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It was like a bad dream, the kind where you don't wake up before hitting the ground.
Her body was curled into a jumping posture, and the muscles in her legs were screaming from holding the position as the desert seemed to rush toward her. Her arms were strained, pulling both handles together until they were between her thighs. She could feel the muscles in her arms trembling from the force she was applying, yet she knew her life depended on her slowing down the descent. She was getting too close to the mountain, and she didn't dare look up to the parachute to make sure it was working and the material was narrowing. She thought she was slowing down, but her gaze was riveted to the desert floor dotted with sagebrush. Wherever she was ... she was about to land. And by damn, she was going to make it alive!
When it happened, when her feet slammed against the hard surface, she stood for a moment out of time staring at her Nikes, sure that her ankles were broken. And then she was suddenly pulled backward and landed on her backside, as the wind dragged the chute and her along with it across the dry, scrubby ground. It must have been instinct that caused her to roll over and start gathering up the lines to stop the momentum. When she had the material around her like a huge silky blanket, she stopped and regained her breath.
Well, she did it. She was alive. Bruised. Rattled. But alive.
Now, where the hell was she?
Hot dry air burned her lungs. An ominous silence surrounded her. What had happened, she wondered, as she stared out to the mountain range before her. When she was playing up there and soaring like a missilethrough space, did she wander that far off course? She had expected to land at the big white cross, or close to it, attended by the people from the skydiving school, with a four-by-four waiting to take her back to civilization. And champagne, chilled champagne, was part of the deal. She'd settle for good ole H2O now. And the sight of another human being would be nice. Real nice ...
What was she supposed to do? Obviously someone had to have been tracking her. They would know she was off course, right? She should stay here until they found her; no sense in trying to find them. She didn't have a clue. Suddenly she thought of Bryan and how worried he would be and tried mentally to call out to him that she was all right. At least she was in one piece, a little bruised but still alive. Attempting to stand, she yelped as her right ankle gave out and she fell back down. Damn, she must have injured it when she landed. just what she needed now, a swollen ankle. Knowing she should keep her shoe on, she fought back the tears and wondered again why the hell she had ever left her normal, predictable life back east. She'd had a cute little apartment on the Delaware River, a decent job as a computer sales rep, even if it meant dealing with anal retentives all day. Still, it paid well, sometimes real well. She had friends who would never think of skydiving ... normal people, who went to the theater and to Starbucks and perhaps took to rollerblading for adventure. Immediately she thought of Bryan and sighed, knowing everything she had left behind was meaningless compared to her brother. Okay, her motivation was definitely love and craziness. But this ...
This was scary.
She had no idea how long she remained hidden from the blaring sun beneath the makeshift canopy, because time held no meaning for her. Her watch was left behind in a locker, along with her purse, the car keys to the rental--everything. She kept the jumpsuit on to protect her skin from frying. Once she had tried taking off her helmet, but found that the shield cut down the intense glare of the sun and had put it back on. Where were they? Where was the group from the school? Bryan? She couldn't just stay out here all day. She needed water. She wanted to strip off the stifling jumpsuit and imagined jumping naked into the hotel swimming pool. Closing her eyes, she tried to concentrate on the delicious image-plunging into cool water, having it surround her and lower her body temperature in seconds, feeling it wash over her face, through her hair..
Hearing the words, Mairie stopped breathing and lifted the edge of the canopy away from her head. She had imagined that, right? Maybe she was starting to hallucinate from the heat and lack of water. Dehydration could do that ...
"I knew you would. Thank you."
This was too real. She pulled the canopy completely away and looked behind her, just to make sure she wasn't delusional. What she saw didn't help confirm her state of mind.
A man, some kind of man, was staring at her. All he was wearing were dirty heavy pants and boots. He was naked from the waist up. His chest and face were painted in some sort of Indian zigzag sign that was smeared, and his hair hung below his shoulders in a matted mess.