Stories

Portrait of a Woman in Free Fall

Her stomach drops. The wind howls in her ears and rips at her clothes. Someone screams. Any moment now her limbs will twitch and she’ll wake up. She’ll find herself safe and warm in bed where she’ll roll over and fall back into a dreamless sleep until her alarm rings. Allie opens her eyes and shrieks. She’s suspended in thin air, splayed out and staring up into the sky. She blinks and rubs her eyes until she sees glowing golden spots. Carefully reaching beneath her, she searches for any harnesses, ropes, or platforms, but her fingers find nothing. Above, her eyes find an azure sky filled with swirling wisps of white clouds that look like frothy ocean waves painted in the air. To her left, a flock of large white birds is frozen in mid-flight, as if someone pressed pause on a movie. Far below is the canopy of a lush green rainforest. Her imagination paints a vivid picture of the razor-sharp rocks hidden beneath that will break her bones and spill her blood if she falls. Tendrils of panic curl around her heart as she gulps for air. “I’m dreaming! This isn’t real!” Her voice comes out muffled and flat, and the heavy silence that follows leaves a deafening ringing in her ears.

“Where am I?” Allie carefully cranes her neck, afraid the tiniest movement will free her from her invisible perch. To the right is an emerald mountain lined with sharp cliffs and dozens of thin white waterfalls. Beyond that is a long valley, thick with vegetation, which seems to disappear into a shimmering sapphire ocean. At the top of the nearest cliff, several frozen figures look down at her from the edge. She squints into the bright sunlight and frowns. One of them is wearing a familiar black baseball cap. Her hands tighten into fists. “This is Kauai.” She and her boyfriend, Teige, had recently taken a long trip here in the hopes of salvaging their frayed relationship.

Allie lets out a yip as she falls, her long brown hair whipping into her eyes and mouth. After two or three seconds, she comes to a stop so suddenly that her head snaps forward and her teeth click together, barely missing the end of her tongue. “What the hell?” she whispers. Glancing around, she notices that the white birds have also moved; the one leading the flock now has its beak open as if yelling at the other birds to hurry up. “Ok, this has gotta end. Wake up!” She grabs the skin on the back of her hand and twists hard, but all she gets is a brief jolt of pain that brings tears to her eyes. No longer caring if she falls, Allie kicks her legs and screams at the top of her lungs. The sound is flat and unsatisfying, and the dream refuses to end. She pants and hangs like a rag doll. Of course, Teige would pass out on the couch tonight, she thinks. If he had come to bed, he would have yanked all the covers over to his side, tossed and turned to get comfortable, and kicked her feet a few times for good measure, bringing this nightmare to an end. For once, she’d have welcomed his terrible bed etiquette. A shriek escapes her mouth as she drops for another second before halting abruptly. After several minutes, there’s no further descent. Allie does her best to breathe slowly and relax her shoulders enough to pull them down from her ears.

***

Nothing in the dream changes for what seems like hours. To pass the time, Allie sings a song that’s been stuck in her head all week. When she runs out of lyrics, she starts counting anything and everything she can see—birds, rocks, waterfalls, people—but there’s only so much you can see when you’re stuck. Blowing air through her pursed lips, she puts her hands under her head and stares up at the sky with unfocused eyes. Random thoughts flit through her mind: What time is it? I need to do laundry. Do other people have dreams like this? This is so boring. At least when people fall in movies, their lives flash before their eyes. Her eyes widen as she’s shaken from her reverie. Dreams are your brain’s way of trying to make sense of things—she was pretty sure she had read something like that in a psychology textbook in college. “Maybe I have to figure something out.” Allie chews her lip. She’d been unhappy with just about everything in her life for as long as she could remember. “This could take a while.” She ticks two of the biggest issues off on her fingers: she hates her job; she stopped painting. She waits a moment but she doesn’t move. Sighing, she ticks off another issue: her relationship is a wreck. Gravity suddenly returns for a few seconds before disappearing again. Glancing at the ground with a grimace, she sets that one aside for the moment.

“Let’s start with my job.” Every weekday, she has a long, crowded commute to a nameless office building where numbers are crunched by an army of cogs who could easily be replaced by robots. All of her coworkers dress the same, eat the same lunches, and talk about the same bullshit every day. Maybe they’re already robots, Allie thinks with a smirk. Overall, the pay is alright, but the mind-numbing monotony is sucking the soul out of her. She’s pretty sure she could find a better job. “So why haven’t I looked?” She nibbles on a ragged fingernail before releasing a long breath. “Teige.” When Allie mentioned wanting to job hunt, his concern wasn’t that she’d have a hard time finding a new job or that she might be just as unhappy somewhere else. It was that if she actually liked her job, she might be willing to work longer hours. Or, heaven forbid, she could make some friends. In either scenario, she’d neglect their relationship. Neglect him. She closes her eyes. “I need to find a better job.” It doesn’t feel as if she’s moving. Opening her eyes, a moss-covered rock jutting out from the cliff to her right seems to be a bit higher than it had been moments ago. Allie glances to the left. The beak of the large white bird is starting to close, as if it’s finished what it was saying to the flock behind it. “That’s not it, is it?”

She sighs and takes in the spectacular scenery. People pay serious money for helicopter tours to see this. The waterfalls on the cliffs are so far away, they look like delicate white lines carved into the emerald green walls. “It’s all so beautiful. I wish I could paint it.” Since she was a child, Allie had always loved painting. It let her leave behind her boring life and lose herself in her own world for hours on end. When it came time to apply to colleges, she wanted to go to art school, but her mother forbade it. Better to get a real degree and job than end up a starving artist. Allie could paint on the side. But after graduating and getting a job, finding the time to paint started feeling like a chore. Half-finished canvases began to stack up in the corner of her studio. To regain some motivation, she tried entering a local art competition. Her surprising win set off an obsession; she began painting early in the morning and late into the night, skipping meals and sleep. After a dozen more entries, however, she didn’t win. Out of desperation, she asked Teige for advice. Smiling and patting her on the head, he said, “Your paintings are like a Led Zeppelin cover band. You play all the right notes, but there’s no soul. You can’t change that, babe. You either have it or you don’t.”

Allie was crushed and she wallowed in bed for days. As the weeks and months passed, she found it impossible to make herself paint anymore. At one point, even thinking about it brought on a panic attack. Her last unfinished painting is still sitting on an easel hidden under a layer of shirts and bras. She scrubs her face as her eyes start to burn. “I don’t need to win. I just need to paint for the love of it again.” She falls only for a second and shakes her head. “I knew it. It’s not about work or painting.” Absently plucking at a loose thread in the hem of her t-shirt, she whispers, “It all comes back to him, doesn’t it?”

Not long after college, she and Teige met at an open mic night at a coffee house. He was handsome and well-built with a lopsided grin she found adorable, but it was his stories that really drew her to him. He was a gifted storyteller and had a ton of internet followers to show for it. He wrote about young people trapped in an unchanging world, created and controlled by the old and indifferent. Every story told in his deep, warm voice was angry, sarcastic, and hilarious. They felt so real, detailing everything Allie had experienced and felt; it was like he was inside her head. She instantly fell in love with the idea of two talented artists coming together and sharing their passions for the rest of their lives. The thought grew so large in Allie’s mind that it completely obscured all the red flags: the jealousy, the pettiness, the verbal abuse, the whiplash-inducing mood swings. She drops for several seconds before coming to a jarring halt. Her heart races as she gasps for air. It’s just a dream, she thinks as she peeks at the ground. A wave of vertigo washes over her for a moment making her grit her teeth.

“So why am I dreaming of this place?” Teige hated making decisions, so he always left everything up to Allie. But if she made the wrong choice because she couldn’t guess what he wanted, he’d sulk and guilt trip her for days or weeks. On their Kauai trip, she decided they should go to the Pu’u O Kila overlook on their last day. Her trusty guidebook said that, with an elevation of over 4,000 feet, it was the best spot to see the iconic wind-carved cliffs that jutted from the lush valley. Unfortunately, Allie had made the wrong decision as usual. Teige wanted to get high and nap on the beach instead, so he’d been in a foul mood the whole car ride there, pulling his ever-present black baseball cap over his face and pretending to sleep. Her only entertainment had been the poorly pronounced directions coming from her phone as Google maps struggled with the Hawaiian names. She would have laughed if she hadn’t been in such a shitty mood.

She tilts her head to see the people on the cliff top and frowns. “What happened at the overlook? I don’t even remember driving back to the hotel.” Allie chews on her thumbnail and stares out over the island for a long time without seeing it. As the events of that day finally piece themselves back together, she bites the nail off at the skin, drawing blood. When they arrived at the overlook, Teige immediately picked a fight over her poor decision-making skills. The cliff top was crowded, so they were walking around unsuccessfully trying to look like they weren’t fighting. Some of the other tourists pretended not to notice while others leaned closer trying to catch every dirty detail of their drama. Allie finally yelled something and threw the car keys at Teige before storming off toward the edge of the cliff. He swore and stomped through the grass after her.

Allie looks up at the tourists milling around in various states of panic or disbelief. At least one of them seems to be taking a picture or video of her. She gives him a toothy smile while flicking him off. Teige is kneeling at the edge looking down at her. He doesn’t seem surprised or upset. His eyes are just empty, as if he’s waiting at the doctor’s office or in line at the grocery store. He’s an asshole in my dreams, too. Allie sucks in a sharp breath. After she stormed off, she stood right where Teige is now and told him she was leaving him. He had smirked and said she wouldn’t do it. He said she didn’t have the guts.

The world around her starts to move slowly as if waking up from a long nap. The birds begin to flap their wings. The people at the top of the cliff begin to shrink. Someone screams. Suddenly, the air leaves Allie’s lungs in a whoosh. Her stomach drops hard and her teeth slam together, catching the end of her tongue. Coppery blood fills her mouth and she gags. Spitting out scarlet strands of saliva, she howls with laughter. She’s going to take back her life and do things her way. She’ll start by packing her bags the second she wakes up, finally freeing herself from this five-year rut. “I’m leaving you, asshole!” The rushing wind immediately steals her words. Teige stands up and dusts the rust-red dirt off his knees. Pulling the car keys from his pocket, he tosses them in the air and catches them as a smile tugs at his lips. Allie grins imagining the look on his face in the morning when she walks out the door for the last time.

The snow-white birds soar over the tourists. A silver rain begins to fall. Allie reaches terminal velocity. As she plummets toward the sharp obsidian rocks—lying hidden under the delicate green ferns and waiting to break her white bones and spill her crimson blood—she thinks about all the brilliant colors she’ll use to paint this beautiful place.

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