The droning roar of the turboprop’s engine was too loud to talk without shouting, not that Matt Kern had much to say. He struggled to keep his fear in check.
Trevor leaned forward and said, “You okay, bro? Ain’t nothing to be afraid of.” He had to shout to be heard over the plane’s engine. The cabin was a wide, hollowed-out space with bench seats along the side.
Matt could only manage a nod. He didn’t know why he agreed to skydiving. Vacations were supposed to be relaxing and peaceful, but the other couple had an adventurous streak that Matt didn’t. Sarah was his wife’s oldest friend, and her husband, Trevor, seemed pleasant enough. Still, Matt was terrified of heights. Had been since Bucky Sinclair shoved him backward out of a treehouse when he was five. Thirty years and ten thousand feet later, he didn’t know if he could jump.
The plane bucked, pulling at the last of his nerves. He gripped the shoulder straps tighter. Slow breathing. Nice and even. Everything’s fine. Don’t think about the fall…oh God, the fall…
“You okay?” his wife asked.
He nodded, smiled, and tried to say in his best convincing shout, “Great! Very exciting!”
Their guide, a wiry, short, Hispanic man named Miguel, who sat at the front of the plane in a rear-facing seat, yelled, “There is nothing to fear, señor. Very safe.”
He didn’t feel very safe. Why would anyone with common sense jump out of a perfectly good airplane? Not that this rusting noise-machine was that good. It looked like WWII surplus. Everything creaked. It was hollow inside with uncomfortable bench seats facing the middle aisle and rattling seatbelts.
Trevor and Sarah didn’t seem to mind. Trevor had slipped a wad of cash to the pilot since Matt and Sarah had never skydived before. Rookies were supposed to go tandem.
He looked out at the storm clouds on the horizon. Hurricane Lisa was bearing down but wouldn’t be here for another day. By then they would’ve landed at BWI, picked up the car and driven home to see what kind of mess their neighbor, Ms. Hockstedder, had left them. She agreed to watch the cats while they were away, but she did not do litter boxes. The pee-meteors of congealed litter would be overflowing, and the house would probably reek of cat-urine for weeks.
Trevor had given them hasty instructions: jump, count to thirty, pull the cord. Matt had memorized the mantra because it was the one thing that would save his life. There were more instructions, something about extending limbs to prevent tumbling. Fear was making him forget, made him dizzy, made his stomach do somersaults, made his veins throb.
He closed his eyes.
Trevor raced dirt bikes. He seemed like an okay guy, but Matt had nothing in common with him. He had an infectious enthusiasm Matt found enthralling. At the hotel bar Trevor bought shots while describing, in vivid detail, the dirt trails of western Maryland, the inner workings of a Yamaha 700cc engine, the best way to fish in the bay. Sarah, Trevor’s wife, was a superficial snob. She’d been making money from her YouTube videos on makeup tips, had her own product endorsements. Matt never liked her, mostly for the way she treated Val. But she was one of Val’s oldest friends, and Matt would do anything for his wife. Sarah seemed to delight in retelling tales of her children, their curiosity, how bright life had become now that her son and daughter were born. She spoke as if she had neither clue nor care that Matt and Val were childless, and Matt wasn’t sure if he could contain his anger for another day. If he knew how much Sarah’s careless and selfish rantings would sting, he never would’ve agreed to a couples vacation.
The Caribbean sounded great at first. A few days in Cancun, then snorkeling near Cozumel. Sarah arranged it all. Matt thought she was trying to show them up, spend more and faster than he and Val could. They dipped into savings, figuring they’d probably never get back to Mexico in their lifetime.
The plane shuddered again; the roar of the propellers increased, sputtered, then stabilized.
Miguel unbuckled his belt and slipped into the cockpit. Matt heard him yelling something to the pilot, a wiry woman with tightly braided hair. Rapid-fire exchanges of Spanish he didn’t understand. Why didn’t he take Spanish? He took a semester of Latin. Who studies a dead language for no real reason? Who does that? The same person who’s afraid of heights and agrees to go skydiving.
Shouts from the cockpit grew heated. Miguel stepped back into the main cabin as the plane bucked again. The engines sputtered more as the plane began to bank to the left. “I’m very sorry. We will not be able to jump.”
Trevor yelled, “C’mon, man, we’re all ready, practically there!”
Matt was anything but ready.
“The wind has picked up, as I feared,” Miguel continued. “We will turn back.”
They were beginning to descend. Half-hour flight back to the airport in Playa del Carmen but Matt didn’t mind.
“You will get a partial refund.”
Sarah wrinkled her nose. “We didn’t jump and that’s on you.” She jabbed her finger in the air, sure of her own authority.
“I cannot help the weather. The storm, she is moving in faster.”
She and Miguel began arguing. Matt tuned them out, awash in the warm content of abating fear.
Val grabbed his hand and squeezed. He looked at her and smiled.
“You already asked me that,” he said.
“I think you’re worried about yourself.”
“Me?” she said. “Oh, I’m absolutely terrified!”
When the plane rocked again, she let go of his hand and gripped her shoulder straps. More buffeting, then an alarm from the cockpit. Matt glanced up through the curtain and saw flashing lights. The pilot was yelling to Miguel.
The plane dropped, steadied, dropped again. The engine began sputtering, stalling.
“Shit, that’s not good,” Trevor yelled.
The plane dropped again and the engine died as Matt’s heart rate wound faster. The eerie sound of rushing wind and creaking airframe brought more life to his terror.
“Okay, my friends,” Miguel said. “We have an issue. You will need to jump.”
“Wait,” Sarah said. “What kind of issue? Why can’t we land?” She looked panicked.
Matt understood. He was having trouble containing his own terror.
Miguel said, “Stand up, quickly now. You must put parachutes on.”
They were all on their feet, frantically following Miguel’s instructions. “Arms through here,” he motioned, holding up a parachute, “just like a backpack. Clip around you here and here. Tighten here.” He was moving nervously fast, checking each of them. Matt was struggling with his own parachute. His hands were shaking so badly he could barely secure the buckles. “This is the ripcord,” Miguel said, gesturing to an orange cord along the right strap.
“Are we high enough?” Val asked.
“You will jump, one at a time, count to ten, then pull.”
Shouting in Spanish from the cockpit. Miguel shouted back. “Quickly now.”
Val squeezed his hand, kissed him, said, “I love you.” Her pupils were wide, her body was shaking.
Miguel twisted a metal latch, opened a side door toward the back of the cabin. Air rushed in; the sound of roaring wind was louder.
Sarah jumped first. Then Trevor, then Val.
Matt stood in the threshold, hesitated. He felt dizzy looking down at the distant jungle. They were over the Yucatan; he could make out a rocky beach in the distance. Deep-green jungle that stretched over the dusty horizon. Thin, tan lines of roads. It looked like a relief map, like the kind of fantasy landscape he’d spend hours looking over as a kid.
“Go,” Miguel said and Matt felt a shove.
He was falling, wind roaring in his ears, tumbling through the air.
He panicked, screamed, thrashed about. He was trying to push off something to steady himself, but there was nothing but rushing wind.
He was going to die.
Outstretched arms and legs, he finally stabilized, but he was on his back. The plane was a spec in the angry gray sky. He twisted, righted himself, faced down. His eyes stung; he forgot the goggles.
Yanking the cord, nothing happened. He panicked, which sent him tumbling again. He looked at the strap, pulled at the cord again, saw it was secured in two places with Velcro. Using both hands, he pried it away and pulled.
Sarah wasn’t afraid of heights and she didn’t mind jumping. It was her children she was truly afraid for. The sputtering engine was a nice touch, and she wondered how much Trevor had to tip for that little trick to get Val and Matt to jump. Still, the Hispanic man (Meegul?) had fear in his eyes when he told them to get ready. Maybe it wasn’t a trick? She couldn’t be sure.
Trevor was always pulling pranks like that, always doing stupid stunts. He’d broken so many bones since she’d known him that she’d lost count. She loved his adventurous side, but he didn’t seem to understand that they had responsibilities now. Who would look after the kids if something really happened?
Who would look after her?
She started doing the makeup videos as a way to combat depression (and it worked, for awhile). When it turned out she was genuinely good at it and started making real money, it helped abate her own fear but not the worry she had for Trevor.
She understood the urge to stand near the edge and look down, the urge to push farther, jump higher. Maybe she didn’t understand the thrill-seeking side of it, but the urge was certainly something she could relate to. The little voice she’d been trying to quiet for years now was practically a scream, and some days it was all she could do to avoid thinking about the jump, the pills, the noose. She was scared of the gun, and if it came down to it, she’d probably use the pills. Then she’d think of her kids and felt the pull straight back to reality. She couldn’t do it, but she did understand the urge.
She hung in the air, thinking about how badly she’d botched the vacation. It was supposed to be a chance for her to reconnect with Valerie. They’d barely spoken in ten years. Sarah had two kids and though she loved her children, she missed her best friend. Did Val even know how much she needed her?
This vacation was supposed to cement their bond, rekindle the relationship they’d built since the second grade when she yelled at Patrick Riley for pulling Val’s hair in Ms. Rinker’s class. Over the years she’d spent more time with Valerie than anyone else in her life. Certainly more than Trevor.
It was her father’s recent confession of infidelity that rattled her so much. Forty years of marriage shattered with the revelation that he’d been cheating for thirty of them. A string of babysitters, then personal trainers, then the hussy her father had actually bought a condo for in Harbor Heights. A condo that cost more than her childhood home. And what of her own mother? How many inconsolable nights had she spent with her, talking her out of suicide, talking her down from a ledge?
It was exhausting and Sarah was starting to feel the toll.
She knew Val and Matt couldn’t have a baby, something about endometriosis or low sperm count. She couldn’t help but talk about her own kids. It wasn’t until she caught Matt glowering at her that she realized what she was doing—what her mom always did—become the center of everyone’s attention by not knowing when to shut the hell up. Maybe that’s what drove her dad away. Maybe it’d drive Trevor away someday.
She thought about this as the trees loomed closer. Falling into the trees now seemed a certainty, and her heart raced as she tried to steer away. Trevor had shown her how the last time they jumped, but these parachutes didn’t have the handholds and guide cords she was used to. She pulled hard to the left and that helped a bit, but there was nowhere to go—there was nothing but trees as far as she could see.
Wincing and tucking her legs, she came down hard through branches that smacked against her and bit at exposed skin. She screamed, tried to curl into a ball, then felt herself jolted back. When she opened her eyes, she was forty feet above the jungle floor. Hanging in mid-air, she caught herself before she panicked. So long as the parachute straps held, she’d be fine. She just had to wait for Trevor to come get her.
Miguel was terrified. Not of jumping—he’d made thousands of jumps ever since his sister taught him how. No, he was afraid for his family, his future, and for the tourists. He was certain a few of them had never jumped before, but that didn’t stop his sister, Maria, from taking their money plus a hefty extra to look the other way. Sure, they’d signed the waivers, and sure, it was incredibly stupid to jump solo your first time with no real training, which was why he was so worried.
Jumping at low altitude was hard enough. Landing would be harder and he wouldn’t be surprised if more than one of them had sprained or broken something.
He feared for the plane. They had no insurance and if Maria couldn’t get the engine started, it would crash. They had no license for tourists to skydive. They would lose everything, all their savings.
You can do anything if you try hard enough, his father had encouraged when they were young. Never give up. Hard work and determination meant nothing could stop you. But hadn’t his father given up? What life threw at him, drink finished off. Miguel didn’t want to end up like that. If they lost everything today, he wouldn’t have a choice.
He leapt after the last of the tourists but didn’t deploy his parachute until he was sure they’d all done so. He was mostly worried about the last man, the tall one called Matt, because the complete terror in the man’s eyes meant he wouldn’t be thinking straight. But Matt’s chute deployed below him, and at last Miguel pulled his 550 cord. He looked up and tried to find the plane, but it would be miles away by now. Maria would bail if it came to it, wouldn’t she?
He drifted on the wind and searched for the four yellow parachute blooms. Three were over the jungle, would likely land among the trees. The fourth, he wasn’t sure whose, was blowing out over water. Very dangerous.
He could see the field they were to jump to some twenty miles away near Tulum. There wasn’t much around in this part of the Yucatan.
He sped his descent. Get on the ground, find the tourists, cut some out of the trees they landed in, rescue the one in the ocean if they survived. He was trying to remember his first-aid training. How to splint a leg. Brace both sides with something stiff or just one? He had his cell phone. The tourists had to leave everything in a locker back at the air park. Miguel could call for help if it came to it, though this area had poor cell reception.
He was thinking about this when he spotted a small clearing. Just a section of growth where a few trees had been felled and the vines had choked any new trees from sprouting up. He aimed for it and as the ground rushed up, he caught it on bent legs.
Everything on this damn vacation was hosed. Trevor knew Sarah was upset. She had that dark look in her eyes he sometimes caught her with, that long stare like she was seeing through everything and looking into infinity itself and didn’t like what she saw. She’d been really down lately, and he couldn’t figure out why.
The kids were fine. Her makeup thing was doing great. She was pulling nearly ten grand a month—more than he’d ever earn racing or fixing engines. She should be damn happy but she wasn’t. He didn’t know if it was her dad’s cheating that got her worried or something else, maybe worry that he’d do the same thing? Trevor wasn’t like that.
There’s no telling when there’s doing, and he’d have to show her. Have to be the best husband he could be. Whatever it took. They talked about him going back to school—or at least she talked. He wasn’t the school type. He finished high school—barely. He wasn’t dumb, he knew that. He could do things most people couldn’t, understood things most didn’t. And not just about engines and cars and bikes and things. Like the way he could look at plumbing and it just seemed intuitive. He just wasn’t book smart.
Most people thought he was dumb. He remembered movie night with friends years ago. His closest, guys he’d known most of his life. He’d grown up with Terry and Sal, knew Dean from his dad’s garage. Movie night was supposed to be a chance to chill out, watch some action flicks, talk about girls. Everybody brought some snacks. He brought Fig Newtons. His grandfather always had them, kept them in a drawer in the kitchen. They were like a treat, a before-bed snack. Nobody wanted any so Trevor ate the whole package. Halfway into the first movie, his gut started rumbling, and he spent the rest of the night sitting on the john while his friends called him a dumbass.
But jumping, that was something he was good at. He’d always been an adrenaline junkie. Jumping was perfectly safe if you were careful, and he knew what he was doing. Shame about the plane, though. He couldn’t see it, could barely make out the other parachutes. His wife was going to land in the trees. He’d kept an eye on her the whole way down.
He’d get to her first once he touched down. Then go find the others. The wad of cash he gave to the flight crew was still worth it, even though they tried to call off the whole thing. Once he jumped and felt the wind buffeting him, he understood their reservations. He’d jumped in storms before, and the wind could spin your chute, turn you upside down, then you’d be back to freefall unless you could untangle your chute and get it to catch. Luckily that didn’t seem to happen today, though he couldn’t see everyone’s…
He’d been looking up when he slammed into the ground, and he felt the snap in his ankle.
For Valerie, everything was going wrong. Why wouldn’t the plane have a sudden engine issue that made them jump. Why wouldn’t the wind blow her out to sea. She wanted to cry, scream at what fate had handed her. This whole trip had been hell. She couldn’t reconnect with Sarah, she barely knew her anymore. And if she had to hear about her goddamned kids one more time…
Matt had told her not to take it personally, that Sarah was obviously going through some bad shit (his words), but it didn’t help the anguish she felt. Her best friend had changed so much that Valerie barely recognized her. Makeup tutorials? They used to make fun of girls who’d get all dolled up for no good reason, and now Sarah was making a living off of that.
Apropos, maybe: you hate something enough, you make money off of it. It was the superficial and superiority bullshit Val truly hated.
And falling into the water? Drowning beneath her own parachute? Well, that was just icing on a very shitty cake she’d been forced to eat her whole life.
She hit the water harder than she expected and sank immediately. Panicked, struggling to unbuckle the parachute, she looked up with eyes stinging from the saltwater as the chute drifted down, partially blocking the sun.
Her fingers were numb. She struggled with the clasps. The last was giving her trouble. Her lungs burned. She finally got it undone and shed the chute, then struggled to swim. She couldn’t surface beneath the parachute because it would block her; she wouldn’t be able to stay afloat or get a breath in. Unless she could swim past the parachute, she would drown.
She kicked her feet and scooped the water with both hands, struggling to surge forward. She had to survive, for herself, for Matt, for everything in her life that stood in her way.
She had to survive.
Joyce Ker is a freshman at Johns Hopkins University whose poetry has appeared in TAB Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Tule Review, Louisville Review, and Boxcar Poetry Review. She is a California Arts Scholar and alumna of the Iowa Young Writers’ Studio. Ker has been nominated for the Best New Poets anthology and the Pushcart Prize.