"It sucks that after seventeen years the best I can say is I don't know, but it's true. I don't know."
Doctor Who nattered on in the background, Matt Smith's broad mouth flapping soundlessly with manic energy. Bright colors washed over the pair of girls sitting cross-legged on the sofa swaddled in mismatched afghans. The silent TV was the only illumination in the basement; the sofa and its matching armchair were lone islands in a sea of damp, chilly shadows.
Clara shrugged. "I don't know either," ignorance didn't bother her the way it chafed Kristi; she always envied that in her friend. "Maybe it's not something you can know."
Kristi shrugged too. There was a plate of homemade brownies balanced on the cushions between them, and she snagged another before replying, "Some people do. Ben says he jumped off the old railroad bridge."
"Ben says a lot of things. Doesn't mean they're true."
"However he did it, he's flying now. Does it matter if he's lying?"
"I guess not," she said. She tightened her afghan around her shoulders and looked slantwise at the screen.
Kristi pressed little pieces of her brownie, pancaking them between idle fingers. "Does it change anything for you? I know you weren't into him, but…he can fly now. If I could be with someone who could fly, well…" she laughed, awkward and ashamed, "It doesn't make a difference?"
"No," her friend snorted, "Would it really make a difference to you?"
"No," she lied, glad of the darkness. She turned towards the TV. "Why are there dinosaurs in the TARDIS?"
"The episode's called Dinosaurs on a Spaceship," Clara consulted the menu.
"Huh. Truth in advertising. Does this make any sense to you?"
Clara didn't answer. "If I jumped," she trailed off. For a moment, neither of them moved. They sat staring at the TV together as a triceratops wreaked its badly-CGI'ed space-havoc. "If I jumped, would you come with me?"
Kristi's throat closed up, tighter than the last time she'd unthinkingly taken a bite of someone's peanut butter sandwich. Her throat worked again and again, grasping for air, until at last she squeaked, "Are you going to?"
"I don't know," she said, "Maybe. It just seems like something you have to do at some point, right? I mean, you can't live your life not knowing?"
"Neither of my parents ever did," Kristi replied. The lump in her throat was shrinking; a "maybe" wasn't a "yes". Or even a "probably".
"Neither did mine. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't."
"Um, it's illegal."
"Yeah," Clara laughed, "but if it goes right, no one'll bother you, and if it goes wrong…"
"You'd be dead," Kristi finished, cold to the core. She dragged another afghan over her shoulders, but the yarn cocoon couldn't warm the chill in her stomach. "Is it worth it?"
"Why don't you ask Ben, since you've got such a crush on him now?"
"I don't!" she lied, "I only asked whether you," she broke off with a groan. Tried again. "I mean, he jumped. That takes guts, right?"
"You know why he jumped?"
"Forget what he said," Clara's eyes glittered in the reflected TV glare, glittered like beetle wings, "do you know why?"
"He told me," Kristi saw her throat work in two harsh swallows, "He didn't get in to Columbia."
"What? But his parents…they're both alumni, and his grades…"
"Yep," she popped the p like snapping gum, "I know. But he didn't get in."
They needed a space heater in this basement, she thought wildly, irrationally. It was way too cold.
"So, was he trying to…?" she couldn't finish.
"I don't think so. He just thought that things couldn't get much worse, so what the hell, right?"
"What the hell," she echoed. "Makes sense, I guess."
"That's when I decided I wasn't going to try until I had all my letters, good or bad," Clara picked at a bit of brownie until it crumbled into the cushions. "The last one came today."
She smiled. "UMass offered me a scholarship."
"That's great!" she grinned, flexing her fingers. A hint of warmth was coming back, and it cheered her so much she laughed, "So, do you think you'll go? I mean," she mashed up a bit of brownie and chucked it at her friend's nose, "that's where I'll be."
Silence bloomed. "So?"
"So, it depends on what happens this morning."
"What's this morning?"
Clara's hands were shaking. She turned them slowly, watching her fingers tremble in the pulsing light of the screen. "It's just…I've got to know. It doesn't seem right to go through life wondering. What if I've got this great gift inside, this amazing ability, and I'm just too scared to find out?"
"Only one in two people have it. If you're wrong—"
"Then I'll be wrong," she said, and now her voice was unsteady too, "but I won't be sorry. Hell," now she laughed, breathless, "I won't even be able to be sorry."
"And the rest of us?" Kristi snapped. "Your parents, your brothers, me," the cold dread had kindled into rage; her cheeks blazed as she stood, shedding layers as she went like a hissing cobra. "I guess you don't care about us at all, do you? It's all about you, isn't it?"
She stormed away and Clara didn't try to stop her. Up the stairs into the cold house, to the second floor and her freezing room. Diving between the blankets was like plunging into icy water, burrowed as deep as she could go. Sounds burst from her mouth; tearing, wet, ugly sounds that she couldn't control or stop.
The tears weren't dry on her cheeks when the door creaked. Like a child, Kristi jammed her eyes shut tucked clenched fists under her chin.
"I'm sorry," she heard Clara's tears, could almost feel the heat of them, "I wish you understood."
The soft, tearful finality of her words extinguished Kristi's anger. The damped fumes of it mixed with the horror, shame, and fear in her stomach. It would be so nice to just roll over and vomit, purge the emotions along with the Chinese food and brownies and fall asleep, an empty, clean shell.
"You're really gonna do it, aren't you?"
"I'm going to the roof of the theater," she replied. "Mark told me they never lock trapdoor above the ladder to the roof. Whether I'll jump or not…I don't know."
"The theater's only four stories high," Kristi still hadn't opened her eyes; if she didn't, maybe this nightmare would go away. "Is that enough?"
"It is if I go head first."
"Fuck you," she snarled, pressing her face into the pillows hot and damp with her tears, "Go then."
Clara didn't move. Every second, Kristi had to fight the urge to roll over and grab her friend, sink her nails into her arms and keep her there. If they could just get through this awful night, she thought, maybe, maybe…
"Won't you come with me?" she sniffled, "I…I don't want to do this alone."
"Get out of here."
The warped old mattress dipped and shuddered as Clara bent her head down to it and sobbed. It was such a rare sound—Kristi was the crier, not Clara, always so calm and levelheaded—that Kristi's eyes welled again in sympathy. But she locked her jaw against it, shut her eyes to it, and kept her back to her friend.
Minutes crawled by on hands and knees. After a while, her cries trickled off. When they did, Clara stood and left, shutting the door gently behind her.
It took thirty seconds for Kristi to throw off the blankets and follow her.
It was still pitch black by the time they pulled up behind the soccer field. The chain-link fence peeled away from the post behind the stands—kids went through it for an afternoon smoke all the time—and the tunnels into the school weren't locked.
"With all this security to make sure kids don't jump on school property," Clara whispered, a tinge of hysteria turning her words to wind, "you'd think it wouldn't be this easy!"
Kristi didn't reply. Like a robot, or a dog, or anything else with too much love or programming to break free from a beloved master, she followed in silence, each step taken as if she were walking to her own execution.
The climb up the ladder in the dark theater was the worst. Clara had a flashlight but couldn't hold it anywhere but in her teeth; they had to grope blindly for each rung until her head banged against the trapdoor.
Nor was there any relief outside. Dawn was still hours away.
They climbed up onto the ledge, banging their heels against the wall, nothing between them and the long fall but skirls of howling wind. Kristi gripped the concrete with both hands, eyes fixed firmly on the horizon still indistinguishable from the inky sky. It seemed as though the building was rolling underneath them, a ship tossed on stormy waves.
If she let go, even for an instant, she'd fall.
Clara stared down at the frosty ground between her boots. It glowed ghostly in the dim orange lights of the parking lot.
"Farther than I thought."
"You'll have to stare at it all the way down."
"Yeah," she flicked a loose chunk of concrete and watched it fall down, down, down, impacting the snow like a meteor. "If we both jumped, statistically, one of us would live."
"And that's okay with you?"
"No. I just don't want to do this alone."
"You really don't wanna know?"
"No," she lied. "I mean, sure I'd wanna know if there were a way to find out other than committing suicide. But I like being alive. I thought you did too."
"I do!" Clara's hand nearly knocked her off-balance; panicking, Kristi reared backward and nearly fell onto the roof. "You know I do. That's why I waited; I wanted to know that I wasn't doing this to escape life, but to make it better!"
"It's still an escape!" she roared, jumping to her feet. The snow on the roof was lumped and icy, melted and refrozen in the chills and thaws of spring. Still, she paced, hands tucked under her armpits, body hunched in on itself. "Don't you see? This isn't something you can control. This isn't…I don't know, moving to another state or another country. It's not skydiving or swimming with sharks.
"If you jump off this roof," and it hurt that Clara was still staring downward; she hadn't moved at all, "it means that you're okay with losing everything. Forever."
"This is the only chance I'll have," it wasn't a reply. Kristi wasn't even certain she was meant to hear the words. They were a soft, well-worn mantra, repeated so often they were a talisman rather than an explanation.
"No one depends on me. I'm not in college, not in debt. I don't have kids. If I don't do it now, it'll be too late. A whole life, wondering."
She turned around, legs scraping against the roof. Kristi's heart leaped. But she didn't move to stand up.
"I wish you'd come with me," she said, looking up. "But I understand why you can't."
Can't. Not "won't", or "don't want to". Can't. Like there was some failing in her that Clara saw, had always seen. Can't.
It occurred to her that she could just haul her friend away or scream for help. She was bigger than Clara, stronger. She didn't have to let this happen.
But it would.
"Thanks for coming with me," she said. Caught in the web of her self-spun determination, Clara closed her eyes and smiled. Kristi saw her fingers loosen on the ledge, saw the tips drag through the frost.
"Wait," she gasped, "wait."
As she sat on the ledge beside Clara and took her hand, Kristi suddenly remembered the summer carnival that always passed through town on the Fourth of July. She remembered the Chinese Ferris wheel, that terrifying whirl of enclosed pods that dangled and dripped crazily as the wheel spun round. Even looking at it made her heart race and her palms sweat.
But she'd ridden it. Just once. Hand-in-hand with Clara.
Their palms were both sweating this time, fingers sliding against each other before they locked fast.
"Together, or not at all."
Together they leaned back, facing the starless sky.
And for a few moments, they were both flying.