This story is by Rebecca Lea and was part of our 2021 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Emersyn creaks open the crooked steel door and peeks in. Droplets of breath precede her. In the middle of the room is a transparent cube with a tiny baby inside. He does not stir as she approaches. The child is naked and blue. A last sigh exits his lilac lips. Then nothing.
The darkness is silent except for the pounding in Emersyn’s skull. Shivering, she sees the jagged outline of a snowy mountain against a hazy-mooned sky through the shattered window glass. We crashed. Her hands race to her barely protruding belly. A dream.
In the seat next to her Luca is groaning but unconscious.
Unbuckling, her first attempt at standing is unsuccessful. Regrouping, she wrestles her cell phone out of her anorak and punches the flashlight icon. Luca has a large gash on his forehead. The blood froze down one side of his face, lodging in his auburn beard like a rusty-red drip sandcastle.
What happened? Her brain wildly attempts a rewind to the moments before the crash while her body struggles to thaw. It was late afternoon. The sun was setting. Luca spotted a pair of Andean condors. A thump. Then the mayday call.
Sunlight pours into the splintered plane, bouncing off all the shiny surfaces. The interior seems ablaze. The landing sheared off the left wing of the small charter plane. A blast of bleakness hits Emersyn as she zig-zags towards the cockpit. Luca’s best friend Colten is a seasoned pilot and has flown them several times across the Andes into the Amazon River basin. The crooked steel door hesitates as she pulls. As soon as she steps in, she vomits. Through the center of the scarlet-spattered windshield sticks Colten’s head, dusted with last night’s snowfall. Still buckled into his seat, the pilot’s body is severed at both legs. A reddish ice pond coats the floor. The cockpit took the brunt of the crash.
Luca’s moaning is louder.
“Hey sleepy head. Right here. Don’t move. You look hurt pretty bad.”
“We crashed? Colt?” Luca tilted his head slightly to look into his wife’s face.
“He didn’t make it, Luca.” The tears freeze before they leave her eyes. “How are you Babe?”
“Ah Em, my legs feel like they are crushed. And my head. He tries to move, then thinks better of it.”
Emersyn is rummaging for the medical kit. Research scientists, Luca and Emersyn spend six months each year in remote areas of Brazil studying bugs. Inaccessible health care has made them competent with most medical emergencies.
“Something for pain,” she says as she draws up a syringe of morphine.
As Luca falls into a shadowy sleep, Emersyn numbly inventories the supplies on-board. She finds a space blanket, tucking it around her husband as she eases back his seat. In the plane’s rear is Colten’s survival bag. All the bush pilots carry one. Pulling out the weather-proof suit, Emersyn puts it on, feeling instantly warmer despite its bulk. She stashes the flashlight in her pocket and finds gloves and a wool hat to squash onto her head. Gathering up a roll of gauze and a packet of antibacterial wipes, Emersyn crawls back to Luca. Better to do this while the morphine’s still in him.
“This might hurt, Babe,” she says as she dabs Luca’s head wound. He flinches but does not wake. “I’m so sorry.” Finished twirling the gauze around his head as light as spun cotton candy, Emersyn bends to kiss her husband’s stiff lips. He stirs.
“Luca, can you hear me? I need to tell you something important. Listen.” Emersyn bends down thinking if she whispers in his ear, her news might get through.
“Luca–after all this time. After trying so hard. And then not trying. And celebrating my 40th birthday three months ago. We are pregnant, Luca. We are having our baby.”
A tiny but discernible smile crosses Luca’s lips. His eyes flutter open.
“That’s… Em… oh, Em.”
While Luca sleeps fitfully, Emersyn triages their situation. We are not walking out of here anytime soon. I’m sure someone heard the mayday call and search and rescue is out. We just need to hold on for a couple of days.
“Emersyn!” The sound jolts her awake. She clasps Luca’s hand, sitting on the cabin floor beside him.
“Take care of our baby. It may take time to find you. Mountains on both sides. Stay alive. When the Sterno runs out, use the jet fuel. When the food runs out…” A long silence. “Look at me, Em. Remember when the Caete tribe invited us to their secretive warrior ritual? Remember, Em. Remember what they told us. Be strong. Come closer. I will always love you. Remember.”
Emersyn couldn’t say how much time elapsed until she let go of her husband’s hand. She feels like she is drowning in grief.
Emersyn busies herself over the next few days preparing to be rescued. She places the flare guns next to the cabin door. She carries the signaling mirror in her pocket, almost as a talisman.
Emersyn is gathering snow to melt and hears a distant drone. Colten’s spare work boots crunch unevenly as she stomps through the wind-crusted snow. But the anxious time she spends angling the mirror to the sun’s rays proves fruitless.
She has figured out how to siphon off small amounts of jet fuel into the empty Sterno cans to boil water. The meager amount of heat emitted makes the mountain seem less lonely. She adds the last of the chicken bouillon to a cup of scalding water, savoring its warmth. She dreads the afternoon’s task. Morning sickness and grief spew out.
The near-freezing temperatures have kept Luca’s remains in a state of cold storage. Unlatching the body board from the fuselage wall, Emersyn maneuvers it into the aisle. Pulling her husband’s legs, they feel like they have congealed into squishy ice crystals. Not frozen, but not pliable. When the blanket slips a little, she does not look at his face but gets him on the board. Tucking the blanket in and securing it with the buckles, she falls back. Exhausted. With all the effort she has left, she pulls the body out the door.
Emersyn finds a couple of tea bags. The snow doesn’t taste so plain.
The overcast skies and insistent snowfall mirror Emersyn’s hopelessness. At least the awful hunger pains are gone, but her strength is fading.
Emersyn thinks about hiking out. She packs a backpack. For the first time in three weeks, she enters the cockpit to search for maps. She opens Colten’s flight bag and finds several. She looks at his severed legs. Why was Luca telling me about the Caete? He couldn’t mean…
It is dark when Emersyn wakes, but there are no stars. Rushing from window to window, her despair escapes like dragon’s breath on the cold panes.
“Damn it all! It’s a white-out!”
She feels the baby tickle her belly and remembers her dream.
Emersyn gets the hatchet and knife from the survival bag. She has left these for last. She is no longer afraid to see what is in the cockpit.
Emersyn does not feel so cold or tired anymore, and the baby’s movements are vigorous. For the first time in weeks, she writes in her journal, recording her belly circumference. She is wearing Luca’s pants now. It makes her feel close to him. She has tucked her grief away somewhere in the deep freeze of these remote mountains.
She thinks about her research team in Brazil, but they could just as well be on another planet.
She no longer thinks of escape. After that first storm, several more assaulted her mountain aerie. She spends her days keeping the snow off the plane in case there is a flyover. Luca’s body disappeared beneath a thick white blanket.
It is mid-afternoon when Emersyn hears the unmistakable whirl-a-gig sound of a distant helicopter. She runs to the door and grabs the flare gun, then stops. Glancing at the cockpit door, she suddenly feels like cellophane wrap is enveloping her. They’ll know. “They’ll know!” All the horror and deprivation tumble out. She considers pointing the gun at her chest, but her baby–their baby–kicks as if in protest.
Gritting her teeth, she fires the flare.
Wrapped in heated blankets, the beat of the helicopter blades lull her into a stupor. She hears the pilots talking.
“Lucky we saw the flare, Pete.”
“Yeah, Andy. Did you see the pilot?”
“Head right through the windscreen.”
“I’m talking about his legs. Looks like wild animals ate them.”
It is common belief among the Caete people that the act of cannibalism and consumption of an enemy allows them to absorb the enemy’s strength. Only the most courageous warriors are chosen for this ritual honor.
“I remembered, Luca,” she says through wind-burnt lips.