By the time I returned to Unalakleet the snow was gone. I had the chance to look over the village from a window seat before we landed. It felt like ages since I last came home on a passenger plane. Hell, the kids were running through the streets in t-shirts and sweatpants. I missed so much over the last few months that I almost wanted to run around with them, if only to see if I could.
After getting marshaled in I shuffled off the aircraft with the other dozen passengers. None of them looked familiar, so I didn’t really speak with anyone. Much of my time at the hospital in Bethel was spent in physical therapy. I lost track of the day of the month a long time ago. It was a Friday in the middle of July, I think? All I wanted to do was rest.
The landscape felt unfamiliar as I walked with uneven steps toward the terminal. My suitcase, full of new clothes, dragging behind me through the gravel. Before I could walk inside with the rest of the passengers I heard heavy steps shake the ground.
“Jeff!” Beth called, arm raised to get my attention. She wore her ground crew uniform with the top tied around her waist and held a big box under her other arm.
I did my best to crack a smile without stretching the scar tissue on my cheeks. “Hey!”
Before I could ask how she was doing she set the box down and picked me up in a big bear hug. “It’s so good to see you back!” Despite the rock-hard arms holding me, having my face pressed into her cushy bosom was quite soothing. She released me automatically when I tapped out.
“Thanks,” I said.
She crossed her arms, a concerned grimace showing on her lips. “Really did a number on you, huh?”
Come on, crack a joke. “You should see the other guy.”
Beth smiled. “Day’s almost over. Want me to leave early and help you get home?”
I couldn’t tell with the sun still so high in the sky. “Nah, it’s fine. I have to walk more anyway.”
“If you say so, champ.” With a sigh she added, “You better come over to my place for dinner sometime. The girls were worried about you.”
My eyebrows perked up. “Will there be booze?”
“There’ll always be booze.”
“I’ll call you when I get the chance. Wait, no. Uh. Nevermind, let’s schedule it the next time we see each other.”
I shrugged. “No phone right now.”
“Oh yeah, that’s right. Well, hey. Don’t be a stranger, alright?”
We said our goodbyes and I trudged through the terminal. Every other step made a dull clink. Luckily the walk to the cabin was as short as ever. A group of kids kicked a soccer ball around the dirt streets. Made me wonder if it was summer break yet. Considering my time away, it probably was. When the ball came my way I decided against kicking it and instead tossed it underhand back to them. Kicking things so soon after getting discharged was asking a bit too much.
Approaching my cabin, I could probably see the mail sticking out of the mailbox from a mile away. Dozens of various bills I paid online, plus some postage notes telling me to pick up packages at the hangar, stuck out of the open flap.
“I’ll deal with you later,” I mumbled to the stacks of paper as I headed for the door.
It was dark inside. Cold, too. At least I didn’t leave the radiator on. Still had to pay rent while I was gone. Though insurance paid for part of it, the last few months of unemployment did a number on my bank account.
As I set my suitcase down next to my dresser and turned on the light I took a deep breath of stale air. It smelled just like it did when I moved in. If I closed my eyes it felt like I recently moved into the little place. Back then I was starting at square one with the whole piloting gig. Square one. Even with hundreds of flight hours, they meant nothing without a plane. Crashing mine after just a couple years of flying wouldn’t do me any favors if I tried to rent one.
After a moment of thought I dragged myself outside and grabbed the mail. My suspicions were confirmed that they were mostly bills. However, some of the letters were from people I knew. One from Nell, another from Maria, and a couple from my family. One large envelope caught my attention. Instead of a return address, there were two large paw prints that took up one entire side of the envelope.
Curious, I tore the top off of it and pulled out the contents. As I unfolded a large piece of paper my heart soared at the sight. Across a sheet as tall as my arm was a single sentence:
“Get well soon!” written in large-tipped marker with clumsy hands.
Sasha and Boo, my saviors, thought it necessary to send me a get-well card. Across snow and tundra they carried me from the crash site straight to Chuathbaluk airport. From there I was transferred to Bethel hospital. Both of them made sure I stayed warm in their arms until the doctors took over.
That’s what I was told, at any rate. I wasn’t conscious for any of it. By the time I woke up they had to leave to work elsewhere, so I never had the chance to thank them personally. Neither of them ever showed up at the hospital. After a couple weeks assumed they forgot about me. I missed them at the Bethel airport on my way home, too.
Regardless, I needed to order a frame for it. After that, get in touch with them.
But first, some rest.
The bed hadn’t been touched since the morning of my last run. It was still a bit disheveled. After tossing aside my clothes and turning on the radiator, I turned on my radio out of habit. The white noise sometimes helped me sleep back when I became the sole tenant. With some difficulty I climbed up the side of the bed and sat on the mattress. The next article to remove was my foot.
A plastic, metal, sterile false appendage latched onto the stump of my right leg in a manner I still barely understood. Sometimes I believed I could still feel things with it, or wiggle my toes as if they were never gone. No such magic for me, unfortunately. I decided to leave it at the far end of the bed.
By the time I let myself fall back onto the sheets my mind flooded with the scents leftover on the bed. The time spent together with Stella in the cabin flashed through my mind. I had to shake my head a little to stop reminiscing.
In my mind, all that was over. With her schedule, she never had the time to fly all the way down to Bethel. We spoke over the phone frequently at first, but that petered out after the first month because of my physical therapy. Her last words to me were that ever-repeated, “focus on getting better.” So, I did.
I couldn’t tell if it was a hint she wanted a break, or if she was just doing her own thing for a bit. Thinking about the first possibility made me feel like a deflated balloon. More than anything I wanted to talk to her and find out if there was still an “us.” Too bad I was too scared to try calling her first.
The fatigue of travel soon pulled my eyes shut. It was the same blackness I saw before. Every night it was there. No heat or cold, just nothing. My mind refused to let me dream ever since the accident. When I went to sleep, I just faded away from the world waiting for the next sunrise.
Unfortunately for me, sunset wasn’t for several more hours. Until then, bright audacious light shined through the cracks in my curtains. For a long time I lay on the bed staring at the ceiling. I was never good at falling asleep without complete darkness. Without a phone or clock to check every two seconds, I lost track of time.
Sleep came and went as it pleased while my thoughts wandered. Nothing too interesting came to mind, honestly; it was mostly about how I planned to scrounge up enough cash for a plane. If someone agreed to some sort of installment plan then I might’ve been able to afford it. I made a mental note to check online listings when I was fully rested. I made another mental note to order a new phone.
My family offered to get me a new one, but I declined and said I’d take care of it myself. Probably out of fear. Probably because I was afraid of calling Stella again. I didn’t want that responsibility for some reason. Explaining the lack of communication, discussing our relationship, and probably having a fight did not sound fun. At the time I was tired of having to maintain that invisible little thread that kept us together. So, I let it fade away with time, as I did with all the other people I failed to keep as friends.
A wrinkle of sound— footsteps— from outside my door caught my attention. I didn’t fully realize it came from outside the dark beneath my eyelids. So, I just turned over under the covers with a mumble.
The footsteps stopped outside my door. Then the shudder of a key turning in the lock shook me awake. A long-winded sigh sounded from the doorway as it swung open. My eyes shot open at the sound.
Already facing the front of the cabin, I looked over the edge at the figure in the doorway. Her wide round eyes met mine with a start. My heart beat hard in my ears as the realization hit me.
Stella just walked through my front door.
At first I didn’t quite comprehend she was there. Well, her hair was longer, so that threw me off a little. And was that a new flight suit? Sleek design with yellow and black. Did she fly herself all the way from Barrow? No way, it’d take her two days to arrive. Did someone tell her I was back? I certainly didn’t, what with my phone being lost in a river somewhere. Damn it, it was Beth, wasn’t it?
All I could manage was a slack-jawed “Uh,” while she clumsily closed the door behind her. I couldn’t think about anything, save for the fact I had nothing to say.
“So,” she said. Her eyes avoided mine while she held her wings behind her, if only to give them something to do. “Hi.”
She started twirling the end of her ponytail with a claw, avoiding eye contact. “Did you, uh, just get back?”
I nodded. “Earlier today.” Her workout-tinged scent hit me like a truck, overwhelming me for a moment with memories. It’d been far too long. “Ahem. What’re you doing in Unalakleet?”
Stella fidgeted by the door, as if waiting for an opportunity to run and hide. “Soooo, like, the pilots we work with during missions fly us out to different parts of the county and then we fly ourselves around looking for the people we need to look for. And, uh, I said to my boss Sheryl, ‘Hey! If I train by flying all the way down to Unalakleet or Koyuk or Nome or any of those other places in Norton Sound then I’d be super-ready for missions! And I’d know howta survive out in the wild with some practice, which would also help!’ And she was all, ‘Great idea! Don’t die!’ So I’ve taken every Thursday and Friday out of my usual training schedule to fly solo to here and then fly back up on a plane. And, uh, I guess I’m in your house ‘cause you let me keep my key after I moved. Usually I’d’ve slept here for the night and flown back up in the morning.”
Overwrought, as usual. And of course she was doing it for work. That’s fine. “Is it helping?”
“I hurt all over, so probably.” She did a full-body stretch with her wings extended in front of her.
“Did you know I’d be here today?”
She let everything go slack again. “Judy sent me a text saying when you were gonna be discharged, so I kinda ball-parked it. Thought you’d get here a lot later, though.”
Ah, that meddling baby sister of mine. “That little traitor.” But that gave me a little spark of hope, knowing she came to see me on purpose.
Then Stella sheepishly looked over at the stove. “By the way, uh, want me to step out for a sec so you can get dressed?”
Oh right, I was almost naked. More than embarrassed, I just felt tired at the thought of putting all my clothes back on.
Then her panicking started up again. “I mean! Uh, I could just leave and stay somewhere else— if you don’t wanna get dressed again or talk or whatever. I-I haven’t been using the bed— that much— so it shouldn’t be dirty or anything. And I bring all my bathroom stuff with me in my bag so I could just, like, leave and hide in a hole somewhere— Oh God this isn’t going how I wanted at all.”
“Hey, hey!” I shouted. She stood stock straight. “Could you just toss me those pants on the floor, please?”
After a moment of silence, Stella let out a huff through her nose. “Okay.”
Atop the bed I put on the pants. Over the months of hospitalization I lost the muscle definition I gained from going to the gym. At the same time, the healthy meals slimmed me down a bit. It about evened out, I think. Regardless, I figured I could find my shirt on my own. Dangling my legs off the side of the bed I let myself slide off the edge. On my way down, I caught a glimpse of horror on Stella’s face.
“Jeff, wait!” she cried.
As my left foot hit the floor, my right never arrived. Instead, a sharp thud scratched the surface of the hardwood floor. Stella lunged forward and managed to catch a wing under my arm before my full weight drove the metal rod into the bone.
A cry of pain and frustration scratched its way out of my throat as I grasped at my desk for support. “Fucking hell.”
“Oh man, are you okay?” Stella fussed over me, looking me over for injuries.
Deep breaths. “Just get me my foot. It’s on the bed.”
With a flutter she rose up to the high mattress and fumbled around with the blankets. In the meantime I sat down in my desk chair and checked the stump of my right leg for any bruising. It hurt a little, but it was superficial. No lasting damage. I sighed at that prospect as Stella flew down from above. She wore a look of worry in her eyes as passed the prosthetic foot in one of her talons to me. It was the talon with the broken claw.
Calm down, me.
“Come on,” I said, “don’t look at me like that.” Taking the artificial limb from her, I positioned it under my stump and attached it with the practiced sequence I learned in physical therapy. Stella’s demeanor darkened with every click. When it was done, I rested my elbows on my knees. “Sorry I yelled.”
“Shut up, it’s fine.” Neither of us looked at each other for a moment. “I should’ve been there.”
I knew it was coming. The talk I supposedly wanted to have. “It’s okay. You were working. You didn’t have to.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t call, too.”
“No, quit it. You didn’t have a phone so you couldn’t call even if you wanted to.”
“But I know your number. I could’ve asked the nurse for the phone or ordered a new one for myself online, but I didn’t. Because I’m an idiot.”
Stella growled under her breath as she yanked the base of her ponytail in frustration. “Why’d we stop?”
“I don’t know.”
She sniffed, looking away as if to hide it. “I mean, if we kept up with each other we could’ve had a big ol’ Welcome Home party for you or something when you came back today, with hugs ‘n kisses and an awesome weekend! But we just…”
I shook my head. “We just gave up.”
Stella’s shoulders slumped and I saw tears form in her eyes. “I get it. Yeah. I guess we did.” A sniff later and she glared at me. “Do you want me to go? I don’t have to stay here tonight if you don’t want me to.”
My eyes grew misty at the thought of her leaving. For the first time in months my interactions with someone felt real. Important. It mattered. My family was stuck with me through thick and thin, and I never really spoke with the nurses or doctors about my personal life. But a feeling in my gut told me that that very moment, and everything I decided to say to Stella at that moment, mattered. With one word I could change the rest of my life.
But what would I do if she left? What would I do if she stayed? If she left would I just go back to bed and mope? If she stayed would we have a long talk or one last fuck before she left again? It all ended the same. At the hospital, after the phone stopped ringing, I drew a blank whenever I thought about her. With her in front of me, I realized how stupid it all was. I urged myself to think through the fog in my head leftover from inactivity. Just one phrase would judge how the rest of my life would progress. And I had the power to choose the phrase.
I put weight on my right leg, felt it hold, and stood up. It was so long that I forgot how much taller than her I was. Still she kept those indignant eyes on me, as if preparing herself for the worst possible outcome.
With a quick heartbeat and quick sigh, I said, “Let’s try again.”
Surprise flashed across her face. “Huh?”
“We haven’t talked or seen each other for a bit, yeah, but it was a hell of a thing that happened. So, let’s stop blaming ourselves for stupid stuff. I don’t know about you, but I still feel the same about you as I always did. Seriously, I can’t really imagine what my life would be like without you, so… uh, yeah, I want to try again.” Her lips stiffened with the stifling of tears.
As if held back by a rubber band, Stella dove into me and wrapped her wings around my back. It nearly knocked the wind out of me, but we both fought for mutual balance. Her familiar scent washed over me again as she softly cried into my chest. My smile at her reaction squeezed tears from my eyes.
In hindsight I was acting like a moron; in the last few months nothing changed at all except my leg.
With a deep breath, Stella pulled herself from me and said, “I asked around Barrow about planes and stuff like I said I would.”
“Oh yeah? Damn, I should’ve looked up ads earlier. Did anything turn up?”
“I don’t really know the price you’re going for, but I got a list back home. There are soooo many kinds of planes out there. I didn’t even know! I’ll bring it down next time I’m in town.”
“Until I can afford it, I’ll need a new job. I’ll ask around Unalakleet first. Maybe I bet Russell and Boss wouldn’t mind asking around, too.”
She let go of me with a bit of a twirl, one claw grasping my fingers. “Yeah, yeah! I bet we could get the whole fleet in on it!”
“That’d just bug everyone. One step at a time. But. If I can find a job closer to Barrow, that’d be ideal.”
The harpy started pacing, every few steps nearly taking flight across the cabin. “So first you need a job, then save up for the plane, get the plane, and then you’d ask Boss for your job back?”
“Basically. Doesn’t have to be with the same airline, though. I want to keep my options open.”
“If you have to move, I’ll help you get settled in ‘til you get the cash.”
Every skip in her step made my smile wider. I knew what I wanted, and a surge of adrenaline let me stand high enough to say it. “After I get settled in, wherever I end up, let’s get hitched.”
Stella froze. “Wha— bu— wha—” Her mouth flapped uselessly trying to express how she felt. Her cheeks became red as tomatoes. “You mean— like— married? With k-kids and junk?”
“We’ll be way too busy for kids. That talk can come later.” That made her look away nervously. My mind worked in overdrive, thoughts whirling through my head at the multitude of possible futures in front of us. “I have no idea how all this’ll work out, Stella, but if there can only be one constant in my life I want it to be you. Even if you’re hundreds of miles away.”
Stella brought her claws up and massaged her temples and shook her head. “Whoa, hold on. One step at a time.”
My gut dropped. Of course I was being too sudden. “Right. Right. Sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.”
“I mean, come on, aren’t you supposed to, like, get down on one knee or something? This is basic stuff!”
And just like that my heart soared. That didn’t sound like a refusal to me. “Sounds a bit traditional, but I could if you want.”
Her eyes danced around the room, only occasionally coming in contact with mine. “Please?”
Shirtless, shoeless, and hair disheveled from sleep, I lowered onto my right knee.
“Ahem. Stella Smith— wait.”
I grabbed her wing and held her claw in my hand. “Ahem. Stella Smith.” Wide-eyed, she practically bounced on her talons in anticipation. The words danced from my lips. “Will you marry m—”
Stella lunged at me and wrapped her wings around my neck. For the second time that evening she nearly knocked the wind out of me. This time, however, she laughed aloud and planted tearfully happy kisses onto my shoulder and neck.
“Do you have a ring? Or anklet or something?” She asked.
I let her hang on to me as I stood us upright. “Not yet. Didn’t think that far ahead.”
“I’ll have to get one for you, too. Like, an engagement one or whatever.”
She pulled back from me so I could see the big dumb smile on her lips. “H-heheh. You, uh, better not call me ‘Wifey’ or anything.”
“And let’s try to live together again somehow. We don’t have to be a million miles away from each other if we can help it.”
“It’d be awesome if we could make that happen. Don’t get your hopes up, though.”
“You can’t just propose and ask me not to! And—” she took a deep sniff through her nose, “whenever it happens, let’s raise the most kick-ass kids in the world!”
Placing a hand on her cheek and wiping her tears aside with my thumb, she grasped it in her claw and kissed my palm over and over.
I couldn’t hold back the tears as I said, “Let’s write it all down.”