by Nickalus Rupert
Retired Captain Chuck Salter stands at the edge of the cliff, reconstructed knees trembling. He has just wet his flight suit. Hundreds of feet below, the valley flashes green. Chuck doesn’t have to turn around to know what the others are up to. At his back, his teenage daughter Valerie sits alongside the other enrollees of Wild Sven’s High-Altitude Paragliding. They keep their fabric wings balled beneath their asses—a precaution against rogue gusts of mountain wind. Sven crouches behind Chuck, holding Chuck’s wing in the starting position, lest Chuck should summon the nerve to jump, which he won’t. He can’t jump, can’t turn around to reveal the horrid stain. He thinks of Captain Rosen, even though he promised himself not to. Rosen—the youngest, sharpest pilot in Delta’s lot. He who liked to build cutting-edge gliders from experimental materials. One morning Rosen was banking his carbon fiber ultralight at two thousand feet—a no-brainer—when the wings folded.
The shadow of a high-wheeling hawk slides over Chuck’s sneakers. Today is his and Val’s last day in the desert. Last day of sinus-withering heat and dry hardpan ruled by quick-footed lizards. Val has made a total of six successful launches from this cliff, has soared over the valley with the grace of a coked-up angel.
Chuck drags a foot toward the abyss. Murmurs and Oohs from the others.
“You can do it, Dad,” Val calls. He knows she’s ashamed of him.
“Jump, jump, jump-jump-jump,” Sven calls, clapping with each syllable.
Chuck’s blood is too thick for Arizona, even at this elevation. He’s sweating into his goggles, and the Gatorade he drank an hour ago rises sour against his tongue. Until Rosen folded, the risks had all felt theoretical. Catastrophe only applied to the careless. That final year, Chuck took to holding his breath on final approach. He hung an old horseshoe in the cockpit of every plane he flew, wore a necklace of rabbits’ feet. His copilots began to loathe him. For fifteen years, he’d jocked the skies with impunity. 747s, mostly. Atlanta to Madrid. New York to Barcelona, to Stockholm, to Moscow. Never a sick day, never a shaky hand. Supercell storms, night landings, icy mountain ranges—none of it had bothered Chuck.
“Nothing to worry about,” Sven calls. “You’re all over it this time.”
Chuck can tell by the sound of Sven’s voice that he’s not even watching. Probably piddling with his phone, informing his Twitter minions about the gray-headed weenie in this weekend’s bunch. Back in the Delta days, Chuck would’ve thumbed his nose at these amateur flyers and their shitty little kites.
The wind changes direction, blowing Chuck’s hair against the part. In training, they’d learned that mountains were treacherous, especially if you trusted eyes over instruments. You couldn’t fly a paraglider by wire—you had to read the wind according to how it ran against your cheeks. No cockpit, nothing to insulate you from all that open sky.
Chuck’s hair shifts to the other side. He watches a curl of dust rise from the precipice. He thinks of those dull meteorology classes. Something in there about small-scale convection, thermal instability. Rising heat, the Coriolis effect. Chuck has tried so hard to forget these things.
“Rotation,” someone calls. “We’ve got rotation.”
When Chuck turns—head only, so they won’t see the stain— the veins on Sven’s neck are straining even harder than usual. He casts his head right, then left, to track small swirls of dust and protein bar wrappers. Sven gives a warning cry, and all nine of his pupils dive to their bellies.
“Stop, drop, cover,” Sven bellows, “just like we practiced.”
No hypocrite, Sven releases Chuck’s wing and dives on his own. Chuck recalls the thousands of flight attendant safety demonstrations, how they always warned passengers to secure their own oxygen masks before helping others. Something truthful in there—something about selfishness.
Chuck’s glad he wasn’t up there with Rosen. He’s glad the man died alone. Even so, he finds himself resenting Sven ever harder.
Val calls to Chuck, begs him to cover his wing. An eddy spins up near Chuck’s feet, but it’s so weak, and Chuck has grown so heavy since retiring. He won’t dive, not with his new knees, and not over this goddamn dust devil, which grows taller by the second. Suddenly, he has become the boldest in the bunch.
“Just stop it,” he tells them. “Stop living your lives like a bad action movie.”
As if by the magnitude of his voice, Chuck’s wing snaps taut and he rises. In less than a second, the precipice sits very bar below. Chuck and his chute boomerang in and out of the vortex. His ears pop and he pukes fluorescent yellow. A hundred feet below, the whirlwind stirs heavy grit, dried grass, a few clueless lizards. A moment later, the wind has already dissipated, and Chuck is still very high, his wing half-collapsed. He grabs at the risers, steers toward the safety of the precipice, but he’s losing altitude fast. Chuck can feel the pressure of passing air on the foil. He can feel his cheeks flapping. Nine faces surge up at him.
He lands on the outskirts of a well-rooted thorn shrub. The pain is dazzling, but at least he has managed to stay out of the gorge. He reaches for his legs, which now swoop upward like two enormous cuts of elbow macaroni. Chuck’s is a weird frequency of pain—a storm surge of high yellow. True pain. His pain. He hasn’t felt anything like it in years.
The enrollees form a circle around Chuck, who bellows a cheer so loud that even Sven seems humbled. No doubt they can see what’s happened to his pants, but he no longer cares. When Val bends down to touch his face, Chuck gives her a high-five. Then he passes out to visions of motorless flight, the pull of acceleration.
When he comes to, paramedics are feeding his body into a rescue chopper, and he can’t help thinking this will cost a fortune. Chuck tries to fight them, but he’s too weak and broken. Sven places one hand on Chuck’s chest. The other cups Val’s shoulder.
“I’m proud of you, Dad,” Val says, staring at his broken legs. Chuck smiles. He feels himself blushing.
Just before they slam the door shut, he raises two broken thumbs and vows, by God, that he’ll be back for next year’s class.
Nickalus Rupert spent most of his life near the Gulf Coast of Florida. In 2015, he completed an MFA fellowship at the University of Central Florida. Currently, he is a PhD student at USM, where he works as an Associate Editor for Mississippi Review. His fiction is forthcoming in Slice Magazine and appears in The Literary Review, Pleiades, and others.