The deafening roar of the back of a plane greets me when I ‘wake’, if ‘wake’ is the correct term to use when you’re regaining consciousness after your second physical death. My eyes flash open. There are half a dozen people surrounding me, all dressed in colorful jumpsuits, the visors on their helmets pulled back to expose their faces. The tightness in my movements and tinted glean of my vision tell me I’m dressed the same, except my visor is pulled over my face. Good thing, too, because I can only imagine the expression I’m wearing.
There’s a lingering pain within me that’s been there ever since I woke as Jenny. I didn’t have time to think about it then, but it’s coming from so deep down that it feels like the bedrock of my soul itself is aching. It’s not throbbing or stabbing like an injury, but more of low, empty rumble that’s the aftershock of a previous event. Death’s pain comes abruptly and exits just a quickly, but the hollow desolation it leaves in its wake remains, as does the uncertainty of having the one bit of universal finality you always knew to be certain ripped away from you.
Alongside that, I’ve a great deal of fear and anxiety that I’m struggling to keep down. I wasn’t scared as Jenny, at least not any more than you’d expect after being brought back to life, but I’m terrified right now and I’m doing all I can to stop from hyperventilating inside my helmet. From the unsteady feeling in my stomach, I’d guess I was terrified long before I ‘woke’ into this body.
I scan the group of people I’m with. Three women, three men, and myself, who, now that I’ve looked down, I gather is a woman as well. One of the men in the group is looking at me. His expression is caring but resigned. There is a slight smile, a look of acknowledgement when he sees my helmet turn his way. His eyes look sad. A friend? A lover? I have no time to decide before one of the women snaps her fingers across my face.
“Alright, Hayley, are you ready to go?” Her voice comes from the speakers in my ears.
What we’re doing slaps me in the face, and now I know why I’m so scared. Skydiving, and I’m terrified of heights. I can barely look out the window of a tall building, let alone jump from a plane.
Scared of heights? No, I’ve been scaling walls since before I was ten. I live in the heights. I jump across the gaps between buildings. I climb through windows for work and up mountains for fun. Scared of heights? I’ve never feared anything in my life, let alone a little altitude.
But this isn’t my body, and it’s certainly not me. Victoria Simone is not afraid of heights. But Victoria Simone is dead, and I’m now inside someone named Hayley who is jumping out of a plane to overcome what I can only guess is her greatest fear.
The door behind me opens and I instinctively grab the wall at either side. The boyfriend or lover seems surprised by the abruptness. He covers his mouth and says something to the woman who asked me if I was ready. She shakes her head and laughs, while his face goes colorless. The two other men share in her glee.
I’m studying her. The grin is evil. The mouth smiles but the eyes are contemptuous and psychotic. “Good luck,” she says, and it takes me a moment to register what’s happening.
She lunges forward and shoves me in the chest. I’m flying before I can so much as muster a scream. Wait, flying is charitable. It’s more hurtling than flying. End-over-end. Ass-over-teakettle.
A bright sky shines through my visor when I’m facing upward, and there’s a vast green below. Cold air rushes through the helmet and jumpsuit. I throw my limbs out in all directions to slow myself until I gain some semblance of control.
The foothills of the Cascade mountains stretch beneath me when I flip back my already-fogged visor. Rivers and roads snake through the lush greens of evergreen forests, with the fall oranges and yellows of lesser trees interspersed here and there at seemingly random intervals. White snowcaps adorn the taller peaks. Off to the southwest, shrouded in the morning mist of Puget Sound, I can just make out the buildings of Seattle.
It’s a breathtaking scene. For a moment, I forget my fear of heights. For a moment, I forget I was just shoved out of an airplane.
The moment passes too quickly. The fear returns. The realization that I’m falling to my death sets in and I’m screaming before I can stop myself.
“Hayley!” I figure she must be in there, right? “Hayley! You have to help me!”
No one named ‘Hayley’, in here, a familiar voice says.
“Jenny? You’re still here?”
Can’t get rid of me that easily.
“But no Hayley? Why?”
I don’t have a fucking clue, Victoria.
“Fine! You have to help me!”
How could I help you? Why would I? You got me killed with that stupid shit you pulled.
I snap my eyes shut, unable to look at the ground any longer for Hayley’s crippling fear of heights. “We would have been killed anyway if I hadn’t tried to escape.”
You don’t know that. I imagine her trying to shake her head in disgust. Now I’m dead and stuck half alive and half dead with someone who for all I know is one of the worst criminals in the world.
“No, it’s not like that.” The wind rips my voice away as soon as it leaves my mouth but I’m sure she can still hear. “I only stole from the kind of people who deserved it.”
Don’t be so self-righteous. No one ‘deserves’ to have their property taken from them.
“You’d be surprised.”
Like that woman said, ‘Good luck’. You’re on your own.
I say her name a few times but she’s silent. I guess I really am on my own, just like I was when I decided I’d have to become a cat-burglar to begin with.
After taking a deep breath, I force my eyes open through Hayley’s terror. If I’m going to die, which I surely am, I want to see it before it happens. Maybe I’m a masochist. Maybe I’m just pissed.
Finally, a voice goes off in my ear. It’s not hers, but a man in my microphone. From the roar behind him I can tell he’s still in the plane. “Hayley,” he says, “Hayley, are you okay?”
“No, I am not okay.”
“You’ll be fine, you’ll be fine,” he says. “Just remember to breathe. Take a deep a breath. In. Out.” I can just barely hear his slow breaths on the other end and try to follow suit. After a moment, he continues. “See? That’s not so hard, is it?”
“I’m going to die!” I feel the words come out of my mouth, but they feel more like Hayley’s than my own.
“I know you hate heights. That’s why we’re here, remember?”
“No! They’re going to kill me!” These words are mine, as blurted out as hers were.
“They’re going to kill you?” he says after a long pause. “Who?”
“The woman who shoved me out of the plane!”
“Oh, she just knew you were too scared to jump on your own,” he says with a laugh.
It’s a laugh meant to gaslight me, and I’ll admit for a moment it almost works. This whole thing is so hard to believe, dying twice and inside someone else’s body. If his gaslighting works for an instant, it’s only because I want so desperately for it to be true.
“I guess I just lost myself there for a second,” I say after considering my options. I could tell him I know he’s a liar, but what’s the point?
“It’s okay,” he says. “You’re getting close enough now. Whenever you want to pull the chute, it’s up to you.”
Unsure of what to expect, I yank the chute cord. The sounds of twisting metal and cracking plastic still catch me by surprise.
I roll to the sky. There’s a cloud of broken kitchenware behind me. Lids. Handles. Saucers. Spatulas. They fly in every direction, ricocheting off one another, some appearing to hang in midair or even float upwards with the air resistance.
His laughter echoes in my ears.
“Guys! Guys!” He can barely choke it out. “I got her with the pots and pans!” Shrieks filter in from the periphery, just barely audible in his mic. “I can’t believe that actually worked!”
“You’re not very creative,” I say, spinning back toward the ground. “I already fell to my death last time.”
The man’s laughter ceases only long enough for a response. “Yes, but it all happened so quickly. I really wanted to savor this one, and something about Bugs Bunny always resonated with me.”
Hayley’s intense fear of heights wicks its way through me and I fight off a shiver.
“You look different than last time,” I say. “I didn’t recognize you in the plane.”
“Clever girl. I change whenever I want. Even more than you, except I’m not constantly dying.”
“Twice is not constantly.”
“Sorry, I must have gotten ahead of myself.”
Air is rushing at me from below. The sky above, save for the pots and pans chasing me downward, is a clear and beautiful blue. The kind of sky that makes you really appreciate every minute you have. The kind that makes you regret the minutes you wasted as yours are quickly running out. He might have gotten ahead of himself, but death number three is rushing to meet me, and given how easy they’ve all been I can only imagine several more will be coming in quick succession.
“What do I call you then?” I ask, struggling to keep the star shape that is prolonging my descent.
“Call me ‘God’,” he says in a way that tells me he’s said it countless times before. I have to admit, that moniker has taken on a new meaning since he first gave it to himself, but I’ll never give him that satisfaction.
“Why are you doing this?” I ask.
I can hear his smile dissipate in his voice. “Because you tried to steal from me.”
My chest is pumping so loudly and the air is rushing through my helmet so quickly that I’m surprised I can even hear him. “But you caught me. I’m already dead.”
“Yes you are, girl, but the person who hired you is still alive.”
“I told you, I don’t know who hired me.”
“The longer you hold out, the worse this all gets.”
I spin to the earth and see it quickly approaching. Cars that looked like tiny little ants when I fell from the plane aren’t looking so far off anymore. The evergreen forests that were once far beneath me poke out of the ground like a bed of nails. I cannot yet make out individual blades of grass, but I can imagine what they all must look like as I fall quickly toward them, and it’s not pretty. I don’t know how much ‘worse’ this can get.
“I’m telling you,” I gasp, Hayley’s fear of heights raising the pitch of my voice a couple octaves, “I don’t know. You think I would’ve been willing to die for a job? Multiple times?”
“You can end this whenever you want.” His voice is almost completely flat. You’d never guess he was laughing only moments before. “Just tell me who hired you.”
It’s not worth saying, but I say it anyway. “I honestly have no idea.”
“A pity. I was hoping that seeing how impossible your situation was would make this process quicker, but we can do it the hard way from now on, I suppose.”
“You’re enjoying this far too much act like you aren’t looking forward to it.”
“I suppose I am.” His voice is easy, casual. “People try to tell me my methods are too extreme, but they just don’t see the fun in it like I do. And what’s the point of all the work we put in, if not to have some fun when we get the chance?”
I can almost see him sitting there in the plane, flashing his henchmen an evil grin as his victim plummets to her death. It does not matter what information I give him. Even if I had it, at best I’d just be dead right now rather than about to die again.
“Fun? You’re killing a completely innocent woman for nothing.”
“You are not innocent.”
“But Hayley didn’t do anything to you!”
He hesitates on the other end before speaking. “Yes, Hayley Henderson is a sad sacrifice, just as Jennifer Wilson was before her.” His words are slow and deliberate, feigning regret. “How many more will I have to sacrifice to get what I need from you?”
“Sacrifice?” The ground is so close I can almost taste it. I choke the word out through struggling breaths.
“Yes, pawns to the grand plan,” he says. “My goal is not to kill the ones who meant me no harm, but some must be sacrificed to get what I need. You can end this at any time, but, sadly, the blood of two is now on your hands.”
Rage bubbles into my voice. “You’re the man with the goatee, right?”
“Yes, I believe you compared it to a dead animal.”
“Good. Fuck you. You’ll never get anything from me, and you’ll pay for this.” I rip my helmet off and toss it aside. There is nothing clever to say, so the best I can do is make sure I get the last word.
I watch the helmet bounce on the ground as I quickly approach, and the impact is over before it begins. There’s nothing to feel, save for the sound air whooshing past my face and the immense pain of my bones disintegrating as I crash into the earth. Hayley Henderson is dead.
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