Whenever Dave Stump needed to get away from it all, he threw together a sleeping bag and some tins of food and headed into the bush for a few days. The sweet air and even sweeter calls of the birds made him forget about his failing marriage and low-paying job, and there were no mirrors to remind him that his hairline was receding under his knitted cap.
And right now, Dave needed to get away from his normal life more than ever before. As he climbed over fallen trees and splashed through icy streams on his way to nowhere in particular, he thought of his wife, Martha, and the way she looked at him these days. Not with the burning love that had filled her eyes when they’d married six years earlier, and not even with the gentle contentment that she’d held when the lust was gone and had been replaced by comfort. These days she looked at him as if he was a pot plant in need of watering; an inanimate object and slight annoyance.
A cool breeze shook the trees and nipped at Dave’s bare arms, and he pulled an ugly blue jacket out of his backpack and put it on. Three years ago his wife had told him he wasn’t to wear it out in public anymore, but these days she didn’t care what he wore. Dave could walk out of the house in a potato sack and high heels and Martha wouldn’t lift her eyes from her phone.
Dave loved Martha more than he knew she loved him, but these days she wasn’t too high on his list of priorities, either. Alcohol probably came in at number one, and the girls at the strip club were up there, seeing as they were the only women who paid him any real attention. If there was a son or daughter, he or she would be in the mix, but despite years of trying there wasn’t. It made Dave feel like less of a man, as if there was something broken inside him, even though he tried to tell himself that he never really wanted kids anyway. Dave flicked a leech off his right leg, and the wound it left immediately began to itch.
The path ran along a cliff a while, and Dave climbed through some bushes to a clearing and looked out over the valley below, with its endless green carpet of trees. For that moment he could’ve been the only man on Earth, then he turned and headed back into the scrub, where the track took a hard left away from the ridgeline.
There was something hanging from a gnarled tree a hundred or so metres along the overgrown path. Even with his glasses tucked away in his bag, he could see it swinging in the breeze, long and grey and sad. He didn’t reach for his glasses – they were only for emergencies when he was out in the wild – and instead picked up his pace and trotted through the bush towards the somber pile of rags. When he got closer, Dave’s heart jumped and his legs kicked so hard he fell backwards onto the dirt. Bile bit at the back of his throat, and he fought to keep it down.
The swinging object was a man, hanging from some sort of tattered parachute. Or, at least, it had been a man at some point. Now the body was little more than a skeleton, dressed in a ripped jumpsuit and with the a few skerricks of skin peeling off the bones. Dave sat there for a few moments, just looking up at it, then pulled his glasses out of his backpack and put them on. This, he decided, was an emergency.
The view wasn’t any prettier through his lenses. The body had been hanging there long enough that the rotting remains of the jumpsuit were all that was keeping it together, and even then one of the legs had fallen off and was lying a few metres away in the rough, dragged there by some long-gone animal. The skull was pointed towards the ground, the jaw hanging on by a thin bit of gristle, the eye sockets black and endless. Dave wanted to run, but it was as if his feet were glued to the spot.
He looked up at the parachute and realised it wasn’t a parachute at all. Instead of being round, it was long and thin, like the wings used by the paragliders who launched off Mount Thompson when the winds were right. Sometimes when Dave was out walking he would look up and see the gliders dancing through the air, their brightly-coloured wings like the plumage of birds, and promise himself he’d try it one day. But he’d never gone through with it. Just another unfulfilled dream.
But what was a paraglider doing out here, this far from Mount Thompson? Dave had never seen them out this way, and there was nowhere for a glider to land anyway. There was nothing but trees for kilometres. As he stood there looking at the corpse dangling a few metres above him, disgust gave way to curiosity, and within minutes the riddle of the dead paraglider became the most important thing in the world.
Dave threw his pack by the side of the track and started searching for a way up the tree. When he was younger, it seemed like he could climb anything, but this day it took him half an hour to work out how to get up the damn thing, scraping his arms and legs, and by the time he was up where the glider’s ropes strangled the branches, his arms and legs were red and raw and sweat cascaded down his face, despite the chill in the air. From where he lay clinging to the tree, peering down at the body, it looked older than time, as if it had always been here. He pitied the man, and decided to cut him down. It just didn’t seem right to leave him hanging up there, like he was on display or something.
He pulled a rusty knife from his pocket and started cutting. The first rope sounded like a bicycle tyre popping as it fell apart, then the next rope split in two, and the next. Not long after that, the body fell to the ground and hit the dirt like a broken marionette, and Dave spent the next 10 minutes scurrying back down the tree. When he returned to the ground, Dave cautiously walked over to the pile of bones.
He’d half expected them to fall apart on impact, or maybe even disintegrate in a cloud of dust, but the skeleton lay there in one piece, bent back on itself but held together by that dirty blue jumpsuit. The skull now looked skywards as if praying to the gods, the jaw at an awkward angle that could be mistaken for a smile. There was a small ring of hair on its head, which reminded Dave of his own bald spot, and he subconsciously pulled his hat down lower. And, in the skeleton’s pocket, was a piece of paper.
The rancid stench of decay invaded Dave’s nostrils as he reached for the bit of paper, and when he snatched it he realised that it was more than that, it was a photograph. An old photograph, black and white and curled by rain and sun, of two people, a handsome man and a pretty woman. They smiled back at Dave from a different time, through the decades. Dave looked from the man in the photo to the grinning skull, and back again. The rotting skeleton could’ve been anyone, but deep down he knew he was looking at two versions of the same man.
He turned over the photo and there, in ink that ran and bled all over the paper, was a message. ‘I can’t live without you, but now we’ll be together again.’ No name, no further explanation, but Dave didn’t need one. That one sentence explained everything, the story of a man who could no longer cope with the loss of his love, and who had flown into certain death to be with her. He’d just strapped himself into his paraglider and flown to the heavens. Dave flipped the photo over and took one last look at the smiling lovers, then carefully returned it to the man’s pocket.
As he picked up his pack and started walking down that lonely path again, Dave wondered if he would ever feel as strongly about Martha as the paraglider had about his wife. To have a love that transcended time, and even death, a love so powerful that life wasn’t possible without it. Maybe he’d pick up some flowers on the way home, those pink ones that Martha seemed to like. Then again, maybe he’d never go back. Maybe he’d just keep heading into the green, like the paraglider, searching for a better place.