Authors: Cate Lockhart
Mine To Lose
Copyright © Cate Lockhart, 2016
Published by Epiphany Books
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual people living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
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Your wings were ready but our hearts were not
Today is my birthday.
I thought it would be the same as any other day.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
‘Aww, come on. Tell me. You know I hate secrets,’ I said, pouting as I wrapped my arms around my husband’s neck.
‘Stop prying, woman! You’re always spoiling my surprises,’ Jordan pointed out in a theatrical tone as he prised my fingers apart and climbed out of bed. ‘But not this time, babykins. And I don’t care how many times you pull that duck face.’
I thought about all the times when we were first dating that he would play with that tone. He always did it very convincingly too, I might add. I always told Jordan that he should have been an actor. The man simply had a penchant for the dramatic. Back then, I thought it endearing, but later I realised it was a very real trait that he employed, regrettably, to get his own way or display his disgruntlement with something or someone. Melodrama seemed to run in his family. But I digress.
I wasn’t a big fan of birthdays, especially milestone ones, so fortunately for me it was a Sunday, and I didn’t have to be at work and have the constant reminders from co-workers that I’d been alive for three decades. For some reason, thinking of it in those terms made me feel ancient.
When Jordan had woken me up in bed with a sly grin on his face, I knew my day would consist of many surprises.
The first being Jordan trying his hand at cooking breakfast. It was the first time he’d made the effort in our relationship, and it was easy to taste too.
Isn’t it wonderful what loves allows one to tolerate?
The eggs were runny and contained more salt than the Dead Sea; the coffee was weak and sweet, contrary to my preferred lack of sugar and cream, and finally, the bacon looked more like singed ribbons of cardboard than meat. But I played along and forced it all down while he watched eagerly.
‘I take it you’ll be eating some of this as well?’ I asked, prodding the slimy white egg around the plate with my fork.
‘Nope, made it all for you. I had some toast,’ he replied proudly as if he had martyred himself for me, but in truth, I would have killed for a slice of bland whole wheat toast with a hint of margarine and bitter marmalade. Nevertheless, I took the bullet to show him my appreciation and cleared almost all of my plate. I washed it down with the unholy brew in my coffee mug and jumped up to take a shower.
Jordan made it clear that to receive my birthday present, I had to be ready to leave the apartment at 10 a.m. on the dot. That was a feat in itself, considering it was five minutes to ten, and I was still in the process of straightening my hair.
Thank God for the makers of Cloud straighteners.
‘Katie!’ Jordan called from the kitchen, where he was loading the dishwasher. ‘Hurry up! We’re gonna be late.’
‘What’s the rush?’ I called back, trying to keep the irritation out of my voice. Jordan’s dark hair was short on the sides and tousled on top, making it very easy to maintain. He had no idea of the struggle I went through to make my thick curly shoulder length hair presentable on a daily basis.
‘Well,’ he said, suddenly close, standing in the bedroom doorway, ‘We sort of ... have an appointment. And it’s one we can’t be late for.’
‘I don’t like the sound of this,’ I said, and I meant it. Knowing what he was like, it wouldn’t have surprised me if he’d booked me in for a Brazilian wax just for kicks. Instead of replying, he disappeared from view.
My mind combed through all the other things he could be up to but came up with nothing. Zilch! Jordan’s interests were so varied that it was literally impossible to figure out what he had planned for me. Granted, being a writer for the BBC drama department in London gave him a measure of creativity, and it certainly helped his overactive mind enormously.
After only two months of dating, Jordan and I had decided to get married because we just about agreed on everything. Neither of us wanted children. I had my reasons, having seen what an imperfect world could do to children and teenagers, and I wasn’t planning to add to the problem. Besides, both Jordan and I were fond of travelling and enjoyed our freedom. At any time, we could pack up and go on holiday, or go away at the drop of a hat, without having to worry about babysitters or schools. It was a decision we both made even without really discussing it because we were so in synch on wanting the same things in our lives.
I could not imagine having to go through life having to mind a child all the time. I mean, where would that leave my goals and my dreams? Not to mention the exuberant amounts of money involved in raising a child. No, Jordan and I had our priorities straight. We intended to enjoy life and spend our money on us, revelling in the freedom of our chosen lifestyle. So, ultimately, we had been married for four years already with no serious responsibilities to worry about. Life was good. Money was good. And the freedom to up and go on a whim was the best!
We were in the Lexus, driving at a million miles per hour down the A420 toward God knows where.
‘Ready for some fun?’ he asked as we reached Silverstone, in Northamptonshire.
I nodded zealously, more to appease Jordan than anything else. I was still none the wiser what he was up to. Silverstone, I thought, of all places, wasn’t exactly the Riviera.
‘You’re not planning on selling me to human traffickers, are you?’ I jested. Jordan smiled, amused and drew the back of his hand across my jawline in affection.
‘I would never do that, my angel.’ He groaned aloud at the thought. ‘You’re only mine to exploit!’
I laughed with him, but I had to concede that the sight before me held little promise that I would be particularly intrigued by what he had planned. Grasslands with the odd structure perking up here and there surrounded us. Make no mistake – I love the countryside, but this was strangely post-apocalyptic and barren.
We took a hard right turn at the sign that read
‘Mike’s – 200 m ahead’
and drove straight ahead on a narrow tarmac strip.
‘Sweetheart,’ I said with a bit of a wince, ‘are you sure we’re not lost?’
‘Nope! Definitely not lost,’ he answered. ‘I was here last week to make the ... arrangements.’
‘So that’s what you’re up to? You’re selling me off to some farmer to have his wicked way with me.’
Jordan placed his hand on my thigh, ‘Nothing so sinister. Trust me. You’re going to love this, baby.’ His sultry green eyes pierced mine, filled with excitement. My husband was an outrageously good looking man, but sometimes his smile looked just a little too eerie for my taste.
‘Am I?’ I frowned, but in truth, I was very excited to see what he had cooked up for me. Jordan was, as I said before, quite creative.
‘Yes you are, I promise,’ he snickered. ‘This is one birthday surprise you’re never going to forget!’ Jordan announced as we neared one of the giant structures that populated the flat stretch of land. ‘It’s a lovely, clear day for once, just as I ordered for you.’
‘Jordan, you’re forgetting I’m of Scottish origin,’ I reminded him nonchalantly, ‘so I love clouds. Blue skies don’t impress me.’
Honestly, all I wanted to do was get back to Oxford and have a meal at the new French restaurant that had opened not far from where we lived, followed by a night of uninhibited sex. That would have been perfect. But, as always, we went Jordan’s way, which was far more elaborate and dramatic. Every time I wanted to be fussy, I would recall my mum’s birthday when I was still living at home. My dad went above and beyond to make her birthday perfect, and she loved everything he did for her, regardless of whether she wanted to do something different on the day. So, following in my mum’s footsteps, I made sure I appreciated everything Jordan did for me.
‘We’re here!’ he said. We pulled up to the parking area on the short grass of what I now knew was a hangar. Fixed to the side of it was massive blue and white signage with a mundane logo.
Mike’s Sky Diving and Parachuting
‘Oh Jesus,’ I said as I read the sign. I wasn’t fond of heights, but it wasn’t a phobia by any means. Still, it was far beyond the frame of my guessing perimeter. It was probably one of the last things I expected him to come up with.
‘Aren’t you impressed?’ Jordan marvelled with a wicked smile as he looked up at the logo.
I found myself frowning over his choice of words, hoping it was a joke. But Jordan looked positively exhilarated, so proud of the surprise he bought for me that I realised he was deadly serious. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
‘It’s … amazing,’ I said, lying through my chattering teeth at the thought of jumping out of a plane. ‘Must have cost you a fortune,’ I added, more to ascertain just how obliged I was to go through with it than to establish the cost of the insane excursion Jordan had dreamed up for me.
‘An arm and a leg,’ Jordan admitted. He cupped my chin in his hands and gazed deeply into my eyes, ‘But I can’t think of a better way to spend my money than this, taking my wife up into heaven to thank her for making heaven on earth for me every day.’
My doe-eyed expression must have looked really silly. It was the corniest thing I had ever heard, but at the same time, it was immeasurably sweet of Jordan. What kind of wife would I be to deny him all this? I could tell he sincerely meant it.
‘I feel the same way.’ I smiled, truly grateful for all the effort and thought he’d put into making my birthday a memorable one. I wasn’t about to spoil it for him by telling him how desperately I didn’t want to go through with this. ‘You certainly know how to surprise a girl, I’ll give you that.’
We got out of the car, and instantly the gale pushed my breath right back into my lungs, and I gasped for a second to catch it again. It was frigid! For the beginning of May, such conditions were rare. But Jordan didn’t seem to notice; he was giddy with excitement. I was surprised to see him beaming at the thought of such a dangerous excursion.
‘Katie,’ he said, ‘skydiving isn’t as dangerous as you might think. People do this kind of thing every day, a hundred times over. And Mike Baker is one of the country’s best pilots and parachuting instructors.’ Jordan held out his hand when a stout, curly-haired man in his fifties, approached us.
‘Welcome!’ he shouted through the din of the wind as he shook Jordan’s hand. ‘Glad you made it.’
Not by choice, I thought, but I responded with a big grin as if I was the luckiest woman alive to be taking on such an endeavour.
‘And, you must be the birthday girl.’ Mike winked at Jordan as he laid a friendly hand on my shoulder. ‘I’m glad to see Jordan managed to talk you round.’
Jordan shifted uncomfortably on his feet. I didn’t want to make a scene so I just went along with Mike’s train of thought. He obviously thought Jordan had told me about the jump, and I’d come along willingly.
‘It didn’t take much convincing after I heard about your credentials,’ I said, praying that was the one thing Jordan had checked out thoroughly.
‘You’re in safe hands. Don’t worry.’
After a few more pleasantries, Mike led the way toward a hangar that stood alone and alien on the great vast plain of barren nature. I concluded that the wind was so much stronger here because of the lack of trees or buildings, allowing the gusts to gain velocity. It wasn’t altogether a soothing thought, but I noticed that Mike didn’t mention anything about the strength of the wind when he was giving the group of attendees a safety talk, so I reckoned he probably knew how to handle it and wasn’t overly concerned.
Still, I didn’t like how cold and merciless it was. I couldn’t believe we were still going skydiving in such windy and cold conditions.
‘Well, birthday girl, let’s get ready,’ Mike said.
I smiled sweetly, effectively hiding the terror I felt for what was going to ensue. With every part of my soul, I wished I didn’t have to go through with this, but Jordan and Mike were so eager to make my day extra special that I had to simply suck it up and let them have their way. Among all the tips and bragging, the kind jests about jumping out of a plane for pleasure that I hardly found comforting, I knew that I had to force myself to enjoy the experience. My inner voice reminded me that so many people ache to do exciting things but can’t afford it. Here I was, given the chance to do something most never got to do in an entire lifetime, and I was ungrateful. Besides, my grandfather used to insist that being close to deathly fear was the most exhilarating feeling in the world.
I remember when he used to tell me about his youth in London, drafted for the RAF. He used to have this distant, dreamy look in his eyes; a look of true cheerful reminiscence when he would relay tales of his days as a late teen during World War II.
‘Oh, Kitten, those days were so different from today,’ he would coo with his ale breath next to my ear when I’d sit on his lap. He lived in Inverness, and I used to visit once a year on my dad’s annual week off. Of course, I was his only grandchild, and he adored me, calling me ‘Kitten’ because Katherine or Kat was too grown up, according to him.
‘We would be deployed over strange countries we had only read about in school back in those days, those of us who attended school, that is,’ he would report. ‘How many times we were dropped off in the wilds of places we did not know, I cannot tell you. But being young men in the military, we were far too boastful and foolish to admit that we were all just terrified little boys, missing our mothers.’
Now, standing in this high structure that clattered under the force of the wind like a great aeronautical tomb, I recalled his voice vividly. In my mind, his words consoled and enchanted me once more as it always did when I was a child, while I watched Jordan chatting to the others about the world of aviation and all their experiences. Their lips moved, their expressions betrayed their emotions, but I heard nothing while Gramps recited his stories repeatedly in my head.
‘Kitten, we were cold those nights! Having to parachute into the North Sea is not for sissies,’ his raspy voice lingered with enthusiasm, so much so that I could almost feel, smell, hear and see everything he told me. Then came the part familiar, the part apt for today, ‘When we jumped for the first time, I thought I would lose my bowels. It was like having a heart attack, knowing you’re about to die. Your brain just screams, and your tummy turns as your skin loses your bones.’
I looked at the exterior of the plane, strangely familiarising myself with it, as a dying woman would acquaint herself with her coffin. Gramps’ voice echoed on, and then I heard him clearly again, ‘But I tell you, Kitten, there is nothing like it in the world.’ I remember he smiled when he told me that, his eyes dwelled through lanes of time, and a spark of devilish fun brought his gaze back to mine, and he said, ‘Never will you feel more free, even from death, than when you fall through the sky! In fact, of all the crazy things your old grandfather did through his life, it remains the same. Danger, deadly peril – touching the tip of Death’s bony finger –
is when one feels most alive, Kitten! And while your heart gradually sheds the fear and turns it into pure exhilaration, you will realize that there is where your problems get solved. That is the point where the obscure things become clear to you for the first time. Safe, boring lives are for those afraid to
‘Sweetheart!’ Jordan waved his hand in front of my face, snapping me out of my daydream. ‘Where are you? It’s time.’
‘I can’t believe we’re doing this,’ I muttered.
To be honest, I didn’t even realise that I said it out loud until Jordan squeezed my hand and said, ‘I know. It’s great isn’t it?’
No, no it isn’t
. My heart slammed; my stomach threatened to force me to vomit, but I had to keep my composure. Not just for Jordan, but for the crew and the other jumpers wishing me a happy birthday and egging me on like my own personal cheer squad. They were all so lovely, complimenting me on my spirit of adventure when all I wanted to do was run back to the car. To do so would have felt to me as if I were letting down the whole team. Maybe I was silly to think that way, but that was how I saw it.
‘Jordan, did Mike say anything about the wind?’ I asked as I stepped into the legs of my jumpsuit and pulled it to my shoulders.
‘Nope. I think if there were a problem with the wind speed or the currents they wouldn’t be taking us up. These guys are very safety conscious,’ he assured me, no doubt smelling my reluctance.
‘Are you trying to find an excuse not to do this?’ Jordan sniggered, sinking his head down to mine to find my eyes. ‘Come now, this is why we are such a great couple. We’re always trying out new things all the time. Think of this as just another fun thing we get to do together. I’ve done it once before when I was in my early twenties, and I swear there is no freedom like skydiving.’
He held me close and kissed my forehead, and I held onto him as long as I could, just to feel safe for a little while longer.
Mike clapped his hands together to get everyone’s attention. ‘So! Are you ready for the time of your lives?’
The group called out enthusiastically. ‘Yes!’
‘We are, aren’t we, sweetheart?’ Jordan said, whispering in my ear.
I crossed my fingers behind my back. ‘Absolutely.’
‘I checked your AAD myself,’ Mike said, coming to a standstill in front of me. ‘That’s the automatic activation device. Don’t look so worried. You’re jumping with me.’
I drew a deep breath and exhaled a long sigh of relief. Well, partial relief. It was so much better to know that I had an instructor doing all the work for me, but still, leaping from the ledge of a plane into a colossal atmosphere of nothingness wasn’t a pleasant forethought.
‘Let’s do this!’ I faked, but it caught in my throat like a piece of dry bread.
‘That’s the spirit!’ Mike shouted, hauling me off by the wrist with Jordan trotting behind us.
It just isn’t fair, I thought, as we boarded the plane single-file. I had finally made it to thirty and was really looking forward to not giving a toss about the odd grey hair here or there or the fact that I had my first wrinkle. All of my friends said the same thing – once you reached thirty, the real you begins to shine through. Confidence comes in abundance. That may well be for some, but as the narrow door of the plane snapped shut, I found myself wishing Jordan had booked this jump for my 31
. At least that way I’d have known for a year what it felt like to finally be free from the worry of what others thought of me. But no, I’d stupidly agreed to join him on an overpriced suicide attempt.
I was stuck in an aluminium tube they generously called a plane, packed in among a bunch of adrenaline junkies and waiting to be hurled into the sky with nothing to protect me but a few yards of fabric.
All because I was in love with a man who wanted adventure.
The engines on the wings roared to life, the plane lurched forward, and my heart lodged itself in my throat, declining all invitations to return to its original position. The rest of the half-dozen skydivers chattered excitedly amongst themselves, and as I clutched at the armrests of my chair, I stared at Jordan sitting quietly and looking out the side window with a dreamy, almost serene look on his face. I followed his gaze to the dwindling landscape below, distant trees and open fields shrinking from sight as the plane slipped from gravity's shackles.
It was a beautiful sight; I couldn't argue that. I would have been thrilled if sightseeing were the only purpose of this little excursion. Unfortunately, it was all too soon that Mike rose from his seat at the front, turned and began to address the lemmings, and in so doing, shattered my happy fantasy. I glanced at Jordan again and was dismayed to see a familiar, excited expression taking root on his face. It was the one he always seemed to have whenever he was about to do something incredibly stupid, or as he called it – ‘fun.’
I knew I really should have tried to pay more attention to Mike on the off chance that he was giving some last-minute, life-saving information, but I was too busy muttering prayers under my breath. Finally, the dreaded moment came when he stopped talking and gave a smile similar to Jordan’s, and my heart dropped from my throat all the way down into my stomach as he pushed open the little door. A deafening wind filled the plane and drowned out my scream of terror.
Jordan reached over and laid his hand over mine as I gripped the armrest and gave me a reassuring squeeze. I looked back at him, at his calm but eager smile and those playful green eyes I’d fallen in love, and for a moment I was almost calm. Jordan shouted something, and although the shrieking wind suppressed his words, I was able to discern the message.
We'll be okay. I love you.
I managed a weak smile for Jordan as we rose from our seats and shuffled for the open door. Mike gave each diver a few final tips, and one by one, they each leaped from the door into the open sky. Jordan and I were the third-and second-to-last in the line, and once Mike passed on his wisdom to Jordan, he turned and kissed me with childish enthusiasm.
‘See you down there!’ Jordan shouted, then turned and flung himself out. I barely had time to whisper goodbye before Mike pulled me to the door. I wanted to protest, wanted to bolt myself onto the plane floor and never let go, but my body was too frozen with fear to resist. I stared out into the empty blue, the dominion of the birds where humans were visitors at best, and squeaked with gut-wrenching terror. Mike attached himself to me and shouted to make himself heard.
‘Remember! Step off! Nothing to it!’
I would never be sure if Mike actually dragged me out of the plane or if I simply heeded the call of the void and stepped out on my own. Whatever the case, it was irrelevant. There was no going back.
I’d thought the wind had been loud inside the plane, but it had only been whispering my demise. Now it was screaming at me as I hurtled toward the earth, and I screamed with it. The descent was so fast, I couldn't register anything but the horror of my own impending doom, and in the back of my mind, I wondered if it would hurt. I prayed it would be over too quickly to feel the pain.
As the ground raced up to meet us, I tried to guess how long it had been since we’d left the plane. It didn't matter, I supposed, not when I was about to die. We simply fell and fell. I forgot everything but the fear. This was the end.
Memories overwhelmed me: my wedding day; Jordan drunk at the reception, tripping over and landing face first in our wedding cake; Jordan and me white-water rafting in America; Jordan lighting hundreds of candles in our apartment on Valentine’s Day, rose petals covering the bed; Jordan making love to me. Over and over again, the visions flashed through my mind, blinding me with one simple truth: if this was the end, I hadn’t done enough with my life.
I’d missed something. Tears leaked out of my tightly shut eyelids and were whipped away by the wind. All I had was Jordan, and all he had was me. But was that enough? I realised with a start that it wasn’t. The only thing that would have completed us was … was … a child.
Mike gripped the handle and yanked it from his chest, and my body was rocked by the sudden loss of momentum. My eyes, squeezed shut for much of the dive, opened slowly to survey the extent of the damage ... and widened in shock as I took in the beauty that awaited me. Floating to earth, carried aloft by the same wind that earlier had pronounced my end, I watched as beneath me the rest of the divers' chutes blossomed and deposited them one by one gently on terra firma. I was no longer thinking about death – I was thinking about life. My life.
If I died today, what legacy would I have left behind? People would have remembered me as Jordan Winston’s wife, Rosemary Hilton’s daughter. Other than that, once the hand of time and the will of weather had wiped my name from my gravestone, there would be no trace of me, that I ever existed.