There's something about the way four fingers drumming against a flat surface causes him to grab his coat and run out onto the apartment's balcony. The noise settles in his mind like the sour bite of a banana's bruise, and the wool of his Belstaff catches on the dry skin of his elbows as he hastily pulls it over his shoulders.
Drum, drum… drum, drum, drum.
A million race horses scratch at his temples. "No, no," he franticly yells at the top of his lungs—the volume control of his voice box set to "criminally insane".
"Don't you dare!" A sudden chill sweeps him off his feet, tossing the curly mop of noir atop his head. The cold cuts into his cheekbones, the skin stretched over his forehead.
Whimpers and moans escape from his chapped lips as he backs up, his side hitting the metal barrier of the guard rail. Puddles of profane language spill like milk. Sweat profusely drips down his forehead and armpits, tickling the flesh on the dip of his sides, his hips. A fountain forms at his temples, but is quickly whisked away from the ice chill of New York's night air.
"Where are you going?" a sharp whisper slices through the atmosphere, forcing gooseflesh to rise. He roughly yanks the lapels of his coat around his figure. He wants out—
drum, drum, drum.
It feels like a dozen pairs of chocolate eyes are upon him, scanning, scrutinizing. "Where are you going?" The voice is right by his ear, and he spins, spins toward the balcony's edge. His body bends.
"What are you doing?"
"Get away!" he shouts—an octave he never thought possible.
Hands press into his back. "Killing yourself?" A quick push.
"No." His eyes widen, and the city streets below him blur and turn into star dust.
Fingers tap on his back, the gesture pinching at the nerves in his inner ear. Dry lips and mint breath catches the lobe and cartilage. The sick person's tongue slips out their mouth, and everything tumbles down as three syllables vomit and crawl and register into the part of the brain that holds impulsions.
He grips the guard rail—
shuts pale, pale eyes—
and lets go.
The first time Evelyn Brooks had laid their eyes on James Mikels was at a café. It was fall; the leaves were popping off their stems with delightful sepia hues catching the attention. Autumn is Evelyn's favorite season, although their constant bickering near the beginning of December—"I just want to go outside once without my nose turning into Rudolph!"—could beg to differ. Despite this, they still enjoy everything the period could offer, including the frequent trips to restaurants and cafés.
Evelyn likes the ambience featured in buildings like these—the warm wrap of comfort, the stomach growling scent of delicacies, and the positive ruse of eavesdrop.
They had caught sight of James Mikels the instant they sat down at an arrangement to the side with a cinnamon bagel and a cup of hot chocolate—their usual order. The man in question was sitting on the floor by the restrooms. The thought well, how come I didn't see him before rang in Evelyn's head as they tore apart their bagel with bitten fingers.
The man was stationed on the ground like he had been there for a while. His body had already adapted to the awkward cut of the wall connecting the two rooms at an adjacent angle, and there were pressure marks to one cheek, where he had it pressed against a door frame not even five minutes prior to Evelyn's arrival. No doubt he had turned to see the new customer, as do most when they hear a door open, but his gaze had continued to linger even after Evelyn ordered, sat down, and began to eat. His eyes were only a bit darker than Evelyn's caramel, and the stare brought a degree of perversion rather than acute interest.
He was a quality definition of a mental health patient, right down to the carnage of brunet on his head and the slight run of red escaping his left nostril.
Any sane person would get out as soon as they saw this man survey them with an expression of lust in the eye, but Evelyn wasn't frightened by this seemly homeless individual—they were puzzled to the tenth degree.
They had a million questions and comments that desired confrontation, but their hunger outweighed that need, so they continued to sit and munch on the bagel and sip at the lukewarm beverage.
When Evelyn raised their head after swallowing the last of the drink, the man was gone, and Evelyn, not sure why, felt an anchor drop from their chest only to rest in their stomach. They didn't have time to wallow in What Ifs and idiotic regrets, though, for the black chair across from them had moved and became occupied with the strange man by the bathroom. He looked even stranger up close. Evelyn could deduce that, yes, it was blood dripping out of his nose. He resembled a pre-teen boy about to hit puberty with the patchy appearance of his facial hair and the dozen or so whiteheads clouding the pale skin of his face. His eyes were indeed a touch darker than Evelyn's, and they still carried a demeanor of soft menace. Evelyn found themselves lingering at his lips when they parted, displaying a sneak peek at straight, white teeth. Evelyn's brow furrowed, and the man cleared his throat and murmured with a tenor tone, "What are your pronouns?"
Despite the café's door opening and letting in the fall chill, Evelyn's heart fluttered and heated up their whole body. "They," Evelyn stammered in a weak voice. "Their. Them."
The man stared and nodded. "I prefer 'crazy old dude' for me, but no one takes me seriously."
Evelyn had cracked a smile, and then felt bad when the man didn't join in. "Oh. I'm sorry."
"Oh," he repeated, waving a hand and rolling his eyes. "It's all right. It's not like a mistake in language or grammar or words or whatever could kill me." He turned his head back to Evelyn. "Right?"
"Sure." It was like all their previous inquiries had disappeared and left behind a soggy mind and swollen tongue.
"So," started the man, "I think I'll get a coffee." The way he said "coffee" brought shivers down Evelyn's back. This man was a master of speech, and Evelyn became confused again. The man across the table noticed the change of his company, and he pouted, head tilting. "What's wrong, kitten?"
"How can you afford," Evelyn began, "a coffee?" Out of everything in the world, they chose that to ask him.
A cheerful laugh filled the place, and Evelyn's nervousness floated away. "I am an actor!" the man bellowed, jumping from his seat. "I can afford everything in the world!" He offered a hand to Evelyn. "Now, you, take my hand, and I shall cater to your every whim!"
The man's booming confession hadn't alerted the other occupants, thus letting Evelyn think this happened often—the outburst more so than the declaration of buying a stranger's affection.
Evelyn replied with as much sarcasm and enthusiasm they could muster, which was surprisingly easy. "Of course, crazy old dude!"
They locked hands and departed from the café without the coffee he had wanted. It seemed like he had forgot as he lead them down the streets of the busy. "I'm James Mikels, by the way!" he shouted over the roar of a car's horn they had leaped in front of dangerously. "I prefer the casual 'Jim', though."
Evelyn grinned. "Evelyn Brooks. Nice to meet you, Jim."
"Likewise." Jim gave back the biggest smile Evelyn had ever seen, and the gesture was everything nice in the world wrapped into a small gift box from Tiffany's. Evelyn was unsure about calling the man their friend, considering the fast exchange of yells and childish banter rather than an intellectual conversation over favorite colors and whether or not Doctor Who could ever make sense to a new viewer.
Judging by the off-the-handle behavior Jim had previously performed, Evelyn always thought their unusual friendship wouldn't last, but today—the fifteenth of November, to be exact—is the four-year anniversary of that moment in the café.
Not much had changed—Evelyn still had the same "pixie" haircut, and Jim's skin had cleared up a bit to reflect the "flawless personality" he said he had.
They still meet at the café regularly; Evelyn is actually heading there now, the wool of a newsboy hat protecting their ears from the chill of an upcoming snow storm. They hadn't wanted to venture outside, due to the weather advisory, but Jim had blown up their phone with guilt trips and faux promises to stand in traffic. After the seventieth text message, Evelyn pulled on a sweater, smashed on the hat, grabbed their backpack, and set out.
Their phone continues to ring with texts, and Jim even resorts to sending pictures of his best pouting faces. The background of the photos give the impression he is sitting at their table—the one by the window out looking the streets. The place appears well lit to help the customers maneuver about the store as it approached 9:00 p.m. When asking Jim the reason behind going out at night, he told Evelyn that "everything's better at night". They dropped the subject after that.
Evelyn stands across the road where the small restaurant is located. Their phone goes off in their pant pocket. A sigh flows out their lips, already knowing it's a message from Jim. Ready to text back an "I'm across the street", they drag out the mobile and run a thumb across the screen to unlock it.
Sorry, dearie, gotta run—something came up.
The seven words stare at them like a thousand-piece puzzle. "What?" they mumble. They go to tap out a rather detailed response explaining their sudden frustration to the twenty-four year old, but a booming scream to their left snaps them back to reality, to the awful horrors of living in the city, to the—
the body tumbling off the roof of an apartment complex.
Evelyn's eyes widen as the figure turns into a dark whirl of black and blue and cascades closer to the sidewalk, their arms coming up—almost in slow motion—to protect their face.
More screams join in, and Evelyn can hear their own voice capture its own form of terror and empathy for the person ending their life.
At last, the yelling ceases when the gut-wrenching sound of bones smacking concrete hits the air. Everything happens at once—the crowd swoops down over the body, cell phones are whipped out, customers from the café and tenants in the apartment flood onto the street.
And Evelyn stands, utterly frozen. Their fingers twitch and grab at the night air as a bitter wind comes down to eat away the skin on their cheek.
A clothed arm presses against Evelyn's, erupting a shake and jump out of them. Red, swollen eyes roll around to focus on the perpetrator.
It's Jim. His eyes match Evelyn's pair. His chin lightly quivers as he watches the state of emergency unfold before them.
"Where were you?" Evelyn asks, shoulders slumping, so they can get a grab at their backpack.
"Had to talk to a friend," replies Jim, a straight face etched on. "He was leaving for vacation, and I wanted to see him off."
After managing to pull off their backpack, Evelyn holds it close to their chest. They sniff. "Could we have done anything?" An ambulance's siren pops their ear drums.
"No," Jim mutters, shoving hands into jacket pockets. "We'd be too late no matter what."
Evelyn slowly nods as they unzip their bag. They dig inside, pulling out a small, black felt case before passing it to Jim. "I need pictures," they murmur. "My boss will want them, and I don't"—they take a deep breath—"think I can go up there and do it."
Jim stares at the item in his hands. "Is it because—?"
"Yes," Evelyn interrupts, hugging their backpack once more. Their chin rests against the straps while eyes and fingers shake from nerves.
Jim nods, pulls out the portable digital camera, and starts into the crowd, yelling at each bystander "he was my friend; let me through!"
Evelyn watches, dark hair getting in their eyes, forcing them to water. The ambulance arrives, and a gurney is pushed from the vehicle.
The man's body is abused. His skull is smashed like a rotten egg that tumbled down a great wall with no promises of being put together again.
Black hair on his head is closely related to that of a bird's nest, matching the texture and different hues of one. Red would not be associated, though, and neither would the thick life substance.
Pallid skin is on the body. Cuts and scrapes and a busted nose greet whoever rolls it over for closer inspection. The jacket over his body is worthless now—too ripped and worn to even be given to a charity.
The eyes are open. A pale blue icicle is in the depths of them, chilling everyone to the bone when they lay eyes on them. Pedestrians remark on the terrifying expression on the man's face, but that can only be expected when the body had landed in a protective curl—limbs all stretched around his body in a weak attempt at preserving his internal organs.
Comments are thrown across each side of the body, most unpleasant and questioning.
Some are directed to the fallen man himself, but there's no possible way for him to reply, to give an answer to this incident.
Mothers push their children away when paramedics pick up the lifeless form and carry it to a gurney nearby. Several flashes join the body, and a worker with tears in his eyes spits out, "Would you shut that camera off?!"
A grin. "Sorry!"
The concrete is stained with the blood of the victim. Brain matter and bits of bone litter the scene, and more flashes capture the moment underfoot. A few flashes are directed to the crowd with obscure demands to "Say cheese!" and "Smile!"
No one smiles for the photographer.
"Here you go, punkin!"
Evelyn raises their head from their mug of untouched coffee. Their eyes land on the pile of photos now lying on the kitchen table. With brows furrowed, they point out, "That's a lot of photos."
Jim offers a grin. "I went down to the morgue." His eyes go down. "The guy's apartment. I took a few pictures of his family who was there. His brother's a git." Jim's shoulders go up and down. "But… whatever. I got you pictures, Evelyn."
Evelyn stares at Jim, the steam coming from the cup curling around their soft features, their pointed nose. "Thanks."
"Are you going to source the pictures back to me?" His eyes light up. "My name could be in the paper! I love newspapers."
Evelyn smirks and takes a small drink. The hot beverage sinks down their throat and stays warm on the way down to the stomach.
"So, when are you going to type up that story?"
"I don't know." They set down the mug.
"Could the title be 'Man takes a fall' or 'Man tries to get his wings' or how about—"
"Jim!" Evelyn is shaking. Their fingers grab at the wood of the table, pressing their fingertips into the surface. "Shut up!"
"Oh, right. I forgot you were sensitive about that kind of stuff, ever since you took your own little fall." Jim frowns, then, and the expression seems genuine until a grin cracks across his face not less than a minute later. "Well, I better go! Bye!"
And Jim leaves, a slight hum in his tone, hands stuffed in his pockets.
Evelyn watches him with perplexed interest before sighing and taking another drink. They swallow a few Xanax before grabbing the photographs and going into their bedroom. Sliding underneath the covers, they set the photos down one by one and try to write their own story like a macabre picture book.
"I don't think he wanted to die."
Jim shoves a few shopping carts together. "What are you talking about, Evelyn?"
Evelyn shows Jim the photo of the body when it had landed and not been touched. "Look." They point a finger at the man. "The way he landed—it's, I don't know, strange." They turn to Jim for input. "Who'd land like that after plunging themselves off a building?"
Jim shrugs and grabs another cart, pushing it into the next one in the line he's making. "Dunno." He wipes his hands on the uniformly apron. "He could've changed his mind halfway after the fall."
"Yeah, he could," Evelyn mumbles, eyes narrowed, hoping the back story of the individual would pop out and plant the answer in their head. "But, but," they start, grabbing onto Jim's shirt when he walks off, "the body was like that even before he hit the ground."
"I saw him fall. I saw him, and his arms were automatically wrapped around himself."
"What are you trying to say, Evelyn? I need to get back to work." Jim scratches at the nape of his neck and starts back into the grocery store with the line of carts in front of him. Evelyn follows, eyes still set on the photograph, mind racing.
"Where'd you see his family?"
"You said you met his family, his brother! Where?"
"The morgue, baby doll," he coos. "Where else?"
"Do you know where they live?"
Evelyn huffs and puts the picture back into their backpack. "Well, do you think they'd still be at this man's apartment?"
Jim puts the carts back to their rightful place. He scratches at his neck. "I don't know. Maybe. Why are you asking? Your job is to write the story."
The automatic doors open behind them when a couple and their two children walk back. The fall air crawls in and wraps their branches around Evelyn's ears. They sting and turn bright red, along with their nose. "I can't just write 'Man jumps off a building in an unusual stance,' and then call that a story, Jim. I need details, details, details!"
They walk off in a hurry, pulling their coat tighter around them, leaving a flushed Jim behind.
The man's apartment is in a state of chaos. No one is allowed in, so Jim's photos strike a nerve in Evelyn. They pound in and scatter their other thoughts dealing with the situation, even the face of the victim's brother, whom they were so set on finding.
As they are trying to piece photograph to possible cause, said brother turns the corner and knocks down Evelyn. With extravagant apologies and large hands, the brother helps Evelyn back onto their feet. "I wasn't paying attention," he admits. "Mind's just amuck. I am sorry."
"No, no, it's fine!" Evelyn says, eyes widening as they recognize the person from the pictures. "It's all right. I understand. I mean. I'm sorry."
The brother stares.
"For your loss," Evelyn clarifies.
His doughy face softens and turns toward the ground. He taps his foot and nods. "I appreciate your condolences."
Sweat pools on the back of Evelyn's head. They're not exactly sure how they should go about prying for details, so they dive right in with a "Tell me about your brother".
The wind picks up around them, whipping Evelyn's hair and the brother's face into a contorted expression of suppressed agony. "He." A pause. "My brother was a strange man." Evelyn wants to dig into the brother's ears and pick at his brain, pulling memory upon childhood memory out to inspect and remember. They need the answer to "Was he ever suicidal?" as it is the only question they need answered, but the brother continues to talk again, enriching Evelyn's life with boring stories and lingering comments and nonplussed inquiries. Evelyn shares the same concern, and despite the unentertaining aspect of the tales, they find themselves mentally storing each recount down to the very last detail for further studying.
And then, the brother takes an unexpected turn from an enchanting tale about a family reunion to a statement that confirms Evelyn's suspicions.
"My brother was not suicidal."
Evelyn nods, heart leaping in their chest. "Was he depressed?"
A shake of the head. "No. I don't think so. But… you see… he and I…" He frowns. "I don't like saying it, but we had a bit of a sibling rivalry, so… as things went, we never got to see each other that much."
"So, he could have been depressed."
He shrugs. "Perhaps, but I know my brother, and he is no suicide victim."
They exchange goodbyes shortly after, and Evelyn asks for a means of contacting him. He hands them a telephone number written on a small business card. "Just ask for Mackenzie," he tells them before going back down the street, where he was headed before they knocked into each other.
Evelyn pockets the card and takes a deep breath. After hearing the brother's words, Evelyn has no doubt that the man had not committed suicide. A confirmation from a family member is all they had needed, and now that they have it, Evelyn isn't quite sure what to do with the information. They chew at their lips and decide to go home to curl back into bed.
When they turn, they feel a pair of eyes on the back of their head. They spin on the balls of their feet, and with one look, they are met with the chocolate eyes of Jim.
Evelyn is typing up the story the next day when the door to their apartment is knocked upon. Their spine stiffens, and they wonder for the briefest moment whether or not they should answer it; their mind is made up when another knock is heard, along with a voice that sings, "I know you're in there, Evelyn!"
They let in Jim, and he takes his time on deciding where to sit. "Heard you almost had the report done," he says, taking a seat on the couch. He bounces up and down on the cushions.
Evelyn bites their lip, peeling off a layer of the skin the second time that day. "So, why're you here, Jim? Off work?"
"I'd like some coffee, thanks." Jim raises his head, and he and Evelyn lock gazes for an instant before he slowly smiles. He lightly claps his hands, humming. "Or I can make myself some." He stands and flutters into the kitchenette.
Evelyn watches Jim, at the way he maneuvers around the small room. They notice his hands shaking, the break of sweat along the hairline, the difficulty swallowing. "Jim," Evelyn starts, walking over to sit down at the table. They press their socked feet down into the tile flooring. "What's wrong?"
Jim twirls around, eyes narrowed at Evelyn. "You know"—he turns away to fill up the coffee pot—"what's wrong."
"I'd rather hear it from you," they softly usher.
Drum, drum… drum, drum, drum.
"I dunno." He pushes a button, and the pot becomes flooded. "It'll be boring coming from me."
Evelyn stands and walks into their bedroom, pulling out the photographs of the apartment from the stack. They go back into the kitchenette. Jim hasn't moved. Setting a hand on his shoulder, Evelyn squeezes the curve of the bone and turns him around. His gaze averts and focuses on the pictures. Evelyn purses their lips together and points at the photo. "You took this at the apartment, yes?"
Evelyn eyes him. "I couldn't get into the apartment yesterday."
Evelyn blinks back. "How'd you get into the apartment to take these pictures?"
He turns around, grabbing a mug. "Want a cup?"
An exasperated sigh.
"How'd you take the pictures?"
He fills up the cup with the coffee and takes a long drink before answering. "Walked in." Excess droplets of the caffeinated liquid pool out the corner of his mouth, itching at the hair on his chin.
"Couldn't climb through a window."
Evelyn watches Jim. His shoulders roll, and his head tilts back as he takes another drink. "How would you know to get into the apartment room by the window?"
Drum, drum, drum.
Evelyn sets the photographs on the counter and stares at their friend, brow furrowed. They tuck a lock of hair behind an ear before taking a deep breath, shutting their eyes. They go to open their mouth, to try and urge some clarification from the master of speech, but a mug being smashed into the counter suffocates all their words. "I, I hate him!" Jim yells, turning around to stare at Evelyn. "I don't even know why, but that tall, arrogant son of a bitch gets underneath my skin! The way he looks, the way he acts—oh, God, it disturbs me to no end."
"That is no reason to push someone off a building, Jim!" Evelyn says, throwing their arms in the air for emphasis of their frustration at trying to grasp the current situation. "Who even goes to someone's house and kills them just because the person gets on their nerves?"
Jim darkly laughs, shaking his head and thrusting a finger in Evelyn's direction. "I do, kitten."
Jim doesn't make it home that night. The police spot him coming out of Evelyn's apartment building after a call from a neighbor complaining about a domestic disturbance. Jim hadn't even attempted to run as they slapped on handcuffs and pushed him into the vehicle to drive him to the jailhouse. Later that night, they would find out he was the one who pushed the man off the building with the only means of "I just felt like it".
Jim can see Evelyn's elfish face peek out from the curtain, watching his arrest. He only smiles and offers a wave as best as he can with the restraints. Evelyn shoves the drapes over their eyes, and Jim can see them drift further and further from the window—no doubt about to type up his side of the story, ready to fluff it up and add some remarkable comments and thoughts of their own.
A police officer climbs into the driver's side, grabbing at the seat belt. "Don't try anything funny," she drones, clearly tired from having woken up at the odd hours of the night.
"I don't do funny, miss," Jim smoothly says, a smirk curling on his lip. "I'm an actor."
"Yeah, yeah, whatever." The blue lights on the roof flicks on, staining the walls and streets around them like a river.
Jim lightly hums as he turns to look out the window. He casually waves and smiles at the group of bystanders when driven past. He figures they must be cold and stupid from standing outside at night in only their pajamas, but he would be joining in on the fun if he was in their position.
He's not, though, so he lounges in the backseat, hands in his lap, fingers drumming against the metal cuffs around his wrists.
Drum, drum… drum, drum, drum.