The Speed of Sound

The Speed of Sound

By: Megan Mills-Rittman


            Though no one believes her, the skydiver is not doing this for the sake of being remembered. Records are made to be broken, after all. If she succeeds in this jump, becomes the first to break the sound barrier, someone will come along in the next year or decade or century and leap from a greater height. Even to her, twenty-three miles - the height from which she must fall to achieve supersonic speed - doesn't sound as intimidating as the newspapers have implied. A marathon runner goes farther in a single race.

            But horizontal and vertical distances are not the same. To stand the miles on end and dangle them from the heavens requires a certain feat of the imagination. One becomes accustomed to looking forward rather than up. On the ground, one forgets that the sky has depth, that the clouds and birds are not painted onto a flat canvas, that the stars are not all equidistant from the Earth.


            Never before have so many rallied behind the skydiver: meteorologists, Air Force veterans, NASA specialists, sponsors who pour millions of dollars into the project. There are also mathematicians and scientists, who solve complex equations and turn out magical numbers of great importance. "In thirty seconds," they tell her, "you'll be going almost seven hundred miles an hour."

            "You'll remain supersonic for about ten seconds."

            "You'll freefall for five and a half minutes."

            "You'll open your parachute at five thousand feet."

            These numbers have all been explained through a series of complex diagrams and calculations, which the skydiver has taped to a wall in her apartment, over the sofa. They flutter gently whenever she walks past, as if reminding her that stability is only temporary, that in just a few months she will be leaping into the unknown. Because despite all the educated people at her back, the fact remains that no other skydiver has ever exceeded the speed of sound, and no scientist can tell her with any certainty what will happen when she jumps.

            So she forms her own predictions. Maybe, she thinks, she will be seized by the ability to hear everything at once. All sounds will come rushing toward her in a glorious cacophony, and she will hear subways rumbling underground, skin brushing against skin in distant bedrooms, waves folding themselves over beaches, tectonic plates shifting along the surface of the earth. Every whispered conversation will belong to her, and in this way, secrets will no longer be private.

            The skydiver imagines this possibility over breakfast at a small café. She takes a pen from her purse and writes her hypothesis across the newspaper that is spread over the table. Secrets will belong to me. She thinks back to the formative secrets of her own life. When she was eight, the boy who lived next door made her lift her skirt so he could examine what was underneath. When she was twelve, she came home early from school one day to find her mother kissing a strange man. When she was seventeen, her best friend hit a dog with her car and drove away in a panic, begging the skydiver, who sat in the passenger's seat, not to tell a soul.

            What a relief it would be, she thinks, if such things no longer had to stay secret. If every child hiding some shameful truth would not have to feel so alone. She takes the page of newspaper upon which she has written and folds it into a small rectangle. When she returns home later in the day, she adds it to the wall over the sofa.


            A reporter calls one afternoon. Another anxious and businesslike voice over the phone. The same questions the skydiver has answered many times before: Does she think she will succeed? What will it mean to her if she does ? How is she preparing? Is she nervous? And what about her infamous jump the previous year, when her cord became tangled around her neck and she began spinning, a hundred and twenty revolutions per minute - the jump that knocked her unconscious, the jump that should have killed her, the jump that she survived only because her reserve parachute opened automatically? Is she afraid some similar disaster will occur?

            The skydiver is expecting this question. "My team is preparing me for as many problems as they can," she says. "I'll be as ready as it is possible to be for something that's never been attempted before."

            Then a question that she was not expecting. The voice becomes softer, more personal. "Why - " it asks, "are you so willing to risk your life?"

            To this, the skydiver has no answer. She twirls the phone cord around her fingers. "Hello?" says the voice, growing businesslike again, but still she doesn't respond, only listens to the expectant silence. Perhaps this is what it will be like, she thinks. Perhaps, instead of hearing everything, she will suddenly hear nothing at all. There will be only silence, but it will not be the tense, uncomfortable silence that follows unanswered questions. It will be soft and thick as a feather pillow, and she will not be falling, but rather sinking into it. All sound will rush from the world as she sinks, like breath swirling outward in a sigh of relief.

            Still holding the phone against her ear, she pulls a piece of scrap paper and a pencil toward her and writes: The earth will exhale. This, too, she tapes to the wall over the sofa.


            The skydiver lives with a man. He is tall and thin, and his hair, though he is only a few years older than she, is entirely gray. He owns a restaurant just two blocks away - a small but successful, upscale place. Though he seems happy in the apartment that the two of them share, he sometimes speaks of a house in the suburbs, with a backyard garden for thyme, marjoram, basil, parsley. "I'd still be able to keep the restaurant," he tells her. "I wouldn't mind having to drive into the city every day."

            The skydiver wishes that he wouldn't say things like this. She, too, would like a house - on a lake, perhaps. With a large bay window looking out over the water and an Italian pointer. But does she want such things with him? The answer, even on the best of days, is only a tentative 'maybe.' And yet she feels as if time is closing in on her. In ten years, perhaps even sooner, she will begin to grow gray hairs of her own. To start over with someone else seems a daunting task, exhausting in its mere imagining.

            Perhaps settling for something slightly less than perfect would not be such a bad thing. Perhaps only marriage can put to rest the vague sense that something is amiss in their relationship. Perhaps it is children that they need. Or just the house with the garden and the bay window.

            He is a good man, after all. In the days following her near-fateful accident, he stayed by her side at the hospital. If he slept at all, she never saw.

            Now, stretched out on her back at night, she looks up at him, at the tiny creases that appear between his eyebrows as he moves above her. His eyes are closed, and she can faintly feel his labored breaths sweeping over her skin. She wishes, suddenly, that she could simply dissolve into air beneath him. Maybe that is what will happen when she jumps. As she accelerates, her body will disintegrate into sound. It will not be a death, but a gentle transformation of blood and tissue and bone into sound waves. Her heart will become a drumbeat; her hands will become applause; her eyelids will become the whisper of a butterfly's wings.

            A few hours later, the skydiver is still awake in bed. She reaches over the sleeping form beside her and takes a magazine and pen from the nightstand. Across one of the glossy pages she scribbles her newest supposition. I will become sound. The next morning, she adds it to the wall with the others.


            As a child, the skydiver often dreamed of being left behind. She would find herself marching down a road - a smooth, straight road that rushed endlessly forward to meet the horizon. Looking left and right, she would see her friends marching with her, and it was a comfort, matching her steps to theirs. But then suddenly - so suddenly that she sometimes would miss the precise moment when it happened - these friends would take off at a run, moving quickly toward something in the distance.

            Sometimes they would call back to her, wondering why she lagged behind. And the skydiver would try to catch up, but her legs, heavy with the strange weight of dreams, would refuse to move. It was a heartbreaking thing, always, to watch her companions move forward and away and out of sight, and she would be left alone to wonder when their march became a race - not a race against each other, but a race against time, a race toward the life that they were all supposed to want.


            On the day that she is to make her record-breaking jump, the skydiver thinks back to her accident. Though she lost control almost immediately, there was a brief moment during which she fell without panic, without realizing that something had gone horribly, perhaps fatally wrong. It had been raining, and for one carefree fraction of a second she looked sideways at the falling beads of water. They moved with her, dropping toward the earth at the same speed. Time had stopped, it seemed - that was her last thought before she began to rotate, to spin so quickly that she worried her heart would be thrown from her body.

            Even now, with the impending possibility of a similar disaster, she marvels that people call her brave. They seem not to realize that jumping requires only a second's worth of courage - recklessness, some might call it - and then the rest is easy. No work is required; no energy is expended. She has only to let gravity take hold of her. It's a simple task, one that will bring her back to that glorious moment of uncanny abeyance, to that instant when time was suspended in the molecules of raindrops. And so, before she leaves to make her record-breaking jump, she writes one more hypothesis, a final addition to her wall of possibilities: I will return to the rain.