For a split second, Jerome could believe he’d been vaulted back to the moment of his disorienting resurrection on the Medical Examiner’s table at the GCPD. That Groundhog Day time-loop stuff wasn’t real, but a guy could dream.
There were a lot of things he’d do differently. Kill Bruce quick and quiet, on-sight at Wayne Manor, instead of toying with him at the Boardwalk Carnival. Find Jeremiah a whole couple years and change earlier, kill him in his maze of a burrow like the rat he was.
Jerome wasn’t as cold this time, and he could feel that he was wearing clothes. His entire face wasn’t on fire anymore due to most of the skin being missing, so that was progress.
What wasn’t so great was that his arms and legs felt like someone had implanted weights in them. Is that what falling from a four-story building did to you? Shattered everything to jelly?
That couldn’t be right, though. His limbs seemed to be in one piece—stiff, but functional.
Just like that, he remembered. Each detail leading up to his last conscious moment before landing, just like it had been the first time. At least his short-term memory had never failed him, not even through two dalliances with death.
Afraid of what he might see—irritating, that he’d maintained the same capacity for fear that he’d known in childhood—Jerome finally opened his eyes. He recognized the dingy ceiling.
Right, that’s how it was: he hadn’t actually been brought back a second time. He was just in Hell, because hadn’t Cicero always said it was a place of your own making? That you deserved?
Arkham for the rest of eternity, then. Jerome hoped, in the very least, he wasn’t alone there. It’d be no fun without anybody to talk to or torment. But mostly talk to, because he got lonely just like everyone else. Being human was a sick joke.
“It’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood,” Jerome rasped, finding it insultingly easy to remember the theme song from some kids’ show his mother used to put on for him and his brother before everything went to shit. “A beautiful day for a neighbor! Would you be mine—”
“Oh God,” said a fascinated, borderline-frantic voice in the next cell over. “You’re awake?”
“It’s rude to interrupt!” Jerome replied threateningly, rolling onto his side with excruciating effort. He could see the rest of his cell—toilet, sink, rug, side table, armchair. Those didn’t used to be standard kit, so maybe Hell wasn’t that bad. “Would you be mine? Could you be mine?”
“Uh…sure?” said the woman’s voice, and something about it was unnervingly familiar. “I can be. I am. None of us really have a choice.”
Jerome refocused his eyes on a weird feature: there was an air vent in the wall that seemed to have some kind of crawlspace between it and the vent in the next cell over. He could see right through the set of grates into the next cell. Was that where the voice was coming from?
“Do you have, like, some kinda…vent in the wall?” Jerome asked, his mania rising. He grunted in pain as he leveraged himself into a sitting position, legs dangling off the bed. “Whew. Wakin’ up like this doesn’t get easier as you get older.”
“Vent?” the woman echoed, by now identifiable as someone he’d once known. “No. Just plaster on all sides. I didn’t know there was a vent between yours and…never mind. All six of the cells in this block are occupied.”
“Wait wait wait,” Jerome said, feeling unpleasantly dizzy. He lay down on his side again, gaze fixed on the vent. “So, I’ve got two neighbors. Adjacent, anyhow. I remember the layout. It’s all coming back. Two cells side-by-side at each end of the block hall, and then two more, one each at a 90-degree angle with two of the end-cells, positioned on either side of the door?”
“Your cell shares one wall with mine, one with…the other, and then your door opens onto the hall when we’re not in lockdown. We all have doors opening onto the hall. Immediately to my other side is the cell-block entrance. Adjacent to that, another cell. Right across from me and the entrance and the other cell, there’s a supply closet housing a boiler, and then communal showers. I should warn you, they use hypnosis. They take us in pairs, or at least I think they still do. Behave yourself at shower time, or you’ll start losing time.”
Jerome felt bitter bile rise in his throat, but he swallowed it and started to cackle hysterically.
“Hat-head’s moved up in the world,” he gasped, wiping his eyes. “That’s comin’ back, too.”
“Jerome, would you just calm down long enough to listen?” the woman implored. “It’s Lee.”
“Why the hell should I?” Jerome asked. “You did your info-dump. Your name doesn’t ring any bells,” he lied.
“Dr. Leslie Thompkins?” said Lee. “We’ve met before. At the GCPD, the first time you—”
“You’re always the first one I talk to when somebody hits the ol’ reset button. What’s up, Doc?”
“Funny,” Lee deadpanned, but Jerome stopped paying attention the second his other neighbor’s face appeared on the other side of the vent.
“Oh, yep,” Jerome said, staring back in utter disbelief. “This is Hell all right. Hiya, Brucie.”
The specter of Bruce made a face that projected sheer fury. It even gave Jerome the finger.
“Jerome, listen,” Lee said urgently. “That person in the next cell over? Isn’t Bruce, trust me.”
“Could’ve fooled me,” Jerome muttered, closing his eyes to collect his thoughts. Was he dead or alive? Undead? Everything about the situation felt too real, too familiar. “Last I checked, having a twin isn’t something Brucie and I have in common.”
“Speaking of,” Lee said, “one of Jeremiah’s devices went off at Wayne Manor. Bruce is dead. Your brother died with him.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Jerome drawled, awash in astonished satisfaction. “Two birds with one bomb. Small mercies.”
“I should catch you up the rest of the way,” Lee went on. “Two weeks before that, Jeremiah demolished the bridges.”
“Give him a detonator and he’ll walk all over you,” Jerome said. “Good for him. We’re cut off, then, huh? Bad for us.”
On the other side of the grate, another flash of movement caught Jerome’s attention. The young man peered through with clear, pale eyes, his curiosity seemingly too great. Jerome could see that he wore his dark hair long. It hung over his shoulder in a loose braid.
The more Jerome studied his face, trying to picture what the grate-slats obscured, the more he realized this doppelgänger wasn’t an exact match.
“Wait,” said the stranger, in a halting voice that was almost nothing like Bruce’s, sticking his fingers through the slats on his side. “Jerome Valeska?”
“That’s my name,” Jerome sighed, grimacing at him in weary surrender. “Go ahead, wear it out. If you’re not Bruce, then what do people call you?”
The young man shifted from his crouch to a sitting position, leaning his forehead against the grate. “Five,” he said. “Guess I’m your neighbor, too.”