This story is by Joanna Dunn Samson and was part of our 2020 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Llewellyn stretched out on her stomach on the rim of a flooded limestone quarry, chin resting on her hands, and studied the still, dark water far below. The light from the sun in a cloudless sky played across the surface of the water. She squinted into the glare, shifted her weight on the hard, crumbling rock beneath her. The sun was warm on her back.
She had been fourteen the first time she stood on this cliff with a group of friends. They had dared each other to crawl through a hole in the rusted chain-link fence, past the “Keep Out” and “Danger! No Admittance” signs. They followed the overgrown truck path to the edge of the abandoned quarry. The sheer magnitude of the drop into the water below was breathtaking—thirty feet, they guessed, maybe forty.
It was a long way down.
The boys laughed and whooped with false bravado, challenging each other to make the jump. They teased her girlfriends, grabbed them by the arms, threatened to throw them off. The girls tittered and squealed in mock terror.
Llewellyn slipped away and climbed to a higher ledge. She stood on the edge and stared into the water below—mesmerized by the light reflecting off the surface, spellbound by its fathomless depth. How would it feel to jump, to sail through the air, to plummet into the water? How far would she sink before floating back to the surface? What would it feel like to be so daring, so bold, to let go of the fear? She, Llewellyn, the good girl, the quiet girl, the girl afraid to break the rules. She closed her eyes. A breeze ruffled her hair. She took one, long deep breath, and before she could change her mind, she jumped.
She remembered it like it was yesterday: falling, falling, falling, the wind whistling past her ears, the startled shrieks of her friends, the shock of the frigid water, the descent into depths so cold and so black, the world faded away into nothing. Nothing at all. Time stopped and she was suspended, weightless, in the silent, dark water. Then she was kicking slowly back towards light and blue sky, breaking the surface, gasping for air, amazed at her audacity.
A sharp pain pierced her ribs; she cried out. A voice called softly from the distance. “Lulu?” A warm hand on her arm, a gentle squeeze. She drifted up through the fog and surfaced to the sound of her own heartbeat on the monitor and the familiar tangle of tubes and IV bottles over the rented hospital bed that had taken up residence in her dining room. Her sister Kat bent over the safety rail. “There you are,” she said softly and pushed a strand of hair off Lewellyn’s wet forehead with her fingers. “Ice?”
She nodded. Kat held the cup to her lips—the shaved ice felt cold on her tongue, soothed the back of her parched throat. Kat dabbed the corner of her mouth with a tissue and smoothed Vaseline on her cracked lips with a cotton swab. Kat, who for once hadn’t argued with her when she refused treatment for Stage 4 liver cancer. “To what end?” Llewellyn asked when presented with the menu of options. “I’m seventy-six years old.” Kat’s eyes had filled with tears. “I understand,” she said and excused herself to sob in the bathroom.
Kat placed the morphine pump in her hand. “Now?”
“Yes,” she whispered. “Now.” Her strength was fading; she was too weak to work the pump. Kat wrapped her hands around Llewellyn’s frail fingers and helped her squeeze. The flood of morphine dampened the pain, and she drifted off in an opioid haze, back to the limestone cliff above the abandoned quarry.
Llewellyn rolled on to her back and folded her arms behind her head. The sky was clear, a brilliant shade of sapphire. The air was dry and crisp. She filled her lungs and let the air out slowly.
That jump had set her free, for better and for worse. What had being a good girl, playing it safe, and walking the line done for her anyway? It didn’t keep her daddy from leaving them; it didn’t keep her mama from crying all the time; and it didn’t keep her best friend’s father from groping her in a dark car. Llewellyn rebelled, chased the heady high of testing her limits—with drugs, with alcohol, with sex. There was nothing she couldn’t do as long as she could manage without the favor and approval of the adults in her life.
She could. Turned out, their approval and favor didn’t amount to much. Her father was gone, and her beleaguered mother gave up in frustration after a year of near-constant battle. They settled into an uneasy and unspoken truce: so long as Llewellyn kept her grades up and came home at night, she could do as she pleased. She turned eighteen, left home, and worked her way through college and law school. Her performance was inconsistent, but with sufficient promise to land her decent jobs and the occasional accolade.
By her early thirties, however, the reckless lifestyle had taken its toll: liver disease, a failed marriage, multiple rehabs, ulcers. Her confidence and self-respect evaporated into self-loathing; unlimited possibility gave way to crippling addiction. She plummeted into the cold, black depths of unfathomable despair.
And then, a moment of clarity, a holy instant: a tiny sliver of blue sky pierced the darkness. Could she pick up the pieces of her broken existence and get sober? She could. If she’d been brave enough to leap off that cliff into the bottomless waters of the quarry, she was brave enough—and tough enough—to make the long, slow journey back to the surface and reclaim her life. That had been forty-three years ago; she never drank again.
Llewellyn began to shiver uncontrollably. The light faded. She gasped for air, unable to catch her breath.
“Lulu!” Kat’s voice was urgent, faraway. “I’m here. Right here.”
She opened her eyes and turned her head slightly. She was cold. So cold. Kat stood next to the bed, tears running down her face. She held up the morphine pump, choked out one word: “Now?”
“Yes,” she whispered, her voice barely audible. Kat leaned in closer—her ear to Llewellyn’s mouth. “I’m ready.” She closed her eyes and waited for the warm flush of relief, for the drug to take her away.
She stands at the edge of the quarry, her back to the water, her face to the sapphire sky. A red-tail hawk drifts on the thermals above. She thinks about her second husband, dead two years from a heart attack. He was special, that one—a gift of her sobriety. As much as she misses him, she is glad he is spared this final drama. He would have been undone by his inability to save her.
Llewellyn closes her eyes. A warm breeze ruffles her hair. She spreads her arms out wide—like wings—and tips backward into the void.