Maya had always loved falling. Or maybe she craved the sensation of floating, since the joy came before, not during, her descent. It was that soul-freeing catharsis at the apex of an arc, the half-second of suspension at the top of a bounce off a trampoline; or the heady, gravity-less moment after a launch from the seat of a swing she’d pumped too high. As a little girl she’d limped home with skinned knees and a bruised backside so often, she’d been forbidden from that last practice, although she still connived her way to the playground every chance she got to swing and fly.
She blamed her father, Jeremy, who’d fostered this affinity when she was just a toddler. Their play in the front yard was her earliest, most poignant memory, where she was tossed in the air and caught, tossed and caught again, Jeremy’s strong hands propelling and releasing her with such force she thought she might travel up forever. The prospect almost – but not quite – terrified her as much as it thrilled. Still, she chased whatever unknown awaited her at the top of her fling, a savage sort of joy building and building until fear threatened, fear she might be swallowed into some skyward abyss and disappear. And then in the instant before terror overtook her, she fell back to earth loose and weightless and happier than ever, her father’s embrace like an extra dessert after dinner.
“Do it again, Daddy,” she begged.
She thought on this memory now as she ran alongside the clog of honking, irate drivers on the bridge. Aiden awaited her ahead, his summons a promise she knew he meant to keep: soon she would fly and fall through the air, and he would catch her.
It had been years since her last volleyball game at Penn State, but the adrenaline rush she experienced now was precisely the one she’d had before taking the court before a match. Her innate compulsion to perform physically, to play at her very best under pressure, swelled within her like a song her whole body knew the lyrics to. She hadn’t played since college but had kept in shape, was still strong and lithe, and what a pleasure to experience her athletic gifts again. She ran as hard as she could without knowing all that awaited her.
The urgency of Aiden’s call furthered her anticipation… because he was desperate for her to reach him, and because she would soon see him, be with him. Nothing could dim the euphoria of that prospect. And nothing would interrupt her focus on their reunion – not the complaints voiced by the drivers she passed, not the police cars amassing on the bridge, sirens screeching.
Just minutes ago, when she was still on Front Street, she’d believed herself safe at last. She’d sneaked away from Thad’s club without her stalker friend’s knowledge; had stealthily entered her apartment building, then convinced the super to let her into her condo, since she didn’t have her keys. She’d gathered what she needed in under thirty seconds – she’d timed herself – then completed another trade of jewelry for cash from her favorite pawnbroker. He’d complained he felt like he was stealing these last pieces, to which Maya replied curtly, “Then pay me more for them.” But she hadn’t been upset, not really, even if she’d received a pittance compared to what the broker would make. He’d given her the means to be independent for the foreseeable future, so she held no grudges.
After her sales stop, she’d avoided her usual haunt, settling herself instead into a dim corner at an obscure diner near the water while she mulled over the specifics of her next disappearing act. It was an internet café with public terminals… a resource she appreciated since her laptop was stowed with the cash currently in Mystery Man’s possession.
Aiden’s summons broke into her concentration with the force of an explosion. One moment she was calmly searching for remote, off-the-grid communities where she could hide out and start over; and the next, she was out the door, sprinting down the sidewalk. She didn’t even remember having left her chair.
Run, Maya! Run! She heard his command shouted inside her head, and her heart filled with hope despite the fear-filled undercurrent behind the entreaty. Aiden was here, she would see him in mere minutes, and they would figure things out together. She ran flat out.
Traffic slowed and then stopped as she approached the bridge’s center. Along the way, snippets of conversation from drivers frustrated by the delay rang in her ears. Apparently, someone was outside the barriers and about to jump.
“Aiden! I’m coming!” she yelled.
Emergency vehicles blared as they muscled their way through the jammed lanes. Maya was determined to reach Aiden before they did.
You gotta love New York, she thought, laughter threatening her air supply, something she couldn’t afford to waste if she wanted to finish this trek. Which meant she swallowed her hysteria in spite of the comedy playing out around her. Eye on the prize, Wilkes, she instructed herself.
“This is New York City, buddy!” someone yelled. “You couldn’t have thought this plan up in, say, Boise?” And then from a man in a delivery truck, “Hey, pal – I gotta get to my kid’s recital! Dance or get off the floor!” A younger guy in a suit yelled, “Dude, you wanna die? ‘Cause about five hundred people here want to kill you…”
Her favorite came from a little old lady who sounded dead-on like the East-Coast grandmother of one of her university friends, her r’s truncated and e’s like long a’s. She leaned from the window of her ancient sedan and groused, “What? You’re depressed, so I should suffer?”
It all showed an appalling lack of sympathy, although maybe they could sense – as she did – that this was no suicide attempt. She didn’t know what it was, but it wasn’t despair and tragedy awaiting her.
In the last moments of her run, the voices around her as well as the clamor of sirens and car horns faded. Because she saw only the man outside the walkway, and his presence muffled everything else. Her lungs burned now and a slight, pleasant asphyxia blurred her senses. Finally at the barricade, she perceived – in addition to Aiden’s figure before her – her own breath and heartbeat, then his, but no other sight or sound.
She didn’t remember climbing through the mesh… but she must have because Aiden had her crushed against him. She heard the loud click of a gun being cocked, and dimly registered the shouted warnings from police to stay back.
Aiden’s smile reflected pure, uncomplicated joy, however. He set her down and cradled her face in his hands. “God. It’s so good to see you, Maya.”
He was happy? Sweet heaven, so was she. An easy lightness blossomed in her chest, expanding like a balloon that threatened to lift her bodily from where she stood. In the ensuing contentment that took her over, she realized again how careworn she’d become, how small her definition of happiness had shrunk since her days in Griffins Bay, especially this past year. She smiled openly in response to him, indifferent to the context of their reunion and their precarious perch on the lip of the bridge.
Aiden stared at her intently, kindly. This will be okay, he assured her. And of course they would be okay – they were together. He then tucked her forehead into his neck, wrapped her tightly against him, and leaned toward the water.
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