When You Needed Me Most by Shawn Kobb


The man in the rumpled blue suit isn’t perched on the edge of the neighboring apartment complex, his chest doesn’t heave with uncontrolled sobs, and he isn’t looking at you right now, eyes pleading for help, for salvation. He doesn’t run his hands through a shaggy head of brown hair. He doesn’t yank at his striped yellow tie, tugging it loose as though, if he could just breathe—just escape from the noose life has looped around his neck—everything would be okay.

The man isn’t standing there. He isn’t about to jump.

Because he already did.

You know this true. You watched it happen. You locked eyes with the man in the rumbled blue suit. You felt tears burn in your own eyes, your mouth go slack at what you were seeing, your shoulders tense. You didn’t call out to him, offer support. You didn’t call the police. You didn’t do anything. You watched. He jumped. And you watched.

That was three days ago. Maybe it was four. Long enough to cycle through the typical phases: shock, sadness, anger, sympathy from friends, an attempt to return to normalcy, gnawing doubts that nibbled at the edges of your sleep. Now you sit in what was always your favorite chair, comfortable and ugly. It has the view you previously enjoyed: across your balcony to the building opposite, a world of strangers’ apartments, each with its own story that you invented.

The vodka works its magic, icy and crisp with a spray of lemon. Muscles still tight from another sleepless night begin to melt. Your stomach growls in protest, hungry for something other than alcohol, but you push it aside. Eating requires cooking. Cooking requires food. And food requires that you leave your apartment to shop. You cannot do that because you are watching the man in the rumbled blue suit who absolutely is not standing on the roof across the courtyard.

You hear the man crying. It is the heavy, wet sobbing of an adult man, the worst sort of crying because it is so jarring. It is desperation, anger, a call to whatever god listens about the unfairness of life. Your balcony door is closed, but you hear it all the same. You hear it at night when you can’t sleep. You have heard it, faintly at first, and then louder and louder every minute since the man first jumped.

He is going to jump again.

Again, and again. He continues to jump, and you continue to watch, doing nothing every time. The only thing that changes is the aftermath.

The first time there was a terrible wet crunch, an overripe pumpkin crushed under the wheels of a tractor. Shouts of alarm as others in the complex rushed out to the noise and then screamed for someone to oh my God call an ambulance. A body carted away, covered in a white sheet decorated with scarlet blooms.

None of this happens now. It has become an intimate affair. An experience shared only by the man in the rumbled suit and you. He sobs, pleads, loosens the tie that chokes him, locks his wet, dark eyes with your own, and then…

Determination. A choice made, no turning back.

He takes his final step and plummets, hands reaching up to the heavens while gravity pulls from below. It happens so fast but, even in that fraction of a second, you have one final opportunity to share in his pain, to stare into eyes that follow you as he descends, a tiny pebble from space burning up in the atmosphere.

You stare at the man who isn’t there, his crying pitiful in your head. The glass tumbler is ice in your hand, and you clutch it tighter like a drowning man clinging to a rope. The drink is real. The worn, corduroy ridges of the recliner under your fingers are real. The electric hum of the refrigerator in the kitchen is real. You cling to these tangible shreds of daily life, a bulwark against the unstoppable horror film unspooling before you.

For a brief moment, a flicker of candlelight in a pitch-black room, there is respite. You gulp from the glass, close your eyes, and lose yourself in the moment, cubes of ice falling against your lips, the spritz of lemon tickling your nose. When you open your eyes, the man in the rumbled suit is gone. He was never there. He hasn’t been there for days.

You suck in a deep breath and hold it. One. Two. Three. Four. And release it. You do it again.

The man in the rumbled suit is still not there. (He never was. Wasn’t again.)

You feel different. Not good, exactly. It is mid-morning and you’re on your second vodka with no breakfast, almost no sleep, and the remnants of five hundred milligrams of methaqualone lingering in your bloodstream. Still, something is different.

The man in the rumbled suit is gone. Perhaps he has forgiven you. Have you forgiven yourself? You don’t think so. Do you need to? It wasn’t your fault. It was his life. His problem. His decision. He was selfish. He pulled you into his problems, sucked you into his wake.

The man in the rumbled suit should seek your forgiveness. You feel anger building, burning ever stronger, bright enough to pierce the fog of the Quaaludes and the alcohol.

It was always his fault. Always his decision. The man had no right to do this to you—to ruin your life, to haunt your dreams.

You set the glass down hard on the end table, ice dancing, your hand tingling from the sudden absence of cold. You rise to your feet, stagger unsteadily away from your comfortable recliner, and slide open the balcony door. You have not stepped onto the balcony for three, maybe four days now.

You rest your hands on the steel pipe that serves as a railing, bits of rust flaking off to color your palms with brown-orange smears.

“You apologize to me!” Your words are slurred but ring out loudly and echo through the small courtyard below.

Below, a figure looks up at the disruption, the person too small to identify from seven stories high. You think the person shouts something, but the air is whooshing in your ears, and the balcony is roiling beneath your feet like a buoy in the ocean. You squeeze your eyes tight and clutch the railing tighter, waiting for the motion to stop. You breathe in the fresh air through your nose. Too much vodka. Too little sleep.

You open your eyes, and the person below is gone. Perhaps he was never there.

Standing next to you on your cramped balcony is the man in the rumpled blue suit. You can feel his presence: the warmth of his body, a faint herbal smell of shampoo or deodorant, the malty tang of beer in the air leaking from his pores. His eyes are wet, and his nose is red, but he no longer sobs. He looks at you sadly, but with the hint of a smile on his lips. It is the look of warm comfort provided to a grieving friend.

The man reaches up to the too-tight tie knotted at his collar and gives it a few tugs to loosen it up. It is a nice tie, part of you thinks. He swallows hard, and you see his large Adam’s apple bob up and down in his throat. For a moment, you think he will speak—ask you why you did nothing to help. But he remains silent. He waits, eyes locked onto your own.

The fog from the drugs and vodka and exhaustion burns away. The day has come into sharp focus, and you notice how bright the sun blazes today. It is going to be warm this afternoon.

You reach out your hand, and the man in the rumpled suit takes it. His hands are soft—the hands of an office worker. You look into his eyes and return his smile.

The wind whirls about you with a lover’s caress and, with a soft squeeze of the hand, you assure him that everything is going to be alright.

SHAWN KOBB works as an American diplomat by day and writer by night (and sometimes the other way around.) He has lived, worked, and traveled around the world and uses this experience to fuel his writing. His short fiction has been published in Hybrid Fiction, New Reader Magazine, and Rune Bear Weekly. He is also the author of the sci-fi/noir novel Collection. He currently lives in Budapest, Hungary. You can find him on Twitter at @shawnkobb.

Artwork by Novel Noctule team.

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