Shadow Unit

Case Files

Teasers & Deleted Scenes

New River Gorge Bridge, Fayetteville, WV, the third Saturday in October, 2009

The bridge is open to pedestrians for one day, once a year. For six hours, from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm, it's also open to BASE jumpers and rappellers. Legally, with news crews and shuttle buses and thousands of observers. It's an event, a destination. The biggest BASE party in the world.

It's five hours from your front steps, the way Daphne drives. Closer to three and a half if you're alone in the car.

Sunrise on October seventeenth is at 7:20, give or take. You're there by six, having hiked in the .8 of a mile from Fayetteville to stand cold and dark in the registration line, waiting to hand the green-eyed girl behind the folding table strung with Vertical Visions banners your 2x2 headshot and your passport. She checks them under a miner's light, smiling, her orange-streaked hair slicked back into a scraggly ponytail, and then she does smelly things with a badgemaker. What she hands you back is the passport and a photo ID badge, $89.99 worth of red and yellow plastic.

One of the weirdest things you've ever held.

To get it, you had to submit everything from the name of your next of kin (Daphne Worth) to your blood type (O negative).

The next of kin thing isn't too unusual, though it's not normally this formal. Others leave letters, just-in-case, for family, lovers, friends. But you've never had someone to worry about you before.

Everybody who might have cared what happened to you was always right there beside you. Breaking chains. Jimmying locks. Tiptoeing across dark-night construction sites. Furtive in blacks, carrying pry bars.

"You have nice eyes, Charles," the girl says. "Have a good ride."

You clip the badge onto your jacket. "Uh. Thanks."

The smile turns into a grin when you stammer, which makes you stammer harder. Wiktory.

You grin back, awarding her the point, and get out of the way so the two girls behind you can get their ID settled. You? Shoulder your rig, stretch your neck side to side, and walk on. Past the vendors, setting up now, with their gear and memorabilia and vats of hot oil. You stomach rumbles at the smell, and you promise it funnel cakes before too much longer. Past the early arrivals of a crowd that will eventually edge close to a quarter million. Four hundred or so participants to two hundred thousand members of the audience.

Well, isn't that pretty much like life?

You also pass one or two other jumpers, who catch sight your red and yellow badge and smile. No sign of anybody you know, not yet. No old friends. But there probably will be.

You walk on, starting across the three thousand and thirty foot span of the second-highest steel-arch bridge on earth. Past floodlights and past the packing tarps, already in use. There's no early morning silence here, no breaking and entering, no slipping through the back country and deciding who's going to stay to talk to the park rangers if somebody gets killed.

Just a waiting ambulance, dewed with condensation. Just a bright red truck emblazoned with the Vertical Visions logo, its cherrypicker ready to suspend over the bridge railing. Beside it, three guys muscle a sixteen foot aluminum diving board up to the exit. Height, five feet above the bridge, making it eight hundred eighty-one feet to the water.

Eight seconds with no airfoil.

If you pull at a hundred feet, you can free fall for seven of those. But you want to hit the landing zone solid: tanking it into the river is for suckers, and those rocks waiting if you miss the beach will hurt if you faceplant into them.

It's been a while. So five seconds would be better.

Somebody's got a radio playing. One. Nothing wrong with me. Two. Nothing wrong with me.

Nice choice, you think, and snort. If that were true, you'd be home with your feet up.

Clear of the exit zone, you mosey up to the railing and lean over. One or two others are lined along the edge, bellies pressed to painted metal, straining their eyes into the darkness below. Dimly, you can make out the yellow chevrons of the landing zone, bright against the sand. It's too much night down there in the gorge to see much more of anything, except maybe the lights of an early motorboat.

"Good wind," says the guy on your right.

It moves the coils of hair on your neck, streaks a couple across your face. The bandanna's in your pocket; when the time comes, you'll tie it on under the helmet to keep the mess out of the way.

"Nice and even," you agree, wrapping your arms around yourself when it makes you want to shiver.

He's got a helmet bumping from its strap over his shoulder too, knee pads, gloves. Older guy, white, brown on brown. Pushing fifty. Nothing to prove.

You wonder how many exits he's got behind him.

You don't feel like talking yet, so you turn away. You pull a Clif bar from your pocket and eat it walking. It tastes like gritty sugar and chewy cardboard; you have to check the label to see it's supposed to be carrot cake. What the hell; it won't be too much longer until those funnel cakes start sizzling.

Funnel cakes. And a festival atmosphere.

A little cluster of guys stand around near the packing tarps, arranging plans for a six-way exit and discussing the finer points of mesh sliders and thirty-nine versus forty-two inch pilot chutes. One says, "What's the worst that could happen?" and the other five laugh.


The penultimate jumpers before you go off standing one on another's shoulders. They play aerobatics on the way down. The guy right ahead can't track--his arms and legs kick like a dangled puppy's, and it's no surprise when his turn ends twenty feet short of the beach and he plunges hip deep into the river, his black and yellow bumblebee seven-cell blowing out like an oil slick on the water.

He doesn't use the diving board. It's reserved for advanced jumpers. You suspect he doesn't have enough exits, and he looks like the type who would balk at wearing a helmet.


Sixteen feet of diving board is just four normal steps and one short one. When the crew tells you there's a rescue boat ready and you can start your exit, you walk to the end, feeling it spring under every footfall. Just like in the swimming pools back home, except with no splash at the end, and plenty of time to work on that gainer.

You look down all that scrotum-crisping distance, craning your neck to watch the abseilers rapp off under the bridge like a cloud of baby spiders. The wind's a little diagonal and crosswise, like it should be, and when it gusts around the bridge supports you swear it brings you the whirr of their racks. You're a little surprised you can hear it over the wind, your breath, the thunder of your chickenshit cardiac equipment.

The lime green pilot chute is tucked into your left hand like a synthetic fungus that wants the whole world to know it's poison. Behind you are voices, crowd noise, footsteps. People just... watching. Everybody's looking at you. The skin over your shoulders crawls. Below, the wakes of the rescue boats curve through the river.

There's only been one fatality in the past nineteen years, you told Daphne. Really, our day job is more dangerous.

You turn your back on the gorge. You face the crowd.

You bounce twice and lean back into the arms of the wind.

A gainer's easy, once you learn to commit. Commitment is always the hard part. Kick high, arms back to get the rotation moving. Tuck tight to speed up and let the spin carry you around. Give it a twist so you come out facing forward, not back the way you started. One, two. Start to flatten out with your head still down. It's just physics now.

Haste makes paste, but hesitation will kill you just the same.

Now your heart squeezes out slow, useful gulps of blood and oxygen. Now your breath evens. You spread your arms and legs, stabilize, catch the cold bright wind. It rips fluttering sounds from your nylon jumpsuit, stings your face around the goggles. Good, you're tracking properly, owning your fall, head a little below vertical and your body slanting up to your pelvis. The autumn foliage is all gold and red and brown down at the gorge bottom, a few trees still hanging on in ragged, dusty green. Pilot chute right where it should be, tucked up tight in your fist.

You fall until it's time to fly.


The pilot chute flies out to the end of its nine feet of bridle, pops wide, snaps behind you. Slap and yank as the canopy deploys, the drag of the slider up the lines, sway of your body as you pendulum down under the foil. Seven cells blossom over you, gaudy in stripes of magenta, emerald, turquoise. Perfect heading, and when your face hurts from grinning you go for the toggles. You come around into the wind, back towards the bridge, rescue boat tracking to your left.

You're not going to need him. You swing your feet forward like feelers as you pass over the first yellow chevron. Rutted sand socks the soles of your boots and you take a running step before you let momentum pull you forward, over your own shoulder, somersaulting perfectly once, twice, as if unwinding the gainer. It brings you to your feet, shaking sand out of your helmet, a deep familiar quiet filling the empty spaces in your body.

You take your first calm breath in what feels like a decade, but it's really just a year and a half.

"Nice dismount," says one of the shoulder-stand guys.

"Nice piggyback," you answer, dragging your canopy off to the side in case the girl behind you makes the beach after all.

"Gonna go again?"

You look up at the bridge, at the trio of canopies--red, orange, aqua--just blossoming below it. Three. Nothing wrong with me.

"What the hell," you say. "We paid for the day pass, didn't we?"

Thanks again to Tom Dancs for making us sound like we know what we're doing here. Lyrics from Drowning Pool, "Bodies."