured to his mother, saying, “This is my mother, Penny Fleck.”
Aubrey held her hand out. “Nice to meet you, Ms. Fleck.”
“Please, call me Penny,” the woman replied, offering her the smallest of smiles. She shook Aubrey’s hand, looking back at her son, as if waiting for him to decide what next to say or do.
As for Arthur, he was too busy staring at Aubrey. So long it felt like since he’d last seen her. It had only been a week, but a week felt more like a month for him. But now here he was again with Aubrey, about to share Thanksgiving dinner with her.
“Hope you’re hungry,” she said, inviting her guests inside. “Cuz there’s lots to eat.”
While he was looking forward to a feast, Arthur was more thrilled at getting to spend the evening with Aubrey. So long as he could keep his bundle of nerves from exploding, tonight might just be a night he could actually enjoy. And if his uncontrollable laughter broke free of its cage, thankfully Aubrey was already aware of his condition. It didn’t keep him from feeling ashamed, but at least he needn’t fear she'd kick him out of her apartment.
Stepping further inside, Arthur realized her apartment wasn’t much bigger than his own. A quick look around showed him – like his – it was a one-bedroom apartment. It was a small, simple place with a kitchen, bathroom, living room, dining room and a bedroom. The furniture wasn’t remarkable. It looked worn and old, but still cosy enough. Paintings hung along the flower-themed walls, most depicting gorgeous countryside. Staring at each canvas in turn, he wondered if Aubrey also longed to escape Gotham one day. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he sketched a perfect picture of the two running away together, hand in hand, running wherever their hearts desired.
Like Arthur, Aubrey also took care in keeping her home tidy. Nothing seemed out of place, and to his excitement, he spotted no framed photos of potential boyfriends. None on the mantel over the fireplace, none on the coffee tables, and none hanging on the walls.
Arthur’s heart gave a great leap.
Perhaps Aubrey didn’t have a boyfriend. Maybe, he thought hopefully, she’s waiting for the right guy to come along. His heart gave an even greater leap at the possibility that maybe, just maybe, he could be that guy for her.
But he didn’t have long to think this. As she led them over to the dining room, Arthur’s gaze fell upon the table.
What he smelled and saw was nothing he’d ever experienced.
Laid out before them was nothing short of a feast. Arthur’s eyes widened as he looked from one dish to the next. Shining at the center of the table was a plump turkey, cooked and stuffed to glorious perfection. The longer he stared, the more he felt his mouth watering in anticipation; never had he seen such food or so much of it. There was a large pot of steaming potatoes, mashed, buttered and ready for eating. There was peas, corn, squash, carrots, rolls, a saucer of gravy that smelled heavenly and a pumpkin pie for dessert. Champagne glasses stood tall beside each white plate, filled with a sparkling drink Arthur guessed must be wine.
Even the table was decorated in celebration of Thanksgiving Day. Arthur spotted a cornucopia, along with several small pumpkins, fake leaves scattered across the table, and a few softly burning candles.
“You made all this?” Arthur asked, his mouth hanging open. It was obvious this girl enjoyed cooking. The most Arthur could do was pop a TV dinner in the microwave, or boil a pot of noodles, but a homemade turkey dinner? He wouldn’t know where to begin with preparing such a meal.
Aubrey nodded. “When you live alone, you do all the cooking yourself.”
“It smells lovely, dear,” Penny commented.
When the three were seated, still Arthur couldn’t take his eyes off Aubrey. He felt for sure this must all be a dream. Sitting at her table in her apartment about to share Thanksgiving Day dinner with her? It all felt too good to be true. But when he pinched his forearm, he realized it wasn’t a dream at all.
It was real.
“Thanks for inviting us,” Arthur said, swallowing a lump of shyness. “You didn’t have to make all this extra food for us.”
“Yes, thank you,” Penny added. “It was very thoughtful.”
“Holidays can be lonely,” she answered thoughtfully. “It’s always nice having people to celebrate them with.”
Arthur couldn’t agree more. All his life he’d never celebrated any holiday with anyone other than his mother. It was a new, but wonderfully good feeling now sharing it with the woman who’d saved his life.
Penny wasn’t shy piling her plate with food. Arthur watched wordlessly as she carved a large slice of turkey. Next she dove into the mashed potatoes, then the vegetables and stuffing. Arthur thought he could hear her stomach growling as she poured a generous helping of gravy onto her dinner.
Arthur, meanwhile, sat staring round at the various dishes. Like his mother, his stomach was also rumbling up a storm. Most days, he never ate much. He’d eat the odd snack throughout the day, but he’d never had much of an appetite.
Taking in this scrumptious-looking meal, however, sent his appetite was knocking overtime. He hardly knew what to pile onto his plate first. He wasn’t used to seeing so much food. He felt like he was sitting at an all you can eat buffet.
Without a word, he carved himself a thin slice of turkey. It was the same with the vegetables and stuffing; he took small portions. When finished, he went to pick up his fork and knife, but hesitated. Where his mother was already digging in, Arthur stared down at the food in disbelief.
When he caught Aubrey’s gaze on him, he looked away. He wanted to curse himself for acting so bashful around her. If he was going to make this evening work, it sure wasn’t going to happen by him sitting there like a shy child whose tongue was in knots. But it wasn’t easy when he was sitting right next to her. His mother sat opposite him, not even noticing her son hadn’t yet taken a bite.
“Take more food than that, Arthur,” Aubrey encouraged. “It’s only the three of. Take as much as you want.”
Arthur stared at her, wanting to speak, but not knowing what to say. He wasn’t used to anyone being this nice to him. Even his mother, though she loved her son, could throw comments at him that weren’t exactly the nicest. And while Aubrey said nothing more, Arthur studied the look in her eyes closely. It was like she could read his mind, impossible as that seemed. The kindness radiating from them spoke a thousand words, words Arthur tried so hard to hear.
“This is okay,” he said quietly, fiddling with his fork. “I...I get full quickly...”
“C’mon,” she cajoled, gently sliding the pot of potatoes towards him. “It’s Thanksgiving Day.” Seeing the smile spreading across her face, Arthur felt his insides break out in a happy little dance. He could have sat there forever just staring at this girl’s smile.
His cheeks burned red as he scooped more onto his plate. The mouth-watering aroma wafting up his nostrils was driving him mad. The forgettable smell of TV dinners paled in comparison to this impressive feast. He couldn’t decide what smelled loveliest. The buttery, creamy potatoes? The sweet and spicy pumpkin pie? The salty gravy?
The food tasted even better than it smelled.
One bite and Arthur was in love. Never had his taste buds been treated to such scrumptious flavors. Each bite proved tastier than the last. He chewed slowly, wanting to relish each and every mouthful.
“This is...this is amazing,” said Arthur, holding back a burp. He couldn't imagine what he'd do if he belched in front of Aubrey. He figured he'd probably die of embarrassment.
Aubrey flashed him an appreciative smile.
“Happy, could you pass the rolls, please?”
“Mom!” Arthur groaned. Under his breath, he muttered, “I told you not to call me that...” Immediately he felt his cheeks glow red with embarrassment. After asking his mother several times not to call him Happy, she’d just done the exact opposite of what he'd asked.
“I-It’s a nickname,” Arthur explained to Aubrey. A small chuckle slipped from his lips. His hand went to his throat as the familiar sensation of incoming laughter emerged. Another chuckle, followed by another. After a moment of letting it all out, he finally had it under control.
Arthur relaxed slightly when he saw Aubrey smile at him.
But when she let out a small chuckle, he tensed up again.
“I know,” he said, setting his fork down. Just like that, his appetite was gone. “It’s embarrassing...”
“No,” she said, sending him a reassuring smile. “I’m not laughing at you. I think it’s cute.”
Arthur wasn’t expecting this.
“Y-you don’t think it’s...lame?”
She shook her head. “I wish I had a nickname.” She shrugged, saying, “No one’s ever given me one.”
I can give you one, thought Arthur, staring at her in adoration. Angel. That’s what you are: an angel.
While they ate, Penny initiated much of the conversation. Arthur tried diving in with questions or remarks of her own, but his mother was chatting overtime tonight. Arthur wasn’t surprised; the woman did love to talk. What made him want to hide under the table was the fact that she was doing the exact thing he specifically asked her not to do.
“So, Aubrey,” Penny said casually. “Do you live alone?”
“Mom!” Arthur scolded, eyes flickering back and forth between the women. “I...that’s not really appropriate to be asking—”
“Oh, it’s okay,” said Aubrey. She dipped her roll into a pile of gravy, took a bite and went on, “Yeah, it’s just me here. It’s always been just me.”
“You’re...not in a relationship?” Penny said, pouring herself another glass of wine.
Arthur bit his lip, trying hard not to explode. Why couldn’t this woman just ask non-personal questions? Knowing his mother, he knew she was just getting started. If he didn’t derail this train – and fast – the night would crash and burn for sure.
Aubrey opened her mouth to answer when—
“Nice weather we’ve been having, huh?” Arthur piped in enthusiastically. He deflated for a moment. Weather wasn’t exactly the most interesting topic; he hoped he wasn’t making things worse by sounding overly excited.
Thankfully, no strange looks from Aubrey.
“Yeah,” she agreed, turning to Arthur. She laughed and added, “Can’t remember the last time we actually went a whole week without rain. Guess Gotham isn’t crappy all the time.”
Penny, on the other hand, wasn’t as enthused.
“So you’re not in a relationship, Aubrey?” she repeated. She smiled sweetly while dabbing at her lips with a napkin.
“No,” Aubrey replied quietly. “I, uh...I haven’t been in a relationship for a while.”
Penny nodded, saying nothing. “And your family? You have any family close by?”
“My...my parents left when I was six,” she said, her voice hardly above a whisper. “I...I was in and out of foster homes.” She paused, as if the pain of her past was slithering back into her memory, sinking its fangs into her like a snake. “I never really had any parents, cuz I kept moving around so much. In and out of homes.”
“I’m sorry, dear,” said Penny gently. “I can't imagine how hard that must have been.”
Arthur watched Aubrey with sadness in his eyes.
“It’s okay,” said Aubrey, blinking back tears. She put on a smile and helped herself to another round of carrots. “It was hard, going through most of my life wondering if I even really existed but I got used to it, you know?”
Arthur felt a pang of sorrow upon hearing this. He himself wondered that exact same thing day after day: if he even really existed. She must have sensed this, for the two locked gazes with unspoken understanding. No words were needed; their eyes said everything.
“Thanks for inviting us, Aubrey,” said Arthur, taking his last bite of potato. Not a crumb remained on his plate. He was absolutely, positively stuffed. It was hands down the greatest meal of his life. “Mum and I have never had a meal like this before.” He chuckled, saying, “I’m not much of a cook.”
“Hey, neither am I,” she shot back. In a joking tone, she added, “Half the time I’d be lost without my cookbook.”
Arthur smiled and broke out laughing. Hearing Aubrey make a joke filled him with a joyous excitement that was almost overpowering. Wherever he went, he could never find people with a sense of humor. Folks were either too cranky, too boring, too serious, too impatient or all of the above.
Much to his delight, Aubrey had a sense of humor.
“Then no wonder I’m always lost in the kitchen,” Arthur said goofily. “I don’t even have a cookbook.”
Arthur couldn’t believe what he then heard.
Aubrey was laughing.
Laughing at his joke!
He wished he could memorize the sound of her laugh so he could go on re-playing it in his mind. It was musical, like a song that one never grows tired of hearing.
While Arthur and Aubrey went on laughing, Penny sat across from them, saying nothing. She took a sip of wine, her eyes shifting back and forth between the two laughers. She wasn’t smiling, nor was she frowning. She simply watched the unfolding scene, calmly but with intensity.
After making Aubrey laugh, Arthur found his confidence returning. Suddenly he didn’t feel so terribly shy around her. During dessert, the two went on chatting as if they had all the time in the world. Much to Arthur’s relief, Penny had stopped flinging personal questions at Aubrey. She was now mostly concerned with eating every piece of her pumpkin pie.
“So how long have you and your mother lived here?” asked Aubrey.
“’Bout ten years now,” Arthur told her. “We couldn’t afford the last apartment. Prices were going up and keeping a job as a party clown wasn’t easy. So we moved here, and here we’ve been since.”
“It’d be nice if they cleaned up the place,” said Aubrey, twirling her fork across her plate. “But I guess it’s hard with so much garbage around...”
Arthur nodded. Nothing looked or smelled nice since the garbage strike had struck.
“Yeah,” he said slowly. He smiled and took a shot at cooking up another joke. “Hey, I got a solution for all those super rats.”
He paused for comedic effect.
A moment later, he held his hands up in a dramatic fashion and exclaimed, “Super cats!”
Another laugh from Aubrey.
“You’re funny, Arthur,” she said, smiling through her laughter.
Arthur couldn’t believe it. Him? Funny? Was he hearing right? Not even his own mother thought him particularly funny (“don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?” she’d asked him more than once). But here was Aubrey straight up telling him she thought he was funny.
Of all the things to be thankful for today, hands down that topped the list.
“That’s hear to good,” he said, blushing fiercely. “I mean...good to hear. Ya know, If I wanna be a someday comedian. Er...I mean if I wanna be a comedian someday.” He smiled awkwardly, feeling his cheeks burn redder than ever.
Under other circumstances, Arthur would have drowned in embarrassment.
But Aubrey’s smile seemed to assure him: don’t be embarrassed. And as he breathed in the sight of her smiling face, bit by bit he felt his nerves burying themselves. It was a new and alien feeling, but one he didn’t want to leave.
For once, he felt genuinely happy.
Happy in a way he hadn’t thought possible...until today. Now he knew why so many went through each day, striving for happiness. Why it was chased after and fought for and longed for by everyone. Sitting there with Aubrey, Arthur felt something he hadn’t felt in all his life.
He felt home.
He was so happy, in fact, that when the night was drawing to a close, he didn’t want to leave. The thought of heading back to his own apartment made his heart sink. No, she wasn’t far; she was just next-door. But even then, she’d feel miles away, as if far off in another city, another country even.
But she wouldn’t be far, he told himself. Less than a minute’s walk away.
Please, he thought with a touch of fear. Please let me see her again.
When they were saying goodbye, Arthur felt a lump in his throat. So much he wanted to say to Aubrey. But where did he begin in telling her this was the best night of his night? The one time where he’d been treated like an actual person? Talked to someone who actually cared about what he had to say?
After thanking her for the dinner, Penny left.
Arthur, however, was in no rush to leave.
“Thanks for coming over,” said Aubrey. She sounded as if she meant it too. “Holidays aren’t much fun when you’re alone...”
“Yeah,” Arthur agreed, rocking on his heels. He fell silent momentarily. “Um...I’m sorry ‘bout my Mom. She, uh...she has a habit of asking lots of questions and—”
“Oh, that’s fine,” said Aubrey, waving it off as if it were no biggie. “Your mother seems sweet.”
Arthur breathed a silent sigh of relief. By some miracle, he’d managed to get through the night without having it all come crashing down in total disaster. Aside from his mother being her usually nosy self and asking lots of questions, it had been a lovely evening. It was the only night Arthur could recall he’d actually had fun. Having Aubrey laugh at his jokes was the single most amazing thing he’d ever felt.
He was used to being laughed at. Ridiculed and mocked for his uncontrollable laughter that made him the laughing stock wherever he went.
But times were changing.
Finally sunny days looked to be on the horizon.
He was now being laughed at, not because someone thought him pathetic, absurd, and a complete failure, but because one person thought him amusing.
“I...I had a great time tonight,” Arthur told her sincerely. “I...I’ve never”—He paused, searching for the perfect thing to say to her. How to convey to her just how thankful he was for her having treated him so good? He came up with nothing.
Like earlier, it was like Aubrey could read Arthur’s expressions. She offered a smile and fixed her gaze on him, as if she too were searching for...something. Her eyes scanned his face, studying his expression the way one examines a complex, breathtaking work of art. It was hard to say who was more lost in the other’s eyes, for both seemed unable to take their eyes off one another.
It was Aubrey who yanked herself back to reality.
“Hey, uh,” she said, tucking a loose curl behind her ear. “Were you still interested in taking a look at some of my art?”
Arthur wanted to smile, laugh and cry all at once. The night just kept on getting better and better.
“Of course!” he assured her, his tone overflowing with enthusiasm.
“Great,” she answered with a smile. “And I wouldn’t mind hearing more of your jokes.” Her smile broadened as she added coyly, “It’s not everyday I meet a comedian.”
Comedian? Arthur felt such joy surging through him, he felt he’d burst from the top of his head to the tips of his toes. She called me a comedian! Because she thinks I'm funny!
He said nothing. He simply stood there, smiling so widely his cheeks hurt.
“How about next Friday?” she suggested.
“F-Friday would be great,” Arthur stammered, sliding his hands into his pockets. “That’ll give me time to come up with jokes some more. I mean...some more jokes.” As he always did when stumbling on his words, he smiled awkwardly.
Neither made the first move to leave. Arthur could have stood there all night talking to Aubrey.
But next Friday would come soon enough.
Until then, he’d get through each day, knowing Friday was on its way. Getting closer and closer.
The second he was back in his own apartment, already Arthur missed her. But her smile was etched in his mind, and the sound of her laugh was still playing, like a song that never ends.
He knew he’d sleep well tonight.
Like a calming lullaby that belonged only to him, the sound of her laugh rocked him gently to sleep. That, along with her smile – Arthur believed to most definitely be the smile of an angel – helped him nod off, off to dreamland where it'd be nothing but the sweetest of dreams.
Chapter 7: A Mother's Worries
It was another long and tiring week for Arthur. On Monday, he’d ridden the bus into Ha-Has, laughing painfully as three bratty teenagers went to great lengths at making the ‘Laughing Loser’s’ ride into work as uncomfortable as possible. From hurling spitballs at him (snickering as each hit their mark), to calling him every nasty name in the book, to cackling like a pack of hyenas as the man stumbled over the outstretched foot waiting to send him tumbling – they certainly succeeded in making the start to Arthur’s day a shitty one. But poor Arthur was used to it. Rarely did he ever have a start to the day that could be called normal.
Tuesday was no better. At Ha-Has, Arthur had fallen into more trouble with Hoyt as his boss stressed how ticked off he was getting at the complaints he was receiving concerning Arthur. Being the ‘freak’ in the eyes of the other clowns, Arthur had no one to vent to, get advice from, or seek even a shred of comfort from. He was the outcast among his coworkers, and, unfortunately, often the source of constant amusement. Though he pretended to be focused solely on applying his clown makeup, Arthur couldn’t block out their hurtful remarks, remarks like:
“Man, that Arthur’s always gettin’ into shit.”
“If there’s one thing that guy’s good at, it’s bein’ a fuck-up.”
“Dunno why Hoyt don’t just fire him already...”
Come Wednesday night, Arthur had been walking back to his apartment, weary, hungry, and cold. A woman had been heading in the opposite direction, her heels clicking loudly against the wet pavement. Arthur had done nothing except keep walking by, his shoulders hunched and head tucked into his chest. He hadn’t even made eye contact with the woman. Yet as she’d passed him, she’d glared at him suspiciously and hissed out, “Pervert!” She’d spoken as if he’d touched her inappropriately, yet this couldn’t have been further from the truth.
And Thursday? Another unwanted visit from déjà vu as Carnival was chased down and beaten until his sides ached and his heart cried buckets of tears. Every kick, punch and spit to the face was like a fresh wound, bleeding upon his frail body that – for reasons he couldn’t understand – could never be left alone.
The week had offered nothing but his latest helping of misery.
Then came Friday.
Normally Fridays were nothing special for Arthur. Just another day of the week, another day that would begin and end the same way they always did: miserably.
But this Friday wasn’t like other Fridays.
It was December fourth. Arthur had been waiting – quite restlessly – for this particular Friday to arrive. So terribly slow the week had gone, but now finally the day he’d been so eagerly waiting for was here.
He was going to see Aubrey again tonight!
He’d dreamed of this day for the past few nights. Now that the day was here, he hoped it would play out as wonderfully as it did in his dreams.
While he waited to hear Aubrey knocking on his door, Arthur whipped up supper for his mother. She wasn’t craving a TV dinner, nor was she in the mood for macaroni and cheese. With his limited cooking skills, Arthur prepared a simple, but flavorful enough bowl of cinnamon oatmeal.
“I’ll get us some groceries this weekend,” Arthur told her. “I got paid today, so that’ll give me some money to pick up a few things.”
Plopping down on his usual spot in the center of the couch, he reached for the remote. Flicking on the television, he turned to one of her favorite channels. It was currently showing a soap opera. Arthur hated soap operas, but his mother enjoyed them, and there wasn’t much on television she liked watching besides the Murray Franklin Show and soap operas.
His mother nodded and took a bite of oatmeal. As she chewed silently, Arthur watched her with concern. For the past few days, she’d been acting a little...odd. Penny Fleck was a strange woman; there was no denying that. But he couldn’t help noticing that lately she’d been a little more, how would he put it...quiet? Or maybe, he thought, she was just sinking deeper and further into her own private realm that mostly consisted of obsessing over Thomas Wayne. Still, whatever the case, it had him worried.
“Mom?” he said, keeping his eyes on his mother.
“Mhm?” she answered through a mouthful of oatmeal. She was wearing her favorite flamingo-pink silk pajamas with a matching pair of cotton slippers (also bright pink).
Arthur waited before continuing. If he said the wrong thing or threw accusations at her, she’d go off shouting and letting her emotions off the leash. He had to choose his next words carefully.
“I, uh...” he said, clearing his throat. “Just wondering if everything's okay?"
“Of course, Happy,” she said, smiling lazily. “What makes you think there’s something wrong?” Without a word, she took a sip of the tea he’d made for her.
“N-nothing,” he shot back quickly. “I...I just worry, you know. With your health and all...I just want to make sure you’re doing okay. Feeling okay and...”
“Do you like Aubrey?”
Arthur flashed her a confused look. Talk about a sudden, rapid change of subject.
“Well, yeah,” he replied in a quiet tone. “Why?”
“Just wondering...” she said, her voice hardly above a whisper. She twirled her spoon absently around in her bowl, staring down at it as if plunging into the deepest trance.
“Do you like her?” Arthur asked cautiously.
Penny hesitated before answering.
“Yes...” she said slowly, as if struggling to get the words off her tongue. “She seems like a nice girl, Happy. Really, she does. It’s just...” Her voice trailed off into silence as she set her empty bowl down on the coffee table. She suddenly sounded tired, as if the conversation were physically tiring.
“What?” Arthur raised a brow, encouraging his mother to go on.
“It’s just,” she said, wringing her hands together nervously. “I understand you want to be friends with this girl. I think it’s wonderful you make a friend. I just wish it weren’t a girl.”
“What’s wrong with that?” said Arthur innocently. He sounded like a little boy asking a grown-up why the sky was blue. “What’s gender got to do with it?”
“Well,” she said thoughtfully. “If this new friend of yours was a guy, you’d just do guy things. You know...watch some sports—”
“But Aubrey and I could watch TV,” Arthur said, sounding puzzled. “Why does it matter that she’s a girl? Guys and girls watch TV together all the time. You and I watch Murray Franklin every night.”
“Yes, but I’m your mother,” she calmly argued. “What I mean is, who’s to say you and her wouldn’t start doing”—she bit her lip before going on—“other things...”
“Mom, what are you talking about?” Arthur asked with a confused sigh. “What do you mean other things?”
“Kissing, Happy!” she shouted. She threw her hands up as if her stormy sea of emotions were exploding erupting-volcano-style. “Kissing, cuddling, taking each other’s clothes off and...and fooling around like...like horny teenagers!” She muttered something incomprehensible.
“Mom!” Arthur cried, dropping his head into his hand. He barely stifled a groan. “That...that would never happen. If Aubrey does want to be friends with me, no way would she want to do any of that stuff. Not with me, anyway...”
“Really?” she countered. “Did you see the way she was looking at you last Thursday? She was looking at you like she was...was...”—she took a breath, as if the next words were difficult to get out—“in love!”
“That’s ridiculous,” Arthur scoffed quietly. “You’re just thinking she was looking at me like that...”
“I know what I saw, Happy,” she shot back firmly. “I’ve seen that look enough times to recognize it when I see it. Aren’t you forgetting Thomas Wayne and I dated when we were young?” She broke out in a smile upon remembering memories of the past. “Trust me, Happy...I know that look. The way Aubrey looked at you that night...Thomas looked at me like that all the time.”
“No, Ma,” said Arthur in a low voice. “She barely knows me. And why would any woman want anything to do with me?” I’m not attractive, he thought glumly. Not wealthy. Not confident. Not interesting. Not special. I’m nothing.
“And the way you were looking at her,” said Penny slowly, raising a brow. By the tone of her voice, it was like she was an expert on all things to do with romance, and knew precisely what she was talking about. “You’re falling for her, Happy. You might not know much about love, but I do. And I know enough about it to know that denial’s often the first sign one’s been hit by Cupid’s arrow.”
“Mom, I just met her,” said Arthur, waving her off. “People don’t fall in love that fast...” But deep down he wondered if his mother was right. Despite having only met Aubrey Speck, were feelings blooming for her that went above and beyond friendship? Being no expert on love, he wasn’t exactly sure how he felt. He only knew that whenever he was around her, he felt such a range of emotions.
Part of him felt excitement. He’d never ridden a roller coaster, but he imagined riding a high-speed, adrenaline-fuelling coaster would feel something like how he felt when Aubrey so much as smiled at him.
Part of him felt terrified. Terrified that she’d suddenly decide her time was better spent elsewhere than with a nobody like Arthur. That Arthur Fleck had absolutely nothing to offer her. That he was about as interesting as a piece of toilet paper.
Still another part of him felt curious. Curious to peel back all of Aubrey’s layers, to dive deep into who she truly was. To put together all the pieces of the puzzle, one precious piece at a time.
“I’m sorry, Happy,” said Penny, leaning back in her easy chair. “I know you just want to be friends with this girl.”
“Then why are you acting like us becoming friends would be a bad thing?” he asked softly. “What’s wrong with us just being friends? I’m sure men and women can be friends without having feelings for each other.”
“Nothing, probably,” Penny answered with an audible sigh. She kicked her feet up onto the table. “I just fear what’ll happen if you two do become friends.” Before Arthur could comment, she rushed on, “You two will start spending all your time together and”—she sounded on the verge of tears—“and you might very well become more than friends with her and...and you’ll probably forget all about me.”
“Mom, that’s crazy!” Arthur said, giving her hand a reassuring squeeze. “Is that what this is all about? You think I’d just take off and leave you...here...alone?” He smiled kindly at his mother, injecting as much sincerity as he could into his voice. “You know I’d never forget about you. And...and anyway”—he smiled sadly and dropped his gaze to the floor—“Aubrey would never care to be with someone like me...not like that. Not romantically. I’ll be the luckiest man alive if she even wants to be my friend.”
“But what if you loved her more than me?” Penny muttered, a little sulkily.
“Love’s not a competition, Mom,” he told her. He could tell she was already jumping ahead, picturing her son and the girl next-door hopelessly in love and lost in their own, happy little world. “And there’s more than one kind of love. You're my mother. I love you. But if I ever did love Aubrey, it’d be a different sort of love.”
“You wouldn’t need me anymore,” Penny uttered, not even looking in her son's direction. “Not if you had her in your life. I’d just be a burden to you. An old bag that needs her son to do almost everything for her.”
“Mom, please,” Arthur pleaded. “Don’t get all worked up.” He didn't like seeing and hearing his mother upset. What with her health, he feared she’d one day suffer a stroke, or worse. Considering she’d suffered a heart attack in the past, her health wasn’t exactly in the best shape.
There was a brief stretch of silence. The only sound came from the loudly squabbling characters featured in the latest episode of Immortal Love.
“You’re right,” Penny finally said, her tone softening. “I’m sorry, Happy. I just care about you. You're all I have. I don’t want to see you get hurt. I just want what’s best for you.”
Arthur smiled. “I know that, Ma.” His mother might have had trouble controlling her emotions, but he knew she meant well. “But I really think Aubrey’s what I need right now. Maybe”—a hopeful smile crossed his face, broadening by the second—“she can make me happy. Truly happy.” He directed his smile at his mother. “If my nickname’s Happy, doesn’t it make sense I should actually be happy?”
She nodded in understanding. “You’re right...” she uttered under her breath. In a louder voice, she said, “No, you’re right.”
“And who knows?” Arthur went on, keeping the smile on his face. It felt good smiling. He hoped Aubrey stayed in his life. With her around, he felt sure there’d be plenty more smiles to come. “Maybe this’ll be a good thing for you too. I mean, you always said that you wanted a son and a daughter.” He shrugged and looked to his mother, who was listening closely. “Maybe you could get to know her more and...and she could be like the daughter you’ve always wanted.”
“Hmm,” she said quietly. She thought for a moment, then nodded in approval. “Yes, that would be nice.” She stifled a yawn before taking a sip of her raspberry-flavoured tea.
“I think she’s just as lonely as us,” Arthur said, rubbing the back of his neck. “Being in and out of foster homes must have been hard. And she has no brothers or sisters. Plus she lives in that apartment by herself.” Lonely though Arthur was, he always had his mother for company. Yes, she was sick and could never get out and do much, but she was company just the same.
Aubrey, on the other hand, had no one.
As for friends, Arthur couldn't say for sure. She hadn’t mentioned any friends, so it was a good guess she was just as alone in cold, cruel Gotham as he was. The thought of her having no one in her life made his heart ache. He was suddenly gladder than ever that she was coming over tonight. If she weren’t, the moment his mother packed it in for the night, it would be another evening of doing nothing but sitting on the couch re-watching Murray Franklin tapes while writing in his journal.
When she’d finished her tea, Penny rose from her chair and headed for the bedroom.
“I’m going to try and get some sleep,” she said, letting out a prolonged yawn. “You two have a good night, okay?"
With that, she closed the door behind her.
Arthur’s brows furrowed as he stared at the door for a long moment. He couldn’t shake loose what his mother had said. She feared a blossoming romance between him and the girl next door would destroy the relationship between she and her son. Arthur rubbed his forehead and sighed deeply. For what felt like the hundredth time, he wished his mother wasn’t such a worrywart. The odds of Aubrey actually wanting him as her boyfriend were so slim it wasn’t even worth discussing.
Obviously his mother felt otherwise. In her eyes, she was already preparing for the day her son bid farewell to her as he jumped into a new life with Aubrey Speck – one that did not involve his mother. Arthur couldn’t understand what went through his mother’s head. Didn’t she realize how much he cared for her? Had he not looked after all these years? Providing for her as best as a struggling son could?
She knows I love her, he reminded himself. She was simply jumping to dramatic conclusions and letting her emotions take control. He felt sure after she took some time and thought things through, she’d feel better in the morning. Being tired had a way of blurring one’s thoughts. A good night’s sleep was often just what one needed when stressing and unable to see clearly.
While he waited for Aubrey, Arthur pulled out his journal. As he flipped through his jokes, a terrifying thought swept over him. What would Aubrey think seeing the pornographic pictures and drawings? He swallowed a painfully large lump down his throat. He could not let her see his journal!
Quickly, he grabbed a sheet of paper and pen. In messy handwriting, he jotted down his most recent jokes. No way was he risking Aubrey catching a glimpse of the naked women in his journal. When he’d finished writing the last joke, he dropped the pen and frowned. The thought of her calling him a perverted pig would be worse than needles digging into his skin. It would be like a living nightmare.
But the truth was, Arthur wasn’t a pig. Sure, he had sexual desires like every other man, but he was human. Knowing how pathetically slim his chances at finding love were, all he’d ever had was his journal. A private place where he could let his fantasies roam free. With no woman in his life to love or love him, he’d fulfill his desires through his own touch, always imagining what it would be like to have a woman’s hands touching him instead of his own, caressing him, fingers spilling love onto every inch of him. As a virgin, he ached to be touched and experience glorious pleasures he only dreamed of one day experiencing.
But what he yearned for more than anything else was to be loved.
Yes, his mother loved him.
But Arthur wanted more than a mother’s love.
He longed for the sort of love one feels when their love for another is so strong, it refuses to die. A love that would provide him with the happily-ever-after he’d hungered for for the longest time. A love so powerful that nothing or no one could tear it apart. A special woman he could give himself completely to. The woman he’d spend the rest of his life with.
He read through his jokes a few more times. He remembered Aubrey laughing at his jokes during Thanksgiving dinner. He crossed his fingers that stroke of luck would pay him another visit tonight. So long as she continued thinking he was funny, she’d likely want to keep spending time with him.
He was relieved she’d be the first one hearing his latest batch of jokes. Considering he’d be performing his first stand-up routine at the Pogos comedy club the following Friday, he definitely wanted to test them out first. And who better to tell his newest jokes to than a woman who already thought he was funny?
Maybe, he thought, his excitement inflating rapidly like a balloon, she’ll even come to the show! He closed his eyes, letting a hopeful smile cross his face. He pictured Aubrey sitting front row in the audience, smiling broadly as she stared at the comedian on stage. With each joke, he’d hear the sweet sound of her laughing. Each laugh would crush his fears into teeny, tiny pieces, replacing them with the confidence only she could fill him with.
Arthur’s eyes popped open.
He jumped to his feet and quickly ran his fingers through his hair. Letting out a nervous, but excited breath, he strode over to the door.
“Showtime!” he whispered.
Chapter 8: Art and Comedy
The second Arthur opened the door, instantly his heart started thumping faster in his chest. Now that he was again face to face with Aubrey, he couldn’t tame the madly fluttering butterflies in his stomach. Or the ka-boom, ka-boom, ka-boom of his rapidly beating heart. How was it, he wondered briefly, that one could feel so indescribably excited and downright terrified at the same time?
Whatever the answer, he didn’t care. Finally he and Aubrey were together again! So long as he could get through the night without saying or doing anything embarrassing, tonight would surely be a lovely evening.
“Hey, Arthur.” Arthur swore his legs had turned to jelly. She was sending him another one of her smiles, and it was making him weak at the knees. For a split second, he feared the rest of him would turn to jelly and the night would be over. But he realized it was just his nerves stopping by to say hi.
“Hey, Aubrey,” he said, smiling back at her.
As he stared at her, he realized it didn’t matter what this girl wore; she always looked pretty. Whether she was more dressed up like she’d been on Thanksgiving Day, or more casual in her flamingo-pink turtleneck, grey leggings and coal-black ballerina flats tonight, she never failed to send Arthur’s heart fluttering. And while she wore no makeup, it didn’t matter; still she made him want to go on staring at her like one stares at a breathtaking work of art. She needed no mascara, eyeliner or eye shadow to highlight the soft blue in her eyes, a blue that make him think of skies on warm spring days.
“How was work today?” he asked, inviting her inside.
“The same,” she answered with a tired sigh. “Kids these days, they just don’t care to be in class. You try to make art interesting, and it’s like you’re just making it more boring.” In her arms she carried a wooden easel, blank canvas, palette and a bucket of brushes, paints and what he figured was a sketchbook.
“Need some help?” he offered. He wasn’t sure how she could hold so much stuff without dropping something. It wasn’t like she was part octopus and had eight arms.
“That’s okay,” she said, setting her materials on the wooden table that was Arthur’s usual writing place. “Maybe I’m a failure as an art teacher, but at least I can escape to my drawings and paintings at home. There, I can just...be me.”
“You’re not a failure,” Arthur was quick to say, taking a seat across from her. “Kids these days are just...”
“Cruel?” she said, finishing his sentence.
He nodded wordlessly. He was no stranger to that unfortunate truth.
There was a short stretch of silence.
“Can I get you anything?” he said, rising clumsily from his chair. He prayed she didn’t notice too much. “Coffee, tea, water?”
“Water would be great, thanks.”
“Do you like sugar cookies?” he said, already making his way into the kitchen. “I picked some up at the store yesterday. Mom ate most of them, but there’s still some left if you want some.”
“Okay.” Arthur threw her a quick glance to see her smiling at him. The night had barely begun and already she was sending his emotions on a high-speed roller coaster. Was this woman trying to be the death of him? How was he going to make it through the night if she kept sending him such irresistibly sweet smiles? “Thanks, Arthur.”
Arthur glanced down at the small plate of cookies. Staring down at them, they looked so plain and boring. He wished he had some frosting, but he wasn’t much of a baker, and didn’t normally experiment with desserts. It was much easier visiting the local bakery. The last time he’d tried baking, he’d not only burnt all twelve cookies, he’d caused the oven to start smoking up a storm. Needless to say, Arthur wasn’t planning on doing any more baking anytime soon.
Before heading back into the living room, his eyes fell on his medications. He swallowed a large, dry lump. He hoped Aubrey wouldn’t come into the kitchen. What would she think if she saw he was on seven medications? He didn’t want to find out. Yes, she’d made it clear his laughing condition didn’t bother her. Or the fact that he still lived with his mother at thirty-five. But if she caught sight of those pill bottles, he feared she’d want nothing more to do with him.
Chancing a look at Aubrey, he saw she was busy flipping through her sketchbook. Without a word, he opened up one of the kitchen drawers. Keeping his eyes on her, he then tucked the bottles into the drawer. He didn’t know for sure she wouldn’t notice the medications, but he wasn't taking his chances.
“Sorry if they’re a bit stale,” he said with a small frown, setting the cookies on the table. Next to this he placed the two glasses of water (he’d put some ice in Aubrey’s, remembering that she’d mentioned liking ice-cold water). “Mom forgot to seal them up in a bag and—”
“Oh, that’s okay,” she said, helping herself to a cookie. She took a bite, swallowed and declared, “Stale or not – they’re still cookies.”
In that moment, it struck him how lucky he was to have met her. With Aubrey around, he felt he could make it through the long, tiring days. No doubt, he thought with growing certainty, she could chase his gloomy storm clouds away. Silence the constantly screaming voice in his head that he didn’t really exist, and was merely floating through life like an unnoticed ghost.
“So have you always liked art?” Arthur asked her curiously.
“All my life,” was her answer. “As soon as I was old enough to draw, I was already an aspiring artist. Even as a teenager, I couldn’t get enough of it. Vincent van Gogh, Picasso, Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci – all I wanted was to be like them some day. Art’s like an escape for me. When life gets stressful and all I want is to hide myself, I get out my paints and easel and just paint whatever comes to mind.”
Arthur could hear the passion in her voice. It reminded him of the passion he felt in his own dream of becoming a stand-up comedian.
“I’ll bet you’ll be like them someday,” he said, quietly nibbling on a cookie. He looked out the window, trying hard to hide the fact that he was blushing. “You’ll be a great artist and have paintings in museums and everyone will know your name.”
“I don’t know...” she said with uncertainty. “I...I’m not that good.”
Arthur’s gaze wandered over to the sketchbook.
“Can...can I take a look?” he asked, his lips curving up in the smallest of smiles.
Aubrey handed him the book, saying, “Sure...but they’re really not that great. I know I still have a long way to go. My stuff’s nothing special.”
Arthur flipped open to the first page...and his eyes widened. The page was awash with colors – raspberry pinks, sunflower yellows and ruby reds. It was a butterfly, its broad wings outspread, each stroke of color soft, yet dazzling. So real-looking it was, he half expected the insect to leap off the page and fly around his head. He laid a finger upon the smooth paper, letting his finger trail lazily down the page.
“Wow,” was all he could say. A hundred other words he could have used, but he was too amazed to say much else. He was no expert on art, but from what he could see, Aubrey definitely had a knack when it came to art.
The second page proved just as colorful. It was a park with rolling green hills beneath a golden sun that sprayed flecks of yellow onto the grass below. A giant cherry blossom tree stood tall and proud, each of its leaves shaded with just the right amount of pink. Even the white puffy clouds lounging about in the sky were painted – in Arthur’s opinion – to perfection.
He shook his head and smiled. “You’re amazing...” he whispered, flipping keenly to the next page.
“No,” she argued, swallowing the last of her cookie. “I’m not amazing. None of my work’s amazing. All the other artists out there painting masterpieces – they’re the amazing ones.”
Arthur said nothing. He was too busy staring in awe at the lovely works of art she’d created. No matter what she’d painted, each was splashed with the brightest of colors and breathed to life with the thickest of strokes. Whether she agreed with him or not, this girl had a way with colors.
A few minutes later, he closed the book shut. He slid it back over to her to see her eyes staring down at the table. Many things in life Arthur didn’t understand. Now taking its place at the top of his list was how someone as talented as Aubrey could think she wasn’t?
“You’re good,” he told her sincerely. “Really good.”
She smiled in appreciation, but shrugged. “You’re just saying that...”
“No,” he said seriously. “I mean that. The way you blend colors together and make it all look so real, it’s...it’s quite amazing, really.”
Aubrey opened her mouth to respond, but quickly snapped it shut. She took a sip of water, wiped her mouth with her sleeve and cast her gaze out the window. Arthur watched her silently, feeling a pang of empathy that she had such little confidence in herself. Despite telling how her amazing he thought her work was, still she couldn’t break down the brick wall that kept her from seeing what he saw so plainly.
“You really don’t think you’re good,” he uttered gently, his voice barely audible. “Do you?”
What she said made part of Arthur’s heart ache.
“Cuz I’m not,” she whispered.
Arthur bit his lip, fighting with himself about what to say and do. He knew what he wanted to do, but that voice in his head kept taunting him, telling him not to make a fool of himself. But he had to ignore it. He had to listen to what his heart was urging him to do, terrified though he was to do it.
But Aubrey needed a boost of confidence.
And he wasn’t going to sit there and do nothing.
So he swallowed and reached out, laying his hand atop hers.
The instant their hands touched, Arthur felt his emotions racing wildly.
And it was no wonder.
This was the first time he’d ever held a woman’s hand before.
A surge of warmth trickled through his fingers, a warmth he’d been all but a stranger to...until now. It wasn’t exactly like the warmth he felt when curling up next to a blazing fire on a cold winter’s night. Nor was it quite the same as when he’d feel the radiant warmth of the sun on a summer’s day. It was a warmth that was indescribable, one that made him feel like he was in the exact right place with the exact right person at the exact right time.
How he wished he could hold onto this warmth forever. Wrap it up and tuck it away in a safe place where no one except him knew where to find it.
“You are,” he said, his tone soft yet firm. He kept his gaze on hers, speaking to her not only with words, but with his deeply expressive eyes. “And don’t ever let anyone else tell you otherwise, okay?”
Aubrey held his gaze. For a long moment, the two simply stared at the other, lost in the deepness of the other’s eyes. The tingling warmth spreading through Arthur’s hand was growing stronger by the second. It was overwhelming, yet he didn’t want the sensation to stop. He could have sat there forever holding her hand, feeling her slender fingers slipping through his own so easily, so snugly, as if it were the most natural dance in the world. As if their hands belonged together.
After a minute of unbroken silence, Aubrey uttered softly, “Thanks, Arthur.”
Arthur blushed. Being able to wash away her fears filled him with a sense of joy. He hated hearing such doubt in her voice. He knew all too well what it was like struggling with one’s confidence.
“No need to thank me,” he said, quietly taking a sip of water. “When someone’s good at something, they should know.”
Aubrey looked like she was about to argue when he swiftly cut her off.
“You’re good, Aubrey,” he said, not breaking eye contact with her. “No, you’re not just good.” He broke out in a widening smile as he corrected himself, saying, “You’re amazing.”
Instead of answering, Aubrey directed her gaze to her easel. Arthur wondered what thoughts were running through her head. Was she still battling her self-doubts of her ability of becoming an artist? Was she grabbing onto his words and holding tightly onto them in hopes of slowly building her confidence like a tower of blocks, one block at a time?
After a moment, her focus was back on Arthur. He studied her face, trying so hard to read her expression. Her brows were knitted together in a frown; it was obvious her mind was on something. All he could do was sit there and try and keep his pounding heart from leaping out of his chest.
“Um,” Aubrey began, chuckling coyly. She picked up one of the brushes, twirling it between her fingers as if she’d done so a hundred times. Back and forth went her sky-blue eyes as they flickered between Arthur and her supplies. “Arthur, can I...uh...would you mind if I...” She broke off as if too shy to finish her sentence.
Arthur gave a small smile, encouraging her to ask away.
“Can I...”—she shifted slightly in her seat—“can I paint a portrait of you?"
Arthur blinked. This wasn’t at all what he'd expected her to say. For half a second, he wondered if he’d heard wrong. Clearly she couldn’t be interested in painting a picture of him? There was nothing interesting about Arthur Fleck! Surely she didn’t mean him.
“I...you don’t want to paint a portrait of me,” her told her quietly. He dropped his gaze downward, figuring there must be some mistake. “You...you’d be better off painting some flowers or...or somebody else.” He tucked his hands into his pockets and repeated, so softly his voice barely reached her, “You don’t want to paint a portrait of me...”
“Yes, I do,” she corrected. Giving Arthur a little smile, she got to work setting up her easel. She positioned it in front of her and got to work applying blobs of paint onto her palette. Arthur watched her silently, his eyes taking in a variety of shades: grassy green, sapphire blue, cranberry red, chestnut brown and buttery yellow. “It’s why I brought all this stuff over tonight.” Again she looked at him as the smile on her face broadened. “Cuz I want to paint a portrait of you.”
The only thing Arthur could think of saying was, “But...why?” He locked eyes with Aubrey, his eyes swimming with a mixture of sadness and confusion. Sadness at knowing she couldn’t possibly care to paint a portrait of him. Confusion as to why she’d even want to, when she could have painted anything or anyone else.
“Why not?” she shot back with a smile.
“S-surely you don’t mean that,” he said, letting out a nervous chuckle.
“Oh, I do,” she said, sliding her chair in front of the easel. She got herself comfortable, picked up her brush and went on, “I’d love nothing more than to paint a portrait of you.”
Arthur didn’t know what to say. He simply went on staring at her, as if expecting to wake up from this crazy dream at any moment.
“Why wouldn’t I want to?” she said, her voice thick with sincerity. Arthur listened for a hint of doubt in her voice, but detected none. “You’re the nicest guy I’ve ever met, Arthur.” She scowled. “So many jerks in this city. So many liars. So many bullies.” She gave him a long up-and-down look as she let a smile spread across her freckled face. “I didn’t think guys like you even existed anymore.” She let out a small laugh. “Thought you’d all gone extinct.” Her cheeks flushed pink as she whispered with a wink, “Guess I was wrong.”
Arthur replayed her shocking words over in his head. He wanted nothing more than to thank her for speaking so kindly of him. But her kindness had dug deep inside him and taken up residence in his heart. First, he felt a familiar tickle in his throat. Like a wild animal, it clawed at his throat, showing him no mercy. Then came the expected laugh, followed by another, and a few more. Soon he was trapped in another uncontrollable fit of laughter, one that seemed to have taken hold of his entire body. He tried quelling the laughter, but it was futile. Once he started laughing, it felt almost impossible to stop.
“Hey,” said Aubrey, rushing to his side. When he felt her hand upon his shoulder, Arthur felt the tension gradually leave him. With her other hand Aubrey rubbed his back soothingly, quietly telling him, “It’s okay.”
“I...I’m sorry,” Arthur managed to get out. “It’s just”—another laugh slipped from his lips—“no one’s ever said anything so nice to me.” Only in his precious dreams had anyone ever spoken so kindly to him. He looked up at her and gave her a grateful smile. “Thank you.”
Aubrey said nothing. But the smile she gave him spoke volumes. It was like she understood what he was feeling, the pain that had sat in his heart all these lonely years.
Once she was seated back in her chair, Arthur asked her, “So, um...what do you want me to do?”
“Don’t worry,” she said assuredly. “It’s not hard. All you need to do is sit there and stay as still as you can.” She tilted her head sideways, staring hard at Arthur, like a sculptor standing before a giant slab of stone. “Can you tilt your head up a teeny bit?”
Arthur did as she asked. “Like this?”
She nodded. “That’s perfect.” She rubbed her chin, while she continued twirling her brush. “Now if I can just have you smile a little and”—she smiled in approval as Arthur gave her a subtle smile—“perfect!”
Arthur did his best to remain still, but it proved harder than it sounded. More than once he had to sneeze, or cough, or scratch a sudden, frustrating itch on the back of his neck. But Aubrey was patient, and never minded. Still he felt bad when he’d have to move. He always felt like he was disrupting her focus, but the passionate expression on her face remained in place.
As he sat there, head tilted slightly upward and small smile on his face, Arthur couldn’t help stealing frequent, curious glances at the painter. Whenever she’d send her gaze back onto her canvas, he’d let his fall onto her. Just when she thought she couldn’t look any prettier, he was proven wrong. Watching her sitting upright, painting away like it was the one thing she was born to do, Arthur felt bubbles of happiness popping inside him. For the hundredth time since meeting her, he wondered how he’d been so lucky to have her step into his life.
More than once their gazes met. Overcome with shyness, Arthur would force his gaze elsewhere. So badly he wanted to hide the fact that he was blushing, but there wasn’t much he could do when his job was to sit there statue-like. A few times, much to his excitement, he thought he noticed her cheeks reddening. He couldn’t say for certain, since he didn’t go on staring long enough. But the very thought of Aubrey finding some part of him – no matter how small – even the tiniest bit attractive was enough to make him the happiest man in Gotham.
No, in the world.
While Aubrey painted away, Arthur couldn't help wondering why she wanted to paint a portrait of him at all. He was beyond flattered what she’d said about him being the nicest guy she’d ever met. But his face wasn’t anything special. Why, he kept thinking, would she want to do anything with this face?
Interestingly, however, she seemed quite intrigued with his face. The way she’d study his features – everything from his sea-green eyes, to his pointed nose, to his thick brows and mop of brown hair that fell in dark waves over his forehead – made him wonder if she somehow saw him as a work of art? Even the facial scar above his lip didn’t go unnoticed.
She’s just focused, thought Arthur, his gaze practically glued to Aubrey. No way in a million years would she find anything attractive about me.
After what felt like hours, Aubrey set down her paintbrush.
“There,” she exhaled. Immediately she began surveying her work.
“You’re done?” Arthur asked.
She nodded and turned the easel around so he could see.
“What do you think?”
Arthur’s eyes widened. Wanting a closer look, he walked over to the canvas and stared incredulously at what Aubrey had painted. While he didn’t think he was anything nice to look at, Aubrey had, amazingly, made this portrait of him look...he wasn’t quite sure how to describe it. The man on the canvas looked at peace, staring off into the distance as if thinking about a million lovely little things. The smile on his face was subtle, but seemed to say: I’m smiling because I’m happy.
Most of the time Arthur wasn’t happy.
He loved being Carnival the Clown. But he didn’t enjoy how often he was kicked and punched and made to feel like trash.
He loved going to his favourite comedy club: Pogos. But each time he’d leave feeling doubtful and worried that he’d never be good enough to make it as a stand-up comedian.
He loved watching his favourite show: Live! With Murray Franklin. But watching his idol left him with a gaping hole in his heart, knowing he was without a loving father in his life.
But with Aubrey, he was happy.
“I think,” said Arthur, his eyes still glued to the canvas. “You have a way with colors.”
“Thanks.” She started putting her paints away, and told him, “Still got a ways to go, but one day at a time, right? Nothing happens overnight.”
“You’ll get there,” Arthur said with an encouraging smile. “Just...just don’t give up, okay?” He fell silent for a moment, then went on, “Don’t let anyone try and tell you you won’t make it as an artist...because you will.”
She smiled thankfully. “Nice to have at least one person believe in me...”
Arthur’s cheeks took on a reddish hue. “One person’s better than no one...right?”
She nodded in agreement.
For the longest moment, the two stared at the other, letting silence do the talking. Sitting there across from her, Arthur swore he’d remind her every day of how talented she was. That she would fulfill her dream of becoming an artist. And until that day dawned, he’d shower her with constant encouragement until she was soaked from head to toe in it.
“So how about some jokes, funny man?” said Aubrey presently, getting comfy in her chair.
Arthur wanted to cry, laugh and smile all at once. Funny man. She thought he was funny! Even his own mother didn’t seem to think he had much potential as a comedian. But here was Aubrey actually wanting to hear more of his jokes.
He was incredibly excited.
And absolutely terrified.
Suddenly he feared his jokes were trash. Less than amateurish. That she’d raise her brows in disappointment and shake her head in boredom.
“I...it’s just...” he stammered, sliding his piece of paper in front of him. He ran his fingers through his hair nervously, unsuccessfully trying to mask his nerves. “I dunno if they’re any good. I just came up with them a few days ago...”
“I bet they’re hilarious,” she said, sounding far more confident than Arthur felt.
“I...I dunno,” he said, dropping his face into his hands. He could feel his hands shaking. Please, he thought desperately, don’t start laughing. Not now...
“Don’t be nervous,” she said, her gentle tone already relaxing Arthur. “Think of it as you’re performing at Pogos for an audience of one.” She pointed to herself and grinned. “Me.”
“I...I have a show next week,” Arthur told her, fiddling with his fingers. “I...I’ve been trying to get ready. Put together some jokes and...but it’s hard...”
“Really?” She broke out in a big smile. “Arthur, that’s awesome!”
“Yeah, but...” he said quietly. “What if I...what if I screw up and just make a fool of myself?"
“Hey,” she said, giving his hand a reassuring squeeze. “If it makes you nervous thinking about next week, don’t think that far ahead. How about we just focus on tonight?”
Arthur nodded slowly. His eyes flickered down to her hand. How wonderful a feeling it was having her hand atop his own. Such warmth flooded through him that he wished he could freeze this moment and replay it forever.
“Okay,” he said, rising to his feet. He took his sheet of paper and stepped back until he was standing beside the couch. Taking a deep breath, he imagined his living room as the comedy club he knew so well. But instead of a crowded club, he saw only Aubrey. Tonight he’d be performing for an audience of one.
“H-hello,” he said, lips quivering as he attempted a smile. Instantly he started laughing, a small snort escaping him.
He tried again.
“Hello, it’s good to be”—It was no use. The laughter was back with a fiery vengeance. Arthur buried his face in the crook of his arm, humiliation surging through him. How was he ever going to put on a show at Pogos if he couldn't even perform in front of Aubrey? There was no reason to be nervous – not in front of her. She thought he was funny. So then why was he laughing so painfully?
“It’s okay, Arthur,” she said, her soothing voice like wind in the trees. “Just take your time.”
“I-I’m sorry,” he said, hanging his head in embarrassment. He barely suppressed another laugh. “Maybe this isn’t a good idea. I...I should just cancel the whole thing.”
“Hey,” she said, firmly but softly. “Don’t you say that. You have just as much right to go up on that stage and perform, Arthur. So what if you have a laughing condition? That’s no reason for you not to show them what you got.” Arthur tilted his head, looking at her like a puzzled little boy. “You’re funny, Arthur. Don’t let this stop you from doing what you want to do. This is your moment. Don’t take it from yourself.”
Slowly, Arthur felt himself relaxing. Aubrey had a way of pushing the tension out of him.
“And,” she added, her face still wreathed in a smile, “if it would make you feel less nervous, I can come to your show.”
Arthur’s eyes widened. It was like fourth of July fireworks were igniting in his eyes.
“Really?” The excitement on his face matched that in his voice perfectly.
“Of course,” was her answer. She winked at him, saying, “No way would I pass down the chance to see Gotham’s greatest comedian.”
“I...I’m not Gotham’s greatest comedian,” he quietly argued.
“I think so,” she shot back. “Not only are you funny, you’re a whole lot nicer than those other jerks that get up there and call themselves comedians. Sure, they might make people laugh. But they’re all just a bunch of...pigs.” She scowled in disgust. “Most of the jokes they make are just ones that sexualize women. To them, we’re just objects."
Arthur swallowed a large, dry lump down his throat. Thank god he’d hid his journal. He hated thinking what she’d say or do if she caught sight of the pornographic images. What if she got the wrong idea? Thought he was just as much a pig as the rest? The thought of Aubrey leaving him was unbearable. He couldn’t lose her. Only around her did he feel less lonely, safer, happier, and accepted. To have their beautifully blooming friendship shrivel up and die would be a living nightmare.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “If you want, I can show up early to make sure I get a seat right up front.”
“Yes,” he said, liking this idea very much. “That would be nice.” He smiled in appreciation. “Thank you.”
He cast his gaze back onto his sheet of paper. He took a breath, reminding himself that he wasn’t standing before a crowd of people. Sitting at his writing table was an audience of one – the greatest audience he could ever hope to perform in front of.
“I hated school as a kid,” he began. For a moment, he feared another laugh attack was on the way. But when Aubrey gave him an encouraging nod, he breathed a silent sigh of relief. “My mother would always say”—here he mimicked his mother’s voice—“‘ you should enjoy it. One day you’ll have to work for a living.” He paused briefly. “No I won’t, Ma...I’m gonna be a comedian!"
Feeling small bursts of confidence, Arthur dove into his jokes. With Aubrey watching him, he needn’t fear being booed off the stage. For right now, it was only her smile encouraging him to not hide in the shadows...but step into the light.
“What did the crazy man say to the straight jacket?” He paused, knowing the importance of waiting before firing off the punch line. Timing, as he’d learned from regular trips to Pogos, was crucial. “Loosen up a little!”
Arthur felt an enormous weight lift off his shoulders hearing Aubrey laugh. He listened closely, wondering if her laugh was forced. But the longer and harder he listened, he came to a delightful conclusion: her laughter was genuine. She genuinely thought his jokes were funny. Knowing this filled him with a confidence he'd never known before. Not once had anyone ever found him amusing, not in this way, anyway. Teenagers found it amusing how easy it was to beat him up like he was a human punching bag. The guys at Ha-Has found it amusing how he always seemed to be ticking Hoyt off and getting his butt one day closer to being fired.
And then there was Aubrey. The only person who laughed like he was the funniest guy in Gotham. To say he was overjoyed was an understatement.
He was on top of the world.
“Why did the old man like having insomnia?” Again he paused, letting Aubrey ponder the answer. He smiled, raised his hands in a dramatic fashion and exclaimed, “Because he didn’t have to sleep with his wife!”
"How do you come up with all this?" asked Aubrey through her laughter.
"I...I dunno," said Arthur, smiling shyly. "I...I guess they just come to me. Sometimes they don't though. I once went a whole week without coming up with anything. But it's been better lately."
He could have gone the entire night making Aubrey laugh. And, amazingly, he wondered if she just could have sat there listening to his jokes. But after a few more rounds of hilarity, it was time to call it a night. Not that Arthur wanted to. He wanted this night to go on forever. As nice as that would have been, Aubrey was yawning and rubbing her eyes. As much as he was loving her company, it was clear she needed some shut eye.
"Thanks for...for coming by," Arthur told her sincerely. "Mom doesn't really find my stuff that funny, so it was nice having you here."
"Why wouldn't she find you funny?" asked Aubrey, sounding as surprised as she looked. "You're hilarious, Arthur."
He shrugged. "I...I dunno..."
"Well, you can have me over anytime," she said, making her way to the door. "If you ever need another audience of one, I'll be there."
Arthur's face broke out its biggest smile yet.
"So you'll be there next week at Pogos?"
"Consider me already there," she said, turning round to face Arthur.
Arthur opened his mouth, but quickly snapped it shut. Somewhere inside him he felt something bubbling up into his throat. He waited, fearing it was another laugh. Somehow he managed to suppress his laughter, but this didn't stop his nerves from wanting to explode. Standing there staring at Aubrey, he knew what he wanted to say.
The only problem was he couldn't get the words out. His mouth had gone dry as sandpaper.
"H-hey, um...Aubrey?" he stuttered.
"You're stuttering," she said, brows furrowing with concern. "What's wrong?"
"N-nothing," he lied. He buried his hands into his pockets, trying hard not to sound like a complete idiot. "I...I was wondering just if...I mean...I was just wondering if...if you..." He scowled softly, uttering under his breath, "What are you doing?"
"Hey, it's okay," she said, laying a hand on his shoulder. "You can ask me anything, Arthur."
"I...I was just wondering," he said, his nerves still thrashing about like a fish out of water. It's okay, he kept thinking. Just ask her. The worst she'll say is no. "Um...you're coming to Pogos next week, and I...well..." He fell silent, unable to finish the sentence.
What Aubrey said next all but baffled Arthur. How she'd known what he was trying to ask her, he hadn't a clue. It was a mystery he felt certain he'd never solve. But somehow or another, she knew, and hearing what she said sent Arthur Fleck straight up to cloud nine.
"It's a date," she smiled.
Arthur didn't know what to say or do. All he could do was stand there with his mouth hanging open in stupefied shock.
Only after the longest minute of his life did he finally find his voice again.
"A-A date," he said in a squeaky voice. He cleared his throat and stood up straighter. "Y-yeah, that great be would...I mean...that would be great." He smiled sheepishly. Never in his wildest dreams could he have imagined he'd ever go on a date with anyone. He just wasn't dating material. Yet there he stood, Arthur Fleck, agreeing to a date with the woman who'd saved his life.
"So next Saturday at six?"
"Y-yeah," he said, leaning up against the door frame, trying to act cool. "Next six at Saturday. Er...next Saturday at six." He frowned in embarrassment and murmured, "Sorry."
Aubrey giggled. "You're cute when you fumble on your words."
When she left, Arthur closed the door, his eyes staring down at the wooden floor. He could hardly believe what she'd said. So impossible it seemed, too good to be true, yet it was real.
"She thinks I'm cute?" he whispered, smiling giddily to himself.
For the rest of the night he could think of nothing except next Saturday.
The Saturday he'd be going on his first date.
Chapter 9: A Date with Disaster
Arthur inhaled, then exhaled deeply. Closing his eyes, he desperately tried blocking out his surroundings, shoving all his focus onto not letting tonight blow up like an erupting volcano. He tightened his grip on his notebook; he was doing a lousy job of keeping his hands from shaking. But considering tonight was one of the most important nights of his life, quelling his nerves wasn’t exactly easy.
“You’ve got this,” he whispered, smoothing the back of his hair for what felt like the hundredth time. After running through his act all morning and afternoon, it was time for the show to begin. The curtains were about to go up, yet he couldn’t have felt any less ready. Despite having practiced for hours, he felt like a student walking into a test having not studied at all.
Not a good feeling.
Part of him wanted to scream. Another wanted to cry. But deep down, past the many layers of ballooning doubt, he wanted to puke. He wasn’t even on the stage yet and already he felt like he was falling apart, piece by piece, like a tower of blocks.
But he couldn’t scream. Or cry. And definitely not puke. Not tonight. Not when he was about to introduce himself to the world of comedy for the first time. First impressions were everything. The last thing he wanted was having people think he was incompetent, less-than-amateur, and – worst of all – not funny.
Tonight had to be nothing less than perfection.
Perfection in all its shiny glory.
For that to happen, he had to be perfect.
Arthur swallowed. Again his mother’s not-so-kind words rushed through his head.
Don’t you have to be funny to be a comedian?
It was no secret his mother wasn’t confident in her son’s likelihood of achieving his dream of becoming a comedian. But standing there, minutes away from performing, more than ever he wondered: is she right?
Somewhere inside him a small voice whispered: won’t know unless you try.
From where he stood at the bottom of the stairs, he could hear the comedian on stage wrapping up his performance. The beating of Arthur’s heart couldn’t block out the waves of laughter rolling through the club. Louder and louder it grew, until the sound of it was practically ringing in his ears. He flipped nervously through his notebook, crossing his fingers that even a few people would find him funny. How awkward and utterly devastating would it be to deliver a joke, only to be met with crushing silence? He doubted he’d send everyone into fits of laughter; he wasn’t lucky enough for that to happen.
But making even one person laugh would be plenty enough.
He smiled, knowing at least one person tonight find him funny.
Terrified though he was, there was no washing away the relief he felt knowing Aubrey was waiting for him. Seeing her in the front row, staring up at him with her encouraging smile, his smile broadened. If she could vanquish his nerves, perhaps he could make it through this night. Not make a total fool of himself. Prove to the people of Gotham that he – Arthur Fleck – had what it took to rise and make it as a comedian.
Arthur took a shaky breath hearing the comedian announce, “All right, that’s my time. Thank you very much, guys.” In the short time he had, Arthur let his gaze wander one last time to the framed pictures hung high on either side of him. All were of comedians who’d performed at Pogo’s. Staring at each face in turn, he spotted the same thing plastered onto each one’s face.
More confidence than he’d know what to do with.
When, he wondered for what felt like the umpteenth time, would he find his confidence? Wherever it was, he hoped it would come out of hiding tonight. He needed it to. How else would he earn a career in comedy if he let his nerves consistently get in the way? To flail around like a fish out of water tonight would mean the end of ever turning his dream into reality.
Arthur willed his feet to get moving. Now wasn’t the time to let fears and doubts wrap him in a blanket and suffocate him. It was time to shove fear and doubt onto a ship and send them sailing far away, across some never-ending sea that would take them to he didn’t care where. He’d practiced too long and too hard to have tonight go flushing down the drain.
The lights above him shone down dimly, one flickering faintly. More than ever the red color seeping out from them looked harsh, intimidating for first-timers like Arthur. Pogo’s wasn’t the coziest comedy club around, the lights not warm and inviting, but the place wasn’t exactly new either. It was one of Gotham’s oldest clubs, and sorely in need of renovations.
Arthur kept his eyes down, staring dazedly at the tattered rug beneath him. Now that the waiting was over, he wasn't sure what to think. Perhaps, he thought, this was what it was like to feel numb. Still he kept walking, forcing his feet forward, clutching onto his notebook, as if afraid it would sprout legs and run away. Without realizing it, he picked up the pace. The walls on either side of him felt like they were closing in on him, threatening to show him the meaning of claustrophobia.
Up the stairs he went, his feet feeling heavy as bricks. Finally, he stopped, staring silently out at the crowd. The room was dark, lit only by the red lamps dotted throughout the room. It was a full house tonight, not an empty seat to be seen. At first, Arthur was excited; more people meant more people to make laugh. But almost instantly this excitement evaporated. More people meant more people to disappoint and bore to tears.
Stop, he told himself, turning his attention to the man on stage. Stop thinking so negatively. You got this. You...got...this.
“Alright,” the man said, consulting a small slip of paper. “Now this next comic describes himself as a lifelong Gotham resident, who, from a young age, was always told that his purpose in life was to bring laughter and joy into this cold, dark world.” He paused, and went on slowly, “Um, okay...”
That was when he spotted her. Exactly where she said she’d be. In the front row, her attention fixed on Arthur and Arthur alone. He smiled, fighting the urge to run over and hug her. If not for her being here, he was certain he’d chicken out and skedaddle home. But Aubrey was here, and so long as she was here, everything would be okay.
Sending him a little wink, she mouthed the words you got this.
Man, I hope you’re right, he thought, forcing another lump down his throat.
The man continued, “Please help me welcome, Arthur Fleck, ya’ll.” He started clapping as the audience followed suit. “Arthur Fleck!”
Arthur walked up to the microphone, his eyes darting about like an out-of-control ping- pong ball. He and the man shook hands briefly. Offering a small smile of encouragement, the man departed the stage.
The stage was now Arthur’s.
Arthur smiled, taking a closer look at the audience before him. How many people were there? Twenty? Fifty? The longer he looked, the more he swore it was a hundred. Faces swam in every direction, blurring together in a confusing sea. All were staring up at him, waiting to see what waves of hilarity this newcomer would send splashing upon them.
“H-hello,” Arthur began quietly. Louder! he screamed to himself. Or no one’ll hear you!
It started as a small tremble. He blinked, vainly trying to keep his worst fears from breaking free of their cages.
But it was no use.
Bursting clean from its cage, the laughter he knew would ruin everything came roaring out, making itself the star of the show. Arthur was no different than a poor dog on a leash that keeps digging in, pulling tighter and tighter, showing no mercy.
Humiliating as this was, he had to keep trying.
If he couldn’t derail this train of disaster, it would be game over.
“H-hello, it’s good to be here...”
His uncontrollable laughing was wide awake. Plunging into embarrassment, Arthur turned and bent over, covering his mouth in a desperate attempt to smother his laughter. Alas, nothing he did could ever put a lid on his frustrating condition. From behind him, a few awkward laughs rippled through the crowd. Hearing them, Arthur’s first instinct was to dive into panic mode. He was making a total fool of himself...and the show had just started!
Three words rolled painfully through his head.
I’m an idiot...I’m an idiot...I’m an idiot.
“I hated...” Hardly had he gotten the words out when the laughter returned. Arthur’s hand went straight to his throat. How he wished the floor beneath him would swallow him up and pull him out of this nightmare-come-to-life. Wherever he looked, confused faces stared back at him. Some spoke among themselves, wondering what this man’s deal was. It didn’t matter where Arthur’s gaze fell; the embarrassment coursing through him was almost too much to bear.
“I hated...” He swallowed, forcing himself to fight through his laughter. “I hated school as a kid.”
Like clockwork, the laughter was back, striking louder and harder than ever. Arthur buried his face into the crook of his arm, overcome with shame and fear. He struggled for a breath, hand once more at his throat. An agonizingly long moment later, the laughter died down enough for him to catch his breath. He inhaled deeply, shoving the laughter as far back into his throat as he could.
Despite being dressed only in a cardigan and long-sleeved shirt, Arthur felt uncomfortably warm. Already he could feel beads of sweat forming on his forehead. But no matter how embarrassed or terrified he felt, he had to keep going.
“I hated school as a kid,” he said, unable to hold back a small, but irritating laugh. “My mother would say”—he put on what he hoped was a decent impersonation of his mother—“you should enjoy it: one day you’ll have to work for a living.” Turning to the right, he stood up a little straighter, praying his laughter didn’t get hold of him again. “No I won’t, Ma”—he raised his arms in a dramatic fashion and finished with, “I’m gonna be a comedian!”
He chuckled at the joke. The room was silent mostly, the audience apparently not overly amused with this newcomer. Still Arthur kept laughing, turning his gaze onto the one person – the only person – he wanted there tonight.
He wasn’t surprised to see Aubrey smiling. Hand resting beneath her chin, she offered him a much appreciated smile. In a sea of strangers, so grateful he was to have her familiar face staring back at him. Grinning from ear to ear, he shot her a wave of acknowledge before moving on to the next joke.
“Done,” he uttered quietly. Flipping through a few pages, he stopped when he found a joke he’d come up with that morning. “Here’s one.” He paused, waiting for another bout of laughter to ruin the night. But he felt nothing. Feeling hopeful, he kept going. “You know, I was just thinking the other day. Why are the rich people”—he placed his finger and thumb at his chin, remembering the importance of gestures—“so confused?”
He waited. Timing was everything when delivering the punchline.
Unfortunately, it didn't matter how perfectly timed his punchlines were.
Because nobody - aside from Aubrey - was laughing.
Correction, a few were laughing. But not because they thought Arthur was pro at dishing up plates of hilarity.
Arthur knew he wasn't a genius. But he was smart enough to realize the difference between laughs. The laughs spilling out from the audience weren't at all a reassuring sound. For shy, insecure Arthur, it was like nails on a chalkboard. Unable to focus on anything else, he almost forgot Aubrey was even watching. All he could obsess over was the fact that these people didn't find him funny.
"I...uh..." he stammered, swallowing hard. He dropped his gaze, his panic rising by the second. He couldn't just stand there like a fool who's tongue was in knots, no matter how badly he wanted to run off that stage.
"What did the crazy man," Arthur said, his voice barely reaching the first row.
"Speak up!" a man in the back hollered.
Arthur flinched, nodding violently.
"What did the crazy man," Arthur said more loudly, "say to the straight jacket?"
He grew silent, praying someone besides Aubrey broke out laughing.
Luck, however, just wasn't in Arthur's favor tonight.
"Loosen up a little!"
What he next heard was worse than a room full of silence.
"When are ya gonna start being funny?"
"You call that funny?"
"This ain't entertainment!"
Arthur froze. Things couldn't be going worse. Ka-boom, ka-boom, ka-boom went his heart, pounding wildly in his chest. He couldn't look at them; seeing the disappointed, sneering, bored faces was too much. But averting his gaze did nothing, not when the cruel remarks kept pounding away, each one hitting their mark.
Arthur Fleck was officially on a date with disaster.
He flipped frantically through his notebook, searching for a joke that might keep this night from plunging further into failure.
"W-why did the crazy m-m-man like having insomnia?"
Most of the audience looked up with uninterested expressions. A few snickered quietly while sipping their wine greedily.
Arthur took a shaky breath before continuing.
"B-because he didn't have to sleep with his wife."
From the back, a man yelled out, "Get off the stage!"
Arthur tightened his hold on his notebook. Tears welled up in his eyes, but he fought to keep them from sliding down his face. He absolutely could not let himself cry. A grown man crying on stage would only give them all the more reason to slam him with more hurtful remarks. No matter what they said, he mustn't let them get to him.
"Hey, buddy!" the same man shouted. Arthur flinched when he heard an insistent bang, bang, bang. The man was pounding his fist against the table. "Not gonna say it again. Get off the stage!"
Arthur opened his mouth, but no words trickled out. In but a few seconds, his mouth had gone bone dry.
Staring down at his joke diary, his eyes landed on the bottom. There, written in thick, messy black lettering, was a joke he'd written weeks ago. Of all the jokes he'd come up with, this was his favorite.
"The worst part about having a mental illness," Arthur said, his tone a mixture of fear and bitterness, "is that people expect you to behave as if you don't."
For a moment, silence. Arthur kept staring at his feet, refusing to look at anything else. Even Aubrey, thrilled as he'd been knowing she'd be here tonight, was fading swiftly from his thoughts. Standing there with his hands at his side, his head tilted downward, eyes partially closed, he could think of nothing except that he was failing miserably.
Sadly, the silence was merely prelude.
Rolling in like a vicious tidal wave, Arthur was swept up in a storm.
Its only goal?
To drown poor Arthur.
The chorus of booing swelled, filling every inch of that dingy club. Arthur wanted to plug his fingers in his ears, but knew that would only make things worse. Shouts of "get off the stage" came from all directions, yet Arthur was glued in place. Standing still as a statue, he stared tearfully down at his journal. So long and hard he'd worked to get to this point. Now here he was, having it shatter into a thousand pieces, each one digging into his heart.
The nasty remarks rolled in, but Arthur barely heard them. He was too busy being carried away in a sea of numbness.
"What comedian brings their material on stage with them?" someone called out, laughing meanly. "Talk about amateur."
"You're not funny, dude!"
"Just pack it in already."
"Go home and write some real jokes."
Finally, Arthur couldn't take it anymore.
He exploded, letting his laughter out in full force. His face reddened as the unpleasant sensation took over his throat, building and swelling by the minute. No sooner had he burst out laughing than the crowd did too. Fingers pointed at the failing comedian onstage, faces plastered in broadening sneers.
The one person not laughing, of course, was Aubrey. Staring round at the tormentors, she arranged her face in a portrait of perfect frustration. Quickly it shifted to disbelief, then confusion, then outright disgust.
"STOP!" she yelled, gritting her teeth.
Those round her paid as much attention to her as one does to crumbs on a plate.
"That's it, freak!" one guy hollered, leaning back in his chair. "Just keep laughing!"
"Hey, loony!" another yelled. "Have a drink!"
Up came a glass of wine, smashing loudly at Arthur's feet. Arthur cried out in surprise, stumbling onto the floor like a clumsy child. More laughter rose. Then, like the punchline to their own cruel joke, the audience chanted in unison, "OFF THE STAGE...OFF THE STAGE...OFF THE STAGE!"
Too numb to say or do anything, Arthur simply sat there, wishing this nightmare would end already.
Arthur turned to see Aubrey rushing up onto the stage. She knelt down next to him, looking him right in the eye. "Don't listen to them," she whispered, holding his gaze. Like Arthur, her eyes were also filling with tears. "Don't listen to a word they say."
"OFF THE STAGE...OFF THE STAGE!"
Arthur stared deep into her eyes, wanting so badly to block out this unkindly audience. But they were like maggots burrowing into his flesh; there was no ignoring them.
After a moment of unbroken silence, Arthur smiled. But this wasn't a joyful, amused, or relaxed smile. This was a small, sad smile that shouted from the rooftops: I'm a fuck up.
Mom was right, he thought wretchedly. I'm not funny...
Arthur rose unsteadily to his feet. The room was closing in on him, threatening to suffocate him from the inside out.
Giving one last pained look to the crowd, he surrendered himself to his tears. Crying out in anger and misery, he threw his notebook aside, and rushed off the stage without another word, never wanting to step foot in Pogo's again.
Chapter 10: Dancing in December
Words – each one drenched in negativity – bounced about in Arthur’s mind, which was growing more chaotic by the second. Pouring on all the speed he could, he blasted through the entrance doors, his only priority being to put as much distance between himself and Pogo’s as possible. He didn’t even look back. Why would he when all that would be staring back at him was pain, rejection and loneliness? Still, he felt it digging deeper into his skin, like the fangs of a ruthless predator.
It was snowing outside. Light flurries floated lazily down, sprinkling white onto the sidewalk, rooftops, cars and people strolling by. Arthur barely noticed; he was too busy running. Tears still pricking his eyes, he sprinted down the sidewalk, occasionally rubbing his eyes with his sleeve.
He couldn’t believe it. Not that he’d expected his first performance to be a smashing hit – far from it. But what he’d walked into was nothing short of a nightmare. All his greatest fears had sprung to life – failing to suppress his embarrassing laughter, failing to make the audience laugh and failing to keep his nerves from taking control.
He’d failed, plain and simple.
If an award existed for Worst Comedian in Gotham, he thought glumly, no doubt he’d have won it tonight.
“Mom’s right,” he uttered, shoving his hands into his pockets. “I’m not funny. More like least funny person ever...”
Arthur heard the voice, but only vaguely. It sounded so far away, as if it were calling out to him from the other side of Gotham. Under other circumstances, he would have stopped, turned round and broken out smiling. Her voice always had a way of wrapping him in layers of comfort and joy.
Well, almost always.
Tonight, not even Aubrey could wash away his woes.
“Go away!” he cried miserably. “J-just leave me alone...”
“Arthur, stop!” Aubrey pleaded.
Arthur blinked back a fresh round of tears. He felt embarrassed to be crying, but after such a disastrous night, it was impossible not to. Lifting his head, his eyes popped open as he bumped into a man of intimidating size and height. Throw in the fact that this guy looked ready to punch someone’s lights out, Arthur felt his insides twist painfully. One punch to the head, and it would indeed be lights out for poor, defenseless Arthur.
“Hey!” the guy growled, eyeing Arthur irritably. He tightened his right hand into a fist. “Watch it, pip-squeak!”
“S-s-sorry,” Arthur squealed, backpedalling away from the grumpy man. He dared not look the man in the eye; the last thing he wanted was making this not-so-nice-looking stranger crankier than he already was.
“Arthur, please!” Aubrey shouted, her voice dripping with concern. “Wait up!”
“Go away!” he called back, wanting to block out everything and everyone in Gotham City. With that, he hurried off, wishing he could disappear into this cold, snowy night that was supposed to be a night to remember.
It was a night to remember, all right.
But for all the wrong reasons.
“I should have stayed home,” he cried, rubbing his face tiredly. “I never should have done this.”
Farther down the sidewalk he ran, pumping his legs until they ached, begging him to stop. But he didn’t. Too distraught to slam on the breaks, he simply kept on running, not caring where he went.
“Hey, look!” came a sneering voice. “A cry-baby!”
In his peripheral vision Arthur made out a gang of teenagers standing outside a rundown corner store. Upon seeing the scraggly, snivelling, unstylishly dressed man hurrying by, the four broke out sniggering. Like a pack of hyenas, the four laughed like they’d just witnessed a truly hilarious sight.
“Where ya goin’, cry-baby?” one of them called.
“Cry me a river, cry-baby!” yelled another.
“Cry, cry-baby, cry!” one hollered, hooting childishly. Taking one last drag of his cigarette, he flicked it aside cockily.
Making the situation worse, Arthur’s feet met a slippery patch of snow. He stumbled, but quickly jumped back to his feet, ignoring the cruel laughter spilling out from the amused teenagers. It seemed this awful night just wasn’t finished with Arthur Fleck. It wouldn’t surprise him if the sky suddenly decided to hit him with the coldest, angriest snowstorm it could whip up.
A rush of wind slashed against his pale face. Arthur shivered, thankful to at least have his winter coat. It might not have been the greatest at keeping winter’s chilly temperatures at bay, but it was better than nothing. Even his grey wool scarf – a little tattered and faded in color – helped keep his neck warm.
Arthur turned sharply right, pumping his legs furiously. Where am I going? he thought, feeling lost and increasingly weary. What am I doing? He shouldn't be running around the streets; he should have been catching the next bus ride home. Home to his apartment where his mother would have no words of encouragement to offer him. Only reminders that he didn’t have what it took to make it as a comedian, let alone a successful one.
Lifting his head, he saw a familiar sight. Thirty yards away, draped in a thin layer of freshly fallen snow, stood Gotham Park. Arthur recognized the place immediately; he passed by this popular place more than once during his commute to work. Sometimes, if he needed to clear his thoughts, or just needed to be alone, he’d pay the park a visit. Unfortunately, his visits had become less frequent since disrespectful teenagers started taking pleasure in teasing Arthur. It was hard enjoying a day at the park when jerks were throwing pine cones at you, laughing while they did so.
Thankfully, the park was empty tonight. Arthur’s tired, teary eyes scanned the spacious park, relieved have a spot where he’d be free to cry in peace. A moment later, he settled onto a wooden bench, letting his face drop into his hands. He buried his hands into his hair, letting the tears slip down his face, one teardrop at a time.
“That’s all I am,” Arthur whispered, his voice hardly audible. “Just a freak...a fuck up...a failure.”
The sound of approaching footsteps grew louder, along with the voice that refused to be silenced. He could see her out of the corner of his eye, rushing up to him, out of breath, her face painted with worry, anger and sympathy.
“Arthur,” Aubrey panted, her voice softening. She plopped down beside him, waiting for him to look at her. When he didn’t, she asked quietly, “Arthur?”
“Is it just me,” he said, more to himself than to Aubrey, “or is it getting crazier out there?” Replaying the words over in his head, it struck him how utterly lost he sounded. Like a poor, terrified cub that's lost its way home.
“I’m an idiot,” he uttered in defeat. So easy it was giving in to the truth. Why try and fight it when it was so inescapable? In the sad and tragic life that was Arthur Fleck’s, truth was practically written in the stars, etched into the sky with permanent ink.
“No,” Aubrey quickly corrected. “You’re not an idiot.”
“But I am!” he argued, sighing deeply. “I should have known I don’t have what it takes to be a comedian. I’m”—he sniffed and shook his head—“I’ll never have what it takes to be a comedian.”
Before Aubrey could get out even one word, Arthur repeated softly, “I’m an idiot...”
“Look at me, Arthur,” Aubrey commanded, gently but insistently.
Arthur’s gaze didn’t shift.
“Arthur,” said Aubrey, her unblinking gaze locked on him. “Look at me.”
A moment later, Arthur’s gaze landed on Aubrey.
“You’re not an idiot,” she told him firmly. Arthur listened, clinging onto her every word, so desperate for even the smallest ounce of sincerity. Breathing in the sound of her voice, how he wished she could tear down his walls of doubt. Light a burning fire to all the insecurities following him wherever he went, every minute of every day. “Don’t even think for one second you’re an idiot, Arthur.”
Arthur said nothing.
He didn’t to; his silence confirmed exactly what he was thinking.
“You’re not an idiot!” Aubrey went on, glaring off into the night. Arthur thought he detected a hint of anger in her voice, swelling like an inflating balloon. “All those jerks at Pogo’s?” She exhaled, muttering something incomprehensible. “They’re the idiots.”
Arthur watched her wordlessly. Aubrey was struggling to keep her dam of frustration from bursting; he could see it plainly on her face. From her tone of voice and the way she gritted her teeth together, she seemed even more frustrated than Arthur. Even her hands were tightened into fists, as if all she wanted was to punch something.
“Fuck them,” she said, her choice of words catching him off guard. Aubrey wasn’t one to swear often. As Arthur was learning, when she did, it meant her emotions were trapped on a high-speed roller coaster. Studying her face more closely, he saw the anger plastered all over her face. In her twitching nose. Her narrowed eyes. Her furrowed brows and trembling lips.
Arthur tried answering, but the words stayed glued to his tongue.
“Who cares what they think, Arthur,” she went on, giving his hand a much-needed, reassuring squeeze. “So many people in this city are assholes. What do they know about humor anyway?” She scoffed and leaned back, crossing her arms across her chest. “They think making fun of someone with a condition is funny.”
There was a short stretch of silence.
“But,” Arthur finally said, staring at he and Aubrey’s interlocked hands. “What if I never make it as a comedian?” He threw himself into her gaze, hoping, no, needing to find some promise that things would be okay. That he shouldn’t let this humiliating, disheartening night define him. Not let it shatter his hopes of chasing after the dream he’d kept alive since ten-year-old Arthur had read his first book of knock-knock jokes.
“Forget them,” she said, holding his gaze. “Forget anyone who tells you you can’t do it. That you’re not good enough. The hell with them.” With a small smile, she told him, “You are good enough. Assholes like that just can’t see it.” She paused momentarily, then gave his hand a little squeeze. “Anyway...you’ll always be a comedian to me.”
Arthur’s gaze flickered back and forth between Aubrey and the starry sky. What she said sounded so lovely, words carefully wrapped in layers of hope, sitting in a package with his name on it? Yet why couldn’t he open the box? He tried, truly he did. But he was so buried in doubt, digging his way out felt next to impossible.
So much he wanted to say to her. Alas, he couldn’t think of a single word.
He sighed shakily, tucking his hands back into his pockets.
What he needed more than anything was a smoke.
He was just about to pull out his lighter and a cigarette, when...
“Dance with me?”
He stared at her silently, unsure of what to say or think. After such an awful night, all he wanted was to sit on that bench, surrendering to the unfortunate fact that his first performance at Pogo’s had gone up in smoke.
But something in her voice, in the way she looked at him, sparked something inside him. He couldn’t exactly tell what it was or meant. It could have been a flame, licking its way through him, blotting out the cold within him with blankets of warmth. Or a seed, rising up from the ashes of despair.
Whatever it was, he hungered for it.
Without a word, he slipped his hand into hers. So small and soft her hand was. He rose to his feet, his heart beating faster in his chest as she erased the gap between them. Overcome with sudden shyness, he froze, averting his gaze downward. Feeling a hand settle upon his shoulder, he thought numbly: what now?
His body, luckily, knew just what to do.
One hand he enveloped around Aubrey’s waist, pulling her closer towards him. The other he kept intertwined with hers, their hands resting snugly against his chest. Something, however, felt wrong. Almost immediately he understood what needed fixing.
Letting his body guide him, he slipped out of his coat. He didn’t care that it was chilly out, or that it was snowing. All he knew was what he needed – the only thing in the world he needed right then – was to be as close to this woman as possible.
It was like she’d read his mind. With a budding smile, she removed her coat and tossed it onto the bench, her eyes never leaving Arthur. Slowly, as if sinking into a dreamlike state, he stepped up to her. Once more he joined hands with her, pulling her closer, aching for her and her alone.
Arthur’s first thought was to panic.
He didn’t know how to dance! It wasn’t like he was a professional dancer who lifted women off their feet with ease and confidence. How could he when he was skinny as a rake? Sure, he’d seen enough dancing in shows and movies to at least have an idea of the basics.
But something lived inside him. Growing all the time, blossoming like a sunflower in summer.
Deep down, past the self-doubt, nestled in his heart...was music. Music that never slept. That contained no words. Music that ignited such emotions in Arthur, he could do nothing except let it play, play and awaken his soul.
He didn’t even have to think. His body, holding his hand every step of the way, did all the thinking for him. He was thankful it knew how to dance; the last thing he wanted was to step on Aubrey’s toes like a certified klutz.
But his body But his body knew only one language.
Slowly, he moved in harmony with Aubrey, as if the dance itself were taking on a life of its own. As if the dance were a grand and beautiful puppet master, and they puppets on string.
Arthur’s spirits lifted. He’d never thought of it like that before. Whenever he envisioned life as a comedian, he pictured standing on stage, in front of a large crowd, sending them into round upon round of laughter.
It felt like a lifetime before Aubrey spoke.
“Forget them, Arthur,” she told him, her head pressed against his chest. “You want to be a comedian?” She gave his shoulder a light squeeze. “Be my comedian.” Around them, flakes of snow continued falling. No longer was Arthur cold. So long as Aubrey stayed close to him, he’d never be cold. She was like a cozy blanket, warding off December’s chill, warming him from his head right down to his toes. “Who cares if those creeps at Pogo’s find you funny? You don’t need a room full of people laughing at you to make you a comedian.”
Arthur said nothing, but inside he was thinking gratefully: because I’ll always have you. The smallest smile tugged at the corners of his lips. Of all the people in Gotham, Aubrey was perhaps the only person who genuinely found him funny. Without realizing it, he closed his eyes, letting the music within him guide his movements. I’ll always be a comedian, so long as I’ve got you. I’ll be your comedian...yours and no one else’s.
Arthur’s gaze wandered up to the sky. He hadn’t realized until then how truly breathtaking a sight the evening sky was. Wherever he looked, it was nothing but a inky-black canvas littered with twinkling stars. One star in particular he noticed shone brighter than the others. Crazy as it seemed, he swore this tiny sparkled, as if whispering to him: I believe in you.
Maybe, thought Arthur, slipping his fingers through Aubrey’s silky black hair, I’m not as alone as I thought...
Arthur wasn’t sure how long the two went on dancing. It could have ten minutes. Twenty. Even an hour. Time seemed to slip away whenever he was with Aubrey. Nothing else mattered when she was with him.
Letting himself get lost in her gaze, a sudden thought rushed over him. Feeling her arm wrapped round his neck, her other hand interlocked with his, he felt on the verge of exploding. His desire for this woman was heating up faster than a furnace on a cold winter’s night.
What he wouldn’t give to kiss her. To feel her lips against his, letting their lips surrender themselves to a dance coated with romance. For a split second, he thought he might take the plunge and go for it. Slowly, at a snail’s pace, he leaned forward, craving nothing else but her lips.
At the last second, he slammed on the brakes.
It didn’t surprise him he chickened out. His shyness and fear never stayed gone for long. Now they were back in control.
One day, he thought sadly, but with a small sense of determination. One day I’ll kiss you. That’s a promise.
Arthur wasn’t surprised when he returned home to see his mother asleep in front of the TV, snoring as usual. Less surprising was seeing Murray Franklin on the screen, wrapping up another successful show.
“Thanks for watching,” Murray was concluding, “and always remember: that’s life!” He smiled and waved goodbye to the audience and those watching from home.
Arthur lifted his hands, uttering softly, “That’s life!” Somewhere inside him, he felt a sudden urge to dance again. After dancing with Aubrey, he felt he could spend the rest of the night dancing.
“Mom,” he said softly, laying a hand on his mother’s shoulder. “Wake up...let’s go to bed.”
Penny’s eyes opened sleepily.
“Happy?” she murmured, still half asleep. “Happy, I wrote a new letter.”
“C’mon,” he said, unable to wipe the smile from his face. “Dance with me.”
“For Thomas Wayne,” Penny went on, still in the same sleepy tone. “It’s important...”
Arthur whistled, twirling his mom around like he’d to Aubrey earlier. A moment later, he pulled her back closer to him, though she didn’t exactly seem to be in the dancing mood. Humming softly, he swung their hands back and forth in tune to the music spilling out from the television.
“You smell like cologne,” Penny commented.
Arthur leaned back, lifting a hand above his head theatrically.
“That’s cuz I just had a big date,” he answered, smiling up at his mother.
Penny’s only reaction was a small chuckle. Arthur rose to his feet, wishing she’d ask even one question. Instead, she turned and shuffled towards her bedroom.
“Just...don’t forget to mail it,” she yawned.
A moment later, she disappeared into the bedroom, shutting the door behind her.
Immediately Arthur stopped dancing. The fact that she hadn’t even brought up Pogo’s made it quite clear what she already knew: that Arthur’s first performance had been a total train wreck. But he’d hoped she’d at least be curious how his first date with the girl next door had gone. Sadly, she’d shown as much interest as one does to crumbs on a plate.
Or, he thought, settling down into his couch-that-was-also-his-bed, maybe she was just tired. Or, he thought with a touch of frustration, maybe all she cared about was having Thomas Wayne reply to even one of her hundreds of letters.
Whatever the reason, he hoped his mother approved of Aubrey. Aside from his mom, Arthur had no other woman in his life who cared for him. So crushed he’d be if she disapproved of Aubrey, deciding she just wasn’t what Arthur needed in his life. Aubrey was everything he needed and more. She was his source of constant encouragement, the light in his usually dark and miserable existence. Without Aubrey, he was sure he’d spiral back into the lonely life he so desperately wanted to keep at bay.
Arthur’s eyes flickered to the calendar on the wall.
Today was December third.
Only a week to go before December tenth was upon him.
The countdown until his next date with Aubrey Speck.