“Where was he when you last heard from him?” I put the phone on speaker and set it down on the bench. My locker was already open, so I just grabbed my flight suit and started putting it back on.
Boss’s voice echoed around the locker room. I’m sure the other girls heard him. “Uh, he was on his way back from Bethel. Had one more stop before comin’ back home. Why?”
My heart pounded in my chest and sweat bristled around the back of my neck. “I’m flying down. Might take me all night, but I’ll get there so I can help look for him.” A list of things to get ready ran through my head. I usually did that in the morning, but it needed to be done now.
“Wait. Ain’t you all the way up in Barrow now? Don’t be stupid— the sun’s already down.”
“I can make it. I’m gonna look for him. Keep me updated on the search down there.” Ugh, Muriel usually helped me get my suit on in the morning. I hopped on one talon trying to fit the other leg through.
His grumbling filled the room with static. “I want him found, too, but I’m not stayin’ up all night just to keep tabs on this for ya.”
Once I got my legs through the holes, next came my wings and the giant holes in the side. “Then tell me who is, because I have to get going!” I said that a lot louder than I intended. Already the ladies who were on their way out were whispering to each other. Too much attention. They didn’t need to know what I was doing.
“Boss, I’m waiting. Who’s in charge of this search?” Silence. “Boss?” After a click, a dial tone drowned out all the sound in the locker room. He hung up on me! I zipped up my flight suit, slammed my locker shut, and grabbed my goggles. The sooner I left, the better.
As I stomped through the double doors that led to the office, someone stood smack in the middle of my path. Sheryl, standing two heads taller than me, closed her own flip phone and fastened it to the holster on her shoulder. She was still in her own flight suit.
“Where do you think you’re going?” the eagle asked. Her eyes were narrow and angry.
But I was off the clock. I didn’t need to answer her. “Just leaving. See you later.”
When I tried to walk past her, she put one of her huge brown wings in front of me. “In your flight suit?”
Oh, come on. “Yep! Thought I’d change at home. Night!”
When I tried to duck around her other side, she stepped in front of me. “I just got a very interesting phone call.”
That was definitely Boss. I didn’t have time for this. “I’ll bet! Tell me about it tomorrow.”
“You’re not going out there tonight.”
Just like that, a bit of my held-back worry escaped. It took everything I had not to cry. “Look. Sheryl. I-I don’t know what to tell you. My—” My breath caught in my throat and I had to take a second to keep it all bottled up.
Sheryl lowered her wings. “Calm down and tell me what happened.”
My own wings fall to my sides. “My boyfriend’s a pilot. Th-the best friend I’ve ever had— the guy who’s always supported me, no matter what— he’s out lost somewhere. I’m seriously f-freaking out right now and—”
“You want to go find him?”
“That’s right. Now come on, let me go.” When I tried to pass again, she stepped in my way. My breathing picked up from the combined worry and frustration. “Sheryl.”
“Tell me. How far away is he believed to be from here?”
“What? I don’t know, he’s somewhere around Norton Sound. I think?”
She raised an eyebrow at me. “If he’s in that area, he’s more than four hundred miles from here. Do you really think you can fly that in this storm after a full day of training? At night, no less?”
What she said was logical. I knew this, but my mind kept doing backflips, telling me to get past her. All the worry and doubt mixed up into a mud that sat in the pit of my stomach. It bubbled and weighed me down until I hugged my wings around my middle. The office was warm— they needed to keep it that way so the cold wouldn’t freeze the pipes— but I was shaking.
While people whispered to themselves on their way out of the office, Sheryl knelt down to look me in the eye.
“I can’t let you go, but I can let you into the control tower.”
“What? Why’d I—”
“So you can get updates about the search as soon as we do. Now come on.”
Even as she walked on ahead of me I wanted to run out the door and get in the air. But I followed her. The control tower was up some long flights of cold stairs. I was too fidgety to care about the temperature, though. My head was in kind of a haze. Through the windows I saw the whole airport. The lamps outside showed the snow was blowing horizontal across the whole tarmac.
I recognized Muriel when I saw her in her office chair at a computer, though. Her hair was done up for work. The rest of the control tower personnel were probably home already, with all the empty consoles and computers all over the place. She stood up and said something about “the news” she got from other ASARA control towers to Sheryl. Guess everyone in the state had to stay up-to-date on things.
Sheryl said some things to Muriel. I didn’t listen. Instead I looked through some text on her two computer screens. She got an email a little bit ago about Jeff going missing. They didn’t show me anything I didn’t already know, though.
Someone touched my shoulder. “Stella.”
“What? Wha—” I turned my head to see Muriel. She looked worried, but still smiled. It almost made me mad that she could smile at a time like this.
“I’ll get us some blankets and stick around after my shift’s over, okay?”
I just nodded. Nothing else she could’ve done, really. Company was nice, though. She went downstairs while Sheryl manned the computer. Eagle Lady had to sit sideways in the spinny office chair or her tail feathers would’ve split against the back.
We sat in silence for a bit while Muriel’s talons scraped against the steps on her way downstairs.
Sheryl took a deep breath and blew the air out her nose. “For the record, Stella, I would have wanted to fly down to find him, too.”
I sat on the floor against the wall. “If you want to make me feel better you’d call up a pilot and get him to fly us down south.”
She turned her chair toward me. “Going out half-cocked would only end bad. There are people looking for him. Good people who’ve gone through your whole training regimen and more. They know this state and its terrain better than most pilots. If they, of all people, can’t find him, then…” she paused, “well, let’s not think about that.”
Oh yeah, that made me feel loads better.
A few minutes later and Muriel came up the stairs with some thick blankets over her shoulders. To be honest the minutes felt like hours. An old-fashioned clock on the wall ticked at every second that went by. I couldn’t hear Muriel over the mechanical sounds as she spread a blanket over me.
Each helpless moment just brought me closer to tears, but I never reached that point. The tick of the clock made the wait torture. There was the hum of computers, the occasional tick-tack of Muriel’s claws on her keyboard, and sometimes a howl of wind from outside. But most of all I heard my breath and felt my heart beat in my chest.
Heavy sick feelings grew in my stomach. Hugging my wings around my middle to keep from throwing up on the carpet, I noticed something. While my wings were pretty good sized, I was just tiny. Never in my life did I think I was too short or small to do something. I mean, I could always flutter up to something if it was too high, or glide over buildings if I wanted to get somewhere faster.
But in front of me was a wall too tall to fly over. Feeling at myself through my flight suit, I realized how frail I really was. Just a tiny, thin, fragile person.
With all those thoughts going through my head, an hour passed. 8 PM.
The exhaustion from the day of training soon caught up to me, but I refused to fall asleep. It got to the point that I couldn’t even tell the time anymore. My head nodded up and down, trying and failing to keep upright.
My hip blew up with sound and I stood from the floor with a start. It was just my phone. As I reached for it I realized I was shaking.
“Stella?” It was young girl’s voice.
“Oh! Judy? That you?”
She sniffed. “Yeah.”
“Hey, hon. How’re you holding up?”
“Um. We’re all sitting around the house right now.” I wondered for a second if I was on speaker or something.
I was glad to hear from Judy, but felt real nervous all of a sudden. “Did the airline call you guys?”
“Yeah, a while ago.”
Guess we didn’t need to tell each other what it was about. “How’s everyone else?”
Judy paused for a second, probably to look around the house if those were footsteps I heard. She spoke softly, as if trying not to disturb anyone. “Matt’s listening to music with his big headphones by the window. Mom and Dad are sitting at the table with the other phone.”
“What about you?”
“I was outside. The snow’s melting here.”
“Oh, I haven’t seen your house without snow all over it. I bet it’s pretty.”
“What’s up, Judy?” I only just then noticed how watery my eyes were.
“The snow’s not melted up where you live, is it?”
My stomach dropped. She knew just what to ask. “It’s starting to melt. Our hills get real green in the summer. You guys should come up and visit during summer break.”
Before I could try to comfort her any more, some voices echoed in the background. After a bit of scratching and chatter the sound evened out.
The hell was that? “Judy?”
“Is this Stella?” It was an older woman’s voice. “This is Gwen.”
My heart skipped a beat. Jeff’s mom. “Oh! Uh, I— hi.” Judy must’ve gone somewhere else. For a second I wanted to ask Gwen how she was doing, but that might have been too awkward for me to handle.
She sighed. “Hello.”
Muriel and Sheryl looked like they didn’t want in on the call.
I said, “We, uh, haven’t really talked one-on-one before, have we?”
“No, I suppose not.”
“I’m sorry about, uh, this whole thing that’s happening right now. You gotta be worried sick.”
I heard a sniff through my phone. “I’m over the initial shock. Now I just have to wait for the news. One way or the other, I can’t do a thing about it.”
A weird feeling of relief dripped over my heart. “Yeah. Same for me.”
“Well, you’re in search and rescue now, right? Why can’t you do something about this?”
“Wha— it’d take me hours to get down there in this weather, and all the pilots who could’ve flown me down are off duty!”
“You have your own wings, don’t you? Fly down to him yourself!”
“Yeah, but that’d just take me even longer! If I was the only one who could find him, wherever he is, he’d be dead by the time I got there! I can’t do a thing! I—” for the first time that night my eyes got watery and tickled my nose. “Do you think I want to sit on my ass right now?”
“Then why are you? Go out there and find my son!”
We both were screaming by then. “I can’t! I’m sorry, but there’s nothing I can do from here! We’re not the only ones who want to find him, either! There are tons of search and rescue all over the state!”
“Typical harpy. You live with him for almost two years and then just fly off somewhere when the urge hits you. You should have thought about this earlier— you have no right to regret being so far away!”
My mouth hanged open for a second. “Whoa, what? Don’t you dare take it out on me! You called me asking for help.”
Sheryl and Muriel finally started looking away from the computer and at me. I was too far gone to care, though.
“I just… I don’t know what to do.” Tears flooded my eyes as I slumped against the wall. I didn’t want her to hear me crying.
While I carried on she took a deep breath. “Well, I— if you hear anything before we do, I hope you call us.”
I sniffed hard. “Yeah. I will. Would you mind giving me back to Judy?”
“Well, I suppose.”
For the next half hour I talked with Judy. We chatted about her school, my work days, and made tentative plans for the summer. I just hoped her first time coming north wasn’t just to see me.
* * *
All good things come to an end. That phrase was first and foremost in my mind.
My eyes stuck shut with a warm thick fluid. Blood, maybe? It was my first sensation upon finding consciousness again. Dripping across forehead. Up or down, though? Wait, only one eye was stuck. Where’s the other? My left eyelids fluttered open. Still dark. Left eye was fine, but what about the rest of me?
I was sitting. Good, I think. Left arm, flopped across the armrest. Couldn’t raise it. Not a finger. No pain. Cold, though. Right arm? Numb. The socket should have held something in it. At least the rest of the arm was there. Dislocated? Could have been worse.
I could wiggle my toes. What did that tell me, exactly? No spinal damage, for one. Nice. For two, my feet were still there. Miraculous.
My first waking breath brought in air almost too cold to breathe. Icicles in my throat brought chilled oxygen into my chest. Once brought to full capacity, pain pierced past my ribs and into the tender lungs beneath. Right side. Was something wedged in there? Arms wouldn’t move. Couldn’t check. Took another breath. Nothing but daggers in my side. Getting worse.
It took a few seconds to feel my ears ringing. The more of myself I felt, the quieter the ringing became. Soon it was replaced by the howling of wind. I didn’t notice the bite of swirling ice against my cheeks until I could hear it tearing at my skin.
A low groan bubbled from my throat and grew into a scream as the pain set in, only to be drowned out by the storm. The cutting air came through the shattered windshield and lashed at my senses, prying me from the bowels of oblivion.
I glanced around my cockpit with what little mobility I possessed. Dark, save for a lone light in the center console. All glass shattered. Windshield gone. Harness? Intact. Was I level with the ground? The soggy blood soaked through the shoulder of my coat told me yes. Good.
That’s right, I hit my head. Left temple. With some effort I lifted my left hand to my face. Along with the bright red liquid was a brown crust of frozen blood, which flaked from my gloved fingers like dust. Heat leaked out of me through every cut, scrape, and gouged wound.
Survival kit. I needed it.
Luckily my pilot seat could still slide back with a few shoves. I kept the survival kit under my seat. It looked like a giant red lunchbox. A lunchbox filled with everything I needed. I kept it there so that the metal bars and structure of the seat could protect it from a crash, if I survived a crash.
It took me a moment to remember what exactly happened. Everything was still blurry even when my eyes managed to focus in the dim cockpit. I was in the air, coming in to land. Cuathbaluk needed something picked up. Then what? The weather was pretty rough, but nothing I couldn’t handle. As long as I had my plane in the air, I could handle it.
Too cold to remember. No idea how long since the crash. Needed those Mylar blankets. Energy bar, too, maybe? Energy’s good. Creates heat. Or does it use heat, like, when it’s digesting and junk? I couldn’t remember little details like that.
Reaching under my seat, my fingers grasped at air. My breathing picked up. No matter how far I bent over to reach under my seat I found nothing. Eventually I twisted around to look at the rest of the plane behind me. The chassis was crumpled like a tossed-aside soda can. The metal underneath my seat was among the bent-out-of-shape structure. If I squinted I could see a reddish box near the back. It really flew.
But the real question was this: could I move that far?
I unlatched my harness with clumsy hands. Only after removing it did I feel the bruises it left from the crash. It was probably what broke my ribs. If they were broken, anyway. Then I tried lifting myself from my seat.
Some combination of gasp and scream sounded from my frozen throat. The daggers of pain lodged in my side seemed to twist with every movement. They were indeed broken. My one good arm strained to hold me up on its own, core muscles be damned, as I lifted myself from the seat.
I rested my forehead against an ice-cold console on the ceiling to get my bearings and catch my breath. Each inhalation sent a lightning bolt of pain through my side while every twitch sent something similar through my right leg. Shallow breaths seemed to lessen the pain, but made my vision wobble. Had to hop on one leg to keep the hurt one from making me scream. Blinking through the pain, I turned to retrieve the survival kit.
My boots splashed liquid ice onto my pant legs and I finally saw the chassis was half flooded with water. As I sloshed toward the kit I wracked my brain to remember what happened. I was too far inland to be on the beach. Must have crashed on a river. The ice cracked? Memories still ablur.
Judging by the smell, fuel was probably leaking everywhere. Flares might not have been the best plan; in the darkness I couldn’t tell the difference between melted snow and what might have been droplets of plane fuel.
Picking the kit up from the waterlogged cargo area, it felt far too light. A turn in my hand and the zipper was revealed to be ripped open. The contents could be seen strewn throughout the ice water if I squinted my eyes. I couldn’t tell the difference between the blankets and the half dozen other square-shaped blocks of survival supplies.
A chill drove up my legs. The water level was deeper than I cared to notice in my daze. My otherwise waterproof boots received frostbite-inducing fluid over the top. I could already feel it soaking through my three layers of socks. The supplies looked deeper in the water than I already was. A harpoon or something would have been great. Then I could spear everything that looked important and reel it in.
I took my time getting back to the pilot seat. Every step jostled my right side. Though it was only a few steps it felt like I walked a city block. Back in the seat, I managed to yank my right arm through the sleeve of my coat and hold it against my stomach. My other arm hugged it close and somehow reached a more-or-less comfortable position.
A glance at the console in front of me reminded me of something else I could do: switch on my locator beacon. Did I have anything else, though? The radio was clearly broken— or at least not receiving power— so that was out. Where was my phone? I rolled my head back in embarrassment when I realized I set it in the cup holder in the center console. After such a crash it was long gone. It might even have been outside.
Reaching for the hard orange capsule in the dark, I felt around for the switch. Was it on the left or the right? The top or the bottom? A forever of searching and my gloves caught on the switch. In the darkness I saw a tiny red light start blinking. Good.
When relief washed over me, I caught myself. No. Don’t relax. Stay awake.
Thick cold leaked down the back of my neck. It was as if the chill from my head and toes were fighting their way through my body to meet in the middle. That’s how it started. I had to take classes about it to reach the safety standards of the airline. Various facts and bits of information floated to the surface. I made a list of them during the classes, after all.
Hypothermia set in just a few minutes after exposure. And I didn’t know how long I was unconscious.
There’s actually a lot of stuff that goes on when you start freezing to death.
1. After exposure, core body temperature slowly lowers. Wounds make it worse. They make openings for heat to leave. Every thirty minutes your core temperature lowers by a few degrees. Homeostasis, the bodily functions that keep your insides hot, is as fragile as glass when push comes to shove.
2. It becomes harder to stay awake. Your very blood starts to slow and thicken. You need high body temperature for a reason. The heat of a desert. But even the boiling sands of deserts don’t last long after sunset. People freeze to death there, too.
3. Fingers and extremities go first. Blood can’t reliably reach it anymore with the meager beats of your little fist-sized heart. Fingers. Earlobes. Nose. Cheeks. You can’t warm them anymore. After several more hours of exposure they become rotten and useless. At least the nerves are numb and destroyed so you don’t feel the pain, at least not until later when they start falling off.
4. You stop being scared. Not enough energy or blood flow for your brain to keep that up. You’re scared at first from the encroaching freeze— an indescribable stillness— but then you cease to care. You can’t do anything about it.
The opaque cloud of breath from my lips got smaller.
You can’t escape it, after all. If you’re somewhere with sub-zero temperatures, you can’t get away from it. The majority of the planet is fill with this. This absence of heat. A narrow band around the globe, the Equator, is the only true place for humans. Without reliable shelter, cooperation with your fellow sentient beings, and some major survival capabilities, the rest of the world just kills you.
My heartbeat was slowing along with my thoughts.
That led me to the next point. Had to keep awake— keep tallying off. I had to keep those thoughts going— have a conversation with myself. Keep warm.
I rubbed my arms together through the layers of my coat. More movement came from my shivers than from my own voluntary shifts. The buttons on my coat rattled against themselves and shuffled frost down my front. It felt like no time passed between the time I woke up and the time I noted the fourth point. No clock.
5. The hallucinations start a couple hours after exposure. You see things you don’t want to see, and you don’t have the wherewithal to be afraid of them. You see things you want to see, yet you can never truly touch it. Even if you know the symptoms of hypothermia you can’t fight it; it just happens. The mind can’t function properly with your sluggish blood bringing it not nearly as much oxygen as it should.
Time speeds and slows at the same time. A thought occurred to me. Could I try singing?
Blinking snowflakes from my eyelashes I tried to think of something. A song I knew. It didn’t matter what, as long as I could hum the tune or sing the lyrics. It’d help me stay awake. Maybe something I’d been listening to recently? Guitar was a pretty big thing lately.
The next big shiver brought one to mind. I meant to play that song for Stella the next time I saw her. My singing was getting better, too, and all the repetitive mistakes on guitar made me a better novice guitarist.
My lips stuttered out the first words.
“I-I found God in a catalytic converter,” deep breath,
“In Topeka on a Monday… n-night.”
I really did love that band.
“I taste b-blood every t-time I thhink of summer
If that’s true, I’m in for quite a treat.
‘C-cause I’m begging for the sun… in a mid-Missouri winter
Waitin’ desperately to get… outta to-own.”
Tears coated my eyes. I squeezed them shut. I could almost feel them freezing over already, picking apart my eyelids with remorseless frost. The next lyrics scarcely reached my lips.
“N-n-no… you can’t keep… a good man down.”
* * *
“Why did I even want to fly in the first place?”
In my hypothermic state I started talking to myself.
I shivered. “It’s n-not even my plane. It’s Papa Ray’s plane. His spare plane. He didn’t let me fly his own personal fuckin’ plane.” Blowing air out through pursed chapped lips didn’t help, but the variety helped pass the time. “Didn’t even wanna do it first time. Just sounded cool. Freaked the hell outta me. Old bastard made me stick with it.”
Somehow I found the range of movement to tilt my neck to the side and pop it. Sickening cracks that beat out even the storm in volume.
“Why’d I keep goin’ after ‘e fucked up an’ died?” My lips barely moved anymore. “Did I feel sorry for ‘im? Why? He was a fuckin’ badass air force pilot ‘n shit. Prolly regretted nothin’. This stupid plane can go to hell. To hell with Alaska, too! After I get outta her I’m goin’ home t’ Nevada. Find a nice little car shop an’ work on cars all f-fuckin’ day.”
The only reason I took the job in Alaska because I thought it would be an adventure. Boy was that a mistake. A tiny little cabin, six-day work weeks, temperatures cold enough to freeze you to death. What possessed me to come to this God-forsaken state?
I turned my head toward the co-pilot seat.
“S-Stella, what’re you d-doing on my plane?” I asked the woman next to me.
Like something in my peripheral vision she sat in the co-pilot seat, a blur against reality. I could make out a smile. My neck was too stiff as I tried to get a good look at her, to no avail.
But she was there.
Not hundreds of miles away, walls of work hours and radio waves between us, but there. In my cockpit. Smiling. Was that a smile? Her shape indistinct, she sat motionless.
“Don’t mess w’th my radio again. Boss’ll get mad at’chu.”
Twisting in my seat, the numbed pain in my chest a mere blanket over my consciousness, I reached my good arm towards her.
The seat was empty. She moved into the water behind me. Where was she going?
Water? Water in my plane? No, that couldn’t be right.
“No no no, stop it.” I put a hand over my eyes. “Not there.” I learned this at work. Hallucinations. Would knowing be enough to keep me safe from it?
As I shook my head as if my brain was half-filled with water, my skin bristled. All over my body, down to my very bones, heat tore at my flesh. My breathing hastened and my gloved left hand limply grabbed at my coat buttons. Like my skin would melt off my bones the heat suffused my being.
My mind held on to its last shreds of rationality, screaming at me in my head.
Stop it. You know what’s happening. The heat isn’t real! It might feel like it’s melting your bones but don’t take off your clothes. They’re the only things keeping you alive. The cold is the enemy; the heat isn’t real. Thousands have died to this and you won’t be one of them because you know not to listen to what is not real.
My hand continued to tear away at the buttons, but the numbness kept my fingers from grasping a single thing. I don’t think I remembered how to remove it in the first place.
Good. Forget it all. You need these clothes. Forget how to do everything but breathe and beat your weak little heart. You need this. She needs you to need this.
I lacked the energy to keep trying.
She was still right there. As I burned alive in my own head she still smiled the smile that brought frozen tears to my eyes. It told me to come with her. To touch her and feel her.
I drew in a breath and rested my head against the back of my seat, gazing sidelong at the apparition. Stella just kept smiling.
The more I looked at her the less my reason kept me away. With both arms I lifted myself from my seat. Hours ago I might have stopped from the pain and the reason. But my whole body was numb and burning anyway.
With shuffling feet and trembling fingers I stepped into the water and reached toward the only comfort I could see.
* * *
I didn’t dream. Although, I didn’t expect there to be any kind of great beyond in the first place. Just black. At times, white. If I still had eyes I couldn’t tell if they were open or closed. No hallucinations, no melting skin, no feeling at all. Just numbness.
My core a faint flicker of life, I waited for the moment I would die.
Before I passed, I began to wonder. How many regrets did I have?
For one, I never got to see Matt and Judy graduate high school. Perhaps I could have convinced Mom that Stella wasn’t so bad. If I knew I was going to die, I would have gone to a nice quiet bar somewhere with Dad. We never did that before. It sounded like something a father and son could do. On the other hand, maybe we could have simply kept our silent understanding of each other.
I never did take up Beth on her offer to drink with her, either. Made me wonder if her kids were happy in Unalakleet.
It might have been nice to talk with Natalia a bit. She probably had some great stories to tell. The only time we spoke was a little too awkward for my tastes. Never really knew a dragon before. Would have been interesting, to say the least.
Then there was Stella. To list all the things I wanted to do with Stella I would have to write a book. I’d fill it with photos and lists. Too bad I didn’t have a camera, though Matt might have lent me one. Traveling the world with a harpy didn’t sound so bad. Flying around, working odd jobs for fuel, meeting new people, and seeing new places.
For a moment, I thought I reached a better understanding of the harpy race. Not even Stella stayed in one place for more than a couple years. Always moving, always changing, and always looking for the next big thing in their lives.
I thought I could keep up with her. I mean, I was the one who took her to see my family. I was the one who took her to New York to see her friends. I was the one who wanted to go on the date Nell set up for us. Yet Stella always surprised me. She didn’t need me to carry her; she could have gone anywhere on her own. When she left, I was a mess, not her. I was the one who chased after the relationship.
If I lived through to the next year, she probably would have met someone else anyway. Someone who lived in the same town, spoke with her in ways I couldn’t, pleased her in ways I couldn’t, and didn’t whine about being lonely when she left.
But she stuck with me. Who knew how long that would have lasted, but she put forth incredible effort to stay with me. Right? If anything, she would have broken it off because I pushed her away. On my final day I refused to pick up the phone. It was the last time I could have spoken with her and I refused it outright.
But she still loved me during my final hours, right?
I could pass peacefully if she did.
My family loved me.
My friends enjoyed my company.
Please, someone tell me this one woman loved me.
However, that one thought remained steady in my mind: all good things come to an end.
* * *
Among my thoughts, a whirr of noise scratched at my skull. Unprocessed and unrecognizable fuzz. It was less that there was nothing to see than I no longer had the ability to perceive. Death would certainly be boring if a sheet of black and white noise were all there was to it.
A twitch of feeling came next. Oblong and electric along my right arm. Like a jolt from hitting my humerus bone. Another felt like a hand painlessly reaching into my chest and down into my gut.
Was I still dying? Hypothermia can take a while. No need to wake up. I was already dead, after all. Nothing to do but fall deeper.
Voluntary motion tugged at my eyelids.
My mind awakened at the feeling, searching around for a method of making it happen again. But my muscles were dead, right? No need to try to move them. Yet I tried.
I felt at my eyelids with every fiber of effort my dull consciousness could put forth. Like frozen-together sheets of ice they would not open. Trapped inside my own mind, they were the only things I could feel. As if held shut by the weight of the world they refused to open. Yet I felt the potential energy in them regardless.
Something deep in my core set alight again.
With that faint shimmer at their backs my eyes opened to the brightest lights I had ever seen. Next came numb touch and feeling. Most of me was wrapped up tight, both in bandages and taut skin. My blood flowed like molasses through my veins.
Were those tubes on my stomach? No, wait. They jutted out from below the skin. A liquid flowed into me in on and out through the other. Felt like I took a big drink of water or something.
My perception of time was different from those around me. People— probably doctors— came to my side in blurs, looked over some clipboards, and left faster than I could attempt to speak. In these kinds of things the patient usually woke up fully aware. It was nothing like that. For a time I held a smoldering fear that I would stay like that forever— forever damaged— but the occasional shred of speech I could understand kept it at bay.
Doctors and nurses circled around me throughout my time awake. They warmed my limbs, changed the stomach cords, and checked my responsiveness. That was all I could gather from what I believe was hours of treatment. I felt little change before falling asleep again.
I didn’t experience any sleep. It was more like I blinked my eyes and traveled half a day forward in time. Nothing I perceived seemed to stick, either. The doctors told me their names, but I forgot them the next minute. My first day awake passed and felt like nothing happened.
Another day later and the tubes came out of my abdomen. I learned the doctor’s name and remembered it. My fingers wiggled beneath the layers of comforters and heated blankets. The food went from lukewarm liquid to semi-solid. My hospital bed inclined so I could sit up.
And my family showed up.
Four familiar figures stepped through the door to my room and crowded around me. I didn’t know who to look at, so I just smiled. My sister clutched my good hand and my brother set a gift down on my bedside table while my mother wept. Dad and I shared a confirming nod. We Osborne men weren’t very complex with each other. Mom cried and yelled some things at me and carried on before they left at the end of visitor hours.
They said something about staying for the rest of the week, but my internal clock was so screwed up I didn’t know how long that meant.
As my consciousness slowly regained its momentum my empty head filled with thoughts. A grated word of greeting to the nurses was seen as an incredible breakthrough. At the same time whisperings of frostbite and physical therapy filled the sterile hallways.
One day, after a number of them I couldn’t count, I managed to look out the window to a sunny day. My mind could process the light and filter it into images, but not the underlying meaning of my seeing it.
With a crisp click the door to my room opened. “Good morning, Jeffry.” It was a nurse. I watched her walk in, but didn’t feel like saying anything back. She waited for me to, but gave up after a few seconds. Then I noticed something in her hand. “You have a phone call. Do you think you can talk right now?”
I nodded and reached my good arm toward her to take the off-white phone. After a deep breath and a short coughing fit, I put it to my ear and said, “Hello?”
A painfully familiar voice shouts from the other end. “Jeff? Is that you?”
My breath caught in my throat. “Stella.” Tears welled up and I felt myself unable to sit up properly anymore. The nurse put a hand on my shoulder but I batted her away. She took that as a sign to step out of the room for a few minutes.
“Are you okay? Please say you’re okay!”
For a moment, I simply sobbed into the receiver. “I’m okay. Oh my God Stella, I’m okay.”
She sobbed right back. “I-I couldn’t leave Barrow. The wind was blowing so hard and the snow was falling and I— I’m so sorry, I should be there right now!”
“It’s okay, Stella. Don’t be sorry, just—” Breathing became much harder with the tears flooding my eyes.
“I’m so stupid! I want to be there, Jeff. I want to see you!”
“I know. I want to see you, too. And we will. We will. I’ll fly out and—” Then I remembered exactly why I was sitting in the hospital bed. “My plane, Stella. My plane’s…”
She hiccuped. “I know. I’m sorry, Jeff. I’m so sorry.”
Gone. Years of practice. More than five thousand flight hours. Hundreds of shipments across Alaskan airspace. Everything I did on that little Cessna felt like something in another life. For years my eyes only experienced the world from the sky. Everything on the ground paled in comparison. Everything except one person, and she was too far away to see on my wrecked wings.
For a time I listened to Stella’s static sobs and stared bleary-eyed at my legs. My right leg was shorter than the left. In the space of a moment my heart sank and regained composure. As a pilot, massive aspects of my life were destroyed, yet I couldn’t find a reason to weep with regret.
I lost nothing that couldn’t be replaced.
“F-funny question,” I stuttered into the receiver.
“Do you know any good positions in Barrow?”
My eyes flooded. “I’ll need a new job after this, won’t I? Can’t fly without a plane. But I’ll get a new job and,” I could barely speak, “I-I’ll save up the cash for another clunky old plane.”
Stella took a deep breath. “Yeah. I’ll… I’ll help you look! There’s gotta be tons stuff that needs doing in Barrow. And think of all the planes for sale in Alaska!”
“Right. I’ll fly up the first chance I get.”
“No! No no, you don’t have to! I’ll come down to see you. J-just get better first!”
Her words, “get better,” echoed in my mind. My eyes and the back of my throat tickled, and I managed to cough out a laugh. “I just need to stand up again. I’m alive, Stella.”
“Yeah.” A soft whine escaped her. “Oh God, I’m a mess.”
“I love you. Never forget that.”
Our quiet sobs didn’t end until the nurse told me our time was up.