There’s a moment when jumping becomes not an act, but a way of life; a moment when, hovering in the air, your jump becomes not a decision, but a choice that frees you from every bad thing you’ve done.
Her eyes stay closed as she falls, so she doesn’t see that she’s stopped.
The girl’s eyes open and she looks beneath her feet. She still appears to be in the act of falling-- no, flying, falling was so negative-- when she’d stopped. Her hair is still windblown above her head, her fingers stretched up and tangling together, but she’s frozen. She’d scream, but it’s lodged somewhere in the back of her throat.
“Excuse me,” says a voice, high pitched and nasally, “Excuse me. Are you awake?”
She can’t move her head to nod.
“Oh, great,” says the voice. “We’ve got another fainter. Jill, get over here, will ya?”
Strange, blurry shapes dance in front of her face, like fingerprints on a window. The form of a hand flickers. A face moves back and forth. A translucent finger stretches out and pokes at her eyes. “Hmmm,” says the voice. “Suicide, I bet. She doesn't look startled enough to be pushed. Depressed-looking too.”
“Are you sure she can’t hear you?” asks another voice, this one just as high-pitched but somehow more feminine. “I mean, she’s blinking.”
“Nah, she’s unconscious. Otherwise she’d answer us. Probably. ” With ghostly fingers, he plucks a hair from her head. He looks down at it, furrows his brow.
“Write this down. Wanda Marshall, twenty-four, Italian-American woman. One hundred and thirty-six pounds. Five foot two... hehe, no wonder she jumped, I’d be depressed if I were that tiny too. Hrm… dead mother, father in Pennsylvania. She used to have a dog named Mr. Biscuits.” He tossed the hair over his shoulder and looked at her intently. He seemed to be solidifying into something resembling a man but also not human. Pale, translucent gray skin and white hair. He was remarkably strange looking, with features that seemed to tremble in front of her. He had eyes: blue and clear as glass. A big nose, but sleek hair that blew around his face. Handsome. He seemed to be staring straight into her soul…
“Hm, she’s ugly as hell. We sure we want this one, Jill?”
“That ain’t nice, Peter.”
He grinned into her face, then turned to face the second thing. “I know it isn’t nice, but she can’t hear me, can she? Let’s wake her up and get this show on the road.”
The second spirit scoffed, but she moved forward to poke something into Wanda’s mouth. Wanda tasted something sweet and bubbling that seemed to laugh its way down her throat. It burned a fire in her stomach; then, with a gasp, she found that she could move again. She looked around.
She was several yards down from her balcony where she’d jumped, and standing on what appeared to be an invisible platform floating in the air miles above New York. Cars honked directly beneath her feet. The light from buildings hit her like a spotlight.
“Hello there,” Peter said in a bored voice. “My name’s Peter. I’m from the Recruitment Office of Cloud Corps, who are interested in hiring new workers. Would you like to join after your imminent death?”
“My what?” Wanda stammered.
Peter rolled his eyes. “Your imminent death. You have just jumped off a building, hopefully to kill yourself, otherwise I don’t know what you were doing. You are going to die. Do you want to work with us in the afterlife?”
“I… I don’t…”
“Let me step in,” said the other person, floating through Peter to get to Wanda. Wanda uttered a kind of soft scream, and the woman-- spirit-- thing-- touched her face with fingers soft as a summer breeze. She peered closely at Wanda and, despite her strange transparency, the snow-white hair cascading down her back, and the fact that she hovered off the ground, one look at the woman’s eyes and Wanda felt more comfortable. There was a motherliness to her, a warmth in her pudgy face.
“Hi, doll,” the woman said, gently. “I’m Jill, an’ I work with this bag of crap called Peter. You get used to him after a while. We’re cloud people; dead spirits that take care o’ the weather and all the stuff goin’ on in the sky. You wanna come with us after you die? It’s gonna happen soon.”
“Wait,” croaked Wanda. “A job? But I thought- in death-”
Jill snorted a laugh. “You think we’re just sitting around all day? Nah. It’s not hard work, not stressful work, not a lot of work, but it’s still work. Keeps us occupied. We can’t be eatin’ jelly beans and swimmin’ in sunsets all day, now can we? Nah.”
Wanda stood up slowly, shakily, from where she’d been crouched on the platform. “So-- so is everyone a cloud person?” she asked, swallowing. This was too much strangeness to take in.
“Nah,” said Jill. “We all got some kind a work, since the Earth needs a lot a takin’ care of; everybody has a different job. There are two big jobs, then a bunch a little jobs in there. Cloud people do weather; grass people make sure nature keeps flowin’. Those are kinda the bases, but you can get different positions in between. For Cloud People, we can regulate weather, hire spirits, keep watch on little fools crossin’ the street, an’ take care a heaven if you want to. Nature people just get to fuss over the environment an’ try to save the animals an’ the ocean an’ stuff.” Jill rolled her eyes.
Wanda was still trying to wrap her mind around the fact that she was standing on top of New York City, or that she could see straight through Jill to Peter. She didn’t even want to consider the idea of ‘taking care of Heaven’
“Wait,” she said. “So-- wait. Why are you trying to recruit me now? I’m not dead yet.”
“We have a lot of spirits to see,” Peter says, sounding annoyed. “Do you have any idea how many people die every night? They’d prefer it if we waited until after a spirit has been all introduced to Heaven, but the overtime is such a pain.”
“Basically,” Jill admits. “What do you think?”
“I-- I don’t know what to think. This is a lot to take in…” Wanda pressed her fingers against her forehead, taking a deep breath. It was difficult to wrap her mind around-- the thought of having a job. Of being recruited for the afterlife, before she had even joined it. She wondered, suddenly, if jumping was a mistake. If all she got to do in the afterlife was more work, was it worth joining it?
Then she thought of everything her life had turned out to be, of the man waiting for her upstairs, of the shell of her father in Pennsylvania, and the empty, hollow feeling she carried around with her… she shuddered.
“Don’ you worry,” said Jill softly. “I’ll take care of you.”
Wanda smiled at her, grateful for her presence. She’d not sure what she would’ve done if it had just been Peter talking to her. Snapped, probably. Cried.
“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate that.”
“I got your back,” Jill told her, gripping her arm for support. She seemed to be her age, maybe a little bit older. “What do you think?”
“About the job?” She hesitated for a moment. “I’m in. I think I’d like to work with you.”
Jill grinned. “Good to hear.”
“Are we done?” Peter asked, his nasally voice full of boredom. “It’ll be sunrise before you two finish up all your girly-gabbing.”
“Sign here,” Jill said, ignoring him. She was holding a clipboard in her hand, painted in blue and white. “This says that you’ll come with us after you die so we can find you a position among the Cloud Corps.” She smiled at Wanda. “I’m real excited. I think we’re gonna be good friends.”
“Wanda,” said Peter. “You won’t like me for a while. But we’ll become friends after I help you find your mom.”
“Wanda,” said Jill. “We become very close. I’m the friend you never had. Now sign.” She pointed to the gold dotted line at the bottom. Wanda stared at the big feather pen.
“Sign,” said Jill.
“Will it hurt?” Wanda whispered. “Will it hurt for- for a long time?”
“That’s up to you,” said Peter. “If you sign.”
“Wanda?” Jill asked. She looked at Wanda with big, milky eyes. “Aren’t you going to sign?”
Wanda awoke suddenly with a gasp. She touched her forehead and found it was covered in sweat. She was shaking.
She looked around her apartment, trying to calm herself down. Dream. It was just a dream.
She swore she could hear something calling her. Wanda! Wanda! Wanda! The voices wailed in her ears, and seemed to be coming from the direction of her balcony. She slid out of bed, careful not to wake the man sleeping beside her, and tiptoed through the maze of dirty clothes and beer bottles to get to the twelve-inch balcony.
New York breathed on her, its wind coming in rushes toward her face. She gazed over the city, at the twinkling lights below. She looked down at the streets and remembered her dream. It would be cowardly, but…
There wasn’t anything left for her here. A father in Pennsylvania who’d probably forgotten her name. A boyfriend who leaves bruises on her wrists. Tattoos that stretch over the length of her skin, but that don’t manage to hide the ugly weight of her flesh. No matter how many times she took the needle to her skin, or skipped meals to get skinnier, or pierced her ears and nose and eyebrows, nothing changed the fact that this was who she was. Wanda.
Motherless, eternally unhappy, body jiggling like Jell-O as she walked, spending hours every night staring at her face in the mirror, wishing she was at least pretty. Nothing would change her, so what was the point of being here?
So easy. Just one foot over the railing, another foot. Peter and Jill called her name, and there was another voice in there, a voice she hadn’t heard since she was little, a voice intermingled with the smell of fresh-baked cookies and the taste of summertime on her lips. Wanda! Wanda!
She cried, burst into tears at the remembrance of her mother, her beautiful mother, beautiful creature, and she had slung one foot over the railing before she knew what she was doing. She heaved her weight, panting, over the balcony till her back was pressed against the railing and she was holding on with seven fingers. And then four.
So, so easy. The streets of New York yawned underneath her, an escape, a remedy, a cure. Brief pain, but then none at all. So, so easy. Her tears fell towards the streetlights and Wanda wanted to follow them. The wind billowed her black hair into a cloud around her head, tore at her piercings. Wanda shook with the breeze, but not from the cold. Two fingers.
She hung there for a long time, maybe minutes, maybe hours, maybe several days. She didn’t know. She was trapped in some eternity, where the twisting of her heart was the only feeling, and the pain in her fingertips the only sensation.
She finally realized she couldn’t do it. She didn’t have the nerve. If she’d had the nerve, she would already be down there, blood mingling with the smell of asphalt, people stepping around her corpse while she lay there, hoping, hoping beyond hope that somebody somewhere noticed her and saw her and missed her all the while. But she knew that nobody would miss her. And that, perhaps, is what gave her the strength to think: I’m going to make the world miss me.
She sent a silent prayer to Peter and Jill-- Jill who was already her closest friend, Jill who was waiting for her in Heaven. And she sent a prayer to her mother, the smell of cookies and lemonade that lingered in the air.
She sneaked back into her apartment, packed a bag of the essentials, and slipped out: maybe to another part of the city, maybe another part of the world. She didn’t know or care.
All she knew was, she wasn’t ready to sign the contract yet.