My stomach lurched, shifting location dramatically from my brain to my feet and back again. At least, that’s how it felt. The turbulence might force me to use the barf bag I kept so firmly clutched in my left hand. No doubt people everyone would hear the bag begging for mercy if not for the ear-splitting screams going on. The armrest held fast against my death grip. I didn’t trust the ability of the seat belt alone to handle the job of keeping my body where it belonged.
Another jolt, another sickening drop. Surely, the ocean wasn’t far beneath us by this point. There could be hungry sharks below. That’d be just my luck.
The next jarring sent my long ash brown hair into a deeper state of tangles. The heavyset older woman beside me clutched a rosary, knuckles white, praying aloud. I put a hand on her forearm between lurching motions, hoping to comfort her. A few minutes before, I’d typed out a text to my husband, telling him I loved him and our daughter, and said goodbye. Maybe my phone would survive a plane crash and my family would know I’d been thinking of them.
A sharp motion to one side then back again popped the overhead storage bins open, sending an assortment of belongings onto the heads of those occupying the aisle seats, who cried out, some sustaining minor injuries resulting from the impact with hard luggage, raising the total number of wounded. Oxygen masks dropped in front of us from above, creating a fresh wave of panic.
The co-pilot announced we should ignore the masks and hang on, because we were almost out of it. The conditions made it difficult to believe him. Perhaps the worst thing was watching through the window as the wing on my side of the plane cavorted about independently from the body of the aircraft with each shudder.
On top of everything else, in under an hour I’d be airborne again, in a helicopter. Provided I managed to live through the current rollercoaster ride. Why did I ever agree to this? I must have lost my mind, like I might lose my lunch. Or the contents of my bladder. A dream career wasn’t worth my life.
“Dear God,” I whispered, “please save us, or take us quickly. Some of these people won’t be able to make it through another drop like that one, including me.”
The aircraft gave another shudder, leaving everyone waiting for plane parts to separate like a jigsaw puzzle. But no accompanying drop came this time. After nearly a full minute of sniffles, whines, and moans, disbelieving passengers took it all in. We waited, either for more tossing or to simply drop out of the sky and be blown into a billion tiny bits upon impact with the water.
It didn’t happen. The day remained beautiful and sunny. Cottony clouds cast dark blue shadows on the surface of the ocean beneath. And dry land swung into view in the distance as the plane made a gentle turn. The landing gear thumped as they descended from the belly of the aircraft, as designed. My feet longed for solid ground.
“Everything’s under control now, folks. We’ll be landing in just a few minutes. Hang in there. Medical personnel will be meeting us at the gate,” the co-pilot reported in a thick accent, repeating the same in two other languages.
“Thank you, God. And please, let this be the one and only terrible experience I will ever have in the air, for the rest of my life,” I whispered. Fulfillment shouldn’t be difficult, considering in a week I’d be home and never go on anything that went higher than a porch swing again. People weren’t meant to fly, just as my husband always said.
I combed my fingers through my hair and fanned at myself and my grateful seatmate, using a crumpled magazine. At least I had something dramatic to write as part of the article I was here to research. The next step in the process involved touring islands, which should prove relaxing. What could possibly go wrong with that scenario?
I stopped in the shade of the small airport building I’d just checked in at, backpack strapped over my shoulder. There were three helicopters parked on the asphalt ahead. I must have lost my mind, ready to go through with leaving the ground behind again.
“Hello ma’am. You must be Savannah Dalton. I’m Dave Rodgers.” Dave had just emerged from the building behind me.
My mouth gaped open almost enough for me to fit my fist inside. He was perfect if a woman liked tall, dark, and devastating, with a manly voice to match. The man was overloaded with more than his fair share of the wow factor: muscular, dark hair and eyes, olive skin, and a small scar on his forehead that dipped into his left eyebrow, only serving to add to his rugged sex appeal. As if he needed more. He extended his hand while revealing the most likeable smile I’d ever seen in my entire life.
“Hey. You’re the pilot?” I shook his hand, hoping my palm wasn’t too sweaty and that he didn’t notice. I should have wiped it off on my pants first. I was amazed at my own ability to form words. Let alone that they came out correctly and were audible.
“Yes, ma’am, that’d be me. I’ve already got your photographer strapped into his seat. He’s quite a character. Have you known him long?” Dave led the way toward one of the three machines.
“I’ve never met him. He came highly recommended by a friend of mine at National Geographic. She made the arrangements.” I swiped away a trickle of sweat from beneath my hair before it found its way down my back. I didn’t want to look sweaty and nervous around Dave, even though I was. The temperature had me overheated almost as much as Dave did. I attempted to cool off a bit by flapping the front of my shirt as we walked. It was a lovely chartreuse color, but white would’ve shown perspiration less. Who could’ve expected a situation like this? At least I’d pulled my hair back.
My focus shifted to the helicopter he angled us toward. It looked like it belonged in a museum. “How long old is your helicopter?”
“She’s got some years on her, but I keep her in top shape. She flies like a dream. You’ll have the best flying experience of your life.”
I hoped his idea of a dream wasn’t different from mine. The nightmare I’d just gotten off of popped into my head.
“You aren’t afraid to fly, are you?” he asked, opening a rear door. It creaked. Naturally. I should've expected the helicopter would be an antique.
“I’ve never been in a helicopter before. And I just finished a scary airplane ride less than an hour ago. It was the most frightening experience of my life.”
“But it landed in one piece.” He helped me into my seat after tucking my backpack into a compartment under the seat ahead.
“You heard?” I took note of the full-sized first aid kit squirreled away in the netting on the rear of the seat ahead and wondered if there were barf bags inside.
“It came over the radio while my friend Ryan and I were getting the chopper ready. A bunch of sick and injured passengers on the outskirts of the tropical cyclone—that’s a hurricane back in the States. It intensified faster than expected. We’ll finish up and get back here before there’s a problem in this area.”
“Are you sure?” My eyebrows rose.
“Positive. Your pilot was either overconfident or behind schedule. He should’ve diverted his course. I’m sorry you had such a rough trip. You guys hit some bad turbulence.”
“We did.” This guy should be on television or in a movie or have a modeling career. There must be dozens of women falling all over themselves to be near him at a moment’s notice. I’d move here and be one of them if I weren’t happily married.
I was happily married, right? Surprisingly, I needed to give the idea a moment of thought before confirming. More or less, anyway.
The air temperature had to be about five degrees hotter around Dave. Maybe more like ten. If I focused on him, he’d provide enough distraction to get me through anything this flight could throw my way.
“You weren’t one of those sick ones, were you?” Dave asked.
“No.” His hand touched my shoulder fleetingly, sending my internal body temperature skyrocketing.
“You should be proud of yourself, going through what you did right after a meal was served and not getting sick. We just might make a flying ace out of you yet.” He flashed perfect white teeth.
The word wow kept going through my mind. At least the thought stayed in my head. Didn’t it? I wasn’t sure.
“Impossible. After I get home, I don’t think I’ll ever fly again as long as I live.”
“You’ll change your mind after flying with me. I promise I’ll take good care of you.” He patted my shoulder reassuringly.
“I’m going to hold you to that.” I smiled and he returned it, strapping me in.
My seatmate was a tall, thin man with salt and pepper hair pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. His eyes were gray, and mirrored aviator sunglasses hung from one of a multitude of pockets in his vest.
“I would let you sit up front for a better view, but I’m hauling an extra passenger.” He motioned to the seat ahead. “His name’s Ryan Buckley, a friend who came for a visit after…what, Ryan? Two years now?”
Ryan turned, briefly acknowledging my presence. “Hi, it’s good to meet you. And it’s been fourteen months, not two years, Dave. You need to check a calendar out here in the boonies occasionally.” Ryan was a nice-looking guy, lean but muscular, and probably around my age, with close-cropped light brown hair, blue eyes, and a pleasant smile.
Dave winked as he closed my door and gave it a slap.
“Hey, Ryan. I’m Savannah Dalton.” Shockingly, I remembered my name. Dave had me in such a daze it could’ve easily been forgotten.
“Savannah’s a pretty name.” Ryan put on dark sunglasses.
“Thanks.” My eyes were locked on Dave as he climbed in.
“For a pretty lady,” the photographer said in a French accent. “I’m Alphonse Boudreaux. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” He extended his hand.
Alphonse was supposed to be an up-and-coming nature photographer. When I shook his hand, he gave mine an exaggerated kiss, then started working his way up my arm.
“Hey!” I pulled my hand away and grimaced, while he laughed. Great choice of photographers. Maybe I needed a new friend at National Geographic.
Ryan slid his sunglasses farther down on his nose to send the photographer a threatening stare. Alphonse caught it and returned to rummaging around inside his camera bag, chuckling to himself.
Dave started the engine, and the rotors spun obediently. I wondered if it was too late to change my mind. My little voice told me this was a bad idea. Maybe worse than the trip that got me here.
As the helicopter lifted, I gripped my seat, both side and front. The material proved itself up to the challenge. Going straight up was a foreign sensation.
I’d gone along with the trip because my friend made it sound glamorous. Tropical islands, adventure in a beautiful foreign country, the potential for a fascinating discovery. An important magazine assignment would benefit my burgeoning career, and this was a giant of the field, National Geographic.
“I see you’re married.” Alphonse pointed to my left hand. “I’m married myself. But I wouldn’t let my wife go off without me, especially to a romantic, tropical getaway. Of course, I go off without her all the time for my work. Do you have any kids?”
“Yes, a daughter. She starts middle school in the fall.”
“I have two girls, but mine are twenty-four and twenty-three. I love them so much. But I love my job, too. I get to take photographs for a living because my wonderful wife makes lots of money and wants me to be as happy as I make her.”
“That’s nice.” Beyond my window was ocean, making my stomach nervous.
“The woman who arranged everything said this article might be a feature story. I’ve had cover shots, but never with National Geographic. This is a wonderful opportunity.”
Concentrating on the views outside was difficult with the conversation taking place inside. But it was taking the edge off the queasiness.
“Do you just write freelance articles, or do you also write books? You might get famous doing that, like what’s his name? Patterson, James Patterson.”
“I’ve thought about it, but I’ve never tried. Even if I did, I’d never have the following of James Patterson. No one does.”
“He’s been at it a long time, of course,” Alphonse said.
“Is it hard…writing, I mean?” Dave asked, angling his head back to me, flashing that amazing smile.
“It’s great, but it’s part-time. I teach high school geography for a living. What about flying? That seems absurdly complicated, remembering what all those buttons and switches are for. How long have you been flying?”
“Flying is my lifelong passion. I flew in the Coast Guard for fifteen years before I gave that up to start my own business out here. The Coast Guard was where Ryan and I met. Mostly now I fly tourists around. It’s exciting to be contracted to assist on a big story for National Geographic.
“Speaking of which, I’ve been wondering about something. How do you manage to write such interesting articles? When I signed on, I researched you…and you, Alphonse. It helped me understand what the two of you might be looking for. But for the life of me, I don’t understand how people write like that. Did you study to be a writer?”
“No, my major was geography, so my work focuses on nature. But speaking of careers, while I have the opportunity, I’d like to thank both you and Ryan for your service.”
They smiled, Dave adding a thumbs up.
“If you want to know the truth, photography is harder than either of your jobs. I love it and would never want to do anything else, but everyone thinks it’s easy. Just push a button.” Alphonse shook his head emphatically from side to side.
“So, what else is there besides pushing a button?” Dave interjected.
“It’s quite involved, more so than you’d expect. You must consider lighting, shadows, weather, and a whole host of technical issues with equipment. Plus, you end up taking hundreds of photographs just to get one image that works its unique magic.”
I turned away to stare through the window at the ocean. There were several islands of diverse sizes and shapes nearby and more on the horizon. Alphonse continued actively engaging Dave in conversation.
Ahead, Ryan glanced over his shoulder, pointing to the ocean and a group of distant islands. I nodded and continued searching for one to match the description related by an early explorer in an obscure newspaper article from around the turn of the twentieth century. Dave was here to fly, Alphonse to photograph. My assigned task was attempting to rediscover something lost, nicknamed Shark Tooth Island.
After somewhere around four hours, during which time we made a pit stop to refuel and relieve ourselves on a seemingly abandoned, inhospitable-looking island outpost, Alphonse called to the pilot. “This looks like a good spot for some photographs. Circle it for me. What do you think, Savannah? Even if we can’t find the island you’re looking for, we can document the effort.”
I had been completely lost in thought. Following Alphonse’s gaze, I noted the heavily wooded island on his side of the helicopter. It wasn’t the largest we’d seen, but it held interest, with a wide, sandy cove, the water shallow, and a lovely turquoise. It held promise to at least pass for Shark Tooth Island. I nodded to Alphonse in agreement and took the next logical step in his idea. “And we might still be able to get it published. Maybe not the cover, but you’re right. What we’re doing will make for an interesting story.”
Trees roofed the majority of the island, sloping from towering cliffs to sandy beaches. Flocks of birds scattered from one cluster of trees to another as our helicopter passed. A narrow streak of water spilled from inside a grouping of rocks on a steep hillside. It splashed gleefully as gravity took it, disappearing into more rocks some twenty feet below. There was no pool, meaning water collected underground before ending up in the ocean.
Beach encircled the entirety of the island, except on the north end. There, the topography ascended mightily above the ocean. At the foot of intimidating cliffs, there was little room for a beach. Large, jagged rocks jutted defiantly from the ocean’s angry surface. Frothy, furious waves crashed over them, the surf rolling in and out. The ominous water in-between was a deep, dark blue, sloshing back and forth. It was spectacularly treacherous.
“That’s scary-looking.” I glanced to Alphonse.
“It’s gorgeous!” Alphonse countered. “And a perfect match for what I’ve read in that old newspaper article.”
“That’s what I was just thinking about that cove we passed over. It’s worth exploring.” We flew away from the violent cliffs to reconnoiter. The rest of the island was peaceful and lush, the ground often hidden amongst the dense vegetation. Bright, tropical flowers grew on trees and on bushes in the understory.
“There’re some coconut trees over that way.” Dave pointed but I didn’t know enough about tropical trees to spot them amongst all the rest. “And I saw bananas. Banana and coconut trees produce pretty much year-round out here.”
“There’re probably lots of edibles in there. No people though?” Ryan asked.
“None. Too small and remote for that,” Dave said. “What’s next, Savannah?”
“Let’s go up a bit, so I can get a look at it from above, to see the overall shape.”
“Yes ma’am.” The helicopter rose smoothly, circling.
My eyes noted details, working it out. “I think I see it…no, I know I do. It’s got a cove almost totally closed off from the ocean and the whole island is shaped like a giant shark tooth. This might be it!”
“I see it, too!” Ryan caught the excitement from me and Alphonse.
“I don’t know…I’ve seen lots of islands in my travels that could pass for a shark tooth,” Dave said with reluctance, piloting the helicopter toward the more pointed end of the island. “We’ll come back tomorrow if you want and land so you can verify the rest. Good luck with that, by the way. I’ll hover you over the water, but I won’t go in there with you.”
“What do you mean by that?” Ryan asked.
“It’s supposed to be a major gathering spot for sharks. That’s from the old report, from back in 1901. And I’m not getting paid to dive with sharks. They can send in a scientific expedition for that.” My swimming skills were decent, but I wouldn’t risk a shark encounter for any amount of money.
“I think these cliffs are the most interesting part of the island for Alphonse and me. What do you say, Alphonse? All set back there?” Dave asked.
“All set; ready to open up!” Alphonse responded.
Open up? What did that mean?
“Let me hold her steady for you. Okay, go ahead,” Dave hollered over his shoulder, the helicopter ceasing its forward progress to hover over the steep jungle terrain near the cliffs.
While I’d been talking, Alphonse had fastened straps to the harness he wore, attaching himself to steel cables, one above the door and the other by Dave’s seat. Next thing I knew, he’d disconnected his seatbelt, pulled a handle, and slid the door open. Loose strands of hair from the long ponytail swirled all about his face.
As did mine, poking at my eyeballs. I hadn’t expected this. The door was wide, freaking open. Using both hands, I tried to rein in my hair, not to mention my fear. “Is this safe? Having the door open, I mean?”
“Yes, ma’am. We’ll be fine, don’t worry. It’s safer to do this in a helicopter than an airplane. Some people remove the doors altogether,” Dave yelled back.
That must’ve been intended to reassure. Hopefully, the meal on the jet was too far through my system to be thrown up now. Although from the sensations in my stomach, I could be wrong.
“Is this a good spot or do you want me to find something else?” Dave chimed in.
“This is great, Dave!” Alphonse called out. “Circle the island again; then go lower for a close look.”
“Will do!” Dave hollered back.
The helicopter rotated smooth as silk, taking us around the perimeter of the island. This part was enjoyable, away from those cliffs. Alphonse alternately snapped images and shot video. The plant life formed a near-impenetrable jungle, hiding away deep, dark secrets. I couldn’t help wondering what those secrets were.
Dave returned to the cliffs for that up-close look Alphonse wanted. In several locations there were deep crevices inviting exploration. Some of them appeared to be caves; but the long, narrow overhangs cast shadows, limiting visibility, and generating doubt. A simple trick of shadow and light, most likely.
“This is great! It’s what I live for!” Alphonse exclaimed, jubilant.
Dave’s helicopter lifted to the peak, shifting to hover thirty feet above the treetops. The branches swayed as if in the throes of a hurricane from swirling air currents generated by the helicopter’s rotors.
“Here’s a good view for you!” Dave hollered with obvious enthusiasm.
The helicopter tilted at a sharp angle then, as Dave rotated the machine in a circle, which had me focused on not screaming. Alphonse released a loud whoop of delight, and Dave let loose a big belly laugh. He eased up on the angle but continued to swivel the machine as my photographer leaned out as far as he could get.
The harness was all that kept Alphonse from falling to his death as we hovered over the absolute edge of the cliffs. He braced himself with one knee against the arm of his seat as he snapped away. His work here would be incredible.
Dave maneuvered a few feet higher and back toward the trees, periodically tilting the helicopter at an angle for a shot or two. Alphonse was exposed to the violently swaying treetops, my window showing sky.
How could this even be possible? Weren’t we defying the laws of gravity enough already, just by flying in this thing normally? When would he stop angling us over? However many photographs Alphonse had taken, it was bound to be enough. We should be done here.
As if reading my mind, Dave called back to Alphonse. “Okay, that’s it. We’ve got enough fuel to get us back to the halfway station. We’ve already been gone longer than I filed on my flight plan for the entire duration of the trip, and we’ve still got to get back. We’ve deviated way off course at your request, too, Alphonse. That was a big no-no, so we’ve got to get going. Plus, there’s a brewing cyclone out there to consider. We’ll be flying back in the dark as it is. Might get a little dicey, all things considered.”
“Wait a minute! There’s something down there. I see…something. Take us a little closer, Dave!” Alphonse insisted.
“What is it?” Dave asked, glancing down through his side window at the trees below us, easy to do as he tilted the machine again.
“I don’t know.” Alphonse lifted his camera and resumed snapping images at a rapid pace. “I think maybe it was…”
Dave began angling the machine slowly back toward level, even as he was craning his neck, trying to spot whatever had gained Alphonse’s spellbound attention. We were partway to level when he uttered a sharp expletive, and Alphonse screamed.
“Oh my God, get us out of here! Go!” Alphonse yelled.
It was already too late.
My head turned toward Alphonse quickly, but it was hard to see past him. Then I caught a glimpse of what had thrown them into a panic. Birds. Dozens upon dozens of seagulls funneled up from the jungle in a nightmarish apparition. Death reached for us from the dark depths of the jungle on black-tipped wings.
Everything happened fast after that, yet to my terrified mind it seemed a slow-motion, frame-by-frame series of events. It had to be happening to someone else. It couldn’t be me.
The birds flew straight up at us out of the treetops, as if from a genuine calling. One collided with Alphonse as he threw up his arms to block it. As he screamed and thrashed, his camera went into free-fall, shattering into bits as it bounced off the rocky ground at the base of the tree line. The remains sailed in an arc over the cliffs, headed for the crashing waves far beneath.
The raucous cries of the birds filled the air as they continued moving skyward from the trees, too close to change up their flight paths and avoid us. Bits of blood, feathers, and bird parts rocketed around the helicopter as the birds repeatedly struck the aircraft. The helicopter was beset with massive tremors. Dave’s muscles bulged and his facial muscles tensed as he managed to pull it higher and straighten the machine momentarily before it tilted too far to one side, the listing machine becoming too difficult to control. We lurched radically to the opposite side.
The engine made a loud shrieking noise, akin to the birds. Thickening smoke swirled in the air. We screamed in horror as the engine died and the blades slowed their spinning, giving up the struggle, unable to keep us airborne as their spinning slowed. We plunged to the earth like a very large, very heavy rock.
The first impact to our pitching aircraft was with the top of a tall tree. Alphonse let out a yelp, cut short as the branches shoved their way inside with us, splintering glass the birds hadn’t fully shattered themselves. The helicopter ricocheted off the tree, spiraling toward the ground, completely out of control.