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Hummingbird
Short Story by Michael Hulme

Our office, with its wall of windows, overlooked a multi-story car park, the highest in the city, a concrete-cast relic of an era where function was king and aesthetics were afterthoughts. Occasionally, on quiet midwinter days like these, the whole floor stopped working and watched suicides jump from the roof of that building.

By our office, I mean the open bullpen I shared with Stan and 33 other members of staff. Stan and I started at Federated Insurance on the same day and were seated beside each other in the northeast corner. Our realm was one of self-assembly desks, computer terminals, and swivel chairs with soiled seats. From the previous employee I inherited a spider plant with leaves yellowing behind tinted windows designed to spurn sunlight. Even in winter the office was warm enough to stain armpits and sharpen tongues. The vents below the sealed windows pumped out heated, recycled air.

Stan had this theory about the air conditioning. “Virgin air,” Stan said, “was piped straight to the directors’ offices on the top floor, then cascaded downward in order of importance. Management, a floor below, had second use; then us, junior management, flag bearers of the corporation’s future; then down, down, all the way down to the workers, tethered to telephones save for timed toilet breaks. A mirror of the class structure,” Stan said. In the beginning, Stan expressed a lot of theories. He was a favorite of us all, and I secretly envied his popularity with the rest of the team. He could make Julie giggle and Gregory nod, deep in thought. Sometimes Stan would expound on his politics, always with humorous or noble examples, illustrating each point with excitable hands, and we listened like rapt kids. I didn’t understand the finer points, but something in his words made me know he was telling a bigger truth than people saw. He stopped after we saw the first one jump. When it happened again and again, death stopped feeling real and became like fiction on TV.

Observation taught us no two suicides were the same. We gave them names and invented histories, depending on how they drew themselves into their last diver’s arc, the way they faced gravity’s final pull. The thin, twisted man taking in the red sky for the last time we called the Eagle. He once had birthday parties and presents. Taught his children to fly kites at low tide on wet sand, the tail spiralling in the harsh wind. In this way, their imagined lives passed before our eyes.

When a young woman moved out onto the neighboring roof one midday, Stan said above the murmurs, “She’s going.” He put his coffee mug and files to one side and stood beside me, hand on my shoulder. “Why?”

“She won’t jump, Stan. She won’t.” We always willed them not to. Always.

Keyboards stopped clicking as colleagues flocked to gather at our window. “She’s a pretty one,” Gregory said. “Terminal illness, I bet.”

Stan tightened his grip, nails in my flesh I could barely feel. “Why?” he asked again, knowing I had no answer. There we were, powerless to help, unable to look away.

“I’ve called an ambulance,” said Julie. It was all she or any of us could do. That’s what I told myself. We knew our all was not enough. It took ambulances at least ten minutes to elbow through a one-way system paralyzed by traffic.

“What’s she doing?” Stan sounded horrified.

She was stripping. One sleeve, two sleeves, off. She slipped her top over her head with the casual air of someone undressing for a bath and cast it aside, unconcerned as it drifted downward. Stan was right. She would jump.

Her shoes were next—one, two, tossed high into the air; then the cherry-red skirt, brassiere, knickers. She raised her hands one final time, fingers pointing to Heaven, and crossed her arms over her swollen belly. Brave, defiant, proud. We raced to name her.

“Godiva,” Stan said, turning away, face pale as wax. “God have mercy.”

She stepped from the edge.

Our colleagues scrambled to the next window to watch the aftermath play out on the concrete, pointing out the hysteria of the swelling crowd. Stan and I never bothered. Our ghoulishness had limits.

“Christ, what a mess!”

“Right onto the concrete!”

Not everyone felt the same as we did.

One co-worker, teeth too big for his face, re-enacted the moment of impact with fist, open palm, and a schoolboy raspberry to the amusement of my colleagues. Now it was my turn to grab at Stan’s shoulder, his hands bunched into fists of his own.

“God have mercy,” Stan repeated.

I mock-frowned. “And you a Marxist.”

Our standard lines. We always used them. Our way of dropping the curtain. Stan stared out of the window for a while, not downward but outward, over the city, then gathered up his mug and file and returned to his desk. His afternoons were silent, head bowed over his paperwork.

Some of us complained to management about the suicides. Management explained people throwing themselves from the top of municipal property wasn’t a management issue. Some staff left the corporation. The rest of us adjusted.

Save for the fear of sleep. Watching your father, mother scream as they fell, watching yourself undress on the ledge, looking in at the office, seeing faces looking back through tinted glass, laughing, hands pointing. The wind whipping the clothes from your body, the hollow in your stomach as you drop, concrete spitting you out in pieces. The screams from below. The face of the child, of the mother. Your face. Only to wake, a little more numbed every time, and watch it all begin again.

I adjusted because I had no choice. I thought Stan was the same. Until the afternoon we watched the Hummingbird.

Stan saw her first, picking her way across the tarmac roof that glistened with patches of aging snow, hair cropped short, dress hugging pale skin. I knew of her only when I felt his hand on my shoulder.

“Another woman,” he said. “Why so many women?”

I looked up from my green screen’s glare and watched her. “She won’t jump, Stan. She won’t.” But I’d seen too much by now for my idealism to be sincere.

We watched her cross the roof, small cautious steps as though mines lurked beneath the ice.

“What’s she doing?” Stan’s nails sank into my shoulder once more. “Look at her. Why worry about slipping over now?”

The clatter of keystrokes began to fade as people turned to look. Peter, our big-toothed colleague, was already in our corner. “Perhaps she wants a bruise-free corpse.”

I laughed. “Yeah. Like the two hundred foot drop onto concrete won’t blemish her.”

She stepped onto the ledge and surveyed the scene below. Stan’s telephone started to ring. Colleagues gathered at the windows once more, heads weaving left, right, seeking the best viewpoint. Other than the telephone’s trilling, all was hushed expectation.

“I’ve called an ambulance.” Julie forced words through the fingernail she chewed.

“Your phone, Stan,” I muttered through a desert-dry mouth, aware his nails no longer bit into my shoulder.

She was still on the ledge—just. From our angle she could have been hovering in mid-air. She looked at the dark clouds massing overhead, spurred by swirling winds lifting litter high into the air, setting plastic to dance. She twirled around, taking in the panorama. She scrutinized the sky once more, arms spread wide like a crucifixion. In other arenas such displays of balance win medals. A minute, two minutes passed, and I swear nobody in the office breathed.

“Hummingbird,” I whispered. I waited for Stan’s “God have mercy.” It never came.

“Where’d Golden Boy go in such a hurry?”

I shrugged. “Didn’t see.”

And then I saw.

He was racing across the roof, rolled umbrella in one hand. Envy, pride, struck at me like cold, sharp stone.

He held his umbrella at arm’s length, handle pointing to the girl. The world looks different from above and far away, sprawling out into suburbs and smog, but Stan’s presence confirmed how petite she was. She couldn’t have been more than five feet tall.

“What’s he doing?” Julie whispered, incredulous.

“Perhaps he’s answering her final wish for a Gene Kelly dance routine.”

“Jean who? God, do you think he’ll save her?”

“I don't know.” I’d played cards with Stan, I drank with Stan and his friends. I’d seen his powers of persuasion first hand. Stan could sweet-talk the meanest waitresses in the emptiest bars, and they’d start furnishing us with free drinks. He was good. But I didn’t know.

“I hope he does.” She shuddered. “I’m running out of nails.”

Stan was working his magic. When he talked, even on the telephone, he used his whole body—the stretch of the arms, the little-boy grin. He was talking to her now, his hands dancing like a puppeteer. She spread her arms wide again, her head tipped back to face the sky. Whatever he said made her turn to face him. Her attention captured, he pointed down over the edge. Then, slowly, deliberately, he pointed toward us.

The girl grasped the umbrella handle. The roof looked smaller now the two stood side by side. They both pulled back from the ledge. She embraced him. It was an odd sight, her head tight to his ribcage. They stayed locked together forever, his hands clasped around the small of her back, his face pointing straight at our windows. Julie and I sighed as one. I squeezed her shoulder, and she returned a watery-eyed smile. Stan and the Hummingbird walked arm in arm through the snow, down the ramp. We all waited for his return.

And still we wait.

Stan never came back to work. Where he is now—where the two of them are, he and Hummingbird—is all mystery. We were told he’d resigned, and that was that. I tried calling, writing—no response. His desk, his office plant, both inherited by another shining example of our company’s rich pool of talent. But nobody replaced Stan. Julie and I still talk about him—how did he do it? What did he say? I’ve got this life mapped out in my head where they’re both still locked in that embrace, in a blissful love that only the brave deserve. We talk about Stan a lot, and I think about him a lot. He might have stopped the exodus of new recruits, and the view of the city from the southwest corner would have pleased him. I miss his theories, his ideals, his friendship.

I miss him most of all when my whispering colleagues beckon to me from beside the window. There’s no part of me left that can refuse.



§ § §


Michael lives and works in Norwich, England. He combines music journalism with fiction writing to silence that nagging voice whispering in his ear of how he should have paid more attention at school. Michael’s fiction has previously appeared in Flashquake, Scrivener’s Pen, and NetAuthor.

Reprinted from Ink Pot #5, available now


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