Aviators Chapter 5

A silver cloud rushed by, a whimpering mass of vaporized air in our wake. Nothing could stop us as we tore through the sky. Golden iridescence bordered the storm clouds above us, ushering out a storm that just came through the mountains with some final moments of splendor. The hum of my engine rattled my bones as the craft turned and shifted with the winds, however light they might have been. Sometimes I forget how very light and fragile it is despite the softness of the winter sky. If anything, the mountains below were more intimidating when I remembered that the more fickle skies were all too happy to introduce us to the ground the moment I lost my wits.

The gray scale veils of mist beyond the mountains ahead gave impressions of a smattered colorblind painting. Every stroke and splotch a varying shade of wet and thick sky I should never fly through. Their icy fingers slid through every nook and cranny of my Cessna, though my siblings didn’t seem to mind a bit. Judy and Matt clamored behind me in their seats, threatening to unbuckle their harnesses if I ever stopped reminding them to stay put. Stella sat next to me, keeping up conversation and them strapped in. It had been a while, but Matt really was just as rowdy as Judy.

“Do you want me to turn this plane around?” I called into everyone’s radio headsets.

“You wouldn’t do that and you know it,” Judy yelled right back with a smile, the headset far too big for her little noggin.

Stella fussed with a map. “You said the place was just over the ridge, right? Are we lost?”

A sigh. “We’re not lost. Disoriented is a much better word for what we’re going through right now.”

“Can I play something on the speakers?” Matt asked, shoving a headphone jack in my face. In the pilot’s face. The face of the pilot who was flying the plane in which he was riding. The hell, man?

Stella almost went through with putting the jack into her MP3 until I shot them both a look. “Nobody’s playing any music until we get on the ground.”

“You mean ice.” Matt shot.

“You— really? You’re gonna make that distinction?”

“Well yeah, it’s right down there.”

Though skeptical as his older brother, I peered out the window and saw the small frozen lake below among the mish-mashed points of pine trees. “Yeah. Yeah, that’s it.” Judy started to unbuckle herself from her harness for the umpteenth time that trip. “Don’t get out yet, we have to land. Remain seated until the aircraft has come to a full and complete stop. Seriously, don’t Mom and Dad take you on trips?”

“But it’s. Right. There!” She bounced up and down in her seat, her crinkly jacket rubbing against every damn thing in reach and sending crinkling sound through the radios.

“I get that you’re excited, but you have to stay still while I land, okay? Don’t want anything bad to happen to you two. I love my kid brother and baby sister.”

Everyone else in the cabin let out an “Aw~.”

“You just want us to forget you didn’t buy us Christmas presents.” Ouch, Judy. Jeez. But yes, maybe that was it. But that was exactly what the trip was meant to make up for.

“Really, though, shut up. I have to land us. Then there’ll be sledding and snowy snow fun.” God, I’m starting to sound like Stella.

At my words, Judy placed her hands in her lap with a start and stared straight ahead with a barely-contained smile on her face. I could have sworn she still fidgeted as I made loops around the lake. The world tilted and bobbed along with our flight, every tree leaning to meet our turns and the flat plane of snow upon the lake curving with my sight.

With hope in my rented landing skis, I dipped slightly into the powder to test the waters, as it were. Thanks to the wonders of modern hydraulics and other science, the skis fit around my otherwise immobile tundra tires, and could lift or lower themselves to land on either the tires or the skis with hydraulic trap doors in the center of the skis. The first pass showed no sign of the ice giving away at anything my plane could throw at it. My only worry was whether my rear third wheel would get caught in the loosely packed snow and icy white dust, despite its own little ski.

My landing gear pushed down into the snow on the second pass just as easily as the first time. The ice underneath us sat solid and I let the skis settle upon it with ease. Judy let out a shout as we slid through the length of the lake like a professional plane skier. Killed it.

Stella let out a “Woo hoo!” before unlatching herself and then going to help the kids. Judy gleefully stuck her arms upwards and let the harpy unlatch her seat harness before billowing out of the plane like a fluffy force of nature. Matt had regained his composure by then and calmly slinked out of the plane behind Stella, who hopped up onto the roof of the air craft.

While she surveyed the area, I did checks throughout the plane to make sure everything was in working order. Skis? Check. Hydraulics on the skis? Check. Windshield wipers? Check. Rudder? Check. Wings? Check. Other hydraulics? Check. Anything broken around the wings and/or internal structure? Check for no, as far as I could tell. Survival kit? Check. Hunting knife because I’m hardcore like that? Check. Is Judy okay? Check. Is Matt okay? Check. Is Stella okay? Check, too. I really should have put a “loved ones” checkbox instead of filling in names for all of them. Either way, that should be the last of the check list.

Better double check, though.

“Jeff! Come on outside!” Stella called, her head poking through the exit from above on the outside. Her beanie would have slipped off if not for her brand new goggles, courtesy of me. They really helped clamp that colorful knit thing onto her head. It’d be a shame to lose it out in the wilderness. Do we have enough fuel to get back? I should check that.

“I know, I’m just doing a final check!” I called. The little laminated list I lassoed to the side of my pilot’s seat with a piece of string was thoroughly checked through and through. I felt something was missing, though. A pair of lips nipped at my right ear, causing me to let out a shout. It felt like she licked the lobe, too. Did Matt or Judy see that? Nah, they were out playing in the snow already.

I retreated back as she blew air into my ear. She let out a laugh, leaning onto me until eventually she rested her head on my shoulder. Teetering back and forth on her chin, supported by my shoulder, she said, “Come on, you never take this long. It’s fine. It’s always fine even when you don’t take this long.”

“Don’t jinx us, though.” I took a look at the check list. Well, it was entirely filled out, plus extra things I thought of on the spot, and I took the presence of the skis into account. Nothing new or unusual was done to my plane that I knew of, either.

“Alright,” I said, giving her a quick peck on the lips. She returned my affections with a much deeper one that nearly pushed head back into the window.

“Then let’s go!” She started fiddling with my harness, which I could have sworn I already undid. Maybe I latched it again or something on my checklist. “Judy and Matt are already having a snow fight.” With that, she ducked out through the hatch and disappeared into the snowy white light.

She was as excitable as always, but I wondered if our little “event” from earlier had anything to influence her boundlessly positive attitude. Her smile was wider, her clothes and equipment more prepped for warmth and adventure, and she didn’t seem the least bit nervous in front of my siblings anymore. Perhaps it would have been a bit different if my parents came? Regardless, she was positively glowing as she saw me exit the plane and hop down onto the thick icy lake.

Thinking back on our little adventure that morning, I practically felt the snow melt around my forehead. You know what? I take it back. Both of our attitudes were more than likely altered from earlier in the morning. Regardless, I couldn’t wipe a big stupid smile off my face as I watched Stella and Judy play together. Good clean family fun.

Among the blinding snow and ice, my brother and sister and Stella trudged towards a hill on the nearest shore of the lake. Perpendicular to the tracks I made with my plane, my little sister dragged her brand new sled by a white rope that blended perfectly with the snow. A gift, courtesy of our Dad. The snow gave Matt a bit of trouble as he attempted to follow, a smallish piece of electronics dangling from his wrist by a thin strap. Probably a camera, by the looks of it. Stella bounded past them on feather weight steps of pseudo flight, her talons etching long narrow ridges in the powder as she sped past.

Our playground of a frozen lake sat deep in the mountains. Pine trees of various shades and sizes stood scattered in no particular order about the shore. Only the clean sheets of untouched snow marked the edges of the frozen water. Thanks to the deep gray clouds in the sky I could look straight up and witness the calm fall of snowflakes without the sun hurting my eyes.

The hill the kids chose was actually a very nice hill. More of a bunny slope that kids would use to practice skiing, like the one I used when I was little. It wasn’t too tall or steep, and just the right depth of untouched snow for some sledding. And if I knew Stella or my sister, I knew they loved themselves some sledding. I liked it, too, for that matter. Matt, however, made sure to keep his distance from the slope as he took pictures of the wilderness with Dad’s camera. Hope he asked permission to use it.

Already, before I could get to the top of the hill, a bundle of laughter sped past me atop the yellow plastic sled. Together the girls shot across the base of the hill like a missile until hopping off at the tail end of its trip, not even waiting for it to come to a stop on its own before picking it up and rushing back for another go. That thing had better be industrial strength, or it would be a short day.

As I reached the top, I looked back down at the valley of ice and snow and trees. Perfectly on cue, a ray of sunlight slashed through the clouds and illuminated our half of the lake in bright white light. Sunglasses on. Didn’t want to cook my eyes too much. They were just a pair of cheap sunglasses from the drug store in Anchorage, though. A shame nobody got me a new pair for Christmas. Not that I was complaining, what with all the other stuff I got this year, among other things. Heh. Really, I had no right to complain about anything at the moment. Life was good.

As I stood lost in thought, my sister and my girlfriend rushed up to me at the top of the hill with sled in tow. “How long you think you can keep this up, Judy?” I asked.

She was panting from the climb, but smiling like nothing else. “I dunno! I’m fine, though!”

Stella set the sled down between them at the crest of the hill, lining it up with a talon. “If you get tired, I can always carry you up if you want.”

My sister’s eyes beamed between her fuzzy purple ear muffs. “You mean fly me?”

She took a knee and did a body builder pose, “You think I can’t?”

That sounded dangerous, to be honest, but Stella’s knowing glance in my direction told me I didn’t have to worry. She knew the risks. She’s got this.

Judy shook her head violently, whipping her hair about the way only a child could. Barely sharing more than a nod of understanding, the two silently and with great vigor set up the sled once more.

“Aim for Matt!” My sister shouted as they teetered on the edge of the snowy slope. “We need him taking pictures!” Stella gave a massive salute with a wing and pushed off the white beneath them to begin the plunge.

Really, they could have gone sledding or taking pictures anywhere, but I guess they appreciated getting flown into the wilderness more than they did driven to the edge of town. From the air I saw a few hiking trails leading to and from our little lake, so we were not the first in the area in any sense. Maybe Judy and Matt just liked spending time with big brother? Nah.

I resolved to sit at the top of the snowbound hill in the crux of a large low-hanging tree branch. The two living dynamos could go ahead and do their thing. As they went up and down all possible routes down the hill, Matt took pictures with Dad’s camera, standing halfway down the hill and just enough out of the way to not get winged in the face. He probably did it for the same reason I was in my tree: to not die on his way down the hill on that dinky sled.

Inevitably, after many runs, the girls let out synchronized yelps of surprise as they went tumbling through the powder at the bottom of the hill. They seemed fine. I just hoped Matt, who started sliding down the hill to help, got that particular spill on camera.

Checking the time (on my freshly unboxed and activated smart phone) it was getting close to noon. My stomach was growling earlier. Stella and I didn’t have time to eat breakfast, but I didn’t bring up lunch because the girls were having too much fun. Being filled with enough second-hand fun to last me awhile, I hopped down from my tree and started down the hill. Are grilled cheese sandwiches Christmas food? Because I was definitely up for some grilled cheese sandwiches.

Either way, our flight was scheduled to land between noon and one in the afternoon. Mom and Dad were at the Christmas Day church service and would finish up around the time we drove back to the house. Then there would be lunch, hanging out, dinner, the last night at the hotel, and then off to New York. Wait. It was still only the second day home and I caught myself thinking about when Stella and I had to leave for the other side of the country. Fickle things, these things known as vacations; you get so caught up in planning and scheduling that you forget to enjoy yourself.

At the base of the hill the girls gathered themselves, dusted the powder off their clothes, and came screaming back up the hill. How did they manage to continue functioning after climbing up the giant mound of snow so many times? As if on cue, Judy stumbled forward and into the snow just behind Stella. Should have seen that coming, really.

I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but Judy got back up with some help from Stella. My sister held onto the sled with both hands, facing the peak of the hill, as per Stella’s instructions. With a gentle waft of wind, Stella spread her wings and flapped several times to get herself off the ground. A delicate grip of the talons and another series of flaps later and my sister was the happiest airborne twelve year-old on the planet. Kicking her legs as if to make sure she left the Earth, a joyous string of laughter followed them all the way to the peak. There, Stella set her down beside me with such finesse that I wondered if she practiced the whole thing.

“Hi,” I said as I ruffled my sister’s hair.

Judy paid no mind to me as the harpy landed on the other side of me. “Do it again!” she yelled, jumping up and down as if trying to take off on her own.

I cut in before Stella could answer. “Actually, this should be your last run. Then we have to pack everything up and get back home.”

“What time is it?” Stella asked, leaning a wing on my shoulder to get a look at my phone, which was weird given her head barely reached up to my chest.

“About noon.”

She rolled her head back and forth. “Yeah, your prep time will cut into all that. We have to land before one, yeah?”

A sigh heavier than anything I’d ever heard sounded from my baby sister. Turning to witness the source, Stella and I could only watch helplessly as Judy deflated like a multi-colored fun house. Putting on the world’s biggest pouty face and crossing her arms, she turned away from us in a huff.

Oh, come on. “If you want, I’ll go down this last one with you.”

A slight glance back at me. “Maybe… we should ALL go down on the sled!” Her eyes beamed at me at the sudden revelation of an idea. It was definitely a bad idea, though. I didn’t know the weight capacity of the sled, but I doubted it could hold two and a half people’s worth of weight. Judy only counts for half because she’s twelve.

Looking for a second voice of reason to gain the majority vote among us three, I turned to Stella. She fidgeted in place with excitement at the idea, slowly edging towards Judy’s side until both looked up at me with bright shining eyes. There went my majority vote, not to mention any chance of living beyond today.

The setup they put forth went as such: I would be sitting at the bottom with legs pointing straight forward, Stella would be sitting between my legs with hers tucked up against her chest, and Judy would be standing behind me using my shoulders for support and handles to stay on. To be honest, it wasn’t nearly as bad as I expected it to be. And thus it was so. Matt waited at the bottom with the first aid kit from my plane and the camera at the ready. Traitor.

“We ready?” Stella yelled with the reigns clutched in her claws and eyes forward.

Judy let out a loud “Yeah!” while I could only sigh. The hill seemed much steeper up close as Judy pushed us forward, my vision shaking with every nudge. The tip hanged over the edge, only dipping parallel to the slope once my weight reached beyond the top of the hill. The first drop down shoved my stomach up into my throat.

Any friction and clumps of snow the sled might have run into at the top disappeared as soon as we slid through the powder, as if no such thing existed to slow us down. Chilled air, once content to waft through the valley at a leisurely clip, sliced across my cheeks like blades of ice. Trees became blurs and the cheerful cries of the girls around me fell on nothing but my wind-deafened ears. Every fresh patch of snow we trampled beneath us got a pristine framed trail of crushed ice in our wake.

It didn’t take long for us to reach the bottom with a distinct thunk that hit me square in the tail bone and made the girls go momentarily airborne. Together we clumsily skid across the lake of ice, past Matt (with his camera snapping one photo after another) and toward my plane, much faster than the girls were able to go on their own.

To my horror, we were going far too fast to slow down before crashing into it. I saw how well they could control the sled a dozen times; no amount of steering would help avoid the machine ahead.

Clamping my eyes shut, I hooked one arm around Stella’s shoulders. I then twisted around to get the other arm around Judy and pull her close, the solid metal landing gear of my plane was coming up fast. On pure instinct, I kicked the ice and fell backwards away from the sled, taking the girls with me. As soon as my back touched down a hefty helping of sleet down the back of my coat. The lightweight plastic yellow vehicle skipped off the ice and went tumbling under the plane, going far beyond it before tumbling down into a light swirl of snowflakes.

Stella, in my left arm, spat some hair and slush out of her mouth and groaned as she sat up next to me. A layer of frost blew off her head.

Judy, in my right arm, flopped out of my unfolding shoulder and elbow until she could lie sprawled out in the snow in a pile of giggles.

Panting, all I could do was say, “Probably the best bailout I’ve ever done.” That earned me a playful smack from Stella and a laugh from my sister.

“You guys alright?” Matt called as he approached. “’Cause, uh, that was awesome.” Such a flat, nonchalant tone despite his words.

I hauled myself out of the snow to sit down properly, wondering when and where I lost my sunglasses. “We’re good, I think. Just glad we didn’t run into the plane.”

Stella stood up and dusted herself off. “Sorry, that was totally my bad. I was in charge of steering.”

“Nah, it’s okay. We’re all fine anyway.” I nudged Judy, who was still getting over her fit of laughter on the ground. “There, was that a good way to end the day?”

“Yeah!” She cried out with a toothy smile. Scrambling to her feet, she jumped into my chest for a great big ol’ hug. Adorable little thing.

“Wait.” Matt said with utmost seriousness in his voice. “Hold that pose. That’s a great picture.” Of course.

“Hey, hold up, I’m getting in on this, too!” Stella said as she muscled in on me and my sister. Not that I minded, of course. She looked me over for a moment before standing up again. Before I could ask what was up, she sat on my shoulder opposite from Judy and raised a talon into the air away from my head for a rather lovely pose. “Alright, ready!”

“Pff, seriously?” I laughed as I adjusted her weight, which actually wasn’t that much, to be more comfortable atop my frame.

“I’m always serious!” She threw her hair out of her face with a swift turn of her head, only for a timely gust of wind to blow it back in her face. “Pteh! Pteh!”

Matt groaned and brought the camera to his eye. “I’m taking the picture so you better be ready!” Photographers. Honestly.

The girls faced the camera with wide grins, Stella giving a confident wink. I was too busy laughing to count how many pictures Matt took.

* * *

Matt got to sit in the copilot seat on the way home, keeping himself busy aiming the camera out the window for some admittedly pretty sweet shots of a distant interstate storm to the north. The girls had to fight to stay awake as we soared over the final mountainous barriers between us and Carson City. The winds were not bad at all, considering the proximity of the storm. Hopefully the sun would keep it at bay so we could have a nice non-stormy Christmas for the rest of the day. Though I made sure to check and double-check my prep list before leaving the frozen lake, the subtle rattle of the plane’s frame gave me a constant warning to remain vigilant.

“You okay?” Matt asked through the headset.

I looked at him out of the corner of my eye to see him cycling through pictures on the screen of the camera. “I’m fine. Why do you ask?”

“Looks like your leg’s shaking. You cold?”

It took his pointing it out for me to notice my left knee bouncing rather restlessly. “Just glad I got to fly you guys for once. I guess. Maybe?” Had no idea, really. “Do I do that a lot?”

“Sometimes, yeah.” He looked up from the camera and scratched at his stubble. “It’s pretty cool that you flew us someplace, though.”

I suppressed a grin. “Any time.” Wait. “Any time I’m not out of state. Or snowed in or something.”

He shrugged. “Whatever. Can’t wait to post these online, though.”

Oh right, the internet’s a thing. “You took a lot. Will you just dump them all on the interne—”

CRACK

I jumped in my seat, eyes wide and searching through the controls around the cockpit. I shared a glance with my brother and looked back to check on the girls.

Stella was rubbing some fatigue out of her eyes but was otherwise alert enough to ask, “Everything okay, guys?” Judy was looking out the window, probably to find whatever cause the noise.

I turned back and stared at the controls for a moment. “Yeah… Yeah, just give me a sec.”

Throttle? Check. Rudder? Check. Lights? Check. Wing flaps? Check. Altimeter? Check. GPS? Check.

Everything was checking out. The airport was in sight on the other side of downtown, but that noise was anything but normal for a regular flight in such clement weather. Might as well prepare for landing. The sooner we’re on the ground, the sooner I could find out what made that noise.

Right ski blade hydraulics? A low hum of movement quivered below our feet. Check.

Left ski blade hydraulics? An angry grind drove up the left side of the plane and jostled my seat along with it, followed by a stretched out whine of metal.

My skin bristled with sweat.

Not good.

“Stella?” I called through the headset.

“Yeah, I heard it.”

“Switch to channel 2, please.” I turned to my brother. “Matt, could you sit in the back row with Judy?” My brother could only nod his head in bewilderment as he unlatched his harness and climbed behind me.

Stella leaned between the two pilot seats and said, “What was that noise?”

The words could barely reach my lips as I tried to angle an outside mirror to see my landing gear. “L-left ski hydraulics. Malfunction. Something, uh… loud.” My siblings were on the plane and I couldn’t stop this from happening. It’s Christmas morning and the gift I gave them could break because of me. My heart beat against my chest when I thought of those pictures Matt took being the ones used at our funerals.

“Hey, calm down, Jeff,” Stella said into her mouth piece. She didn’t have to lean in so close to get me to hear her through the radio, but her proximity helped to calm down the thoughts running through my head.

I nodded. “Yeah. Yeah, sorry.”

“I’m gonna go outside and see if we can still land.”

I gave her a double-take as she shuffled past my siblings toward the side hatch. “Hey, hold on. How do you plan to get back?”

“I can catch up to you if you circle the city. I can dive faster than you can coast, so I’ll manage.”

Correct as she was (falcon-class harpies can dive faster than any other breed) I couldn’t help but imagine how things could turn out in the worst case scenario. She hadn’t been exercising as often as she used to since vacation started. How fast does muscle deteriorate? Does it matter if it’s just been a month? I didn’t want to worry for her like this.

Switching her headset to channel 1, Stella leaned down and assured my siblings. “Just gonna do a routine check for stuff outside the plane. Lights and junk. You guys just sit tight, okay?” They nodded, though with hints of uncertainty in their eyes. “I have to open the door, so it’s gonna get a bit loud, okay?”

If anything, I was thankful that she knew how to deal with them better than me at the moment. When it came to my brother and sister, I reserved my right to worry my ass off.

Stella pried the hatch open and, as if going about her business as usual, slipped outside as quickly as ever. She clung to the supporting frame of the wing for a few seconds, and let herself fall from the sky. What she did always made me nervous, but she soon swooped up and around to fly side-by-side to give me an appreciated moment of reassurance.

Meanwhile, I went ahead and did my half of the work. Switching my radio to air-to-ground channels, I radioed the tower at the Carson City Airport. After telling them of our possible troubles, they cleared me to begin a longer landing circuit than usual to give us time to gather ourselves. Thankfully, the ladies and gentlemen at the airport knew proper procedure, unlike some in Alaska that have some intern on the other end answering the radio who has no idea what to do. But I digress.

Immediately after switching back to channel 2 to speak with Stella, her voice rang out in a scratchy shout. “Jeff, I see the problem!”

My poor ears. “Alright, good.” Well, it wasn’t good to have a problem, but whatever. “So what’s going on?” I noticed the shine of her wings as she pulled off to the side of my plane away from us. She probably couldn’t keep up for such a long time and was waiting for me to circle around.

“The left ski’s whole hydraulics attachment part is missing a bolt or something. Like, there’s a piece of metal hanging off of it— tube-shaped. Looks important.” I knew the piece she was talking about. It was important. One part of the system raised and lowered the skis while the other pulled the flap out of the way to let the wheel through. “The hydraulics’re working fine, but it’s not even attached to the ski anymore, so it won’t pull the flap out of the way.”

Just about the second worst thing that could happen, the worst being the landing gear just falling right off mid-flight. If we tried to land with a tire on one side and a ski on the other, we’d have a severely uneven landing surface. No plane can maintain a smooth landing like that without spinning out into a tumbling wreck. And who knows how stable the broken ski would be if we tried to land in a nearby snow field? The exact same scenario could happen there if the broken ski got stuck in the snow: disaster.

I took a deep breath, stole a glance at my brother and sister behind me, and said, “Any ideas?”

Stella paused. “Uh… Not sure if I can do it, but the ski looks loose enough… Ugh. Okay, I don’t know how good this could go, but if I climb down to the bottom of your plane from the wing then I can try pushing the flap open so the wheel can go through.”

“No.” There was no way. “That is waaaay too close to the propeller, Stella.” Torn to pieces. “Don’t do it.”

“Do you have any better ideas?”

“Well… no, but—”

“No buts! I’ll try to get on your left wing the next time you come around, from the outside of your curve. So hold it steady for me and I’ll do the rest.” Her confidence was a dagger in my side. Someone was going to get hurt, I knew it. Resisting the urge to say anything back, I flipped the switch for the left ski hydraulics. The same incessant grinding noise, which was probably the wheel and its frame pressing against the ski, resounded through the cabin.

There was no way for me to fix it myself or land the plane with things as they were.

Banging my fist against my forehead, I muttered into my mouth piece, “Alright. I’ll hold her steady.”

“Thanks, Jeff. I’ll tell you if anything changes.”

The silence that followed her words sent bone-deep chills through my hands as I clutched the controls. As I curved around on my wide landing circuit, I was left to gaze through the window on the copilot side, surveying the city below in my wait for Stella. The narrower picture of the world below gave me a sickly small feeling in my gut. Helpless.

“Okay, I’m coming in.”

Her voice came in crisp as the winter air.

I took a heavy breath through my nose and blew it out through pursed lips. “Got it. Ready when you are.”

Not a moment later, I heard a series of metallic scratches from the left side of my plane. Judy jumped in her seat from the surprise. A look back through the window told me Stella managed to grasp the frame of the wing with her talons, just as she planned. How she managed to get up the speed will forever be a mystery to me. Her hair whipped about in the wind such that I worried how it could affect her mission.

Now for the hard part.

I could do nothing but hold my wings steady while she used her claws and talons to slowly climb her way down toward my landing gear. A weak tremble could be heard from the left ski; its structure was probably so far out of balance that it shook in the wind. Scratches and short slides of talons across the metal chassis didn’t stop for at least a minute before they settled on the landing gear. Being unable to see her wracked my brain.

A hard stomp vibrated the metal beneath my feet. Was she kicking it? I don’t know why I expected more finesse from her, but kicking my plane definitely pushed my expectations. Strike after strike followed until I couldn’t help but radio her again.

“Stella, how’s it going?”

The kicks stopped. “I’ve almost got it. This thing’s a little stuck.”

My head shook in worry. “Baby, be careful.”

“I know!”

A fell wind slipped in from the north, pushing the wings of my plane up with a start. The kids in the seats behind me let out startled yelps, and there was a distinct crash from the landing apparatus below. My hands unconsciously adjusted the controls to correct my trajectory. That single bout of turbulence could have cost us the landing.

“Stella, are you okay?” I called.

No response.

My landing circuit was almost over. Soon we would be next to land on the runway. Should I call the tower and ask for a delay? Should we just improvise a landing? Was she even still down there?

During my attempt to straighten out my thoughts, a sharp tearing sound emanated from my left tire. I was about to shout into my headset for her to tell me what happened, but the hatch on the left side of the plane slid right open with a crash. Wind whirled through the plane in a frenzy as Stella hauled herself inside the craft until she flopped onto her stomach with her legs still dangling out into the sky. Matt immediately unlatched his harness and pulled her inside before she fell back out, yanking on the scruff of her sweater to get her all the way inside.

“Th-the wheel’s down!” Stella called through the plane as loud as she could.

A wave of relief swept over me as the runway approached. She was moving. Both wings seemed intact. Both legs, too. The sound of her catching her breath was the sound of her still being alive and breathing the same air as me.

But I had to concentrate on landing. Taking it in slow, it was at once the simplest and most stressful landing of my life. With both wheels down, we experienced nary a bounce or two. I taxied off towards the hangar for smaller planes, bouncing my knee in anticipation of my plane coming to a Goddamn full and complete stop already!

As soon as the guy marshalling me in gave me the signal to stop, I did so. Then I ripped my harness apart to go back into the rear of my plane. Stella sat with her back against the back of Judy’s seat, wings crossed over her stomach. Matt sat at her feet, his coat wrapped around one of her talons. Judy was still in her chair, sitting stock straight.

“Judy? Judy,” I whispered, putting my hands on her cheeks to get her to look at me. “We’re fine now. No more scary stuff, okay?”

Biting her lip and blinking a few tears from her eyes, she leaned forward with her arms outstretched and hugged me. I squeezed her tight and unlatched her harness.

“Okay, can you stand up?”

“Mhm.”

“Good girl. You’re the greatest baby sister ever!” After rustling Judy’s hair I lowered myself to my knees beside my girlfriend. “Stella, are you okay?” Peering at her face, I moved some locks of hair out of her tired eyes. My fingers came back sticky. I glanced down at her talons, which were covered by Matt’s coat. The third toe from the left on her right foot was oozing a dark liquid.

Among a broad streak of red that soared over her left eye, Stella gave me a guilty frown. “Sorry. I broke your headset on the side of your plane…” She raised her head slightly to get a better look at me. “I broke the flap on the ski off, too. Wiff my talon. Was ann accident, though. Mmmy bad, Jeff.” Her neck rolled her head back and forth, any control she had was gone.

I turned toward Matt and shuffled over to take over tending to her talon. “Matt, I need you to take Judy outside, okay? Try to get someone to call an ambulance.”

My brother gave me a nod and let me switch with him. After he ushered Judy out of the plane, I heard him call for some “aid.” Heh, so level-headed, my brother. Next was Stella. Unlike when she was climbing around outside my plane before, I was able to help her.

“Stella?” She blinked some red out of her eye. “Stella, can you look at me for a sec?”

“Myeah. Yeah.” She rolled her head in my direction.

Holding up a finger between her eyes, I tracked in back and forth, making sure she was able to follow with both eyes. She was. Check. Next, I turned her around a bit so she could rest her leg on the armrest of one of the passenger seats to keep her from bleeding too much more. Check. The first aid kit was on the wall, perfectly within my reach. First I tore open some moist towelette packets with my teeth and used them to rub the blood from her forehead. She winced a bit at the sting, but it helped me see the wound: a narrow streak of torn skin just below her hair line. Check. Then I retrieved some gauze to stop the bleeding. Check.

“Jeff?”

I stopped before moving on to her leg. “What’s up?”

“’re we okay?”

A brief laugh forced its way out. “Yeah. We’re all okay.” Lifting the coat from her talon, Stella breathed in sharply through her teeth. Under the fabric, the injured digit had its ebony claw cracked clean off halfway down at an odd angle. Ever more red seeped from beneath the no-doubt wrenched base, giving off an eerie red shine from the light outside.

Besides the increased elevation, I had no idea how to handle the injured claw. “Someone’s coming to help you out with this, okay?” I covered it up again and applied pressure; it was all I could do.

“Okay, okay…” She was back to her lightheaded stupor. “Sorry for ruining sledding day.”

“No, don’t even think you did. If anything, you saved it.”

As we sat there inside the plane, the distant sound of sirens made dull waves through my consciousness. My focus solely on Stella, I barely noticed when the paramedics climbed in behind me, the only thought crossing my mind telling me I was the luckiest man in the world.

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