No idea how many hours I’d been on the plane. Seriously, every few seconds the turbulence made my feathers puff up. The sun set a long time ago. Or at least it felt like a long time ago. Clouds blocked out the sun most of the day anyway. Ever since the last stop an hour ago, I was one of only two people left on the plane besides the pilots. The last stop was Barrow.
It really had that “end of the line” kinda feel to it, like the subway in New York. Had the same bundle-up-if-you-wanna-stay-warm sort of deal, too. The cabin was narrower than a commercial plant, but much bigger than a bush plane. This one was more meant for passengers instead of freight. The place was heated a little, but not enough to keep out Arctic Circle cold. That stuff’s even more hardcore than Unalakleet cold.
At least my headphones and beanie kept my ears warm.
I didn’t get a good look at the village when we came in to land. It was too foggy to see anything but the runway lights and windows in the hangar. The hangar itself held more planes than the one in Unalakleet, but it looked like the only one on the airstrip. The wind was blowing real hard. My wings were already cold as hell from sitting still for so long on the flight.
There was someone standing in the waiting room with a little sign that said “Stella” on it. She was a sorta-chunky-looking, frumpy-haired lady with thick glasses. She looked past her forties, but perfectly happy about it. The smiling dimples on her wrinkled cheeks looked permanent.
I slipped my headphones down around my neck and walked up to her. “Uh, hi.”
She smiled. Or was she smiling the whole time? “You Stella?”
“Yeah! Yeah, I’m here for the Search and Rescue thing?” Boy that sounded professional. I wasn’t nervous at all, by the way. At all.
“Got it. Our new flyer, right?”
“Great! Just let me check where you’ll be staying and I’ll take you over.” She looked through a paper with a list of contacts on it. “All the flyers’re paired together in cabins if they can’t rent a house, so you’ll have a roommate.”
“Oh, I’ll be in a cabin?” Sounded just like Unalakleet.
Addy (I’m calling her that, starting now) tilted her head side to side. “Not really a ‘cabin.’ More like, I dunno, a big shoebox. It’s the simplest thing to set up. Not too much for luxury, though. ‘Least you got plumbing.”
I just hoped it was warm.
After we left the terminal we passed a box-shaped restaurant, a box-shaped hotel, and a bunch of other box-shaped houses. I guess they didn’t really have trees to cut down and build things with, but all the boxes made it look like a trailer park or something.
“So,” Addy yelled through the wind, “just telling you now. Your roommate’s Muriel Blake.”
It felt like I was going to school dorms or something. “I’ll be working with her, right?”
“Yeah, that’s right.” She kept smiling even when the wind smacked her in the face with some snow dust. It looked really painful, actually. “She’s been with us for around five years already, so ask her if you got any questions. Once you’re settled in, Sheryl wants to meet with you.”
“The team coordinator for the flyers. And she’s your direct supervisor.”
For whatever reason, I felt real competitive all of a sudden. Territorial instincts were kicking in and I already wanted a cut of Barrow all for myself. Pretty sure no other harpies would be moving into Unalakleet after I left, so I still had sort of an honorary spot there at Jeff’s cabin. If he threw out our nest I’d kill him.
Addy stopped in front of another one of the box houses. It was a pretty blue color. “Here we are. Your new home.” She set down my suitcases and slammed her fist against the metal door. “Hey, Muriel! Your new roommate’s here!” I cringed at the noise. Couldn’t tell the time of day to save my life, but it looked like plenty of people were in bed already.
The door tore open after some hard stomps from the other side. “What the fuck do you want?” It was another harpy. A black bird, I think? Probably older than Jeff, so, thirty-ish? She was pretty tall for one. And real thin, too. Pitch black feathers in a shortish pixie haircut with two pointy locks in front of her ears. Unlike me, her ears had a bit of a point to them. I forget if that’s a black bird thing or if I was just weird having more human-ish ears. She and her freckles looked none too happy about the racket Addy just made on her door.
When she saw it was Addy, though, her expression totally changed. Muriel tackle-hugged the lady with a flying leap. It gave me a good look at her wings. They were, for real though, a lot prettier than mine. With that super-deep shade of black and a bluish sheen that reflected in the street lamps. I was jealous already.
“Good to see you, Addy! Sorry for yelling and swearing at you. I was in the middle of a book.” It was like watching an angry alcoholic switch into a happy little kid.
Addy patted Muriel’s head. “I’m good, hun. Just dropping off your new roommate.” She peeled the black bird off herself and pointed a thumb back at me.
Muriel’s expression switched right back to looking almost pissed off. “Right. New girl.”
A few seconds passed while we had a stare-off. “I’m Stella. Nice to meet you.”
“I’m Muriel. And that’s debatable.” With that, she walked back inside. “Your bed’s on the right.”
I could tell it was going to be fun rooming with her, except the part where it totally won’t.
Addy leaned in and said, “She takes a bit to get used to people. Give her a couple weeks and she’ll act like you’ve been friends for years.” She hauled my stuff inside, and I followed her.
The interior of the box house was much nicer than I thought it’d be. The walls were made of regular wall stuff, instead of metal like the outside. Since the door was in the middle of one of the long sides, we had pretty clear territories, split down the middle at the kitchen area. The counters looked like they hadn’t been changed for years, but it had a lot more cabinets and stuff than the cabin back home. Well, I guess Barrow was home now, but whatever.
Muriel’s metal-framed bed was in the far back left side against the wall, with a window above it. All she really had were a bunch of different shelves for books. Tons of books. Like, almost as many as in Sister Maria’s office. None of them were kids’ books, though. They all looked old and really hard to read. My side of the shoebox was empty except for the same kind of metal bed. They left me some sheets folded all neat-like on the pillow.
“You need anything else,” Addy said as she set down my stuff by the bed, “just call someone at the hangar and they’ll help you out.”
“Oh!” I hooked out my phone out of its holster. “What’s the, uh, phone number for the hangar office?”
“There should be a list next to your house phone. SAR provides all our communication equipment, so it should be printed on it somewhere.”
Hopping into the kitchen area, I found the gray wall-mounted phone. The handset had a loop on it, which was probably for our sake so we wouldn’t drop it all the time. Next to it on the wall was a laminated list of phone numbers for different places in Barrow.
“Got it.” I put my phone away and approached Addy. “Thanks for all your help.”
“Aw, it’s no problem, hun.” She rustled my hair and smiled. Always with the smiles. “And Muriel!”
“What?” the black bird called back from her bed.
“Treat her nice, okay? She’ll need help getting used to things around here.”
Addy left with another hug from Muriel, leaving us two harpies to sit in a stew of awkward tension. Stew sounded really good right then, actually. As soon as I got my jacket off, I headed for the fridge.
“So, have you had dinner or anything yet?” I asked.
Muriel was already slouched down on her bed next to a reading lamp with one of her thick books. “Yes I have. And you’ll have to get your own food from the store. That’s my food.”
I froze before I could open the big white box. Clenching my talons a few times in frustration, I muttered, “Okay, then,” and headed for bed.
Oh yeah. The new job was going well already. I texted that to Jeff, took ten minutes trying to brush my teeth, and called it a day. The hardest part was getting to sleep without Jeff’s heartbeat.
* * *
The next day, March 8th, was orientation day. No thanks to Muriel hogging the shower, I got to the hangar just barely in time to meet my supervisor. Didn’t even get to do my morning warmup. Addy told me to go to one of the back rooms in the office. On the front of the door was a little metal sign that said, “Sheryl Curtis/ Head Flyer.” The window looking into the office was covered with flimsy yellowish blinds.
My heart beat so fast I felt like a hummingbird. “Hello?” I called, knocking a knuckle on the door.
“Come in,” called a voice from the inside. It was a gruff-but-still-ladylike kinda voice. Like, the definition of “big voice,” but sounded sweeter than that.
I stepped inside to a regular-looking office. No decorations or posters, just schedules, maps, a desk, and a computer, plus a couple chairs in front of the desk. Sitting at the computer was a mountain of a woman. With slightly tanned skin and nearly white hair, she almost looked like Beth. But then I saw the feathers.
Every instinct yelled at me, telling me she was an eagle harpy.
“You’re Stella Smith?” she asked.
I stood at attention at the sound of her voice. “Uh, yeah! Yes. I am Stella.” It felt weird hearing my full name out loud after such a long time.
Sheryl pushed her keyboard away with a claw and stood up. Her head could have scraped the top of the door frame. And her posture was stupid-good. She looked like royalty or some crap.
She bowed her head a little. “It’s good to finally meet you.” It took me a bit to bow back. “No need to be nervous. I just asked you here today to tell you about what you’ll be doing here for your probation period.” When she sat down again, I sat down in one of the chairs, too. After flipping through a folder with a bunch of papers inside, she talked again. “So, I understand you actually have a little experience in rescuing.”
News to me. “Uh. I guess?”
Her sharp eyes looked right at me. Was she mad? “There was an incident with a group of hikers last September, I believe.”
“Oh! Right, that. Sorry. That time I just caught a signal and went for it. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but I needed help getting them out.”
“Yes, I read the incident report for it. But I would like to ask you a question. It will determine your position here.” I nodded. Just one question couldn’t be too hard, right? “Just to recap, you worked together with a pilot from Unalakleet to transport the aforementioned hikers. You even helped him land in an otherwise difficult spot. In addition, earlier last year, you and another harpy brought an injured engineer to the hospital after finding him with his crashed snow mobile. The injured parties from both incidents are alive and well. What I gather from these events is that you are able to keep a level head and can coordinate well with others.”
That might’ve been the angle my agent went for when they talked. “Thank you.”
She smiled, but it didn’t last long. Went right back to her royal boss face. “So, what I would like to tell you is this: there are actually two positions available.”
This was probably where Jeff would say “the plot thickens” or something. “Okay?”
“One is, of course, the flyer position. There, you will be training with us for six months. You will be paid less during this time, but we will pay for any equipment you need for the training. We will use you for minor work in the field until the end of this period. After that, you will have a designated patrol through the county, and will receive information from HQ regarding rescue missions requiring your assistance. Throughout the year, you will have to deal with our extreme climate, midday darkness, near-constant winds, and of course storms. Barrow is known as one of the cloudiest settlements on the planet. We in Barrow, as well as the teams in Point Lay, Wainwright, and Prudhoe Bay, cover as much of North Slope as we can. I believe this is the job for which you applied.”
“Uh. Yes. That’s right.” Sure made me feel professional, having someone talk so businesslike about stuff to me.
Heh. Prudhoe’s pronounced “Proo-doh,” but spelled like “Prude-ho.”
That’s pretty great.
“The other one is more of a coordination position. Handling radio traffic in HQ, filtering information on possible missions, and telling those in the field or on standby where they are needed.”
“Okay, I get it. Sounds like the office jobs at the hangar in Unalakleet.”
“Similar, yes. However, this will have a much shorter training period compared to becoming a flyer. It pays similarly, puts less strain on you, and presents much more well-defined work hours without having to stay on standby for long periods of time. We are short-handed when it comes to flyers, pilots, and trackers, but we could always use a good operator at HQ.”
Whoa. So I had options? For one, the operator positions sounded real comfy. Might even let me have more free time to do stuff, like visit Jeff. Damn. That sounded really great. I didn’t get much sleep last night because I kept waking up looking for his heartbeat. Goes without saying, but I wanted to sleep with him again something fierce. He made the best pillow ever.
“Personally,” Sheryl said. I swear, her voice was like a brick. A very well-made brick with perfect corners on my ears. Made out of chocolate. “I believe the operator position would suit you well. Field work requires a solid physical build and great endurance. While you have shown competence as a courier in Nome County, North Slope might not be as good a fit. I mean no offense but, given your slight stature, the training may very well take more than six months before you are deemed ready for regular work, if at all.”
Before I knew it, I had a ball of carpet dug up in my talons. The office job sounded comfy, but the more I thought about it the more I couldn’t believe I was invited to their HQ just for them to tell me to work a different job. All at once I remembered why I came to Barrow at all.
“I know what I want to do.” I said.
Sheryl perked up a bit. “Oh? Already?”
“Yeah. I want to fly, and I want to help people.”
It was weird to see such a big lady tilt her head like a kid. “Really? I know you may have gotten a taste of what it is like to be on a rescue mission, but the training will be quite difficult. Have you taken any classes for this kind of work in Unalakleet?”
“I’ve gone through the first aid, CPR, and wilderness survival classes.” Boss said it’d be a good idea to take a refresher, so I did them a few days before I left.
She took out a piece of paper and wrote something down. “That’s a good start. So, you are certain you wish to be a flyer?”
My eyebrows flattened. “Yes.”
“Good.” Sheryl tilted her head to the side and stretched, making a cracking noise. After that she undid her tie and shook her head as if trying to get something out of her hair. “I usually act more professionally with the operators, but I didn’t know if you wanted to be one or not. Thought it’d be easier to start out looking all neat before I knew.” She sounded a bit less business-y than before, but still just as strict.
I sat in my chair and looked around. “Okay?”
“Ah, nevermind. I’m glad you want to fly. We need girls like you.” Then she yanked a drawer in her desk open and pulled a file out of it. “Now then. I know you got all of these job requirements in the mail, but I’m required to personally say some of these out loud. I think it’s an insurance thing. I’ll get right to it.” Clearing her throat, she straightened up and started pacing behind her desk with a huge army sergeant-sounding voice. “To qualify for the position of Search and Rescue Flyer, you, Stella Smith, must meet the following requirements listed herein upon completion of the six-month probation period.”
Sheryl then went on to list things I needed to work there. I already knew most of them from the packet they sent me except for a few. She said she was required to say it all aloud, but it felt like a waste of time.
And she just kept going!
“Pilots require four years work experience, which includes at least 3000 hours of total flight time and 500 hours of Arctic or remote area flying experience. This is waived for any extra-species persons with more than ten years of flight experience and at least one year of flight experience in Arctic or remote areas.
“An FAA First Class Medical Certificate and must maintain an FAA Class II Medical Certificate.
“An FCC Radio Permit.
“The ability to obtain a valid Alaska Driver’s License that meets North Slope Borough insurance criteria within the 6 month probationary period. This is NOT waived for individuals possessing means of manual flight.”
Jeez, what the hell was I getting myself into? Was I sweating? Crap, my back felt like I just got out of the shower.
“In addition, you must sign multiple waivers regarding the inherent risks and physical requirements of such employment, including but not limited to:”
Oh jeez, there was more?
“Internal and external environments with exposure to inclement weather and varying temperatures; work is also performed with assistance of an airplane and helicopter, and involves attention to detail, long hours, long periods without breaks, and independent judgment as to the safety of the flight conditions.
“If so employed you must meet standards for visual acuity, and speak effectively in a clear, understandable voice. In addition, the employee must meet all physical fitness requirements for effective and safe rescue emergencies.
“Both Pilots and Flyers may be exposed to hazardous materials, dangerous machinery, and potential physical harm when responding to fire and rescue emergencies.” The eagle lady paused for a second and set the paper down on her desk. We held eye contact for what felt like minutes. I was shaking. “Now that that’s out of the way, are you ready to get your training regimen?”
Sometime during her list, I started to lean forward with my wings on the armrests. My shoulders felt so tense I could barely move them. The only thought going through my head, over and over, was that this was it. The big leagues for everyone who flies. It had such a huge sense of danger that I think my face turned light. I mean, “Inclement weather,” “Independent judgment,” and “may be exposed to blah blah blah?” This was very tippy-top of what you can do with your wings: save the lives of people who can’t do what you can do. Well, besides the air force, I guess.
I wasn’t shaking because I was scared, though. “Yeah. Then I can get started early.”
Sheryl raised an eyebrow and picked another sheet from her drawer, this one with a chart on it. “I hope you keep up this enthusiasm. For the people flying our planes and helicopters, their training is basically already done by the time they show up. We’re different. We need constant upkeep to stay in working shape, and have to deal with the environment and rescue subjects directly. Stay committed and work hard and you’ll do fine here.”
It was a schedule for the month with different colors for different classes and exercises. “Just show me where the gym is.”
She hid it real good, but I saw a little bit of a smile on her lips. “Right this way.”
* * *
‘On the plane now. Can’t wait to see you!’ Proofread, edited, and sent.
It was finally time. Sunday, March 16th. In the middle of last week, Boss caved and let me have Sundays off instead of Saturdays. He also begrudgingly gave me a half day for the coming Monday. In my excitement I scheduled a flight north and packed a bag days in advance. Better yet, Stella said she lived right next to the only hotel in Barrow. It was probably the northernmost hotel in the world, actually. It was expensive but we reserved a room for the day. Apparently it was harder to get for that particular Sunday because, well, the full moon that night.
‘YAY!!!!’ was the text she sent back to me. A happy jolt of adrenaline forced a smile on my scarf-covered lips at the thought of seeing her. My only complaint was having to take my gloves off to reread her response and keep the happiness flowing.
The plane was the same model that took her up north earlier that month: a Beechcraft. It was so long since I flew as a passenger in a plane so large. As with Stella, there were plenty of stops throughout the trip. We took off around 8:00 AM, and my return flight wasn’t until the next day.
My left leg pumped with impatience as the Beechcraft soared north. It couldn’t have been more perfect; the weather was nice, the flight left on time, and I could see across the Alaska landscape for miles. Still, it was a long flight. Though I tried to sleep, in my excitement I just couldn’t fall under. The flight could have taken years and I would have been okay as long as it made it to Barrow.
Barrow was much flatter than I thought; I was able to look between any random buildings and see white stretch to the horizon. Or I would have, if the wind didn’t kick up enough snow to cover the whole town. Like Unalakleet, there were very few paved roads. Most of it was saved for the planes and the ground crew’s equipment.
I followed the rest of the few passengers toward the terminal. With hands shaking from the windblown cold I texted her, ‘I’m on the ground!’
We walked through a mantrap of glass doors, which was probably used to keep the cold out, and walked into a modest-sized wait room. It had a pretty basic carpet design of navy blue and brown, plus a bunch of plastic chairs that lined that walls. A corner desk held three or four office workers.
My phone vibrated again while I looked around. Gloves off, phone out.
Before I could read it, a claw set itself atop my phone and pulled it from my face. Standing with a tilted head in front of me was Stella. A rainbow knit beanie atop her head and thick winter clothes that probably kept her grounded, she stood up on the tips of her talons and planted her lips on mine.
Somehow in just a week her warmth became nostalgic. The familiar taste of her lips and tongue sent me back in time for months, only to bounce right back to the present. We probably were in the way of some people, but I didn’t think to step aside.
“Hi,” I muttered.
She breathed quietly, “Shut up.”
We stood hugging and kissing for several minutes without a word. Passersby might have thought we hadn’t seen each other for years. Imagine their laughter if they knew it was only a week. Then again, the full moon was upon us. In light of that, I doubt anyone would have complained.
I broke off the kiss first. Both of our lips were damp from shared saliva. It was almost embarrassing how juvenile it felt to kiss so hard in public.
“So hey,” I started.
A wing covered my lips and most of my face. Stella said, “Shut up. We can talk whenever we want. No more talking today.”
Couldn’t argue with that.
I let her drag me through the tiny terminal and out into the sun. Without the tarmac to dull the light, rays of white reflected off the snow in all directions. Unalakleet and other parts of Alaska at least had trees to help keep things from blinding you. Not Barrow. There wasn’t a tree for miles, as I saw it.
Thankfully, the hotel was quite literally next door to the terminal. I guess the people in Barrow valued convenience where they could find it.
Stella barely gave a passing smile to the older gentleman at the front desk before dragging me through the dimly lit halls of the hotel. I barely had time to make wise cracks about the carpet and wallpaper before she wrenched open a door on the first floor and yanked me inside.
“Stella, hold on,” I said as she shoved me onto the bed— which was surprisingly comfortable, by the way.
Instead of answering she tore off her bulky winter jacket, tossed her beanie onto the floor, and climbed on top of me. Once there, she batted my hands away and started unzipping my own coat. As she peeled back my layers I tried to grab her and get her to slow down.
The instant she got down to my turtleneck, she planted her face onto my chest. Then, her once-vigorous motions halted.
Suddenly, she took a deep breath. With a sigh that could probably inflate a balloon, she melted on top of me and wrapped her wings around my neck.
She shivered on top of me. “Oh wow. I’ve been waiting for this all week.”
I let out a laugh. “For what? My cuddles or my smells?”
“Yes.” She nuzzled against my collarbones and started kissing my neck.
“You don’t want to introduce me to all your new and exciting friends?” Not that I was averse to any of what she was doing.
“Mm, you can meet all those people later. Not now. This is ‘us’ time.”
“Got it. Do you have your full moon kit ready?”
Rearing up on top of me, straddling me groin, she undid the shoulder buttons of the sweater she was wearing. “I have more than that.”
The room was more than warm enough for us to start stripping down. She had some skin-tight undergarments that covered her wings up to her feathers, plus her legs down to her scaled talons. For the first time in a while, I had the chance to unzip her. This time, I was on top with her on her stomach.
“How do you even get this on in the morning?” I muttered into her ear from behind. One hand held me up while the other dragged the zipper down her neck to the tip of her sleeve. It was truly an inventive garment, but all the zippers were on the back.
Stella moaned happily into a pillow. “My roommate does it. Or my other coworkers. Stays on all day.”
“Doesn’t take that much to get it off you, though.” I started on the other side of her neck. Good God was her skin warm. As soon as the second sleeve was undone, I peeled the back of the garment off her shoulder blades and spine. Her skin was red hot and shining with sweat. She shimmied it down her waist to her hips, letting me thread her tail feathers through the opening, pull it down her legs, and reveal her adorable bubble butt. She bopped me on the head with a wing when I spanked her. Then we kissed and made up.
Next came my own clothes. She pulled me down next to her and got on top. Her loins were already wet. Small wonder considering the full moon, but it turned me on enough to tear off my turtleneck over my head while she unbuttoned my snow pants.
The moment I got to my undershirt off, hot breath enveloped my groin.
A grunt escaped my lips when I realized Stella already got through my boxers. “Hoh, man,” I breathed.
Stella looked up at me with mischievous brown eyes, holding my delicate member in her claws while her mouth lingered inches away. I didn’t have to wait long.
Her steaming breath preluded the boiling heat of her mouth as it wrapped around the head. My legs twitched as her tongue flicked it around and played with it like a toy inside her mouth. My mind went blank the more she worked me over. It was, after all, the second blowjob I’d experienced. She didn’t even finish me off the first time, too.
She didn’t ever take it all into her mouth, but her soft tongue and gentle sucking motions were more than enough to bring me to climax. I managed to tell her in time, after which she let go. Again. For a moment I almost wanted to yell at her.
Then, she hoisted herself on top of me and pressed her stomach against my near-exploding dick. With the organ pressed between us, she grinded against me with her navel until finally hot gobs of semen shot onto her midriff.
* * *
“Jeff, how many more you got in you?” Stella asked.
“Just give me a minute.”
We lay in the bed, sheets and blankets twisted and flipped every which way, chests pressed against each other. Sweat and various other bodily fluids drenched us from head to toe. To be honest, I was fully okay with that. At the same time, I was not looking forward to the cleaning bill we were going to incur.
I was still inside her from the last go at each other. Unlike most other full moons, I didn’t quite black out this time. She sat on her knees, straddled to either side of my torso, bent over on top of me. A happy coo sounded from her lips every now and then.
I wondered how much time had passed since I arrived. The plane landed around 1:00 PM. Time got away from us pretty quickly, though.
After a moment, I started to sit up. We both took in quick breaths at the sudden movement shifting me around inside her sticky nethers. I put my arms around her back and rested my head on her shoulder. She in turn held me tight and kissed my neck with her legs hooked around my lower back.
“This has been great,” I mumbled.
“I missed this.”
She giggled. “It’s only been a week.”
I pushed myself into her, making her gasp and tighten around me. “You were more eager to get started than I was.”
The blush on her face deepened, but her smile remained as playful as ever. “Shut up. Ready to go again?” She wriggled her hips with a smirk.
“Just a minute.” With that, I put my hands on her waist and pulled out of her. Her surprise at suddenly detaching from me left her muttered for me to put it back in.
Lowering her onto her back, making sure not to mess up her tail feathers, I yanked one of her legs up to her chest. Then the other.
“I’m surprised we haven’t done this before, actually,” I said. My hands moved from behind her knees to her talons. My fingers slipped between her digits as best they could. She was a different creature than me, after all. It was difficult to find a comfortable method of “holding” her talons like last time.
By the time I got it as right as it could and looked down at Stella again, her expression wasn’t as flirtatious or excited as I expected. Instead, her eyes were wide and watery, as if I just said her puppy died or something.
Then, she bit her lips and covered her mouth with her wings. “Damn it! I swear, you’re gonna make me cry one o’ these days. And nobody likes crying sex!”
“Is it happy crying, at least?”
She couldn’t maintain eye contact. “Yeah.”
I leaned in and kissed her, holding her talons against the bed near her head. Without another word, I lined up and entered her for the umpteenth time that afternoon.
Stella’s whole body tensed up, her vaginal walls squeezing me so hard I felt I couldn’t pull out for a moment.
“Fffffuck, Jeff!” Our respective digits held tight to each other.
Over and over again for the rest of the evening, she would not stop shouting aloud how much she loved me. My back, hands, and legs got some new scratches that day.
* * *
“Okay, try again,” I yelled into my phone.
The headset screeched, “Wh— I st— n’t hea—”
“Sorry, still too much static.”
She probably didn’t catch that. And if she was saying anything on the other end, I didn’t hear it. After a good ten seconds waiting for a response, the dial tone sounded through my headset. Just like the last three tries.
“Oh, come on,” I mumbled. Clutching the phone in my hand tightly, I let it fall to the floor behind me. It had a drop protector wrapped around it, anyway. The clatter of the device behind me was satisfying, but not enough to quell the little storm cloud around my head.
Seven thousand feet into the clouds was where our phones couldn’t connect. Hopefully Stella knew that it wasn’t my fault the call was dropped. The skies were certainly rocky enough to beat up a phone signal, I give it that much. So, I guess taking it out on my phone wasn’t the best idea. Sorry, phone.
At least it wasn’t snowing on top of it. That, and I was almost home for the night.
It was around 6 PM and getting dark as I circled Unalakleet. Control told me to wait a few minutes while some passenger planes were marshalled to the hangar. My fuel reserves were low; I even went through all four of the one-gallon tanks I had in a side compartment. The heavy weather ruined my otherwise decent mileage.
Ten minutes of circling the village and I was finally given authorization to land. I lined myself up with the runway. Everything but the tarmac was socked in with fog. Through it I saw a few lights from the hangar and outlying buildings, plus the blinking lights of the control tower.
Slowly and steadily I lowered my shaking plane down to the pavement. I heard the shudder of sound from my engine reflecting off the ground just before touching it. One wheel slid a little, but a bit of adjusting and I was on course again. Another successful landing. Papa Ray would have been proud.
Getting marshalled in, parking my plane, and signing off for the day flew by me in my daze. It was still only the 20th, but it felt like I was working for two months straight. As I stepped out of the office and into the biting wind, I spotted two figures under a street lamp. One was two heads taller than the other.
The tall one waved. “Jeff!”
Oh, it was Beth and Russell. The wind woke me up a bit as I approached her. “What’re you guys doing? Getting frostbite?”
She shook her head. “Nah. We were gonna go to his place and have some drinks. Been trying to invite people on their way out, but nobody’s biting. What about you? You in?”
Russell flicked a burnt-out cigarette into the snow. “What’re you doin’? The kid can’t hold his liquor.”
I raised an eyebrow. “I think you’re mistaking me for my girlfriend.”
“With your scrawny ass it wouldn’t be the first time.” He flashed a smirk.
Beth flicked him in the back of the head. It sounded like he got hit by a bean bag launcher or something.
“Screw you, I’m going. But only if I don’t have to pay for my beer this time.”
Russell rubbed the back of his head and gave me a toothy smile. “Only if you beat me in chess.”
It took us five minutes to walk to Russell’s cabin, five minutes to grab some booze, and two beers for him to put me in check.
I held a finger on top of my knight piece and looked over the board. “Seriously, why is that allowed?”
Russell coughed up some smoke from his cigar with a smile. “Ain’t my fault you still don’t know the rules of the game.”
“I don’t carry a chess board around with me wherever I go.”
“Neither do I, but I still know howta play the damn thing.”
“I refuse to learn the arcane rituals of this Ouija Board you’re calling a game. It’s like you’re just making things up as you go.”
“I’m thinkin’ I might as well. It’s still your turn, champ.”
“It’s still shut up.”
The old man let out a breathy laugh and slouched in his armchair. Last time I was at his place it was much less cluttered with stuff. It still smelled stale and a little moldy, though. Unlike my own modern cabin, his was made out of legitimate slabs of wood top to bottom. Knowing him, he probably cut down the trees for it himself. I was too afraid to ask, what with all the plaques of animal heads and gun racks on the walls.
At the very least, he kept the table clean for guests. In my case, it was cleared to drink beer and play chess. Why he kept a recliner right next to the dinner table, I may never know.
Regardless, I was in a tight spot. My knight could take out a rook or block his queen. For the life of me I couldn’t visualize all of his possible moves.
“Just flip the board, Jeff!” a voice called from the kitchen.
“I don’t need your help, Beth. I’m strategizing as we speak.”
Towering over me from behind, she reached down to the board and nudged my king piece one space to the left. “There. You’re out of check.”
I didn’t move. Only my face changed, from one of thoughtful strategizing to wrinkled annoyance. “Beth, please.”
“I’m trying to help you out, pal.” She fell back onto the couch with a dusty flop. It was the only piece of furniture that could contain her rear.
Russell scooted forward, mumbled, “Too late,” and moved his knight to slay my last bishop.
What a jerk. “I needed that piece.”
He smiled through his cigar. “’t’s why I did it.”
Beth spoke up. “Lookit your queen, Jeff-O.”
Hadn’t been called that outside work for a while. Nonetheless, I glanced at the possible moves for my queen. Unless my eyes deceived me, she had a solid diagonal to Russell’s side of the board. Right next to his king.
“Is off-sides a thing in chess?” I asked. Beth howled with laughter that shook dust from the rafters.
Russell, meanwhile, coughed up some smoke. “What are you, stupid?”
“Probably.” I moved my queen next to his king. “Is this check or checkmate? I can’t tell.”
Rolling the cigar around in his lips, he looked over the board. “Damn it, Beth Anne, quit helpin’ ‘im!” The oni woman’s laughter roared to life once more. And I suppose her full first name was Beth Anne?
“Nice.” I said. Leaning my chair back toward the couch, Beth and I slapped our hands together with a loud clap. Thankfully my palm didn’t sting as much as I thought it would. That was probably thanks to the time at the gym. “I didn’t know you played chess.”
She scoffed. “Who do you think Russell asked to play with him before your ass showed up? He asked you ‘cause he was getting sick of losing to me.”
Russell removed his cigar with one hand and took a gulp from his beer with the other. “Don’t bullshit ‘im. We were tied.”
“Twenty two to nineteen isn’t tied.”
The veteran grabbed some caramel corn from the bowl on the table and flicked a few at her. “Don’t you have somethin’ heavy to lift? What about yer kids? Ain’t they at home?”
Beth didn’t flinch as she took a sip from her mug. “Dan’s taking care of our little angels tonight. Tomorrow he gets to spend time with friends while I stay home. Don’t you worry your pretty li’l head ‘bout us, we got a system.”
Her mug looked like it contained half a keg of beer. It reminded me to finish off my bottle. Not like it would get warm, but the freshness only lasted so long. Luckily, we had a few more unopened cold ones sitting on the coffee table. It looked like Beth wanted those for herself, though.
By the time I finished my fifth the chess board was long gone. The cabin grew warm and humid from conversation and beer breath. It was cozy, in a half-drunk sort of way. Beth talked about her girls, mostly to herself, while Russell and I discussed work.
According to him we worked six days a week instead of the usual five because a pilot in Bethel got hurt. If he crashed his plane we would have heard about it as soon as possible. Thankfully there was just an accident with the ground crew moving his freight. Faulty equipment was the bane of us all, but at least he wasn’t offed by it.
A cloud of warm beer breath wafted out of my mouth after the final gulp. “Phew. Anymore of these left?”
“Yeah, in the fridge,” Russell said. Meanwhile, he balanced his own bottle on his belly, clearly still miffed at Beth.
“How many’ve you had, bud?” the oni asked.
I looked over the table at the bottles on my side of the chess board: still five. “I can still count, so, not enough.”
“Don’t drink it all, y’hear? I hafta import all this.”
That’s right, Unalakleet was sort of a half-dry community. Alcohol may be possessed and consumed, but not sold in the village. Russell probably got his from Anchorage or, knowing him, some specialty store in the Lower 48.
“I’ll be sure to leave a tip,” I said as I took two more bottles from the fridge.
Beth rolled her head back to look at me. “Maybe you should simmer down. We got work tomorrow. If you wanna get shit-faced, which I fully understand by the way, you can come over to my place Saturday night. Lord knows we got more booze than this old man.”
Said old man shrugged at her comment and took the beer I offered him.
Clinking our three drinks together, I said, “You’re inviting me over a lot these days.”
She shrugged and downed the rest of her mug, ending with a sigh. “Not like you got anythin’ important back at your place now that your bird flew the coop.” Racism. “It’s only been, what, a week? A week and a half?”
I could only sigh at the reminder that Stella left eight days ago. “I have plenty to do at my place. Internet, movies, whatever. Took up guitar over vacation, actually.”
“Oh, nice. But if you got so much to do, then you don’t hafta drink so much. Too many people try that up here. Not healthy for ‘em.”
“This coming from an oni?”
Her brow flattened. “Racist.”
I stuck my tongue out at her. Beth did the same right back at me. Russell took a puff from his cigar with a shake of his head. The exchange reminded me that Beth was only a few years older than me. Thirty? Thirty one? However, even with our years of life combined we didn’t come close to Russell’s.
My phone vibrated with a short jingle before I could sit down. A text message.
“Uh oh, that her?”
Without answering her I checked for myself.
It was indeed from Stella. Just two short sentences: ‘My everything hurts. Send help.’
A smile cracked on my lips and held the device in front of Beth. “Hey, check it out.”
She chuckled softly. “They’re putting her through the ringer, huh?”
“Guess so.” Never thought I’d see the day when she would complain after a workout. Then again, Barrow sounded like a hell of a place to work, so it was probably warranted. “I actually tried calling her today. Didn’t work at all.”
Beth chucked her beer. “Yeah, some days just don’t work out. Sorry, champ.”
Then again, texts were getting through just fine. “I think I’m gonna head out.”
“Aw, gonna go home and talk to your lady love?”
“Well, yeah, I thought that was obvious.” I grabbed my coat from the back of my chair.
Our favorite old man grumbled, “Where’s that tip you were goin’ on about?”
“Put it on my tab.”
He sighed. “Fine, but I’m addin’ interest.”
* * *
Bundled up in front of the radiator at home with a bowl of oatmeal, I took the opportunity to text back. ‘I’ll give you the massage of your life next time I can visit.’
Depending on the weather, our texts took anywhere from one to ten minutes to reach each other. Sometimes one of us ducked out of mobile service completely for the whole day, only to suddenly get five messages at once in the evening.
A few mouthfuls of watery oats later and my phone went off once more.
‘Yessssss,’ was all it said. Hopefully I hadn’t lost my touch at massages or she’d be disappointed.
I drew a blank on how to respond. Both of us were still new at texting, so carrying a conversation was hard. Wracking my brain for something, I started writing the first thing that came to mind: food.
‘What are you eating for dinner tonight?’
I looked down at my bowl after sending it. It seemed I had a habit of putting less effort into cooking without her around. The box of oatmeal sat mostly unused for a long time. It was more than a year old, actually.
My phone went off again. ‘Some leftover chicken with bbq sauce.’
Sounded more like fast food than anything. Then again, she seemed too tired to try to cook anything. ‘Nice. I’m eating oatmeal.’
Well, not gonna lie. ‘Yeah, it is.’
I finished up the last few gooey bites and brought the bowl to the sink. Mom and Dad always taught me to wash a freshly dirtied dish right after a meal so it’s easier to clean later. Unfortunately for me, I neglected the part where I actually clean them later. A stack of yet-to-be-washed bowls and plates sat next to the sink.
My hands were pruned and the dishes were done by the time my phone went off again. It took longer than the last one.
‘My schedule’s the same as last week. Hope you can fly up this weekend!’
If memory served, most of her training days were eight hours long. Sunday was her only day off. It was similar to my schedule, except mine had hours of standby that were completely controlled by circumstance. If some guy up in Koyuk didn’t get his weekly milk delivery because someone messed up his order, off I went.
‘Wouldn’t miss it for the world.’
A few minutes later, ‘I’m going to bed now. Love you! <3’
Never did I expect a little heart in a text message to make me feel like a pile of jello. A happy pile of jello. Probably sunshine-colored.
My fingers worked overtime to get my next text to her as quickly as possible. ‘I love you, too. Talk to you tomorrow!’
The moment I sent it I regretted not sending her a heart of my own. At the same time, for some reason, I felt aroused. Apparently sending me hearts was all she had to do to get me all hot and bothered. Any sort of connection with her, even long-distance and tentative, was enough.
In hindsight, all the sex we had before she went to Barrow was a bad move. I grew to expect it whenever the need arose, but after she left there were few available outlets. Every day without her I felt a thirst I couldn’t quench. After so many months of bedroom merriment it was a hard habit to break. Personal time in the bathroom curbed my appetite, but only just. If we could meet up and screw each other senseless like before, then fine. But I knew there would be weeks we wouldn’t be able to meet.
I kept telling myself to stop being such a dependent little bitch boy, and it seemed to help. Imagining Stella say it with her wings on her hips helped me more.
Back in reality, the radiator deemed the room of suitable warmth and shut itself off with a sputter. Weather in Norton Sound was calmer that night than normal, leaving my cabin in cold quiet. I took a moment to look over the room. Without Stella’s clothes and magazines lying everywhere it was much easier to see the floor. I let her have some of the pillows and dishes, too. Things just felt cleaner than they had been for a long time. Like a fresh start— or at least the start of something different.
Things certainly felt different.
Different save for the guitar propped against the wall. My desk no longer felt complete without the instrument next to it. More often than before, I sat in my chair to practice instead of use my computer or go through mail.
Better keep up that new tradition. Grabbing the neck of the guitar and plopping down in my chair, I hoped to learn something new to show Stella when I finally saw her again.
* * *
After reading his goodnight text, I slapped my phone shut and had the weird urge to rub it against my cheek. I never had a phone when I was a kid, so I didn’t know it was so damn useful. When I tried to stretch my wings above my head, all I got were bunches of pain in my chest and back. A shiver ran up my back and I plopped on my bed. Everything tingled and it was terrible.
Every day for training I flew nonstop for two hours to the training grounds, practiced takeoffs every minute for ten minutes, practiced midair bail-outs from twenty feet up, carried a hundred pounds in my talons up and down fifty feet, and finally flew two hours back to HQ nonstop. If I knew things were going to be so damn hard I wouldn’t’ve stayed inside for so much of February. Even if Jeff was getting prettier every day.
The worst part was Sheryl doing everything right along with me without breaking a sweat.
She said that after a full month of the stuff I’d been doing, she’d move me on to more in-depth stuff. Stuff like learning advanced first aid, how to tie knots, how to situate a “passenger” that needs to be pulled out of a tough spot, and how to stay calm in case I had to bail out into water. Sheryl said other girls have quit the probation period before finishing the part with the water. Was not looking forward to that.
But if it wasn’t hard, it wasn’t worth it. That’s what I kept telling myself. If I fell down, I thought about what other people would’ve thought if I was supposed to be getting them to safety or something. A clumsy, inexperienced harpy trying to save people? That’d just freak them out! Like, “Who let her in Search and Rescue?” or, “She can’t even do that?” or even, “Our rescuer’s shit at her job, we’re all gonna die!”
There was no point in complaining if it meant getting better at my job.
“You done texting yet?” my roommate asked.
Looking up, I saw that Muriel was done reading and had gotten into her white (and surprisingly frilly) PJs. Or was it a nightgown? I just wore shorts and a t-shirt. Muriel had bags under her eyes and looked about ready to murder someone. Two weeks into my lease and she still acted like I kicked her in the face whenever I saw her. I could totally take her, though.
Well, maybe if I wasn’t sore as all hell.
Right, she asked a question. “Yeah yeah, I’m done.”
She raised an eyebrow. “At least turn the volume down on your ringtone. It’s annoying as hell hearing that every two seconds.” Jeez, it wasn’t that often. When she turned back toward her side of the house she mumbled, “Damn city kids are all the same.”
“Hey. This’s the first phone I’ve ever had, and I only got it to keep in touch with someone. Sorry, but if you didn’t wanna hear me using it, you could’ve said something sooner.” And I might not have known how to turn the volume down.
Muriel scoffed. “Guess your parents didn’t teach you good manners. I shouldn’t have to ask in the first place. When someone’s reading, you stay quiet for them.”
“Well, I didn’t have parents. I had a fairy nun.”
Freezing mid step, she tilted her head and turned to face me again. “A what?”
I itched my nose. “A fairy was my caretaker growing up. And she was a nun. So, a fairy nun. Named Maria.” It took me ‘til halfway through talking to realize how weird it all sounded. “She was magic.” You’re not making your case any better, me!
Muriel stood in the kitchen with her weight moving from one leg to the other. She looked like she was thinking really hard about something.
“Huh. Whatever. Goodnight.” That was all I got before she went back to bed.
I turned off my light and tucked myself in, too. For real, though, it still felt weird not having someone else lying down with me. Just last year I was perfectly comfortable by myself. Then Jeff had to come and get me used to sleeping with him. Jerk.
Before settling down, I reached under my bed. It seemed like the best place to put the shirt I stole from Jeff. Eventually I fished it out from some dirty clothes I kicked under there. It was just a plain old black shirt with the logo for an old car shop on the front. I think it was a size too big for him, too. If I wanted I could’ve worn it like a dress.
I buried my face in the shirt and took a deep breath through my nose. With a sigh, I plopped back onto my pillow and closed my eyes. Bitchy roommate aside, it was good to be home for the night.