(Stella artwork credit to Mithril: http://www.pixiv.net/member.php?id=9140955)
“Goooooood morning, Unalakleet!” My entire body jerked upright, throwing comforters off my chest. “This is DJ Big E, your favorite— and only!— radio personality here at the hangar, bringing the rest of the world to you and giving you the tunes so you don’t feel so bad about it.” Though he was indeed the only radio show in the village, he could have at least come up with a better jingle. My groggy eyes slowly opened as I reached out of my nest of blankets and turned down the volume.
I was far from ready to face the day.
As Big E rattled on about news I didn’t care about, I rapped on the side of the bunk above me. “Stella, you awake?” No response. I heaved my lazy self out of my haven of blankets and peeked over the edge of the upper bunk. Nothing was there except for a feather and a pile of covers.
From out front door of the tiny cabin I heard mutterings of “Thirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen.” I walked past the tiny shower, kitchen, and bathroom in three steps and opened the door. The white from the snow shined bright enough to blind me. My sleep-addled eyes squeezed shut in pain. I paid little heed to the brisk gusts of the cool late September morning. Two years in Alaska can do that to you.
As my eyes acclimated to the light, a winged figure emerged. A young woman with a messy pale brown ponytail stood in the street. She wore thick goggles, a rich brown skydiving suit, and a checkered scarf. The skydiving suit was custom-made just for her with shorter sleeves to accommodate her wings. Its tails billowing in the wind, the scarf covered her mouth and nose. Before I could wave to the familiar figure, she rushed into the air on a gust of wind. Stella was doing her morning warm-up routine.
Like a bullet she shot into the crisp blue sky above the village. Stella’s wings, light gray and speckled with black, spread out to full span once she reached the height of her hectic climb. For a moment she seemed to freeze, and began to fall before she rocketed down and pulled up into a massive loop that I swore could have encompassed the whole town. I even heard a few whistles from a nearby early riser one street over. A peel of joyous laughter shook the sky. She twisted and turned and soared through the blue on her powerful falcon wings as her fan-like tail feathers trailed behind her. Beautiful.
While she continued her warm-up, I went inside to get myself ready— didn’t want my junior coworker to have a leg up on me, after all. Our room had enough space to hold all of our supplies, though Stella often threw hers, along with her sports bras, on the floor after a tough day. That was usually every day. I always wondered how she put it all on without any help. My getup wasn’t nearly as technical as hers. All I needed was a pair of heavy cold weather pants, a few layers of shirts, sweaters, and coats, and my favorite boots, and I was set.
Just to make sure I had everything I needed, I referred to a piece of laminated paper tacked on the wall. It was a list entitled, “Things Needed for Flying.” Using a small marker, I checked off everything I had. Sunscreen, sunglasses, clothes, extra nutrition bar, whistle, camping knife (just in case), and a lucky penny I found sometime in college. Check, check, check, etc.
“Yo Jeff, you done in there yet?” Stella called from outside the door.
Stepping over some of her clothes to get to the dresser by the front window, I said, “Yeah, it’s safe.”
She peeked through a crack in the door and raised an eyebrow at me. “Uh, ’Safe?’”
I gently hooked the door with my foot and pulled it open. “Just come in.” Without missing a beat, she hopped indoors and headed for our bunk beds. “Did you forget something?”
She leaped up to hers and said, “Yeah yeah, I need my neck thing.”
“’Neck thing?’” A lot of her stuff was named after the body part to which it was usually attached. “A muffler?”
“No, my other neck thing!”
With a sigh, I made my way back to the laminated list on the wall and moved it out of the way. Underneath it was another list entitled, “Things Stella Needs for Flying.” Looking it over, I checked off the things I knew she was already wearing. “Can’t you just tell me what it looks like?”
She dumped her comforters onto the already-crowded floor and scraped her wing claws along the cracks between the bed and the wall. A plume of her scent filled the room. Not that she would have noticed, but I enjoyed that quite a bit.
“My wire thing.”
Of course, the wire thing. “You mean your radio?”
She twirled in place, twisting up the sheets that remained on the bed, and pointed at me with her wings as if I just answered the winning question on a game show. With a determined glint in her eyes, she uttered, “Yes.”
“You brought it to the workshop to fix it yesterday. Remember?”
She froze in that pose for a few seconds, her eyes locked with mine as if in thought. “Right.”
I dug around the debris in the room and yanked her backpack out of the pile in case she forgot it on the way out.
* * *
Unalakleet, one of many airport villages situated throughout Alaska, had a population of 721. The village and its airport were tucked in a U-shaped coastline in the middle of the west coast of the state called the Norton Sound. The hangar was the biggest building in town, dwarfing everything in both size and importance. Other townsfolk fished and trapped, but one in every thirty residents owned a plane. What made many of us different from pilots from the Lower 48 was that we didn’t require runways to land our planes. Every week I considered myself lucky if I had the chance to land on legitimate pavement instead of a clearing or frozen river.
I kept another list for that: “Things my Cessna 180 can Land on.”
My harpy roommate was given her usual paper mail route for the dozen or so surrounding villages. She often made several trips back to Unalakleet to pick up what she couldn’t carry on the first trip. It was difficult work and she was the only harpy in the area doing the job, but it sure took a load off the other pilots. The closer villages were of course important, but bringing all the little stuff to them took its toll on us. Besides, who wouldn’t want a cute girl delivering their mail?
I, on the other hand, delivered cargo some 100 km or more every flight.
Stella recently started flying solo, and it was my job to drop her off mid-flight so she could coast to the first village on her list. When she first started out, I actually altered the co-pilot harness a bit to accommodate her wings. I felt a certain amount of pride that only my plane was changed explicitly for her needs. None of the other pilots let me touch their safety harnesses despite them sometimes flying harpies or other “exceptional” passengers. A shame she only needed it for maybe an hour a day at most.
On one hand, it meant she wouldn’t hog the radio all day or fill my plane with feathers. On the other hand, the sky felt real lonely whenever she left. I once considered keeping one of her feathers as a good luck charm. I came to the conclusion that would have been gross, like saving someone’s toenail.
During my hour of prep, I flipped through my notebook to “Things my Cessna Needs to Fly.” As I checked the oil and tested the rudder, Stella walked out of the office with her collection of letters and magazines from Anchorage. Her backpack was made special so she could unlatch it with her teeth. Since she didn’t have hands and her wingspan was a little less than 5 meters, someone in the village made it custom just for her.
Once she was set with her gear, I strapped her into the co-pilot seat and we were off. During takeoff the wind jostled the frame of my Cessna like it was made of plastic. Stella bounced back and forth in her seat to whatever rhythm went through her head, obviously excited. As the wind made whistles along the outside of the plane, she whistled along with it as if trying to make a song out of it.
After a few minutes I flew us up to proper cruising altitude.
“Hey Jeff, I’m gonna use the radio,” she said as she plugged a cord into the center console. I gave her a double-take and saw that it was connected to her headset and MP3 player, which was usually plugged into the radio at her hip.
“Stella, pull that out!” I had to concentrate on flying, but I wasn’t about to let her shanghai my radio. Again.
“No, man, just gimme a sec. I made it so my music player can broadcast through your plane and everything!” That was why she dropped by the workshop? I planted my head against the side window as she started a little announcement over the airwaves, clearly having taken pointers from Big E.
“Hello! This is Stella speaking. I just wanted to give a shout out to the rest of you lovely people flying all over Alaska every day!” Kill me now. “This one’s for you!”
Embarrassment filled my cheeks as ire from every pilot on the channel stabbed holes through me from all across the state. A few shouts of “shut up, Stella!” sounded from some other people, but she paid no heed and started playing a song. I mentally noted “Things Needed to Keep from Committing Suicide from Embarrassment.” One imaginary check box involved removing all rope and sharp objects from the vicinity. I probably shouldn’t have been in a plane, either; the ground suddenly seemed so inviting.
The music started playing across the fleet. The worst part was I recognized the song: “Co-pilot” by Letters to Cleo. It was something I heard all too often in middle school and high school, and the most sickeningly obvious song to play on a plane.
To add to everything, Stella sang along.
“Be my coooo-pilot! Come be in my dreeeeam!~” Through the embarrassment, I felt a little proud. Something like, “The woman I love is a great singer!” If only she knew that I had those thoughts. Though there were a few dissenters across the web of radios, people more or less shut up and let the song run its course.
When it ended Stella yanked the cord out of the console with a lovely hum and a big stupid smile on her face. The performance had mixed reception across the board. I just stayed quiet and tried to hide my grin. The radio buzzed with a myriad of voices before one of them, the voice of a disgruntled old man, rose to the surface of the sea of chatter.
“Jeff, I would like to speak with you when you get back to Unalakleet later today.” It was Big Boss. “There are some things I’d like you to review about radio etiquette.”
My blood froze. Stella, meanwhile, wasn’t listening. “Yeah. I’ll, uh, come find you when I get back.” Like walking myself to the gallows.
“You better. Now save me some trouble and fly safe.”
Everyone else shut up after his departure, leaving me with a rock of anxiety in my gut. The mere rasp of his voice was enough to fill me with dread these days.
Stella elected to look out the window at the scenery below. “Hey, how much longer ‘til you drop me off?”
I checked our surroundings and oriented myself among the landmarks on the GPS in the center console. “Another few minutes and you can coast to Anvik pretty easy. Hold tight and—”
Before I even finished, she had unbuckled herself with a click and was on her way to the door, using some minor acrobatics to keep her wings tucked against herself as she went.
“I can make it the rest of the way just fine. Don’t need none of that ‘easy’ crap!” She unlatched the door and opened it a few inches, letting a tidal wave of wind whip through the plane. I kept my eyes forward, and after a pause wondered why she didn’t just jump out with one final goodbye.
“Hey Jeff!” She called among the swirling air. I turned to see her fussing with her goggles. They were crooked. “Can you help me out here?”
With a sigh, I motioned for her to scoot closer. She maneuvered around some freight and leaned her head over my shoulder. Using both hands, I pulled the goggles over her eyes, adjusted the band. I gave a few final tweaks to the lenses over her eyes and plopped her beanie on her head, which she forgot in her seat. For a moment, my hands lingered on either side of her face. I stared right into her dark eyes while hers darted around for every available item of interest in the cockpit, occasionally coming back to make eye contact with me only to slide away to something else. Every time they came across a different light source her pupils retracted or expanded with deep, indistinct brown surrounding them.
I pulled my hands away from her and turned back toward the controls. “Yeah, you’re set.”
She suddenly leaned in and said into my ear, “Hey! Let’s do the thing!”
My earlobe tingled and I couldn’t help but smile. “’The thing?’”
“Yeah. Come on, you know how it goes!”
I gripped the controls tightly. “Okay, let’s do the thing.”
With a laugh, she shuffled back to the right-facing door. In one practiced motion, swung herself outside, let the wind close the hatch, grasped the thin support of the wing, and latched the hatch with her talons. She kept her wings tucked in close. With winds threatening to blow her off the aircraft at any moment, she clung to whatever framework she could with her talons and heaved herself on top of the right wing.
“Ready?” She asked through the wind in her radio.
I smiled. “Ready!”
As I pulled my plane into a right turn that was almost completely sideways, she briefly stood stock straight. Almost in slow motion, she let herself fall backwards off the wing and into a dive that would make any skydiver jealous. Twirling in a tight corkscrew, she unfurled her massive wings and pulled upward in a wide curve until she was soaring high above the landscape. I corrected my route as she continued to swirl through the skies behind me.
“Man, why are we so pro?” She asked through the radio. A simple turn wasn’t very exciting, but she insisted she loved it. If I did anything more stunt-y than that I’d lose my pilots license. Through my window, I watched her soar off toward the rising sun, a pale glint of light reflecting off her shining feathers with every adjustment she made.
With her exit the silence in the cockpit was deafening. Only the wind and buzz of the radio could be heard above my own shallow breathing. Luckily, I remembered something I needed to ask Stella. I changed the radio over to short-range air-to-air.
I said into my headset, “Test. Test. This is Jeff-O. Do you read me, Stella?” My nickname over radio was Jeff-O from the initials of my name, Jeff Osborne, and because there were other pilots named Jeff around the Alaskan airspace. But everyone knew who you were talking about when you said “Stella.”
A few seconds passed and I was about to repeat my words when her voice burst into my ear through my headset. “Yeah, I read you, Jeff-O.”
I couldn’t help but smile. “I forgot to ask. What do you want for dinner tonight? My treat.”
“Aw yeah. I uh… I want some caribou! Old Man Webber ran into one with his truck yesterday and gave me some! It’s in the freezer, so you should make something with it! Uh, over.” If there was one thing she had trouble with, it was cooking, so she let me handle most of our food-related affairs. She actually ate a surprising amount for how thin she was.
“Copy that. Expect a caribou dinner at 18:00 hours. Whoever gets home first has to fire up the stove. Fly safe, Stella! Over and out.”
She exited the conversation in a shout of excitement. Definitely not proper radio etiquette.
I gazed over the silent landscape. The immense valleys leading to the sea sat untouched by humanity, save for the occasional village. Chocolate-colored earth led up to white mountain peaks cut from crystal while the choppy sapphire ocean extended out beyond the Bering Strait to the foggy horizon.
Time to face the day.
* * *
“How’re the winds in your neck of the woods, Jeff-O?” Suqi, one of the Unalakleet office ladies, asked through my company satellite phone. I stood leaning against the side of my plane in Nome, the last village on my route for the day.
“It’s getting a bit worse, but nothing too bad. Probably twenty five, thirty mph now. Some clouds coming in from the ocean, too. I thought it burned off earlier, but it’s coming back. Might get back to you guys in a few hours.” Since weather information never got to anyone in a timely manner in Alaska, playing weatherman was just another part of being a pilot.
“Alright, well you can come on home for the day. Stop by the office and I’ll get you your flight hours for tomorrow.”
I took out a small notepad from my chest pocket and jotted it down as a reminder. “Got it. Anything else?”
“Stella says hi.”
“I can believe that. How’s she doing in these winds?”
The older woman chuckled. “Says she’s loving it. And that she’s wondering when you’ll ask her out.”
“Like I’ve never heard that one before.” I recalled the first time I attempted to ask Stella out by leaving a letter in her bed at home. I poured my soul out onto that paper. Then she threw it out without opening it because it didn’t have proper postage. I loved the girl to death, but fuck, she was the only one in Unalakleet who didn’t know how I felt.
“I’m just saying, Jeff.”
I ignore her. “I’ll head back home, then.”
“Be safe out there. That caribou ain’t gonna cook itself.” I wondered just how much Stella talked with everyone in the entire damn fleet.
I started a new list: “Things to Never Discuss with Stella.”
* * *
All told, the trip home took longer and cost several more containers of fuel than I would have liked, no thanks to the wind. Winter was indeed coming and Mother Nature was sure as hell letting us know it. At least some of the bigger hubs like Bethel have bolstered their ground crews with Yetis. I saw those girls walking around in nothing but fur bikinis and they didn’t give a single fuck about the cold. They let airports continue to operate in worse weather than humans ever could.
Slowly, the endless Alaska evening pulled the sun across the sky. Even at 6 PM the sun dangled in the sky as if the day were only beginning. Unalakleet was about to be covered by thick clouds when I arrived. I was lucky there was at least a gap in the cover to let me through. If we pilots can’t see the runway, we aren’t allowed to land at all, no matter how many passes it might take before the weather gives us an opportunity.
That said, my landing was less-than-perfect. I really felt the stress on my landing gear when a downdraft pushed me into the runway at the last second. Though frustrated at the bullshit weather, I was glad to be back on the ground and out of the clunky skies.
As I trudged through the office I saw a familiar silhouette. I could recognize Russell just from the outline of his shoulders. He was an older gentleman who had been flying planes ever since Viet Nam and even wore his old army beret all the time. He was a square-built titan of an old man who still had some impressive muscle on his bones. He could probably beat me up with his chiseled cleft chin. He had a cup of coffee in one hand and looked none too excited to be there.
He said, “Hey, Boss said he needs you on standby for a few more hours.”
I stopped in my tracks. “Yeah, the weather’s getting worse, so everyone’s having a hard time, huh?”
He raised a spidery eyebrow. “Speak for yourself. Your landing coming in was sloppy. Cut that shit out.”
A weight sank into my stomach. He must have noticed, then. More than anything else, I didn’t want to show Russell any mistakes in my flying. He was the one who co-piloted during my training when I started out in Alaska. He was no less strict back then.
“Yeah, I’ll, uh, be more careful.” I could feel tension in my face as I failed to make eye contact.
He turned and left, finished talking. The weight in my throat stayed even as I made my way to the pilot lounge. Being on standby wasn’t as bad as flying in bad weather.
I fell face-first onto one of the ragged corduroy couches. The wind outside rattled the walls of the hangar as I listened to the radio that sat on the coffee table. My feet were cold as tits from flying so long, so I stripped off my boots and socks and let them dangle in front of a radiator. Like white-hot pins and needles, heat slithered steadily back into my tender foot flesh. Letting my mind wander, I listened to the radio, wondered how I was going to cook the caribou later that night, and hummed absent-mindedly along with the wind.
After some amount of time I couldn’t keep track of, someone approached my couch. He was a tall man getting on in his years and sported some major gray—a lanky sort of guy in a sweatshirt and baseball cap. Big Boss.
Sitting up with some gnarly bed head, I asked, “Back to work?”
He waved the idea away with his hand. “Nah, you can go home.” With that, I hauled my legs off the arm rest and planted my feet on the floor. The cold-as-tits concrete floor. With a jump and newfound energy, I hopped onto the couch and fussed around for my socks and boots. Boss laughed and coughed.
“A-anyway, is Stella back yet?” I asked as I slipped on my footwear. “Or did she go to the gym already?”
He grumbled. “She’s not in town. Weather’s too rough.” A lump of worry caught in my throat. Pilots like me were no strangers to accidents on the job, especially weather-related ones. I let him finish before I jumped to conclusions,. “It’s worse ‘n before. She’s not cleared to fly home, so she’s stayin’ in Koyuk.” I released a balloon’s worth of air in relief. Koyuk was a town on her route just a hop, skip, and a jump north from us.
My heart sank when I remembered dinner. “You think I can go pick her up? I can even bring something with me to and/or from Koyuk if I go.”
Boss raised an eyebrow and gave me a look as if to ask, “Are you stupid?” At least he wasn’t as outright rude as that. “Nobody’s flyin’ in this weather, you hear? Don’t need nobody crashin’ and settin’ us back a plane and a pilot.”
Of course. Boss just had to be oh-so responsible and all that.
After saying goodbye I hitched a ride home with one of the mechanics on his ATV. The wind was enough to almost lift two of our wheels off the ground. As we approached my cabin, I noticed the lights were on. Opening the door in the wind and getting inside was more of a hassle than I’m willing to admit, but I managed to negotiate entry and step inside.
“I’m back, Stell—” I stopped myself in time to remember her absence. Every night, if the lights were on inside, that meant she got back before I did. I must have left my desk lamp on all day by accident. A sigh escaped me. “Right.” If Stella were there, she would have tackle-hugged me without a care and asked for some dinner. Apart from the whistling gusts, the one-room cabin was simply silent.
After getting myself something from the fridge, and taking note of the lump of caribou in the freezer, I sat in bed and ate. I didn’t even care what it was, but I ate it. I stared straight ahead at a spot on the floor as Silence washed over me like fog thick enough to part with a knife. Only planes could make the trip between villages in these parts. Being so disconnected from Stella made it feel as if she completely slipped away from me. As if that morning was my last chance to be with her and I didn’t even know it. In a place where we told stories, listened to music, watched old movies on the tiny CRT on my desk, or talked the night away, it was the first time in more than a year I ate alone.
The junk on the floor reminded me of her, her discarded articles of clothing scattered every which way. The radio reminded me of her, since she always loved listening to Big E on her days off. My bunk reminded me of her, since we built hers on top of it ourselves. My pillow reminded me of her, since she stole it from me one night during her first week of training and we ended up rough housing for an hour. Even the wintery gusts that kept her from flying home reminded me of her, because of those little songs she composed from the whistles of the wind.
A stringy sigh folded out of me.
I had it bad for that girl.
For the first time that evening, I looked down at the bowl out of which I was eating. Cold leftover oatmeal. I paused for a moment and looked at the gooey mess. I drew in a long, slow breath through my nostrils, letting my chest heave up before expelling all the air at once. The cabin was cold enough to turn my breath into steam.
I whispered to myself, “Okay, enough of that. Doing this to yourself would just make her feel bad.” I finished the oatmeal and started getting ready for bed, electing to stop talking to myself like a crazy person.
As I dozed off, I took a mental note: “Things to Tell Stella Tomorrow.”
* * *
Though the sun rose before 6 AM on that lovely clear Sunday morning, my need for sleep in was insatiable. As if to relive my days before I became a hard-working Alaskan adult, I bundled up with my blankets in bed and rolled to face away from the sunlight that filtered into the room. I continuously faded in and out of sleep, adjusting every time I awakened.
The radio on my desk sprang to life in a series of unbridled buzzes, snaps, and voices. My whole body twitched itself awake and bolted me upright at attention. With a groan I rolled out of bed onto the pile of blankets Stella dumped on the floor yesterday, paused for a moment at the pleasant scent, and trudged up to the radio.
“This is Jeff-O, how may I be of assistance?” I said through the headset, using my free hand to adjust the frequency.
Once it was properly adjusted, Big Boss’ voice rang out, “We gotta get you a damn phone.”
Not in the mood. “You know I’d just text-and-fly, boss.”
“You ain’t got enough arms for that.”
“What do you need?”
“Yeah, we got some news about Stella.”
“News?” I echoed involuntarily. It could have meant anything. I felt my stomach clench up at every errant thought that crossed my mind at his words.
“Y’see, she was coming back from Koyuk earlier this morning. Crack o’ dawn. Around thirty minutes ago, we lost contact with ‘er.” Oh God. “We’ve tried her radio, but got nothin’. I know it’s your day off and all, but you know ‘er best, so go out and fetch ‘er. See if you can’t spot ‘er around her usual route. She never sounded like she was in distress or nothin’, so we think it’s just a radio malfunction or she got lost somewhere.”
All reasonable explanations, but he probably avoided the most obvious conclusion on purpose. At the same time, I was happy he said I knew her best.
“I can be over in a few minutes.”
Though I rushed, it still took half an hour before I was able to get my anxious self in the air. The morning winds were as strong as ever and left me impatient as I took proper precautions that took even longer. Suqi said that under normal circumstances, given the time Stella left Koyuk, Stella should have gotten back to Unalakleet long before Boss woke me up. We all knew a little wind wouldn’t have kept her from getting home whenever she damn well pleased. She might as well have run on jet fuel for how little sub-hurricane-force winds affected her in the air.
As I flew through the cloudy skies, I sent shout-outs to Stella’s radio, plus a few calls to nearby villages to see if she just decided to drop by. Not a peep along her designated route. The dreary weather wasn’t getting any better. Grays began to overshadow the blues in the sky as my search continued. It wasn’t long before I was already most of the way to Koyuk. Boss wouldn’t have wanted me making any unscheduled landings anywhere but home unless absolutely necessary.
As I turned around to go back toward Unalakleet, a strange background buzz cropped up on my radio. I tapped my headset a couple times, but it was definitely not just background noise. Turning the knob to adjust the frequency, I listened intently for something, anything.
“Kshhh East… kshhhh ridge…”
My eyes widened at the familiar voice. Adjusting it more precisely, I called into my headset, “Stella, you read me?”
“Kshhh Jeff? Oh wow, awesome! Phew!”
I let out an exasperation similar to hers. “W-where are you? You need to be picked up?”
“Yeah, yeah! I found some hikers. They’re scheduled to fly home with us in a few days, but one of them broke his leg. They can’t make it to their rendezvous point. Their radio is real short-range, too, so they couldn’t get anyone. I flew close enough, though. My, uh, my radio broke when the wind caught me on my way to check on them. Smashed right up against a rock.” She was so matter-of-fact about it. Must have been one hell of a gust to knock her out of the air, too. I was just grateful it wasn’t her head that got smashed. “I’m maybe fifteen miles east of the flight path from Koyuk to Unalakleet.”
I pulled a map out of the side pocket and asked her for more details. She managed to point out some landmarks and terrain patterns that more or less reflected on the map. Once I had a good idea of her location, I turned east. The winds smacked me around and some clouds had gathered for some early winter snowfall, but we managed to keep in contact. As I descended lower, she reminded me to look out for a yellow tent near the base of a ridge. It took a few minutes but sure enough I spotted a little golden bubble near a short cliff face. Several figures congregated around it and waved as I passed. I was able to single out Stella by her massive wing span, which she used as if to marshal me into a landing as I soared over them.
“Okay, I see you. Let me look for a landing zone.”
After a few scratching sounds later, “Thanks, Jeff. You’re the greatest!”
As much as I enjoyed hearing her praise, I followed procedure and switched my radio channel to Unalakleet. “Unalakleet, this is Jeff Osborne. I have located courier Stella as well as three stranded hikers. We have one injured hiker unable to move. I will proceed to find a suitable landing strip for pickup.” I gave them my coordinates in case anything went wrong.
Unfortunately the area they were holed up in was almost devoid of any good places to land. The only viable space was the plateau at the top of the ridge above them. A shiver crawled up my spine, and it wasn’t from the cold. The ridge was littered with rocks the size of my head and loose gravel, plus some piles of snow. The stinger? It was only 400 feet long.
The shortest landing I’d ever made during training was closer to 600, and that was on a nice little riverbank without the threat of falling off a fucking cliff. From the ground it might have looked bigger than a football field, but to me it was more like a narrow driveway that lead straight off the face of the Earth. As much as I wanted to keep checking for a better place to land, it was the only spot for miles, and the hikers couldn’t hike very far.
“Stella,” I managed to sputter out with a shaky voice, “I’m not sure I can land this.” My landing yesterday was sloppy enough to get Russell on my case. What if I fucked up? The company would be short a plane and a pilot, while Stella and the hikers would be short a rescue.
“’S too short for me. I’ve never landed on something like this in this kind of wind.”
“J-Jeff, this guy needs our help!”
“I know. Boss should be able to do it just fine. I’ll radio him.”
“No no no, we need to get this guy to a hospital now! He’s getting frostbite!” I remained silent. “Jeff, I’ve seen you land your plane in weather ten times worse than this!”
My thoughts turned back to Boss. “If I mess up, then that’s a plane and five people stranded. The airline would have to—”
“Fuck the airline!”
“Should’ve seen that coming.”
“Shut up. We need you right now. Don’t you know how much you kick ass at flying? I know for a fact you can land here. You haven’t had a single accident!”
I paused. “You have that much faith in me?”
“Man, I have so much faith in you, you don’t even know!”
I hung my head to the side, looking out the window at the terrain below. Bits of snow flitted through the air all around me as I turned around to make another pass at the ridge. Then I realized something. Snow. If I called for Boss to land instead of me, the snow would build up and make it impossible to land there by the time he arrived anyway. Even the most skilled pilot wouldn’t be able to land there if it had slippery snow and slush along with the wind and everything else.
Taking a deep breath through my nose, I said, “Okay, I’m coming around!”
“Yeah, but I need you to do something for me.”
After I gave her my instructions, she took some of the backpacks and other gear from the hikers and swiftly flew them up to the top of the ridge. Arranging them in a line, she placed one backpack every 100 feet along the ridge. If I didn’t at least measure how well I was doing during the landing, I wouldn’t know when to try to pull up and out of it if I needed to.
When she was finished, she gave me the sign to come in to land. Swooping down, I made sure I was lined up and had my flaps out as I descended down towards the ridge.
Stella stood along the side of the makeshift landing strip with her wings raised straight above her head. Like that, I could tell the direction of the wind more easily. The ride got much bumpier as the ridge got closer and closer. Everything was lined up and level.
I felt two of my three wheels brush past a large rock.
All at once, my landing gear strained under the weight of my plane, bouncing back and forth as I shook off speed. The first backpack was blue. I passed it. The second was yellow. Gone. The gravel was even worse than I thought, the bumping nearly launching me head-first into the ceiling of the cockpit. In a flash, the red and final backpack sped past me. 100 feet until the edge of the cliff and the end of the world.
With a lurch, I turned the plane to the left slightly. It responded immediately, swinging the tail around to the side and digging my wheels into the dirt and gravel. It felt like I was flying again for a second before my vehicle came crashing down on its wheels once more. My Cessna 180s landing gear creaked under my feet and gave one final lurch that lasted forever.
My landing gear rattled and the chassis shook enough to knock the first aid kit off the wall.
I really stopped. I wasn’t even maimed! My heart pounded within my chest and a cold sweat developed along my back, but the relief more than outweighed the stress. Unbuckling my harness, I climbed behind my seat, unlatched the door, and hopped to the ground with a crunch of rocks and dirt under my boots. Legs were still a bit shaky.
“Jeff!” Stella called from a much more airborne angle than myself. The moment I turned to see her, the harpy girl playfully crashed into me from a glide in as big a hug as she could muster. Though startled, I managed to maintain balance and wrapped my arms around her shoulders. I honestly couldn’t help but laugh as I swung her around, her wings tucked in and her legs flying around in a circle around me.
Her shoulders in my grasp, I set her down on her talons. I looked her in the eye, smiles on both our lips, and cried out, “I fucking love you, Stella!”
* * *
Stella and I managed to lasso together a contraption fit to pull the man with the injured leg up the cliff. Soon enough, we were back in the air and on our way home. I offered to fly Stella too, but she insisted she go back to Unalakleet herself. Though hesitant, I respected her decision and took off. It was a bit rickety, but the new confidence I gained helped get us off the ground, even with the extra weight of the hikers and their gear. The snowfall was light, but the winds were fierce as ever. Fortunately for the one with the broken leg, I called for a doctor to come in from Nome, the closest hospital, to take over his treatment. Unfortunately, it was a bumpy ride back to Unalakleet.
By the time I finished my report for the incident, Stella had already left the hangar for home without a word. It was only noon. Any other day, regardless of weather or circumstance, she would have been flying around, playing with the kids at the school, at the gym, or helping out with this and that around town. I was usually with her, too. Except the gym.
When I stepped outside, Unalakleet was uncharacteristically quiet. Snowflakes pelted my face and front like so many specks of icy dust as I trudged home. On my way, a few of the choir kids came up to me and asked why Stella didn’t show up for practice. I just told them she was busy saving people and couldn’t come. They believed every word.
Opening the door to my home, the first thing I saw was Stella sitting in my old rickety office chair in front of my desk. She spun around absentmindedly in her regular clothes: a pair of shorts and a snug t-shirt she often wore to the gym. Her long pale hair was taken down, her locks draped above her shoulders like a pair of curtains half-raised. Though she was thin and light, she still had some great hips, not to mention she was stacked as far as harpies go. I usually saw her in her work clothes or otherwise bulky cold weather wear, so it was a nice treat. When I stepped inside she turned to meet me with a complicated expression. I couldn’t tell if she was happy to see me, sad about something, or nervous.
I took off my heavy coat and hanged it up on the wall. “What’s up? You sure left real quick.” She remained silent, halted her spinning, and stared at the floor. “You okay?” As I looked her over, she did her best to avoid eye contact. Crouching down on the balls of my feet, I turned my head to look her in the eye. “Hey, come on. Talk to me.”
Her eyebrows curved upward in worry. “What you said back at the ridge…” My heart skipped a beat. In the heat of the moment I forgot I even said it. “I fucking love you” repeated through my skull ad infinitum as I waited for her to continue. “It feels like I’ve been wracking my brain for hours about it.”
For a moment I didn’t believe what she was saying. Not because harpies are (I’m being nice, here) generally absent-minded, but because she was thinking about me at all. Me! I let her continue.
“I’m not too smart, and I don’t want to say anything stupid, but…” Oh God, say all you need! “Do you see me as… more than a friend?”
I stood up from my crouch, looking at her with a shaky hands and a pounding heart. “Stella. I’ve been meaning to— well, TRYING to tell you something for a while now.”
She fidgeted in the chair. “I don’t know what you mean, but—”
“I love you.”
She froze, her dark eyes wide and round and avoiding my gaze. “So, you mean you love me as a friend, or you—”
I grasped her shoulders tight, making her jump and almost fall out of the chair but finally looking me in the eye.
I put emphasis on every word.
“I love you. Romantically. The way a man loves a woman. The way that means I want to be in an intimate relationship with you.” A look of utter confusion suffused her being. “I’ve tried to tell you before, but you either took it the wrong way or did something I didn’t expect.” I chuckled.
“Wha… wha-wha-wha-?” Her lips were incapable of forming words as a deep flush filled her face up to her ears. Realizing this, she lifted up her wings and covered her head and eyes with feathers, as if not seeing me would help somehow.
I was probably flushed all to hell, too. “This time, I’ll say it as many times as it takes for you to understand. I love you.”
Her chin quivered and she managed to choke out, “Why?”
I paused. She wanted an explanation? I didn’t expect that.
My hands steadily reached for my chest pocket and pulled out the little notebook within. Flipping it open, I started reading. From random scribbles in the margins to properly notated lines, I read off each one marked with a star; the things I marked as most important to list.
“This is why.” I took a deep breath. “You are: Intelligent, hardworking, the best aerial acrobat in Alaska, a stupidly healthy eater, scatter-brained, fun-loving, considerate, much more fit than I am, inclusive, don’t know shit ‘bout no airplane cockpits, hell of a lightweight drinker, honest to a fault, rightfully proud of your beautiful feathers, dense as a neutron star…” I stopped to look at her. She hunched over in the chair and tucked her legs in, as if trying to curl up into herself and disappear. “And that’s all I’ve written so far.”
The cabin filled with silence. There was nothing but the weather outside and the beating in my chest and her quiet mutterings under her breath. Her lips moved, but I couldn’t follow what she was thinking or saying. I fidgeted in place, letting the awkward silence pass. Maybe she was horrified at my declaration and wanted a way out? The thought was none too comforting, but there it was. It made me swallow anxiously, but my mouth was already dry.
Finally, she spoke up. “So, all those times I thought something was up… was it this?”
My eyes widened. “Yes.” A sensation of release filled my chest, as if I finally pierced through the thickest skull known to man. I felt I could just float off into the sky.
She groaned. “Oh God I’m so sorry. Seriously, for how long?”
I couldn’t help but smile. “I don’t know. Four or five months? Maybe?”
She took a deep breath, her eyes still covered by her feathers. “What if I said no?”
An invisible hand clenched my heart and pulled me back to the ground. It wasn’t as if I never thought of the possibility.
Planting my feet on the floor as if to get a grip on reality, I said, “We’re both adults here. I don’t think one rejected declaration of love can take down what we already have.” I felt sweat pool along my back, hot and nervous, as if the entire past year was only for that moment. “But just know that I won’t be giving up any time soon.”
Stella struggled to keep her lips from shaking. Removing her wings from her head, she sniffed and wiped some remaining dampness from watery eyes. For the first time in what felt like forever, she looked at me. With a start, she stood up from the chair and took a step towards me, from which I almost retreated in surprise. Closing the distance between us, she tentatively rested her head on my chest.
“I wouldn’t have said no,” she mumbled.
My heart skipped a beat and my cheeks burned.
Then, she planted her face into my coat. “If this lasts that long, anniversaries will only be once a year. No month-to-month crap.”
“Uh. Got it.”
“No stupid nicknames.”
“And no pampering.”
I brought up a hand and stroked her warm flushed cheek. “I’ll write it down.”
Stella nuzzled my hand, closed her eyes, and smiled.