By Thomas Yuhas

The girl with the backpack arrives at her clearing in the woods at dawn, her eyes on the sky. Through the jagged silhouette circle formed by the tops of the tallest pines—the sentinels of her secret—she can see the stars just starting to fade, their midnight blue ocean fleeing westward from a tidal rush of violet and orange. For now though, the stars remain, and they wink at the girl playfully, excitedly, as if they know what she’s about to try.

She scuffs the needle-strewn ground with her shoe, and in the early morning quiet the chk chk chk joins a spare ensemble of small sounds. She tells herself to stop wasting time here—she can feel the telltale tension building in her legs, and she couldn’t have asked for a clearer day to make the jump—and yet as she stares up at the open air and the test that awaits her there, she can’t help pawing at the ground with toe and heel, and breathing deep the familiar fragrant sweetness of her clearing. The scent reminds her of all the time spent here—dipping her toes into her newly manifested power, making tentative jumps into the upper boughs of the pines, many of them now conspicuously delimbed and debarked in spots from her repeated descents back to the safety of the ground. And it also reminds her of why today is necessary—how her power grew until a day came when, using only a fraction of her strength, she overshot the tops of the trees by ten feet, and how only a lucky grasp of a spindly neighboring treetop had rescued her from breaking on the ground below.

She hasn’t jumped in weeks—not since she promised herself she wouldn’t jump again until she could find her own way back to the ground. She considers once more the choice implied by her promise—whether she should simply never try using the power again, staying safe on the ground. But it’s a false choice, she knows—a road that leads her back to the same clearing in the woods, to the power demanding to be spent and the same trees and the same painfully limited jumps and the same fatal fall that lurks on even those most cautious of expeditions. 

So she picks her spot and straps the altimeter to her wrist, reviewing in her mind the skydiving checklist she found online—the closest semblance of a solution to her unprecedented problem—and telling herself it’s close enough. She puts on her helmet, tightens the backpack straps around her arms and legs and waist, checks the ripcord one last time. And then she lets the sensation flow, unrestrained, for the first time. 

It starts in the tips of her toes, then moves into her feet, her ankles, her legs—a golden invincibility, bottled into muscle and sinew. Flashes of alternating excitement and terror strobe through her mind, and she starts to count down from ten. But she doesn’t even wait until four before swinging her arms and crouching low and exhaling deep and freeing the long-trapped power to take her where it needs to go. 

The last thing she feels is the ground shattering underfoot. Pine needles fly, and she’s gone.

She wakes in the sky—still rising, just in time for the peak. She checks the altimeter, and it nearly takes away what little breath she has, but she forces herself to look at it, to understand, because it is unbelievable, because it is important, because she is 10,000 feet in the air and she will die if she does not comprehend and react accordingly. 

At the peak, everything goes still. There are no birds here, no squirrels, no wind, no trees, no sounds, no smells. Just a cold clear quiet space, awash in dawn’s finest colors. She looks up at the fading stars and they wink at her—cosmic tricksters, no closer than they were before.  

And then there’s a terrible lurch—a twist in reality as the horizon rolls in a way it was never meant to, fully and massively—as gravity takes jealous revenge for the girl’s transgression. For a heart-shaking instant the stars that were above her are now at her feet, and the ground, now up, approximates a jagged green-brown sky roaring down on her. Hastily, the girl releases her drag chute—a quick jerk—and splays her limbs. The acceleration slows. 

And then she levels out, and suddenly all that’s left is to fall. But it isn’t falling, because the ground isn’t down anymore, and nor is the sky up. At her head and her feet is only horizon. She moves closer to neither, and so she does not move. She’s on a different plane now, floating between the lines, an oil painting before her and a watercolor behind. 

She tries screaming, but her sound waves trail behind her, lost to the atmosphere and the crash of air in her ears. So she laughs instead, loud and full and for no one to ever hear. She sees the textured dark before her and feels the glow of the rising sun on her side. And she breathes, slowly and calmly, mastering this new feeling and making it her own. 

When the altimeter tells her, she pulls the cord. The deceleration rattles her as the parachute unfurls from her pack and sends the sky and the ground shuddering back to normality. She grabs the handles, taking command of her fall and steering herself towards the field beside the forest. She dares not scream now, without wind in her ears and with houses suddenly in sight, but she grins up at the yellow chute. No more sliding down the trunks of trees, no more shuffling her feet, no more fearing herself. She has a way back from the sky.

The ground rises slowly to meet her. She eyes the deceptive distance, waiting until the last possible second—and then one more, until the remains of last season’s stalks brush her soles. She tries to land on her feet.

Thomas Yuhas has never been published, so this is pretty cool.

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