by Jessica Wren
The skeletal remnants of the skyscraper framed dominated the ruined urban jungle that was once Jacksonville. The glass windows had long been blown out by a series of hurricanes, but the rusty metal frame stayed intact. Hunter Courtney’s grandfather told him, in a rare moment of lucidity, he thought it had once been the headquarters for a bank, but no one knew for sure. Not that it mattered; no one used currency for trade in Jacksonville. The only items of value were those which served a useful purpose. People bartered with homemade whiskey and wine, hand-crafted weapons made with whatever scrap metal could be found, stale tobacco products, and, if someone was lucky enough to find them, food that was not contaminated, medicine that still maintained some efficacy, or clothing still in wearable condition. The Bouncer, an old thug who also served as chief of the patrol guard, made his living off the jumping game. Due to its location on the banks of the St. John’s River, where the butchered remains of those who did not survive the jumping game were dumped, the skyscraper symbolized a false hope of escape from Jacksonville. It also indirectly provided a relatively comfortable standard of living for Hunter and his grandparents. The skyscraper was a perfect scaffold, and the game was simple: Participants were given a parachute and directed up the side staircase to the roof. The objective was to land at the base of the building. However, over the years, many participants learned the hard way that landing wasn’t at all an easy task.
His last advisee, a plain-looking girl of about fifteen named Emma, unemotionally handed him an old sweater in exchange for his advice.
“First, I have to be straight with you. My calculations only work about half the time. There are some things I can’t predict. My advice is based completely on physics and common sense, mostly reminding people of things they don’t think of in the height of nervousness” he said.
“I’ll take what I can get,” Emma said flatly, but Hunter noticed she was looking at him with wide-eyed interest.
“Alright. You want the quick and easy version, or the detailed explanation?” Many times, the advisees seemed so confused that Hunter ended up giving a crash course in gravity and wind resistance.
“What’s the old saying? ‘Knowledge is power?’ I’ll take whatever information you have.”
“Today’s wind is blowing north. Start on the south end of the building. Jog towards the north side—the side facing the old bridge—and then jump immediately. Don’t hesitate, or you will lose your momentum. Don’t run as fast as you can. You may trip. The northerly wind will help carry you further away from the building. The first obstacle to overcome is to get far enough away so your parachute doesn’t snag on anything. Now, repeat those instructions back to me so I can make sure you understand them.”
“You should be a teacher,” Emma said. “My dad ran a school out of our home before he died.”
Hunter wasn’t sure why, but the comment about Emma’s father struck him the wrong way, like a kick in the chest.
“What did I just say to you?” he asked curtly.
“You said to run from the north to the south end and jump without hesitating. I think you forgot to mention clearing the ledge,” she said. “I was paying attention, you know.”
“Perfect!” Hunter said in an exaggerated, sardonic manner. He gave himself a moment to clear his head. This wasn’t the time for petty arguments or one-upmanship. “After you jump, upward wind resistance becomes your new best friend. In its absence, you will have exactly 5.77 seconds until splat time. The parachute will do most of the work for you, but only after it catches. I already explained why pulling too soon isn’t a good idea.”
“Exactly 5.77 seconds? How do you know that off the top of your head?” Emma looked at him with a skeptical expression. “Wouldn’t my weight make a difference?”
“You’d think so, but no. Your weight will determine how hard you’ll hit the pavement, but objects in free fall accelerate towards the Earth at the same rate, and that’s 9.8 meters per second, squared. In other words, this 9.8 figure doubles every second you’re in free fall. It will take 5.77 seconds to fall a distance of 163 meters, which is the height of this building from roof to ground, which means timing is everything. As I said, you have to pull the string quickly, but not so soon that your parachute catches on anything.”
“Then how is it that lighter objects fall more slowly?” Emma asked. Not in an argumentative way but out of genuine curiosity.
“Because objects with less mass and greater surface area have wind resistance work to their advantage. Our bodies are so narrow that wind resistance is negligible, although you are correct that the 5.77 is not a scientifically precise figure. My apologies for that. If we were as flat and wide as, say, a parachute, then we could float safely to the Earth, but as it stands, all people will die on impact without something that will cause wind resistance to cancel out gravitational acceleration. This is the principal behind the parachute. It gives you a wide, flat area to force wind resistance to be stronger than gravity. And it’s the reason I don’t take body weight into account. More important is how far you jump out, the timing of your string pull, and your body position. This is the second obstacle you have to clear. Any questions before I start?”
“Not at the moment.”
“A common mistake is jumping straight down. This a fatal mistake. In that position, there is virtually no upward resistance. Jump off with your body horizontally, as if doing a belly-flop. Pay close attention to when you stop flying outwards and immediately pull the string. There is no advantage to waiting once you are as far from the building as you’re going to get. Then spread out your arms and legs. Picture a bird flapping its wings. That’s what you should look like.”
“I’ve never jumped before,” Emma said, “but I’m pretty sure you aren’t supposed to land on you belly.”
“You can right yourself once the parachute takes over.”
“Okay,” Emma said nervously. “Anything else?”
“Yes,” Hunter said. “No matter how tempting, don’t yell or make any noise either before or during your jump.” Once, an overly enthusiastic jumper, who had followed Hunter’s advice to the letter, would have survived had he not let out a loud, gleeful whooping sound as he descended. Hunter didn’t blame him for feeling euphoric. His victory was all but certain. Unfortunately, his yelling disturbed a massive flock of crows that were nesting in a nearby palm grove. With birds flying every which way, the youth panicked, entangled himself in the parachute strings, and fell with a spine-tingling thud to the ground. Such a tragic graceful landing, the common expected outcome, was actually rare. More often, fatalities were caused by the jumper being blown into the building or another structure, the parachutes getting caught on something, or the jumper landing too close to the base of the building, which extended outward pyramid-style, and impaling themselves on the sharp, rusted remnants. Since then, Hunter’s advice to avoid making noise became part of his repertoire.
Hunter put a comforting hand on her shoulder, something he didn’t normally do. “Good luck,” he said.
As soon as he saw Emma perched on the edge of the roof, Hunter knew she only had minutes to live. No, Emma, you’re doing it wrong, he called out to her desperately in his mind. Hunter had given Emma precise instructions in exchange for an old sweater for his grandmother. Today’s wind speed and direction means you have to jump from the north side of the building. Why are you standing on the south side? You’ll get blown back into frame and impaled. Emma, for the love of God, please, please go to the north side. What’s the matter with you? Didn’t you listen to a single word I said? Please. Turn and run to the north side like I told you to.
Hunter wondered if Emma had mixed up her directions or was taking deadly advice from The Bouncer. The Bouncer ran the jumping game like a business, with the sole purpose of maximizing profits while keeping expenditures down. He watched as Emma fidgeted, clearly second-guessing her choice. Her hand was firmly wrapped around the string that would open the parachute. Hunter often wondered how The Bouncer acquired so many parachutes, but like everything else, it just seemed not to matter. If Emma somehow managed to survive, The Bouncer would have to deliver on his promise to smuggler her and one family member out of Jacksonville and to the relative safety north of the Saint Marys River. This would mean creating false documents, having his helpers escort her, and taking the risk that someone would see the patrol guards turning a blind eye to his human-trafficking activities. Of course, these hassles were necessary for continued business. No one would play the jumping game if there were no hope of survival. If Emma died, he would harvest her usable organs to sell to his mysterious contacts in the north, cut her hair to sell to wig-makers, and confiscate articles of clothing and on a good day, a hidden weapon, piece of jewelry, or drugs. This is how The Bouncer became the richest and most feared man in Jacksonville. The Bouncer was not physically intimidating. He was a frail old man, most likely in his seventies but a lifetime of crime and hardship made him appear closer to ninety. He never raised his voice and was never seen with a weapon unless he was trading it. His power came from his image and his legend, and his few verifiable success stories. Hunter was one of them. No one except The Bouncer and his grandparents knew Hunter was still in Jacksonville.
Emma jumped, having finally decided it was now or never. As Hunter predicted, the second she opened the parachute, a northward wind gust sent her flying in the direction of the building frame. Hunter braced himself for the inevitable impact, but instead, Emma flew straight through an opening, miraculously without catching her flesh on glass shards. Hunter couldn’t see what happened to her after that. The parachute caught on a protruding beam and flattened against the building. She had landed through the serendipitous opening only to boomerang against the building frame on the inside. At least that’s what Hunter assumed; The Bouncer had told him, in the cynical tone of someone hardened to violence, that the interior floors had collapsed and therefore did not contain an inner landing surface.
Hunter looked sadly at the sweater Emma had traded for life for. It was cashmere, but had lost its silky texture with time. It was that shade of pink that Hunter could tell had faded from red. The neck and sleeve hems were stretched and it had several holes. His grandmother would clutch the divine treasure even as she scolded him for continuing to take his chances by challenging The Bouncer. I’ve seen this sweater before, he thought. But where?
“I don’t understand why you didn’t leave when you had the chance,” his grandmother, Jolene, told him just five days ago, when Hunter had delivered his latest prize, a sports magazine from nearly thirty years ago that was somehow still in decent condition and would keep his grandfather occupied for months. He would read it every day, and because he had no capacity for short-term memory, every time he read it would be like the first. As Hunter saw his grandfather relive the Jacksonville Jaguars’ one and only Superbowl victory in 2019, any lingering doubts about his covert tactics to outsmart The Bouncer dissipated. He would do so until he was caught or the old bastard dropped dead, even as his grandmother warned him, correctly, that an increase in jumping game survivors would arouse The Bouncer’s suspicions.
“The Bouncer told me I could only take one of you, Grandma. What kind of shit is that?”
“Hunter, please. Watch your language.”
“Sorry, Grandma. But to choose whether to leave either you or Grandpa behind here, or to leave you both? No, I don’t play like that. Besides, I’m too afraid Grandpa will whoop my ass—I mean butt.”
Jolene laughed. “Well, we sure enough raised you right. Who did this come from?” she held the rolled-up magazine as if it were a billy-club. Hunter surmised she was fantasizing about beating The Bouncer’s brains out.
“A survivor,” Hunter said. “One, possibly two, less people here in Jacksonville. They won’t miss this magazine.”
Hunter could had left alone and his grandparents would still be alive. Jolene Courtney was a tough old broad and was easily a match for any of The Bouncer’s men. She could even organize her own version of the jumping game if she’d wanted. Instead, she made her living selling homemade jelly, wine, and a surprisingly high-quality grapeseed oil from the small vineyard she kept in her backyard, and which she guarded with an old shotgun against pilferers. He never feared for his grandparents’ safety, although he admitted that he would miss them terribly if he had chosen to leave. Jolene would only be harmed if anyone managed to get past her shotgun, which was like an extension of her arm.
Hunter wasn’t particularly compassionate. In his assessment, young people like Emma who had no future except a daily struggle to survive, donating their organs, however involuntarily, was a situation in which the only downside was that there might be someone behind to mourn their loss. For often than not, however, participants in the jumping game were either alone in the world or were in some degree encouraged—or coerced—by guardians. Hunter never asked; if he had heard that someone was forcing a teenaged child to jump from a building for a chance to leave Jacksonville because that person ignored government orders to evacuate Florida eighteen years ago, Hunter’s advice would be different: Tell your mom, your dad, your great-aunt or whoever else they can all go fuck themselves. Jolene didn’t encourage Hunter to jump. He didn’t even do it for the chance to escape. He only wanted to prove to himself he could survive it. That he could survive anything. That neither The Bouncer nor anyone else could weaken his survival instinct. He had no particular grudge against The Bouncer, but resented his predatory business tactics and would have appreciated the chance to see him forced to make a living like everyone else: by scavenging and trading.
He took one last glimpse as The Bouncer’s men, experienced climbers, began to scale the wall to search for Emma’s body. He did not want to be around when the body was retrieved. Normally, he would not question the morality of his actions. He did not charge a fixed price, but accepted whatever they were able to donate. He was completely forthright about the expected outcome, reiterating that his calculations could not guarantee a win. Likewise, The Bouncer was, if nothing else, was a man of his word. He always delivered the promised reward. He congratulated the winners with a handshake and initiated the process of delivering them and one other person out of Jacksonville.
Hunter felt strangely disheartened after watching Emma fly through the broken-out window. Normally he made it a point to put as distance between himself and his advisees as possible, avoiding even asking for their names. Emotional involvement in any form was dangerous. He scolded himself for letting his guard down and indulging in familiarities with Emma. Now, as he started to jog home, he found himself tempted to turn back. He had never had this question before; the answer always presented itself in the form of a gruesome demise or a victorious landing, but Emma had simply been swallowed by the building with no visible outcome. Hunter slowly walked away in the direction of his grandparents’ house. As he emerged from his hiding place, he automatically pulled the hood of his old and dirty but still comfortable hoodie over his head to conceal as much of his face as possible. He took Emma’s sweater, stuffed it under his hoodie, and started towards home, taking the routes he knew where he was the least likely to be swarmed by street peddlers, prostitutes, and anyone just looking to vent frustration with a random fistfight.
Dawdling got him caught up in street fights, but appearing rushed would be suspicious and invite questions from the self-appointed patrol guard, brutal vigilantes who upheld the long-forgotten presidential executive order that Florida borders would close on midnight on December 31, 2031, and anyone seen trying to leave after that would be shot on sight. As there were no police in Florida, the patrol guard filled the power void. Publicly, they said that even The Bouncer was not immune to their arbitrary martial-law style of ruling the city, but everyone knew The Bouncer controlled them and how easily they were bribed. In fact, the patrol guard relied on racketeering for its own continued existence. If confronted by the guard, Hunter could easily hand over Emma’s sweater and be on his way, but he preferred avoiding conflict as much as possible. Besides, Emma had given her life for it. The least Hunter could do was put it to good use by presenting it to his grandmother. He walked at a purposeful but not meandering pace. A bad feeling, one that had started after Emma’s jump and which he attributed to her uncertain end, took over. He felt his grandmother calling to him in his mind, and couldn’t resist the urge to quicken his pace.
All thoughts of Emma ceased as soon as he got in the yard. He couldn’t come in the house until after dark, when his grandmother could sneak him in without the neighbors seeing him. He slid in through an opening in the fence and hid in the vineyard, taking care to do anything that may set off his trigger-happy grandmother. He grasped the bright yellow handle of an old mop—his pre-arranged signal with Jolene to let her know he was no prowler—but she was not in her usual spot guarding her treasure. Moving stealthily, he held the mop handle slightly above the vines.
As he neared the house he could heard the unmistakable sounds of a scuffle in progress. This was not entirely usual; his grandfather often had fits of agitation and made his hapless grandmother the target. But this was different than his grandfather’s usual incoherent rants. On the contrary, Hunter had never heard him sound more rational.
“You killed her, you bitch!” He yelled out in a venom-filled voice.
“No, Gary,” his grandmother begged. “Please don’t do this.”
“I don’t care what the neighbors hear,” his grandfather roared. “You shot Samantha, you coldhearted bitch! You’ll go to Hell for this!”
A single shot. Gary Courtney’s voice was silenced forever.
Samantha was the name of Hunter’s mother. According to Jolene, she had died in the jumping game.
Hunter was too terrified to move. A few minutes later, he watched as his grandmother struggled to drag the body of her slain husband out the back door.
“Grandma!” he whispered. “Grandma, what happened?’
Jolene looked at him with tear-filled eyes. “He tried to choke me,” she said defensively. “I didn’t have a choice.” Without a word, Hunter dug a makeshift grave in the vineyard, in the sunniest spot he could find that wasn’t easily visible to neighbors. Jolene tenderly deposited her husband’s body in the grave, covered it, and said a brief prayer. Meanwhile, Hunter pretended not to hear the murder accusations. Certainly, his grandmother didn’t kill her own daughter. His grandfather’s final rant had to be a product of a mind twisted by dementia.
“Ok, I’ll be back later tonight,” Hunter said. Jacksonville had no room for grief or tears. Getting the patrol guard involved was out of the question. The impromptu funeral would have to suffice for the present. “But here. I got this today.” He pulled out Emma’s sweater and handed it over.
Jolene screamed and stumbled back, as if her grandson were handing her a king cobra instead of an item of clothing. Hunter ducked reflexively; Jolene’s unusual reaction was bound to draw unwanted attention. Squatting behind a lush vine weighed down by ripe grapes, he looked at the sweater, and then looked at his grandmother questioningly.
“Thank you, dear,” Jolene said as she took the sweater out of his hand cautiously, not entirely convinced it wouldn’t bite her. “You’re always so good to me.” She ran back in the house, precluding further discussion.
Hunter headed back to his grotto near the skyscraper. Maybe there would be another jumper. One who would listen. With winter approaching, Hunter thought Jolene would be happier to have a warm sweater, but at least she had something she could trade for a decent meal. Sometimes Hunter would come home to a hot meal. Those were the good days.
Hunter’s grotto was the utility closet of a parking garage, no longer in use since the lack of gasoline rendered motor vehicles useless. Hunter wondered what it would be like to drive one of those contraptions, but the idea of being inside of the small, metallic enclosure made him feel claustrophobic. His grotto contained a makeshift bed, two fishing poles he used to pass time when business was slow, a rusted weather vane, two buckets with lids that he filled with rain water when he had the chance, and a metal folding chair he used to secure the door when he needed to hide or on occasions when his body craved female companionship. He had bored small holes in the door for light and ventilation. Hunter often stayed in his grotto overnight and occasionally for days at a time. Riots in Jacksonville were a regular occurrence, and even he didn’t dare get caught in the middle. Sometimes bad weather forced him to take shelter. The streets were unusually quiet. The boisterous crowd that typically filled the streets now consisted of a few stragglers. The eerie silence was a bad omen.
“Fuck you!” A screeching female voice put a swift end to the quiet. In a way, Hunter was relieved to hear the typical obscenities of idle youth. The calm before the storm never feels calm, his now-deceased grandfather had once told him. Better to expect the downpour. Jolene had chided her husband for being pessimistic—she never lost hope that the situation in Jacksonville would improve despite eighteen years of evidence to the contrary—but Hunter took the advice to heart and rarely allowed himself the luxury of complacency.
A girl was stomping angrily in his general direction. Hunter blinked twice to make sure he wasn’t imagining it.
“Emma!” he called out to her. She didn’t seem to hear him at first and continued yelling abuse at The Bouncer, who simply shrugged and turned away.
“Hey, Emma!” Hunter planted himself in front of her, knowing that his moved may be interpreted as aggressive, especially in Emma’s state. “What the hell happened?” he asked as she stopped in front of him as if she had been expecting to meet him on the street.
“Can you believe that cheating bastard?” she yelled in frustration. “He said because I didn’t technically land at the bottom, I’m not eligible for the escort north.”
“What? That’s bullshit!” he said sympathetically, relieved that she appeared unhurt.
“So, yeah, I play the jumping game. I’m still alive. And I’m still stuck in this hell hole,” Emma said. “And the worst part is my mom said not to come home unless I had leave papers with me. Great! Fucking great! I’m homeless in Jacksonville.” She suddenly burst into helpless tears. Hunter didn’t have the heart to ask her why she had stood on what was clearly the wrong side of the building. He gently led her by the hand to his grotto.
“You can use this if you like and you don’t mind sharing with me,” Hunter said, waving a hand to show her the accommodations. “I usually sleep at my grandparents’ house, so at night, you’ll have it to yourself.” Emma looked at him gratefully. “Put this chair under the door handle, like this, and no one will be able to get in.” Hunter demonstrated for her. “Any idea where everyone went?”
“No, I have had heard rumors of gang wars in the down town area.”
“Let them fight it out.” he lay on his side on the pallet and faced the wall.
“Is something wrong?” Emma asked. “Do you want me to leave?”
He didn’t want Emma to see him cry or give painful explanations. He regretted inviting her in, and started to ask her to leave. But somehow the words refused to come out. “It’s not you. My grandpa died.”
“I’m so sorry,” Emma said, rubbing his back. When Hunter tensed, she stopped.
“Can I use one of these fishing poles?” Emma asked, sending his need for privacy. “I know a good fishing spot nearby where I won’t be seen. I might come back with dinner for both of us. If you don’t have anywhere to be, I’d like to fix you something to thank you.”
“Ok. But be careful, please,” he said. “If I’m not here when you come back, make yourself at home. If I am, knock three times so I know it’s you.”
Three knocks startled him some time later. He hadn’t realized he’d fallen asleep. He got up and let Emma in. It was on the brink of nightfall.
“I caught three trout,” Emma said proudly, showing off her catch. “I have oil, too.” She pulled out a small bottle of oil that Hunter recognized as his grandmother’s product. “Hope you’re hungry. I can cook these babies up. The old park by the river has a grill I always use.”
“Where did you get that oil?’ Hunter asked.
“From Ms. Jo earlier today. You know, the lady with the vineyard by the old stadium.”
“Yeah, I know. She’s my grandma.”
The realization came over Emma’s face like a rogue wave. “Mr. Gary was your grandfather?” she said softly and then looked as if she didn’t know what to say.
“Yeah,” Hunter said flatly right before his armor of indifference fell off and he sobbed, unable to contain his bottled-up emotions any longer. Emma put comforting arms around him. Hunter resisted initially and then allowed himself the luxury of contact with another human. “If you want to be alone, I’ll go cook these.” Emma left and came back a short time later with not only cooked fish, but with salad greens that she somehow foraged. She made a dressing with the rest of her oil and a few herbs. It was the best meal Hunter had eaten in a while, and his spirits improved somewhat. Yelling, followed by the sounds of violence and death in the streets, let them know the rumored gang war had started. They were stuck in the grotto until it ended.
“They’ll figure out soon enough that The Bouncer had nothing to do with Grandpa’s death.” Hunter felt a lump in his throat and looked up at the ceiling, a trick his grandmother taught him that curbed the urge to cry. Emma had somehow gotten word that the gangs had declared war on the patrol guard after the murder of Gary Courtney—a revered member, although he hadn’t been active in many years. The concept of justice was foreign in Jacksonville; murders were routine, and deaths, even of loved ones, were not avenged.
“If you want to talk about it, I’m here,” Emma said. “If not, I understand.”
“Want to share the pallet?” Hunter asked. “It’s going to get chilly tonight and I promise I won’t try anything.” They crawled under the blanket together. “My grandma killed my grandpa in self-defense. I wonder why she’s letting everyone think The Bouncer did it.”
“I don’t know,” Emma said. “I go there every morning to get wine for my mom. Mr. Gary was going crazy on her this morning, calling her all kinds of names. She didn’t have wine, but she did give me that sweater and told me to get it away from her house. She even threw in an extra bottle of cooking oil. She said the vineyard would be closed for a few days. Man, when my mom heard that, she hit the roof. She told me I was nothing but a burden to her. ‘Do something useful for once in your life,’ she told me and ordered me out of the house until I had escort papers. And I’m like ‘fuck this shit.’ If I’d gotten the escape, I would have left the drunk bitch behind to get her own damn wine.”
“Do you remember what they were fighting about?” Hunter asked.
“Not really. All I heard was yelling.”
“He accused grandpa of killing my mom,” Hunter said. “My mom was only seventeen when I was born. I don’t know who my father is.” Hunter took a deep breath. “Grandma told me my mother died in the jumping game. I guess that’s why I’ve been so hellbent on outsmarting The Bouncer. I don’t remember my mother, but I guess a part of me has always wanted to somehow avenge her.” Hunter’s only intimate contact with other people were occasional hurried encounters with street girls. Never in his life had he had a friend he could pour his heart out to. He found himself telling Emma about his decision to reject the escape to stay with his grandparents and to shut the jumping game out of commission.
“I’m been trying to perfect my technique,” he said. “I want for the jumping game to have such a high survival rate that The Bouncer can’t keep up. He’ll be bombarded with jumpers. What will he do then?”
Emma reached for his hand. The touch felt so wonderfully amazing that he wanted to freeze the moment in time. “Want some help?”
Hunter turned on his side to face her. “What can you do to help me? You went to the wrong side of the building.”
Emma sighed. “I started thinking about what my mom said to me, and…well, I guess I was hoping to die. My mom’s always been mean, but she’s never said anything like that. I only asked for your advice because you seemed like a decent person and I wanted you to have the sweater Ms. Jo gave me. I had no idea you were her grandson. I don’t know why Ms. Jo wanted rid of it, but I wasn’t going to let her sweater end up in The Bouncer’s grubby hands.”
“I’ve seen that sweater before, but I don’t think it was my grandma’s. And when I tried to give it to her, she freaked out. Maybe it was my mom’s.”
“I wish I could tell you that,” Emma said. “But the offer stands. Anything I can do to help you take down The Bouncer, I will.” A chilly blast came in through the door holes, forcing the two to huddle closer together.
Three days passed when no end to the urban battle, fought on the streets of Jacksonville. What Hunter couldn’t figure out was why Jolene perpetuated the lie that The Bouncer had murdered Gary. Did she fear the gangs would turn on her for defending herself against her husband’s attack? Was the mention of Samantha’s name the final straw that had provoked Jolene to fire the fatal shot? Hunter knew his grandfather was prone to violence, something Jolene had repeatedly explained was an inevitable consequence of his dementia. He had on several occasions witnessed Gary physically attack Jolene, but she was easily able to subdue him. What had he done that made shooting him necessary?
Hunter’s grotto gave him a front-row seat to the jumping game, and as The Bouncer was nowhere to be seen, and no prospective jumpers approached the area, Hunter and Emma assumed The Bouncer had gone into hiding or had slipped out of Jacksonville. If that were the case, the continued fighting between the gangs and the guard patrol was a power grab, with the winning side ruling Jacksonville. The patrol guard had better ammunition, but were vastly outnumbered by the gangs. These urban battles were almost always prolonged, especially if they occurred concurrently with riots that broke out randomly in various parts of Jacksonville. Emma and Hunter fished when they could, and when it rained, collected drinking water. Otherwise, there wasn’t much to do but stay in the grotto and talk. For the first three days, they passed the time telling each other funny stories and telling jokes, but on day four they became antsy.
“There’s no telling how long how this fighting will go on,” Hunter said “I think I can talk Grandma into ending the fight, but if not, please understand I won’t betray her. Jacksonville can fight until everyone is dead before I snitch on Grandma. Frankly, The Bouncer deserves to know what it’s like to be cornered like a rat.”
“That’s if he’s still in the area,” Emma reminded him.
“I hope this can be resolved, though. Being stuck in a tight space makes me anxious, not to mention it’s so damned inconvenient.”
“I haven’t minded it so much,” Emma said. They were lying across the pallet, and Emma rested her head on his chest. He kissed her gently a few times before pulling her into his arms. Part of him wanted to just stay like that and let Jacksonville run itself into the ground. But he had to check on Jolene.
“We can give it another day or two,” he said, holding her.
It was six days after Emma’s jump that a lull in the battle gave them the chance to make a run for it. During that time, the anger that had started in his heart had grown from a small spark to an out of control flame. At first, Hunter attributed it to his own feelings of grief and confusion and the fatigue of having to be hypervigilant. But he had never had so much time on his hands before in his life, let alone the chance to ponder his feelings. Emma had gently coaxed him into sharing what was in his heart and mind, and the end result was more questions than answers. He had searched every corner of his memory for any memory of his mother. Jolene’s lie was keeping people trapped in their houses. Why was it so hard for her to confess that she’d shot her husband in self-defense? What did she have to gain? Hunter had lived in Jacksonville all his life, and he knew that both the gangs and the guard patrol usually only fought if there was a clear need to do so. The longer the patrol guard was distracted, the greater the chance for fugitives, and their reputation for ‘upholding the law’ diminishing. The gangs, for their part, were more interested in producing and selling alcohol and weapons than engaging in street combat. Fights for vengeance, especially of a single individual, were considered a waste of resources and were in general avoided by both sides. The only explanation was they were fighting for control of Jacksonville.
“I don’t think Ms. Jo is lying,” Emma said. “I agree with you that the whole thing is a coup on The Bouncer. If he is taken out, then at least something good has come out of it. He tried to tell me it was my fault I didn’t make the jump.”
“He also didn’t know you deliberately ignored professional advice.” Anxiety about the state of affairs in Jacksonville and his weariness of his confinement—however pleasant his company—was wearing on him.
“You’re right. I can’t blame you for that. Or him. And then when I met you, you were so kind to me, inviting me to stay with you and not judging me. No one in my life has ever been nice to me, Hunter. Everything you have, you shared with me. You’re the only person who has never made me feel like a burden.”
“That’s because you’re not a burden. You cooked me fish. You kept me warm and kept me company,” Hunter realized how grateful he was for her presence. “I think I would have gone insane in here without you.”
“And then after learning you were Ms. Jo’s grandson, that sealed the deal. I’ll stay here the rest of my life unless I can go with you and her.”
They were just about out the door when Emma suddenly said, “I didn’t I’d fall in love with you, though.” She kissed him quickly and she hurried off in the direction of the vineyard.
No, Hunter thought, both stunned and feeling terribly guilty. They had bonded amidst their mutual hardship, it was true. Hunter admitted to himself that he felt the same way, and if they lived anywhere but Jacksonville, things might be different. But to stay in Jacksonville meant living by the unspoken code that everyone was on his own. To love was to make oneself vulnerable. He had learned that the hard way by making himself responsible for his grandmother. He allowed the anger at his fate to fill to the brim. The anger not only energized him, but also distracted him from his broken heart. After today, he and Emma would have to go their separate ways before their feelings became any stronger.
But no matter how bad things got, it never occurred to you to betray Grandma. You could have left, but you didn’t. You chose to stay behind in this lawless wasteland. Hunter did not realize he was losing valuable seconds his conscience continued to lecture him. Life sucks in Jacksonville, Hunter. Life sucks everywhere at least some of the time. Do you really think that denying yourself Emma’s companionship is going to in any way benefit you, or her? Humans are social creatures, Hunter. Love and friendship and family ties aren’t luxuries. They are just as vital to human survival as food, water, and air. Your grandparents’ love may have been enough up until now, Hunter, but you are growing into a young man and face it, your grandma’s not going to live forever. You need other people.
“Shut up, shut up, shut up!” Hunter made a vain attempt to silence his inner voice. Time was of the essence and he’d already lost precious seconds idling in the doorway.
“That sweater belonged to your mother,” Jolene said in the privacy of her bedroom, where she had ordered Hunter and Emma to sit on her caved-in mattress. As soon as she saw the two arriving together, her expression deflated. With resigned gestures, she wordlessly motioned the two into her room and began her speech without preamble. “The chances that of all people in Jacksonville, it would be traded to Emma…maybe I really am going to Hell. But at the time, I had a choice to make and less than a second to make it.” There was a crashing sound from the kitchen, but the sound was so commonplace that Hunter didn’t pay it any mind.
“Ms. Jo, we have to get out of this house,” Emma said. “Now!”
“What’s going–” Hunter began.
“I said now! Move your ass!”
The three exited quickly and went out through the vineyard gate. “Now get on the ground!”
The house exploded less than a second later.
“Molotov cocktail,” Emma said in a shaky voice. “One killed my dad. I recognize the smell anywhere.” The house and the vineyard were completely obliterated. The three, too shocked to speak, huddled together close to the ground to avoid smoke inhalation.
“That’s it,” Jolene said angrily after about ten minutes have passed. “I’m going to do all I can to get you two out of here.”
“I’m not leaving without you, Grandma.”
“Look, Hunter,” Jolene said sternly. “I lost my only daughter. I won’t lose you, too. It’s going to take a while, probably up to two weeks, so you will have to hide in your space by the tower. But I’m going to Gainesville. You’ll be sheltered at the old University until you can be safely smuggled north. You and Emma. Then you two can have a happy life together.”
“Hunter and Emma stared at each other. “Is it that obvious, Ms. Jo?” Emma was blushing.
“We’ve only known each other a week,” Hunter said. “A little too soon to be planning a life together.” Hunter avoided looking at Emma. He hoped he didn’t hurt her.
“No one says we have to get married or anything, Hunter,” Emma said, alleviating his fears. “But after all we’ve been through, I think we’ll always be friends, at least.”
“If it turns out you’re meant to be, you’ll know,” Jolene added. Your house and livelihood were just pulverized right in front of you, Grandma. And this was a week after you were forced to kill your husband. And you’re thinking about my future? Jolene showed no signs of being angry about her destroyed house or her burnt vineyard. Instead, she was talking about Hunter’s future. “If not, then as Emma said, you’ll always have each other as friends.”
“Grandma, I tell you the same thing I told The Bouncer. There is no way in Hell, Purgatory, or whatever afterlife you believe in that I’m leaving you alone in Jacksonville.”
“No!” Hunter said firmly. “I’ll stay right here until The Bouncer is dead and he can’t taunt anyone else with his asinine jumping game.”
“Baby, what you don’t understand is that even if The Bouncer is taken out, someone else will take his place,” Jolene said. “I still have unfinished business here. If and when the murder of my daughter Samantha is solved, I’ll see about joining you. But you two need to get out as soon as I can arrange a way out for you.”
“So you didn’t—?” Hunter began.
“Speak of the devil,” Emma said. The Bouncer, accompanied by several of his goons, was coming their way. The Bouncer stopped short when he saw the burning remains of Jolene’s house. “Why does he look so surprised? Doesn’t he know how a Molotov cocktail works?”
“You’ve been a pain in my ass for as long as I can remember, Jolene Courtney,” The Bouncer said. Hunter heard no trace of a threat; The Bouncer was speaking matter-of-factly. “First, you accused me of killing Samantha, and now you’re blaming me for killing Gary. I tell you, I did neither. I kept my promise to Samantha and had her escorted out. I never could figure out why she chose to leave her baby with you, but I figured that was her business and yours.”
“Hunter was left on my front porch, wrapped in his mother’s sweater,” Jolene said. “She was murdered on your watch, so yes, I hold you responsible.”
The Bouncer, with great difficulty, lowered himself to face his nemesis. “Are you sure Samantha was killed? Jolene, I swear on my mother’s grave that in my seventy-three years, I have never once used violence. I am responsible for everyone who died in the jumping game, I know. I am prepared for whatever judgment I’ll have to face for that. But I swear to you I did not kill your daughter.”
“Jesus, Roger, does it have to be spelled out for you? Kenny bragged about what he did. After he had his way with her, he dumped her in the Saint Johns River. You knew what he did to young girls. He did the same to the girls at his so-called school. You knew it, Roger, and you refused to do anything about it.”
Emma clung tight to Hunter, as if in fear.
“Kenny Blanchard? I didn’t know anything.” The Bouncer’s face turned white. “He didn’t brag about it to me.”
“It’s funny, Roger. I can’t tell if you’re lying or if you’re just the stupidest man in Jacksonville, but I’m inclined to believe the former,” Jolene said. “How could you not know?”
“Jo, I don’t keep tabs on everyone I escort out. Kenny told me Samantha had been safely delivered to the rendezvous point in Brunswick. I had no reason to believe otherwise, and I only get follow-ups from the people who stay in touch with Sandy. I had other escorts in progress going on, so I’m sorry if I didn’t think to ask about her baby.”
“Kenny was your dad, wasn’t he?” Hunter whispered. Emma nodded as a single tear ran down her cheek. Hunter was suddenly filled with a murderous rage as he addressed The Bouncer. “Grandma covered for you. She told me my mom died in the jumping game.”
“I wasn’t covering for him,” Jolene said. “I always knew you had your grandfather’s killer instinct. I never worried about you on the streets. In fact, I was more worried for anyone who might cross you. I didn’t want you to be filled with the same anger that consumed him.”
The Bouncer said. “Gary blew up Kenny’s school in retaliation. Now it all makes sense. I always suspected it was Gary who killed Kenny, but–”
“It never occurred to you to ask?” Jolene yelled out before lowered her face. “You know what, Roger? Gary is dead. Samantha is dead. All I want is to give my grandson and Emma chance at a life that you and I never had. That Samantha never had. I don’t want to fight with you anymore. I’ll tell the truth about how Gary died if you help me right now. Then we can go our separate ways and never have anything to do with each other again. What do you say?”
The Bouncer’s face softened. “Tell me what happened, and I’ll do my best.”
“Once Gary’s Alzheimer’s got bad, it was easy enough for Rebecca to confuse him and make him believe that I murdered Samantha. He found Samantha’s sweater. He bought it for her for Christmas the last year that Jacksonville had a department store.”
“Rebecca’s my mom,” Emma said to Hunter. “Ms. Jo, why of all people would you give me the sweater?”
“Mainly because you were there, and I had to get rid of it in a hurry. I was hoping that with the sweater out of sight, he would forget his anger at the false memories. But I guess in a way, I was hoping to send a message to your mother that she would not destroy my family. Her husband was a predator, and he deserved what he got. For Rebecca to take it out on me and on Gary is just unfathomable. The only reason I had anything to do with her was to avoid her taking it out on you. But it all backfired so badly. The fact that you and Hunter met up is nothing short of divine intervention.”
“Jeff,” The Bouncer said, addressing one of his men.
“Would you please find Rebecca Blanchard and bring her here?” Hunter was surprised at The Bouncer’s courtesy; he could get what he wanted without barking orders. Or perhaps he got what he wanted because he didn’t bark orders. “We’re going to settle this once and for all,” he said to Jolene.
Hunter could tell Rebecca had never been especially attractive, but years of drinking and anger had really taken its toll. Emma wasn’t a beauty, but compared to her mother Emma looked like a cheerleader in the magazine that had been his final gift to his grandfather. When she came into view, she was furious at the undignified way she was forcibly escorted by Jeff and a few of The Bouncer’s other men. She struggled in their grasp as she shouted a string of obscenities, but the sight of her daughter was what sent her over the edge.
“You’re nothing but a traitorous little shit,” Rebecca screamed. “Why are you even still alive?”
“Hey!” Hunter stood and yelled, cutting off Rebecca’s rant. Everyone, including The Bouncer and Jolene, sat frozen in fear at Hunter’s rage. He planted himself in front of Rebecca and pointed a finger directly in her face. “You say one more thing to Emma and I’ll kill you, you got that?” Rebecca was too terrified to move. She stared wide-eyed at the grandson of the couple she’s tortured for years, and seemed to know her moment of judgment had come. She did not cower in fear. She did not try to explain or defend herself. She stood there, defiantly staring Hunter down, waiting for her fate.
Hunter realized he had no weapon, a problem that Jolene and Jeff quickly resolved for him. His grandmother, putting her shirt over her mouth and nose to protect herself from the smoke, entered the vineyard and retrieved her rifle. Jeff handed him an impressive-looking knife. “Perfect,” Hunter said. “Now, I’m going to ask you some questions. Lie to me once, and I’ll cut your tongue out. Twice, and I’ll slice your throat.” Hunter had never killed anyone, and wasn’t sure if he had the courage to act on his threats, especially in front of Emma. No matter what happened, Rebecca was still her mother. Fortunately, Emma stepped up for him.
“Please. Let me,” Emma said. “After that, if you have any more questions, you can take over. But my…um….Rebecca and I have a few things of our own we need to talk about. First thing.” Emma punched her mother hard in the stomach, causing Rebecca to cry out in pain. “That’s for being a drunk, lazy sorry ass excuse for a human being. You don’t deserve to be a mother.”
“I never wanted you,” Rebecca spat, and Emma prompting punched her again.
“And I wouldn’t have chosen you as a mother. Don’t you see your words can’t hurt me anymore? Did your husband kill Ms. Jo’s daughter?”
“Shut up, you stupid piece of shit!” Rebecca screeched. Hunter turned when he heard the familiar sound of his grandmother cocking her gun.
“Emma asked you a question, and you better answer it.”
“Shoot me, bitch! Kill me now. You think I care?” Rebecca shot back.
Jolene chuckled. “You’re not going out that quickly.” She fired a shot into her knee. Rebecca screamed in agony. “If you would care to cooperate, you’ll save yourself a lot of pain, and we may just let you die in a somewhat dignified manner.”
Rebecca’s mouth tightened. “I learned very quickly not to ask Kenny any questions. No matter what you do to me, I can’t tell you what happened to your daughter because I don’t fucking know. And frankly, I don’t fucking care. The more he hurt other women, the less he hurt me.”
“Do you believe that?” Hunter asked Jolene and The Bouncer.
“Yes, I believe it,” The Bouncer said. “Sandy’s my wife. She and I have been doing this for twenty years.”
“Why the jumping game? You made people jumping off a building a condition of them being taken out of Jacksonville?” Hunter asked.
“I was being bombarded with people wanting to be smuggled out,” The Bouncer explained defensively. “As much as I wanted to, I just couldn’t help everyone. I tried a lottery system. After about the fifth time the winner got killed by the mob of those who didn’t get picked, I notified the winner personally. But I soon discovered that was not a good solution, either. People would see me approach the house and take their anger out on family who were left behind. I discovered a whole store room of parachutes at the old naval base, and the idea just came to me. I had no idea how jumping off a building worked, and the first dozen or times, the jumpers died. Your grandmother stepped in and helped me advise people on the best way to win. That is, until the incident with Samantha lost me my best ally.”
“Knowledge that she passed on to me,” Hunter said. Never in his life had he experienced such mixed emotions.
“I know it was a terrible solution, but it was the only one I could come up with. I guard the area around the platform so the public can’t see the outcome. Everyone but you, that is.”
“You knew all along?”
“Of course. But I don’t release the names of the winners and no one can tell for sure whether the jumpers survived or not. If they choose to take a family member, I always advise them to make it look like the family members killed themselves out of grief,” The Bouncer paused. “I guess I always thought Samantha decided to leave you here to prevent retaliation against her parents.”
Hunter looked over at Rebecca, who was engaged in a nonproductive screaming match with Emma.
“Is it possible that’s how it really happened, Roger?” Jolene asked. “Do you have any way of getting in touch with Sandy to see if she can locate Samantha?” She sounded so hopeful that Hunter decided he would forgive all if he could make Jolene’s request happened.
“I believe I can,” The Bouncer said. “I suppose I owe it to you and Gary.”
“Then I will clear your name and end the battle.” Jolene handed Hunter her rifle, he most prized possession. “Goodbye, Hunter. Take care of yourself and Emma.” She disappeared quickly before Hunter had time to object.
Hunter walked over to Rebecca, who was still restrained by The Bouncer’s men. “I never met my mother,” he said softly. “But I have had the pleasure of meeting your beautiful, intelligent, and kindhearted daughter. She survived the jumping game.” Hunter glared at The Bouncer before remembering his personal vow to forgive him if he fulfilled Jolene’s final request. Besides, if Emma had received her escort, Hunter would have never got the time with her. “She found food for us when we were in hiding. She comforted me after my grandfather died.” Hunter aimed the rifle at Rebecca’s face. His hands were shaking so badly he couldn’t hold it straight. “And she saved my life and my grandmother’s life before you could blow us all to bits. You may think she’s better off dead, but I…” Hunter looked over to make sure Emma was listening. “I can’t live without her.” Hunter had never fired a rifle, but he knew that an inexperienced user—or an innocent bystander—was more likely to be injured by a firearm than the intended target. “Don’t worry. I’ll take her if you don’t want her.”
Hunter turned his attention back to The Bouncer. “Can you really get in touch with your wife?”
“Yes, and I fully intend to keep my promise to Jo.”
“I want to help you get people out of Jacksonville,” Hunter said. “But there has to be a better way than the jumping game.”
“There will be no more jumping game. I’m going to have my men destroy the platform,” The Bouncer said. “As for you, I’m going to get you both out of here. I suppose it would be too much to ask that you assist my wife on the north side?”
“How will the escorts be determined?” Emma asked in a demanding voice.
The Bouncer told Hunter and Emma of his new plan. Hunter was pleased by this. “What are you going to do about her?” he asked.
“Nothing,” Hunter said. “She’s getting exactly what she’s always wanted. To be left alone in this hell hole.” Hunter smiled at Rebecca. “You gave me Emma. You get to keep your life. Good luck to you.” The Bouncer smiled as he gestured for his men to release her.
Hunter and Emma Courtney were seated at a conference table at the heart of downtown Jacksonville. “I love what they’ve done with the place,” Hunter whispered to his wife. There was a void in the sky where the skyscraper that served as a scaffold for the jumping game used to dominate. A year after he and Emma arrived in Atlanta and began their service with Sandy and her organization, Florida was returned to statehood and the process of rebuilding began. The investigation into Samantha Courtney’s disappearance took four agonizing years. No sign of her was ever found, but a neighbor of Jolene Courtney reported that she had seen Kenny Blanchard place a baby on the Courtney’s front porch, and that baby was indeed swaddled in the same red cashmere sweater that Samantha was last seen wearing. Whether Kenny had killed her, or she asked him to return her baby to his grandparents and later died of other causes, or she had simply assumed a new identity and lived in hiding, remained a mystery. The matter ceased to be a priority for Hunter when he got word, six months later, that Jolene had died of a heart attack. Sandy had told him that no one in Jacksonville blamed her for defending herself against her husband’s violence, and that her reconciliation with The Bouncer, along with the end of the jumping game, had facilitated the process of rebuilding Jacksonville to prepare the city for re-entry into society.
Although most the union welcomed Florida back with open arms, they weren’t so forgiving of The Bouncer, and an inquest into the jumping game was initiated by the federal government. Hunter and Emma were summoned to Jacksonville to give their eyewitness account.
“It’s a little pointless to try to punish a dead man,” Hunter told the tribunal. “I say time would be better spent trying to figure out how to prevent this from happening again.”
“Are you saying you sympathize with this monster?” a judge asked.
“I’m saying that like the rest of us who lived through the federal government’s abandonment of Florida, he did what was necessary to survive.” Hunter would have not been so defensive of The Bouncer, but the investigation fully exonerated him from any involvement in Samantha’s disappearance. After the day Jolene’s house was firebombed, every week he led a march of two thousand Jacksonville residents across the Saint Marys River bridge. When the bridge was burned, he led his evacuees in homemade boats. Nothing deterred him, and upon his death three years later, it was estimated that had led a million stranded people out of Jacksonville. Encouraged, other major cities in Florida followed suit. The federal government could no longer ignore Florida.
“Why was Florida even cut off?” Hunter asked Sandy one day.
“Hurricanes,” Sandy answered. “Mosquitos. Heat waves. Forest fires. Florida was in constant need of emergency federal funds, and eventually, its statehood became too cost-prohibitive.”
“No amount of money can replace the lives that were lost,” Emma said.
“I agree,” Sandy said. “Roger was no saint, and I’ll be the first to admit that his methods were unorthodox, to say the least. But to his credit, he’s the only one who refused to ignore the problem and accept Florida’s status as a no-man’s-land.”
Hunter addressed the panel “Roger kept a list of everyone who participated. He noted whether they lived or died.” Hunter pulled a notebook out of his briefcase and handed it to the panel. “He gave this to me before I left.” He withheld the fact that he made three handwritten copies of the list and kept them in secret locations. “You will see that my wife was the last jumping game participant. If what you want is the names of the jumping games participants, you got it. They deserve justice and recognition, I agree.” There was nothing more to contribute. The couple exited the building.
“You know,” Emma said, “I often think about the very first conversation we had.”
“You mean when I spent thirty minutes giving you a lecture that you ignored?”
“Don’t be bitter. I meant about the constant of gravitational acceleration, and the variable of upward resistance making the difference between a safe landing and a crash landing. Don’t you think the jumping game has become a perfect metaphor?”
“How do you mean?”
“The Bouncer had a major image of power, built up over a lifetime in Jacksonville. Ms. Jo used her wits and resources to survive. They were like the jumpers who listened to you and survived. Sure enough, they landed safely and died peacefully. My mother was someone who jumped against the wind. She pissed off a lot of people, completely isolated herself, and I heard she hung herself shortly after we left. Same thing with my father. He pissed off the wrong person. Both tried to fight the winds and it led to their demise.”
“And my grandfather was like the kid who yelled on the way down,” Hunter said. “He was just the victim of unexpected, tragic circumstances.”
“Do you want to move back to Jacksonville?” Emma asked.
Hunter pondered the idea. “Yes. I think I would. I want to build a memorial for the jumping game victims. In the spot where the skyscraper was.” They walked toward the downtown area, the same path they took when they met up ten years before, right after Emma’s jump. “I want to buy my grandparents’ property and plant a vineyard in their memory. I still have mixed feelings about The Bouncer. On one hand, I’m grateful for his efforts to liberate Florida, but on the other, he did butcher the bodies to harvest organs. I don’t think I can ever get that image of him out of my mind.”
“You don’t have to make any decisions right now,” Emma said. “We’ll be back soon. There’s just one last place I want to visit before we go back to Atlanta. And I want to spend a few days there” Hunter looked at her and grinned. They walked toward the old utility closet in the now-dilapidated parking garage. They entered and closed the door behind them.