Unhooked part two

I immediately realize this is a mistake as my eyes sting from the dirty water. I hadn’t even noticed before and pull my head back sputtering out of the water to Thomas’ laughter. At least when I was being drowned I had the sense to close my eyes. Thomas dives off and Frank, who is chuckling to myself, brings me over to the shore.

“Let’s try and get you situated before you drown yourself.” I can see Jess and Thomas swim off further into the lake where it looks like they can’t touch bottom. It saddened me to know they were out of reach.

“I want to follow them.” I tell Frank.

“You can’t swim.” He says.

“I could learn.” I reply. It didn’t look that hard, you kicked your legs and pushed water behind you with your arms.

“Oh yeah?” Frank says. “You can’t even get your face wet and you think you can swim. Ever heard the phrase walk before you run Ryan?” I was getting a little fed up with all the down talk. First there was the running, then there was the cards, now there was swimming.

“I’m not a baby you know.” I say.

“I know.” Frank responds. “And I’m sure you can swim, but we need to ease you into this. There’s a lot of life out here in the real world and you can’t live it all at once.” He reaches into some grass and pulls out a bag he brought with him.

“Here.” He hands me a curved tube and some strange looking glasses. “This’ll help you get started. These.” He tapped the glasses. “Go on your face, and this.” He tapped the tube. “Goes in your mouth.

I looked at him skeptically. These people were not above playing a joke on me, and this equipment looked ridiculous.

“Why don’t you use it?” I ask.

“Because we can already swim. Now come, let’s get started. You’ll like this.” I still think this might be a joke. If it was Thomas or even Jess I wouldn’t have done it, but this was Frank. He had earned a little trust.

The tube and the glasses clipped together to form some weird kind of mask, it felt awkward, and my breathing now had a rasping sound that reminded of something. Maybe a movie I had seen. We waded back out until we were about chest deep. I appreciated the water much more this time. I didn’t think about any monsters in it, my body had acclimated to the colder temperatures, and there was no Thomas to drag me under.

I had imagined walking through water would feel like walking through thicker air, but this was so much more. It was soft, incredibly soft, softer than anything I felt before. Every time I moved my lake forward it was like silk flowing over my legs. The sensation was enthralling I found myself staring at my leg hairs, the few inches visible through the murky water. They wafted in the current I was generating with my strides like kelp being pushed by on ocean current.

“Now, how this is going to work.” I jumped slightly. I had forgotten Frank and why I was walking out here in the first place. ‘Is you’re going to lower yourself down into the water until you’re submerged, but keep the top of that tube underwater. It’ll let you breathe, and the face mask will keep the water out of your eyes. The mask will also keep the water out of your nose.” I was going to go underwater. I would get to feel that silky smoothness all over my body. I would also have my head under again. I remember thrashing about trying desperately to breathe, thinking that I was being murdered. I remembered how dirty the water had tasted going down my throat, and how much it had hurt coughing back up. There had been a sensation of wrongness about having the water in my lungs. There was something in my body that wasn’t a part of my body, and it had sickened me knowing all the bacteria, parasites, viruses, and maybe even small fish that were inside me.

“If you’re going to swim you’re going to have to do this.” Frank tells me. “I can see you getting a little pale, but trust me, it’ll be fine. You’ll be able to breathe this time. I’m gonna have to hold you under.” I stop breathing for a moment. “But it’s just because you’ll float away if I don’t, as soon as I feel you starting to come up on your own I’ll let you go.” I trusted Frank. He hadn’t done anything to me that I disliked yet.

I nod my head, and slowly begin to crouch. My upper body has been out of the water long enough that the water feels cold again, but not as cold as it did before. It’s a pleasant sensation, and the smoothness of the water as it envelopes me is like being tucked into bed.

The water level reaches my shoulders and I start to breathe a little faster. In just a second that water will be over my face, and without a little piece of plastic I would be cut off from air, but I keep lowering myself.

I feel hands on my shoulders, and my breathing slows knowing that Frank is here. He won’t let anything happen to me. I hold onto that thought. If I wasn’t about to be in a spot where moments before my life felt threatened I probably wouldn’t have trusted him this much, but right now I needed to. I needed to feel safe, and Frank provided that safety. I was taking a leap. As the water hits my chin and comes over the mouth piece I involuntarily hold my breath.

Everything goes brown and black, and I can’t see. The water is also so cold on my face that I feel suffocated. I start taking too many breaths like I did when I tried to run. It’s crushing. It feels like it’s trying to force its way into my mouth. I close my eyes because the water seems like it’s trying to break its way into my facemask. I start to flail my arms to push myself up, and Frank squeezes my shoulders.

Frank is here. Frank won’t let anything bad happen. I take a deep breath and open my eyes. There is a spike of panic when I see the water in front of my mask, but it’s okay. I take another deep breath. The water will stay there. I feel fine.

I close my eyes again, not out of fear, but to concentrate on my other senses. There is a dull rumbling sound in my ears and nothing else. The entire world has been turned to one monotonous string of white noise. There are no human voices, no chirping of bird, just the rumbling of the water, and the rhythmic in and out of my breathing.

Similarly, my sense of touch has been dulled. The water flows forward and back over me like a full body gentle caress. I swish my hands back and forth to feel the water run over them. This causes me to lose a bit of balance, but Frank keeps me rooted in one spot. It was supremely peaceful to have nothing on my mind. My eyes see nothing but dark, my ears hear nothing but white noise, and my skin feels nothing but softness, even the lake mud just conforms to my legs and is pleasantly cool against my skin.

I get so relaxed that at one point I start to fall asleep and my grip loosens on the plastic tube in my mouth. Water seeps in and suddenly that feeling of drowning comes back. The hands holding me down suddenly don’t seem so friendly. I get a mouthful of water, and I only prevent myself from swallowing it by blowing it all into the tube. There it stays, coming in every time I inhale, bringing with it a spike of fear and a flash of recent memory.

Then, I feel embarrassed again. I’m not doing this again. I’m not going to get scared by some basic part of life. I was in three feet of water. I could stand up and be perfectly fine if nothing else, and it wasn’t like I was inhaling the water. No, this was a minor inconvenience at best, and if I was going to live out here in this world then I would not let these things scare me.

I opened my lips and let more water in. I felt the need to stand up, but suppressed it. ‘Stop being a baby’. I told myself. ‘They are swimming out there without masks and without breathing tubes. Man up and deal with it. I take another mouthful of water and have to blow forcefully to clear my breathing tube. A steel feeling I was unfamiliar with began to form in my gut. I was stronger than a little bit of water, and I was going to prove it.

Making sure to keep my eyes closed I pull off the facemask. It is still connected to the facemask so my tube becomes entirely filled with water and some of it goes into my lungs. Water floods past the mask and covers my face, giving me a feeling of cold and helplessness. The air is gone too. I have no access to the surface. It’s happening again, I’m drowning. Water on my face, water down my throat, hands holding me down.

‘No!’ I shout in my hand. I finish ripping off the mask and put it on the lake bottom beside me. I use the remaining air in my lungs to blow out some of the water from the snorkel. I think it hits Frank in the face because his grip on me loosens. The pathway is just barely clear and I have to draw a slow breath to avoid pulling in water. It’s okay though, there is air now, and if I control my breathing there will be a steady supply.

‘Now to really conquer this’. I say to myself, and pull the breathing tube out of my mouth. I keep my mouth closed to conserve my air, and for the first time that day, actually hold my breath underwater. Frank’s hands fidget a bit, I guess he didn’t think I’d do it. They called themselves unhooked. I think a fitting demonstration of my commitment to this was unhooking myself from air.

The air became harder to hold in, it seemed to push on my mouth, desperate to get out. At the same time my chest muscles seemed to contract slightly on their won, desperate to pull air in. My body was fighting my mind screaming at it ‘Breathe you fool, you’re going to die!’ I ignored it. I coughed out a little air bubble, but I was going to push this until my body couldn’t take anymore.

My chest contracted again and another bubble burst out. ‘Stay down!’ I shouted out myself. You are stronger than this, you can beat this. I almost surface when a flash of memory of arms grabbing me and throwing me under, of air rushing out of my lungs, of feeling helpless. But I’m not helpless. I am stronger than this. This thing will not beat me, and I’ll only surface when I know I’ve taken as much as possible.

Another burst of air from my mouth, this time a small stream of bubbles, and I almost suck in some water, desperate to get anything down into my lungs to stop this sensation of pressure and needing to breathe. The hands on my shoulders suddenly flip from holding me down to pulling me up.

Before I know it I’m halfway out of the water and there’s a rushing sound as my ears transition from being underwater to being in air. I make a sound like the loch ness monster rising from the depths as I first exhale sharply, then take in the world’s deepest breath.

“Are you okay?” Frank asks.

“What did you do that for?” I demand of Frank. As soon as I have some air in my lungs to work with. I bend down to pick up the breathing tube and mask from off the lakebed and hand them back to Frank.

“I was in the middle of something.” I’m kind of angry at him. I think I was close to some kind of mental break through.

“You were in the middle of what exactly? A suicide attempt?” He looks part angry, and part concerned.

“No.” I say, surprised that he would jump to that conclusion. “I was just proving to myself that I didn’t need to be afraid of the water. That it doesn’t get to make me afraid.” He cocked an eyebrow.

“This is your first day unhooked?” He asked me. I nodded. He whistled, and for the first time in his eyes there was something besides concern or some kind of paternal protectiveness. There was respect.

“You know it’s one thing to have mortal peril thrust on you. It’s quite another to freely embrace it. You can’t get that in a dream can you?” He asks me. I shake my head.

“You are never really in danger.” I say. “You try to make yourself feel in danger by dreaming up giant hordes of enemies, or horrific monstrosities, but in the end you know they will bend to your every whim. In the end the good guy always wins.” Frank doesn’t say anything. “Although it’s a little ridiculous to talk about mortal peril out here.” I add on. “I mean Thomas wasn’t really trying to drown me and I could’ve stood up at any moment.”

“It doesn’t matter how much danger there actually is.” Frank tells me. “It matters how much danger you feel.” He glances back towards the shore. “Let’s get some more swimming gear to get you started.” We walk back to shore and Frank produces a flat foam board.

I feel strong as he walks me back. I know I’m still in horrendous physical condition, at least as far as endurance was concerned, but I had shown a bit of mental toughness. I was no longer some little kid they were leading around. I was an adult. A full grown human being, and I was acting like it.

“This is a kickboard.” He tells me. “It’s for working on your leg movements for swimming. Your legs are stronger than your arms, so we’ll work on your kick first, and your pull later. So you hold onto this to keep your upper body afloat, and work on your kick.” As frank instructs me in some basic swimming motions with my legs, I find myself glancing out into the deeper part of the lake where Thomas and Jess are. Thomas and Jess are playing some sort of water version of tag. Several times Frank has to splash me to regain my attention.

“You awake Ryan? The lesson’s here, not out in the middle of the lake. If you want to learn you need to focus.”

“Sorry Frank.” I reply. “Just daydreaming.” There’s a brief stretch of silence before he responds.

“You like her don’t you.” He says. I lose my grip on the kickboard, and briefly submerge.

“What makes you say that?” I come up spluttering and indignant, but also trying to act nonchalant and failing miserably at it.

“Oh come on.” He says. “Me and Thomas saw how you reacted to her hug. Thomas even made a crack about it. Don’t act surprised.” I suddenly find the lake water directly in front of me quite fascinating and examine it closely as the conversation continues.

“I’m not making any judgments one way or the other.” He said in a reassuring voice. “But you are recently unhooked. You have to remember what rejection means out here.”

I look up at him. “Rejection?” I ask. He rolls his eyes.

“Out here in the real world, not only can girls turn you down, but if they do turn you down, you still have to interact with them. I’m not saying you two wouldn’t work out. I am saying that so far we are the only people in the real world you know. Us unhooked people aren’t all that common, so you don’t want to make things weird between us. We’re her brothers, so if it’s weird between you two it’ll be weird between us. I’m not saying that trying to set something up between you two is a bad idea. I’m just saying give it some time and be prepared for rejection because things out here aren’t guaranteed.”

“Why is that?” I asked. “Why are there so few of us?” I was trying to change the subject, thankfully, it worked. I had not yet worked out how I felt about Jess or how to go about pursuing anything, so for now I just wanted to avoid the subject entirely.

“It’s a good question, and we don’t really know the answer ourselves.” Frank said. “Each of us has a different theory. Jess thinks it’s because the world used to be a rough place. People were unhappy all the time. The planet was getting messed up by all the stuff people were doing to it, and people just wanted an escape.”

“But it doesn’t seem like the world is that way now.” I said.

“Yeah, and it could be things are better because most of the world is asleep, but I don’t buy that. Even if people were using it purely to get away from an ugly world, I refuse to believe that people aren’t willing to give this.” He swept his hand out to gesture toward the lake, the forest, the sky, and everything. “A chance.”

“That’s why I think people are under because they want control.” Frank continued. “I think that most people aren’t willing to lose control and experience the fear and the pain that you’ve experienced today. I mean I know that we make light of it, but today was kind of like your birth pangs. What you’ve experienced was becoming accustomed to the whole idea of fear and pain, and not letting yourself succumb to them. I believe most people given the option to escape fear and pain will take that choice.” I thought about my conversations with my friends and family. They had been so quick to get away from real life. Were they just running away from suffering?

“I don’t think people are that cowardly.” I said. “I’m sure some are, and maybe some are under because life really is ugly, but that doesn’t add up to me. I just think people are better than that.” Frank looks out into the deep water at Thomas and Jess who are now playing some game involving dunking the person under water a lot.

“Which is why Thomas thinks they’re being forced under.” Frank told me. “Thomas has a number of theories as to why. Maybe the corporation that makes the pill is super greedy and wants to make most of the world’s money to afford this luxury. I don’t think sleep core is that malicious, but he also thinks sleep core could be an arm of the government that is being used to pacify the people.” I think about all the advertising that sleep core gets, and I remember my parents telling me its crazy fast rise to success. How the pill had been pushed through testing far too quick, and seemingly everyone seemed to demand the pill at once. Could all that really be possible without the help of some very large and very powerful entity?

“Your kick is looking pretty decent, now try taking a couple pulls with your arms. One at a time, make a paddle with your hand, and push the water underneath and behind you.” Now Frank was changing the subject. Why would he do that? This seemed like something that was pretty important, especially for someone who just recently unhooked. I considered probing a bit more, but I was still new to the group, so I let it slide.

“So what are we doing later?” Making the third change of subject this conversation. Frank cocked his head, considering.

“Don’t know, we hadn’t really decided.” He smiled. “One of the beauties of being unhooked is you have a lot of time on your hands. Jess and Thomas only work two hours a day. I pull a three hour shift. “ I stopped kicking and stared at him. They worked two and three hour shifts? The longest shift any of my friends worked was an hour.

“I know it sounds like a lot, but you gotta realize, when you’re awake as much as we are, two or three hours really isn’t that much time. We could work half or one hour shifts like everyone else, but we have some pretty expensive toys, and can use the extra money. Maybe you’ll get to try some later.” He winked at me.

“I look forward to it.” I say. “I’m feeling pretty confident now, ready to let me have a go at the deep water.” I push away the kickboard and sloppily take a few strokes around the shallows. Frank studies my movements.

“You look like a sick frog with a broken leg, but you’ll do. Come on, let’s go have some real fun.”

As we join the two further out, where we have to tread water to stay afloat, Thomas celebrates my coming by unceremoniously dunking me under again. I return the favor this time, and we play a water based version of tag.

I tire quickly, and most of the time I’m it. I did get to catch Jess. She looked surprised and impressed when I tag her it.

“How did you learn so fast?” She asks me as I make some distance between me and her so she can start counting to ten.

“Strong arms remember?” She splashes me, I laugh, and the game goes on. Soon the game raps up and we move on, heading back to shore to towel off and head for home.

“Ryan wants to see the toys.” Frank tells the group when we walk through the door. He stops by the kitchen and comes back with some sandwiches and juice which he passes out. “You guys want to see how adventurous a zombie can be?” There are some whoops for joy as they rush downstairs to where the toys are stored. I looked from my sandwhiches to the door. Briefly I wonder why we don’t stop and have a nice long lunch instead of rushing around like this. Then I remember that I promised to not be a wimp about this. I was strong now, and being strong now meant you didn’t just lay down and rest whenever you felt a little run down. I bite into my sandwich, which is a delightful PB&J, and head down to join my friends.

“Welcome to the funhouse.” Thomas greets me at the bottom of the stairs. Wall to wall are clear plastic bins, hangars laden down with gear, and closets laden with untold bounty. There are ropes, shoes, tanks, guns, metal devices of all shapes and sizes, things that look like improved versions of the swimming gear I had just seen. I see tents, sleeping bags, heavy coats, boxes of energy bars and energy drink mix, and that’s just the stuff I could put a name to.

“If there is something crazy or stupid that you can do outside, you can find the gear to make it happen here.” Thomas begins pointing at various pieces of equipment and naming activities as he points. “Rock climbing, skiing, camping, hiking, geocacheing, snorkel, SCUBA, Kayaks are outback, and we even have some wing suits on back order.” He was grinning like a kid in a candy store. We all were.

“This may not be as good as what you can find in a dream.” Jess says picking up a rope and fondly examining it. “But the challenge of it, the adventure, the finding something new or doing something you haven’t done before. The thrill of knowing it can go wrong, and the elation when it goes right. Those you can’t find in a dream either.” I walk around in a mild trance touching each piece of gear, feeling the cold steel, the flexible rubber, the tough rope, and the solid wood. They said you couldn’t find this stuff in a dream, but I had several dreams about just this sort of thing.

“So what’s it going to be Ryan?” Frank asks me. “What do you want to do first?” I could sooner answer which star in the sky was my favorite. There were so many things here, and each one had a different risk and a different promise of reward. I could see the scuff marks, the scratches, the wear and tear on the equipment. I could tell that this stuff had been a lot, and there were so many fond memories. I felt almost as if I was in some kind of temple.

“I really can’t answer that.” I say. “There’s just so much here.” I look at Jess, and see the rope she has picked up. She probably has had a lot of good times with that rope. “What’s that rope for Jess?” I ask.

“This fine 9.8mm 60M dynamic line with a 30% stretch factor? This is for rock cilimbing. As are the 30 meter static line with 10% stretch factor, the locking carabineers, the chalk bags, the fingerless gloves, the ATCs, the gri gris and the endless valley honey and oat energy bars.” She opens a box and pulls out a green energy bar. “These are just right for hanging off the side of a cliff and feeling the wind in your hair, and nothing but open space below you.” Yup, that was clearly her favorite thing to do. I had no experience in these matters, but I think that would be a good way to get to know her and get closer to her. Also, I pictured rock climbing as an upper body workout, and upper body strength was possibly the only way I could keep up with these guys.

“Rock climbing, definitely rock climbing.” I say. I look to Jess for her reaction. She’s smiling at me. For a minute my breathing stops and my heart skips. It’s almost like that feeling of being underwater, but there’s also a warmth to it. It just feels right.

“Alright, rock climbing it is. Let’s get dangerous!” Thomas boisterously shouts.

“We have a rule.” Frank tells me. We are standing at the top of a cliff that appears to be about 70 or 80 feet tall, tall enough that you can see over the trees.

“You never climb on a system that you didn’t help to setup.” There is a cornucopia of ropes, carabineers, webbing, and various metal devices scattered around the cliff top. It looks like a rope bridge collided with a chain link fence and exploded into neatly segregated piles.

“So if you’re going to make it to the bottom of this beast.” He points to the cliff. “You’re going to have to do some of the work yourself.” That made sense, it would give me a sense of ownership over my own fate. “You’re also going to be the first one over the edge.” Frank finished.

“Which means if it doesn’t work you’ll be making the trip home in several buckets.” Thomas cheerfully put in. I swallowed hard. A few hours ago I thought running was an adventure, now I was about to literally jump off a cliff.

“Great, how do we start?” They gave me a brief talk on the capabilities and limitations to the setup we were using. They emphasized the importance of having a completely redundant system. You had two trees you tied the ropes to. You had a double knot to attach the carabineers to, and you had two carabineers in case one broke or opened itself during the climb. The only catch was the rope that went through the carbineers and over the side of the cliff, the rope you actually used to climb on, wasn’t redundant. If that snaps, there’s no fail safe.

It was all very fascinating, and I would’ve felt a lot better about it if we weren’t standing on the cliff as we put the system together. The knots themselves didn’t help either. I looked at the kind of double figure eight knot that secured the ropes to the trees and couldn’t help but think that the rope could very easily just slide out of the knot. I mean, there wasn’t a lock or anything anywhere in the system. Was friction really enough to keep this thing together. What was so different about it from the way I tied my shoe laces together.

I probably wouldn’t have gone through with it if it wasn’t for Jess. She was the one who worked with me to explain the knots. Thomas and Frank took the roles of double checking my knots, preparing the gear for me to build the rock climbing system with, and keeping a running commentary on how far they think I would bounce if the system failed at different points.

She could be very nurturing when she wanted to. After the first system was complete we set up two more, and while Jess worked with me she explained what unhooking for her was like.

“We had a big family.” She tells me. “There were eight of us in total, 4 boys, two girls, and two parents. Thomas was the first unhook. This may surprise you, but he’s a bit of a rebel, and the first time he unhooked it was just to spite our parents. He didn’t actually think he would enjoy the experience. He told me about it the next day, and then Frank overheard, and being the protective type, decided to follow along to make sure we were okay.” I finish tying up the last knot and clip in the carabineers to the top of the system.

“We were pretty boring, just kind of walked around, but like you’ve seen, real life can be addictive. The randomness, the unexpected turns, the consequences, challenges, triumphs, they feel so much more powerful than a fabricated reality ever could.” She looks wistfully at her brothers as they give us the thumbs up and we move on to the last system.

“We stepped out into this new world, and fell in love with it. The only problem with it was that our other siblings told on us.” We kneel down and start tying knots to trees. “Our parents warned us about staying awake. They talked about some urban legends about the things that lurked in the real world, and some propaganda about dreams being better than reality.” She gave the knot she was working on an unnecessarily hard tug. “We tried to tell them it all wasn’t true, but they wouldn’t believe us. Then they kicked us out.” I stopped tying knots.

“Your own parents kicked you out of the house? How old were you guys?” I asked.

“We were all still high school age. Luckily we were all working, and the pay was bad, but we just tripled our shifts and got an apartment together. Nine minimum wage annual incomes isn’t too shabby for a couple of young adults.”

“Is that why you said ‘we had’. A family instead of saying ‘we have’ a family?” She tightens the last knot and nods.

“To us, they don’t exist anymore. They exist in the dream to us, and we are in the real world. They might as well be on the surface of Mars. Even if they hadn’t forced us to move out at a young age, we still wouldn’t consider them family.” Thomas and Frank look over the ropes as we clip in the carabineers and throw the climbing rope over the side. They’ve gotten quiet.

“That’s harsh.” I say.

“Really?” she says, a sharp tone entering her voice. “They gave us up. They don’t want us. They spend their time imagining better versions of us because we’re not good enough for them. How would you feel about someone who did that to you?”

“But they would still spend a few waking hours with you right?” I asked, trying to defend myself.

“They would barely tolerate us until they popped their next pill. Haven’t you noticed that your hooked friends and family can’t wait to go to sleep? And even when they do interact with you all you talk about is dreaming? They don’t like you. To them you’re just a pawn in their own little game, and when you won’t move the way want. They cast you aside. You’re expendable to them. Our parents made us expendable. That makes them dead to us.”

“I’m sorry.” I tell her. “I didn’t see it that way.”

“I know.” The edge leaves her voice and she relaxes. “I didn’t mean to snap like that. Here, let’s get you tied in and good to go.” She hands me a harness and explains how to use the knots I’ve learned, to attach myself to the ropes. She then explains how she’s going to use one of the metal pieces, the ATC she calls it, to lower me over the side while she’s attached to the other end of the rope. Once I hit the bottom Thomas will then allow her to descend, and Frank will allow Thomas to descend. We would then all climb back up, and move on to the next system.

“As we told you at the start.” Frank says. “You get to go first, so stand at the edge of the cliff, and just lean back. Jess will catch you. After you hit bottom Thomas and Jess will follow, and then you three will climb back up.”

“Great yeah, just fall back off a cliff, cool.” I say sarcastically.

“And put your feet flat against the cliff.” Thomas puts in. I give him a frown and a thumbs up. I walked to the edge of the cliff and look over the side. It’s not a sheer cliff, there are a few outcroppings that if I fall I will bounce off of and maybe just break every bone in my body instead of splatting on the ground.

“Looking and waiting isn’t going to help.” Jess tells me. “You just have to trust me, turn around, and lean back. I won’t let you fall.” I force myself to do as she says and turn around.

“You always wake up before you hit the ground right?” I ask sheepishly trying to make myself think positive.

“Lean back Ryan.” Jess tells me. “You can trust me.” I decide to do this the same way I let go of my fear of drowning. I carefully slide my heels up the edge of the cliff and close my eyes. I had hoped Jess would tighten the rope I’m attached to so I would feel more secure as I leaned back, but she was intentionally leaving a foot or so of slack to make this extra interesting for me. Well, no point putting it off any longer. I peak briefly at Jess. She’s looking at me, and she now has that respect in her eyes that I had seen in Frank’s after ditching my breathing tube. This one’s for you Jess. I close my eyes, and fall back.

Nothing, for a brief moment there’s nothing. My weight leaves my feet, and I don’t feel my own body weigh resting on anything. I’m falling through air, and unlike the water, it offers no resistance, content to let me feel straight through it as fast as I pleased. Then there’s a feeling of painful awakeness. My body senses something is wrong and fires every single neuron it knows how. Things seem to slow ever so slightly, and my breath catches as my stomach feels like it wants to crawl out my throat. Then the line goes taught, and my feet brace against the side of the cliff as I come to a halt. I didn’t even really fall. I had just sort of laid down, and now was sort of positioned like I was walking up the cliff. My toes were sticking over the top of the cliff, and then everything spend back up.

“Yeah Ryan!” Thomas shouts. I hear whoops of joy from Frank and Jess like when they had been running through the forest. The rush now boomed out into an electric joy, like someone had hooked me up to a car battery and the only way to let the electricity out was to yell, and yell I did. My whoops and shouts join Frank’s, Thomas’, and Jess joins in too. All four of us give in to some basic animal happiness just to have taken a risk and come out on top.

“Alright Jess, drop’em down.” Thomas encourages.

“Take a look around as you drop Ryan.” Jess suggests. I began to then walk backwards down the cliff. I kept my feet flat against the rock as they had instructed, and at about the pace of a slow jog, begin to descend.

I look around at the trees, and think of Thomas swinging around in them when we had first walked back to their house. I hadn’t imagined I would be able to experience that, and this was kind of cheating, but here I was all the same, up in the branches like a monkey.

I hit bottom and call out to Jess as soon as I untie myself from the rope. She drags the rope back up, and a minute later she drops over the side too.

When she hits bottom she’s got this half crazy look like a sprinter at the starting line who just can’t wait to leap forward.

“This is gonna be great!” She says as she unties herself and calls back up to Frank and Thomas.

“Oh man, you are gonna love this climb.” She punches me lightly on the shoulder and bounces up and down on the balls of her feet as she eagerly tells me what her favorite parts are to this climb.

“I bet my family would too.” I say. She stops bouncing.

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