Jack Cane Landry stirred awake from a deep and troubling fog, a bright sun warming his face.
Confused at first, he lifted an arm to block the orb of golden light stabbing at his eyes.
“Where am I?” he thought. “Is this a dream?”
Glancing to his right brought a shocking sight -- and the horror of it cleared his head.
It was a nightmare--except the nightmare was real.
Olivia FitzGerald, motionless, eyes closed, sat slumped in the seat next to him, a smear of blood painting her left cheek. A jagged metal object separated them, something speared into the seat back with obvious violence.
Had it veered a few inches to either side, it could have severed limbs. Jack shuddered at the thought.
“Olivia?” he said. “Are you okay—can you hear me?”
She didn’t stir.
Was she alive?
A bolt of panic seared through Jack’s fog. “God—the plane really went down. We crashed. We—”
Jack shook his head, trying to clear it.
The glaring sun made it obvious that the sheared-off rear of the aircraft that sheltered them faced east. He stared out at the gaping opening before him. The extended tail section of the Otter float plane that they’d been riding in sat on an apron of soft marsh – explaining, maybe, why they were alive. The spongy ground had cushioned their fall from the sky.
In the far distance, across an expanse of dense marsh, Jack could make out the rest of the plane -- the cockpit nose down, jabbing into the swamp bottom, wings lying bent and broken nearby. Debris lay all around.
A memory of terror filled his head – lightning, the violent explosion of thunder, the plane lurching crazily through the blackest clouds Jack had ever seen, Olivia clutching at his arm, screaming, “Oh, God! Oh, God! No, no, no!”
Joe Desmoreaux, the pilot, yelling, “C’mon, c’mon, gimme some speed!” as the plane coughed and sputtered and spun and then plummeted through the storm clouds.
Terrence FitzGerald, Olivia’s father in the seat next to Joe, turning back and saying calmly, “It’s okay. We’ll be fine.”
An opening in the clouds as the plane gained speed and tried to right itself, shuddering and rocking, its stall horn blaring. And then, just as suddenly, a shadowy line of trees appearing in the fading, eerie light -- and a jarring bang, the shock rattling the cabin as the plane broke apart.
Jack could remember the blistering of rain on his face; the slap of cool, wet air; the sickening, sideways roller-coaster gyrations as they spun around and hit the ground; the flying objects jarred from the cabin as they skidded upright across the marsh; Olivia’s shriek; the scream that formed in his own head but that was swallowed by his terror.
A loud thump as they rolled across what might have been a log. And then, for a long while . . . nothing.
How could they even be alive?
Cupping his hands to his mouth, Jack called out toward the wreckage of the cockpit. “Joe, are you there? Joe! Mr. FitzGerald, can you hear me? Anybody out there? If you can hear me, say something!”
He held his breath, waiting, but the swamp swallowed the fading echoes of his voice.
The storm had clearly blown past, leaving behind a perfect autumn morning. The sky was blue and calm. Layers of fog lazed in the nearby cypress tops.
A crow cawed in the distance, breaking the silence.
Jack forced himself to move. Unbuckling the three-point harness that had kept him in his seat and no doubt saved his life, he shifted gingerly at first, testing his arms and legs. Nothing seemed broken. A long, shallow gash on his right forearm still oozed blood. There was something crowding the vision in his right eye. He reached up, his hand touching a large knot above his eyebrow.
It didn’t hurt.
None of it hurt though it should.
“Shock?” Jack wondered.
He shook his head. Swiveling in his seat, he looked into the compartment behind him. A pair of dirty pair work gloves sat atop a stack of life vests – how hadn’t they been blown from the wreckage?
Everything else of value that wasn’t secured seemed to have been tossed into the void. Jack suddenly realized that their backpacks which had been at their feet—with bottles of water, some energy bars and their iPhones—were gone.
“Shit,” he muttered under his breath.
Not that cellphones would work in the cover of the deep swamp. But Jack could see maybe getting a signal if he climbed to the top of a high cypress tree.
Well, no use thinking of that now.
Jack pulled on the gloves and tackled the jagged piece of metal between him and Olivia. It was clearly some torn-off part of the fuselage. He grabbed it top and bottom and, with a sawing motion, worked it back and forth until it broke free. He pitched it out of the gaping opening in front of him and heard it bounce, sprong, on the spongy ground below.
Tossing the gloves aside, he inched forward, hovering over Olivia. She was pale, the thin track of dry blood on her left cheek matched by a bruise on the other.
It had been chilly in the plane. The heavy green sweatshirt she wore made it impossible to tell if she was still breathing. Steeling himself, he reached out to touch her forehead.
“Don’t be dead,” he said, under his breath. “Please don’t be dead.”
He flinched as his hand touched her skin.
It was warm.
Jack knelt awkwardly in front of Olivia, reaching for her hands. He knew some First Aid basics. His town, probably still no more than seventy-five miles away from them, was tiny; lots of high schoolers volunteered for the EMT crew.
He’d joined the crew the past two summers in a row. Why hadn’t he paid more attention?
Fumbling a little, he felt Olivia’s wrist. Her hands were icy but her pulse was strong and steady.
He sat back in relief.
Stay with the plane? Hope someone found them quickly?
The tail end of the plane was broken open, but it was still shelter. And it would be easier for rescuers to see that from the air than to see two people alone in the swamp. If they waited it out, they could--
Jack lurched backward as the plane suddenly shifted, leaning sharply left and throwing him off balance. He grabbed frantically for the handle on the seat back just in time to keep from being pitched to the marsh below.
He knew the problem. They were sinking.
He had a brief but terrifying vision of being trapped. Swallowed up by a dark, marshy pit of muck and water.
Scrambling back into his seat, he did a quick inventory of the compartment behind him. It was bleak.
Even the five-gallon jug of emergency water was gone, gashed open by the piece of fuselage that had speared into the seat between them.
He realized his hands were shaking. He fought back the panic.
He stared at a stack of orange life vests, an idea forming in the back of his head. It wasn’t a good idea, but it was all that he had.
Grabbing the life vests, he threw them one by one out of the opening and onto the mucky ground below. Beneath the sixth vest he got lucky: a white, waterproof, zippered nylon bag, about the size of a seat cushion, and emblazoned with blocky red lettering: “Emergency Kit.”
There wasn’t time to look inside, but he tossed it out as well.
Scrambling back to Olivia, Jack undid the three-point harness that held her in her seat. His first thought was to try to pick her up and lower her gently to the marsh bed. But, inching closer to the edge of the shattered opening for a look, he saw that the plane was cocked at a strange angle to the ground. Metal shards of the fuselage bristled like knives below them.
Knives killed you, no matter how gently you were lowered onto them.
There was only one thing to do.
Kneeling before Olivia, he heaved her still-unmoving body over his left shoulder, grunting with the effort.
Olivia was tall.
When they had first met, two days ago, it had taken him a minute to realize how tall; at least a couple of inches more than him. There’d been too many other things for him to notice about Olivia; like the fact that she was gorgeous, or how she had the greenest eyes he’d ever seen.
Jack was five-foot-seven-and-a-half (five-foot-eight to anyone who asked), but he’d dated girls taller than him before. It had never been an issue. In fact, he’d hardly even noticed.
Until he met Olivia.
Olivia had a way of making you notice things, he thought, awkwardly shifting her weight against his shoulder. It felt strange to be holding her like this. Breathing in the smell of her hair, the smell of her, feeling her breath as it rose and fell against him.
Reaching out with his left hand to grasp the seat back for balance, Jack rose slowly and inched his way to the edge of the opening, praying the plane wouldn’t suddenly shift again.
He stared down at the watery patch of marsh ten feet below them, now littered with life jackets.
Olivia was growing heavy in his arms.
Jack was fit. He was on his school’s swim team, which he loved, and cross-country, not so much. An odd thought fluttered through Jack’s mind. “What would Coach Galjour think?”
Galjour was his hard-assed cross-country coach and Jack often groused with his teammates about Coach’s insistence on a heavy regimen of weightlifting. What did that have to do with running?
Now, it was coming in handy. Jack mentally made a note to thank Coach—if he survived.
He tightened his hold on Olivia, pulling her close to his chest.
He took a deep breath--and then he jumped.