by Valerie Ngai, Age 21, USA
Artwork by Lucy Zhang
The fiction prompt for February required the submission to begin with this line: “The minute my eyelids fluttered open, I was aware that I was not in my own room.”
The minute my eyelids fluttered open, I was aware that I was not in my own room.
The air conditioning in my room back at the base always blew too hard and rattled like the snap that was echoing in my head. That’s how my oxygen-deprived brain decided to explain the facts.
But the facts were that I was not in my room. I was still in free fall, with less than 15,000 feet to go.
Without a parachute. And without Conrad.
20,000 feet earlier
“We weren’t supposed to steal a plane!” I said as I rifled through the first aid kit. “Headquarters specifically told us to finish surveying the camera systems and then meet the rest of the team at the rendezvous point. We’re R&D engineers, not James Bond!”
“Well, that was before security noticed us and turned our van into a colander!” Conrad replied, his hands hovering over the controls. He glanced at the pile of Band-Aids and cotton swabs on the floor. “Do you want me to bandage your wrist?”
I shook my head as I unrolled a couple of bandages. Conrad may be able to construct a WiFi hotspot with only my retainer, salad dressing, and a melted super ball, but his wrapping skills are a mummy’s worst nightmare. “Have you ever even flown a plane before?” I asked.
“Well…no,” Conrad admitted, flipping a couple of switches back and forth. “But I wrote the manual for this one. That’s why––” He broke off as the plane shuddered and veered so steeply that the first aid kit slid across the cockpit. A red light flashed on the control panel. “And that’s why this one was so easy to steal.”
“I need you to listen to me very carefully, Julia, because at this altitude, we’ll probably lose consciousness within a couple minutes of jumping,” Conrad instructed. We’d only found one emergency parachute pack, so Conrad had strapped us both to it. “This pack contains a main parachute and a reserve parachute. When I pull the ripcord, you need to hold on tight to me. Very tight.”
“How much weight can this parachute hold?” I asked.
“Two hundred pounds.”
I shot Conrad a look as he checked the buckles yet another time.
“Yes, I know that’s fifty-three pounds short of both of our weights combined,” he said, managing to avoid my look even though we were strapped to each other.
“What’s going to happen when you pull the ripcord?” I asked.
“We’ll hear a snap,” Conrad replied.
I snapped my fingers sarcastically and raised an eyebrow. “A snap?” I repeated.
“When a material is under tension, it either holds or it breaks,” Conrad said, wrenching the lever on the emergency exit door. The door fell away, and we were hit by a freezing blast of air so loud that I could barely hear Conrad’s next words before we jumped. “That snap will be one of those two things.”
Less than 15,000 feet to go
Where was Conrad?
Turning my head wildly, I tried to take a survey of my surroundings despite the wind tearing at my eyes. Parachute, obviously gone. Arms and legs, thoroughly chilled but still attached. Brain, probably only good for five more minutes of consciousness.
I couldn’t see our plane, but the twisted remains of the main parachute were already falling below me. And––there was Conrad, a few yards to my right.
I hadn’t fallen far from him, but right now, the only thing my brain wanted was to shut off and let me turn into a secret agent splat.
“Stay awake, Julia,” I told myself. “Eyes open. Move your arms.”
After trial and error of paddling and flailing, I somehow got close enough to grab one of the broken straps, but Conrad didn’t respond. His skin fluttered in the freezing wind and his lips were blue.
I unwound my wrist bandages and began tying myself to the straps, praying that it would hold. “Over. Under. Pull,” I said, talking myself through the motions. “Sleep later. Stay awake. Eyes open. Stay awake…”
All I needed now was to pull the ripcord for the reserve parachute.
“Hold on tight. Very tight…,” I mumbled, repeating Conrad’s words as my fingers closed numbly around the ripcord ring. I wrapped my arms around Conrad’s neck and pulled.
My vision went black—my head too thick and fuzzy to fight anymore.
But the last thing I heard was a snap.
Valerie writes, “I love the challenge of writing because it’s like painting with words. Every word has it’s own particular shade and it’s up to you to choose the right one to create the picture you’re seeing.”