The Unexpected Visitor

The Joker meets the Mask.

It was a spring evening in Edge City, and strange pink and green gases mingled with clouds scudding across the moon. On an apartment rooftop in the middle of the city, a man and a woman found themselves around a little table spread with a clean white cloth and a ravishing meal.

When Stanley Ipkiss pulled out Tina Carlyle's chair for her, he bowed from his waist and proffered the seat with a flourish of his fingers.

Tina smiled tightly, and took the seat, rolling her eyes when her back was to him.

Stanley seated himself opposite and gestured at the table spread between them. "So, what d'you think?"

On their plates were spears of buttered asparagus, a bread roll each, and a delicate little construction involving grilled salmon drizzled in sriracha and garnished with bean sprouts and thin slices of radish.

"I had to rewind that Julia Child tape about a dozen times to get it right," he said, grinning. He affected a ridiculous French accent. "But finally, I conquered ze dish!"

Tina shut her eyes wearily. Stanley seemed not to notice. He proudly drew the lid off a little porcelain pot, which was filled to the brim with glistening black caviar.

"Imported straight from Italy," he assured her.

A black bottle of wine, with and ancient fat brown cork yet to be removed, stood between them. Tina touched it and with her long, smooth finger drew off a thick trail of dust. It was probably at least a hundred years old.

"Californian oak-aged Pinot Noir!" Stanley declared, pinching his thumb and forefinger and shaking his cultured fist for emphasis.

Tina smiled sadly. "Stanley, this is... amazing. But you can't afford all of this."

"You're worth it," he reassured her.

"And you're sweet," she said. "But no date is worth a sacrifice like this."

Tina picked up her fork and started into her meal. Stanley rested his wrists on the edge of the table, and looked downtrodden.

"I was just trying to be romantic..." he said softly. "You know... like him."

Tina bit off a hunk of asparagus, and chewed it down. She placed her own wrists against the edge of the table and gave her companion a dark look. "You are him, Stanley."

Stanley withdrew his wrists and leaned back in his chair, self-consciously. "You know that's not how it works. The mask belonged to the Norse god Loki, or carved in his likeness, I guess. It does something to the wearer's mind, makes 'em less inhibited..."

Tina had a resolved look about her. "There's also something called the 'placebo effect', Stanley."

"Wait, you know what that is?" came Stanley's curious, inappropriate response.

Tina rolled her eyes. "Of course. Everyone knows what it is. I've also always known what a Rorschach test was; I only pretended not to know it, so I could get video footage of the bank vault."

"Oh. Right," Stanley said, grinning toothily. She was not amused. Stanley swallowed.

"But you gotta admit, I did some pretty weird stuff with that mask on-"

Tina nodded emphatically-

"-you know, stuff that defies rational explanation..."

"It doesn't change the fact that what I saw was just another side of you, Stanley... a side I don't really like that much."

Stanley's face moved into a quizzical look. "Hold the phone: didn't you say to me," - he imitated her whistful drawl - "'You should see him dance'?"

"He was fun for a while, Stanley. But the big gestures, and the one-liners... it's all show. It's all to make you look good. And you're doing it more and more... even without the mask on," she explained, looking crestfallen. "I feel like I'm acting out a play with you, and I don't want to do that anymore. I just want to relax and be real with you."

Stanley felt cold. He hunched his shoulders, curling in on himself. He picked up his roll, and buttered it morosely. "Does this mean we can't watch old cartoons on our dates anymore?"

Tina gave him a withering look. "I think we should stop the dates for a while, so you can re-evaluate who you want to be."

She stood up, and collected her clutch. She gestured at the expensive, time-intensive meal. "And sort out your priorities."

She turned to leave, before adding, "For future reference, yes, it would be nice to watch a grownup movie, for once."

With that, she returned to the apartment complex, and marched down the stairs.

Stanley looked over his beautiful meal, the wine unopened. He found he had no appetite left.

He considered tossing the lot over the edge of the roof. But he had worked long and hard on the meal, and he found that the injustice of such a waste offended him more than angrily tossing it promised to cheer him up. He decided to save it.

Standing up, arms akimbo, jabbing one finger dramatically skyward, he declared, "This looks like a job for... tupperware!"

In the ringing silence following this bit of theatrics, Stanley winced. He slapped his head twice, to knock sobriety back in.

Stanley turned to open the door and head downstairs to his apartment when he came face to face with a huge man in a black cape and cowl crouched above the door lintel.

The End

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