At first, all he was aware of was his stomach being pulled up into his throat and the sickening, nauseating squeeze and roll it was doing. His heart was pounding to beat out of his chest, pounding so hard he could hear it in his ears even over the air rushing by. His ears and nose immediately froze and became numb. He was squeezing his eyes shut so hard he could see silent green fireworks blooming over and over and over. The panic and fear inside had become so absolute and so pure it had replaced every single rational thought with nothing but loud television static.
After some time – could have been a couple of seconds, could have been three million years – he felt a heavy jolt, as though they’d somehow hit something in the middle of open space. It drew a scream out of him, and his brain came back online with sirens and klaxons. Their descent had slowed. No longer were they plummeting toward the water. Now, it felt like a hurried drift. Clutching onto the ropes running across his chest, he dared to open his eyes. There was no sky above him, and after a few desperate seconds of thinking reality had just completely collapsed in on him, he realized he was staring at black canvas.
Maggie’s backpack had held a parachute.
The air still rushed into his face but he did his best to keep his eyes open. Maggie was no longer holding him. Her hands were on ropes coming from the parachute, and she was deftly maneuvering them to the west side of the river. Relief that he would not have to find a way out of the rushing water at the end of all this was replaced with fresh terror of the dirt rising to meet them.
“Stay limp!” Maggie shouted in his ear, most of her words getting taken away.
There was no time for Vinnie to react. The ground was beneath them. Then it was in front of them. Then it was all around, beating them up from every direction, getting dirt into his mouth and nose and eyes, surrounding them with the canvas parachute. It all happened over and over, slowing down, slowing, slowing.
And then Vinnie was lying on the ground, face up, wrapped in the parachute and staring at the sky.
“Get off me.”
He wasn’t on the ground. He was on Maggie. With practiced motions Maggie released the clasps on the ropes keeping them together and Vinnie scrambled off, trying not to put any pressure on her. Once he was a couple feet away, he stood up.
“Oh, I wouldn’t…do that.”
As soon as he was standing the world started to spin around, rising and falling. He took deep breaths and looked up to the sky, trying to get his bearings.
Up above, so far it was just a line of darkness across the stars, was the bridge.
We were on that. And now we’re down here.
Vinnie was on his knees and puking up every hors d’oeuvre he had eaten in the last few hours into the dirt before he even realized it.
As he was finally slowing down, bringing up nothing but stinging bile, Maggie suddenly clapped him on the back.
“Congrats, buddy! You just jumped off a bridge. Most people skydive a couple hundred times before they attempt something like that.”
Vinnie stayed bent over for a few more seconds to make sure he had his gorge under control, then spit out as much bile from his sinuses as he could.
“Thanks, I guess,” he said. He sounded bitter. Not bitter enough.
“Come on. We’ve got a little walking to do.”
He stood carefully, only moving to trail after her when he was sure his legs wouldn’t turn back to jelly and dump him back onto the dirt. The only light came from the stars and the half moon above. It was enough to avoid bigger rocks and the occasional branch. Next to him the river rushed by, although not nearly as fast as he had expected. He thought it would be sprinting and raging, but instead it just bubbled by, quick but easy.
“I’ve never done anything like that before,” he said, jogging to catch up.
Maggie didn’t even turn around. “Could have fooled me.”
That got her to stop and look at him over her shoulder, the withering look in her glare visible even in the low moonlight.
“Oh. Right. Of course not.”
They walked in silence for a few minutes. Maggie was obviously looking for something. And Vinnie was just glad to have the time to pull himself back together. He wasn’t a steaming pile of terror and screaming like he thought he would be. But he felt pulled apart, just a little, at each seam. He twitched occasionally as he walked, and every sound that wasn’t their footsteps or the river made him jump.
“Are there animals out here?” he asked, his voice cracking.
“Probably. Once we get the fire going, they won’t bother us.”
They had followed the riverbed up to a place where it split, part of it staying with the river and part of it jutting up eight or so feet, creating a sandy wall with roots sticking out here and there. Next to this sandy wall, almost tucked away, was a little camp. A stone ring with firewood in the middle sat next to the wall, with a sturdy metal chest off to the side. The chest was protected with a spindle lock, and as he half sat, half fell next to the fire he watched Maggie flick the lock around until it opened. She then set to work lighting the fire and pulling out a contraption to go over it. The smell hit him first. She was making coffee.
“Here. Eat something, if your stomach will take,” she said, handing him a pouch. Jerky, although he wasn’t sure it was beef. Surprisingly, his stomach rumbled, and he took the pouch.
While he ate she set up a little camp. Two bedrolls, one obviously never used before. A fabric awning spread over one side of the fire between three pikes she mercilessly stabbed into the ground. And a radio, which she tuned to an empty channel and left on low.
“How many times have you done this?” he asked.
She shrugged as she fixed one of the pillows under her. “Three or four. Different rail companies each time. Never had to take someone with me before.”
“How long have you-”
“Listen,” she said, putting a hand up. “I know with the river and the fire it feels like a little camp out and a great time to get chummy, but just save it. This is my favorite part of any job, because I get to sit here in silence.”
He felt his cheeks get hot, but something besides a blush was rising inside him. Anger. He watched her as she leaned back on her elbows, oblivious.
“This is why the others don’t like you, you know,” he said.
Maggie glanced at him but otherwise was a stone. “That’s fine. I don’t like them, either.”
“You could at least try to be friendly. Come out with us once in a while.”
“Oh, sure. Go out for drinks. Coffee. Hang out on our off days. Just be super best buds living our best lives, showing our faces to the world together over and over. No, thanks. This is a job for me. Not a lifestyle. Not a ‘family.’ Just a job. I want to do my job, and then I want to go back to my real life.”
Vinnie snorted. “Sure, because I bet the bar stool at your biker bar just gets to missing you.”
“Not as much as your ratty couch and broken television miss you.”
They each turned over on their bedrolls at the same time, showing their backs to each other and the fire. He didn’t hear Maggie move once as he tried to fall asleep, which only made him angrier. The ground was hard. The bedroll was scratchy. His back facing the fire was too hot, but the front of him was too cold. Vinnie could have been in the luxury car of his train, trading jokes with Verna and falling asleep to the gentle rocking motion of the train. It was all Maggie’s fault. Somehow.
He slept fitfully, waking to every odd sound or any time he went to turn over. It wasn’t until the early hours that he finally fell into something more than a catnap, and he only realized it when Maggie was crouching over him, shaking his shoulder.
“Come on. They should be here soon. We’ve got more walking to do.”
Vinnie rolled over onto his back. The sky behind her was still mostly dark, but he could see the beginnings of sunrise on the other side of the river.
“I slept fine, thanks for asking.”
With an eye roll, she stood up and held her hand out. “Come on, Mr. Baby. Next time don’t get caught-”
All the thoughts in her brain scatter across the grass like leaves as something heavy and rough catches her across the face, from eye to mouth. Peggy stumbles back, working to regain her balance and stay up. Blood is running down her face and she can taste it between her teeth.
“You’re not Aster.”
“You’re not human.”
I hope this works.
Blue light rolls out of her hands and into Aster. Not-Aster begins screaming, trying to pull away.
Aster collapses to the ground. Peggy collapses right next to them.
“-and you won’t have to rough it.”
He’d reached for her hand, letting her pull him up to standing. Vinnie looked down, found the rip in gloves, right across the palm, that he’d missed the night before. He looked up at Maggie.
“Are you okay?”
For a second he didn’t answer because he didn’t hear the question. He stared at Maggie’s face. At the blackened eye and the bruise around her lip, just barely visible now. Caused by a decent sized tree branch catching her across the face.
“Hey!” Maggie snapped in his face, making Vinnie jump. “You’re not having a delayed reaction to the jump, are you?”
“No,” Vinnie said, shaking his head. “No, I’m just…you just woke me up after a terrible night of sleeping on dirt, how am I supposed to react.”
Another eye roll. “Come on, princess. Let’s get you back to your pillows.”
She slung the bag with their stolen goods across her back and started walking up the river, not looking back at him. If she had, she might have caught the way he was staring.
You’re not human, rang in his ears over and over.