Speed Demon


Leon W. Malinofsky, Jr.

Kelsey stopped the engine of his battered red Honda in the lot of the parachute club. It was high summer, and the smell of warmed grass and the droning of bees reminded him of his childhood in Arizona. Kelsey sat for a moment, savoring.

The parachute club was a narrow wooden addition to the main hangar at the Turners Falls airport in beautiful western Massachusetts. Kelsey thought of the good times he'd spent there. It had been only last summer he'd taken up skydiving, and already his log book showed over three hundred jumps. His pals called him the jumping fool. He had gone for jumping wholeheartedly. Three hundred jumps per year, they told him, was "hard-core."

Kelsey smiled as he went to the back of his Honda, popped the hatch, and pulled out his gear bag. Everything the diehard skydiver needed: rig, frap hat, jumpsuit, altimeter, goggles and gloves. Shouldering the bag, Kelsey made his way to the clubhouse.

Kelsey walked in, between the manifest window and the long narrow table used for repacking reserves. At the end was a cozy living room stuffed with four discarded sofas club members had found and carted in for general lounging. On the longest of these, against the left wall, lay Peter, entwined with Shireen, his current squeeze. They weren't saying much, just watching a video playback of someone's recent jump, some footage Peter had shot with his new camera-helmet setup.

Kelsey flopped down on the sofa opposite Pete and Shireen. They looked completely at ease in each other's arms. Kelsey repressed a keen lance of pain as he remembered Lara, her awful motorcycle wreck, and the reason he had thrown himself into jumping with such abandon. It was hardest at moments like this, when he saw couples like Shireen and Pete. After Lara's funeral, Kelsey had stayed in his room for a month, in and out of sleep and alternating periods of depression and denial. In freefall, it was impossible to think or feel about anything but the present.

"Sufferin' succotash," Kelsey thought to himself, imitating Sylvester the Cat. He could always get a smile picturing Sylvester's slobbery expression of dismay. Sufferin' succotash.

Kelsey felt like succotash.

Pete unlocked his gaze from the video screen and his arm from around Shireen. Sitting up, he yelled, "Kel! 'Bout time you dragged your mangy butt in here. If you fill the slot, we've got a load!" Kelsey's attention returned to the room.

"Who's on it?", he asked. Kelsey hoped Chris and Bobert were around. They were great jumpers and a dive with them was always a good time.

"Chris and Peaker" said Peter. "And me and my honey, too." Gazing fondly at Shireen. Pain shot through Kelsey's heart.

He smiled. "Dave got the 206 ready?" It was really a perfunctory question. The club's plane was always ready to go.

"Yo! Let's go! Gear up!" whooped Pete. "Skydive!"

Pete and Shireen were already hopping for their gear. Kelsey zipped open his pack, dumped it out in a corner of the floor, and began to pull on his jump suit. His rig, a custom Vector V5, came next. Kelsey tightened the leg straps, threaded the chest strap through the altimeter mount, and made it secure. He carefully zeroed the altimeter to the field elevation and pressure. Goggles, gloves, and a quick check of the calibration of his AAD. Green for go. "Sufferin' succotash," thought Kelsey to himself. Right as rain. Showtime.

Kelsey stepped out the club's side door in his equipment. Pete, Shireen and the others were standing in a circle planning the dive. Bobert had somehow managed to weasel on to the load. A six-way.

"Come on! Come on!" Called Pete. "You snooze, you lose, buddy!" Kelsey smiled. Everyone knew Kelsey never missed out on a load by dawdling.

Kelsey joined the circle. Chris and Peaker wanted to do a star, followed by a donut flake, and then a zipper. That sounded good to Kelsey. He didn't like backins much, and three points was a good, casual dive.

"Breakoff at thirty-five hundred" said Pete. "Let's go!"

Kelsey and the others hiked over to the plane, a Cessna 206 that Dave, the pilot, already had running. Shielding his face from the prop wash, Kelsey climbed in and took his position against the far wall in front of Peaker, pressing his pack as far back as possible between Peaker's legs. It was common skydiver lore that the art of jump plane loading had originated in a school of sardines. Kelsey could have fit a bit tighter, but not closer. Peaker was on the hefty side, with very thick thighs.

Kelsey helped roll down the door, and settled in as the plane taxied to runway 34. Dave was an old hand at jump piloting, and wasted no time getting the 206 airborne. Kelsey already had his ear plugs in; a 206 was loud and could do a good job of rattling the ear drums. The Turners Falls airport fell away below, replaced by the beautiful vista of the Pioneer Valley and the Connecticut River. Kelsey closed his eyes, lulled by the drone of the engine. It would be about twenty minutes to jump run.

Alone with his thoughts, Kelsey let his mind wander. When it veered too close to Lara, he forced himself to concentrate on the engine sound and the chilly fingers of wind fluting in past the Velcro that held the canvas jump door shut. Star, donut, zipper. Sufferin' succotash. Sufferin' succotash.

As their altimeters read within a thousand feet of exit altitude, the skydivers began clambering to their knees. Kelsey kept an eye out the window, and when Dave turned onto jump run, signaled the others. Thumbs up. Chris and Peaker began to roll up the door, securing it with another strap of Velcro.

Chris was spotting. His head craned out the door into the wind blast as he sought a straight-down perspective from the airplane. Ten seconds short of the spot, he yelled "Cut!", and climbed out, his toe tips in the lip of the door and his hands on the gripper handle above and outside. Pete and Shireen followed, hanging face-in like Chris. Kelsey, Peaker and Bobert pressed out tightly against them "Ready," yelled Peter, "set, go!" The group of jumpers spilled out in a tight mass.

The first point was easy: a star, the most basic of formations. Peter and Shireen were already lying side by side in freefall, holding hands and facing Kelsey and Peaker. Chris flew into his slot beside Shireen, taking her left hand in his right. Kelsey flew to Chris, grasped Chris' free hand in his right. Bobert and then Peaker closed the circle, filling in between Peter and Kelsey.

The six of them lay in stable freefall, bellies to earth, hands linked in a circle. Peaker, as last in, gave a nod. At his signal, the jumpers broke grips and hovered for an instant in place before dipping a shoulder just slightly to turn in place. As each jumper pivoted clockwise he was able to grip the cuff of the forward man's left leg in his left hand. The formation built smoothly, though Bobert floated a bit. Donut flake.

All eyes were toward the center. Peaker again keyed the next point with a nod. Again the jumpers broke grips and transitioned to two parallel lines facing the horizon. Hands of the left line linked with hands of the right. A perfect zipper.

Kelsey checked his altimeter. They still had almost five thousand feet. They held the zipper for a few seconds, exultant. Then, just above thirty-five hundred feet, each jumper wheeled outwards, folded arms back delta fashion, and extended legs in a hard track away from the others. Kelsey felt his speed increase as the track decreased his body's surface area to the relative wind. His altimeter wound faster toward two thousand feet.

Just before he flared into normal body position to slow for his opening, Kelsey saw something. It was a jumper. But it couldn't be! The figure was at least five hundred feet below. Kelsey's heart leaped. No one should be that low without an open canopy. In shock, he almost missed his opening altitude. Another five hundred feet and his AAD would have fired, popping his quick-opening reserve. The shock of such an opening at terminal velocity could herniate a disc. Kelsey cursed himself as his main canopy flowered open. Though he searched the skies below, the figure seemed to have vanished like a ghost.

"Sufferin' succotash," Kelsey said with feeling. The cartoon expression no longer sounded ridiculous to him. It came out unbidden. Kelsey quickly looked up at his just-opened canopy, reached up, unstowed the brake lines, and veered in a sharp arc toward the landing zone. Colorful canopies dotted the sky. His friends converged gracefully on the target. Kelsey's touchdown was soft, like stepping off a curb. He hit the ground running, turned and watched his canopy lose air. Pete was calling to him.

"Hey Kel," he joked, "looks like you went a bit low, buddy." Kelsey was in a state of unreality, not sure he had seen the phantom skydiver. He joined the other jumpers heading for their ride.

The 206 taxied opposite them on the grass beside the runway. The prop was still generating a stiff wind as the jumpers, struggling to contain their flapping canopies, bombed in through the same door they'd jumped from a few minutes ago. With everyone in, Dave gunned the engine and the 206 rolled back toward the clubhouse.

The atmosphere in the plane, as always after a jump, was jubilant. Chris was giving Peaker a hard time about being last in. Shireen and Pete were laughing about their momentary loss of grips, quickly reacquired. No one was cutting Bobert any slack about the way he'd almost floated out of his slot on the donut transition. Kelsey was uncharacteristically quiet and subdued.

The plane rolled up to the clubhouse. Jumpers and wildly colorful parachute fabric tumbled out. It was a race for the packing area to see who would get to pack in the shade. Bobert won the race and threw his rig down in the shade of the largest maple.

Kelsey settled for a spot in the sun, though close enough to the clubhouse door to duck inside for a cold drink. The club fridge, as always, was filled with soda and beer. No one would touch the beer until the last load of the day was up. That was too bad, because Kelsey really wanted one now. But the day was young. There were still jumps to be made.

Coming back into focus, Kelsey began methodically to repack his rig. First straightening the lines to rule out entanglements, Kelsey next carefully flaked each cell of the canopy, wrapped the tail around the rolled nose, and threw the now highly-organized pile of fabric down on the blue plastic packing mat. From there, it was a simple matter to tunnel the canopy into a tall, slim package and fold the result into the deployment bag. The closing pin on the pilot chute bridle went through the closing loop, and the pilot chute folded into a Spandex pouch on the right leg strap. Kelsey routed the bridle, closed the main opening flap, and velcroed the riser covers shut. He checked the AAD calibration. The rig was ready to jump again.

Bobert, as usual, had beat everyone packing. Kelsey watched as Bobert made haste, trying not to look too obvious, up to the manifest clipboard to be sure of a slot on the next load. Kelsey put his name on the list right behind Bobert's. They needn't have hurried; no other jumpers had signed the clipboard. The others were straggling in, taking their time but still heading directly for the manifest.

Kelsey sat in the "living room," as they called their sofa lounge, where someone had put a movie called "Fandango" on the VCR. His favorite scene was on, in which a nonjumper, trying to prove his manhood to his college buddies, was taking a first jump course. The scene was a ramshackle desert airport. The "course" was conducted by an ex-hippie instructor who was several cards short of a full deck. As always, Kelsey got a kick out of watching the first jump course in the film. It taught virtually everything wrong. The poor sucker even missed the mattress jumping from the mockup of the plane. The instructor, whose name was Truman Sparks, was about two decades removed from his glory days. "Oh, wow," he said. He said it a lot.

Someone was calling Kelsey's name. It was Chris. Another load was planned. Kelsey hurried into his gear and dashed out to meet the plane. A quick plan, then in. Soon they were aloft again.

Kelsey's mind drifted on the way up to altitude. He was thinking about Truman Sparks, the hapless novice, and of the last jump. Whom had he seen? There had been only six of them on the load. No one else should have been in the sky. It must have been an illusion, he decided.

Jump run. Climbout completed, the group of jumpers waited for the key. Ready, set, go! In freefall again.

The first point, another star, built rapidly. Peaker had sat this load out, and a relatively low-time jumper had filled his slot. The jumper, Mitch, was inexpert. As the formation broke for transition to the second point, he began sinking away from the others. Kelsey groaned. That meant the end of their planned dive. They were still at eight thousand feet, but already Bobert and Chris were tracking away for some freestyle practice. Kelsey turned and began tracking away as well.

Starting from eight thousand feet, Kelsey's track had plenty of time to pick up speed. He arrowed his body as straight as possible, his legs ramrod straight, and tipped forward into a needle dive. The hands of his altimeter unwound rapidly. The features of his face were deformed by one hundred eighty miles per hour of relative wind. And then he saw the figure again.

It was much clearer this time and much closer, off to the side but less than one hundred feet below. It looked like a woman. He didn't recognize the rig or jumpsuit. Whoever it was had not been on the plane with them.

A quick look at his altimeter. Five thousand feet. Kelsey held his track, angled it downward a bit more. He wanted to get closer. His speed increased perceptibly. He was closing on the figure. She looked up at him. It was Lara's face.

Kelsey's heart, which had been beating nearly two hundred times per minute, nearly stopped in his chest. Lara turned her face away again.

An insistent beeping in his left ear warned him of pull time. Kelsey reflexively threw out his pilot chute, and his canopy blossomed from its deployment bag. He hung under canopy at 1500 feet, his heart now very much alive again. Kelsey was wildly craning his neck out, upward, searching for another body in freefall or the sign of an open canopy. There was nothing.

Kelsey's mind was in a turmoil. He steered his canopy with violent jerks of the control toggles, landing sloppily and hard. He'd opened low again, so his teammates were still descending from above.

As he gathered his canopy fabric into an armload-sized ball, Kelsey still searched the sky. Five, and only five, canopies. He sat down in the dirt, trembling.

Chris was the first to land, swooping in to a light touchdown about ten feet to Kelsey's right. Quickly collapsing his chute, Chris stepped over.

"Kelsey! Are you okay? You had a hard landing, pal. What's up?"

Kelsey sat and shivered. "I think I blacked out," was all he could manage. A blackout was the worst thing that could happen in freefall. Chris was immediately dead serious.

"Blacked out?" Chris kneeled and put an arm on Kelsey's shoulder. "That's it for you for today, Kel. Head for the clubhouse, crack open a beer, and rest. I'll want to hear more about this tonight."

Chris helped Kelsey up and over toward the plane, waiting for them just off the target area. The others were concerned, but Kelsey didn't feel like talking. Chris made some quiet explanations and the others left him alone. The plane was quiet as it taxied back to the clubhouse.

The jumpers spilled out, but Kelsey kept his position behind the pilot's seat. He told Chris he'd sit here for just a few minutes to collect himself. Chris nodded, then left.

Sitting in the 206, with his bunched-up canopy in his lap, Kelsey tried thinking about what he had seen. It had been Lara. It had been Lara to the life. But Lara was dead and buried. It could not have been she.

But it had been she. He had seen her red hair, her wry smile. He had looked in her eyes. It had been Lara.

After a while Kelsey knew he had suffered a hallucination. Nothing else was possible. Still shaken, he crawled from the plane and entered the clubhouse, dropping his gear by the door. "Fandango" had ended, and a couple of novice jumpers were watching one of Pete's air-to-air video clips. Kelsey opened the fridge, snagged a beer, and collapsed on the nearest couch. He poured about half the bottle down his throat. He looked over at the TV. The jumpers in the tape, a competition team, were superb, and Kelsey began to lose himself in the kaleidoscopic precision of their transitions.

Several beers later, Kelsey was half-dozing on the couch. It was nearly sunset, and most jumpers had packed it in for the day. One last load was up, an accelerated freefall student with two instructors. The student, as most students did, had waited all day to get his chance in the air. His first jump would be a night jump if they didn't get to altitude pretty quickly. Chris and Bobert were the instructors.

Kelsey suddenly felt that he needed to go. Peaker had left an hour ago, and Pete and Shireen had disappeared somewhere together. There was really no one for Kelsey to say goodbye to as he walked alone through the dust to the parking lot and his car.

That night Kelsey had vivid dreams. He dreamed of Lara, of her smile, of her perfect nude body spasming in ecstasy beneath him on the beach last summer, the waves lapping at their toes. When he woke, hung over, in the morning, his pillow was wet with tears.

Sufferin' succotash. Indeed.

Kelsey's week at work passed in a dreamlike detachment. He worked mechanically, by rote. He functioned. He didn't know if he would be back at the drop zone this weekend. He was focused on getting through the week.

The following Saturday dawned clear, warm and dry, and looking at the morning, Kelsey felt strongly that the drop zone was where he wanted to be. There was no place he'd rather be, in fact. He gathered his gear, loaded his car, and drove. The drop zone was a half hour away.

He pulled into the lot about ten-thirty. Prime time. Kelsey shagged his gear into the clubhouse, and ran into Chris in the lounge.

Chris looked at Kelsey searchingly. "What's the story, Kel?", he asked. "You had all of us worried last week. Have you seen a doctor?"

Kelsey sat down on the sofa opposite Chris. The lounge was otherwise empty. Pete, Shireen and Peaker were outside playing hacky sack. The sunlight was clear, the morning still cool. Kelsey looked Chris in the eyes.

"I was depressed last week, I think," he said, slowly. "I had a hallucination." Kelsey shifted uneasily in his seat. "I thought I saw Lara in freefall."

Chris remained silent for a time, looking hard at Kelsey. He nodded finally, and looked down. Everyone in the club knew Lara's story, and most were careful about bringing it up around him. Lara and Kelsey had been very close, almost from the time they met at the DZ. She had been there for a lark, out for a day's ride on her cycle, a 450 Suzuki, and stopped to watch the colorful canopies drift to earth. She had started questioning Kelsey, and the rest was inevitable. She became a regular feature at the DZ with Kelsey, hanging in through long, boring summer days while Kelsey and his pals plummeted through the blue. Kelsey had finally talked her into considering a first-jump course. She had been riding her Suzuki on the way to her first day's training when she hit an oil slick rounding the final curve to the airport. Her helmet strap had broken, and she had sustained massive head injuries. She had been brain dead on arrival at the hospital.

A rising gorge of misery choked Kelsey's throat. He couldn't say any more to Chris. Chris finally stood up. On his way out the door, he put one hand on Kelsey's shoulder.

"Kel? You all right about jumping today?" Kelsey swallowed, looked Chris in the eye, nodded. Chris went out into the packing area.

The hacky sack game was ending. Everyone was limber and ready to skydive. Kelsey walked over to the manifest and saw one name on the list. Bobert's. Kelsey wrote his own name underneath. Then he went outside to talk to Dave, the pilot.

Dave was checking the oil in the 206, a scrutinizing look on his face, and the dipstick and a rag in his hands.

"Yo, Dave," said Kel. "Up for a high one today, pal?"

Dave screwed the dipstick in and grinned. "Sure, Kel," he said. "A little freestyle today?" Freestyle was a coming trend in skydiving, elaborate solo acrobatics and dance maneuvers. Kel had some good experience with these, but had never worked on them enough to reach competition level. He preferred relative work, or flying relative to other jumpers in formation. This morning, though, he had a different idea.

Kel agreed with Dave that after dropping a four-way, they'd go up to fourteen thousand feet. That altitude was good for seventy seconds of freefall, and seventy seconds was plenty of time to do some serious solo work. Kel thought he'd try a Daffy, followed by a standup, then a twirly bird. He went inside to get his rig. Bobert, Peaker, Shireen and Pete were standing at the manifest.

"Kel!", said Pete, looking at the manifest. "Says here you're doing a solo. Are you OK with that? I mean, last week . . ." Kelsey cut him off.

"I'm fine, Pete." Kelsey managed a confident smile. "Just a little freestyle. Besides," he said, "if I spaz out there'll be no one's dive to screw up but mine." Pete smiled, then asked seriously, "Are you really okay, man?" He and Peaker were looking at Kelsey closely.

"Never better," said Kelsey. He knew what he was doing.

"Okay!" said Pete. "Let's go dirt dive, guys." They stepped outside into the packing area. Pete had a dive diagramed on a scrap of paper.

Kelsey took his place in the 206. His back resting against the rear of the pilot's seat, he closed his eyes. A flood of questions passed through his mind. He put them aside, intent on enjoying the dive.

Dave entered the plane with his customary how-DEE!, buckled his belt, and began the engine start checklist. Bobert, Peaker, Shireen and Pete tumbled into the plane full of mirth and mutual teasings. They bantered among each other as Dave started the engine and began the taxi roll. Kelsey, on his own dive, was not included. That suited him; he needed to think.

As the plane climbed into the summer morning, Kelsey closed his eyes, tuning out everything but the engine drone. A fierce longing, a sense of pain and loss, nearly overwhelmed him. For a moment he considered riding the plane down instead of jumping, but only for a moment. There was nothing he needed more than a jump now.

At nine thousand feet, Peaker rolled up the door and stuck out his head to spot. In a few moments the group had climbed out, gone through their count, and left. When they let go, they disappeared like so many feathers in a gale. Out of sight in an instant.

Dave turned around and spoke to Kelsey over the engine noise. "Okay," he yelled, "Fourteen thousand aggles coming up!" Aggles were AGL's, or feet Above Ground Level. Kelsey checked his straps, and compared his altimeter with the plane's, remembering to subtract the field elevation.

From fourteen thousand feet, the features of the Valley were indistinct. It was even tough to make out Mount Sugarloaf, which reached only 1800 aggles. Nothing on the ground looked too significant from nearly three miles of altitude. Kelsey remembered the saying that in order to love one's world, one must keep one's distance.

The 206 turned on to jump run at just above fourteen thousand feet and leveled out. Spotting from this height was tricky, but Kelsey was a pro. About three hundred yards beyond the target, the right spot for today's winds, Kelsey yelled "Cut!", and bombed out the door.

The air at fourteen thousand feet was thin, and cold. Technically he shouldn't be this high without oxygen. Though it had been 75 degrees on the ground, it was below freezing at this level. Kelsey felt like a snowflake, light in the breeze, precise, sharp. Without a conscious decision, he entered an extreme track.

As his air speed climbed from 120 toward 180 mph, his eyes searched the hemisphere. There was no sign of the figure. Then, suddenly, he saw her, off to the left and a thousand feet below.

Kelsey experienced an extreme series of emotions. A yearning arose in his chest like none he had ever known. Unconsciously, he steepened his track. Lara, if it were she, grew nearer. Eleven thousand feet. Almost a minute of time left.

Hurtling from above, at least 60 mph faster than Lara in his dive, Kelsey rapidly closed the distance between them. A maniacal focus like none he could recall overcame him. He would catch her. He could see red curls poking out from under the leather jump hat.

Kelsey flared out of his dive, and his increased surface area acted as a speed brake. He was almost on Lara's level, and he could see her looking up at him. It was Lara. It was.

Kelsey flew closer with practiced, precise skill. Lara was looking at him. She spoke, but Kelsey heard no words in the roar of freefall. He was five feet away. She was real.

But Lara looked subtly wrong. It was more than the pressure of the wind on her face. Her skin was stretched tight. Her flesh was cracked. Lara's face was a Death's head, a skull- shape with deep hollows in the eye sockets. Her smile, which had seemed beckoning, was a rictus. But strangely, this face seemed sympathetic, careworn; as Kelsey was careworn. Tired, but promising of rest. There was nothing evil or monstrous about it. As Kelsey looked into Lara's eyes, he began to understand and accept what she was telling him. As Kelsey began to understand, Lara's features softened and shone with all the loveliness she had had in life.

Kelsey snapped back to reality just in time to see that he was low-- very low. His hand was a blur streaking for his reserve handle. The earth was coming up very fast. "Sufferin'. .


* * *

Anacon, one of the lesser Angels of Death, who really was of no determinate gender, smiled and shrugged off its mortal disguise. Another troubled soul at rest. All of them were accepting in the end, even grateful, as Anacon had sensed this one had been. People demonized death, but the only demons, Anacon knew, were of Man's making.

A clear white being of amorphous form, Anacon flared, then resolved into the ether.

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