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Fayetteville, West Virginia
Susannah looked down into New River Gorge at the rapids nearly nine hundred feet below. Understanding why Native Americans had once called this the River of Death was easy. Even if you miraculously survived a fall here, you'd die on the boulders that dotted the banks, or face the possibility of being swept away in the cold, rushing water.
In the past twenty-three years, two men had drowned after jumps from the steel-spanned bridge where Susannah stood waiting to leap. A third had died when his pilot chute failed to open properly.
"Are you scared?" the older woman in front of her asked. Kay was her name. They'd met at last night's party and agreed to give each other moral support. Like Susannah, Kay was a first-timer.
"I'm a little uneasy," Susannah admitted, "but excited, too."
As far as jumps went, this wasn't one of the worst. Another plus was that it was legal—at least for the next six hours during the annual Bridge Day event. Many other BASE jumps from natural and man-made structures had been outlawed in the U.S. The acronym stood for Building, Antenna, Span and Earth. Bridges and cliffs were two of the most popular places for take-offs.
But Susannah accepted the fact that, sanctioned by the National Park Service or not, flinging her body off a fixed object and plummeting toward the earth at more than forty miles an hour was dangerous, much more so than skydiving, another sport she'd taken up in the past year. The low altitude left little room for the deployment of a reserve chute if her main one failed. Her canopy or lines could also become tangled in the structure.
Even now rescue workers, or "trolls" as they'd been nicknamed, were below on the bridge supports, dangling like spiders from rappelling ropes.
Susannah wasn't worried so much about hitting a beam as she was overcoming the hazards of the landing. The designated area on the right shore was only a few meters wide, wooded and strewn with rocks.
She'd trained to land safely in wet places and water, her maneuvering skills were good and boats were positioned below to help if needed, but she remained a weak swimmer despite classes. A boat wasn't much help if you couldn't keep your head above water long enough for it to get to you.
The river was freezing and swollen from a week of hard rains, and setting down in it today was Susannah's option of last resort.
But she had to go through with this regardless of the danger, or rather because of the danger. During the nine years she'd taken care of her sick mother, she'd forgotten what it meant to feel carefree or excited. She certainly hadn't done anything adventurous.
"A good daughter." That was what the nurses had called her. Reliable. Sensible. Responsible. She was all those things and proud of it.
Alzheimer's, though, destroyed not only the patients but the people who loved them. That was what it had done to Susannah, devastated her emotionally. And now that her mother was gone, she felt a longing to be less reliable, less sensible and responsible. To be less everything, or at least different from the dull, unimaginative person she'd grown into.
She had the opportunity to live a different life and take chances—like with this jump—and she intended to do it.
If she chickened out, she might as well go back to the bleak existence she'd had until eighteen months ago, when her mother had died.
The new-and-improved Susannah wouldn't lose her nerve. This person took risks. This person no longer had to worry about being suffocated by responsibility. Her new approach to life was simple: see everything, experience everything and never forget that each day might be her last.
She'd sold the house and quit her job as an office manager for a law firm in Waycross, Georgia. Anything that wouldn't fit under the camper shell of her new pickup truck she'd given away or taken to the Salvation Army.
In no particular order, she'd committed her desires to paper. Her Life List, as she called it, was a blueprint for happiness and fulfillment.
While the items changed and the list continued to grow, so far she'd gone for a dip with dolphins, run a marathon, raised money to protect the endangered black rhino, belly danced, helped Habitat For Humanity build a house for a low-income family and visited the capitals of thirteen states. Thirty-seven more to go.
She'd confronted her fear of heights by taking skydiving lessons, and said goodbye to a lifetime of claustrophobia by going on a three-day caving trip with a group of experienced spelunkers.
Growing her short auburn hair to her waist would take more time; so far, it had only reached her chin. And some of the things she dreamed of accomplishing—like performing in a ballet and being the star of a movie—were perhaps a bit too ambitious, but she wasn't discounting any possibility.
If she didn't at least try, she'd certainly never eat real French onion soup in Paris or dance the tango in Brazil. Or have a romance with a handsome stranger.
The line moved forward more quickly than Susannah expected, bringing her focus back to this item on her list. She was among three hundred people awarded slots to jump today. The weather was fair and no one had experienced any problems yet. Soon it would be Susannah's turn.
Kay mumbled over her shoulder, "I don't think I can do this."
"If you don't, you'll lose your entry fee and the couple hundred more you spent on the adaptive rigging."
"Money I can replace," Kay told her. "My life I can't."
"Very true, and I don't want to push you into doing this if you're afraid, but you told me last night that you've been planning this for months and asked me to give you a nudge if you backed out. Didn't you say you begged your family to let you come?"
"If you don't follow through, how would you face them?"
"I'd face them just fine. My husband would be relieved. He said I was crazy when I took up skydiving last year, but when I told him I wanted to try this—" she snorted "—he said I'd gone completely nuts. I'm beginning to believe he's right." Nervousness had her chewing her fingernails. "What insanity made you sign up?"
"I watched a TV program one night where BASE jumping was featured. The idea of it terrified me, so I knew I had to do it—you know, to prove I could."
"You are insane."
"Probably so, since I'm afraid of heights and I can't swim."
"But you skydive. How can you do that if you're afraid of heights?"
"I don't know. I just force myself. I figure going ahead while being scared is better than hiding from the fear."
Kay looked over the side and grimaced. "Hiding is starting to sound pretty good to me right now. This seems a whole lot scarier than skydiving."
"But that's the whole point, to do something a little off-the-wall, even if it's scary. If you weren't here, what else would you be doing?"
"I'd probably be raking leaves or cleaning house."
"I bet this'll be more fun."
"Yeah, you're right." Kay nodded, seemingly reassured, but when it came time for her to jump, she balked. "I can't," she said, scrambling down off the exit platform.
Some of the hundred thousand spectators around them began to boo.
"Come on," Susannah urged. "You said you wanted to add adventure to your dull life. Here's your chance."
"I know, but I was wrong. The truth is, I love my life. I have a great husband and two kids who need me and think I'm perfect. So what if I'm nearly forty, overweight and the most exciting thing I do all week is laundry? I can live with that." She squeezed Susannah's arm. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. I understand." And she truly did. Kay had her family to think about. Susannah no longer had family, or anyone who mattered. She especially didn't have anyone who thought her perfect.
She'd been the only child of elderly parents, now both dead along with both sets of her grandparents. Her friends had all drifted away when her mother's Alzheimer's worsened and her behavior had become more bizarre.
Even Andrew, the man she'd planned to spend the rest of her life with, had abandoned her when she needed him most. He'd been unable to cope with having his needs placed behind those of a sick person.
At twenty-eight, Susannah was alone in the world. If she died today, not a soul would care except this woman from Arkansas whose last name she didn't even know.
The crowd started to chant, urging Susannah into action. "Jump jump jump."
The official controlling the line gave her a hard look. "Are you going or not?"
"Yes, I'm going."
She climbed the platform straddling the bridge rails and visualized what she had to do once she took off. By arching her body and pointing her hips at the horizon, she could stay upright until the wind turned her naturally into a face-to-earth position. Two seconds into the freefall, she'd reach to the small of her back and grab her pilot chute, tossing it toward the sky.
If everything went right, the chute would unfurl and she'd feel the reassuring tug upward, when the canopy fills. And if it didn't, she'd be seven seconds away from death.
"Hey," she called out to Kay. "What's your last name?"
"I enjoyed meeting you, Kay Murphy."
"Same here, Susannah Pelton. Have a great life."
"I plan to."
Susannah took a deep breath to shore up her resolve, and with three running steps, launched herself into the air.