The clouds looked thick like a thousand wet cotton balls glued together in the sky. My brother and I drove five hours through the Tennessee cold to arrive at an open field with a barn-style home in the front. He flicked the last of his cigarette out of the window of our shared Honda Accord before turning the engine off. I stepped out of the car to welcome the cool breeze, feeling the tip of my nose turn pink. I pulled the sleeves of my worn t-shirt over my knuckles and turned to my brother.
“You think it’s okay to jump if it’s this windy?” I asked.
He lifted his small frame from the car and shrugged, “Not sure. But we drove too far to back out now.”
I stared into the empty field and back to my brother. He was wearing our mother’s gray hoodie with faded letters of some college on the front. His jeans hung loose, and his shaggy brown hair looked orange from a bleach spill from his latest part time job. I focused my attention back to the field when I noticed a plane roll through in the distance. It was smaller than I imagined, resembling a toy figurine. My eyes followed blue and green stripes to the tail of the plane. I felt my stomach sink when I noticed the propellers begin to swirl and the plane lurch forward.
“It’s going to be fun, trust me,” my brother said, throwing an arm around my shoulder, and gently leading me to the entry of the barn in the same casual way he had since we were kids.
We entered the house and I noticed the entire back end was open to view the field in plain sight. It reminded me of a punched-out picture frame. There was a group huddled around a television in bright jumpsuits and a part of me wondered if I got to choose my own color.
“Yall first timers?” a tall man asked, approaching us from behind the front desk.
“Are we that easy to read?” I said, laughing nervously.
“Nah, but I always like to ask. You know we’re the most dangerous jump around, right?” The man laughed, “Just messin with you two, names Mark,” he said, shaking my hand.
“I’m Emma and this is my brother, Kent,” I said, pointing behind me where my brother was checking out the snacks laid out on a plastic table.
“We got the Groupon for Christmas,” I said, “I convinced Mom it’d be a good present for him, and she was convinced I needed to go with him.”
“Gotta love a woman that knows how to save a buck,” Mark smiled, “Ya’ll follow me around and we’ll get ya checked in” he said, waiting for Kent to finally grab some fruit snacks and join us toward the front.
The interior was minimal. There was a front desk with a computer and a small room behind it that held most of the skydiving gear. There was a television with five metal school chairs set up in front of it to explain how un-safe diving out of a plane can be and the plastic table with snacks on it. The rest of the space, I assumed, just gave room for people to pace while waiting their turn in line.
Mark explained a few things while Kent and I filled out the waivers.
“NOT LIABLE FOR DEATH OR INJURY” was bolded and appeared 3D against the white of the paper. I quickly scribbled my name before pushing the paper aside and biting the cuticle on my thumb until I noticed the metallic taste of my blood. We were then escorted to the room behind the front desk to strap on our harnesses and were given the option to wear the brightly colored gear. I felt more comfortable in my hand me down navy-blue t-shirt and black yoga pants. We sat down to watch a video warning us of the potential dangers of the sport. The TV was old, and the video appeared to be from the 70’s due to the cheesy theme music and bad cinematics.
I checked my brother’s profile out of the corner of my eye. I looked at my worn cuticles then to his eyes that were slightly hazy, almost like he was about to fall asleep. The screen turned to complete static as a tall woman hurried excitedly into the small space.
“That was amazing!” said to no one particular, until another figure emerged behind her.
“Told you the extra 8,000 feet would be worth it!” The man behind her said.
I turned to my brother who smirked, “I wasn’t even gonna ask, don’t worry,” Kent told me.
Two men who looked around their 30’s approached us and asked, “Ya’ll ready?”
I stared at my hands, now clammy, and said, “Too far to turn back now I guess,” and my brother and I followed behind them. We walked into the field and I let the coldness of the day run through me once more. I asked my guide question after question like how long he had been diving? and had anyone he jumped with been injured? as he attached my harness to his own until the tightness caused me to stop talking. We boarded the plane along with five others who I had not met. The first man had white hair and square wire glasses. His name was Carl and he was celebrating his 70th birthday. He did not appear nervous and I let him tell me about his grandchildren as I tried to not pay attention to the ground slipping from my view. The plane was small and could only hold around 8-10 people. There were no actual seats, only two wooden benches that shifted a little as the plane bounced through the sky. The side of the plane where a door should be was completely open, allowing the March cold to fill the cabin space. The ride up was jerky, and the plane creaked and moaned as it ascended. It took around fifteen minutes to reach 10,000 feet into the sky. I had not accounted for the ride up to take so long and my nerves that had started in my stomach began to make its way throughout my entire body.
Henry, my guide, further adjusted my harness until I could no longer feel the circulation in my thighs. A video my roommate had showed me of an elderly lady hanging on after slipping through her harness flickered through my mind, but I immediately felt safe knowing mine would not budge. As I glanced into the thick clouds, Henry was telling me what to do when it was our turn to jump. He told me to keep my legs together and my arms spread out like a bird. His body was bigger than mine and his limbs were going to be spread further, like a protective shield, while I was to keep my body controlled beneath him. I was second to jump after Carl. Henry turned the camera on and asked me how it felt as we were inching toward the open space where the door of the plane should have been.
“Nervous, but ready. I love you Mom, and sorry!” I said shakily toward the GoPro attached to his helmet. I looked toward my brother and mouthed “good luck” before glancing at the white underneath me. Henry began counting 1…2… and then pushed us into the March air. We did a full flip before I could focus on the free fall. Whiteness whipped around me and small pellets of rain shot at my face. I was reminded of days on Lake Hickory, riding at the front of a friend’s boat and letting the wind slap me in any direction. We dipped through the final cloud and then I felt my body jerk upright. I let out my first breath since the free fall and screamed, “This is fucking awesome!”.
I had a literal bird’s eye view of the Tennessee land. Fields of dull green stretched around me, and the buildings looked like snowflakes on the ground. I could not feel my fingertips, or face, but I knew that I was smiling. The ground kept moving closer as I heard Henry tell me to pick my legs up as we land. When we became level with the trees a gust of wind shot us back into the sky. My heart began to race as I saw the ground coming faster and clearer than before. I heard Henry yell something about an air socket before we tumbled like a soccer ball onto the field. At first, nothing seemed too painful, just an ache in my shoulder. Henry was upright behind me, still attached, when he asked if I was all right.
“I think I’m good” I mumbled, trying to stand when I noticed my right ankle. I felt my bone scrape over bone like sandpaper on wood. I looked back at Henry who had grown pale. I laughed a little and said, “So much for Groupon” before leaning back to shift the weight off my lower body. I could feel the adrenaline still coursing through my body. My heartbeat was quick, but more from the jump than my ankle break. I could tell that my body was still in shock, and I was thankful that the bitter coldness mixed with my adrenaline rush acted as a natural pain reliever.
My brother landed shortly after, about 100 yards away. I watched as he high fived his guide with the biggest grin plastered on his face before walking over to me. He had always been an adrenaline junkie.
“Taking a little rest?” he asked, too distant to notice my ankle twisted too far to the right.
“I thought the scenery on the ground was a little nicer,” I replied hesitantly, remembering how he reacted the last time I broke a bone. He started jogging when he noticed my face falter. I looked at my ankle and wondered if I should conceal the bulging bone. When I broke my jaw awhile back, my brother had to run to the bathroom to keep from getting sick. Before I had time to act, my brother noticed my swollen ankle.
“Holy shit,” he said, stopping in his tracks, and turning around to collect himself before grabbing my hand. Henry detached himself from my harness and ran to grab a stint.
“I don’t think you should walk,” Kent said, using all his strength to not look toward my leg.
“I don’t think I can,” I said, watching my ankle swell and change to an odd shade of blue. Henry walked back over and took a closer inspection of my ankle before declaring it officially broken. I laughed out of nervous habit and he asked if I wanted an Oxy. I looked at my brother who looked away and I told him I would be fine if I could just get up and go to the closest emergency room. Henry looked around then back to me.
“I’m just gonna be straight with you. The closest ER is an hour out and I’m not sure if your ankle has a pulse,” he said. This time I laughed with my whole body.
“A pulse? What, so now my ankle’s like a heart?” I said.
“What I’m saying is I’d rather get you to the hospital in an ambulance,” Henry said, looking directly into my eyes. It was the first time I was scared about the situation. My brother immediately answered, “Call them now”. The ambulance took what felt like ten minutes to arrive. Later, my brother told me it was closer to an hour. The lady in the ambulance was a petite woman with fiery red hair. I instantly felt connected to her. She told me about how she shattered her hip paragliding and how she would do it all over again given the chance. I told her I was not that brave, as she slid a morphine drip into my arm. I started to fade into a haze when I looked over to see my brother holding my hand. His face wasn’t pale, like he was about to throw up. He wasn’t hiding behind my mom the same way he had when I broke my jaw. His grip was firm like he alone was going to piece my broken bones back together. My mind began to wander when I heard his voice by my ear, “You know you are that brave, Em. I promise” before I drifted off into the whiteness of my dreams.
It has been three years since the accident and two things have changed. My ankle throbs when the weather turns cold, and my brother has passed away. Skydiving was one of the last times that I remember my brother the way I want to remember him. From an early age, he was always the most spontaneous person in our family. He was always willing to try something new if it got his heart beating fast and kept his mind in the present. His need for an adrenaline rush turned to drugs when we began high school. I never noticed the needle marks until after he admitted he needed help. Skydiving was a delicate dance for the two of us. He was in between rehabs, and jobs, and I was a broke college kid willing to try something only my brother would enjoy for the sake of trying to comprehend his need to fill a void. When I was younger, I broke my jaw in a cheerleading accident. When I came home after surgery, Kent hid behind my mother and closed his eyes because he could not stand to see me in pain. I always questioned if he turned to drugs because he could never bear the weight of all the pain in the world. I have nine pins and one plate holding my ankle together after that cold March day. When the weather turns frigid, the pins ache and my ankle moans like the hum of that small airplane soaring into the sky. I take a second and appreciate that while I still feel the ache, it reminds me of the time where my brother stayed by my side when I needed him most.
Emma Jane Dahlsten is a writer from Asheville, North Carolina. She is a current graduate student at the University of North Carolina Asheville pursuing a degree in Liberal Arts, where she has been working to find her voice in suspenseful short stories. Her interests include hiking, traveling, and reading extremely cheesy romance novels.