“How are you feeling, Pete? Sure you’re ready for this?” The Pilot stands at the bottom of the metal steps. His smile is welcome, but forced. It serves only to stir up the fluttering wings in my stomach.
I look skyward before answering. A few wispy strands of candy floss cloud mar an otherwise glorious morning. I couldn’t have asked for better conditions, but even that reassurance isn’t helping. I’m stuffy, hot, uncomfortable. The light breeze is doing just enough to mess up my hair, but not enough to cool me down. The straps and webbing feet tight, the bulky pack is unbalancing.
“Well, it’s a bit late to change my mind.” I glance across the tarmac and notice my fellow jumpers have started to make their way towards us from the within the deep recess of the aircraft hanger.
“I have done this before, once or twice.” The Pilot pats me on the shoulder. “Trust me, it’s all under control.”
I nod. But the fluttering refuses to subside. Am I really ready? Ready to face my deepest fear?
“I want you to live your life. Promise me!” After four years of blissful marriage, those had been Melissa’s last coherent words. The cocktail of drugs had eased her pain through those final hours, but had left her catatonic. She’d been unable to return the grip, but I’d squeezed her hand in response. Held it tight, until the end.
For a long time after, I’d been unable to exist. Unable to face the passing days, knowing that Melissa wouldn’t be there to share them.
Her brother, Tom, had rescued me, reminding me of her last words. He’d pushed me back out into the world, and made me keep that final promise.
“I’m going to do it. Today.” I’d phoned him that morning, before making my way to the airfield.
“Good for youn Pete, it’s about bloody time you manned up!” Tom always told it straight.
I climb the metal steps, find a seat in the hollow belly of the twin prop. The other jumpers follow me in, excited, their bright humour a glaring contrast to my nervous darkness. But, I cannot hide my emotions. These are more than my fellow jumpers, they are my colleagues, my friends. I can read them as easily as they can read me.
“Didn’t overdo it last night, did you, Pete?” Mike chuckles, backing into a seat next to mine.
“You okay, Honey? Looking a bit pale.” Karen sits on my other side, and gives my leg a reassuring squeeze.
I nod, but cannot manage a reply. My throat tightens, my knees lock, my head swims. A bead of sweat runs down my forehead, then drips from nose to lap. The plane taxies, my heart starts to race. The curved walls of the plane close in on me, sending a flush of water into my mouth. I close my eyes, breathe deeply, tell myself over and over; it’s going to be fine.
I have to do this.
I want to do this.
The plane lurches, dragging itself from the tarmac and into the air. There is no going back now.
The engine’s monotonous drone sends an odd vibration through the bench style seats. Around me, the excited conversation continues. I am trapped between worlds. Unable to join their camaraderie, or share in their banter, but I need a distraction from the nauseating hum.
I look up at the curvature of the ceiling, focus on a point as the plane levels out. Try desperately to control my breathing.
I keep my eyes averted as I sense movement around me. Their chatter has stopped; my colleagues prepare themselves. Karen brushes back past me. Close enough that I can smell the caffeine on her breath, and taste of the warm haze of her perfume. But I don’t meet her eyes, don’t want to betray the vast chasm of my fear.
A dull mechanic clunk echoes through the hull. Followed by the whoosh of air, and the increased howl of the engines, as the door is thrown wide. Through the gap, the sky looks perfect, and I have to have faith. I stand, on legs of lead, with knees of jelly.
“Go, go. Go!”
The belly of the plane becomes empty as my colleagues launch themselves through the gap, and are swallowed by the sky.
It’s my turn.
Wind buffets my face, ruffles my clothes. The world opens up, horizons dizzyingly magnified. I fly, and with it comes a rush of elation.
My colleagues are near. We circle in the air, matching speeds, altitudes. Closing in, we grip hands in perfect formation. Switch grips. Spin away from each other, setting off the coloured smoke from the canisters strapped to our legs. All exactly as we’ve practised a thousand times.
Now for the hard part.
I’d always loved sky diving and parachuting, since my Army days. In the five years following Melissa’s loss, the Jump Display Team had become my new family, supportive, reassuring. Necessarily we were a tight unit, we trusted each other, relied upon each other. Bonds had grown, friendships had ultimately blossomed.
Their strength, and Tom’s encouragement, have enabled me to live again. But I don’t feel complete. Not quite. Not yet. I’m still only one part of a whole, and more than anything I fear a repeat of that wrenching loss.
But, as Tom had said, it was time to man up.
Karen spins toward me, our hands lock, our eyes meet. We’ve done this a hundred times in the air, countless in training, but today is special. Today I change the rules, and the routine. I let go of her hand, and point.
Confusion clouds her expression, then she looks down.
Below us, on the ground, fourteen huge letters spell out four simple words. One very frightening question. Will you marry me?
A long time fan of flash fiction, James Coates‘ often quirky stories can be found in a variety of print magazines and anthologies, as well as online. Most recently, he has appeared in the flash fiction anthology ‘Scraps’, and has been a competition winner at 1000words.org.uk. If you really want to, you can follow him @Brev_.