I’m breathless by the time we reach the helipad at the top of the US Bank Tower—exactly 1,018.01 feet up above LA, the city spread out beneath us in all directions, a wide carpet of neon and white lights that dazzles me after the relative dark of the stairwell. It is heady stuff, seeing the world from this high, dizzying and exactly what I need right now.
I laugh a little, the sound loud in my ears, trapped beneath my helmet. My bank vice president father gets arrested this morning for some kind of mortgage fraud scheme I still don’t completely understand and I’m the one preparing to jump off a building. I look over at my brother Quinn and he’s laughing too—probably having the same thought I am—that this is a crazy, but strangely appropriate way to cheer ourselves up.
Our tight band of friends, sometime partners in crime, and fellow adrenaline junkies are gathered around us—Noah, Oliver, Leo, and Elena. Six of us altogether. Elena’s sister, Whitney is missing, but only because someone had to distract the night guard while we snuck into the stairwell and then drive the car to pick us up after we’ve gone over the edge. She drew the short straw. All in all, though, the vibe is right. Our number feels decidedly lucky. Everyone’s eyes are bright, their cheeks flushed. The impending free fall has them revved, has me revved. I can feel my whole body humming with a high that only comes from doing something outrageous, a high that most of the ground dwellers below us never experience. Alcohol and drugs can’t touch it. It’s one hundred percent pure adrenaline and it’s amazing. Addictive. No matter what maneuver we have planned—this jump or the motorcycle race we pulled off in the spillway riding in near pitch darkness, or any number of others—the thrill never weakens. These moments we plan for together are the only times I ever feel truly alive. I know it’s the same for Quinn and the others. It’s probably the main reason why we’re all friends in the first place.
Noah shuts the stairwell door so we are stuck out here. The only way out of this building now is down the side of it. The sound of the door closing, the slight slam as it hits the door frame makes me wince, reminds me of this morning and the way our front door connected with the foyer wall as the FBI invaded our house, agent after agent rushing in, hands on their guns, eyes scanning every inch of our house like our whole lives were suspect and not just my father. My heart was thundering in my chest then, too—especially as they dragged my father out into the yard, morning stubble shadowing his chin, his skin an ashen, guilty shade—but I didn’t like the way it felt in that moment, like my heart might start contracting—charlie-horsing—and never stop.
My father’s in jail. Right now. Somewhere down there in a cell. If he’s convicted of the charges he’s facing he’ll be in there until I’m his age, maybe longer.
I shake my head. I don’t want to think about that anymore. That’s why I’m up here. Quinn too.
Keep moving, distracting yourself and the hurt you feel will fade. I tell myself.
“This wind is ridiculous,” Leo, my best friend shouts, his eyes squinted against it and steadily tearing up. “We need to get on one of the outcroppings over there to make sure we clear the building.” He brings the camera he’s carrying up to his face and looks through the lens, adjusts it then looks again and starts snapping pictures of all of us, first Quinn looking like the teenaged version of Jason Bourne in his all black clothes and then Oliver, Elena, and Noah butted right up to the edge of the helipad platform with their arms around each other. “Your turn,” he says as he turns his camera on me.
I put my helmet under one arm and strike a pose, the rhinestones on my fingernails catching the light from the flash and looking like twinkling stars for a second. I decided a while ago to embrace my inner bling monster—the Jimmy Choo wearing, Prada bag carrying creature my mother raised me to be. As much as rebelling against anything that makes her happy appeals to me, I actually love all that stuff. Shallow or not I don’t care. The girlie glamour is too enticing, the dress up fun of it. When I was little I was obsessed with the girls in James Bond movies—sexy and beautiful, but tough, too. Doing things like this jump make me feel like one of them.
“You’re beautiful,” Leo says, not a trace of lust evident in his voice which makes the compliment that much more flattering because there’s no agenda attached to it.
“Good,” I say, beaming.
“Alright, enough pictures, let’s go!” As usual Noah is amped, ready.
“Chill out. Rushing means mistakes,” I say. I haven’t poured over building plans, weather conditions, and city maps just to leap off the instant Noah decides he’s ready. “We do it as planned, and that means climbing down there. Then flying.” Tonight’s maneuver is my baby, my contribution to the BAM (short for bad ass maneuvers) book we keep, an adrenaline soaked alternative to a slam book, where we record all the almost and sometimes downright illegal adventures we have. We started it right after Oliver’s parents divorced to cheer him up, a sort of joke that over the years became something bigger until now we have more than twenty pages of adventures, most of them directly related to crappy moments in one or all of our lives. Like my dad’s arrest. Or Leo’s mom’s breakdown.
I put my helmet on and motion for everyone to follow me, toward the far corner of the pad. We get on our stomachs and one by one, lower ourselves down to the narrow shelf below that borders the whole building, coming to points every so often so that from the sky it must look a bit like a starburst. The point nearest us is the one we need to use—far from the stairway flanking the opposite side of the building and the other obstructions that would make landing on them deadly.
Together we climb onto the lip that separates the shelf from the open sky, arms out like tight rope walker poles, the wind prodding at our backs, threatening to unbalance us. The streets below us are mostly quiet this late at night, but there are still cars here and there, slowly making their way towards the freeway, the drivers totally unaware that we are up here watching them. Seeing the rest of the world from this high is freeing because it’s too far away to feel real.
“Say Kamikaze,” Leo says as he snaps another picture. The flash is blinding and I sway a bit.
“Hey, cut it out, man,” Noah grumbles as Elena latches onto his arm to keep her balance. He looks down at her and his expression immediately softens. “How about a kiss. Lanie. For luck.” He pulls her closer, leans in to nuzzle her neck. This thing developing between them is new—sort of surprising and intimate enough that watching them feels odd, wrong.
She rolls her eyes. “Okay, fine. I guess if it’s in the name of luck…” She tilts her head up and presses her lips to his as Leo takes another picture that I can already tell will turn out beautifully with the city as a backdrop and both of them bathed in the crisp white glow of the tower’s lights.
I look from Quinn to Leo to Oliver to Noah to Elena.
When the moment is right I can always feel it. I look over the edge, hold a hand into the air and judge the wind. Yep. Perfect.
“Let’s do this. Quinn, you’re going first, okay?” I put a hand on his shoulder and squeeze. “See you on the ground big brother.” He leans his head to one side and rests it on my shoulder for a second and suddenly my throat feels thick, strangled, and I want to cry. He’s the only person I depend on. Today proved that, especially when my mother locked herself in her room after the FBI took our father and didn’t come out all day, not to explain what was happening or to try to comfort us like mothers are supposed to do.
“See you then,” Quinn says. He knocks his fist against mine and winks.
“Oh man, you got this!” Oliver hollers over a loud gust of wind. He’s all riled up, jazzed like he’s tempted to try and chest bump the sky.
As nervous as I am for BASE jumps—and I am always nervous—waiting for Quinn to land is always the worst part, that moment when I have an image of him falling fast, his chute not opening, then him hitting the ground—the picture in my mind so sharp that I almost hear the heavy thud of his body impacting. I have to fight the urge to tell him to sit this one out even though he needs it as badly as I do, that high, the few sweet seconds when there is only the wind, the fall, and the landing to think about. Everything else just falls away. I say a silent prayer and then listen to him count down.
“Three, two, one.” He looks back at me long enough to wink and then he dives straight out, arms spread out wide, embracing the night. He cheers and then his chute fans out and he disappears beneath it.
“Later losers,” Noah says and he jumps without a countdown, saluting us with one hand as he steps out into the air, his body already tilting forward into a stomach down position.
Quinn’s almost down now, arcing his way towards the street and our planned landing spot. I breathe for the first time since he jumped.
Oliver goes next, quietly, the way he always does with no warning at all, just dropping ninja like into the dark.
“Beautiful up here,” Leo says, taking it all in one last time. He grins at me, his helmet cam on now and pointing directly at my face, the red light a staring eye. He blows me a kiss and swan dives, looking like one of Peter Pan’s Lost Boys or something, flying without pixie dust.
“Here goes,” Elena squeals and then she’s gone too, screaming madly all the way down. I stand on the ledge a moment more. Alone. I close my eyes and listen to the wind whistling around the building, to the distant screech of car tires on asphalt, to the faint echo of my friends calling to one another below. I want to savor the high coursing through my blood for a moment or two longer, the pure pride of knowing I got them all up here and then safely to the ground.
They could’ve died. I might right now. The risk is there, real otherwise this wouldn’t be illegal. One wrong pull on my lines and I crash into this building or another one beside it. If the shoot gets twisted coming out, there won’t be time to right it. Less than a minute from here to the ground and any mistakes mean that minute could be my last. Standing here right now is like looking straight into the face of death, deciding to jump towards its gaping black mouth with the intention of steering away at the last minute.
I let out a long, slow breath. Then I close my eyes and step out into the air.
AMY CHRISTINE PARKER is the author of the critically acclaimed young adult novel, GATED, an Amazon Best Teen Book of the Month Spotlight Pick for July 2013, a YALSA Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, and a nominee for the 2016 Sequoyah Award as well as its sequel, ASTRAY, which was released in August 2014. Currently Amy is working on her third book for Penguin Random House Children’s Books, SMASH and GRAB, which is scheduled to release in May 2016 and ORPHAN CITY for Adaptive Studios releasing late 2016. She writes full-time from her home near Tampa, Florida, where she lives with her husband, their two daughters, and one ridiculously fat cat. Visit her at amychristineparker.com and follow her on Twitter @amychristinepar.
Amy Christine Parker
GATED, August 6, 2013
ASTRAY, August 26, 2014
SMASH and GRAB, May 24, 2016
Random House Children’s Books
Orphan City, Fall 2016
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SCAVENGER HUNT PUZZLE
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