Halfway up the cliff I knew I’d back down and Jan would jump. It’s not that my girlfriend had a death wish. She just wished that death would give up the chase. And so Jan leaped, her pixie body soaring over the turgid river, rafting through the damp air on a stream of adrenaline for one blissful moment before plunging into the muddy water like a torpedo, nearly sinking her fellow rafters bobbing indolently on the Kern River backwater.
I scrambled down to the river’s edge and dove in as Jan’s body, sans sunglasses and bikini top, popped to the surface in a fizz of angry bubbles. I figured if the fall didn’t kill Jan, she drowned. But, true to form, Jan just beamed.
“Holy moly, what a rush, Nick! Why didn’t you jump?”
I tried to avert my eyes and tossed Jan my t-shirt before our comrades would notice. “Because I have a brain? Geesus, Jan, do you really want to die?”
A shadow of sadness darkened Jan’s azure eyes but she quickly brightened.
“The Reaper’s gotta catch me first.” She laughed then slipped beneath the surface and spurted toward the rapids just around the bend.
As if Jan’s life wasn’t turbulent enough dealing with cystic fibrosis that, literally, took her breath away, three months earlier just shy of her 20th birthday, Jan was diagnosed with diabetes. But my Que Sera Sera girlfriend let the double whammy slough off her freckled shoulders like soft rain.
“Feel sorry for yourself, Nick. At least I’m not afraid to live.”
Perhaps I did fear life. I considered it a crapshoot. My rampant imagination daily conjured up countless pitfalls. I figured sticking to a straight path might deliver me to old age, but then fate tripped me up at a friend’s party when Jan plucked me from a corner where I sheltered from the drunken revelry. Grabbing my limp hand, Jan dragged me into the fray. She made me dance much to my chagrin, and when I twirled back to the couch, Jan’s adventurous spirit kept dancing.
From zip lining through the treetops of Costa Rica to clambering up the Inca ruins of Machu Picchu and gold prospecting in Alaska, Jan did it all. I marveled at Jan’s zest for life and how she never peered back to see if death dogged her heels. But once while we were streaking at midnight under a full moon on the Overlook trail sidling the ocean near Malibu—ignoring my peevish protest about breaking the law—I caught a glimpse of Jan’s dread.
I had finally caught up with Tinker Bell at the bottom of a hill by a pond that framed the full moon overhead. Jan was doubled over wheezing so loud I feared she’d draw coyotes like iron to a lodestone.
Don’t look at me!” Jan coughed, clawing for breath in the chill stillness, her airways filled with mucus.
I flicked my eyes to the pond staring at the lustrous moon’s reflection as Jan struggled to regain her composure.
“Bend over, fool! Let’s leapfrog over the moon!” Jan shoved me forward, and I almost stumbled as she vaulted over my back and onto the rocky trail on the other side. With no springboard to launch off, I did my best imitation of Jesse Owens doing the long jump only to tumble into the drink. I flushed crimson while Jan’s shrill laughter washed over me.
“Poor Nick, are you having fun yet?”
I could’ve returned the insult several weeks later but wadded up my pain and swallowed it hard when I visited Jan in Children’s Hospital. She lay in a tiny bed tethered to tubes and monitors rasping for air. Her round face looked sallow and sagged like a leaky balloon. I sensed Death lurking in the shadows.
I presented Jan with a photo I took of the moon hovering over the Pacific Ocean and illuminating the trail we hiked that night. A thin smile did a pirouette on Jan’s wan lips before she spit and turned away. We lapsed into silence. Jan pressed her face in her pillow to muffle her tears before mustering fleeting courage.
“I’m going to leapfrog over that moon, Nick, you’ll see. The Reaper hasn’t caught me yet…”
He caught up with Jan a week later after she balked at taking any more treatments. Jan took a nap and never woke up. But I did.
Later that summer on a moonlit bridge overlooking a swollen creek I finally jumped, snapped back to life in the nick of time by a bungee cord. But as I sprang back into orbit, I glanced at the full moon and I imagined I saw Jan leapfrogging over it into blissful space beckoning me to chase her if I dared.
Marc Littman's life-affirming fiction has been widely published in online magazines and anthologies from 50-Word Stories to The Saturday Evening Post.