Falling from the Earthby Jim Dutton
In all his years of falling, Joe had never seen this happen before: the girl suddenly appeared below him, blinking into, or perhaps out of, existence. He watched her scream and wail, writhing and thrashing until he wondered if she would start to tumble. Nothing to do, really, but observe and listen to her terror until she slowly realized, despite all her previous experience to the contrary, there was no reason to be frightened, since they were not falling toward anything. Just falling.
Eventually, she slept and Joe watched her. Her strawberry hair billowed weightlessly over her skinny, freckled shoulders. Slightly plump in the middle, he noticed, but not unpleasantly so.
She woke suddenly, her last snore transformed seamlessly into a scream. He watched her pull it back inside and force herself to be calm. Holding her slender hand over her mouth, she looked around her and tried to make sense of it all. She saw what Joe saw. There were other people, many of them, all around. Some fell more slowly, some more quickly, all of them bathed in the same uniform white void. Most, for reasons unfathomable, stood upright, preferring to fall feet first. No one was closer to her than Joe, though they were still far out of reach.
"Am I…dead?" she asked when she finally noticed Joe floating above her.
"Hmmph," he said. "I suppose so. What's the last thing you remember?"
Tears welled again in her gold-flecked eyes. "Is this Hell?" she asked.
"How would I know?"
Joe closed his own eyes and pretended not to notice her for a while. But it was a singularly lonely place. Most people were too distant to talk to and others came and went too quickly. Her name was Mary, and she was close enough to see and hear and to smell maybe, if there had been smells there. They fell at the same pace, or nearly so, and for Joe, that was an enormous piece of good fortune.
At first, they spoke little. Joe had become accustomed to it, the silence. She was lost and sad and had nothing to say. He watched her when she slept and maybe she watched him too. They fell into the habit of dozing at alternate times. Not regularly of course, for there were no clocks there nor roosters to crow. Gradually, despite her sadness, she began to show interest in some things.
"How long have you been here?" she wanted to know.
"I don't know," he said. "A long, long time. There ain't no way to tell here. There's what did happen and what will happen is all. Sometimes, I say things like, 'years ago' or 'it took hours', but it ain't nothing but a feeling."
"Are you afraid?"
"Honey, I fought in two wars," he said. "There ain't nothing scares me."
"Yes, well I'm afraid," said Mary. "I don't know why I'm here." She was staring into the distance at what appeared to be a giant spider web moving slowly upward.
"You got used to it before, " Joe offered. "You'll get used to it again."
He nodded in the direction of the distant web and said, "Those are people. You see?"
Mary squinted until she too saw the web was constructed of human beings, hundreds of them, thousands maybe. Hands grasping ankles formed an enormous circular net. As they watched, the web captured a solo floater approaching from below, deforming briefly before absorbing the new member and incorporating him into the community.
"My god!" she exclaimed. "What are they doing?"
"They're not the only ones like that," he said. "They think being a floater is righteous somehow, like they're better than the rest of us. So they'll try really hard to capture any poor soul that's floating slower than them to slow the whole thing down a bit. Hell, I think some of 'em believe they ain't falling at all, but like rising back up toward the world."
"Maybe they are," she said wistfully.
"Maybe," he replied. "But I think they're falling just like us, only a bit slower." They continued to watch the floaters in silence, barely making out the movements of individual members when they temporarily released their grips to form a hole in the net, allowing a sinker to pass through unheeded.
Joe woke once to find her staring up at him. Over time, they had begun to notice the two of them were slowly getting closer to one another. She sank just a little slower than him, or he fell faster perhaps, and in what would feel to them to be a few months or years they would inevitably meet in the same place. Joe wasn't at all certain what would happen then.
She asked, "How did you…get here?"
"Oh, so now you want to talk about what happened before?" he said. "Hmmph!"
After a long silence, Mary began to tell her story. "The last thing I remember, I was sitting on the couch. My boyfriend and I were having a terrible fight, yelling and screaming like crazy people. He stormed off to the garage and I cried into my hands until he came back. I remember thinking he had forgiven me, but when I looked up he had this wild look in his eyes. And he was holding a baseball bat."
"Lots of girls date morons," Joe observed after another immeasurable pause. "It ain't your fault. It's like a handicap or something."
"Me," he continued, "I done it to myself. Jumped off a bridge and just kept right on falling. Hmmph."
"Why?" she wanted to know.
"Damned Iraqis killed my only boy. He wouldn't have been over there in the first place if it weren't for me, but I thought the military would straighten him up and make him fly right. His mother blew up inside like the damn roadside bomb had gotten her too, and I lost my whole family all at once. Still, " he said, "I guess it would have been better to stay with them. Wish I had."
Three men fell rapidly toward them from above. They heard the screams long before they got close, and it was obvious they would fall within reach of both Joe and Mary. There was something terribly wrong with the sinking men. As they approached, Joe saw the men's movements were out of control. They gyrated wildly, head over heels, yawing and pitching and pivoting their heads in an odd way, as if they were gimbaled, to allow their eyes to briefly focus while their bodies flailed.
"They're tumblers," said Joe. "Be careful not to touch 'em."
"Can't we help them?" asked Mary. The tumblers begged for help as they plummeted toward them, their eyes brimming with hope and fear.
Joe answered, "Maybe. More likely, if we tried to grab one of them we'd start to tumble too and then we'd all be in the same mess."
The first tumbler realized early on that Mary and Joe would not help him. His face slackened as all hope drained from it, and at the last minute, he tossed something, a hat, toward Mary. The second tumbler continued to plead with them to help until after he was well past the couple. When his erratic motion caused him to once again face up toward Joe and Mary, he called out, "God bless you!"
After flying past Joe, the last tumbler looked into Mary's blue eyes, locking her gaze until he was forced to adjust his position, then locking again. "I made a mistake…" he said, "…a long time ago…Please…isn't there some way…you could help me?" She reached out to the man and Joe's heart leapt.
"Don't touch him!" Joe cried. At the last moment, Mary pulled back and allowed the tumbler to continue to sink below them, tumbling and pivoting until he became merely a spot in the distance. Mary used the tumbler's hat to cover her face. Joe was ashamed for them both, and relieved, and ashamed to be relieved.
"I guess we're pretty lucky," she said after a while. "Aren't we?"
Joe replied, "Hmmph."
When the time came, they hadn't yet talked about what they would do. Mary floated within reach of Joe, her arms folded across her breasts. There was no urgency about it. She did not reach up to grab onto his ankles, nor did he bend toward her. They waited patiently and studied each other close up. She was light and freckled and fragile, but also strong, in a way. She wore the tumbler's fedora, tilted slightly to one side. As they grew closer, Joe embraced her, first with his gaze, and then with his strong arms. He knew then, maybe he'd known all along, they would remain together for as long as they could hold each other.
"This doesn't feel like Hell," she whispered into his chest.
"No," he said. "No, it doesn't."
To pass the time, they told stories to each other, recounting the plots, as best they could remember, of books they had read or movies they'd seen. Mary remembered more stories, but Joe remembered them well and was good at the telling.
"I saw a movie once called 'Sunset Boulevard' about the way it was in the early days with all those whackos out in Hollywood," he said.
"I remember that one too," said Mary. "I didn't like it much though because it was confusing. The narrator died at the end of the story, or at the beginning or something. Anyway, how could he tell the story if he was already dead?"
"Hmmm, didn't think of that I guess," he said. But he went on to recount the fall of Norma Desmond in pretty much the same way Mary remembered it. It wasn't as entertaining as she remembered it had been in black and white.
Joe and Mary held hands. They locked arms and spooned and hugged in various ways. They became accustomed to their constant contact and, eventually, maybe a little reckless with it. Sometimes they would hold each other only in the slightest of ways, with pinky fingers entwined or with her head cradled gently in the hollow of his neck. Once, they parted briefly to avoid a sinker who had appeared suddenly while Joe slept -- a moment of panic for both of them. But they found each other again and hugged tightly for a long time. Years passed, or what passed for years there. Neither of them aged visibly, or changed in any way for that matter, except that they somehow became one. They came to know each other as thoroughly as they knew themselves, as if they were two parts of the same strange organism. Like the web people, but more intimate and more genuine, Joe believed.
"Joe, wake up," she said gently, and she placed her open palm on his chest, rubbing slightly. "You've got to hear this." Joe had been dreaming of Heaven. He slowly rose up through the depths of sleep to hear an angel singing far away.
"Over there," said Mary pointing to a tiny figure dressed in white, slightly below them in the distance. A solitary woman, falling too far from anybody to be able to have a normal conversation, sang an operatic piece in a voice that was beautiful and sad. Joe was immediately touched by the woman's song, his face relaxed into a soft, loving smile. The kind Mary didn't often see anymore. "She's amazing. Beautiful," he said, without taking his eyes off the angel.
"Why did he hit you?" asked Joe without prelude.
"What?" asked Mary. "What are you talking about?"
"Your boyfriend, back in the world. Why were you quarrelling, and why did he do what he did to you?"
She was quiet for a while, thinking back to the time before she began to fall. Presently, she said, "I told him I was pregnant, by another man. He said that would ruin everything." She placed the open palm on her own belly. "I suppose I still am, Joe. Do you think I'll have the baby here?"
"No, I doubt it. It's probably just as well you didn't have it there either," he said. "The world didn't need another little moron running around." He had meant it to be funny, not mean. But he could feel Mary tense with anger.
"Go to Hell!" she flashed. She let him go, pushed him away even. She drew back her arm and Joe realized she intended to slap him. He anticipated the action and reaction that would cause. Sudden separation and they would become two again. There would be regrets, recriminations, and then they would grow apart, slowly, excruciatingly. Once parted, they could never join again.
But she held her swing just short of contact and Joe saw the anger in her face instantly morph into terror. Terror that she could have ruined it all with a single blow. Terror that such small moments can change everything, leverage the universe. As a result of her erratic motion, Mary rotated slowly about her own axis, her eyes opened wide and her lips slightly parted, like she'd seen a ghost.
Joe began to think about the life inside her - the son who would never be born, the child she could never hold. He realized she already loved him. Though unknown and unknowable, she had already bonded with her baby and he would remain, forever, a promise and a burden to her. A mother's curse, but without the blessings. Mary cried then. Elemental sobs racked her gravid body and every cell seemed to weep of its own. Joe timidly stretched his arm to its full length and placed his sturdy hand on her shoulder.
"I'm sorry" she said and she pulled him to her. "I'm so sorry." He crushed her in an embrace that could survive even this place, he hoped.
"If there is a Hell, Joe, I don't want this to be it."
"Hmmph," said Joe, and they listened together as the angel sang her desolate, faraway song.