“You always get the blond one.”
“No I don’t.” Her flaxen curls bounced around a heart-shaped face, their jiggle dulled by a helmet and chinstrap. A rosy tinge flushed Brit’s cheeks nonetheless. “Okay, maybe you’re right,” her pout quirked into a smug grin, “can I have this one too?”
“I’m helping you with your bucket list, Brit, the least you could do is let me jump with the cuter instructor.”
She huffed and eyed the pair discussing on the tarmac.
The blond wore his hair shorter than I knew she liked, a shag barely nearing the nape of his neck. With his head bowed, he stood at the shoulder of the other instructor who wore a magenta and green jumpsuit. I suppose the colors made for easy spying from the ground, but the blond’s evergreen and sky blue rounded out his thicker frame nicely compared to his towering partner.
With an interested hum, Brit tilted her head in a way I knew meant she’d found something appealing in the taller alternative. “Alright, you can have the blonde,” she held up a finger, “just this once.”
A stout brunette toting a black box and massive earphones marched from the prep station where we’d been zipped and buckled. As she passed the instructors, she tipped her chin in reply to the taller one’s wave. She studiously avoided the blond who did the same. When she vanished into the propeller plane’s belly, the two instructors parted.
The blond stormed after the pilot, while the taller one neared us, a pearl smile taking shape.
“Morning ladies. You’re looking good enough to toss out a plane.” He chuckled at his own joke.
Brit tittered, her innocent sway making her neon yellow jumpsuit rustle.
“My name’s Ryan, though everyone here calls me Lump.”
He knocked on his head. “Earned my share of these for not ducking when I needed to.” He grinned again and I cursed Brit’s luck. “Let’s get you inside and we’ll get started with some last minute tips before while we reach altitude.”
Lump motioned to the plane and dutifully I moved along, letting Brit fall into step behind me with her instructor.
“Have you done this long?”
“About two years now,” said Lump, “I started off doing stunts but the pay for this is a lot steadier.”
As their flirting escalated, I hopped into the plane’s cabin, and found I had to crawl on my hands and knees across the padded floor. Sharp murmurs peaked in the cockpit, ones nipping too close to memory, and I retreated to a window overlooking one propeller-heavy wing.
The blond and brunette dueled with harsh whispers as Lump helped Brit into the plane, then plopped nearby. “Don’t mind those two.”
I glanced at the cockpit where the brunette covered her ears with the massive headgear, deafening herself in a way I remembered too well. “What’s wrong with them?”
“Oh?” Brit glanced my way, then thought better of it, and brought her knees close. “What kind?”
“Don’t think there’s much of a kind left. She found somebody else.” Lump pulled the plane’s door closed and gathered an extra harness into his hand. “Broke the news to him and they called it quits last night.”
“That doesn’t seem like a good mindset for jumping out of a plane.”
Lump waved off my uncertainty. “Don’t worry. Todd can do this in his sleep.”
“I’m not worried about him sleeping, I’m worried about him wanting to land alive.”
“Trust me, he’ll get you on the ground safe and sound.”
“Maybe I should let you go, Brit. I can do this some other time.” I scooted from the window but Brit snatched my arm.
“You promised. I can’t do this without you here.”
“You do lots of things without me around.”
“On the ground maybe.” Her eyes went big and round, forming a fearful version of the look she used to get someone else to pick up the dinner check. “Please, Danna, stay.”
The propellers whirred and buzzed, and we all lurched when the plane began to taxi.
“I guess I’m staying.”
After a squeeze of my arm, Brit resumed her fetal ball.
Meanwhile Todd shoved himself from the cockpit. He sat with his back against the bulkhead, his gaze shooting across the interior and out again, at the tarmac whipping by, his jaw rigid, his bent arms of blue and green balanced on stiff legs.
Lump twisted, blocking sight of Todd, and hefted the extra harness.
“Listen in, ladies.”
Speaking above the motors, Lump started going over the pulls and straps, the sequence of the jump, and the expectations the prep crew had told us about while we’d been weighed and fitted, harnessed and cinched. I nodded absently while he pointed and tugged on certain tabs, made signs with his hands, and cracked jokes to which Brit dutifully tittered.
The rumble of the plane, the pop in my ears, the wisps of clouds streaming by the window, had my thoughts on the simple fact of our increasing altitude, our growing distance from the ground, and how we wouldn’t be landing the same way we took off.
Lump set a hand on my shoulder, jolting me from visualizing cities and coastlines, and the empty air in between.
“Why don’t you get into position?”
Lump thumbed at Todd. “It’ll do him good to get out of here.”
I didn’t like the idea of being a security blanket but Lump crawled over to Todd before I could argue.
Like a man waking from a dream, Todd shifted his dull brown eyes from his stare into nothingness. Lump did all the talking, made the only motions, showed the only indications of being alive. Then, Lump scrambled back, making way for Todd to shamble to the cabin door.
He released the latch and wind stormed inside, making my jumpsuit flap and my heart try burrowing out of my back.
Taking my elbow, Lump guided me to Todd and shouted my introduction. “This is Danna.”
Todd didn’t nod or quit staring out the gaping hole in the bulkhead.
“Sit here.” Lump smacked the padded floor and with no other option, I did as he instructed.
Behind me, they looped straps, fastened hooks, and yanked slack cable tight. Todd’s legs appeared around me, one green, one blue, his feet slumped by my knees. A shove inched us closer to the door and I leaned back, finding a solid chest against my shoulders where I hoped the harness to a parachute had been clasped.
Lump put a pair of goggles into my hand, gathered my attention long enough for two thumbs up, and then slunk to where Brit waved at me from her crouching embrace. She welcomed Lump with a beaming smile and pinned herself to his arm.
My eyes began to sting from the cold and I yanked the goggles into place. Over my shoulder, I met Todd’s blank stare and raised my voice to speak over the wind.
“Are you sure you’re alright?”
He blinked and looked surprised to find me there, strapped to his front, before an open hole to the clouds and sky. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“Lump said—” I waggled a limp hand at the cockpit.
He snorted and stared passed me, into the void. “That’s nothing.”
“If you don’t feel like jumping—”
“Been looking forward to it actually.” He popped something into his mouth before scooting us to the door’s ledge and grabbing hold of the frame.
My feet hung outside, numbed. “I know what you’re feeling.”
Todd didn’t respond, and I couldn’t tear myself from the white and blue outside to see if he was listening. I kept talking anyway, my words at least, earning a safe escape.
“My ex cheated on me too. I caught them actually, in my apartment.” My skin flushed despite the altitude’s chill. “I wanted to kill him first, smother him with those damn pillows. The next morning though, I just wanted a hole to hide in, to take that final plunge, to drown myself in pills and darkness.” I shuddered, remembering that pit, that valley, that plummet. “My friends brought me back.”
I heard Brit laugh back where there were walls and windows. I knew she’d be beside Lump like she had been beside me, on my couch with Eddie, Jake, Madge, and the rest, wine bottles, tissue, and ice cream in reach.
“But it took time.”
Todd flipped a panel by the door and a fastener unclasped. “Time to count down.”
He started at five and I forgot what came next. I didn’t hear him get to one either, but by then my butt dangled out of the plane and all thought had stopped in my brain. We jumped, or I should say, Todd jumped, a moment later.
Air slammed the breath from my lungs. A roar filled my ears. My tongue went dry and tasteless. I couldn’t feel anything but dampness on my face.
Time seemed to stop as the clouds melted and the Pacific coastline appeared. Dark waters bled into dusty greens and browns, each coming closer with every staggered beat once my heart remembered how.
I couldn’t remember how long Lump or the prep crew had said we’d be in freefall, but minutes seemed to pass as foam gained dimension, and buildings and highways became clear.
Peeking behind me, revealed Todd, his eyes shut, his mouth hanging open, his face slack and rippling in the wind’s bluster. His arms floated like mine, uselessly outstretched at our sides.
I reached for his hand but his fingers didn’t respond. Perhaps they were senseless, too cold to feel. A quivering part of me feared it was something worse.
His eyes didn’t flutter.
I elbowed his gut.
Todd didn’t flinch.
The ground grew larger, and I skimmed over the buckles and pulls the prep crew had explained and Lump had gone over not five minutes ago, five minutes before I’d been strapped to someone bent on a suicidal plunge.
Colorful tabs floated at my chest and on Todd’s harness like frozen confetti. Few made any sense, except one in ambulance red, its white stripes bright.
I glanced at the nearing ground, and when I thought I saw truck lumbering, slipped my fingers through the tab’s ring.
A hand slammed onto mine.
Todd’s hoarse voice flooded my ear. “No!”
“You don’t have to go out this way.”
Either he didn’t hear me or he didn’t care. His hand stayed tight on mine and our fall to earth continued.
“You’ll get over her, I promise.” Birds swooped, and I rambled, heedless to the winds snatching my words away. “You’ll find somebody else. You’ve got a life ahead of you.”
Todd’s hand didn’t move off of mine. Cars and boats became distinct, but Todd didn’t yank the tab. No parachute deployed and I couldn’t stop talking.
“If not for yourself, then for me. Think about what you’re doing. I’m innocent, Todd. I didn’t even want to do this.”
Shutting my eyes, I fought against blaming Brit. It wasn’t her fault. I could have said no. I could have been stubborn. I could have let her have the blond.
I hadn’t done any of that and now I hung on the chest of a broken-hearted man with no way to slow down, with no way to safely land, with no way to prevent gravity’s inescapable draw.
I wrapped my free arm around my head, as if a bit of flabby muscle and bone could aid the helmet in keeping my skull from shattering, and braced myself for a splat.
The impact, however, didn’t come from below.
In one moment I was horizontal, in the next, a tug from space slowed the world. My legs swung beneath me and I could hear Todd’s breath in my ear, then his voice.
I uncoiled my arm.
Behind me, Todd held two handles. Cables stretched from them, leading to the purple and orange striped parachute, the billow a big, beautiful dome above our heads. A gust pushed us and Todd pulled one end, starting us in a controlled descent.
I turned back to him. “Are you?”
I must have looked unconvinced because his features broke with a shaky grin. Through the shine on his goggles, I thought I saw a tear or two.
He worked my right hand onto the parachute’s controls and then my left onto the other. With a deft touch and a word or two, I worked across the sky, over where beaches stretched, ocean lapped, and the dots of people dashed about, each in their own swirl of joys and misery.
Todd set his hands over mine when the tops of trees became plain.”Keep your feet up until I say down.”
His instruction triggered the steps the prep crew had told us before the flight and Lump had repeated. Locking onto my sole duty of staying out of the way, I enjoyed our glide to a field of soft grass where a van waited and one of the prep crew took pictures with Brit’s camera.
Todd’s feet hit first. “Down!”
I slammed my heels and after a staggered trot, we stopped.
“Sorry about that.”
I barely heard Todd over the rush of blood in my ears, and the clack of unclasping hooks and fasteners. “Sorry about what? That was great!”
He finished with the straps keeping us tied and, freed from his bulk, I stumbled. Todd grabbed my arm and I rediscovered my balance along with the embarrassed look on his face. His regret wormed through my adrenaline rush, along with the memory of the jump.
“It’s fine.” I worked a toe into the earth, confirming the solidity beneath my sneaker.
“You were right, if that helps.”
I shrugged but couldn’t tell if I felt better because of his apology or simply because I’d landed alive. “A little, I guess.”
“How about this then,” Todd offered his hand for a shake, “the next jump’s on me.”