I peered into the sparsely decorated hangar and saw only one thing. It was the man who stood twenty feet away with a deep tan, jet black hair and a rippling body. He was reaching into the air emphasizing his V-shaped torso as he slithered out of a blue t-shirt before wiggling into a white one. He was built, and when his sparking green eyes caught mine, I couldn’t move.
“May I help you,” Daniel said in a Spanish accent.
When I didn’t answer he walked toward me.
“Are you looking for something?” he said placing his Adonis physique close enough for me to touch.
I stared at him dumbstruck. He was so beautiful. He was perhaps the most beautiful figure I’d ever seen. And there was a life behind his speckled eyes that made him seem truly alive.
“Are you lost?” he asked as his eyes examined every inch of me.
“No,” I finally replied.
Staring at him I immediately knew I never wanted him to leave my sight. It was crazy, I know, especially after everything I had been through. But bathing in his abundant body heat, I could not take my eyes off of him.
“Then, can I help you?” he prodded.
I willed myself to speak. “I’m trying to get to Brazzaville.”
Daniel lifted his strong arms pointing back toward the main building of the airport. “That’s what they do over there,” he said with a devilish smile.
I looked back to figure out what he was referring to and then blushed when I saw. “I know, but I need to find another way. I don’t have my passport. I’m an American and the American embassy is in Brazzaville.”
“Oh,” he said getting a little more serious. “Well, this is a smokejumper station. You know there’s a train that takes you there?”
“I looked online and read that the police will sometimes rob you at the border of Ouessa.”
“Are you carrying cash?” he asked confused.
“Yeah,” I immediately replied instinctually knowing that I could trust him.
“This is Congo. Don’t you know that you should never carry cash? Did someone steal your passport?”
“No. It’s a long story. But I need to get back to the U.S. and the only way I can do that is if I can get down to Brazzaville. I thought I could hire a private plane.”
Daniel lifted his bulging arm and this time pointed in the other direction. “The private hires are down that way.”
I looked. “I know. I was just there. They didn’t speak English and, the truth is that I didn’t feel safe.”
“That was probably a smart call. A beautiful woman like you carrying cash and traveling by yourself? It is the perfect way to never see home again.”
I swallowed at his words. I definitely sensed that I shouldn’t trust the pilots that I saw, but I didn’t realize how close I was to ending up missing.
“So, is there anyone here that could get me to Brazzaville,” I asked looking around the hangar for the first time.
Daniel stared at me for what felt like forever with a puckish smile on his face. He seemed to be evaluating me, but for what, I had no idea.
“We are a fire station, not a private flight service,” he finally said still not releasing his smile.
“I know. But you said yourself that if I hire a plane, I might not make it there. And If I take the train, the police will rob me. I need to get home, so I need to get to Brazzaville.”
“What is your name?” he asked.
“Ezie,” I replied immediately offering him my hand.
His hand swallowed mine and his grip was strong.
“Daniel,” he said with a slight nod of his head. “Well Ezie, how is it that you are in the Congo with no passport and no way to get where you’re going?”
I stared at Daniel for a moment wondering how much I should tell him. Should I mention following Mark to Peru? Should I mention joining Henri on his journey even though I knew he would take me further from home?
“It was a spur of the moment decision and I had a disagreement with the friend I came here with. I thought it was best if I found my own way home.”
“Ahh!” he said very intrigued by my answer.
“You are a spur of the moment type of person?”
I had never been asked that before. “I didn’t used to be. But I am now.”
Daniel smiled. “Why don’t you come in.”
I followed him in through the hangar doors and took a better look around. There were at least nine other men in the hangar with him. Daniel said something to them in Spanish which made most of them turn toward me. Each of them stared at me sizing me up.
“Why is everyone looking at me,” I asked him kind of liking it.
“I said to them that you would be coming with us?”
“Are you going to Brazzaville?” I asked excitedly.
“No. We’re leaving in 20 minutes for a drop?”
Daniel looked confused for a moment. “How do you say in English? We are going to a fire.”
“What do you mean?” This time I was confused.
“We are smokejumpers. That’s what we are in American.”
“I don’t know what that is.”
“We parachute into forest fires and put them out.”
I had seen something about smokejumpers before. It was the most dangerous form of firefighting there was.
“What do you mean I’m going with you?”
Daniel paused and examined me. “Do you need to get to the Brazzaville embassy or can you go to the one in Seville?”
“This is my last jump before I go back home. I have a plane. I am flying back. If you want, you can fly with me to Spain.”
Here I was again presented with an option that would take me in the opposite decision of where I wanted to go. Each time my choices had taken me further and further from home. This time felt different. Yes, Brazzaville was an hour away and Spain was a few hours longer, but I would be in Spain.
I had never been to Spain before. I had never been to Europe before. If the difference was only a few hours and I would get the chance to spend some time with Daniel, why not travel with him to Spain.
“But wait. Why did you tell them that I was going with you all if you’re going on a jump?” I asked finally putting it together.
“Because this isn’t where my plane is. I flew into Réserve naturelle de Ngiri.”
“It’s east of here?”
“So I’m going to go with you to the place you mentioned and then take off from there?”
“Yeah,” he replied with an unidentifiable nod.
“And then you’ll fly me to Spain?”
“Ok,” I agreed surprised by how easy it all was.
“There is a catch, though.”
Daniel paused. “Have you ever jumped out of a plane?”
My heart stopped. A pain was building in my chest that made my ears burn. I felt flush all over wondering how long I would remain on my feet.
“Why are you asking?”
“If you go with me, you will have to jump out of a plane.”
I could barely breathe. I couldn’t jump out of a plane. That was too much. There was wild and free, and there was insanity. This was definitely not sane.
“Does that scare you?” he asked with more of a smile than I expected him to have. It hit me at that moment that he was testing me. He didn’t expect me to jump out of a plane. He was just seeing if he could scare me.
Obviously he didn’t know me. I don’t know who he thought he was talking to but Ezie didn’t scare easily. I was beginning to like him. Yeah, he was smoking hot, but he was also insanely wild.
“No, it doesn’t scare me,” I finally replied comfortable with my answer.
“So you’ve done it before?” he asked surprised.
“No. But how hard could it be, right. You figured it out.”
Daniel looked at me shocked. He wasn’t expecting that. He was expecting some wilting flower. Yeah? Guess again. I don’t scare.
Daniel again turned and addressed the men in Spanish. A few of the men laughed. I did my best to not get self-conscious. They were all judging me now. Let them try. I didn’t get this far by backing down. So I wasn’t going to start now.
“Ok,” Daniel confirmed. “It is agreed. You will come with us.”
The feeling of relief washed through me like a warm wave. This trip had been like none other in my life. But knowing that I would be in a luxurious European hotel by nightfall took an incredible weight off my shoulders. And I thought that if things went well, I might have Daniel in the bed bedside me.
“There is one thing,” he added. “You are going to have to wear one of these.”
Daniel held up a beaten up fireman’s slicker and I was again confused. ‘Wait, was he serious about me jumping out of a plane?’ I wondered.
“For what?” I asked as casually as I could.
“The heat of what?”
“What do you mean, fire?”
“Where do you think we were going?” he asked taking his turn with a confused look on his face.
“I… No. Yeah, I’ll need that. Just because I’m curious, how close will we get to the fire?”
“Not close. If we get close…” he made an explosion sign with his hand. “We burn up. So not too close.”
The skin on the back of my neck tingled. My breath was increasing and I tightened my lips making sure that there would be no sign of tears.
This was insane. Was he kidding? He couldn’t be serious. There had to be rules about this. They wouldn’t let just anyone walk in off the street and then jump into a fire, would they?
“Is this everything you have?” he asked pointing at the bag slung over my shoulder.
“Yeah. Umm, is this legal?”
“Were you looking for a legal way to travel to a foreign country without a passport?” He said with a smile.
This was nuts. This was all nuts. What type of guy would offer something like this? What type of insane girl would accept?
I immediately started thinking of a way to get myself out of this. I had found my limit. Jumping out of a plane into a fire was it.
As I dressed in the same fireman’s outfit as the guys, I continued to think. As I slipped a full-body windbreaker on over that, I continued to think. As I took the long walk to the plane, I continued to think. And when the door of the plane closed and the plane took off I had it. I would tell him that I was scared as shit and I wouldn’t do it.
The problem was that I was now so scared that I could no longer work my jaw. I must have looked terrified because Daniel looked at me and yelled something over the sound of the engine.
“I thought you were going to back out. I never thought you would get this far. It’s a thing me and the guys do. We’ve never had someone get this far before.”
“Are you saying that there’s no plane?” I asked suddenly seeing a way out of this.
“No. There’s a plane. Everything that I said was true. I was just expecting you to chicken out before we got here.” Daniel flashed a smile that both irritated me and made me want to jump on him.
“So what do I do?” I asked feeling my cold feet thaw from the heat of my anger. “Do I go back?”
“No, you jump out with us. You’ve gotten this far. The falling is the easy part.”
“But, aren’t there things that I should know, like when to pull the cord?”
“The one that opens the parachute.”
“Oh god no. What are you crazy? That takes months of training. No. We are going to strap you into a harness over there.” He pointed at large duffle bags with thick shoulder straps and packs on them. “And then you jump out. The parachute opens automatically. The only thing you need to know is how to land.”
“How do I do that?” I yelled.
“Have you ever did… How do you say it? Like in gymnastics.”
“A roll?” I offered really wishing he knew what he was talking about.
“Yes, a roll. But it’s the one when you land on your feet and then roll forward.”
“Yes, a tumble. When you land, do that. That’s it.”
“That’s it. You fall, you land, you tumble.”
I stared at Daniel sure that his would be the last face I would ever see. I examined it. It was a masculine face. He had a wide jaw and sharp cheekbones. His skin was the color of milk chocolate and his straight black hair shined. He almost looked Latin, but not quite. And his was a face that could be immortalized in marble. If I had to look on one last face, his was a good one to go out on.
The sound of my heartbeat drowned out the sound of the engine as he walked me back to the straps. I watched his lips move but I couldn’t make out what he was saying. All I could hear was my thumping pulse. That was when I became sure that I was going to die.
He moved my hands onto two handles. I still couldn’t hear him but he looked like he was telling me to hold on tight. That I could do. My hands clamped onto those handles and no matter what happened, I knew that I would never let go.
My heart pounded. My chest hurt. Was I having a heart attack? I was sweating. Or maybe I was crying. I was in a panic and if I could move I would ran away.
Instead, Daniel left me, strapped himself into the harness next to mine, and waited for the rest of the men to get into theirs. We sat strapped to the wall for what had to be hours though at the same time in felt like minutes. I couldn’t tell time anymore. I felt like I was losing my faculties one by one. I knew I wouldn’t be able to jump out of the plane. I couldn’t even move my feet. And with the sound of blood rushing thought my ears, I felt like I was going to collapse.
As the back of the plane opened and the cold breeze rushed in, I found the strength to object. I tried to turn to Daniel, but something had compelled me to turn the other way. Lightheaded I watched as each man before me ran toward the open door and threw themselves out of the plane. I couldn’t breathe.
“Move forward,” he commanded.
This was my last chance. I had to tell him. ‘I can’t do it,’ I yelled in my mind. ‘I need to get off’, I screamed. But as he shoved me, my feet seemed to lose its grip and I was dragged across the wall and thrown into the air.
The tail of the plane quickly whipped by me. Where was I? I was floating. How did I get there? I hadn’t jumped out. Something had thrown me out.
Looking down I saw all of the parachutes below me. They were all evenly spaced. Daniel was right. All I had to do was fall. Even leaving the plane was automated. And with my death grip on the handles, I floated silently to the ground.
The raging fear couldn’t last. We were too high and the fall was too far. Soon what I noticed was the quiet. It was quieter than anything that I had experienced in my life. During my voyage with Mark, there had been a brief moment when I had escaped onto deck with him. I had thought that that was quiet because the sounds were washed out by the ocean. But that was downtown in the middle of rush hour compared to this.
For the first time in my life I felt alone, really alone. I’m not talking lonely. No. I was alone. It felt nice. It was freeing. I felt at peace.