Freefall – Jessica Barry

Breathe. Breathe. My eyes open. A canopy of trees above. A flock of birds stare down before taking flight. I survived. He might have, too. I have to see. I pick my way through the wreckage on bare feet. Where are my shoes? It doesn’t matter. Bits of twisted metal everywhere. One of the wings lodged in the V of a nearby tree. A roll of toilet paper draped across the branches. The cabin is a tin can sliced open, exposing two rows of cream leather seats. I take a step closer and peer inside.

He is there, chest slumped over the controls. “Hello?” My voice is startling in my ears. “Can you hear me?” Silence. The engine hisses. The gasoline ticks into the grass. Into the cabin. Avoid the jagged rim. He is still holding the radio transmitter in his hand, the cable severed. I nudge him, gently. His body falls against the side of the cabin.

His face is missing. Out. Out. I retch, then sit. Focus. Here are the facts: I am alone. I am on a mountain. The plane I was on has crashed. My body is covered in bruises and cuts and my left leg has a wound that will soon become infected if I don’t clean it. My finger is strained or broken and quickly swelling.

I have very little food and water. The sun is still high but it will be dark in a few hours and my only shelter is a twisted hulk of metal that could, at any minute, explode. I feel sick with fear. I want, very badly, to lie back on the bank of grass and let my heavy eyelids close. I wonder what it will be like to die. Will it be like the tilt and drop of sleep? Will there be a light to follow, or just the dark? Stop. I don’t want to die. What I need is a plan. You have to go. The voice in my head is urgent, insistent.

Youhavetogoyouhavetogoyouhavetogo. Stay alive. My overnight bag. In a tree. Tug it down. Ignore the searing pain in my shoulder. I plunge through the clothes I’d packed for a weekend in Chicago. Out go the cocktail dresses, the spindly heels, the flimsy bra, and two pairs of lacy underwear. Gym gear. Thank God.

Something useful. Off goes the cotton dress, the ridiculous bra and underwear. Do not think about the bruises blooming on your thighs. Do not think about the lacerations on your hips. Do not think about that crooked pinkie finger and the worrying blue cast it is taking on. Do not think about the blood all over your white dress, your stomach, your thighs. Do not think. Move. Tug on the running leggings, the sports bra, the socks, the freebie T-shirt from some 10K. My phone.

I have to find my phone. Where is it? I scan the debris field. Nothing. Move. Move. The expensive bottle of perfume, the shampoo and conditioner, the precleanse oil, the cream cleanser and exfoliator, the separate lotions for body, face, hands, under eyes: gone. The hair dryer and the curling iron: gone. Wait. The cords. Jerk free and save.

The empty toner bottle, the mirrored compact, and the travel-size bottle of hair spray. All useful. Maybe. Put them to one side. Out go the deodorant and the makeup and the hairbrush. The lip balm goes into one of the bag’s zippered pockets. The bag’s weight is manageable. On to his suitcase. A Turnbull & Asser sleeve peeking through a tear in the lining. A spare T-shirt.

His Harvard sweatshirt goes on. Do not think about how much it smells like him. God, it smells like him. You have to go. Out comes the high-tech windbreaker. A pair of socks. That’s it. What else. Think. These things will keep you alive.

The plane’s canopy cover flaps in a low tree branch. Roll it up. Tie it to the bag. The first aid kit is lodged behind a rotten tree stump. The plastic case has cracked, but the contents are still intact: iodine, rubbing alcohol, bandages, scissors, painkillers, antihistamines, tweezers, sewing kit, tape. My eye snags on the cabin. My phone. You have to go back in. There is food there. Water.

I won’t last two days without those things. There is smoke coming from the engine, black and thick. In. In. In. The plastic bag. Right where I left it, tucked behind the front passenger seat. Four Luna bars, a bag of mixed nuts, an unopened bottle of water. The can of Diet Coke. I feel momentarily giddy.

My hand searches the floor and finds the sharp cut of glass. I pull it out and look at the smashed face of my phone. I try to switch it on but the spidered screen stays black. Broken. Fuckfuckfuck. I take it with me anyway. My eyes water from the smoke. Focus. Focus. I reach behind the back seat.

A fleece blanket, a roll of duct tape, a coil of rope. I reach again. The thin metal body of a lighter. Everything in the bag. The light is dimming. I have to go. Out. Out. Out. My animal brain is screaming at me, but wait.

What is the plan? Stay alive. I climb on top of the wreckage, avoiding the razor edges, the pain in my shoulder, and the blown-off face of the man I had so recently touched. Look. Snow-capped mountains thrusting their way into an epic stretch of blue sky. Below, green hills roll out in gentle waves, each fringed with trees and specked with wildflowers. On and on the vast lands stretch, out to the farthest point on the horizon. There is no sign of another human, except for a path. A steep slope but relatively even, and free of the sudden sheer cliff edges peppering the other routes. There, nestled into the crook of the valley below, I see a thin strip of mirrored glass. There is water below.

The plan. The path is the plan. Out. Out. Out. I jump free of the wreckage. I heft the bag back onto my shoulders, screaming at the pain, and slip my arms through the handles and use the long strap to buckle it securely around my waist. The engine’s hiss has finally fallen silent but the smoke still comes. I cast one last look around the clearing and see the shattered glass and bits of broken plastic and the pile of belongings that I have cast aside. There is nothing left here now, nothing to salvage.

The sun is setting. You have to go. Maggie It was still early in the morning, the sky outside a dark pink not yet paled to blue. I had NPR on low in the background, a mug of coffee was slowly going cold on the counter, and Barney was threading himself around my ankles, hoping for a second breakfast. The floorboards creaked underfoot as they always did. I glanced at the recipe card, not that I needed to check it. I’d been making the same loaf for years and knew it by heart, but the recipe was written in Charles’s strong, sure hand, and I liked to keep it near me when I was making it. It was part of the ritual. The dough was warm and soft as I pulled it away from me and folded it back, feeling it stretch and tighten beneath my hands. I shouldn’t be kneading dough—it exacerbates the arthritis that had settled in my knuckles after years of typing—but I made a loaf of bread at the start of every week, even though most weeks now it ended up stale and moldy by Friday.

The doorbell rang. I ignored it. If I stopped, it wouldn’t turn out, and besides, my hair was a bird’s nest and I was still wearing my dressing gown and the L. L. Bean slippers Charles had given me six years earlier. It was probably the mailman. He’d stick a note under the door about a package and be on his way. The doorbell rang again. I sighed and wiped my floury hands on a square of kitchen towel. Whoever this is, I thought, it better be good.

When I opened the door and saw Jim standing there in his full chief of police uniform, I thought maybe he’d come for Linda’s casserole dish. She’d left it at the house after bringing over a lasagna, and she was always eagle-eyed about her bakeware. But I took one look at his face, and at the nervous little slip of a thing standing behind him all buttoned up in her starched blues, and I knew he wasn’t here about the dish. “Do you mind if I come in?” he asked, taking off his hat and holding it over his heart. Jim Quinn and I had known each other since high school, when he used to flick me in the back of the head with the nub of his pencil and ask me for answers in American history. He had never once asked for permission to enter my house. Suddenly, all I could see was his uniform and his bright, shiny badge. “Jim, what’s going on?” My voice was too loud. “Why don’t we sit down.” It wasn’t a question, and he ushered me back into my own house.

The lady cop followed behind. “This is Officer Draper,” he said, gesturing toward her. “Call me Shannon,” she said, so quietly I almost missed it. “Nice to meet you.” I turned back to Jim. “Now tell me what’s going on.” Jim took me by the elbow and led me to the kitchen table. “Sit down,” he said, gently, though he pressed me down into the chair before taking a seat across from me. “Maggie, there’s been an accident.” My heart sank.

“Is it Linda? Is she all right?” Even as I asked, I knew it wasn’t about his wife. He shook his head. “Linda is fine.” I knew then. I just knew. It’s what all parents know deep down is coming for them. That one day, they’ll get a phone call or a knock on their door and in that very instant, their world will cease to exist. “Ally.” I said. He nodded.

He looked at me with his watery blue eyes. “There was a plane crash.” The world went white. Allison The weight of the bag propels me down the mountain at speed, the dim moonlight guiding my way through the trees. Branches thwack against my arms and legs. I fall once, hard. I let out a wail but get back to my feet and carry on. The blood thunders in my ears. All night I run. I don’t let myself look back.

I don’t let myself stop. I make it to the basin before dawn. I crouch by the edge of the water and touch it with my fingertips. Its coolness is like a shock. I splash some on my face. The water that drips down my forearms is a light pink color. The blood. Thirst grips me like a fever. It would be so easy to lift cupped hands to mouth and drink. No.

The water could poison me. I haven’t survived a plane crash to be killed by dysentery. I fill up the two empty bottles and add a drop of iodine to each. I wait. There are so many ways to die. I look down at my body. The pain is like an echo, reverberating through me but distant somehow, remote. I could get an infection, I could bleed out. I could die. So many ways to die.

Stay alive. I pull off my leggings. The gash on my left leg is deep, nasty, and uneven. I pull the button-down out of my bag, rip a strip from it, and dip it into the bottle of rubbing alcohol. I work the cloth into the cut, the pain cleaving me in half. When I can see again, my breath comes out ragged. I can see a sliver of white—the cut went down to the bone. Breathe. His skull, the whiteness of his skull. Which I could see because his face was gone.

The world tilts on an angle and I struggle to remain conscious. Stop. Breathe. Focus. I squeeze the edges of the skin together and tape a butterfly bandage over it. It will leave an ugly scar. Poor pretty little Allison. I pull my leggings back on. I feel a chill and a prickling heat runs up my spine. The adrenaline coursing its way through me, then leaving.

I pull the hair away from my neck, and that’s when I notice it’s gone. The necklace. My hand stays at the base of my throat. I can feel my heart hammering beneath the skin. My stomach clenches. How could I have been so careless? It was all that I had, the only thing worth protecting, and now it’s gone. I shove the thought away. There’s no point dwelling—there’s nothing I can do about it. It’s already done. I check my watch—a thin gold band with a diamond-studded face, absurd—and see I have another five minutes to wait before I can drink the water.

My father always told me it took a full thirty minutes for iodine to purify water. He liked to teach me those sorts of things, practical things, even when I’d roll my eyes and groan that it was pointless, that I’d never have the need for it. Joke’s on me, I guess. I think about the Luna bars, the bag of nuts. My stomach wrenches. I should eat, but all I see is the empty space where his face should have been. I close my eyes and breathe. When I open my eyes, six minutes have passed. The water is safe. I drink both bottles quickly.

Too quickly. I fight to keep it down, and it stays. The water is perfect, cold and metal edged. Refill the bottles. Drop in the iodine. Into the bag. Move move move. Onto my feet, hoist the pack. Something in my shoulder shifted and cracked. A hairline fracture, maybe, or just a strain.

I fight the urge to cry. No time to think about it now. I jump from rock to rock. Every step hurts. Is it better to push off or land on my injured leg? Land, I decide. I reach the bank. There is the expanse of rocky flatland and the mountain crowning above it, and over there is the sun, casting a pinkish glow across the mountain as it climbs to the sky. I don’t know how much time I have before they come looking for me, but I know they’ll come eventually, and that means I have to keep moving. I have to go east, into the rising sun. The mountain will have to be climbed.

Maggie “Maggie. Maggie.” I heard it through the roaring in my ears. My vision was a field of white, but the edges grew fuzzier, darker, more familiar. “Maggie.” It was Jim. “Maggie, she was on a four-seater coming out of Chicago. They think it went down somewhere in the Colorado Rockies.” “Are you telling me my daughter is dead?” My voice wasn’t my own. It was someone else speaking, in a reality that wasn’t mine, either.

“We don’t know yet,” he said, shaking his head. “They haven’t been able to get to the crash site to confirm, but from the radio signals before it cut out . ” This changed everything. She could still be alive. Hope bloomed in my chest like a sunflower. “How do you know she was even on that plane?” Maybe she wasn’t in danger at all. Maybe she was at home, safe. “She was on the flight register—her and the man who was flying the plane. I’ve seen the airport records, there was a photo of her on file . it’s her.

” “All right. All right.” My mind kicked into gear. My baby was missing in the mountains. Scared and alone and maybe hurt. But not dead. “What can I do to help? We get a search party together, right? Should I make calls? Fly out?” Jim spoke slowly. “There are already people looking for her, Maggie.” “Who, though?” I didn’t like the idea of strangers searching for her. They wouldn’t know how to find her, they’d make mistakes, they wouldn’t understand her like I would.

“I want to know who is out there right now looking for my daughter. She’s all alone out there, Jim. I want to know their names.” “They’re doing everything they can, Maggie. They’ve got rangers all over the mountains looking for the crash site. The local police are involved, too. But, Maggie. I need you to listen. It was a plane crash. The likelihood that she’s survived .

the odds aren’t good.” I looked at him, hard, and saw the sadness in his eyes. “She’s alive,” I said, with more conviction than I felt. “Ally is a tough kid. I’m sure she’s alive.” He nodded slowly. “We’ll do everything we can to make sure we find her. I can promise you that. Shannon, see if you can find any liquor, will you?” He thought I was in shock. He thought I wasn’t in my right mind.

“I’m fine, Jim,” I snapped. “It’ll do you good.” He turned around in his chair and pointed. “Up there, in the cabinet above the refrigerator. Should be to the right—yep, that’s it.” Shannon held up a bottle of Baileys. “Is that all you could find?” Jim asked. She nodded. “Shit, where’s the brandy? They always have brandy.” He poured glugs of Baileys into my dirty coffee mug and placed it in my hands.

“Drink.” “Thank you.” I felt like a child being given her milk. I took a reluctant sip. It was too sweet, like drinking a milkshake. I set the mug down on the table, placed my hands on the worn top. “How the hell hard is it to find a plane? Aren’t there satellites they could use? Helicopters?” I tried to drive the idea of Ally out there, scared and alone and hurt, from my head. That picture wouldn’t help. Facts would help. I needed to establish the facts.

“Everything that can be done is being done,” he said. “I promise.” My mind raced. Jim had said it had been just her and another person on the plane. “Who was the man she was with? The pilot. What’s his name?” He shifted in his seat. “They’re still trying to notify his next of kin.” Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the little officer wiping down the counter with a dish towel. A wave of rage coursed through me. “But you know? You know and you’re not telling me.

” “Honestly, Maggie, right now you know just as much as I do.” I got up, took the cloth out of the little officer’s hand, and started wiping at a bit of countertop. The dough was slowly deflating on its wooden board. “I should keep kneading,” I muttered to myself. The thought of throwing out the dough struck me suddenly as the most horrible waste. I refloured my hands and the board and began pushing the dough away from me with the heels of my hands and then folding it back. Away and back. Away and back. Away and back. Jim stood up and placed his hands on my shoulders.

“Why don’t you go lie down? Shannon here will get you a cup of coffee, maybe—Shannon, can you put the coffee maker on?” “I don’t want to lie down and I don’t want a cup of coffee, thank you anyway, Shannon. I want to finish kneading this dough and get it proving or else it won’t rise in the oven.” Jim’s hands tightened and I heard him let out a sigh. “Maggie, leave the damn dough. Just— Just calm down for a minute. Just take a breath.” I wheeled on him. “My little girl is out there in the middle of God knows where and you’re telling me to calm down?” Jim looked at me for a long moment. “I’m sorry,” he said quietly, “but getting yourself worked up like this isn’t going to help anything.” I was silent.

He picked up his hat and held it in both hands. “I’m going to call the doctor and see if he can prescribe something to help you sleep. I’ll ask Linda to pick it up from the drugstore on her way over.” “I’m not crazy, Jim. My daughter was in a plane crash. I’m sorry my reaction is making you uncomfortable.” A look of hurt crossed his face that I immediately regretted. I tried again. “You’ve told Linda?” “I came here as soon as I heard, but I thought you’d want—” He sighed. “She’ll want to help, and if you don’t mind me saying so, you need a good friend around you right now.

” In that moment, I didn’t want to see a single person on this earth who wasn’t my daughter, but I knew there was no point in trying to fight off Linda Quinn’s goodwill. I nodded. “Tell her to come by when she’s got a minute.” “I’ll go by the house now,” he said, gathering his keys from the table. He couldn’t wait to leave, the relief was painted across his face. “She’ll be over real soon. In the meantime, Shannon here will stay with you.” I looked at the little officer, who was now fingering the hem of the tablecloth. She shot me a nervous smile. Everything about her—her round, lash-fringed eyes, her hair pulled into a perky little ponytail, her smooth, lineless skin—felt like an affront. She was so young. Younger than Ally. What right did she have to be there? “I’ll be fine on my own,” I said coolly. Jim gripped the brim of his hat a little more tightly. “I’m sure you would, but I’d be more comfortable knowing someone was here with you until Linda gets here. You’ve had an awful shock, and I would just—” He looked at me pleadingly. “Please, for my peace of mind.” I nodded. “Fine.” I dropped the dough into an oiled glass bowl, covered it with a tea towel, and walked into the pantry, where I set it on a shelf to rise. I stood there for a minute, staring up at the neat rows of canned corn and olive oil and dried pasta, and placed my head against the cool wall. I could hear the two of them whispering about me on the other side of the door. I had never felt more helpless in my life. I took a deep breath and walked back into the kitchen. Jim pulled me in for an awkward hug. “I’ll be in touch as soon as I hear anything. Anything you need, don’t hesitate.” “You just find my girl.” He nodded. “I’ll see you soon. Shannon, you take good care of her.” Shannon nodded and we both listened to the door shut behind him. Her cheeks were pink. She wore a claddagh on the ring finger of her right hand with the tip of the heart pointed out. I wanted to hit her. “Are you sure you don’t want a cup of tea?” she asked, eyes wide with concern. “Or maybe some more coffee?” I shook my head. “I’m fine, really. You can go whenever you want. I’m sure you have better things to be doing with your time.” I didn’t know how much longer I could look at her innocent little face without screaming. “Chief Quinn ordered me to stay, so that’s what I’m going to do.” The firmness of her voice took me by surprise, and my face must have showed it. “It’s only my first month,” she added apologetically. “I don’t want to get in trouble with the boss.” “I see.” I turned and braced myself against the sink. I practiced breathing. It felt important that I didn’t let her see me cry. Pull it together, Margaret. For the love of God, pull it together. I don’t know how long I stood there. A minute? Ten? Then she spoke. “You know what?” I turned to her. I could tell by her face that she had seen it, the fissures. “I’ll wait just outside the door, but if you need anything, shout. When Mrs. Quinn comes I’ll be on my way, I promise.” It was a kindness, and I took it. “That’s fine,” I said. She stepped outside, leaving the door ajar with an apologetic “Regulations, ma’am.” I had read enough books to know that this first moment when I was alone with my thoughts was the moment I was supposed to sink to my knees and wail a primal scream. I sat there and stared into nothing and waited for the phone to ring. It dawned on me then that I might be waiting forever.

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