21 January 2023
⚠ This chapter is still in progress; you should probably come back later. I’m hoping that putting something incomplete up will shame me into completing it swiftly.
Something you had to understand in order to be friends with Sally, is that she was chronically late to everything. She had tried her best to become less interesting and popular and in trouble all of the time, but alas, it just was not meant to be.
The next morning, she snoozed her alarm once, then twice. Eventually, she relented. Work day, places to be. Throwing yesterday’s shirt over her head, she shaved a few precious minutes off of her commute by phasing, invisible, through the elevator door and down to the first floor, popping back into sight in the parking lot. One of these days she’d get caught on a dashboard cam, if she wasn’t careful, but fortunately today was not that day.
Two blocks from home, she took a quick look around before passing her hand clean into the brick wall behind the local gyro place. When she pulled it out again, she was clutching a dirt-cheap, pre-paid flip phone in her fist. Her burner; it had just one contact.
She settled as best she could into a particularly uncomfortable bus seat before checking her messages, careful to keep the screen turned away from nosy neighbors.
[1:03 AM] E: so say hypothetically that I came into possession of a large supply of those seizure meds…
[1:03 AM] E: just like woke up and wouldn’t you know it they’re here, somebody must have dropped them
[1:04AM] E: what would be the most equitable way to distribute them
[6:35 AM] M: Oh, no. What have you done this time?
[7:02 AM] E: nothing you’re going to see on the morning news, that’s for sure
[7:06 AM] E: you’re googling it aren’t you
[7:06 AM] E: no don’t /s
[7:10 AM] M: Okay. That’s not so bad.
[7:10 AM] E: did you see the cool trick with the wall at the end?
[7:10 AM] E: really proud of that
[7:10 AM] M: Yeah, that was pretty good. Sloppy de-arrest though.
[7:11 AM] E: I am not accepting critical feedback at this time
[8:22 AM] M: How much do you have?
[8:22 AM] E: what?
[8:22 AM] M: Adebloc. Hypothetically, how much would you have.
[8:22 AM] E: oh, right, duh. Hold on, I’ll check
[8:31 AM] E: napkin math says 400 or so. 15mg each? Took the open one, wasn’t full.
[8:40AM] M: Looks like they have a short half-life. FYI, that’s about six months for one person.
[8:42AM} E: 🎉
[8:55 AM] M: Alright, you free after work today?
[8:56 AM] E: I dunno, I’m in pretty high demand
[8:56 AM] E: I guess I could pencil you in before my B&E at the Pentagon
[8:56 AM] E: (yes)
[9:03 AM] M: Cool. Then let’s get coffee, usual place. I know a couple of folks in the neighborhood who could use it. Split it in half, put it something in case we get stopped. Ditch the original packaging please.
[9:03 AM] E: hell yeah!
[9:04 AM] E: By the way, they’ve got a 10-code for us now.
[9:05 AM] M: For us, or for you?
[9:05 AM] E: not sure
[9:06 AM] M: Probably just you, then. I’ll bet it means “public nuisance”.
[9:06 AM] E: Rude
[9:06 AM] M: See you later.
Sally decided she’d tie his shoelaces together again later this evening.
She inhaled the remainder of her Cheerios, and clocked into work ten minutes late. Which was early, for her! Her peers were not pleased, but she made up for it by being (in her opinion) exceptionally talented and attractive.
By the time Sally finally showed up at The Open Face, Jamal had already finished his sandwich, two cups of coffee, and was standing to leave.
“You made it,” he said, “I thought you might have died.”
Sally laughed, the extra layer of meaning lost on the strangers around them.
“Not this time.”
“You better get it to go, then. We’ve got places to be.”
They had first met under unusual circumstances: that time Sally beefed it by jumping off of the roof of his office.
Jamal had been working late, less out of necessity those days than because it was quiet. He was gazing out of the 12th story window at the glowing downtown lights when the body fell past. Jamal dropped his drink.
Had he imagined it? He tried to slide open a window, but found they didn’t open easily, maybe at all, and probably to prevent this very situation. He ran to the elevator, mashed the button, lost patience, and then took the stairs all the way down.
The following 911 call was incredibly confusing. An out of breath Jamal tried to explain that he had seen someone leap off of the building, but there was no body, just a dark stain on the sidewalk.
Jamal searched the perimeter of the office waiting for the police to arrive, but there was nothing to suggest they’d walked off. How could anyone survive that, anyway?
It was clear the officers had already assumed this to be a prank. They were visibly, infuriatingly skeptical. One of them asked Jamal to perform a sobriety test, which Jamal suspected they would not have done if he were white. But they took him much more seriously when they saw the blood (because that was absolutely what it was). Not necessarily the good kind of seriously, mind.
They carefully closed off the area, took statements… A check of ID card logs confirmed there had been no one else in the building but a janitor, and another of Jamal’ peers who was apparently sleeping off a hangover after the company party. But both were accounted for.
By the time Jamal was finally allowed to leave, he could see a helicopter spotlight in the distance.
They never found anything.
Jamal steered clear of late night office work for a while. Even during the day, he’d sometimes catch himself holding his breath gazing out of that window, as if someone might plummet past again.
And a few weeks later, someone did.
He didn’t see it this time, just heard an impact against the window a few rows down. A web of cracks in the glass and a light dusting on the nearby desk. He stood there, transfixed (maybe a bird?) before taking the elevator down this time. He needed the break anyway.
And there, in almost exactly the same spot, was a fresh, slick new bloodstain. And absolutely nothing else.
Jamal thought about calling 911 again, but for what? So someone could power wash the sidewalk again? And anyway, he really did not need the kind of attention that brought. For a lot of different reasons.
Still, he took another walk around the block, looking for a trail, someone in pain, a witness, anything. Not a clue. But he was surprised to find, when he returned, the police were waiting for him. Same officers, too.
Someone else had seen a body fall from the window, and called it in.
He ended up detained this time, questioned endlessly. Jamal would later learn they dragged everyone else that had been in the building in, too, including the janitor (who hadn’t even been there this time). They took his ID card, called his boss, left him to stew in an interrogation room for hours, asked him the same questions over and over.
Jamal insisted he was just as confused as they were. Eventually, they had to let him go (and he really did get the sense that they only did it because they had to).
The mystery jumper was picked up by a local TV station that week, but it was a bookend on a piece about haunted Wilmington, ooooh. Not enough details to go on to make a full story out of it. They didn’t mention the blood. Maybe the police didn’t release that information to begin with.
Most reasonable adults would make a point to never, ever work late again.
Instead, Jamal made it his mission.
He brought a blanket, and a thermos, and his laptop, kept them all under his desk every day. By all accounts the rooftop hatch probably should have been locked after the first incident, but management had never gotten around to it. So a few hours after his shift, when he was confident the building was empty, he’d throw his things in a bag and climb the ladder on the top floor stairwell, where he’d rest outside on some ventilation fixtures, tapping away until at least midnight.
On the third week of his stakeout, he glanced up between sips of coffee, and saw her silhouette standing on the ledge.
And now that he had the mystery jumper, he wasn’t sure what to do. He didn’t want to startle her off of it. Then again, if she’d jumped before, it clearly wasn’t that big of a risk.
He wanted to make his presence known though, so he set down his thermos with just a little more force than was necessary. Not enough to be loud, exactly, but unmistakable as movement.
Sure enough, she turned to look at him. She was wearing a mask, which glinted in the moonlight. Her expression was impossible to read, but when she spoke it was with an audible smile and the lilt of a joke.
“Shoot, guess this spot’s taken, huh?”
“Nah, plenty of room for both of us,” said Jamal, keeping his distance, “how’s the view?”
“Best in the city, no question.” She looked over the horizon, her voice eerily calm and peaceful. It made Jamal uncomfortable. He wanted to reach out and grab her, but he’d never make it in time.
“Listen,” he said, “You don’t have to do this. There are people that can help you.”
“Do what?” The woman asked. “Oh. OH. Yeah, this does look bad, doesn’t it?”
And she started laughing, stepping clear of the ledge.
“I’m not here to jump. Well, not exactly, anyway.”
As she stepped closer, into the light, Jamal realized with horror that he recognized her.
He was face to face with public enemy number one. A scoundrel. An unstoppable serial killer. A bottomless well of cruelty, the violent vigilante on the lips of every reporter in the state, maybe the nation.
The Cape Fear Reaper herself. Grinning from ear to ear, just like in the footage they used to roll on the five o’clock news. That image still sent a shiver down his spine today when he thought about it. He was not an easy man to frighten.
“I’m here to fly.”
Robert Strange Park.
Sally held out a pair of plastic Pez dispensers. Yoda and Buzz Lightyear. Jamal rolled his eyes.
“Are you kidding me?”
“Yes and no,” she admitted. She withdrew a cardboard jewlery box from her pocket and rattled it. Most of the pills were in those.
“They need these to live, Sally.”
“And they’ll get them! In fun shapes, even.”
That night, in the moment of silence that followed a declaration from the Cape Fear Reaper herself, Jamal had to make a choice. And he chose uncharacteristically. But it was the only sensible one at the time.
He took off his right glove. He chose violence.
Esper wasn’t expecting the jab, or the subsequent right hook. She phased through the third blow, tried to block the next but took the uppercut to the chin, stumbling backward and scrambling away from him.
“Whoa whoa, what the fuck?” Her hands were up. “What happened to don’t jump?”
“Fuck you,” spat Jamal, “get out of my city.”
She backpeddaled, giving ground generously, but she was fighting back now. Poorly. He was fast, and her form was terrible. She landed exactly one hit on him, and he had let her have it for an opening, his tensed core dispersing the shock of her punch like it was nothing.
His fist closed around her neck, lifting her onto the tips of her toes.
Jamal knew immediately that it wasn’t working. He had thought something was off when he hit her. And for a moment, they remained like that, as if frozen in time. Two fighters wondering why the other wasn’t finishing it.
Esper’s breathing was somewhat ragged but otherwise unimpeded. He wasn’t squeezing. In fact, he just looked confused. She pushed off of him, phased out of his grasp, and over the edge of the building, where she floated. But just barely.
“Okay, I get it,” she said, massaging her throat, “I know I’m not popular around here…”
“You’re a monster,” he interrupted.
She didn’t argue. Her eyes seemed to scan something very far away.
“I’m…yes. Okay? I am.” Esper teetered in the air as she spoke, liable to drop with every syllable. “I’m a monster.”
And then she broke her cardinal rule: she took off her mask. Because in truth she wasn’t Esper right now at all, but Sally. More than anything she just needed to be Sally for a second, for someone to understand.
“I’m sick,” she continued, “I’ve hurt so many people. And not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. But I want to be better. I don’t want to be that anymore.”
She was losing altitude, sinking slowly. Her speech was strained from holding her breath. It felt like every bit of air that left her lungs made her less buoyant in the sky.
“Look, I don’t know what your deal is, but you can’t kill me. Believe me, I’ve tried.” Her knees were below the building’s lip now. “So can we just… talk?”
Jamal shook his head in disbelief.
“You want to talk,” he repeated.
She wasn’t begging for her life. Now that Jamal knew who he was dealing with, he understood that. If she fell to her death tonight, she’d be back. What’s more, she could have mulched him in a second.
It was hard to square the Esper he knew from TV with the scared, desperate girl hovering in front of him. When he looked her in the eyes (gradually drifting down and out of sight as they were), he saw someone genuinely in need of human connection. To be clear, it wasn’t his responsibility to provide. But if he had been willing to stop her by force, it seemed reasonable to do it by persuasion, too. At the very least it’d be less dangerous.
“Okay, we can talk.”
Sally was relieved.
“Great. So…” her head was peering over the edge of the building now, “Can I come back up?”
Jamal reached out a hand. She took it, and he pulled her up easily.
He sat down again with his thermos and laptop, keeping a wary eye on her, and waited for her to speak. She kept a respectful distance, wiping the blood streaming from her nose with her wrist. He didn’t offer to fix it, even though he could have easily.
They talked this way until the sun came up again, and Jamal blearily returned to work.
They’d just finished distributing the medication to Jamal’s neighbors.
Jamal took a step and stumbled, catching himself on the bench. His shoelaces were tied in a sloppy bow.
“See, this is why you don’t have any friends,” he said.
“I know what I said,” grumbled Jamal as he bent down to tie them properly again.
The sun was setting as they parted at Third Street.
“So! See you out there tonight?” asked Sally.
Jamal shook his head.
“We just did our bit. Shouldn’t you take it easy, too? You’ve been out every night this week.”
“No rest for the wicked.”
“I thought you were trying not to be wicked anymore.”
“I am,” she said defensively, “my redemption arc isn’t going to write itself.”
“You’re going to burn out,” Jamal warned, but Sally had already passed through the wall of the laundromat with a final rallying cry of redemption arc!
So Jamal put his headphones in and walked home alone, shuffling through his playlist where he’d left off.
Don’t come crying to me when you get killed for it, he thought. She would, though. She always did.
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