A mile, two miles below, the landscape scrolled serenely by, an irregular patchwork of conifers and bare deciduous forest where the snow showed through. Occasional lakes and rivers flashed like mirrors. Dan let the vibration of the small aircraft’s engine move up his legs through his feet on the floor. His elbow buzzed where it touched the window.
“Down there on the left,” the pilot called. “Last paved road in this part of Quebec. Mandatory registration, to drive it. There’s more moose down there than people.”
Dan pulled the valve on his water bottle, drank a single swallow and snapped it closed with the palm of his hand.
“New gear?” Deb asked idly.
Dan turned his wrist, still not sure if he liked the fit of the bottle’s strap over the back of his hand. “Just a race giveaway,” he said. “It’s not as nice as yours,” he added, without thinking.
She looked away: every little thing was a reminder. Over the last year, she’d fought her way back onto the elite circuit alone, while he trained in the opposite direction, running meaningless trail races.
Her distraction now was justifiable, though, with her father’s ashes in a quart-sized Ziploc bag under her seat. Dan reached to put his hand on hers. She gazed out the window, immune to consolation.
Between them, Susy slept peacefully in her carseat. Half an hour passed, the roar of the engine hypnotic, and Dan marveled at the emptiness below them. Its vastness was calming, remote and removed, when seen safely from this altitude.
“Textbook undisturbed taiga,” the pilot narrated. “Bog and muskeg. Scrub pine forest. Birch, alder. Further north you go, the more it thins into tundra.”
“Are you looking, now and then?” he asked Deb. “It’s beautiful.”
“Mm-hmm,” she answered, her eyes on their daughter.
After a while, his eyes perceived a straight line in the landscape, and at first he doubted himself, thought he was habitually imposing signs of humanity where there were none.
The pilot turned and yelled back, “We’ll be to your river pretty soon. I’ll come in pretty low.” He smirked. “The small cargo door slides. Stay buckled in.”
Dan caught Deb’s eye and nodded at her bag, under her seat. “It’ll be time here.”
She looked back at him, impatient, and he held her gaze: no, he wasn’t going to do this for her. Finally she reached beneath her and withdrew the freezer bag of ashes. They looked like fine gray oatmeal, with a few calcified shards of bone. Deb nodded questioningly at Susy. Neither of them had explained to her what they were doing, or what was in the bag.
“She’s sleeping,” Dan murmured, and turned back to the window. “It won’t even take you a minute.”
They were descending, and the line below them had grown more apparent. It disappeared in rare open snowy ground, but became clearer as a paler, partly cleared stripe when it passed through dense growth. Then he saw light flashing off parallel filaments, and what looked like regular metal structures. “Are those powerlines, do you think?” he asked Deb. “What could they be powering out here?” Leaning forward, he asked the pilot the same thing. He was curious, only making conversation, really. The man turned his head, cocked an expectant ear and asked him to say it again.
And just then, past the pilot’s listening profile, Dan saw a pair of geese suddenly rising. They were huge, so close he could have counted their beating wing feathers, and he flinched involuntarily just before the prolonged rattling thud that could have been one goose or both of them striking the plane.
The pilot spun around as the plane slewed sideways hard. It felt like they lost a lot of altitude fast as he cursed and fought the stick. Then, just as they leveled out, a spindly top-heavy treetop appeared out Dan’s window, and the impact that immediately followed was like running over a curb in a car at fifty miles an hour. The plane lurched sickeningly. “Motherfucker FUCK!” the pilot yelled into the instrument panel. An alarm began buzzing, the engine over-revved, and behind it all rose the horrible roar of wind.
“Hold onto something,” the pilot said, and Dan twisted toward the carseat, but Deb was already covering it with her body. His vision focused on her fingertips against the plastic, red under the nail and the surrounding skin white with pressure, and Susy’s bright blue eyes open in orbs of surprise.
Then everything turned upside down and up and then down again, time and sound neatly disconnecting, and a splintering impact was followed by a rush of debris rattling off the fuselage. Something like a single frame of black on a filmstrip passed, and then all was bright, and motionless, and silent. And for a moment he did not think or process further what had happened and what it meant. The last sound echoing in his ears was Susy’s wavering, rising cry, abruptly cut off before its peak. He lay still waiting for her second bawl, waiting through her superhuman ability to draw breath and marshal power for a true yell, remembering all the times he’d thought that she had stopped crying when incomprehensibly she’d only been still inhaling, still building up.
He’d brought his child to a plane crash. There it is, he thought: I’ve failed as a father. His head felt too full of blood and his joints all wrong. He understood he was upside down.
Finally, Deb drew a shuddering breath, and when he heard Susy make a small complaining noise in her throat too, his priorities reasserted themselves, reels of a slot machine snapping mechanically into position. Out of the plane, he thought, and flares, and radio. Upside down, it was maddeningly difficult to even find the release to his lap belt, and then he had to hook his forearm under the armrest and flex to create a little slack. As soon as the buckle let go he tumbled, barely tucking his head in time to take the fall across his shoulders.
Deb was already kneeling beside him on the plane’s ceiling, pulling at the straps to Susy’s seat. One more latch, and Susy fell into her mother’s arms like a movie soldier shot off a parapet.
In front, the pilot was still harnessed in, surprisingly fine hair hanging down from his head. As Dan moved toward him, the man jerked his arms spastically.
“Where are we,” Dan demanded. “How far is it to—” Then he saw the extent of it, the smashed disarray of the cockpit. The plane had skidded forward, upside down. The plastic of the windshield was crazed and fractured. Rocks and brown grasses and chunks of frozen mud spilled through the side windows. The instrument panel and the firewall behind had given like French doors against the bulk of the engine as the nose of the plane had crumpled.
The whole front of the pilot’s shirt was sticky with blood where a lichened branch, flashed up one side with new wood, protruded from his chest just beside the sternum. A thick rivulet of blood streaked upward from the man’s collar, along the jugular toward his ear.
Dan told him he was going to live, he was going to be all right. It was a lie, but he could think of nothing else to say. “There’s a, a, an emergency beacon, or something, right?”
“We’re flipped over,” he said. “The antenna’s on the—it can’t—”
“A search party, then,” Dan said. “They’ll come for us. We’ll get you to a hospital. You’re going to live through this.”
The pilot shook his head. “You really don’t—out here, nothing’s—” It sounded like he croaked the word, “Saffron,” and Dan thought he was delirious, already gone. Then he said it again and Dan understood: “Sat phone.” He coughed and waved weakly at his chest, tapping at what looked like a bulky regular cell phone. “Help me get.”
Gingerly but quickly, Dan reached past the man’s trembling hand into the mess of blood and withdrew the satellite phone from his vest pocket. Its plastic surface was slick with blood, and as Dan turned it over, sparkling shards of plastic fell into his hand. Green and gold circuitry was visible, and he held the phone dumbly.
After a second or more of silence, the pilot spoke first. “I’m so sorry,” he said. “Your daughter. How old?”
Dan stiffened, registering the pity, the forgone conclusion.
Blood bubbled from the pilot’s lips. So sorry, he mouthed again silently, shaking his head. Fuck you, Dan wanted to tell him, but then he understood that the man was dying, not in minutes but right now, as he watched. His anger dissolved and all he felt was relief, at being useless. The dying man’s eyes searched his, and Dan remained blank, offering neither forgiveness nor accusation. Dan sifted his emotions carefully for anything he was supposed to feel, any omitted duty that would rear up as guilt later, but he truly didn’t know this man. He was not responsible for his misfortune.
The pilot’s chest convulsed then, and a gout of blood burst from his mouth. Dan thought it had missed him at first, but on looking closer, fine red specks of the man’s last breath had delicately sprayed both of his upturned hands.
Behind him, Deb clutched Susy to her with one arm, her other hand floating palm-down over her knee, each finger flexed so straight he could see the tendons in the back of her hand. She was exhaling in the tiny fast breaths they had practiced in childbirth class. Her face was pale, her lips pressed together and bloodless. Her closed eyes twitched beneath their lids.
“We have to get out,” he said and tugged once at Deb’s arm. She was half-standing until the weight hit her other leg, and her face twisted in pain.
Outside, the plane had cut a ragged two hundred yard swath through the trees and undergrowth before the wings had sheared off, only one of which was visible, hanging ten feet above the ground like a toy thrown by a tornado. The cabin and fuselage had plowed a further dirty stripe through uneven snow that looked knee-deep in some places and wasn’t even a ground covering in others.
The surrounding trees were all too scraggly and thin to provide real shelter. Deb held Susy in one arm and steadied herself against Dan’s shoulder with the other, and they trudged back along the path of the crash to a hump of raised and relatively dry ground. Dan cast repeated wary glances back at the plane. No sounds arose but the sighs of bent underbrush, rearranging.
Susy’s crying eased to a queasy whine when Deb sat down, and Dan said, “Let me see her. Let me hold her over here a minute.”
Deb’s elbow described small circles as she rocked Susy in a tight arc, close to her body. She said, “She’s fine. Not yet.”
“I just,” he started calmly. “I want to check for—can you see her pupils?”
“Her pupils are just fine,” Deb whispered, her own eyes closed. “She’s OK.” Twin spots of livid red burned under Deb’s cheekbones, the rest of her face chalk pale. She stopped her rocking motion, and Susy whimpered querulously.
“What about you,” Dan said. She did not answer.
They had first met over an injury, when Dan was in his first year of grad school, logging hours in the sports med clinic. When he entered her examination room, Deb jumped up. Her first question was, “I won’t have to rest it, will I?” Something about her skittish gaze, along with her long limbs sheathed in smooth perceptibly twitching muscle, made him think of a deer, poised for flight, uncertain whether she’d been seen. She must have come without telling her coaches, who would have made her a direct appointment and clear-taped a giant pack of ice to the front of her leg.
“I’m not the doctor,” Dan said, handing her the clipboard that asked patients to rate their pain on a scale from one to ten. “I wouldn’t know about that.”
“But come on,” she said, leaning back on her strong leg. “You have an idea.” She tilted her head at him, then said, “Dan. It’s Dan, isn’t it? You ran cross country, like two years ago?”
“Yeah,” he admitted, blinking. He did remember her. At practices, though, doing different workouts, passing in opposite directions, there’d been few opportunities to talk. And then his own season had ended so abruptly.
“You still run with the guys,” she said, “but you never finish with them.”
He acknowledged this, still hoping to shrug off the subject without looking evasive.
She persisted, “Yeah, my sophomore year, it was big gossip. When you walked off the team, before Nationals. It was like, a couple guys knew the story. But no one would say.” She studied him a moment. “So what happened? Why’d you quit?”
Dan stopped. “Well I didn’t quit,” he said. “It wasn’t…like that.”
“So what was it like?” She watched him, obviously waiting.
“So it’s which leg?” he demanded. “Your right? Not both?”
After a second, she nodded, lifting her right leg toward him, letting the foot turn out. “I ran with shin splints all last summer,” she said. “I don’t care about those. If it only hurts. I’m worried about—you know.” He understood that ‘stress fracture’ held a special superstition she dared not name. She’d be terrified of losing the rest of her season.
Dan said, “The doctor will want x-rays. But those won’t show anything unless it’s been weeks already.”
She nodded along with him, letting him finish, then asked what he could tell her now.
He opened both palms, helpless. She persisted until he finally, after a glance out the half-open exam room door and listening the whole time for footsteps in the hall, consented to lean over her and tap gently along the length of her limb in question.
She jumped at his touch to the belly of her calf. “Your hands are cold,” she said, but he hadn’t thought they were, really.
And now at the crash site, they were reenacting that first pose: her bare foot raised, his fingertips along her bone. He felt gently around the swelling ugly knot in the middle of her shin, and without inflection, pronounced it a clean break through the tibia.
A latent mistrust rose in her eyes, and he recognized the calculation of diagnosis against desire, and against her own experience of what she could endure. He watched as she leaned forward and pressed weight through the broken bone, compelled to test what she already knew, her expression cycling between intense focused attention and pain.
They were amazingly lucky to be alive. He knew that. Still, for what it meant to all of their continued survival, the flash of force that had broken Deb’s leg might as well have been a judgment from God himself—random, terrible, immutable.