This story is by Joe O’Connor and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Chris leaned over the edge of the wooden balcony, as far as he dared to go. Below him, the tops of the giant evergreen trees swept before his eyes, blanketing the landscape with their jade boughs.
This was ridiculous. A little idiotic even. Glancing to his right he caught a thumbs up from a beaming Fraser, still being strapped into his harness. Next to him, Sarah chatted away with one of the instructors, leaning against the Rotorua Canopy Tours sign with supreme casualness. Over his left shoulder, he was relieved to see Kelsey wasn’t looking quite as keen. So it wasn’t just him then. The young instructor seemed to be trying to put her at ease while he adjusted her helmet, but she continued biting her lip and pulling at her tousled brown hair, her right foot tapping away furiously against the solid pine floor.
Did you call it a floor when you stood fifty metres up in the air though? All around him rose the branches of the forest sentinels, silent and steady. As if sensing his slight panic, the towering trees began to sway, their pine-needles raised by the wind like a frenzied crowd at a football game. They were the spectators in a way, but there would be no high-fives today. Not unless things went terribly wrong. As the wind whipped his brown hair across his face, he gulped. Don’t think about it.
“Oi Kels! You alright?” he yelled.
She was walking now, and turned to glare at him. “What do you think Chris? You know I don’t like heights, and I wouldn’t be up here if someone hadn’t guilt-tripped me into it”. He knew she wasn’t actually angry, but he still felt bad. Though only a little.
“Hey I mean, if you didn’t want to come up here you could have just told me. It’s not like we’d tease you for the rest of your life right?” he grinned.
She stomped her foot hard on the ground, her hands on her hips. “Christopher Richards, you know full well I have no problem standing up here. It’s the next bit that’s getting to me”, and she glanced out over the forest, a sea of dark green rippling under their feet. He was happy enough to skim the surface today, with no intention of going under.
Moving over to her, he reached up and gave her a gentle shove on the arm. “Hey hey hey. If anyone gets to be scared right now, it’s not you. I’m the one who should be shaking in their boots, remember? Anyway, you’re gonna love it once we’re on our way, I know it”.
She laughed in spite of herself, shoving him back. “Oh whatever. If I somehow fall out of this thing and break a leg, at least I’ll feel it”.
“Boo-hoo” he grinned. “You know Kels, if you wanted a good luck kiss you just had to ask” he said.
“Oooh, high opinion of yourself ay? Keep dreaming kiddo” she grinned, and tightened the chin-strap of her helmet.
They could have continued like this for hours, but Fraser’s head popped up from behind Kelsey, his smile so wide it moved his freckles up.
“Guys. We’re officially at T-2 minutes til blastoff. It’s finally happening, we’re actually doing it! Feeling pumped? You better be. Kels, I know that heights aren’t your thing but you gotta admit this is pretty epic” he said, nodding in agreement with himself.
Kelsey gritted her teeth. “Chris. Fraser. For the last time, I am not scared of heights! I’m just not sold on the idea of falling off them is all. Which seems pretty reasonable to me” she said, folding her arms as if daring the boys to disagree with her.
Fraser shrugged. “Yeah okay, I can give you that. Chriiiiiis. My main man! How you doin? Feeling lucky? You look good bro, the harness suits you! The yellow really brings out your eyes” he said straight-faced.
“Honestly Fraser? Sometimes I don’t know whether you’re being completely serious or utterly sarcastic. You’re a goofball man, and no mistake. Where’s S?” Chris asked, looking around the bustling wooden platform.
“Here!” A loud voice sang out from behind them. Scrambling over the bench, Sarah popped up in a flash. “What’d I miss?”
“Oh nothing much, the boys here just told me that they will happily go first”. Kels turned to face them with a wicked grin on her face, and gave them a quick wink. “Isn’t that right Chris? First in, first served!”
She would do that to him, knowing he was every bit as scared as she was. If not maybe a little bit more. Kels did have the advantage of knowing what it’s like to be weightless after all; in fact all three of the others did. Spending every third-form summer day in the skate bowl from dawn to dusk would do that for you. Chris cast his mind back to long days in the Tauranga sun, sitting near the lip of the bowl and slurping a Jelly-Tip ice-block, cheering the rest of the gang on as they ollied, front-sided and kickflipped the afternoon away, wishing he could be part of the action. Looks like he’d got his chance. He gulped again.
Chris jolted from his reverie as someone snapped their fingers. Fraser of course.
“Hey space-man, front and centre. We can’t be having you daydreaming through this one, you’re in this just as much as us! Star attraction brother”.
Fraser’s words settled him slowly. He was part of this for once. He was about to be flung through the air just like them. Jeesh, what a terrifying thought that was. Grabbing his black chinstrap, he yanked it tight and gave his helmet a solid whack to make sure it wouldn’t come off.
Sarah pulled them into a huddle around him, and they crouched down to Chris’ level like rugby players in a scrum. They must have made a funny sight; four eager faces bunched together, limbs entangled like spaghetti and legs swaying from side to side as Sarah started the pep-talk. It had to be Sarah. This whole activity was her idea, egged on by Fraser of course. They were mischief-makers and no mistake about it.
“Righto peeps. I expect that by now you’re all feeling a little bit nervous, Kels you obviously most of all” she said with a laugh. “And that’s good right? I mean we’re about to go boldly where no human was ever designed to go, least of all you Chris. But we’re safe and sound in these harnesses, and I’m certain no-one has fallen out of these things. Fairly certain” she reiterated, tugging the shoulder straps to make her point. They all simultaneously realised that the left one had wiggled it’s way loose in the two minutes between the instructor clipping it and their group huddle, and Chris’ stomach gave a short turn.
“What are we here for S?” Kels prompted, as they patiently waited for Sarah to clip it back into place.
“Sorted! Right yeah, so I suppose you all know why I’ve gathered you here today. Joking, I’ve just always wanted to say that. Anyways. This is your present Chris, and we’re doing it with ya, heights be damned”.
“This is for you mate”. Fraser spoke up now, clapping him on the shoulder. “It’s your 21st, and it’s about time we got those legs off the ground. So screw it, let’s have a blast ay!”
They spent the next minute psyching themselves up; back-slapping, high-fives, shoulder-thumping, and more than a few deep breaths. Chris took a huge lungful of air, then another. He readjusted the harness around his waist to keep his shaky hands occupied. At last, it was time.
Their instructor Doug called them over to the open platforms, two at a time. Fraser stepped up to the one on the right, and Chris moved up to his left. With trembling hands he held on as Doug clipped him onto the line, feeling rather like a wet piece of laundry about to receive the shake-up of a lifetime. Trying not to look down, he felt Kels and Sarah’s arms pulling him out of the chair and holding him up, the wheels locked tight and unable to help. He wouldn’t be needing them this time.
Kels leaned a bit closer as Doug started the countdown, and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “There, that’ll give you something to think about while you’re screaming your head off” she laughed. “We’ll be right behind ya!”
Fraser gave him a proud nod as Doug hit blast-off, and he felt his friends’ hands let go.
Chris flew down the line, weightless, mindless, and free. He heard Fraser shouting with glee to his right, and more screams of delight following behind him, but he barely noticed. The cool wind raced alongside him, and he felt himself smiling, laughing, yelling. So this was what it was like to fly.