Image source: Arthur Lambillotte, of Belgium. (His work can be found at https://instagram.com/artlambi_draws.)
The pause is bloated; gluttonous; heaving down the static line; rolling from the receiver as it leaves the plastic cradle in that ever-distinctive click.
From the silence – thick and rich, like Alfred’s finest pudding – like Christmas Eve and silk duvets; dark chocolate and my mother singing “Silver Bells” in her deep soprano, which syncs to the crackling of the blazing hearth – he says, so comfortably to me, the only word I wish to hear:
Clayface says, “Hello?”
* * *
A tired, tired man in his freshly-pressed tuxedo holds tight to the mitten fingers of the young boy’s stubby hand. They have been in line for over an hour and a half – stale perfume in the air for an hour and a half, and bright colors blinking and replacing one another with each step around their heads, around their eyes, around their fellows, and around the musical tones above – mumbling jovial pieces of tones side-by-side, in their ears.
“Up on the housetop, reindeer paws…”
The teenager dressed in holiday bells and pointed elf garb shouts to no one, from his perch at the head of the candy cane lane, his eyes trained, nonchalant, on the ceiling.
“…out jumps good old Santa Claus!”
The lights blink from blue to red, then explode into a whirlwind of frolicking shades.
“That’s us, Master Bruce!”
But the child is already gone through the flashing chaos – past the plastic gumdrops, and crammed shoulders, under the archway, draped in green and red and white – up, with a running leap, he comes onto the lap of a laughing, grease-stained man in puffy cotton, false weight, red velvet.
Bruce Wayne, age 8, has been begging Alfred Pennyworth to come see the man at the mall for over two months prior. On the first day of Santa’s Workshop, he practically drags his butler to the Gotham Outlet at dawn.
“…all for the little one’s Christmas joys!”
Any little bit of happiness, though, he thinks. Any bit of a return to normalcy…
The chaos lights hold time on pure white lighting. The white burns into twinkling yellow and green.
Alfred takes a step forward to join the boy, but the teenage helper cuts him off with a candy cane to the gut.
“Not you, Jeeves.”
“Yeah, you have a Merry Christmas, too.”
Alfred sighs. Pushes the cane away from his midsection and strains his neck around the corner to see his young ward’s experience in full.
He cannot hear them from this distance. Sees Bruce whisper into the man’s ear, though.
Drat, he thinks. All this waiting, and I’ll still just have to ask him what he wants…
Beneath the phosphorescent white of his false beard, the Santa’s eyes bulge. He turns his head to look back down the way.
“Ho, ho, ho. Who wouldn’t go?!”
His eyes lock with Alfred’s, as the boy takes his peppermint and slides from his lap. The lights frantically skip from their spectrum off the waxy man’s face. Bruce doesn’t wait for an answer.
“Ho, ho, ho! Who wouldn’t gooOOO?!”
* * *
“Karlo,” I growl. “Get the hell out of my office.”
“Mr. Waaaayne!” he replies. Is smiling when he says it. I can hear those foul lips yank back. “I see you’ve happened upon all viable retconning aspects of your death—” he sighs, “—again.”
I adjust my coordinates for oncoming traffic. Set the cloaking mechanism for less mid-day…hassle. “I have my instances of good luck.”
“We should play black jack sometime,” he says.
“I prefer roulette.”
I’ve already run three red lights by this point. No use in advertising it.
“Always the contrarian,” he says. “Why can’t you ever just go along with any plan but your own, Bruce Wayne? Have you ever stopped to consider that? That someone else’s plan may be the better option?”
A smirk. “Perhaps I don’t like their…script.”
“Improv artists,” he guffaws, “rarely make good on the big show.”
“Too bad for one of us, then,” I say, “that the world is not, in fact, a stage.”
“Isn’t it?” he says. “Because as I see it right now, I am mere minutes away from taking the lead in your life story, Mr. Wayne – a part, I must add, that I have been training for, now, for years. You just never saw it until I was the one standing beneath your swinging corpse.”
The inflection in his voice never changes. There is no anger or lingering giddiness. Just a flat, heavy delivery – crisp.
“I think you’ve lost the metaphor, Boris,” I say. Take the manual controls. Shift up a gear. I swerve to avoid a bread delivery truck. “So if we’re done with this little charade of yours, I want my boy back.”
“No clue what you’re talking about,” he says. His voice changes. Is more jovial, his hand over the receiver, when he says to another face that enters the room: “Hey, Janice! Coffee, two creams?”
“Where is my butler?” I yell, hoping she will hear.
“Thanks!” Back to the calculating cold: “I. Am. Not. Finished.”
So that’s how we’ll play it, then…
“I am,” I say. Reach for the button on my console to hang up on him.
“Just like you were with Dicky Grayson?” he says. “When he wouldn’t follow your script? Got a new little…understudy to do what you say now, huh?”
My finger hovers over the button.
“And with Victor Fries?” he adds. “When he wouldn’t ‘exit, stage left’? The night you let Harvey Dent’s lackeys try to take out my friend?”
“Your…friend?” I say. “I didn’t do that.”
“You were complicit in it.”
“I was misunderstood.”
“It’s the same, Bruce,” he whispers. Annoyed, now. “I watched you watching. It’s all the same…”
* * *
In huddled boxes of popcorn, clutter, tissues and their children – the much smaller boxes and trash – Alfred Pennyworth sees the ornament coming mere moments before the small boy. Tries to hide it. Tries to grab it first; cover it in the festive sarcophagus of his streamer-wrapped paper fist.
But Bruce Wayne, age 8, reaches down from his lights and glass orbs, down from the half-nude Christmas pine and the fake snow, and with a blind hand, lands on the outstretched, blunted point of a wrapped porcelain trumpeting angel’s wing.
Lifts it up, up, up to his face. To his twisted, confused face, as though to question it:
You’re still here? How are you still here…?
And there, on the rug, by the hearth and the holiday, Bruce Wayne, age 8, freezes.
Ice cold, curious – like the winter air – Bruce Wayne, age 8, freezes.
“Shall we find it a place to live, then, Master Bruce…?”
* * *
The Batmobile comes to a slow-roll in the alley adjacent my destination. There is no sign of the Bentley – my Bentley – but that isn’t surprising. My guess is, they took to the parking garage next door. Easier to lose track that way (despite the body in the back seat…).
I look above me as the top hatch opens, and I jump free.
Towering above, as though to be measured in never-ending miles – my father’s legacy, and, now, my own: the reflective mirror face of the Wayne Enterprise Building.
A model for the city, he would always say. A reminder that the citizens are what make this place…
I clip the cordless receiver into my ear and start walking, barefoot, on the hot, sunlit sidewalk concrete. Don’t even pretend to hide my appearance as I round the corner into the arch of the swinging front doors.
“I see you’ve made it,” Karlo says. (Patched into security feed. Duly noted.) “You know, this reminds me just how many times I truly have been by your side…” The first set of eyes fall upon my half-dressed torso – rather noticeable in the light of the doorway, afore a plain of suitcoats and ties. It’s an older woman, sitting on a wooden bench near the entryway. She looks to be waiting on a ride, knitting the shape of a small sock, rocking back and forth on the uneven surface. My bare foot next to her is what gives me away. She moves from there slowly up to my face. I see her jump when she realizes who I am. “Over your shoulder,” he says. “On the opposite sidewalk.” After the first, I see several nudges. “Under your feet.” Several heads turning. “I was in crowds, adoring you!” Perfect. “I’ve been in crews that you tied to lamp posts. Hell, I even delivered your mail to your door once,” he says. I keep my eyes trained to the clerk at the front desk. When she sees, I’ll know my clock has started. “I’ve shaken your hand; sold you lemonade.” She is speaking with a contractor, who unrolls his plans on the desk. She points upward. “I was in your home,” he says. As she does this, her head comes up, too. Over her horn-rimmed glasses, she smiles, awkwardly, at the oddity. “In your bed,” Karlo whispers, in my ear. I grimace, thinking back. Her smile drops, now. She pushes past the contractor. Keeps her eyes locked on me. Karlo keeps on: “When I got out of Arkham, no one would hire me as me, you know that?”
“I didn’t,” I say, seemingly to no one. The old woman had looked back down to her knitting, pretending I wasn’t there. Now, she looks back up at me again.
“Not as Boris Karlo,” he says. “Not as me. Even though I was a classically trained actor – an award-winning face – no one would take me, ‘Clayface’, because of what you made me.”
“A nuisance?” I say.
The woman scoots away from me on her bench, looking wildly about.
“A felon, Mr. Wayne!”
“You made that of yourself, Boris,” I mutter, ducking my broad shoulders to the side and slowly making my way, step by step, through the compacted Wayne Enterprise lobby for the far stairwell. I keep the clerk, who is now shouting something inaudible, in my periphery.
“YOU MADE ME OBSOLETE!” he roars – so much so, the receiver vibrates in my ear with the effort of it. I wince, and several more persons near me turn to look. I grin at them politely, and turn down my head, still moving on against the push as he continues: “I would show up for the interview, and they would beg for an autograph, ask me a couple questions…”
“Sounds like I should become a talent agent, then,” I quip.
“—and then they would never call me back,” he says, and now, I can sense the hurt in his voice. “I kept on the ‘straight-and-narrow’ for so long after our last encounter those many years ago,” he says. “I did right, Bruce. Did you know that? I went to the meetings. Checked in with my probation officer. Stopped drinking, even. I lived in a halfway home to make ends meet – to make sure I wasn’t alone, and that I could pay for what I needed with what little I still had left. But, sure enough, you made me unwanted, just like all the rest…even in there…”
The clerk is closing the gap rapidly. I hear her voice now, calling for any form of security, or help. Calling out my name: “Mr. Wayne! Are you alright?”
I keep my head lowered. “How so, Boris?”
“You painted me as a fiend,” he cries. “As an idiot!”
“You didn’t go out of your way to correct the newspapers, either, did you?” he says. “Again, you were complicit with the deceit. Perfectly fine to let that record show.”
“Making it rather hard for me not to justify such right now,” I say, watching the door coming closer, as I am soon paddling my way through arms and legs. “And so you…what? Devised a business model to do exactly the same with the Gotham Janes?”
But he ignores my point.
“And imagine, me: some sort of simpleton?” he says. I’m feet away, now. “‘An oaf,’ they hailed! A golem, with no thoughts of his own in what’s left of his head. I became a living caricature, Batman, with my face plastered up in the headlines, asking ‘where are they now?’ or putting me out as a suspect when someone like Grundy knocked down a goddamn wall, or when Croc overflowed the sewers up onto Main Street. You molded me, like some bloody human sculpture, and I’m not just a piece of clay for you, believe the name or not!”
“Mr. Wayne!” the clerk cries out. “Security! Mr. Way—!”
But I reach the stairwell door in a flash of sun through the building-front. In a blinding white light, I push through the door, and am lost to her eyes before she even knows I am gone, or whereto.
“You see,” Karlo says, returned to his even-keel, “we, who are ‘lesser’ in your eyes – we aren’t merely nothing – just ‘cowardly and superstitious’, as you so like to repeat, end-over-end. We exist outside of this – outside of your mold.” I notice the ground floor fire hose hanging from the wall; yank at it. Tie it around the doorknob, to prevent any unwanted advances. I look up.
“It was only fitting,” he says, “that the first place that would give the new me a chance was Wayne Enterprises, all those years ago.”
Suddenly, it all clicks. Every single piece to the puzzle.
Inside knowledge of Wayne Enterprise surveillance and trading activity.
“Kinda makes it a little less special, now, though, knowing what I do,” he sighs. “But that chance meant everything to me back then, Mr. Wayne. Even if I was just…mopping your floors.”
I see him just as though he were before my face. His heavy mustache peering around the door, the lights coming on as he is motioning Dr. Fries into the closed-off wing of Wayne Enterprise, afterhours.
Just as he had the night of the accident…?
I kick my leg up the first two steps. Take them as many as possible in each stride.
“You knew they were coming, didn’t you, Boris?” I say. “Harvey’s gang? You knew they were already there…”
“Of course, I did,” he says. “Who do you think blew half of them up? No thanks to you on that, for what it’s worth…”
“I want my boy and my butler back, now, Boris,” I say.
I hear the dulled scream of dozens of flights-worth of fire alarms, all activating – droning in just short of synchronicity all around. Red and white strobes circle to and fro from the walls.
So many lights, all that way up…
He ignores me. “I already knew it all – your whole bit – by then, too, anyway.”
“GIVE…THEMBACK!” I roar – as Batman, now – drowning out the noise that has my whole skull shaking.
“You sound a bit…breathless, Mr. Wayne,” Karlo says. “I’ll give you some time to catch up. We’ll see you then.”
And in my ear, the com comes back by a click. I am alone, in the blinking chaos lights.
In those flashing lights, I am running.
A man is running.
* * *
Bruce Wayne, age 8, falls asleep next to a half-drunken cup of warm milk with cocoa, on the Victorian loveseat that lies adjacent the low-embered hearth, facing glowing lights o’er the manor’s pungent Christmas evergreen. Around his shoulders is a great silken duvet.
On the middle-most branch, in a space of great import, with a circle cleared in its round, hangs the fragile Christmas angel.
The orphan boy softly snores, as his once-broken ornament watches on.
* * *
The door to the floor above me careens off the concrete stairwell – echoes like a roaring bass tone, first down the shaft, and then back up and away, punctuating the background alarm. I pull back into the cold grey, and hold my eyes upward, awaiting the onslaught. Instead, all that comes is my name:
My name, from the boy’s dreary mouth. Again, louder: “Bruce!”
I am up the next flight of stairs like they do not exist. Hear the noises from below us, now. Hear the sounds of opening doors, and a slow-rumble mob. I have no time to embrace him. I grab for Jason’s crumpled shirt, his wrist, and yank him behind me, as we make our way further up the Wayne Enterprise Building’s never-ending climb.
“Thought,” I say, “you were…? So glad…see you, Chum.”
“You’re getting out of shape, old man,” he laughs, on my heels as I take the stairs harder, under a new burst of energy at his appearance. Pull on the rail at the end. U-turn hard. Up again. Again. Again.
“Youtry…sprinting…53floors,” I say to him.
The shouting below us starts, as do a ricochet like machine gun bullets as their boots follow us more, and greater, by the floor. Each seems to add at least two more.
“Don’t remember…this much security,” he says.
“I didn’t…hire them,” I say.
“Meticulous,” I say, “book-…-keeping.”
And that makes us both laugh for some reason. The absurdity of it? A small grain of truth, perhaps? Regardless, we laugh as we’re rising up, just above drowning in the tides of following, faded blue.
And I tell him that:
“Like those lilies…in van Gogh’s tides…of following…faded blue.”
“Yeah,” he says. “Exactly.”
And in that moment, as I grab the rail to haul myself around the corner, I use it, instead, to pivot my whole body back, and to throw my fist right through Jason’s nose, knocking him unexpectedly back, spinning like a dreidel upon launch, back, bouncing off the wall with the full force of my inertia, back again, off the rail, and then, spinning, still, down the remainder of the steps, to the landing behind.
“I don’t know…who the hell you are!” I say to him. “But van Gogh…did not…paint waterlilies!” I am towering above his withered frame like a morphed, long shadow. He moans, as he holds first his head, and then his wrist, and the floor, which must have, too, been spinning away from him by this point. “My Jason,” I breathlessly bellow, with every ounce I own in my lungs, “would know that!”
There was no way he could already be up on my floor after being unconscious, I think. Even with his head start. There was no way he would know what floor to meet me at unless he was planted there by someone who had access to the cameras…
For a moment, my heart burns out, like a flame trapped in glass.
No, I think. I see his swelling face. My toe reaches for the edge. My hand reaches out, as though by instinct.
A mistake, I say. I have made some grave—
“GUARDS!” the boy wearily shouts downward, and I have all the remaining proof that I need. No look of betrayal. No cry of dismay.
Karlo infiltrated my home. My business.
He is now staking claim to my associates. To my enemies.
To my family.
He could be anywhere.
He could be any-one.
I launch, again, up the next set of stairs, with an urgency unmatched in this quest, prior.
A new wrinkle. This is a new problem.
The first blue sleeve reaches for the crumpled boy on the ground.
“Mr. Wayne!” one shouts. Another yells for “security!” A third asks if I am “okay.”
The flooding adrenaline lets me rise above them, though, as those three words, they repeat, on and on and on.
I look up.
The blackness seems…eternal…
Rife boogeymen, indeed…
* * *
I still hear my mother speak some nights.
Especially in winter, in the wind and the dolloped snow. The scene in the kitchen, when she mends my broken wing, and tells me we can always fix our mistakes, if we only look for them.
“This is a Christmas angel, Bruce,” she says to me, in the dark. Her face is, like in all the dreams, just outside the line of my eyes. I keep turning my head to see her close – clear – just one last time. I can never make it quite that far, though. “She makes sure to remind Santa of what you want each year,” she says. “That’s why we hang her on the tree: She watches over you—” She grins. I can hear her lips pull back so sweetly. Maybe even just a bit too far. “She makes sure you’re good enough to get what you deserve.”
* * *
Out my periphery, I see the starched blue tides receding bit-by-bit. Even in exhaustion, I can feel myself pulling away. They are four stairs behind.
They are on the landing below.
They are one floor down.
Not that the security guards aren’t still coming. But some part of Clayface’s force is becoming spread too thin, I realize. They have become too many. There are far fewer than I thought there were, before, but the energy they expend is like a ball rolled up-hill.
Just when enough space has formed between us, I spot the extinguisher hanging in a red box above floor sign number 87. A thin red line. The end of my flight. The shape it takes:
An exclamation point.
* * *
Bruce Wayne, age 8, awakes next to a half-drunken cup of separated milk and cocoa, on the Victorian loveseat that lies adjacent the dead-ash hearth, presents faced, galore, in many-wrapped colors and boxes and bags ‘neath the manor’s pungent, low-lit Christmas evergreen.
He sits up; rubs his eyes. Drops the silk duvet to the floor. In the background, a record plays disjointed holiday melodies.
“…out jumps good old Santa Clause!”
Alfred Pennyworth comes in from the corner door, out of the kitchen, with a tray of holiday pudding.
Only hearing the creak of the door, the small boy cries out, “Mother!” Turns his head. Looks around, expectantly.
“…all for the little one’s Christmas joys!”
“Merry Christmas, Master Bruce,” Alfred says.
In the background, the angel sways in the air, by the creak of the old manor floor.
“Oh,” says Bruce Wayne, age 8.
“…Who wouldn’t go?”
“Hello, Alfred,” he quietly says.
* * *
“My god…you really did just come as you were, didn’t you, Bat-Daddy?”
I am through the door in little more than my pants and bloody feet, panting, my lip and eye sockets filling in with dark shadow bruise from the run-ins with the faux security force. Karlo’s glowing toes are kicked up on my boardroom table – the shoes, black, hit sun from the pane glass, floor-to-ceiling windows surrounding us on near all sides. He moves them back and forth – the shoes – so the reflected rays pass over my eyes, now – over and again, he keeps on, like a child with a mirror, passing the light over me like an anthill, in hopes of garnered smoke.
I blink, but hold my place, otherwise unmoving.
“Give…them back,” I say. Toss down the empty, dented fire extinguisher, which rattles mutely off the carpeted floor. Quickly make stride down the length of the table before me. Throw a stray rolling chair out of my way.
“Give them back!” I pull myself up to my most towering height when I am standing over this small, mustachioed man – indeed, the janitor of old, now well-dressed, in a (fittingly) tan suit and short-cut grey hair.
“GIVE THEM BACK!” I roar, and I pick him up by the collar of his shirt – pick him all the way up, above my head, so that he is hanging, limp, from my large, pulsing fists. Slam him up against the nearest glass window, which cracks under the exceptional mass of his current, confined form.
Behind me, I hear a door open – the office to the rear penthouse. Turn my head so that my sight holds both Clayface to one side, and my newest assailant on the other.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” Karlo says. “Your current owner, Mister Bruce Wayne.”
One-by-one, the Wayne Enterprise board of directors enters the meeting room, single-file. They line up on the opposite side of the table.
“Ahem,” Karlo clears his throat. “There’s a bit of clarification I feel I must make…” I turn to face him, only to witness the pulling sinew of his earthy trunk split open, like some vile, bestial maw, to reveal the mud-caked face of a dark-haired young boy…
“Indeed,” he purrs. Closes himself a bit, like lowering a t-shirt. “See, his name is the one on the current bill of purchase for this company.” He turns his face to the board behind me, and the glass emits another ominous crack. “So…All in favor of new leadership, say ‘aye?” His lips, like two putty lines, pull back much farther than should be possible. “Roll call vote?”
“Aye,” says the first – a slick-haired corporate financer I recognize from prior talks. He walks around the table, and begins to push on my back.
“What are you—?” I say. “Stop!”
“Aye,” says the female curator of the Maxwell Lord Museum of Art. She steps around, and presses her body against the glass pane behind Karlo and Jason. It sounds an audible splitting tone.
I drop Karlo’s shirt and move to push her and the man aside.
“Stop this, Boris!” I say.
“Oh, but Mr. Wayne,” he says, calmly. “It’s really out of my hands at this point.”
“Aye,” call a pair of brothers, whose father is on the city council. They come around and press harder against my back – box me into him. Press my chest to Jason’s head. I kick back at them, hard, and they fall away for but an instant, then are pushing even harder. My face mashes into the window next to Karlo’s. His neck spins unnaturally to face me. To smile at me, as I am grunting and panting – glaring back.
Then they aren’t splits of Clayface – his replicates that he can pull from his body, like the security force I have frozen outside…But if they aren’t splits, then…
I suddenly remember:
Tetch’s mind-control implants.
I look over at the nearest brother. See the small, black dot at the base of his neck.
“Aye,” says another, whose weight at my rear is the greatest yet. I can feel myself being pushed forward – pushed into the sludge of my foe. Pushed toward the slow-spidering window – a fracture glides past my face, and keeps traveling upward – and the multi-story drop on its other side.
Then these are innocent people, I think. I can’t just swing at them…
“Aye,” they keep saying, and I bat them away as gently as possible, but the push grows ever-more.
“Karlo, stop this!” I shout, above the chorus of still-coming “ayes.” “They haven’t done anything wrong! The boy hasn’t done anything wrong! Let them go!”
“Haven’t done any—?” He scoffs. “Of COURSE they have, Batman! They, too, have been complacent with this city’s corruption and its unfair incarceration policies for far too long. If you have the ways and the means, there should be no reason for you to stand by while good men – our Victor Frieses of the world – are forced to go down this very same path just to have their equal shot at happiness!” An old man – the longest-serving of our members – a professor at Gotham Academy who knew my father – says his feeble agreement and walks up to the glass; begins to lean on a spot nearest Karlo’s other shoulder. I bat him away, but he keeps coming. “And you, Mr. Wayne, are the epitome of that lackadaisical dreamwalk. This company. Your alter-ego. The way you cast people aside – make them just as readily expendable as pieces of drive-thru trash.” He leans into my ear. Whispers: “But you wouldn’t know what a drive-thru was, now, would you?” I look down at Jason’s face – his caked nostrils are moving, but only slightly. His eyes begin to flutter.
No. Oh, no…
He flinches. Begins to panic in the ever-claustrophobic setting in which he has come to be. I say his name, and he looks up at me, searching for what he should do. What we should do. What I will do. I reach down for his face, to calm him. Find that I cannot.
As the cracking of the glass grows evermore, Boris Karlo leans his head to the side. Rests it on my paralyzed shoulder. “It sure won’t look good for you when they find this,” he circles Jason with a sudden finger from a third arm, “mess. But it looks like the ‘ayes’ may have it for you, my friend.”
“You won’t survive this, either, Karlo!” I say. See the entire expanse of my city, the skyline, the overhead, once more, in the rapid motion of my eyes, back and forth, between the man and my son. Gurgle before my face is enveloped into his own: “We can talk about this!”
“We come back, Mr. Wayne,” he says. “They will forget this, you; in time. I will make sure of that. But we, of that bluest collar – we are resilient. We always…come…back.”
And in that final word, the rupture is shrill. The glass shatters, and we – all of us – are hovering, we are covered in the knifing breaks; and then falling – we are all falling from what seems so many never-ending miles up in the sky.
TO BE CONCLUDED…
Issue 12 – The Tie That Binds
C.D. DyVanc currently lives in the Midwestern United States. He is an award-winning journalist, and, in his free time, enjoys jumping out of airplanes, reading comic books, and being the epitome of the living dad joke with his wife and stepson. His works have appeared or are upcoming in Drunk Monkeys, Rue Scribe, Dream Pop Press, and Five:2:One’s #thesideshow. His chapbook, rhi(n.)oceros, won the 2017 Midwest Chapbook Contest, and is currently available through Greentower Press. You can find his horrible use of GIFs on Twitter (@CDDyVanc), if you’d like.