Aviators Chapter 14

The plane landed in Barrow a little before 5:00 PM; hours later than usual, no thanks to some nasty weather. Strangely, the sun was still up. Wasn’t Barrow supposed to have very little sunlight throughout the year? Or was that two months of night and two nights of day? Clearly I needed to get those little facts straight about my home state. Either way it would probably set in a few hours.

She told me to meet her at the waiting area again before heading to the hotel together. Just like last time. It really didn’t feel like just a couple weeks ago. Inside, a sparse few people came to meet the other passengers. There were some friends, maybe a dad or two, and an older couple. No Stella.

First thing, I called her. The ring went on for days while airport employees and passersby milled about the waiting room. I got her voice mail and hung up.

Next came the hotel. The very polite gentleman from the front desk— Derek, I want to say was his name— answered. I asked if anyone had checked into room 104. Nobody had.

I started worrying, and spent the next few minutes sifting through our paragraphs of text messages until I found the one snippet holding her address. After asking some people who lingered in the waiting room where I might find the address, I got pointed in the right direction. There weren’t many places to get lost, after all.

The trudge through the snow had me looking around at the people, the places the things. Stella didn’t give me much of a chance to see at Barrow last time I visited. Compared to her recent overeager attitude, her lack of response was a bit jarring. So were all the box-shaped buildings. Did they just deliver three dozen erector sets when they established the place?

Her place, once I found it, looked just like the other box houses around it. The only difference was the color: a nice shade of sky blue. Although, some of the paint was peeled off from the constant winds.

A few raps on the door and I got some approaching stomps and grumbles in response. It soon unlatched, revealing a sharp dark eye in the opening.

“What do you want?” the girl inside asked. Her tone was so flat I thought it was a recording.

Best put on a nice smile, I guess. “Uh, hi! Does a harpy named Stella live here?”

The eye, which was already sharp, somehow narrowed further. “Who’s asking?”

“My name’s Jeff Osborne. I’m a pilot in Unalakleet.”

The door swung open, revealing a blackbird harpy around my height. I think Stella might have mentioned this girl off-hand at some point. Her name was Mary, I think? And wasn’t she supposed to be mean?

If she was, her big happy smile told me otherwise.

“Why didn’t you say so? Stella’s told me a lot about you!” She extended a wing toward me. “I’m Muriel, and it’s great to finally meet you!”

Though thrown for a bit of a loop, I shook her wing nonetheless. “Hi. So, is Stella working today or something? I tried calling her but she didn’t pick up.” There was no need to tell her that Stella and I planned to go to the hotel.

Muriel’s demeanor slumped. “She’s inside. Her phone’s probably on silent or something. I asked her to do that when she moved in. Sorry about that.”

“No problem. Can I come in?”

“Yes! Yes, come on in.” Muriel held the door open and ushered me inside.

Instantly that nostalgic scent of pine reached my nose. It was mixed with someone else’s, but that was fine. Things were changing, after all. Have to take the new as well as the old.

Stella’s side was on the right. It wasn’t difficult to tell with all the clothes and magazines scattered around the place. Their little house basically used the kitchen as a divider between their two territories. The mess was only present in Stella’s.

Muriel tapped my shoulder. “She’s sleeping right now. Here, want me to take your coat?”

Sleeping?

“Thanks, I got it.” I slid my arms out of my sleeves and draped the coat over my shoulder. Trying not to step on any magazines, I tip-toed over to the lump on the bed as quietly as my boots would allow. It was like playing hopscotch with how few pockets of floor could be seen among the mess.

At her bedside, I gazed down at her sleeping form.

Stray hair lay sprawled across her pillow, the rest tied in a ponytail left loose no doubt from her frequent tossing and turning. As per usual, her mouth sat open slightly and leaking a small stream of drool. In addition, her tank top was all wrinkled and pushed up to her chest, almost showing her breasts. Her wings both sat fully extended to either side of the mattress and forced me to maneuver around them a bit.

Kneeling down, I took off my gloves and extended a hand to touch her cheek. “Hey, baby,” I whispered.

Her cheek was hot. Or maybe my fingers were just cold. She mumbled something to herself and turned her head toward my hand. Soon my palm sat between the pillow and her cheek as a smile grew on her lips.

She nuzzled my hand and muttered, “Hey.”

I leaned in and kissed her forehead, to which she sighed happily. “If you were tired, you could’ve told me.”

Her eyes squeezed shut and finally opened. “Yeah. I’m sorry, man. I don’t think I’ll be real fun today.”

“It’s okay.” Although, it felt like we wasted the hotel reservation. “Having trouble sleeping?”

With some effort she rolled on her side to face me and used a wing to keep my hand where it was. “A little.”

“Sore?”

“Really sore.”

Tugging my hand away, she hesitantly let me have it back. “How about that massage I promised?”

Her big blushing smile was a definite “yes.”

We had no warm towels handy, so I washed my hands with hot water before getting started. Some minutes of setup later and I hunched over her naked back. Muriel didn’t seem to mind, and decided to start making dinner. I think I smelled fish. Excellent.

Much like previous massage sessions, Stella’s back was full of tight spots. “Ow! Ow ow ow!”

“Jeez, you’re as wound-up as ever,” I said. Before she could respond I jabbed a thumb into a knot halfway down her spine.

“Ggh! Don’t ask if I’m stre-eh-tching enough. Because I am!”

“Your training’s gotta be brutal, then.” I moved back up to her shoulders and pinched her traps between my thumb and forefingers.

A pleasant chill wriggled down her back. “Oh~ yeah. I mean, uh, yeah. It is.”

It always gave me some pride knowing my massages made her feel so good. However, I did expect the evening to go very differently. With Muriel in the same room, we couldn’t do much even if Stella was up for it. All my daydreams of the things I would do to Stella were wasted until the next time we could meet up. If anything, the frustration made me massage her a little harder than I otherwise would have.

“Alright,” I said. “Could you turn over?”

That got Muriel’s attention. It was hard to miss her widened black eyes when they suddenly fastened onto us.

Stella sighed and heaved herself up with a grunt. “‘Kay.”

I could almost feel Muriel’s eyes boring a hole in my head. “I’ll just do your stomach today.” Well, I said that, but she certainly didn’t cover up after plopping on her back. Her physique was as fit as ever. It was only a few weeks of training, but I could already see some results in her abs and pecs.

“Damn.” I was mostly unaware of my speech at that point. Same for my eyes, which traveled along every delicate curve and cut of her form. The definition of her abdomen definitely tightened since I last got a good look. We didn’t have much time to savor each other beyond our genitals last time. It took some effort not to kiss her stomach with it displayed to me in such a manner.

Her eyebrows flattened. “Hey.”

I coughed and moved my hands to her sides to feel for tension. “Sorry. Just got distracted.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Was she embarrassed? After all the times I saw her naked? Or was it Muriel’s presence that made her blush so hard?

Quietly, so Muriel couldn’t hear, I said, “So what’s her deal? Didn’t you say she was mean to you?”

She blinked a few times to keep awake. “So, uh, she just doesn’t like meeting new people. When you’re not ‘new’ anymore she’s actually a real nice person.”

“Huh.” Must have been a black bird thing. “What about me?”

Her eyes avoided mine. “I talk about you a lot.”

There was a jolt of adrenaline at the frankness of that statement. My hands moved along her skin, but there were fewer knots to be found. Soon just my fingertips dragged across the soft yet firm divots between muscles. Up until that point I tried to keep things from getting too erotic, but the presence of her scent, the heat of her skin, and the look in her eyes made it particularly difficult. Our eyes met. Then we were all smiles.

“Food’s ready.”

Right, Muriel existed. It was amazing how easily I became preoccupied with my girlfriend.

As I got off the bed, Stella grabbed the tank top she was sleeping in earlier and slid one folded wing through the arm holes at a time. We had some trouble looking at each other as we helped ourselves to some baked salmon Muriel took out of the oven.

The meal was spent with idle conversation among the three of us. I managed to gather that Muriel was around Beth’s age. Every time Stella and I took part in light flirting or playful shoulder bumps, the black bird remained silent and averted her eyes. She probably had some issues of her own that I didn’t want to deal with.

After dinner Stella insisted I spend the night. Muriel didn’t mind. Though I had to cancel the hotel reservation— for a fee— it was the most restful night I had for a while. She fell asleep as soon as her head hit my chest.

Despite my gripes about not getting laid that weekend, at least I got to see her.

And eat fish.

I love fish.

* * *

It was Monday evening, just before bed. As Boss promised, he let me work only a half day after flying down from Barrow in the morning. I was in the air about as many hours as any other work day. Although, I paid for the flight back home. My hours of hauling freight essentially let me break even for the day. Then again, it wasn’t like I was saving my pennies for anything.

After checking the weather again, I reclined on a pile of pillows with a beer in one hand and TV remote in the other. It was too cold to sit around in just my undershirt. That was probably a good thing, since I’d look like an abusive husband if I did.

My laughter at the sitcom I was watching felt louder than usual. After turning down the volume I found that the wind died down since I got off work. The newfound silence felt more welcoming than I thought. Although, the lack of another’s activity still left a hole in the back of my mind.

With the weather cleared up, at least for that evening, I thought maybe I could get a signal through. Pausing the show, I grabbed my phone and dialed my girlfriend’s number. There wasn’t much to talk about, but I was bummed out at not seeing her for so long. More than two weeks of no physical contact and I was starting to feel a bit sluggish without her.

The tone on the other end went through several rounds of ringing.

An electric clatter tensed my ear. “Ahem. Hello?”

Ah, the sweet pitch of her voice sent nostalgia through my head. It was artificial sound, but I knew instantly it was Stella on the other end. The audio quality was still a bit scratchy, though.

“Hey, baby,” I said.

A moment passed before a wistful sigh filled my ears. “Hey, man. What’s up?”

I sighed, too. “Just wanted to hear your voice. How was work today?”

“Heh, I told you in my texts already. It’s still hard as balls.”

Well that was silly of me. “Right. Uh. What about tonight? Anything going on?”

“Not really. I’m too beat up to go outside and play around.”

“Ouch. Sorry.”

Scratchy sounds echoed through my speaker. Paper, maybe? “It’s fine.” She sighed once more. This time, she almost sounded sad. “I miss you, though.”

Right in the heart. “Yeah. Wish you were here.”

“We can fly in the weather up here, but what about you guys?”

My heart dropped. “Yeah. I might not get the chance to fly up this week, either.”

“Ugh, that sucks soooo much. I don’t wanna wait that long.”

“Me neither.”

She paused again. “You caught me at a weird time, actually.”

“What do you mean?”

There was silence. “Jeff?”

“Yeah?”

“Would you— ahem— uh. Sorry. This might sound weird, but, Muriel’s not here right now.” Just hearing her say that turned me on. “So would you, uh, t-talk dirty to me tonight?”

My heart skipped a beat. If she was asking what I thought she was asking, then I didn’t know if I could deliver. Taking a deep breath, I said, “Give me a sec.”

She muttered me a meek “Okay.”

I lowered myself down from the bed. Through the clatter of the closet door knob she waited patiently on the line as I retrieved an article of clothing. It was in one of the smaller drawers I never used to keep it from getting overpowered by the scent of laundry detergent. Seldom did I find myself resorting to the tiny tank top I smuggled into my dresser.

The fabric was nearly weightless compared to my winter clothing. Fragile, even. Her scent lingered within its threads.

“Stella?”

“Uh, um! Yeah?”

“I’m only wearing a turtleneck and cargo pants right now. Not too sexy, I’m afraid.”

She giggled, but managed to lower her voice to a silky bedroom tone. “Nothing that can’t be fixed.”

“What about you?

“Hoo~, I already started before you called. My shorts are on the floor. Up top, I’m wearing your old shirt.”

A shiver drove up my spine and through my groin. “We should get that shirt off right now.”

“C’mon, you could at least kiss me first.”

“Oh, I’d do it. Hands running through your hair, grabbing a bunch of it at the back.”

“Mmm.”

“Do you still look like a movie star with that hair?”

She let out a laugh. “I’d bite your lip ‘cause you’re not paying attention.”

“I’d get back at you by putting a hand up your shirt. I doubt you’re wearing a bra.”

“Nah, it was dirty. I took it off as soon as I got home. So whatcha gonna do with your hand, buddy?”

“Massage your sore spots. You’re hurting, right? I’d massage your boobs after that.” It felt silly talking like that.

Stella drew in rough breaths through her nose. “Yeah?” She sounded muffled— probably smelling my shirt.

My breathing was getting heavier, too. “Kiss your neck and ears. That shirt’s coming off. Now.” I figured I probably shouldn’t stand in the middle of the cabin with a tent in my pants and headed for the bathroom. With the phone on speaker mode I set it down on the counter. I also took the time to find a condom for, uh, “tactile aid.”

We continued the foreplay, which lead to imagined oral. The hum of her voice and breaths in my ear grew sexier by the moment. She mentally removed my clothes while I removed them physically. When we got to the main event I swore I could feel her in the room with me as I took deep breaths of her scent from her shirt.

Soon there were no more words, just heavy breaths and mutterings of our names. Her voice grew in intensity, saying my name over and over until she finally let out a cry that begged me to be with her. Hearing her in such throes of passion pushed me over the edge as well. Tremors shook my body along with the most satisfying orgasm I had since I last saw her.

The white light of the bathroom shined on my pathetic self as I caught my breath. Truth be told, we didn’t steadily build up as we usually did in person. It was over far too quickly.

Stella spoke up first. “Oh, wow, why didn’t we do this sooner?” Her breathing was still hot and heavy.

“Guess we weren’t lonely enough.”

A moan. “Damn it, stop that. I want to see you, Jeff.”

I slumped against the bathroom wall. “I know.”

She sniffed sadly before saying, in a muffled voice, “I love you.”

Right along with what I assumed she was doing, I took a whiff of pine needles and sweat from her shirt. “I love you, too.”

“Hah~. Are we gonna be okay?”

Thinking for a moment, I took a deep breath and said, “We’re doing fine.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. I’ll come up to see you even if I have to kill Boss for another day off.”

An echoing laugh sounded from the other end. “Isn’t it ‘even if it kills me?’”

“Don’t jinx it.”

“Ha, right.” There was a pause. “Fly safe, Jeff.”

“You, too.”

“I will.” She let out a massive whine of a yawn. “Oh man, was I always this tired?”

“Get some rest, okay? We can talk again tomorrow.”

“But I— well. Fine. Alright.”

“Goodnight.”

“Goodnight. I love you, man.”

“Before you go, I have a question.”

“What’s up?”

“I get why you called me ‘man’ before, but you kept calling me that even after we started dating. Just wondering why you don’t use a cutesier nickname.”

Her laugh echoed on the other end. “I was hoping you’d never ask that. It’s because you’re my man.”

Red pumped into my cheeks at her words and a hand involuntarily covered my face. “Jeez. That sounded embarrassing.”

“Ugh. Just shut up and say you love me!”

“I know. I love you, too, Stella.”

Neither of us wanted to hang up first.

* * *

Days passed and the weather remained adamantly difficult. Flying through it in my Cessna was difficult enough, but the usual five-hour trip to Barrow would have taken twice as long if things kept up like they were. Every day I caught myself chomping at the bit for the weather forecast. The 29th of March passed with another storm tossing planes across the sky. There was no chance to visit. Another week of texting and phone calls later, and Friday April 4th arrived. It was the day I bought my ticket to go north.

The weather only a little stormy the moment, my ticket to Barrow purchased, and the hotel room very nearly reserved. If the weather stayed the same until Monday I’d have been a happy camper.

With the skies merely overcast I could see every hidden nook and crevice of the terrain below. Frozen globes of dew sparkled in tree branches. Half-melted rivers were beginning to show liquid water flowing through them again. Untouched brown earth could be seen peeking from beneath the melting tracts of snow.

I took a deep breath through my nose that filled my lungs to capacity. The air was so clean and brisk I felt I could snap it apart like a piece of thin mint.

Lunch hour was approaching and, for once, I had the opportunity to eat in Unalakleet. Pizza from World Peace sounded grand. Expensive, but grand.

During a lull in the flight without much to see below, my phone went off in the central console. I answered it despite my plane wobbling slightly without both hands on the controls.

Speaker mode: on. “Hello?”

A scratchy, feminine voice filled the plane. “Hey. Jeff?”

Bubbles filled my stomach and lifted me off my seat. “Hey, baby. What’s up?”

She chuckled softly. “Just on break right now.”

“Working hard?”

“Oh yeah. Joints’re cracking all over. What about you?”

I gazed out the window. Below was a ridge of snow and greenery so bright it might have damaged my eyes if I wasn’t wearing sunglasses.

“Just flying to Koyuk. Hoping Spring comes early and kicks out the storms.”

“Man, I hear that. I flew in the storm last week. Not fun.”

“Jeez. I hope your trainers know what they’re doing.”

“Pfff, she’s a ton stronger than me.”

“Whoa, what? I want to meet her now.”

“I’ll introduce you when you come up next time.”

Excitement mixed with the bubbles in my stomach. “Speaking of which, I got ticket and can reserve the hotel when I get home tonight.”

After a pause, a static sigh echoed through the cabin. “So, uhm, about that.”

The anticipation drained from me; I knew that uncertain tone of hers.

Her voice caught in her throat. “Ahem! Sorry, but they asked me to move my day off to Monday. There’s this whole thing about every flyer’s schedule having to be staggered around the week so there’s always someone available to help out with stuff and I’m just a trainee but they need help all over the district so they had to move my day off over by one and—”

“Okay, I get it.” My hands unconsciously raised as if to keep her from talking. Then I put them back on the controls when I realized she couldn’t see me. That was one ticket north wasted, with probably many to come.

“I’m sorry, man.” I could have sworn I heard a distinct thump from her end. Perhaps her head hitting something? It seemed like something she would do.

Despite the anxiety in my gut I did my best to put on a smile. “Don’t beat yourself up about it.”

“But you’ll have to change schedules again! I know how you hate talking to Boss about work.”

“It’s okay.” My hands gripped the controls a little tighter as a sudden gust shook the plane.

“I’m sorry.” Her voice got choppier with static.

I adjusted and leveled out my wings. “I know. It’s not your fault.”

“W-want me to call you back tonight?” I could taste the hopefulness in her voice, and it only served to dampen my mood.

“I’ll think about it.”

Another pause. “Okay. I love you.”

I sighed. “Love you, too.”

Silence hung in the air before a sharp clatter from her side ended the call.

* * *

“I’ll be honest. I’m exhausted.”

“What, from this?” Beth motioned at the barbell I held above me. “Keep at it and you’ll get used to it.”

I set the bar on the rack and flopped onto the bed of the apparatus. We were the only ones in Unalakleet at the gym. “Not this. Stella.”

She grimaced. “Uh oh. That bad, huh?”

“I’m flying six days a week, then fly for most of my day off to get to Barrow. That’s if she’s even available.”

“Gotta do it if you wanna see ‘er, though. And it’s not either a’ your faults for having shit schedules.”

I sighed. “I don’t know. I want to visit— I really do— but she sounds so tired every time I see or talk to her now.” Saying “I love you” at the end of every short phone call or text conversation began to feel tacked-on.

I grasped the bar with both hands and nodded to Beth. She adjusted her posture to spot me.

As I lifted the weights, she said, “I don’t wanna be the bearer of bad news, but you guys might need a break. Sort out what you wanna do, you know?”

It hurt to think about, but maybe she had a point. The season just started, so both of us were busy. Once summer hit we’d probably have more time, but that was months away. How would we even go about having a break, though? It wasn’t as if either of us had many other prospects up in Alaska where the population density is less than two people per square mile. Very few women close to my age were open and available.

I mentally kicked myself at the thought. Was that the only reason we started dating? Because there wasn’t anyone else available? No way were we both so vain. Or were we just impatient? But for what? To settle down? That definitely wasn’t it. Both of us wanted to work, and both of our jobs took up a lot of our time.

Maybe I was just impatient to be in love. Heaven knows I wanted it while I was in school, but that was just the hormones doing the talking.

“Impatience” felt key, regardless. On the ground, all I felt was impatience. Impatience to go home and see her, to touch her, to talk to her without 500 miles separating our voices.

Instead of her, all I had was a lonely cabin and an empty bed. Besides her, was my plane all I cared about?

Red-hot frustration bubbled up from my gut.

I let out a frustrated grunt and haphazardly pushed the barbell upward with the next rep. A lightning strike shot down my right shoulder as the metal weights crashed against the rack.

“Whoa! Jeff!” Beth called, grabbing the bar with one hand and taking it away from the bench before it fell over. “What the hell? You were doing good!”

Sitting up on the bench I held my shoulder in the opposite hand. With a roll of my arm joint another flash of pain along my shoulder made me wince. Beth set the weights on the floor and asked me to take my shirt off so she could take a look.

“Jeez,” she muttered. I winced again as she kneaded my joint between her fingers. “You gotta be careful around stuff this heavy.”

I rolled my eyes. “Sorry.”

She nudged my joint around in her fingers a few times, asking every once in a while if it hurt. “I’m no doctor, but you might wanna lay off the barbells for a while.” Well, thank God for that. “Can you move alright, though?”

As she let go I leaned toward the bench to grab my shirt. The wrenched arm cried out, but I clenched my teeth and bore it before retrieving the garment.

“I’m fine.”

“Can you fly with that, though?”

Probably not as well, but she didn’t need to know that. “It’s fine.”

“Come on, wanna tell boss about it? I bet he’d clear you for another day off if you catch him before he leaves.”

If only he was so easy to convince. “I think I’m done for the day. Thanks for the help.”

Beth looked at me with an air of disappointment. Then, a sigh. “Fine, fine. I get that you’re frustrated right now, but you can’t let it get to you. Tell you what. Tomorrow’s Saturday, and you never took me up on my offer last time, so let’s get you some good hard liquor in your gut.”

“Eh, I’m not really a hard drinker.”

“Oh, cut the crap and live a little. It’ll take the edge off. Just come to my place after work. Dan and my girls’ll be glad to see you, too.”

After a moment I let my head roll back. My gaze traced a long a crack in the ceiling, not particularly thinking about anything.

I sighed. “Alright, I’ll be there.”

A fanged smile spread across her lips. “Good. Now let me show you how to stretch that shoulder, or it’ll really start hurting tomorrow.”

“Alright. Thanks.”

“No problem, pal.”

Thought she kept me for about ten minutes of stretching, it didn’t help.

In fact, my shoulder joint felt worse on the way home. Beth said it wasn’t dislocated, but I messed it up bad. She shouldn’t have to worry about me, and she didn’t have to know that it hurt to open the gym door with that arm.

When I got home and closed the door behind me, I shuffled the snow dust off my coat and tossed it on the floor. Though most of the mess was composed of Stella’s stuff while she was there, I managed to fill the cabin with some mess of my own. Instead of an ocean of clothes, however, I left a pile of mess around the closet, desk, and bathroom. It was still more open than when she lived with me.

Though I once more took back my home from her and her stuff, it didn’t feel like home without it anymore. Recalling my delight at walking into her new house, and seeing her garments tossed every which way across the floor, kept me from feeling the same about the state of my cabin.

As I did a few times per week before bed, I took a shower, got dressed, and fished her shirt out of my dresser. The folds of the fabric creased across my face as my eyes fluttered shut.

A grind of vibration sounded from my desk, followed by my ringtone. As I passed it on my way to bed, the screen blinked “Stella” across the face.

For some reason I felt no urge to pick it up. The wadded cotton in my hands felt more real than any connection I could hold just talking to her. I knew how the conversation would have gone: we’d say hi, chat about the day, talk about nothing, and say we love each other as we hung up.

I let it ring while I climbed up to bed and turned off the ceiling light. Soon enough the ringing stopped, soon breaking the silence again with a beep. She left a voice mail. I simply held her shirt against my cheek and rolled on my side. It would be there in the morning. Several thousand feet of altitude would improve my mood to listen to it tomorrow.

Letting myself fall asleep with the scent of pine needles and sweat, I wondered how much longer I planned to stay young and stupid.

* * *

One minute I was in the sky holding a crash test dummy by the shoulders, and the next I was on the ground looking at the cloudy sky. My breaths felt like they stopped short. The thick flying suit practically strangled me. At the same time, the snowflakes fell so slowly compared to when I was flying. It felt good watching them.

Did the dummy’s leg get caught on a tree branch or something? Did I dip down too low? I already forgot. I just wanted to rest for a few minutes.

Saturday. I was probably missing the annual glacier melting betting pool in Unalakleet. Jeff almost won last year, actually. He missed the flag falling down by a day.

I felt pretty shitty about dropping that schedule change on him yesterday. Holy crap did I want to call him again, but that would have probably just pissed him off. And I didn’t want that. I talked with Sheryl about keeping me with Sundays off, but she didn’t budge. So I was pissed off, too.

He not answering his phone last night didn’t help. That jerk.

“Stella!” Sheryl called from the top of a pine. Her weight shook off layers of snow from it. She wore an SAR flight suit like mine, just designed for the big dumb eagle lady size. “You just murdered the victim of a snow machine breakdown. Are you happy?”

Looking around, I spotted the mangled dummy in the tree branches to my left. Its arms and legs were all crumpled up in different directions like a puppet without strings.

With a breath I shouted, “No, ma’am! I’m not happy!”

“Then get off your ass and in the air, or I’m sending you home! Need I remind you that you already have one of your three strikes?”

She meant business whenever she brought that up. Dusting the snow off myself, and really starting to feel the strain on my back and wings, I flapped my wings. It took some scrambling and snow-spraying, but I reached the dummy and landed next to it in the tree.

“Now what do you do first?” Sheryl shouted from the branches of the tree next to me.

“Check for bodily injury.”

“Correct. Next?”

“Check for consciousness. Check for heartbeat. Confirm stable grasping area on shoulders and arms. Uh, before I go, report latitude and longitude to HQ.” While I went through the list out loud I put my ear to the dummy’s chest, looked it over for any broken parts, and felt at its shoulders and arms. “If everything checks out, check for possible exit routes from location.” I looked through the breaks in the trees above and around us.

“Good. Now extract the victim from the branches.”

With a gust of wind that almost knocked me out of my tree, Sheryl spread her wings and beat them until she was airborne. It felt like her wingspan was twice mine sometimes. When the swaying of the trunk stopped, I grabbed the shoulders of the dummy with my talons and spread my own wings.

The pain in my wings and chest nearly had me falling down again. Clenching my teeth and pulling through the canopy and found a good height where I could coast. Sheryl was already a good half mile ahead. Watching her flap her huge wings like some majestic royal bird lady gave me the energy to lift myself a little higher.

* * *

‘Work is real hard today. Wish you were here, Jeff. :(’

With a click of the green button I sent the text.

It was around 5:00 PM, so the sun was still up. Summer was the time of year with 24-hour sunlight north of the Arctic Circle, so it was just another couple months until then. I wondered how I was going to sleep with all the light. Shirt on my face? Blackout curtains? It might be cool to see the “midnight sun,” though.

Sheryl and I sat in the little hut on the training grounds. It was on a wide open snow field with a single flag pole sticking out of the little building. She told me it was used as kind of a temporary shelter in case people nearby got stuck. Or, if we found them and the weather was too rough, we’d take them there instead of town. Actually, the wind was blowing hard enough that it was getting harder to fly.

All the shack had inside were two cots and a bench, plus a radio. Mr. Dummy was in the top cot. I posed him to look like he’s in a photo shoot. I wanted to draw on his face, too, but Sheryl wouldn’t let me.

“Getting some heavy weather in the south,” Sheryl said. She was at the radio listening in on reports and other stuff.

My phone pulled itself back into its holster. “’Heavy’ how?”

“It’s a storm, but it could be worse. They just have some heavy snow, some gusting winds. The usual. We’ll be getting some of that in a few hours.”

It took a few seconds for me to really think about where the storm was. Jeff worked on Saturdays, same as me. “How’re the pilots doing?”

She glanced at me with a tilted eyebrow. “They’ll let me know if anyone in our district needs help.”

“Got it.”

Speaking of letting people know things, Jeff still hadn’t answered any of my texts from the morning. My first one was the usual good morning text, which he never responded with his usual “Good morning have a good day I love you!” shtick. My stomach tightened up when I thought he was probably still sore about me cancelling on him.

“So, uh,” I started, but froze for a second when Sheryl turned to look at me. I swear, her eyes could pop a balloon just by looking at it. “Ahem. So, there’s no chance I could go back to having Sundays off?”

“No. And stop asking me. I don’t control the schedules of everyone in North Slope, so I can’t do anything about it.”

“But you can call someone higher up and—”

“Stella, I don’t want to hear this from you again, you hear? Concentrate on your job and you’ll be a lot happier.”

My mouth opened to deliver the smackdown, but I couldn’t find the words. The air I planned to use to tell her not to tell me what to do just sorta leaked out at the end of the breath. I couldn’t come up with anything to say against that.

Because, well, maybe she had a point.

Half my stress came from work, but the other half came from trying to keep me and Jeff together. Even on days he could show up, we weren’t even together for that long.

On the other hand, he told me himself that he was lonely before I moved in with him. He was probably hurting something fierce about being alone. But if that was true, why the hell wasn’t he answering my texts? I gave him my number for a reason, and that was to call me! If he’s such a lonely guy, why won’t he call back today?

I looked at the wall next to me and head-butted it. The planks shook a little, but didn’t really budge. All I got out of it was a look from Sheryl and a bump on my forehead.

I mumbled, “I don’t know what to think right now.”

Sheryl put the radio headset on the table. “Well, hitting your head probably won’t help.”

“I know.” Looking up at the clock on the wall, it was about time to head home. I needed to get back before 7:00 if I wanted enough time to stretch, eat, and sleep. “Should we go?”

“Yeah, let’s head out. The dummy can stay here today.”

* * *

The weather got a lot worse by the time we landed in Barrow. Sheryl told me the storm from the south was making its way across the rest of the state. Norton Sound already got the worst of it, meaning we were in for a real beating. I made a mental note to put up the window shutters, but it wasn’t like I’d remember.

The scent of melted snow and wet metal equipment hanged in the background while we headed for our lockers. The best part of my day was coming back to the warm shower in the locker room. There weren’t a lot of us in there (maybe four or five), but Sheryl and I were the only harpies.

Usually I didn’t like super-steamy locker rooms, but it really helped the aches and pains from training. And I got to show off a bit. Sure they were all older ladies in SAR, and Sheryl beat me out on muscle, but damn I knew how good I looked. Might as well show off sometimes.

While I scrubbed in one of the shower stalls, I realized I’d much rather show off to Jeff. But the jerk won’t even return my calls. Or my texts. Or anything. Yeah, we’d have a harder time seeing each other with the new schedules and junk, but that didn’t mean he could just blow me off!

My scrubbing got harder the more I thought about him and his whining. “Wah, I’m lonely! Wah, long-distance relationships are hard!” Well, no shit! Don’t take it out on me, you ass! I’m the one you’re trying to stick with in the first place!

The scrubber in my claws slipped out of my grip and fell onto the tile at my feet.

And then my phone rang in my bag.

My eyes widened as I shut off the water and grabbed my towel. Diving for the bag I fumbled around with it until I got the zipper open and dug out my rattling phone. I didn’t even look at the caller ID before opening it.

I was all too hopeful. “Hello?”

“Hi, Stella?” The voice on the other side was gravely and old. Definitely not Jeff.

I might’ve been excited before, but the one calling wasn’t who I was hoping. “Boss? That you?”

He chuckled. “I’m not yer boss anymore.”

“Fine, whatever. What’s up?”

There was a pause, followed by a sigh. “So, you may want to sit down.”

He didn’t have to ask; the weight that pulled my gut down did it for me as I sat my butt on the bench. “Boss?”

“I’m calling because your name’s on Jeff’s list of emergency contacts, along with his parents.”

“Emergency contacts?” My brow furrowed.

“Has he contacted you since 6:00?”

“Wha– no! C’mon, get to the point. What’s going on?”

He probably had to do this before. It sounded practiced. “As of 6:30 earlier this evening, Jeff has not answered our calls via radio and his cell phone for more than thirty minutes. Sorry to say, Stella, but with his location unknown and no word on his status for so long, he has been declared missing.”

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