Harleen Quinzel touched the taper to the wick. She watched as the red candle caught light, the flame first a small bud, quickly growing into full bloom.
Harley sat back on her haunches and watched the flame as it danced skittishly a moment before calming, straining upwards. Wax began to run in a pearly red rivulet down the side of the candle. Harley smiled a little.
She’d made it.
It was the twenty-fourth of December, three months exactly since she’d been released from Arkham as a sane individual ready to carry on her with her life. That day as she’d walked down the long drive, scattered with Autumnal leaves in gold and red, to the taxi that waited for her she’d made a promise to herself. If she could make it to Christmas, she could make it all the way.
It was the longest time she’d lasted and as Harley stared upon the votive candle in its nest of green holly, she wondered why she didn’t feel more elation.
After a moment she sighed and turned away from the mantle above the faux-fireplace, kicking a coil of yellow tinsel with one fluffy-pink slippered foot. Here comes Santa Claus, here comes Santa Claus, right down Santa Claus lane, Elvis crooned from her Barbie boom box. Harley sighed again and retrieved her eggnog from the coffee table before slumping down on the little couch and staring blankly at her tiny living room in the shoebox apartment she rented at Wayne Gardens.
The place certainly looked festive enough. She’d spent most of her meagre salary on decorating the apartment in the spirit of the season. Sparkling garlands in pink and gold were strung along the window frame and from the mantle, even tapped to the length of the kitchen bench that protruded into the living room. In the window she had a neon Santa Claus whose glowing red outline flashed and winked and sparkled at regular intervals. The armchair was crammed full of various stuffed teddy bears, all bedecked in Christmas apparel, and an extraordinary selection of Santa Clauses, in differing shapes and sizes.
But the crowning glory was, of course, her tree.
She’d wanted a real tree, but thoughts of betrayed fury in Ivy’s green eyes had swayed her mind at the last moment. Instead, she’d found the biggest, most fluffy and generously-branched plastic tree she could get her hands on – in white. “Well, this one will last a few years,” she’d said thoughtfully to the salesman and then realised how well the white boughs would show colour.
So before her, the sequinned gold star at the top brushing her ceiling, stood the rainbow tree in all its splendour. Its white branches were strung with tinsel in every colour and the baubles she’d laced generously upon it were no less varied. Multicoloured fairy lights twinkled; throwing prisms that brightened the drab cream walls. It was worthy of a starring position in Bergdof’s of Gotham, Harley thought. At least. Maybe she could go into window dressing…
Nursing her nog and staring into the technicolour brilliance of her tree set something stirring in her bosom and she felt her eyes prickle. Naturally, she’d obeyed the customs of Hanukkah as well – she was a good girl. But Hanukkah just didn’t have the same resonance for her – it brought to mind her childhood, when this time of year had always been empty and cold. Eight days had passed with nothing more to mark them than the lighting of a candle and the presentation of a perfunctory gift, always imminently practical and impersonal – a new set of blue pens for school, had been an oft-repeated one. No goodies – one year she’d tried to make the latkes herself, only to burn the pan and be grounded for her trouble.
But Christmas – Christmas had always been a time of joy.
She could still remember her first real Christmas tree vividly. That had been an Evergreen, a glorious monstrosity of a thing that had been responsible for at least one hench toppling from a ladder and breaking his neck as he’d decorated it. And the decorations! Baubles that were little bombs – bombs that you could wind up and that exploded in a shower of glitter to reveal small chocolates within, ingeniously designed by their creator. Sticks of dynamite painted in candy-stripe and endless wreaths of tinsel. There had been little Batmans strung by nooses, Robins hung by their wedgied tights and Bratgirls dangling by their ankles. And she’d even been allowed to hang up beautiful angels with gauzy skirts and plastic snowmen with button smiles – although the angels had often had their skirts thrown up over their heads and the snowmen half “melted” with a blow torch whenever she paused to admire the tree again.
Still… it had been a beauty. Harley half-smiled and snuggled further into the couch, cupping her nog with both hands.
The track changed to Blue Christmas and Harley’s mouth immediately turned down.
Christmas sure was no time to spend alone.
She drained her glass and hopped off the couch to get another.
Dr Leland had given her the recipe for the eggnog, when Harley had told her of her plan to make it to Christmas. She’d never been allowed to make it before, because she “wouldn’t do it right”. Harley had never minded that so much, but since it was unlikely there’d be anyone else around to make it for her this year, she had to be practical.
She didn’t think half a cup of brandy had sounded quite right. So she’d added a full cup instead. And the same of rum.
“But this is some fine nog,” she announced to no one in particular, sprinkling a little extra nutmeg on top, padding back into the living room, jug of nog tight in hand. As she did so, she passed beneath the sprig of mistletoe she’d strung in the doorway. She’d felt slightly silly putting it up there to begin with, but it was important to do these things properly. And – Christmas was a time to hope, wasn’t it?
“Oooh, caught you under the mistletoe, pucker up!” she giggled and planted a loud, smacking kiss on the back of her hand. The room made no response but the sounds of Elvis belting out the lyrics to Jingle Bells, the lights of the tree flashing silently.
Harley stood there a moment and stared at the empty room. Her lip wobbled and she took a hasty chug of her nog before moving over to the small table next to the tree.
Upon the table was a large card, made of green foil and red construction paper. The sole representation of Harley’s Christmas presents, the card from Ivy had been made during “art therapy”. Though, Ivy had advised, knowing she was making craft from the mulched and strained carcass of a beautiful tree was not conducive to therapy, in her own opinion, still she thought Harley would like it.
She picked up the card and read it over again. Ivy had created a three-dimensional flower inside the card, and had crammed the remaining space with gossip from the Asylum, leaving just enough room to engage in some motherly nagging (if you must get potted plants, for Heaven’s sake, remember to water them, and be careful when peroxiding your hair, it pollutes the environment and makes your hair fall out in clumps, let me know if you’d like the recipe for a nice, soothing hair tonic, and…) before signing off with “Love, Red”.
Harley had giggled when she first read the card, noting the way both the ‘l’ and the ‘r’ on the last two words were crooked, knowing Ivy had hesitated and grimaced before writing either one.
Now, looking upon the concession her friend had made for her sake, Harley’s eyes teared up and she sniffled and pushed the card hastily away.
But next to the card was a framed photograph that had her snuffling into her nog. The King on his throne, a Santa cap perched jauntily on his head and smile devilish, while she threw herself across his lap, her expression a study in euphoria as she clutched two small bundles of fur to her chest.
Bud and Lou. She’d never spent such a long time away from them before and they’d certainly never gone so long without their Mommy or Daddy to reassure them all was right in the world. Especially at – at Christmas.
Harley dashed tears away with the back of one hand as she gazed at their tiny baby forms hugged tight against her in the photograph, small pink tongues lapping at her cheeks. It had been love at first sight for all of them, that magical Christmas. She’d woken up in a burst of adrenalin and had gone hurtling out to the tree, squealing and bouncing in her pyjamas while behind her amused laughter echoed throughout the lair.
Under the entertained gaze of purple eyes, she’d pounced upon the largest gift first, wrapped in red with shining black ribbons. She’d been arrested when, from within the box there had come a scrabbling sound followed by a small whine, and she’d felt her heart leap to her throat even as her eyes widened and her mouth opened in a delighted exclamation.
“Oh Puddin’ – you didn’t!”
But there they were, blinking up at her with liquid brown and amber eyes, the strangest puppies she’d ever seen, and she’d squealed and gathered them into her arms as they wiggled and yelped and licked desperately at her face, hungry for cuddles.
“Hyenas, Pooh,” she’d been informed. “Spotted Hyena cubs. For anyone else it would’ve been a feat, but not for me.”
“Thank you Santa!” she’d exclaimed euphorically, throwing her arms around his neck as the wiggling pubs clung to her.
She’d only just recently been introduced to the comedic delights of Abbot and Costello and her name choice had been whole-heartedly approved of, earning her untold joy that Christmas in combination with the helpless, needy little pups who frolicked amongst the wrapping paper and delightedly attacked legs of turkey and ham before curling up on their laps for all four of them to snuggle together and watch the privately televised explosions go off, right across the city. Even through the endless, echoing laughter they’d slept, and she’d known such tenderness as she’d stroked their fur.
Harley’s gaze blurred, the photograph running together in streaks of purple and red, and she slapped it face down, blinking as she gulped once more at her eggnog. The tears were hot on her cheeks and she hiccoughed miserably as she got back to her feet and staggered towards the couch, flinging herself down upon it. On the stereo, Elvis continued to sing about sleigh bells and Christmas trees and in a fit of pique she reached over and punched it off.
But then the apartment was completely silent, echoing her solitude back to her.
She switched the television on, the ten o’clock news playing across the screen:
“… in other news, there has been no word from the Joker since his escape from Arkham Asylum five days ago. Commissioner Gordon has advised people to be on their guard but to not let the lunatic spoil Christmas celebrations. We can only wonder what horrors the Clown Prince of Crime has in store for the holiday season this ye – “
Harley abruptly changed the station. She didn’t want to know.
Still, his influence had been apparent that day as she’d wandered through near-deserted snowy streets to the local zoo. Usually Christmas Eve was a mad rush of last minute present buying, celebratory lunches and revellers playing in the park, carollers and clusters of window shoppers stopping to ooh and ahh at the stunning seasonal window displays.
But that day, the streets had been still and quiet, a winter wonderland from a picture card. Somehow, as perfect and pretty as it was, the emptiness had seemed to make the day colder and she’d wrapped her faux leopard fur coat around her all the tighter. Walking along the streets like that had made her feel like the only person in all the world at Christmas time and she’d felt an ugly flare of anger at him for that.
Her first Christmas out and he’d ruined it for her.
As though she weren’t allowed to have one without him.
The Babies had cackled anxiously when they caught her scent, galloping up to the bars of their enclosure. They’d strained their heads through the gaps as she’d stood on the other side of the deep moat that stretched between the enclosure and the public, behind a tall and sturdy fence.
“Hey Babies,” she’d croaked, her high voice striving valiantly to sound cheery. “Hey Babies, you didn’t think Mommy would forget you on Christmas did you?”
They’d brayed and whined, pawing at the sand, trying without hope of success to squeeze their broad shoulders through the bars. She’d reached through the bars of her fence, jamming her own shoulder up hard against the metal, straining to reach them.
No chance. They were ten feet away, across a ditch of concrete.
“Miss,” a sharp voice had startled her and she’d whirled around to find an angry zoo attendant glaring at her. “Miss, please do not stick your arms through the bars. The sign is right here.” He’d rapped the sign imperiously and she’d stared at him with wild eyes for a moment. Do you know who I am, she’d wanted to shriek. Those are my Babies in there!
But she hadn’t. She’d just turned back to face the now fully-grown hyenas who laughed and panted and pawed at the bars that kept them separated from her. She had clung to the fence, pressing herself up against it and gazed at them longingly as the cold wind dried the tears on her cheeks. “I’m sorry, Babies,” she’d whispered.
Beneath the slate-grey sky and the snow-dusted landscape, their enclosure had looked barren and frozen. She had hoped their hut was heated, that their straw was dry and they had lots of big meaty bones to chew on and keep themselves warm. Her heart had burned at the injustice of it all – if they were with her, they’d be snuggled up beside a roaring fire, wrapped in soft mink blankets and chowing down on eggnog, turkey and stuffing.
At attendant had then wandered around the nearly empty grounds, announcing that the zoo was closing. She’d stood back, and rubbed her eyes with mittened hands, struggling to keep control. She could hide, in the bathrooms. Wait until the zoo was closed and the attendants were doing the day’s final tasks. Conk one over the head, take his keys, rescue the Babies and be out of there before the buffalo could say boo.
Instead she’d blown them desperate kisses, choking as she’d called out her goodbyes. “Mommy loves you! I do! I’m sorry!” She’d continued to blow kisses as she’d walked the length of the enclosure, they following frantically on the other side of the bars until they’d reached the end and she was walking away. As she’d turned away from them, Bud let out a long, confused whine and then Lou howled, a mournful, heartbroken sound that had echoed against the cloudy sky.
Emotion had overwhelmed her then and she’d run from them, sobbing.
She shivered in her little living room and pulled her dressing gown closer around her, ignoring the tears that now ran freely down her cheeks and neck, pooling against the pink flannel of her gown. Christmas Day and then Boxing Day and then she could go and visit them again. Just two more days.
Two more days all on her own.
The television was playing Planes, Trains and Automobiles, and she strove to concentrate on the film, a Christmas favourite. But as every gag unfolded, every punchline delivered, she could hear the echo of another laugh over her own, a more raucous, unrestrained peal of mirth. Far more jolly than her own weak giggles. She changed the station again and sighed when she saw it was It’s A Wonderful Life. She’d always thought it was kinda sweet, actually, but she’d never been able to watch it the same way again since that Christmas when they’d cuddled up in bed, turned the sound off and supplied their own dialogue in a series of silly voiceovers.
She’d laughed so hard her stomach had cramped and she couldn’t breathe. She’d laughed so hard she’d almost peed herself. Bud and Lou had danced around, excited by their merriment, leaping up on their hind legs to lick away her happy tears. He’d laughed at her too, and then she just couldn’t seem to stop.
Finally, exhausted, she’d let herself roll from the bed onto the floor, where’d she’d lain, giggling weakly, her tummy aching as Bud and Lou had snuffled her hair, bristly tails wagging furiously.
“Thank you, Santa,” she’d giggled from the carpet as he’d grinned over the side of the bed, chin in hand and watched her Babies nudge her.
She changed the channel again. This time it landed on Gremlins and she put the remote control down.
She refilled her mug once more, slurped up the creamy mixture and settled back against the couch cushions, only to hear the rumple of paper beneath her. Frowning, she fished around the couch until she’d located the source, and gulped.
She’d thought it might be nice to send him a card. Nothing special, just a plain old generic store-bought card. She’d made herself buy it. But it was still purple.
He’d get lonely at Christmas. No one else would think so, but she knew. Probably that’s why he’d broken out. Probably he was at the Iceberg right now, at Pengy’s annual Rogues Christmas bash. Probably he’d commandeered the bar and was making the eggnog “the right way”.
That’s why she’d wanted to send him a card. She knew he’d be lonely.
But as it happens, she’d sat down with her sparkling silver pen and begun to write and automatically wrote: Dear Mister J.
And so then the card was ruined. She couldn’t cross it out. He’d still know. Still know she’d first written Mister J, like nothing had changed.
But everything had changed and she was determined to make sure it stayed that way.
Besides, wouldn’t a newly freed girl with an active working life, lots of friends, adventures and possibly even new romance, be too busy to write some ex penned up in a loony bin? Of course she would.
It didn’t matter if it wasn’t true. So long as he thought it was.
She crumpled the card up in her hand and tossed it across the room. She sure didn’t need him, that was for certain. She needed him like she needed a kick in the tush.
The Babies, on the other hand…
They’d always been so smart. Smarter than any dog. They’d learned tricks within days and remembered them forever. She bet even if she busted them out now, after three months, they’d still remember. And they were always so brave too, ready to defend her against anything and anyone. Well, almost. But that had been different.
They’d been a family. And hyenas were all about family.
After a while it had got so all she needed to do was make a couple of small gestures and they’d understood. Like the time Lou had darted out in front of the Batmobile, then lain there whining as the sleek black vehicle had skidded to a halt on the icy streets and the hood had slid up. She’d hidden in the shadows of the alleyway with her heart thudding in her throat and her mallet poised above her head.
From a distance, Lou probably looked like some oversized mutt.
The Caped Catastrophe had approached the prone hyena swiftly and knelt down to assess the damage. Lou had immediately gone for the throat and a second later Bud had leapt out to take the rear.
Like a well coordinated hunting pack, Harley had come in last, remembering not to shriek a prematurely triumphant battle cry, just brandishing her mallet above her head and bringing it down on his cranium with enough force to get through that insulated rubber hood with its creepy pointed ears.
Then, finally, she’d made up for all the Christmases her gifts had been second-best.
Between the three of them, they’d dragged the heavy Dork Knight into the back of a van, where she’d made sure he was properly knocked out with a hefty sedative before finally shrieking in glee and flooring the gas.
She could swear Bud and Lou were as proud as she was, the two of them sitting up straight on either side of her, tails wagging and chests puffed out as she’d adjusted her specially altered Christmas motley in velvet with faux-fur trim. The sleigh-bells on her liliripes had jingled with her excitement as she stood beside the lumpy red sack beneath the glittering tree and waited.
Bud and Lou had cavorted gleefully when the golden ties had been loosened, and began to bray laughter when the mouth of the sack gaped to reveal a pointed black ear.
Soon, a third cackle had risen to join theirs, but she couldn’t even laugh along she was beaming too hard. The muscles of her face were aching as she was assured it was the best Christmas present he’d ever, ever received and he just couldn’t wait to play with it. Well, since it was still snoozing, maybe he could wait just long enough to give her a stocking stuffer of her own, just to say thank you and she’d squealed and let herself be swept away. “Thank you, Santa,” she’d whispered in his ear while Bud and Lou had nudged and pawed the inert sack, exchanging happy, satisfied hyena grins.
She didn’t think any Christmas could top the one she’d got Bud and Lou, but that Christmas proved her wrong.
Harley woke up with a start and sat up straight. Gremlins was reaching its climax, Billy chasing Spike through the department store (or was it the other way around?), the soundtrack quiet. She’d spilled nog down the front of her dressing gown and she groaned and swiped at the sticky mess irritably. Already she could feel the faint stirrings of the hangover she would have in the morning and with a fatalistic snuffle, tipped the rest of the nog down her throat.
Her chin was sticky with drool and she grimaced. “Class act all the way, Harl,” she muttered as she heaved herself off the couch, pushing strands of hair back over her forehead.
Her bedroom was dark and cool. She didn’t bother turning on the light, just shrugged off her gown and let it tumble in a heap by the door before staggering over to the window.
She pressed her face up against the frosted glass and gazed out across Gotham, a never-ending stretch of shimmering lights amidst ice white and black. Funny to think beneath all those lights lived a person, or people.
Snow fell softly outside, and her breath misted the glass.
She wondered how many other people were about to go to bed alone on Christmas Eve. How many other people would wake up to an empty house and no presents beneath the tree.
She clambered into bed, shivering against the cold of the sheets. Her head spun as she laid down and she imagined the heat of warm bodies pressed up against hers. Bud had always laid against her back and Lou across her legs. There was never any other room, not when she pressed herself up against him.
But if she relaxed just right and shut her eyes, the weight of the comforter could almost deceive. Unconsciously her fingers crept out across the bare space beside her and curled against the mattress. She could almost feel them pressed against her. Almost pretend she was inbetween them, safe and loved. Almost.
When she opened her eyes next, the world beyond her small window was a cold, dark grey, heralding the dawn of Christmas Day.
She lay in bed quietly, blinking up at the bare ceiling, all too aware of the empty bed surrounding her. She should’ve done what Dr Leland had suggested and found a Christmas Orphans Lunch to go to. Why had she put it off? What had she been waiting for?
She rubbed at her cheeks fitfully. She didn’t want to start the day off with tears already! She didn’t want to start the day at all, actually. And the way she was feeling, she could stand a few more hours sleep. Maybe if she just polished off the rest of the nog, she could roll back over and the next thing she knew Christmas would be ov –
There was a scratching at the door of her bedroom.
She sat up straight with a pounding heart, messy pigtails falling about her face.
What was that? Had she imagined it? Was there a thief in her apartment? Aw geeze, if there was she was going to have to knock him out and then the cops would think something funny was up, given her past and all – couldn’t she ever catch a break?
There was another scratch at the door, followed by a soft whine.
Harley’s jaw dangled, her eyes widening in disbelief.
In the next instant, she’d leapt from her bed and hurtled over to the door, wrenching it open and shrieking when she was sent barrelling back as the combined weight of two ecstatic hyenas hit her full on the chest.
“Babiiiieeeees!” she squealed as Bud and Lou lapped frantically at her face, nuzzling their snouts into her neck and hair.
She wrapped either arm around their necks and hugged them in close to her, her bliss sudden and absolute. Lou, always the more insecure of the two, whined desperately for reassurance while Bud slumped down on the carpet, as close against her body as she could get.
“Oh Babies, Babies, Babies!” she wept in delight, running her fingers through their thick, spotted fur, hardly daring to believe they were really there.
They laughed in response, pressing in tight against her as she sat up and buried her face against their manes, overwhelmed and sobbing. Bud rested her jaw on the top of Harley’s head and Lou rested his on Harley’s shoulder and she clung to their coats. The three of them sat entwined and at peace.
For a long time they simply sat there and Harley gripped them tight and squeezed her eyes shut and knew perfect happiness in the musky smell of their fur and the warm heat of their bodies against hers. “Who could ask for anything more?” she whispered to them and they panted in response, bright eyes reflecting back her joy.
Suddenly, Harley realised her Christmas Miracle had an explanation and bolted to her feet, dashing out into the living room, Bud and Lou at her heels.
It was empty, the lights on the tree still rhythmically flashing, the television silently broadcasting old Christmas stop motion toons.
For a moment her spirit flagged and she bit down on her lip. Then Bud buried a cold nose in her hand and her heart leapt once more. How could she stay sad when her Babies were with her again on Christmas?
“Come on kids, Mommy’s gotta rustle you up some grub!” she announced cheerily and led them into the kitchen where Mrs Krondike from Down the Hall’s glazed ham still resided in the fridge. Lifting the platter out and placing it on the linoleum for the Babies to get stuck in, Harley straightened only to notice the pitcher of eggnog stood, drained, on the sink.
Her mouth twitched.
Back in the living room, she couldn’t help but notice all her teddy bears had been turned upside down and all her Santa Clauses had their trousers pulled down.
Gnawing her lip to suppress the smile, she sat down on the couch and switched channels as the Babies finished their meal and came galloping into the living room to leap up beside her, chins on her lap.
“Merry Christmas, Gotham,” the news reader announced. “But the same cannot be said for the family of one Vernon McKenzie, who was found dead early this morning at Gotham Zoo where he worked as an attendant. Mr McKenzie’s body was found with his face contorted into a deathly grin outside the hyena exhibit, a telltale sign the Joker is back in action. Although police have not yet made a statement, it would seem Mr McKenzie interrupted the Clown Prince as he was releasing his former pets from their enclosure. A tragic end for a promising young man on Christmas. We can only wonder what the psychopath’s next move will be and what possible purpose these wild and dangerous animals will serve – “
The newsreader droned on and on but Harley paid her no heed. Drawing her beloved pets in close against her, Harley rubbed their ears and tipped her face upwards, eyes shining with joy and love.
“Thank you, Santa,” she whispered.