It was the slow realization of the thundering of her heartbeat in her ears and the shuddering sound of her breath that made her think she might not be dead. Her eyes, which were wide open, saw nothing. Her left hand clutched the armrest; the other had a claw-like grasp on the fabric of the seat cushion, even though she remembered having both hands behind her neck just moments before. Terror manifested itself in an inability to move and Nora struggled against it, yet she couldn’t seem to force herself into motion. A new fear that she might be paralyzed triggered a cold flash that moved through her. Maybe she was dead. Was this what death felt like?
She had no idea how long she remained there, motionless, sightless, in the horror movie company of her own breathing, trying to decide if she were alive or dead. Or somewhere in between. It seemed like an eternity.
The prickle of something on the back of her neck convinced Nora she could feel, and therefore possibly move. With a concerted effort, she let go of the armrest and lifted her hand and the whisk of fabric over her skin validated that she was alive. She went to rub her eyes and discovered the blindness was a blanket draped over her face and torso. With a terrified grunt, she flung the covering off and squinted into the sudden brightness. The overpowering scent of the perfume of the woman beside her disappeared. When her eyes adjusted, she looked around. She was lying on her back, still strapped into her seat. Above her was a thin swath of blue sky, framed by tall pine trees. To either side of her were smooth gray rocks, standing like sentinels above her. After long moments of struggle, her shaking hands were able to unbuckle her seatbelt, and she tried to roll away from the seat, but her legs would not follow. Panic seized her before she realized it was the straps to her backpack that were still wrapped around her lower legs. She laughed with relief and the sound came out in an unfamiliar bray, the cackle of an insane woman. She untangled her legs and kicked the bag away, rolling from the seat and onto her knees on the pine needle covered earth where anxiety grabbed her. Next to her now was just her seat lying on its back. There were no others. One moment, she was crowded into a small space with too many other people, the next she was all alone. It was impossible to contemplate. All she could think was that Aunt Mace was expecting her home. Nora pulled her pack to her and checked her precious cargo. The plastic bag filled with rapidly dissipating dry ice used to chill the medication that needed to be kept refrigerated was undamaged. She zipped her pack and looked for her phone. Finding it in the front pocket, she switched it out of airplane mode but found she had no signal.
Nora slid her phone into her back pocket and stood up. With tentative movements, she ran her shaking hands over her body, taking inventory. She didn’t feel any pain. Everything seemed to be intact. The hard square shape of her e-reader slid out from the bottom edge of her shirt and landed at her feet. She stared at it in disbelief, an artifact of normalcy, when she wasn’t sure what normal was anymore.
Nora picked up the device and stepped around the seat, noticing the torn metal where the adjoining seat had been. A thick layer of dirt and pine needles had collected around the headrest and in the chair, indicating that the seat had slid headfirst before it had come to a stop. She dropped the e-reader into the seat. Her eyes traced the disturbed path of forest debris, and she realized that her seat had skidded at least a hundred feet before it came to rest between two huge rocks. She pulled a handful of pine needles from the collar of her flannel shirt. How had she not been bashed against one of the trees or the large rocks strewn around the immediate vicinity? It was against all logical probability that she wasn’t dead.
Evidence of the crash surrounded her, a wide swath of plowed up dirt and broken trees. Nora began to walk, and then run, toward where she thought the airplane would be. She couldn’t see the aircraft, but its slide path led her over a slight rise. She looked frantically around her as she raced through the forest, hoping to see other survivors. There was no smoke and little debris aside from the torn up vegetation and disturbed earth. She caught a whiff of airplane fuel, but it was faint, and then it was gone. It was silent save for the sound of her own pulse pounding in her head and her feet hitting the uneven ground. There was no birdsong, no insect noise, not even the sound of the wind in the trees. Nature seemed to hold its breath while she processed the scene. Skirting around a large rock in what had become a full sprint, Nora saw one of the aircraft’s wings propped against some trees. The sight distracted her long enough that she almost didn’t notice the path disappearing into empty air. With open space careening toward her, she sat back hard, grasping at the ground with her hands. She skidded to a stop on her butt, the heel of her foot caught on a root barely a half-inch in diameter dangling in a loop from the edge of the cliff. It was all that stopped her from the forward momentum that would have launched her into the deep abyss below.
Heart in her throat, she immediately switched course, performing a frantic crab-crawl backward until she was several feet from the edge. On solid footing, she leaned back on her hands while sweat streamed down her face, instantly chilling her in the cool autumn air. She tried to catch her breath, her respiration and heart rate careening, the sound of her raspy inhalations stark in the otherwise eerie quiet. Light-headed, the sense of surrealism she had felt in her exhaustion on the plane was a total contrast to the complete sense of hyper-awareness she felt now. The ravine in front of her was the width of a football field, with the thick forest picking up on the other side, stretching into the visible horizon. From where she sat, she couldn’t see to the bottom of the ravine and she wasn’t very keen on getting too close to the edge to check it out. But she was pretty sure the plane was down there, and she needed to see. Although it terrified her, she crawled over to a nearby tree that jutted out over the crevice. Summoning her courage, she stood on shaky legs, hooked her arm around the trunk, and leaned over. Instant vertigo made her head swim, but Nora shut her eyes and took a deep breath to control herself. When she felt a little better, she slowly opened her eyes. Five hundred feet below, the hull of the airplane littered the ravine floor in one large piece and a thousand smaller ones. The other wing rested several feet away. Little else was recognizable.
She needed to get down there to look for survivors. She searched for a way to descend. The bottom of the ravine narrowed to what looked to be no more than two hundred feet across, with nearly vertical walls going straight down. Looking to her right, the icy façade of a glacier filled the narrower end of the ravine. To the left, it bent out of sight. Aside from a small stream of water worming away from the glacier, there was no movement, except for a thin black stream of smoke snaking up from one of the larger sections of the plane, threading its way upward before hitting open space and blowing in the opposite direction. Nora searched up and down the narrow canyon for a path that would take her down. As she was looking away from the crash, she heard the first explosion, and she turned toward the sound just in time to see a second, much larger, explosion. A ball of heat raced past her, forcing her backward, and she instinctively rolled into a ball behind the trunk of the tree she’d been holding on to and covered her head with her arms. Several smaller bangs and thuds continued to sound, and Nora imagined the fuselage blown to bits, with the metal raining down.
When the explosions ceased, Nora tentatively peered around the tree and leaned over to look into the now thicker smoke billowing from the space below. It was difficult to see, but between clouds of smoke, she was able to discern the largest section of plane, which had flames coming from each end. The smell of jet fuel and burning electrical components filled the air.
She sank to her knees, hugging the tree, and stared at the burning wreckage with a leaden weight filling her chest. How many people were still in the airplane? She felt helpless as she watched the conflagration burn uncontested. Her limbs were useless, hanging heavily from her body, and even if there had been a convenient way down into the ravine, she knew her body wouldn’t take her. The heat that reached her from the distance told her it wasn’t safe anyway. She’d have to wait until the fire burned down before she could get close enough to look for survivors.
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