Their climbing tree stretched out its shady limbs to soak up the last drops of sunlight. Touched by a soft breeze, the sturdy sweet gum brushed its fire-gold and deep-green autumn foliage against the old slate roof. Ten-year-old Marina scrambled up the tree. Her long, tanned legs stood out in smooth contrast against the rough, weather-beaten crevasses of the bark that chipped and fell away under her bare feet as she climbed.
“Come on, Geordie!” she called, oblivious to her friend’s fear of heights. Geordie sighed heavily and pushed himself up from the ground. He was tall for his age. In a few years, he would be drop-dead gorgeous, but for now he was a lanky, slightly awkward lad of twelve. He would have followed Marina to the gates of Hell and beyond, had she asked him to. But Marina was as oblivious to Geordie’s devotion as she was to his fear. High overhead now, Marina shook a branch; several seed pods, their prickly greenish brown surfaces resembling tiny spiked maces, pelted Geordie from above. “Ouch!” Geordie ducked and dodged and momentarily forgot his fears as he grabbed a branch and brought his foot up to chase after Marina, who was perched in the forked branches at the very top of the tree. “I’ll get you for that!” Geordie warned, laughing.
“You’ll have to catch me first!” Marina said, teasing the boy.
Halfway up the tree, Geordie reached for an easy branch. It was one that Marina avoided out of habit, for it had scruffy brownish leaves— if it bothered to sprout any at all— even in the spring. It was grayish black, not the rich tarry brown of the stronger, healthy branches. And it creaked and groaned with even the lightest touch of a breeze. Conveniently situated it might be, but Marina— operating as much on instinct as understanding— didn’t trust it. There was a sickening crack of dry wood, followed by the sound of Geordie yelling as he flailed his arms and legs, desperately trying to catch hold of another branch on his way down. He smacked his arm on a gnarled, leafy limb, scraping away layers of skin and drawing beadlets of crimson through the dirty scratches. He landed in a heap on the hard ground, groaning softly as he rolled to one side and grasped his mangled arm.
The paramedics told him and his parents— just twenty or thirty minutes later, though it might’ve been hours for all Geordie could tell— that he was lucky his friend thought to call them so quickly, and especially fortunate to escape with nothing worse than bruises, scrapes, a fractured arm, and a dislocated shoulder. He didn’t feel lucky, but he was relieved to be alive. He was glad Marina hadn’t stuck around to see him discharged from the emergency room; he was too humiliated to look her in the eye.
* * *
Randy and Duane, dressed in their “stealth suits”— black jeans, black t-shirts, and black Nike high-tops— crept up behind Marina and whispered, “Boo!”
Marina whirled around and pulled her punch just before her fist connected with Randy’s six-pack abs. “Don’t scare me like that!” she hissed.
“Rigging’s all in place, kiddo.” Duane unloaded a heavy backpack from his well-muscled shoulders and tossed it to the ground. “Don’t get caught.”
Marina laughed. “Hey, once I’m halfway across, it doesn’t matter. They’ll fine me, what, a few hundred bucks? Tell me I’ve been a bad girl, make me swear never, ever to do it again? You know, it’s ironic— you don’t bat an eye at the fact that I’m willing to risk my life for this, but you’re worried about my meager life savings? Duane, you’re a hoot. Just tell me the rigging’s secure.”
Duane nodded and looked to Randy for confirmation. Randy nodded. “All set. Ready when you are.”
“Okay, Duane, I want you to go around to the Canadian side and meet me there. Randy, you stay here—”
“Why, just in case you chicken out and head back this way?” Randy laughed.
“No, just in case I need a diversion.”
“Oh, so you are worried about the fine.”
“No, but it’d be more fun if I didn’t get caught, now, wouldn’t it?” Marina stepped up to Randy as if to kiss him; instead, she wrapped her long fingers around his ribs and tickled him mercilessly.
Life’s cruel irony wasn’t lost on Duane or Randy. They’d been friends with Marina since their freshman year in college. Each of them had a crush on her, but so far, all they had won was an easygoing, platonic friendship.
She hung out with them, went to all the hot basketball games, chugged beer and ate chips enough for two of them during Monday night football – though you’d never guess it by looking at her lithe, boyish figure. How could a girl who was such a guy— be so tantalizingly seductive? They’d gone skydiving together two years ago on a dare. Last summer, Marina had run off for a few months to join the circus— literally— and came back with a passion for tightrope walking and other aerial feats that gave Randy and Duane stomach-knots to imagine. But somehow, in their fascination with Marina, they had become her devoted servants. Which is why they were now standing at the edge of Niagara Falls, having jury-rigged a high-wire act for their friend’s amusement, and praying to a God they weren’t sure of to keep her safe and deliver her to the Canadian side in one piece. It crossed their minds, more than once, that they’d fallen for a woman who had more balls than the two of them put together.
* * *
Marina had plenty of suitors. She just hadn’t found one who could hold her interest or match her wild, reckless passion for life. She didn’t have a death wish at all; for Marina, the thrill of the ride was everything, without which life was meaningless. Just as one could never appreciate contentment without having experienced pain, or want, or despair, Marina knew deep in her heart that she could not fully appreciate life without occasionally looking into the eyes of death, staring it down, and laughing in its face.
She watched carefully for the signal from Duane that he had reached the Canadian side of the falls. At long last, she saw it— three short bursts of light from a high-powered flashlight at the far end of the sturdy cable the two engineering students had secured for her. Marina dropped her raincoat to the ground and stretched, knowing that it would be important to limber up before attempting the crossing. Piece of cake, she thought. After all, in 1876, Maria Spelterina crossed wearing peach baskets on her feet, for God’s sake.
“Yes, Randy?” Marina paused, mid-stretch, and looked at her friend.
“I know this is gonna sound crazy, but I’m crazy in love with you—”
Randy paused, searching Marina’s face in the darkness, hoping to find encouragement there. “Mar, will you marry me?”
“I’ll think about it,” answered Marina, reaching around to the small of her back to locate a tiny plastic switch. “If you’ll meet me halfway,” she said, smiling and pointing towards the eerie mist that rose from the center of the chasm. “And ask me again, out there.” She flicked the switch, and a hundred tiny white lights sewn into the side-seams of her leotard and tights illuminated and outlined her perfect curves. She winked at Randy, and stepped out onto the cable.
Halfway across? Randy watched Marina as she stepped gracefully out into space, her feet wrapping themselves around the slender steel cable with steady confidence.
* * *
Working a U.S. Customs booth on the border of Canada and the U.S. was hardly a glamorous job, but it paid the bills and gave Officer Camden an opportunity to meet people from all over the world. People rarely bothered to smuggle things over the border here; more often than not, Camden found himself giving directions to the best observation point near the falls, or making dinner recommendations for newlyweds who couldn’t decide between intimacy or a spectacular view. And when his shift ended, Camden still enjoyed a leisurely stroll along the cliffs above the American Falls; he still marveled at the colorful lights as they played upon the mists rising from the Horseshoe Falls.
Tonight was no different from many other nights. Camden was in no rush to return to his empty home, where sleep would elude him for many hours. He preferred to listen to the thunderous rush of water cascading over the falls, to be lulled by the roar as millions of gallons spilled over the rocks each minute, as they had for 12,000 years.
He gazed out across the dark chasm of the Niagara River. Something caught his eye— something utterly unexpected that sent a little thrill of fear down Camden’s spine. He rubbed his eyes, blinked, and looked again. Surely, he hadn’t seen what he thought he’d seen, or else it was merely the product of fatigue— too much work, too little sleep. Sweet Jesus, thought Camden. He began running; as he ran, he reached for his cell phone.
Camden didn’t take his eyes off the illuminated figure, walking through the darkness as if upon the air itself, tinted mist occasionally obscuring the daredevil and making him appear to be some otherworldly being. Camden didn’t see the man standing at the side of the falls, dressed all in black, watching the scene with his own desperate intensity. As he collided with the man, they landed on the ground and quickly scrambled back to their feet, both talking at once.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” demanded Camden.
“Aiding and abetting,” muttered Randy, as he reached into his hip pocket for his tattered wallet.
“Save it,” snapped Camden. As he watched, fascinated, he realized that the figure on the wire was that of a woman. Her movements were fluid grace; each steady step was even and relaxed. He and Randy both gasped as the woman bent to touch her toes, then executed a flawless handstand and held it to the count of five. “Holy Mother of God,” murmured Camden.
“Do you think she’ll make it across?” he asked, his voice hoarse and barely audible.
Randy shrugged. “I hope so.”
Duane was suddenly joined by several Toronto police officers, all of whom seemed more concerned with Marina’s safety than with slapping handcuffs on him or charging him with international lawbreaking. One of the officers called out to Marina on a bullhorn, strongly urging her to bring her little escapade to a safe, but quick, end so they could all go home to their families where they belonged. He couldn’t be sure that she heard him; just then, Marina leapt into the air and landed on the wire, testing its elasticity as she lowered herself in a single, fluid movement into a split. The men on both sides of the river gasped; one clawed at his chest and began to pray.
Although it wasn’t exactly cold, Marina had worked up a bit of a sweat, and now began to shiver in the chilly mist. Her muscles began to tighten and ache; she thought perhaps she’d pulled a tendon with that split. With a sigh, and a glance at the flashing blue and white lights at the Canadian cliff ’s edge, Marina decided to turn around and head back to the American side of the river. A sudden gust of wind caught her, tired and unprepared, and for a moment she wavered, moving her arms wildly to regain her balance. Marina let her feet drop to either side of the cable— she could straddle it and pull herself along, hand over hand, if necessary. But again, fatigue and a fickle wind conspired to knock her off kilter, and she flipped upside down, her right leg hooked over the cable, her head pointed down towards the turbulent waters below.
This can’t be happening, thought Marina. She reached up and grasped the cable, but it was slick with condensation and hard to hold onto. Well, dammit, she thought with a sigh. She tried to pull herself upright but couldn’t gain the leverage she needed.
Camden saw the girl fall. He didn’t hesitate for a moment, despite his stomach-churning fear of heights. Focusing on the girl, instead of on the breathtaking spectacle of the falls to his left, Camden stepped out onto the cable. He would have preferred to wear a safety harness but didn’t even stop to ask if one was available. Just a walk in the park, he told himself. One step at a time…
The cable was surprisingly sturdy and somewhat thicker than it appeared to be from a distance. Camden tried to imagine that he was simply walking along a curb or pacing the line that ran down the center of the bike path he liked to ride. Not too bad, really, if he thought of it that way. Don’t look down, a little voice in the back of his mind urged. He fought the temptation to do just that, and instead he concentrated on the girl desperately clinging to the wire just a few feet away. He had no idea how to help her; he only knew he had to try.
Marina couldn’t believe her eyes. As she tilted her head back to glance at the cliffs, she saw a man walking towards her! Surely Randy hadn’t mustered the guts to come after her and repeat his proposal. The thought made her giggle hysterically. Marina knew in her heart that she could never marry a man who wasn’t willing to walk a tightrope to win her love. After all, what was love if not a precarious balance on the high wire, without a net? How could she marry a man who was afraid to fall in love? As the man drew closer, she saw that he was strong and attractive— not terribly muscular, but amazingly calm and confident.
“Are you okay?” he called, his deeply resonant voice carrying over the rush of water.
“I think so,” Marina answered. The man stood over her now, and Marina could make out his features. “Geordie?”
Camden’s face registered surprise. “How do you know my—” He blinked and did a double-take. “Marina?”
“Oh, shit, Geordie—when did you take up tightrope walking?” Marina’s heart skipped a beat. She knew that Geordie was deathly afraid of heights; once he realized where he was and got over his need to be a hero, he’d probably pass out and plummet to the frothy deep below.
Geordie Camden lowered himself slowly, grasped the cable with both hands, and sat on it, letting his legs dangle to either side. He took Marina’s arm with one hand and helped pull her up to a sitting position in front of him. “Everything’s going to be fine, Marina.” He smiled.
“Shhhh.” Geordie noticed that Marina was shivering uncontrollably. The cable vibrated with her chills, and he wrapped his arms around her protectively. “How are we going to get out of this?” asked Marina. Geordie had never seen a trace of helplessness in her flashing green eyes, and it scared him to see it there now.
“Piece of cake,” he lied. Well, he hadn’t exactly lied, but they would have to wait for the real heroes to arrive, because Geordie knew he couldn’t stand up and lead Marina to safety on either side of the Niagara. It was all he could do just to hold on and not look down. “Hang in there, kiddo. They’re bringing a helicopter. Should be here any minute now.” He hoped that was true. Marina laughed, then. Her bright smile lit her face, and warmed Geordie’s heart. “Remember the tree?”
Geordie nodded. “You were so fearless. I was such a dork. I’d have followed you to hell and back, but I couldn’t even follow you up that damned tree. I avoided you for the rest of the year, and then you moved away.” Geordie shook his head sadly.
“Oh, Geordie.” Marina sighed. “I felt so guilty. I teased and teased until you came after me, climbing that stupid old sweet gum tree. I knew you didn’t want to, but I knew you would. It’s my fault you fell and broke your arm. I was the one who deserved to be ashamed. I was relieved when we moved away, because every time I saw you, I felt guilty. But I missed you, you know.”
“I missed you, too.”
“Ever since then, I’ve looked for a man who could measure up to you— a man who would follow me in some crazy, daredevil scheme, never stopping to think twice about the danger— just to be with me.”
It was Geordie’s turn to laugh. “All this time, I thought you thought I was chicken.”
“Geordie, you’re the bravest man I know.” Marina rested her head against his chest, drawing warmth from his arms around her. “I don’t think I ever stopped loving you, you know.”
Geordie drew back and gazed into her eyes. The naked sincerity with which she regarded him almost knocked him off balance; he grabbed the cable with his left hand and pulled her close with his right. “Marry me,” he whispered. He felt her answering nod against his chest. A searchlight swung round from above and landed on them; a rope and harness fell from the sky. Everything would be all right, thought Geordie as he strapped Marina into the harness and watched the rescue team reel her into the helicopter. As he waited for them to lower the rope a second time, he dared to look down.