And Other Short Stories
For my wife Connie.
BookRix GmbH & Co. KG
Short Stories/Reggie Ridgway
Copyright © 2013 by Reggie Ridgway
All rights reserved. No part of this short story collection may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
The tow rope snapped taut as the street luge began to roll down the runway at ever increasing speeds. The hard scrabble tarmac's littered with small bits of scree, loose gravel and the surface was not entirely level. Lying supine, the luge driver hung on with all his might as his modified skate board jounced and slewed out of control. It's as though he's riding a giant roller-skate which jukes to the right and then jinked to the left. He has no sure way to steer it. He could only lean to either side in order to keep it on course. He wore a black leather coat and padded leather pants-which might help prevent some road rash should he accidentally crash or roll off. He's held fast to the board by a thick strip of Velcro, which secured him like glue to prevent him from bouncing off into the pitch-black-darkness of night.
A tow ropes connected to the underside of a cargo jet which was slowly taxiing out in preparation for takeoff. It's just after midnight. The small airport's almost deserted and full dark except for a paired necklace of blinking runway lights. Evidently, nobody had witnessed his preparations of hooking an elastic tow rope secured with a quick release mechanism. Security's lax at most of these small town airports. The luge driver has only to push a button to be released from the tow rope, and the other end would automatically detach as well. The rope would then fly off and fall away after unhooking. It was like the set up that towed glider planes utilize.
This is his first attempt to do this, and Brad's resolve to carry out an ultimate-extreme-jump's beginning to wane. He wasn't exactly afraid. He'd previously base jumped off buildings, cliffs, bridges, radio towers. Once from the basket of a hot air balloon, but this was the ultimate test of his wing suit. His friends called him the bird man. Now they may have to refer to him as the rocket man-if he lives to tell about it. His actions will be filmed and streamed over the social network sites via a cell phone helmet cam. A GPS monitor will record the speed and height of his assent and dissent. Recently, another base jumper had safely plummeted from outer space after leaping off a platform attached to a weather balloon. It'd garnered him a world record for a high-altitude-low-opening-base-jump. Or HALO for short.
Brad, a full time student at a local Junior College, currently has no job, and is relatively poor. He has no sponsors as of yet, only a growing fan base who're following his every death defying jump via his blog and his You Tube site. Maybe after this jump his video will go viral, and perhaps he'll finally get the sponsors he desperately needed. Then he'll have the financial backing to travel all over the world, and get paid exorbitantly well to leap off the top of the tallest mountains. And hopefully, he'd soon be transported to base-jump-sites via a helicopter, so he won't have to physically climb those mountains.
He'd already spent all the money he'd possessed to purchase the wing-suit on line. The suit is a prototype, and its designer would want to know how it held up to this rigorous test. It's made of very light yet strong synthetic material. It's the same durable material they use to make hot air balloons. He won't be jumping from the edge of outer space tonight, but so far nobody's ever been towed by a cargo jet, and released to free-fall from cruising altitude at 30,000 feet.
His audible altimeter would alert him if he's approaching the altitude where he'd need portable oxygen to survive. He didn't have any real safety equipment. No insulated pressure suit or oxygen respirator. Because he's rich with tenacity but poor with funds, he was literally going commando. A few brave souls have done many high-altitude-low-opening-jumps before. Mostly military skydivers who perform similar 30,000 foot-so called HALO maneuvers-after jumping from a passenger jet's fuselage hatch. But they had the luxury of using oxygen masks and proper safety equipment.
Red circles marked the location of the jet engines before him, like unblinking dragon eyes in the darkness. He gritted his teeth as the cargo jet began to lift off, and he felt a fierce tug as he was jerked upward. He glimpsed the ground rushing away beneath. He kept his head high. His goggles almost flew off his face from the sudden draft-which could be dangerous-as his eyeballs could burst from their sockets. He felt the gravitational pull increasing exponentially, and he glimpsed the lights of the city glittering far below. The tow rope's long enough to prevent him from being caught up in the fierce turbulence of the relative wind and forward speed of the twin turbine engines. He's dangling 30 feet or so from the jet's tail section. The pilots have no idea they had a hitchhiker.
In a few moments he'd be free falling, like a flying squirrel. He'd simply spread his wings and glide. The webbing between his arms, his torso and between his legs would slow his dissent somewhat. Like a kite, the wing suit will give him the lift to overcome the drag. He'd soon be soaring at over 200 mph, at Terminal Velocity. He'd be gliding at incredible speeds. He only has to turn his head and dip his shoulder in order to bank and yaw through the air, like superman. In truth, he'd actually be flying, circling the city below like an eagle coasting on thermals.
The thrust of the forward speed by the climbing jet's now approaching hundreds of mph. He wasn't sure how fast he's actually going, but the loose skin of his face was being waffled by the fierce currents. He fought to hold on, and to keep his street luge trimmed in the resultant jet-wash. The temperature's rapidly dropping outside. It's now freezing cold, and his goggles were becoming caked with ice crystals. His whole body began to quake and shiver as the effects of hypothermia started to kick in. He carried an emergency hook knife attached to his ankle by Velcro should he have to cut himself free of the tow rope or parachute lines.
His arms felt increasingly heavy. He wondered if he'd have the necessary strength to overcome the gravitational pull. He wasn't sure how many G's he's pulling at the moment, but it felt like he has an elephant sitting on his chest. Once free of the tow rope, he'd only have to lean forward a bit to be released from the Velcro covered luge. Like the tow rope, it would cast off and plummet to the ground. Currently, the jet's flight path took him out over the vast Arizona desert, so he didn't worry about someone far below getting hit by falling debris. He hoped he could locate his equipment later on, but he wasn't counting on it.
The moment he descended to a safe altitude, he'd pull a ripcord to release his chute, and simply glide back to earth. He hoped he'd be able to land somewhere close to town. He planed to use his cell phone to call a friend to pick him up. Or at least be able to dial 911 if he's injured in the landing.
He felt his speed slow down almost imperceptibly, as the jet aircraft's approaching cruising speed. He prepared to hit the release button on the tow rope. The clouds were becoming thick, making it difficult to locate where the red dots of the jet engines were anymore. Just as his wrist altimeter alarm began to squawk in earnest, he noticed a brilliant circle of light appear from out of the darkness. It's as if someone had turned on an enormous klieg light directly in front of him. He quickly pushed the tow rope release button, and lurched forward to disengage himself from the street luge. He felt himself tumbling forward into the slipstream in a free fall. He heard a roar like a locomotive passing close, and out of his peripheral vision he saw the cargo jet peel off away into the night. He wasn't actually falling just yet, and he even felt weightless for a long protracted moment. He pictured himself looking like a cartoon character comically levitating in mid-air after falling off a cliff. His stomach lurched, threatening to heave. He swallowed hard. He was glad it is empty.
He gulped in huge lungfuls of air, but suddenly realized he's having trouble getting a breath. The oxygen's getting too thin up here to breath. He felt as if he was about to black out. Absently, he watched the tow rope and his street luge detach and fall away. They disappeared into an inky blackness. He noticed it's preternaturally quite up here at 30,000 feet. The only sound he heard was his own heart galloping as he struggled to gasp for breathable air. He peered down and took in the expanse of city lights twinkling like a sequined blanket far below. With a galaxy full of stars shining all around, he was loosing his frame of reference. It was suddenly becoming difficult to tell if he's looking up or looking down. He discovered he was becoming dizzy and he felt a bit disoriented. Oxygen deprivation effects he suspected. Inexorably, he tumbled end over end, falling directly into the maw of the shimmering pool of light, like the relative calmness inside the eye of a swirling hurricane. There were lightening bolts and rippling waves of static electricity all around the opening. He felt weak and quickly discovered he didn't have the strength to stretch out prostrate in free fall in order to slow his dissent. He didn't have the capacity to attempt to spread his arm and leg webbings of his wing-suit. He couldn't even will his hand to reach across his chest in order to yank the rip cord, thereby releasing his emergency chute. He slowly held up his arms to examine his trembling hands. He was startled to see his skin glowing, turning a transparent sheen. He could make out the texture and joints of his bones. It was almost like looking at an X-ray. Abruptly, he began to loose consciousness, and it occurred at the same moment the bright light faded to black, like an iris of a cyclopean eye closing.
The sun began to slip behind a cloud bank beneath the horizon. A breeze began to pick up as temperatures fell into the low 70's. The air was crisp and rarified. Soon there would be dew on the leaves of the mostly wooded area surrounding Deadfall, Arizona. The small town's located somewhere between Flagstaff and Payson Arizona. Deadfall's a bedroom community for aging retirees and a few of society's outcasts. Instead of McMansions and subdivisions, there were scatterings of trailer parks and clusters of low rent apartments. Deadfall's only claim to fame was a small community junior college. People came here from disparate parts of Arizona to pick up a few low-cost academic prerequisites before transferring to the more prestigious, but expensive State University located in Flagstaff or Phoenix.
Brad stirred in a hammock made from boughs of spruce. When he opened his eyes he discovered he was lying facedown, suspended almost 30 feet off the ground. He looked around him and found his chute hung around the branches like bunting. He discovered he's twisted up in skeins of nylon chords, trussed up like a wild animal in a hunter's net. He gazed upward at the shimmering light of sunset filtering through the leafy canopy, and he contemplated the inconceivable. He must've slept all night and most of the next day. He screwed up his face in concentration. No matter how hard he tried to remember, his last cogent memory was tumbling ass over tea kettle into a spiraling cornucopia of bright light.
He concluded that he must've been hallucinated the bright light funnel. He must've eventually blacked out from oxygen deprivation. His emergency chute must've automatically deployed, activated by the altimeter release. His chute must've worked perfectly, effectively breaking his fall and saving his life. He must've slowly drifted into this copse of trees lining a farmer's plowed field located on the outskirts of town. He felt like he'd been run over by a bus, but on self examination he could find no broken bones. Only an abrasion on his forehead to attest to a rough, albeit uncontrolled landing. He felt for the hook knife secured to his ankle and was relieved to find it still attached. He stretched his fingers down the length of his leg until he could at last grab the handle. The effort caused him to break out into a full body sweat. He was breathing hard. He must be dehydrated. He licked his cracked lips. Reflexively, he grimaced when he attempted a dry swallow. He regretted not packing a water bottle and other survival essentials. He hadn't thought he'd need anything like that, as his plan hadn't allowed for this scenario.
After cutting himself loose, he took his time climbing down from the tree. It took the better part of an hour. He almost kissed the ground, but instead glanced upward and took in the sight of his parachute all twisted up in the branches. He'd have to abandon it for now and come back for it later. He didn't think he'd have the strength to retrieve it just now. He surveyed his surroundings. He took in the ambient sounds drifting over the empty field and bird chatter arising from the dense copse of trees. He recognized the sounds of sparse traffic coming from the interstate. He squinted, and barely made out the cloverleaf over by the bowling alley. If he took a bee-line path for the overpass. He'd soon be walking down Main Street within an hour. He had a few dollar bills stuffed inside a zippered shoulder pocket of his wing suit. He padded the front of his helmet and realized his cell phone was now missing. The strip of duct tape probably tore off and the cell phone must've fallen away during the crash landing. He searched all around, but turned up nothing in the dense carpet of pine needles and thorny brush. He had no flashlight and the darkness was quickly descending. He knew he'd have to endure some curious stares if he sauntered into one of the local convenience stores for some refreshments wearing a wing suit. Its not quite Halloween and he was dressed like he's some kind of superhero. He'd have to use a pay-phone to call a classmate to come and drive him the rest of his way home.
Brad reclined on the couch and watched television. He checked the time on the clock sitting on the rock hewn fireplace mantle. In a few hours, he planned to walk over to the fence lining the local airport. He would heave a blanket over the barbed wire, hoist himself up and drop to the other side. The former air force landing strip was old, and currently used mainly by single-engine-aircraft. There's no control tower. Every evening about this time, a big cargo jet landed to deliver mail and other sundries supplying this mountain community and its surrounding environs. The runway was sufficient for a large aircraft to land and take off. It'd once been used to train B-52 bomber pilots during WWII. The cargo jet always took off precisely at midnight, and he planned to hitch a brief ride and get towed to the edge of the earth's atmosphere. He checked and rechecked his equipment until he was satisfied. He finally began to relax. He tried to concentrate on the baseball game. His favorite team, the Texas Rangers, was playing. His stomach growled signaling he's getting hungry, but he knew better than to eat before base jumping. He always had butterflies before a jump anyway, and he didn't want to loose his lunch at 30,000 feet. It's still about four hours until he'd planned to set off for the nearby airport. The anticipation and exhilaration was threatening to overwhelm him. He considered the disturbing idea that this might be his last moments on earth. Many people have been killed doing far less dangerous stunts then he was about to attempt. Yet, he was hell bent to go through with it, even if it meant spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair or worse.
Just then he heard a vehicle pull up outside. He heard a car door slam. He could barely make out the muffled sound of a brief conversation. He heard the sound of a car pulling away into the night. Soon thereafter, he heard the unexpected creaking sound of his kitchen screen door opening and banging close. He wasn't expecting any visitors. He lived alone in his parent's old mobile home. He'd lived here all his life since both parents had died in a car accident a couple years ago. He had no career prospects, but he hoped going to college on his father's GI bill would provide him a golden ticket out of Deadfall. Instinctively, he reached for the Lewisville slugger he kept under the couch, and he stood up shakily to greet the visitor. He peered into the darkness leading down the hall. He could barely make out a silhouette shambling toward him. Whoever it was, he wasn't identifying himself. The way the person stutter-stepped and shuffled made him involuntarily shiver. It gave him the creeps, and his skin had goose bumps on goose bumps. Too many cheap zombie movies had sufficiently prepared him for the coming apocalypse.
He shuddered uncontrollably and called out in a subdued voice, "Who's there?"
"Who're you?" an irritated voice answered back. It was an eerie echo of his own voice.
An ethereal form emerged as it coalesced from the shadows. Brad stumbled backward abruptly in recognition. He almost cried out in alarm. He nearly fell over the coffee table. He dropped the bat. It clattered on the tiled floor. It was like looking at his own reflection in a carnival funhouse. There before him was a mirror image. Only vastly different somehow. He scowled when he realized the man's wearing a wing suit. He appeared filthy, disheveled and possibly injured.