Down below us children play.
Old men go about their days.
Nature Vs Man (From the album The Means and the Machine)
It’s hot out.
It’s always hot. There are no winters to temper the summer heat—it’s summer year round. Some months are hotter. Rain only makes it worse—steam spills off concrete in white vapors that make it hard to breathe as the heat evaporates the water when it hits the ground—if it hits at all. Scientists say the hole in the ozone caused all this. I don’t know about that. What I do know is one day we’ll all be gone. We’ll all be jumpers before it’s over with.
The first jumper plummeted to his end when I was a child. Six years old with a head full of dreams. That was the summer things came undone for the world. The sun had inched closer, notching up the heat—108 degrees on the last day of May in Michigan. The stock market had crashed and a new flu had surfaced, taking with it only a handful of people, but the media painted a picture of pandemic proportions. Many people took it as gospel. The jumpers soon followed. It’s like the entire planet lost its mind.
Some say it is the heat that finally gets to them, drives them insane. Others say it is hopelessness and despair. I think it’s a little of both.
Harry Taylor started the exodus. Good looks, rich, trophy wife, lots of women to keep him company on those ‘business’ trips. He lost it all, money, home, cars, business and wife. It was 114 degrees outside when he climbed to the top of the Fordham building—a 27 floor high rise—spread his arms and tried to fly. He didn’t scream as he fell. He landed on top of a passing car. The impact shattered the windows and crumpled the roof of the vehicle. One tire blew out. Taylor and three passengers in the car died.
A child lived, a young boy.
The whispers call to me.
I sit on the dusty ground. Bodies lay all about. Shattered. People walk by as if they aren’t there, or if they are just part of the everyday scenery. Children play among the bones, using them as drumsticks or anything else they can think of. Some of the kids stick the bones in their mouths.
The rats and snakes have long since cleared out. Either the stench or the glutton of food finally ceased their scavenging ways. Flies and bugs still buzz about, nestled in corpses to raise families by the thousands.
My eyes are to the sky, focusing on the person on the ledge of the once great Fordham building. No one is going to try and coax him down—they gave that up a long time ago.
And I hear the whispers.
Many people followed Taylor. At first only one or two a week, then upwards to three or four a day. A handful of people jumped together, their arms intertwined. Even with the blood, broken bones and split bodies, their arms remained hooked together after they hit the concrete, like a flesh pretzel. From there it got worse.
The police tried to stop them, but what could they do? Dying is dying and whether it’s by a bullet or from landing on baking hot concrete doesn’t matter to those who want to end it all. Bodies began to pile up. The cops bowed out. Not even the military could stop the jumpers. How could they? They were jumping, too.
The high rises closed off exit doors to their roofs, but that didn’t stop the truly desperate; those who had lost everything, including hopes and dreams; those whose brains had fried with the increasing heat, whose skin had become as red as a Maine lobster. Windows break easily enough when a bullet strikes it. Or a person crashes through. Not only did bodies fall from the sky, but large shards of glass rained down as well. Some onlookers were cut up. Others died right along with the jumpers.
Some cities resorted to digging pits just outside town limits and burying the corpses by the masses. Others piled them like kindling and set them afire. That didn’t last long—the smell of cooking flesh drove folks even crazier and the extra heat didn’t help things. Eventually, they stopped removing the bodies.
It was almost as if the world spoke and its words were, “Everyone else is doing it, why not us?” The stupid rationale that was carried from the beginning of time to now, the end of it.
The body crashes down less than six feet from where I sit. Blood splatters from its ruptured skull. I flinch away, a little too late to keep some of it from getting on me. It drips down the side of my face.
I sit and stare, not bothering to wipe the blood from my skin as it mixes with dirt and sweat.
One of the man’s eyes lies on the ground, its socket crushed from impact and its optic nerves holding it to the pulp that was once his head. It is blue. It stares at me … and I hear the whispers.
I turn from him and look toward the entrance of the long abandoned Fordham building. There is a line of hundreds making their way inside.
Another body explodes on the sidewalk just past the man. The woman wears a dress. It has bunched up around her waist, exposing her creamy white legs and red panties. A wet spot soaks her crotch.
I stand, the whispers urging me on, and step my way through the corpses. I walk by the man. His eyeball pops under my boot.
I need to get in from the heat. My brain hurts and the whispers keep telling me the summer, the heat, the whole mess will never go away.
Maybe they’re right.
There was this one guy. He haunts me to this day. Black clothes and a chain for a belt; earrings and piercings and odd tattoos donned his body. His brown, unkempt hair and pale skin didn’t seem to fit his clothing, his image. He had taken a running start and jumped out as far as he could. He screamed all the way to the ground and landed feet first.
Bones shattered and blood exploded from torn skin. From the hips down was a ruptured mass of flesh. He survived the jump. His eyes met mine and held my gaze while he lay broken on the concrete. The odd angles of his legs and arms jitterbugged as exposed nerves screamed right along with him. He begged me to kill him; to end his self-inflicted pain. But I couldn’t move. For nearly seven hours he screamed and I watched as his life faded, his eyes became dim and body parts ceased their twitching.
I heard the whisper for the first time just before his right thumb stopped moving. It came from him—I’m almost certain.
Join us. Join us. Join us.
I walked away, found a seat in the doorway of an old department store that closed down when the jumpers began their leaps of death. For the last few years it has been where I sit during the days and well into the evenings. It has been my watching perch, my haven in the insanity that has become our world.
By then they had been leaving the bodies in the streets to rot, maybe even hoping to deter other people from jumping. Yeah, that really worked, didn’t it?
Each day chain boy’s body decayed a little more. Rats dined on him. They gave way to bugs. Time and the elements wore away what flesh remained; leaving only bones among shredded clothes and a chain around a waist that was no more. And every day after that I heard the whispers.
Join us. Join us. Join us.
My head hurts. It always has. I run a finger along the scar on the right side of my skull. It throbs with my heartbeat. I’ve noticed over the last couple of years, as it gets hotter my head hurts worse. My right cheekbone hums as if there is a bee tucked underneath the skin. It’s maddening. I wish it would go away.
I follow the procession inside the Fordham building where the heat is so much worse than outside. My lungs constrict and the dry air burns my mouth and throat. Sweat soaks my body, and the stench of the living mixes with the decay all around us.
I make my way up the stairs, each step tearing at the muscles in my legs. By the eleventh floor I slow down and take several deep breaths, trying to suck in enough air to continue. I struggle upward, the whispers pushing me on. A skeletal hand crushes under foot, its bones turning to dust.
Weary and weak I continue upward, the throngs of people pushing me further.
The whispers grow louder as we ascend. Thousands of voices sing a chorus line over and over: Join us. Join us. Join us.
I don’t want to join them. I don’t want to jump. Fear overtakes me and I struggle to turn back, to run down the stairs and go to my seat outside. But I can’t. The people push me upward. I stumble as I fight against the flow of the crowd, but I can only go up. I fear I’m going to fall and get trampled under thousands of feet. I swing a fist; connect with someone’s head. There is no sound of pain, no cry of anger. Only the continuous surge pushing me forward.
They prod me up the steps. Their eyes are vacant; their mouths slack; their skin pale, as if they were already dead and drained of blood.
I am not like them. I am not cold to the touch or wasting away with time. I am not like them at all. But I am. I know the truth. I have never been any different from any of those before me or those who will come after me.
Join us. Join us. Join us.
As I reach the door to the roof I see it is propped open by a cinder block. The line of people continues forward, shortening as people drop from the building’s ledge. More and more join us at the top. As one person drops off, another takes his or her place. A never-ending cycle.
My head thumps and vomit fills my mouth.
At the edge I look down. I see the bodies scattered about the street. The once small hills are now masses of arms, legs, torsos and heads. Thousands of bones lay about, broken and shattered; blood runs through the streets. The stench of decay is worse up here. I wonder if enough people jump will the mounds of flesh rise as tall as the Fordham Building itself.
Children play within the death below. Men and women—gaunt figures of living tissue—go about their day as if nothing is wrong. Across from me people are jumping from the Seth Building. A child is crushed underneath a hurdling body.
My father calls to me. I can almost see him on the street, his body crumpled, glass from a shattered windshield still in his eyes.
Mother’s arm dangles from the window of the car, nearly cut in half from the steel roof’s collapse with the impact of the jumper’s fall.
My older brother, James. His head ended up in my lap; his eyes staring up at me. Not much different from his face and that of the teenage punk star with the chain for a belt. They both looked as if they wanted help; release from a pain far too great to bear.
They whisper to me, calling me every day, every night.
Join us. Join us.
It’s so hot out. My head thumps with each heartbeat, the fractured skull forever indented by a metal bar that once held the roof of a car up. The sun creeps closer each day, melting my spirit away with its intense heat. There are many people behind me. Their eyes and souls as vacant as mine feel. I raise my hands to my sides and close my eyes. I’m tired of the heat, tired of this world.
I’m ready to fly …
Music. It is the universal language. It doesn’t matter if you understand it, simply because it makes you feel it. And if you feel it, you can enjoy it. Music is also a vast source of inspiration. A countless number of my stories have been inspired by a base beat or a guitar riff or a couple of lyrics here or there. Sometimes an entire song can be so powerful it makes the mind explode with images.
For me, one such song is Nature Vs Man, written by Todd Mathis for the local band, American Gun. After hearing it the first time I went back and played it again, and again, and again. You get the picture. The song is great, but one lyric stood out among the rest. One lyric kicked my imagination into overdrive and sparked a story.
‘Down below us children play.’
From it came the image of a young man looking down from the ledge of a tall building. He can see children playing in the street. Before jumping, he wonders if he would land on one of those kids. Summer Jumpers was born from that image, inspired by one simple lyric of a song.
You might recognize the Seth Building. It appears in another post-apocalyptic story, Lost Art. That story takes place in the same world as Summer Jumpers, only years later, and with similar results.
I received permission to use the lyrics at the beginning of this story by Todd Mathis before I ever wrote Summer Jumpers. For that, I say thank you, Mr. Mathis.