“I want you to come skydiving with me,” Jake says. She takes his hand and remembers when it was so tiny she had to count the fingers and toes to make sure they were all there. She remembers when they pulled him out of her body, slimy and wrinkled and angry, and she was afraid to breathe until she heard that first earth-shattering cry.
“I’m fifty-five years old, Jake.”
“Just this once. Please, ma.”
The first time Jake dived was during spring break last year. She’d been terrified he would end up splattered on the ground, a Jackson Pollock painting of human remains. Afterwards, he called from the airport, laughing. “See, ma? All in one piece!” He eventually got his A license and started diving solo. She tried to be happy for him, despite the dread that encircled her heart like a fist.
Now, as they drive out to the airport, she tells herself that this will make up for all the accumulated wrongs of their shared life. The absentee father, the string of disposable boyfriends. The way she put him in front of the TV each night because she was too tired from working double shifts to give him what energy she had left. She’d tried, and he’d never held it against her, but the guilt remained, as unyielding as granite.
The airport is little more than a landing strip with flat, cracked desert on all sides. A handful of tiny, two-prop planes are lined up in front of a hangar with peeling grey paint. Inside the office, a young, muscular man with unnaturally white teeth greets them and hands them paperwork to sign. Behind his head, a video plays on a small monitor — people falling, their smiles distorted by wind into grotesque grimaces. They tear down through the sky, coming together and then parting again, the chutes expanding from their bodies like blooming roses.
“Ms. White? Are you listening?”
“I don’t want to do this,” she thinks but does not say. Her son is looking at her, his eyes pleading, his hands clenched in his lap.
“Yes, I’m listening,” she says.
The instructor, whose name is Trevor, talks for a long time about proper positioning and wind. He explains that she will be going tandem, that he will be behind her the entire time. Jake will dive solo, and meet them on the ground.
When the briefing is done, they are handed pale blue jumpsuits to wear over their clothes.
“A real mother-son bonding experience, eh?” Trevor says, but she doesn’t answer.
On the plane, they put on seatbelts as a dark-skinned man in mirrored glasses climbs into the cockpit and starts the engine. He turns around to flash them a thumbs-up and in the reflective lenses of his glasses she sees Jake’s face, his pale cheeks blotched with pink.
“Stop worrying!” he shouts over the rumble of the engine.
The plane takes off and her stomach drops. They go up and up and up. Her son looks out the window, then leans close to her ear.
“It’s like heaven, isn’t it, ma?”
She nods and squeezes his hand.
When they get close to the drop zone, she feels with terrified fingers for the silver pull cord on her left side — the emergency chute. The cold metal reassures her, if only slightly. She looks out the window at the world spread out below — all brown desert, blue sky, and terrifying vastness.
Trevor gestures her forward, clipping himself onto her. The plane circles, getting into position, and with a great push Trevor slides the metal door open. The wind roars and snaps at their jumpsuits. She cranes her head, fighting Trevor’s bulk so that she can see her son. He stands behind them, ready to jump as soon as they have cleared the door. He is mouthing the words “I love you” but she does not have time to mouth them back because Trevor has stepped forward and they are falling, falling, falling —
And she remembers sitting in the doctor’s office holding her son’s hand, looking down at those fingers and toes that were too big and too strong to be those of a dying man. Her son cried when the doctor told him, and she held him then the way she’d held him as a baby, with his head pillowed on her breast.
Now, they fall from the sky like discarded angels, and he is right, she thinks, it is like heaven, although at the end she can’t see it through her tears, because she knows in her heart that her son will not open his chute.
Amber Foster has a masters degree in literature and is applying for a Ph.D. in creative writing later this year. Her work has appeared in Frostwriting, Absent Willow Review, and The Shine Journal, among others. She currently works as a scuba diving instructor on a small island off the coast of Honduras, and writes as a means to stay sane.