The following story just came to my mind after a friend and I were walking through a quiet alleyway in a small town in Japan one night. We came upon a restaurant/bar/club (whatever it was) that was called The Joker. It was closed, but I knew there was something going on behind those doors.
It always started the same way, and it was cold. I was in the house I grew up in, my grandmother’s house, in the old living room. It seemed like a scene from the house of a British lord or viscount (something regal), as though it were of someone with money that had been bequeathed in legacy, not at all earned. The four walls that outlined the interior of the room comprised five entry ways. I stood in one of them, the front door of the house was at my back. Directly in front of me was a door to the kitchen and dining room. Off to the right were two doors leading to the old kitchen and the den, respectively. Across the living room to the left was a series of steps that lead to a guest bedroom, bathroom and linen closet.
The living room itself was quiet and preferred to remain that way, undisturbed. The dark wooden floor was blanketed with a single frilled crimson rug, intricately woven with two pale sofas facing each other in the room’s center. The ambiance was somber and seemed a fitting introduction to what lay ahead. A fireplace crackled at the base of the center wall monitoring the space between the two sofas – an arbiter explaining the rules to the two pugilists before the first bell. It all seemed cozy, yes, cozy. Something, however was off. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I could feel it. I moved forward, headed for the door directly ahead of me.
Why? Good question. I’m not sure. It was just the pull I guess. I wasn’t drawn to any other doors in any of the other dreams; it was just that I always wanted, for some reason, to go forward. Without fail, before I reached the far door, the last door on the right would open. Out would step, coincidentally, a little girl. Her stature was endearing. A thin girl with perfectly braided blonde hair that ran down to her shoulders, ending in bows. She wore a white shirt that buttoned up and finished with a collar around the neck and two pillowed shoulder pockets enhancing her innocence and youth. Over her shirt was a blue and red stripped dress that looked like a vest on top and expanded as it went down. The finished product was a skirt. The wo pink socks held tightly to her feet married the glossy shoes that completed the outfit. Her eyes, green and oval, stared at me glaringly as her right arm held the door open as she stood there.
“You musn’t go in there,” she would say. “Why not,” I asked.
“He’ll take you. He’ll see your face. He’ll know you. You musn’t let him know you.”
“Who will?” I asked.
“The white-faced man,” she said. Her eyes began to quiver. Her head made slight shaking movements from side to side as if to emphasize what she thought her words had failed to convey. “You can’t go in there. You can’t let him know you,” she said. In a rush to plead with me, to make my mind comprehend, she reached out and grabbed ahold of one of my sleeves, and tugged. She pulled on my arm, but I wouldn’t follow. I smiled. “I’ll be fine,” I said, “I’m just going to look.” “No!” she blurted, but I had already turned, pulling away from her grasp and back toward the door I had intended on opening. I made placed my hand on the white door and looked back at the girl. She was closing the door that she had come through and retreating, still looking at me, her eyes pulling at me pleading with me to change my decision. I looked away from those eyes and back at the door I was touching. I pushed, and went through.
The room was dark, too dark. The door closed behind me and I turned to find no door at all. There wasn’t anything. It was panoramic darkness. I reached back and felt for something corporeal – evidence that could show me that I did, in fact, just move from one room to another…and there was nothing. I turned again to face the direction from which I had entered. Nothing…nothing except, no, wait. What’s that? A small speck, up ahead. A glimmer of light that seemed to seep through the shade around it. A moth flying toward the object of its curiosity, I planted my steps carefully and headed for the light ahead of me. The floor beneath me was solid and I still sensed that I was indoors; none of the sensations of nature came to me. The light ahead was coming in more clearly and a scene, though dark, was coming into view.
The light was of a television screen that hung ominously above me as I approached. A soft static sent waves of illumination out into the space around it. I came upon the screen and wondered what it was doing there, where this place was, and if there was more to it all than this. I heard a chuckle and was startled at first to find that, directly opposite the screen, a figure of a man appeared. I hadn’t noticed him before, but the more I looked, the more I was able to discern of him. He was sitting down on an opaque couch watching the hanging screen intently as he held a bowl of a thick porridge on his bare chest. He giggled at unpredictable intervals and laughed aloud at others while watching the static transmission and its accompanying white noise, slurping and swallowing the thick concoction intermittently.
I glanced at the screen several times from several different angles to make sure that I was seeing it correctly. Was I missing something? What was it that this man was watching? With a roar, the man bellowed and pointed at the screen, his porridge bowl and its contents spilling upon his chest and stomach as well as the couch that held him. The laughter continued almost forcibly and his portly belly shook, aiding some of the spilled porridge to make its way down his sides onto the couch and the faded and stained jeans that he wore. The laughter ceased as quickly as it had begun and the mans eyes diverted from the screen to me. “What?” he asked, and I noticed that I had been staring at him. I diverted my eyes. “Sit down,” he said.
I walked over and sat next to him on the dark couch that I almost couldn’t make out. The static in front of us screeched on and the man resumed his slurping of the contents of his bowl while watching the screen intently. He laughed and giggled intermittently, yet the static remained the same. I took my eyes off my couch mate and looked at the television. The hum of the static somehow kept me there, pulled me. I heard something… I heard..almost…yes, yes, it sounded like cheering. But, it was just static; I couldn’t have…what was that. The faint outlines of images began to appear sporadically across the screen. Images of bodies, movement, smiles, a stage, people cheering, a voice. It was clearing. The static was forming an image. As my neighbor’s chortles and guffaws altered and grew into bellows, the screen, the pull was becoming uncannily real. I must have blinked it into clarity, otherwise how could it have happened. As if the channel had always been there, there on the screen, it was all taking place.
“Yes, it’s time folks!” said a voice that sang cheerfully and luringly through the speakers. There was a crowd of people shown sitting in staggered variegated seats smiling lifelessly at the spectacle before them. In unison, they shouted back in de rigueur compliance. “Time for what?!” What it was I could only guess. Then, I was shown.
“The Wheeeeel of Blaaaades!” shouted the voice, the owner of which I had yet to be made privy. The crowed exploded in a frenzy. The camera flashed to a white wall, the center of which held the source of the audience’s outwardly expressed interest. A wheel spun slowly on the wall and tied to it was a woman, blindfolded and frightened. Her soft sniffles only lightly audible as the wheel spun around turning her naked body right-side up and upside down. Her stringy blonde hair draped around her shoulders one minute and extended toward the ground and gravity’s call the next. The camera flashed again, and I finally saw the face the girl spoke of before I came here – the face I was warned about.
The white-faced man grinned at the camera and his features were clearer now than they had been to me. The pupils of his eyes were dark and honed in on me when they stared at the screen. The sleek shine of the perfectly coifed hair on his head me the light from all angles. His face was just as the girl described it, and eerily so. The white of his skin seemed almost alive with color; a medium that wouldn’t dare become dirty. It shone no matter the angle. He was dressed in a black suit that hadn’t a hint of debris attached to it. There was something so nonhuman about this man that produced a light tingle down my back. I found my eyes unable to leave the screen. No longer could I hear the slurping sounds of my couch mate. Was he still there? Where was I? Lights glowed from the screen in front of me, the volume grew and beads of sweat were forming at my temples. “Are You Reaaaadyyy?!” The white-faced man’s voice boomed and the camera was back to the audience. There was a loud cheer from the speakers which now included surround sound. I felt the noise around me this time; it wasn’t just a blurting of blatant incomprehension that came from the foreground. Yet, something was off. The faces of the audience members were all white, stale and expressionless. Not as though they had been painted that way, but because they lacked the color, expression and reaction to the moment. They lacked the essential outward characteristics of vitality. Their eyes were glazed over as they looked upon the stage with the wheel. They didn’t blink, not one of them.
The screen seemed bigger now, for some reason. The view was now panoramic. Rows upon rows of seats came into view and the applause was something that could now be experienced. “ARE – YOU – RRREADY?!” The sound of the audience boomed from somewhere other than the seats. The members still stared at the stage with a numb participation only mimicked by corpses.
“I asked if you were ready…Chuck.” I looked up. Lights surrounded me, a staleness imbued the air around my person and the only witness to it all smiled ominously upon me from a stature one full head taller than my own. I looked around. I was no longer on the couch, darkness was no longer the theme of my atmosphere, and this was no longer a television program I was watching. I was now behind the screen, in the show. The white-faced man leaned closer and let his eyelids drop and his brow rise as a gesture of condescension. A tilt of his head followed in the direction of the wheel upon which the woman still slowly spun. “You see that wheel?” He asked. “Yes,” I responded.
“Well, I want you to see this as well,” he continued. He opened his eyes and stood erect again before he turning and walking towards the wheel. A soft struggle of a moan came as the man grabbed ahold of the wheel bringing it to a stop. The woman’s chin was bobbing upon her chest; it was the one weight she could no longer raise. Her hair shaded her exhausted countenance from the draining lighting of the stage. “Oh, umm, would you mind pressing that button?” he asked without looking back. I paused, confused. “What button?” I asked. “The one in your hand, Charlie,” he said after a deep audible sigh. I looked down and saw something analogous to a remote control in my palm. It was a simple black box with a red button on it. I wondered what it was for. “No, you don’t have to worry about what it’s for, Champ. All you have to do is follow my ORDERS!” I looked back at the man, who still had not turned to me, surprised. “Fine, you want to play games?” he asked. “Let’s play some games.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
The man reached into his pocket and produced a pocket knife, which he unfolded. Without hesitation, he grabbed ahold of the left pinky finger of one of the bound hands and sliced it off. The blonde hair whirled from the girl’s face and she cried out, her eyes grabbing me, the scream was aimed at me. Her lips began to quiver and her eyes narrowed in the first steps of rapid tear production. “Who was this girl?” I thought.
“The girl, Cheesehead, is not important; what is important is that you press that button.” responded the host of my experience. “What does it do?” I asked. His eyes turned slowly, but in a calculated manner. “Games, again, is it? Very well.” In one smooth motion, and before I could respond or correct what I had said, his hand reached up again and grabbed the ring finger of the same hand. He pulled on the finger as the knife’s blade met the girl’s wrist and began to saw quickly and forcefully. Blood spilled from the inside of the girl’s arm and the sound that followed from her mouth matched. Her body now shocked out of its daze convulsed and the girl’s head pounded on the wheel behind her.
“Okay!” I yelled to get the man’s attention. “Okay, okay, okay! I’ll press the button.”
“Oh good, you stopped me. I hit bone and that’s always a finicky task,” he said and turned to face me. The girl’s wrist then dangled in mid-air, severed and waiting. As he approached, I looked down at what I held. The button glowed red, begging me to press. I looked up at watched his grin come closer and closer. My thumb moved over the button, and I pressed.
Speakers in all corners of the room blazed with an excited roar that imitated what an excited living audience would sound like. Lights flashed in the seats of the onlookers, those whose desiccated eyes peered out over the stage with lifeless interest.
“Yes!” the white-faced man shouted. “Yes! Splendid! This is where all the fun is, Charles!” His eyes smiled at me, the deep blackness of his irises bleeding beyond their boundaries, like ink in a pool of white. “All the fun, Charles…All the fun…” his voice repeated through sealed lips.
He grabbed the controller from my hands and pressed the glowing red button twice. The wheel opposite us, again began to turn, this time widdershins, the girl’s sobs returned to my ears, this time more audible than when the wheel was stationary. She screamed and her voice carried strangely across the room as it had spun around before being passed on to those listening. The speakers behind me sounded with a noise intimating a laughing audience, yet one glance told me they were still all stone-faced and just as dead as the host was planning to make the girl upon the wheel.
I watched as the motion of the wheel became faster and faster. He walked over and, in a blink, I was at his side, in front of the spinning wheel. It spun around and around and, as it did, droplets of her life fluid flew from her body. It was on the floor, the ceiling and paces away from where her body circled. “Should I help? Is there some way I can stop the wheel and get her out of here?” I thought. “Come now,” said the man in black. “After what I’ve shown you I can do, why would you do something foolish like that? Now, stop dilly-dallying and come to the line.” I looked down and, at my feet, a red line formed. “Line! Line! Line!” chanted the speakers that spoke for the fake audience. “And the axes,” he continued. “Ax! Ax! Ax!” they followed.
“So, here’s the deal, Chump. You will get three throws. You are to throw these blades,” he made an opened-handed gesture in front of me and a throwing ax manifested in the air. He continued, “and throw them at the wheel.” If you can hit the girl, you both go free.” I wasn’t sure I was liking the sound of this. “If you miss, however, you take her place on the wheel…and we take her to, well, let’s say “different places”, where she will have other chances to try that wretched luck of hers. Sound good?”
I wasn’t sure anything I uttered would make any hint of difference. I looked from the white-faced speaker back to the wheel. The ax was now in my right hand. “Let’s spin the wheel!” I heard him shout. The speakers again danced with spurious sounds of exuberant onlookers and the wheel before me began to spin clockwise. The woman’s voice became audible again; it trembled in rising and falling whimpers as her head rolled on the rotating board.
I felt a chill fill me. I didn’t know if it was in the entire room or just around me. Nothing changed from the outward appearance of the stage, the mock audience or the smartly dressed quietly crazed host standing behind me to my left. I felt the goosebumps grow on my arms as the cheers from the speakers quieted.
“First ax, ready!” cried the white-faced man from behind me. A chill shot down my arm and my fingers clutched the ax tightly. My arm raised high and my elbow bent back to allow for more of a forceful throw. I wasn’t controlling any of it. I looked back at the host of the show and he smiled with his arms crossed. He pulled one hand away from his body and made a motion at me as if shooing me back to the required task at hand. I looked back at the wheel with my arm still cocked like the ready hammer of a pistol.
“Fire,” he screamed. My arm let loose with a fierce speed and the ax took flight. I looked away only to hear the thud of the blade in the spinning wood. Looking back, the wheel still spun, and the woman’s tears poured forth. The ax had driven through the wooden board beneath the woman’s right arm, glimmering in the stage light centimeters away from the pale trembling skin of the target. She screamed both in pain and fright, struggling madly with the cloth bindings that held her fast to the wheel. With each jerk of her left side, more blood spewed forth from the half-severed wrist that was left dangling just minutes earlier. Her blindfold was loosening, however, and her eyes were almost exposed.
“Second ax, ready!” the white-faced man hissed behind me. “Fire!” In one swift continuous motion, my arm cocked back and flung forward, launching a second ax through the air. It spun as it drifted with direction towards the wheel and the woman, both of which were rotating at a faster pace than the previous spin. I closed my eyes just before the second blade slammed into the board. A wail from the woman plunged into me and it was as though my heart froze. I must have hit her. “Oh, God, no!” I thought.
“Strike two!” said the voice of the white-faced man. “And what a shame, too. You just missed your target.” Relieved, I opened my eyes to find that the blade had come so close to the woman’s head that it had sliced through the binding of her blindfold and ripped through the wooden frame taking some of the blindfold and the woman’s hair with it. The wheel had stopped after the blade’s flight had come to a stop. The girl’s eyes were wide open and filled with watery fright. She stared at me, her expression nonplussed. I looked at her and felt that I knew something about her, though I couldn’t say what. The woman blinked, and just before the wheel began to spin a final time, she spoke. “I told you… I told you not to go through that door.” I chill rained through me and I could feel the strength in my legs weaken. It was the girl that warned me about the door before all of this.
I was done. I wanted to just drop it all and run. I wanted to race to pick my own legs up, somehow, and just carry them out of there if I had to. I didn’t even think about the girl. I just wanted out.
“Well, here’s your chance, Chucky. Third ax, ready!” The wheel in front of me began to spin and the woman’s eyes rolled back in her head as she let the rotation take her. The speakers behind me chilled the room with the usual blurt of spurious cheers. I raised my arm and… “Fire!” My arm came down and the ax whirled forth from my body. The cheering stopped, the wheel stopped spinning and I shut my eyes and turned away, wincing, before it struck. The ax stopped spinning with an audible halt. This time sounding different from the previous two. I knew just what had happened before I had turned back to give myself proof. The silence was too thick. My eyes took it all in, though. There, on the board in front of me, was the blood-sodden handle of the ax that was in my hand seconds before. It’s blade firmly lodged between two halves of the woman’s skull that it had split upon entry. A thin red line trickled down her nose, running past the pair of eyes she had closed before the tool had made audible contact. There her body hung, still and pale. Then came the laugh from behind me.
It was a smoker’s laugh, one without words to accompany the hysteria. He loved. The laugh turned into a cackle, and I made my legs move. I ran. The laugh followed me as I leaped off the stage into the dead aisles of the mock audience. Eyes of sleepers, they stared straight ahead, not noticing the legs that took flight from fear and confusion among them. The jocular wheezing ran with me. I ran to the back of the room and through the door. It was a door that opened up onto the same stage that I had just left, the mad man still laughing raucously. I ran again. Into the audience and to the back door. Another stage, another mad man and another audience. I ran and ran and ran. As I ran, the lights began to dim. I ran and felt my legs tiring. The lights, they dimmed further. I continued to run, until I ran in darkness. All the while, the cachinnation of the white-faced man kept pace.
Sweat beads sped down my face. Where was I? It was dark. II turned to my bed-stand, following the vexing sound of a battery-powered laugh. I felt for the lamp and switched it on. The infamous super-villain from the Batman comic series, The Joker, bobbed his head superfluously in my direction. His chalk-white face grinning a wide monstrous grin, assured that he always got his way. I reached behind him and switched off the alarm. A reassuring silence brushed over me. I shook myself and got out of bed. I grabbed what I needed for a shower and walked the few steps to the restroom. The hot water always steamed nicely during the winter mornings in Hartford.
I stepped in and felt the warmth of the steam and the water wash away whatever had caused the sweat bath in my sleep.