Disclaimer: Gotham City and Batman belong to DC comics. This is not for money.
Rating: PG-13–mild violence and language.
Email me-I love comments, good or bad. Ekelly1701@aol.com
I live in Gotham City. My best friend is my cousin Celeste who lives in Knoxville, Tennessee. Every time I go visit her (which has only been three times), that's how she introduces me. "This is K Lee. She lives in Gotham."
(Okay-it's really Kathy Lee, but there's no way in *hell* I'm going by that. High school is enough of a nightmare, thank you very much.)
Anyway, after she says that, her friends always look at me like I just got back from 'Nam or something. (Then again that could be because of my 'what's a brush?' dyed black mass of hair.) A lot of them get an attitude, 'cause they think I look down on them-being from 'the Big City' and all. I don't. I think they're lucky. I love Knoxville. It's up in the mountains and it's so beautiful and the air's real clean. You can actually see the sky too-downtown's like twelve buildings and the rest of the town-no buildings over fifteen stories. It's great.
So, of course, Celeste feels about Gotham the way I feel about Knoxville. She's finally come to visit, now that she's graduated and her mom can't stop her. (Aunt Emily refuses to come to the city-she's scared of it.) My mom is actually being pretty cool about the whole thing and holding Aunt Em off (go figure that one out). And considering how much she's working these days, we've got it pretty easy to go out at night. Celeste just says, "I didn't save my money for two years to see Gotham during the day." Turns out she's been planning this longer than I thought.
Her hazel eyes are bright with excitement as she pulls her long straight brown hair into a low ponytail and looks out the window of the el at the blocks and blocks of buildings rushing past, "I can't believe I'm really here."
"Yeah, yeah. I know-The City," I say, capitalizing the last words.
"Not The City," she tells me. "*His* city."
"We're not going to see him," I say. "There's only two ways to see him-cause trouble or be in trouble. And trouble is something you want to avoid in Gotham." I give her a very cynical stare. "It's not like he saves everybody, you know. He doesn't even save most people."
"I don't know how you can be so blasé about it." (Celeste's a bit of a brain and she looks it. She goes for that real clean, no makeup thing, so with her little gold glasses she comes off real-studious. Then she also went to one of those advanced high schools. "Blasé". Good word.) "Just being here, knowing he's out there right now." She holds up her arm, "It gives me chills." And she actually has goosebumps.
I shrug. My big city blaseness is all I've got, considering Celeste got the height and the boobs in the family (she'd kill to be naturally skinny like me though, she has to work her ass off-literally). "Robin and Batgirl are more popular with kids I know. They're not nearly as scary. And the word is Robin's got an incredibly great ass."
She turns on me, incensed, "I thought you didn't know anyone who'd ever seen him!"
I blow my hair up out of my eyes, "Not him. Robin. Stephen Mack and Jilly Freuhauf saw him last year. Jilly's dad was dealing and he skimmed some money from his bosses so they sent some gunmen over to bust him up, you know?" Her eyes are wide-no, she doesn't know. Must not have too many kids of drug dealers in her circles. "So, the enforcers actually came to their apartment, you know, to threaten his wife and kids. They were dragging Jilly and Stephen from her room when Robin came crashing in through the window, tackling the guy, then flipping across the room-all while being shot at-to kick the other two in the head. Bing, bang, boom-and he was gone."
"Wow," she says softly.
"Yeah, you know Jilly was glad he'd come and everything since she might have got hurt bad, but when the cops came in they arrested both Jilly's parents. She's been in a state home since. Says it really sucks. One of the "counselors" likes to feel the girls up. Jilly's afraid to fight back because he can have her sent to juvie and then she'd really be screwed."
Celeste looks pained," God, that's awful. But they were criminals-her parents, I mean."
"That's not Jilly's fault." I shake my head. It's so weird. Celeste is a year older than me, but there's all this stuff she doesn't know anything about. Which is why I'm jealous of her.
"This is our stop," I say, getting up as the train slows. Celeste follows me.
She looks nervously at the three young (but big) guys lurking in the corner of the platform. I don't, and head down the steps. When we're out of earshot of them, I tell her, "Don't look them in the eye-get it? You don't want to be noticed. Keep your head up and look like you know exactly where you're going, okay? But don't look people in the eye."
She takes a deep breath and nods, "Right."
We head down the street. "It's okay. This isn't a terrible neighborhood," I say.
"Okay, now I'm afraid to look at anything," she whispers, her eyes glued straight in front of her.
I laugh, "Relax, Celeste. It's only 9:30; there's lots of people around. We're cool. Hey, here it is."
We stop and she looks at the intersection, turning her eyes up to examine the buildings.
I point to the ledge fifty feet up on the one across the street, "He came down from over there I think, and I know it was that streetlight the Batmobile knocked down to stop the getaway cars. The fight with Two-Face happened right out there in the middle of the street."
"Two-Face," she says softly. "I've seen pictures of him."
"Pretty gross, huh?" I kind of feel guilty. I got her started on this. It was my scrapbooks-and by the time I was over it (like, way over a year ago) she had a subscription to the Gotham Times and a scrapbook of her own. She makes me take her picture standing under the bat symbol someone painted on the streetlamp after it was repaired. I guess no one felt the need to mark Two-Face's part in it, seeing as how it is Twenty-Second Street. I don't know how anybody lives on this street. Of course, it's a long street so I guess someone has to live on it. The weirdest things can be dangerous in Gotham-like just your address.
Celeste's eyes are all lit up," What's next?"
We go catch a bus on the next block, getting off close to downtown. It's just about a half mile walk to Sales Row and all the mega-department stores with their windows like movie sets. Even I can't pass them without stopping to point and wish and we end up wasting way too much time before getting to the block with all the fancy specialty boutiques.
"Oh, yeah!" Celeste runs down the block, stopping in front of Renault Antiques. She looks back at me and has to shout since I am still walking. "I have the article on this one! He and Catwoman crashed right through this window."
As I reach her I see a passing couple give her indulgent smiles that say knowingly-Bat-tourist. I pin them with a stare. They're 'burbers, (you can spot them a mile away) downtown for dinner or theatre-nothing more than visitors to the city themselves. I don't want them to act like they know what it's like.
I snap her photo in front of the window and tell her we need to head home, because it's getting late. Walking with her is an adventure since she can't keep her eyes off the rooftops.
I just sigh and shake my head.
Mom drags us out before noon, since it's Saturday. She keeps harping that Celeste needs to "see the sights". That means six hours in museums-but she picks the G-cam (that's the Gotham City Art Museum), so it's okay. It's kind of fun, 'cause Celeste gets all excited. She's never seen a real Picasso or Pollock before. Mom's pretty good at this for a hospital nurse, you know. She takes us around the collection of Urban Realists talking about America in the 30s and 40s, the growth of the cities, the Great Migration (they've got like 15 of Lawrence's Migration Series-they are so amazing! Almost cartoon-looking, but just so-powerful) She points out this one incredible painting by a guy named Robert Henri-Snow in Gotham-its this lonely snow-covered city street with huge black buildings looming up both sides of the image. It's sad and beautiful and scary and magnificent. Celeste is really absorbed in it, as Mom tells us what the city was like when this was painted. There's a horse-drawn cart in the corner of the picture. It's hard to imagine Gotham before cars. I wonder if it smelled any better.
"Probably not," Mom says. "In some neighborhoods they would have dumped their chamber pots into the gutters-and the horses would just go wherever."
Celeste makes a face, "YECH! Can you imagine? And no electricity in lots of the city-that must have been weird. It'd be so dark at night. You think is was scarier then or now?"
Mom pins her with a stare, "It's not cool, Celeste-how dangerous Gotham is."
"I know," she says seriously. She shakes her head. "Cities are so weird, you know, when you think about it? There are so many good things about them-like this museum, and all the different cultures and kinds of people that are here. And then there are so many bad things about them. And... a city has its own life-they're kind of like people."
"What *are* you talking about?" I ask as we pass into the Renaissance art wing and are suddenly surrounded by massive paintings of Gods and mythic heroes. Our steps and words echo in the giant rooms.
"They are," she insists. "Think about it-Paris, LA, Metropolis, Rome, Gotham-each has its own-you know, personal history. They are. They're like people."
"Then Gotham's Hannibal Lector," I say with a dark grin. Then I do that Anthony Hopkins sucking lips noise and Celeste cracks up.
"Yeah, well, don't knock it," she counters. "At least your city's the star. Knoxville's like the nerdy guy with the crossed eyes who tells Clarice about the death's head moth."
"You guys watch *way* too many movies," Mom says.
We're heading out-Mom's going to spring for dinner in the city-when Celeste stops at the top of the stairs and points.
"Oh, man, how did we miss those?"
She leads us over to two statues. One is huge-a screaming warrior woman with wings, like a... damn, what are they called?
"The Viking myths, Mom-she looks like a-"
"Valkyrie," Mom supplies.
"Yeah, a Valkyrie." I look at it closer. "A pissed off Valkyrie."
"Kind of," Mom agrees. "What's it called?"
I lean over to read the label, "'Call to Arms', in parenthesis 'Cry of War'."
The warrior woman has both arms raised, her clenched fists held high. She's not pretty. She's thick and solid and fierce. Kind of scary, like she's charging out to kill as many people as she can get her hands on.
Next to her is another Rodin-and it's amazing-like gut-wrenching. It's a naked boy about, I don't know, seven or eight, around there. He's on his knees on some rocks and his arms are thrown up, his body arched back and his mouth is wide open in a terrible cry of anguish.
"This one is 'Prodigal Son', parenthesis 'The Orphan'," I read. Weird. Both labels had the line 'Gift of Bruce Wayne'. Considering I saw his name on a bunch of Goya prints it looks like Gotham's main Billionaire Stud has really creepy taste in art.
We finally tear Celeste away from them-she's totally gushing about Rodin. She did a paper on him this year and we get his whole life story-including how he drove this one chick crazy, because he'd been her teacher and her boyfriend but he couldn't deal with her getting good at sculpting. So he like ripped her apart emotionally. It's depressing.
But then we're outside and the sun's just going down and Celeste starts watching the rooftops. I step on her heel to get her attention and give her a warning look. Mom does *not* need to know about her Bat obsession or we're going to have a much tougher time getting out at night.
She cools it and we have this great dinner over in the Italian quarter at Mom's favorite restaurant, Ciao Bella. Mom's already agreed to leave us downtown to go to the classic double feature at the Orpheum.
"Come in as soon as the movies are done," she says again. "I'll be up. You should be home by 12:30."
I don't argue but Jesus! I'm almost eighteen. I know about the city and I know how to take care of myself. She so needs to take a pill. Then as her taxi pulls off I feel a little guilty. Mom always tells me where she is and when she'll be back. It's not my age. She says its just smart to always make sure someone knows where you are when you live in Gotham. And she's right, of course. I'd feel worse about lying to her about where we're going, but there are two of us-so someone knows where each of us is.
Celeste grins at me, "All right, let's go see some Joker landmarks!"
Okay, so maybe this is really why Celeste's whole Batman thing is kind of getting on my nerves. 'Cause I knew there'd be no way to avoid this.
"Sure," I shrug. "Come on, we need to catch the subway."
We go over a block and head underground. The platform's pretty crowded at nine on a Saturday of course. And I'm glad for all the people. Then the train pulls up and we pile on, Celeste and I ending up in the last seat in the back of the car.
"God," she says softly, as the train jerks and pulls off, "Gotham just makes me feel so... small."
"Don't you feel that way sometimes? It's just so huge and there are so many people all stacked on top of each other in those building that just rise up forever... it makes me feel very small."
She's staring at all the people, really looking at them, so I do too. And I realize how rare that is for me to do. I always figure it's smartest to just keep to yourself when you're out in the city. I see that all the other people in the car are like me. They don't look. It's like none of us are quite here-except Celeste.
The train slows and stops. I rise and she follows me. She kind of heads for the stairs and I just shake my head and keep going through the terminal. I have to stop and look at the map for a minute. Well, not really, but I act like I do just so I can sort of prepare myself. I know lots of kids who've come down here-one or two who even said they painted the wall, but I don't know if I believe them.
I've never come down here. I've never wanted to. But I know where it is. I think everyone in Gotham knows where it is. We always know any place he strikes. It's a sure fire way to immortalize any location. They ought to have those kind of tourist signs they have all over Virginia, except instead of 'Washington slept here', they'd all say 'Joker killed here.' Of course we do have those signs...
"So," Celeste looks at the map over my shoulder, "where to?"
I take a deep breath. "Okay, this way," and I lead her to one of the cross town tracks. We have to walk a little ways to the right platform. There's a train there, loading up. I can't believe they still use this. Then I think there must be people who have to use this train from this platform every day. I feel kind of sick to my stomach.
"This is it," I finally say. "There were thirty-eight people on the platform and over sixty on the train. The gas traveled down the track too and got people at a couple of other platforms. It mostly didn't kill them though. They just went insane."
The train rumbles off revealing the wall behind it. In six foot high letters, like a kid's scrawl, bright red, it says HA! HA!
Celeste swallows real hard, looking at it.
"That's just paint," I tell her. "It was blood originally. They say it took probably ten people to get all that blood. And he did it while they were still alive-opened up their hearts so it'd pump out where he could get to it."
"Why..." I can barely hear her. She points a trembling finger at the words.
I shrug. "The transit authorities can't keep it off-never could. I think they've mostly stopped trying. It started right after they washed the blood off-someone snuck down here and did it in paint. No matter how many times they paint over it-usually within a day it's back."
She looks at her camera and turns a little pale.
"Let's get out of here," she whispers.
We only make it through two more Joker sites before Celeste holds up a hand in the middle of my telling her what happened at the next place we're headed.
She shakes her head, "Uh-uh. No more. Forget this. I... just forget it."
"You sure?" I ask. "I tried to make it easier by going to that last place..."
Easier?" she almost yells. "How was that supposed to make it easier?!?"
"He didn't kill anybody that time."
She stares at me, "No, he just kept people prisoner for hours, torturing them and making them think he was going to kill them. Making them do-such horrible things..."
She'd actually taken a picture of the old boarded up Laugh Riot Club (apparently he just couldn't resist the name) where the Joker had taken over the show one night when the house was packed. It was pretty gruesome-some of the stories people tell about that night-who knows which ones are true and which ones aren't. I'd pretty much believe anything-and frankly, I don't want to know which ones actually happened. Making kids paint their parents faces with acid, forcing brothers and sisters to have sex on stage while their parents watched, hanging a guy by his ankles and dunking him in water until his wife let the Joker... rape her, stringing people up by their toes until they ripped off. They say what he was really doing that night was trying to drive people crazy-a few of them did lose it after that. I would.
"And the worst thing," Celeste says, "the *worst*-is the stupid stuff he made people do in between. I read one article that said he made a guy do the whole Abbott & Costello 'Who's on First' routine while the last one he'd tortured bled and screamed in the background. He made people do impressions, sing silly songs. God, it's so unbelievably twisted!"
"That's not the worst," I tell her quietly. "The worst is that you just know he thought it was all so... funny. Probably laughed himself sick that night. Well-until Batman showed up."
She shivers. "He's locked up right now, isn't he?"
I nod, "Yeah, right over in Arkham Asylum. About ten miles from here."
She looks like she's about to hurl, "And how many times has he broken out?"
"I don't know-five or six."
I look at her white face. Now she's getting it finally. Welcome to Gotham.
"Hey," I grab her arm and pull, "Come over here."
I lead her into an alley across the street and start climbing to the top of the dumpster beside the building.
"Come on," I tell her.
"Where are we going?" She moves to follow me. I wait for her to get up beside me on the edge.
"You're so into 'his' city-let's go take a look at it," and I turn my eyes up to the top of the twenty-five story building.
She follows my eyes, then looks dubiously at the edge of the fire escape platform about six feet from us.
"And how are we supposed to get over there?" she asks.
I leap and snatch the lip of the platform, swing for a second and almost lose my grip. I hear Celeste gasp behind me (if she only knew how many times I'd fallen doing this)-but then I've got it and I pull myself up. Okay, it's not that easy and I grunt and strain but I get over the rail and that's all that matters.
I gesture to her, "Let's go, girlfriend. You want to be worthy of the Bat, you gotta work."
She takes a deep breath-and jumps. She actually does better than me, but then they had gymnastics at her school.
I lead her up the twisting metal steps.
"Won't people hear us?" she asks, "-or see us?" Her eyes go wide as we pass an open window that looks in on a family watching TV.
I wave at the kid that looks up and sees us.
"Hopefully no one'll come after us with a shotgun. Keep moving."
We climb up the ladder and jump over the edge of the roof.
"Wow," Celeste says, walking over to look down at the street. "The city looks really different up here."
"Yeah." It was a lot different. I like rooftops, even though from mine all you can see is the six other taller buildings around ours. Still it makes the city seem far away when you're up on top.
We go to the side looking over the busy street below, and stand, just kind of checking things out. Celeste is scanning the uneven horizon the buildings make. I shake my head.
"I can't believe you wouldn't want to see him. Just once."
"I told you, Celeste-there are only two ways to see him-and both are bad news. If you want to know the truth-he scares the hell out of me. I'd probably wet myself if I ever got within a block of him."
"Why?" She looks at me like I'm out of my mind.
"Think about for real for a minute, Celeste," I say, looking hard at her. "Like, forget all your romantic ideas about heroes and stuff and think about it. Some guy puts on a mask and cape every night and goes up against-Two-Face and the Mafia and the gangs, Killer Croc, bad cops, serial killers-the Joker. And he keeps beating them-and more just come along, and people still die, and..."
Celeste's brow is deeply creased, "What are you talking about?"
"So, what's the point?" I finally say, and I'm pissed all of a sudden. "What's the point?! It's so dumb! Why would anyone do that? He can't win-Gotham will always be Gotham. For every person he saves, ten he never knows about are mugged or raped or killed." I bow my head, near tears, "He's as nuts as Joker."
Celeste is shocked or freaked or something. "What is wrong with you?" she exclaims.
"I live in Gotham!" I shout.
"Hey," she says, putting her hand on my arm, "hey, calm down, K, come on..."
But I'm crying and have to sniff hard, "It's just... you know, it's all so crazy here and you walk around everyday going past places like Ha Station and knowing what happened there and that it could have been your Mom or your brother or-you... And yeah, we've got... heroes-but..." my voice trails off. I wipe my face on my sleeve. Looking out over the city I say quietly, sighing, "The good and the bad are just so close together here. And they have faces here, well, masks, or..." I shake my head hard and can only whisper past the lump blocking my throat, "Batman fights, yeah-but, he fights and he fights and he fights, but he doesn't ever win. Not really."
Celeste has put her arm around my shoulders and she turns her head to look at me. "What do you think winning is, K?" she asks. "It's fighting."
She just doesn't, doesn't get it and I'm about to tell her so, but all of a sudden she's not looking at me any more. I follow her wide eyes up into the sky.
The Signal is on.
"Wow," she breathes.
It's only maybe the sixth time I've seen it at all and the first really good look I've ever gotten at it. From the street you mostly only see it in flashes since the buildings block your view. We both turn to watch it fly across the clouds. It stops moving, seemingly right over our heads. It's enormous and the huge wings look like they're beating even though I know it's just the uneven surface of the clouds. I can't stop staring at it, but Celeste traces the spotlight back as far as she can.
"Yeah," I whisper, "that's Police Headquarters."
The Signal cuts off.
"Then that's where he is, right now?" Celeste asks, without moving her gaze.
"How far away is that?"
"From here? Four or five miles I guess."
"This is the coolest thing EVER," she breathes.
Suddenly, I shiver. "Something real bad has happened," I say softly. "Shit, Celeste-" I grab her and pull, heading quickly for the ladder. "We gotta get home, now!"
"Hey!" she calls out, 'cause I'm already over the ledge and heading down, "What?" she follows me, "What's the matter?"
I keep moving as fast as I can, "How much cash have you got?"
"About twenty dollars," she stumbles a little, trying to keep up with me-she doesn't know how to jump the rail to skip the last three steps of each flight. "What's the matter? You're scaring me."
I hit the bottom platform and kick the ladder's release. It screeches as it slides to the ground. I go about halfway down it and jump.
"Come on, Celeste!" She hits the ground beside me. We start walking rapidly, "We're going to catch a cab. It'll be about fifteen bucks, but I don't want to get on a bus or subway right now."
"The Signal," I tell her. "It means one of them has escaped-or worse."
Her face goes sheet white, "Oh-no."
We take off running for the busy street a block up and hail a cab. Sliding into the back seat I give the guy my address and he pulls off.
"Hey," I say to the driver, "we saw the Signal. You know what's happened?"
I see his dark eyes in the rearview, the fear...
Oh god no.
"Joker," he says.
"The Joker," Celeste whispers and she grabs my hand, squeezing it tightly. My eyes are closed and I'm having to fight to keep from sobbing.
I hate Gotham. I hate it, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it.
Mom's sitting at the table just staring at the door when we come in. As soon as she sees us, she runs to grab both me and Celeste in a tight hug. We both cling to her for a long moment. Finally she lets us go and steps back.
She forces a smile, "How were the movies?"
"Great," I tell her, feeling guilty for lying and doing something as stupid as taking Celeste to those places. I can see how scared Mom was that we were out in the night when he escaped. I want to bang my head against a wall a few times for being such an idiot. We go on to my room and get ready for bed. I climb right in and lay down. Celeste slides in a little bit later. I reach over and shut out the light.
It's several minutes in the darkness, then Celeste says quietly, "What's the matter?"
"Bullshit. What's wrong?"
"I was reading this book on witchcraft a couple months ago," I say, staring up into the shadows. "There was a part about how in the Dark Ages people believed if you said... the Devil's name, he'd appear-like you called him..."
"Yeah?" she sounds totally baffled.
I don't say anything for a long time. Then I turn over so my back is to her, "We shouldn't have gone to those places tonight."
All the next day we sit around the apartment trying to watch TV or play games while we listen to the radio. Mom won't let Jeff even go down to the street to play. Every time a song goes off or the tube flickers Mom looks up with her worried eyes, and so do I. But it doesn't come, what we're hoping to hear. That the Joker's been caught. So far, so far, we haven't heard what we're afraid of either-that he's done something, somewhere to someone. The hours crawl. Mom has to go to work in the morning... I hate thinking of her going out there.
At dusk I stand as the window, looking down at the street-it's quiet. It's been quiet all day, everyone huddling down in their homes. Praying.
But to who? How do you pray in Gotham-where nothing, nothing makes any sense and fear is everywhere? I don't know-but I find myself doing it anyway.
Please catch him. Quick. It's so terrible when it takes a long time, and you have to go out there into the city knowing he's free and could take you at any moment, could be taking someone else while you eat your lunch, or laugh at a stupid joke, or blow your nose or any of the other dumb regular things you do.
Please, please, please-catch him quick. Please, Batman.
It's been a week and the Joker's still loose so what can you do but go on and live? He hasn't done anything really bad (only three people found dead with the grin) and the waiting is making everyone a little crazy. Wherever he is, he probably thinks that's really funny.
Anyway Rich Colasky and Carla Williams are having a "Psycho" party. They live in next door apartments over in Silverleaf and even though Mom's not too hip on it, she's letting us go 'cause she knows Kyle will be there and I really, really like him and we're almost, sort of dating and won't have much chance to see each other over the summer.
It's packed when we arrive (somehow they both managed to get their folks out of town this weekend) and to keep from getting complaints from the neighbors they've rigged a board between their balconies so people can get back and forth without going into the hall.
Rich has "Silence of the Lambs" on, which makes Celeste elbow me in the ribs and gets a weak smile. Carla's showing "Psycho", we're told, and they also have "The Wall" and "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest".
IT'S ALL INSANITY ALL THE TIME IN GOTHAM, says a big scrawled sign over Rich's big screen. Everybody's basically getting as trashed as they can as quick as they can. Celeste and I grab drinks and make our way through the crowd. We find people already telling Joker stories out on Rich's balcony. I leave Celeste there and crawl along the board (which has written on it "You must be crazy to be doing this", and I look at that rather than the street twelve floors below) to Carla's to see if Kyle's over there but I don't find him.
When I get back, Celeste's listening to Alicia Marcelli tell about her cousin's best friend who actually saw the Joker once.
"And his teeth were real long and sharp and they stood out, you know, because of-the grin. But the thing he said was the scariest, freakiest, most horrible thing-was his eyes..."
I've heard Alicia do this spiel before-and I didn't like it then. Celeste is fascinated though. It's all still something remote and unreal to her. It's still Gotham and she's-just visiting. I feel... I don't know, contempt? for her. She finds it all exotic and wild, and just not real. It can't be real to her. She doesn't live here.
But I do. I listen to Alicia, laying it on thick for the small town girl, telling her how it happened not ten blocks from here, and I just feel dizzy and kind of sick. Like I'm trapped in a maze that changes without reason and there's no hope of being able to figure it out.
"Don't fight it!" Dave Kapel is totally shit-faced and standing on the corner of Carla's balcony rail screaming at the top of his lungs. "Lose your minds!"
"David, get down right now!" Kelly, his girlfriend of the minute, squeaks.
I feel like I want to cry.
I hear a voice close behind me, "Hey, K."
"Hi," I say softly. And for a minute, for a little while, I think things are going to be okay-even in Gotham, something like life goes on.
And it does. We find a quiet corner in Carla's kitchen and talk for a long time. And just like always I can tell him how scared I am and how I... I feel so stupid for being so scared. I mean, it's not like it's me alone dealing with this-we're all terrified right now.
Then he holds my hand and looks off with his deep green eyes and says, "I know." He tells me he's scared too and that he hasn't been able to tell anybody that either.
We kiss for the first time and my heart beats so hard I can hardly even feel my lips. And it's so strange that I can feel so wonderful, so wildly happy when barely a half-hour ago I'd felt like jumping off the balcony. It's crazy, and I have to laugh, looking at him.
I think I'm in love.
We hang together the whole time, four whole hours, longer than we've ever just been together-and they may be the best four hours of my life, at least I can't think of any better time I've had. So, Kyle's not gorgeous, and he's not stellar, and he's not popular, and I don't care, because he has the best smile (even though you don't get to see it that often) and he's real smart and he listens to me, maybe in a way no one else ever has, even Celeste. Well, Celeste listens in a way no one else does either. I suddenly realize it's a little weird I haven't seen her in a couple of hours. But Kyle kisses me again as he's leaving so I figure she can wait a few more minutes.
I feel like dancing across the room as I go to look for her. She's super social so she's probably made sixteen new friends tonight. I wish she could teach me that. I can't wait to tell her about Kyle and the two kisses. She'll want to know all about them...
I look through every room, asking everybody, but nobody seems to know where she is. She's in the bathroom, that must be it. I check them-not there. Three friends are helping me now and I'm starting to get scared. They're asking everyone and no one, no one has seen her in hours. This isn't happening... It can't be...
"That southern chick?" Loud Mouth Bob asks.
"My cousin!" I almost scream.
"Alicia took her down to 62nd..."
"What?!" I'm running for the door.
"She wanted to see where the Joker..."
Oh god, oh god, oh god, oh god... I pound down the stairs, gasping, almost sobbing. I slam into two people coming in the front door and they yell at me but I just keep going, stumbling out onto the street-and I stop.
Gotham rises up before me, huge, endless, loud-the cars seem to be screaming at me as they rush by, headlights stabbing my eyes, faces like twisted masks staring at me... god, where am I going? What do I think I'm going to do? My stomach falls through the ground and I stand frozen, terrified-lost.
Oh god, Celeste...
Numb, like a sleepwalker, I move to the pay phone on the curb. I fumble for change and punch the numbers. My whole body feels icy even though I'm sweating in the hot June night.
"Mom," I whisper.
"K Lee? What's wrong?" Her voice has gone from sleepy to high alert in an instant.
My throat and lips are working but no sound is coming out.
"K Lee! Are you okay?" She's scared.
"Celeste... Mom, I can't... I can't," than I start to shake and cry and gasp. "She... she left the party... she didn't tell me... I was with Kyle and I didn't see her and I didn't think, oh god, Mom, I don't know where she is, she went out..." I can't talk anymore, I'm sobbing. "Mommy, please, don't let this be happening..."
Time goes weird. Each moment passing feels like those few seconds in a horror movie where the victim walks in slow motion down the hall towards the killer, waiting hidden in the shadows. Mom gets a cab and comes to pick me up. We cruise the streets looking for Celeste, stopping to show her picture around. Mom's so calm when she talks to me, but I can see it eating her up in the moments she is silent. We find nothing. She finally has the cab take us to the police precinct.
Somehow everything is worse there, even more nightmarish and surreal. We finally get someone to take a report-but that's all they do. Then they tell us to go home and wait-she'll probably come home before morning. That's when Mom starts to lose it, trying to tell them Celeste was from out of town, she doesn't know the city, she wouldn't take off or run away...
"Ma'am," the officer cuts her off, impatient and condescending, "she left a party. She's eighteen. She'll most likely be home by dawn. If she hasn't returned in twenty-four hours, we'll assign a detective."
I just can't feel anything at all, nothing-everything sounds funny, warped, and I can't pull it back to normal. I'm trembling as Mom puts her arm around me and leads me out to the street. She's starting to cry, but she won't talk.
When we get home she goes and stands, looking at the phone. She puts her hand on it and stands there for probably another five minutes. All I can do is stare at her from the doorway.
"I have to call Emily," she says in a very low voice. Her hand starts to shake.
I'm crying again, "Don't. Wait. Maybe..." but even I don't believe it, "maybe she will come home..."
Celeste is dead and its all my fault. I know it because Mom looks at me, and I see it in her eyes. I feel like a wrecking ball just slammed into my gut.
I run to my room, hearing Mom pick up the phone behind me.
Throwing myself onto my bed, I cover my head with my arms. My fault, my fault-I was all wrapped up in Kyle, I didn't watch Celeste, I knew she didn't understand how dangerous it was-and now, now she's gone. She's gone-and Gotham doesn't give back.
Just three days later Batman catches the Joker. We don't hear anything more, just that he's back in Arkham. We still know nothing about Celeste. Aunt Emily comes up the next day. It's terrible-she screams at Mom as soon as she arrives-that it was all her fault. She didn't send Celeste home. She let us go out when a psychotic serial killer was loose in the city. Mom just takes it and I can see she thinks Aunt Em is right. I can't tell them the truth, even though I try to over and over.
It's my fault, my fault-and even if Mom had tried to make Celeste go home, she wouldn't have gone. She told me the first night she got here-she had the money. If Mom wouldn't let her stay she'd get a hotel room. She was going to see Gotham. It was so important to her. I have to know, she said, that there are real heroes in the world. So, I promised to help. I was just so glad to have her here, we never got to see each other and she was my best friend, my best friend...
And my stupidity got her killed. I'd go crazy right now if it wasn't for Kyle. He's found ways to come over every few days even though he's having to lie to his parents to do it. He's the only one I've been able to tell it all to. He keeps telling me it's not my fault. It's no one's fault but whoever took her.
We'll never know who it was-the Joker?, some other regular psycho? Gotham is full of madmen after all. Not knowing-that has to be the worst thing of all.
Aunt Em fights with the police, one day we actually have to drag her out of the station house. She rages at Mom, tells her she hates her. I can't stand to hear it, but there's nowhere to run. When Aunt Emily leaves, she's so cold, she's so-destroyed.
Everything is destroyed.
We walk around our apartment like ghosts, half-alive. I don't want to eat-food actually makes me sick. I wonder if any of us will ever, ever be all the way alive again.
Days pass, and weeks-before I know it, it's been months and my senior year is starting. I think about killing myself a couple of times, but not seriously. I couldn't do that to Mom. She's been so strong through all of this, making me get on with life.
So, I do. I struggle through every colorless day. I have trouble sleeping.
I've been sitting at my desk now for, I don't know-hours, just staring out the window. It must two or three in the morning. Celeste's scrapbook is in front of me. I don't know why I got it out, but here it is.
I'm afraid I'm going crazy. I'm still alive and I hate myself for it. Whenever Kyle kisses me and I start to feel happy-I break down and cry. Nothing makes any sense at all.
And I've started to hear Celeste sometimes. Her voice just comes into my head. I think that's why I got this out. She told me to. She's telling me to open it. It takes me a long time to find the strength.
Written on the inside of the front cover in Celeste's fancy fake calligraphy is the book's title-Gotham's Dark Knight. I start to flip through the pages. She wrote notes beside some of the articles-funny little comments (well, Celeste's idea of funny anyway.)
"If penguins were meant to fly, they wouldn't need umbrellas" next to a front page photograph of Oswald Cobblepot. "I think they need better locks" next to a headline screaming TWO-FACE ESCAPES ARKHAM AGAIN. They're all in there-Catwoman, Clayface, Poison Ivy, Riddler-Joker. And Batman. On the last two pages is a special feature-the picture is of the Bat-signal, and the article is stories from people he'd saved. Celeste wrote above it, "A true knight never yields."
I feel tears rolling down my face. Why couldn't he have saved her? I hear my own words echo back to me from the second night we were out-for every one he saves, there are ten he never even knows about...
She believed so much-my fingers trace the edges of the black bat spotlighted against the sky. How could she believe so much and he not be there for her? My eyes fall on words in the article.
"...out of nowhere..."
"...I would have died if he hadn't..."
"...snatched my little boy right out of the line of gunfire..."
Why? Why them and not her? How can he go on doing what he does knowing there are so many he can't save?
I don't understand anything. I wonder if anybody does. I wonder if he does-you get this idea that he at least understands Gotham, but I wonder.
I sometimes want to give up believing that there's anything good in the world. As crazy as everything seems, it's hard to believe. This hurts so much because I miss her so bad my heart aches and I have to rub the middle of my chest even though that never stops the pain.
And I hear her. It pisses her off for me to think of giving up. A true knight never yields, she tells me. You don't have to understand. Just don't yield.
For you, Celeste. I will be a true knight. I'll go on. I'll even believe in heroes.
Somebody has to.
How many tragedies unfold in Gotham every night? In a city of millions, how many fall through the cracks when no one's looking? In the many square miles across which the city stretches, how many pockets of grief hide?
Celeste DeLay was an eighteen year old girl from Knoxville visiting relatives in Gotham when she disappeared on June 21st. Her monstrously thin police file contains a physical description, a high school graduation picture, and the names of her mother, aunt and cousin. It is all I know of her. Except that this girl I watch now, sitting at a small desk, framed in a window of a ninth floor apartment on the lower West Side-this girl loved Celeste very much.
There is not much investigative logic in poring over Missing Persons files with trails so cold they rarely pay off-and when they do it only leads to a corpse, long dead. Still I have always done it and I always will. Every one, every person whose disappearance is reported in my city-I have at least seen their faces, read their names, and when I can, tried to know something of their lives.
So I come to see those left behind.
Shrouded in the blackest shadows, I watch the young woman's wet face and feel the echoes of loss, inescapable and never-ending. We are reflections in a dark pool, she and I, and the springs of evil that run under Gotham will always well up again, as they did here, to create ever more lakes of grief, each trapped in the canyons of the city, isolated from the others so that all are alone.
I see so much that I recognize in the stain of tragedy on her face-the terrifying senselessness, the devastating wound of having her life torn open, the utter bewilderment that the world can go on all around her while she stands bleeding and lost. I see her deep and aching need to know-how can it not mean anything to anyone else?
And that is why I must come, I must visit each and every one I wasn't there for. Lest I forget how many there are-how very many I will never be able to save.
I know my Milton too well, and I hear the author of literature's finest Satan and most terrible Hell sum it up for me.
"Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell..."
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