Saving Ebony


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Saving Ebony    (SAMPLE)                             BACK TO SYNOPSIS

Chapter 1

August 18, 2018

I awake as though rising from a bog, both fighting off and trying to hold onto a dream or a nightmare, pushing at what feels like weeds in my face, in my nose, my mouth, my throat; spitting . . . spitting. But they’re way too thin for weeds. They're more like . . . cobwebs! Thin and wispy.

Like a spider's kingdom.

The four words pass through my mind and then something clears or there comes an edge of awareness, an inkling of understanding of space, of air, of the odor of smoke and something else.

Hair!

With that thought comes a heartbeat of relief. What I take to be a kingdom of cobwebs must certainly be Ariana's hair. I so love Ariana and her beautiful red hair. I lift an eyelid and find to my horror that the hair is blond and . . . sticky-looking, like something has been dribbled into it. I stop breathing for a few seconds, thinking, feeling my heart beating. I inhale slowly, deeply, compare the odor with what I’m seeing and tasting. Ariana's hair is red, not blonde, and this hair, this woman who has hair that is not Ariana's, smells of smoke and blood.

I blink over and over to be sure that I'm awake, not falling deeper into a nightmare, sense more real world around me and the weight of the person who is not Ariana lying heavy upon my chest. I also sense that her body is cold.

Dead.

Cold.

I seal my eyes from the panic, suck air through my teeth in hopes of lessening the stench but the taste of bloody hair drives me to spitting and gagging, jerking my head back and forth. I flail one arm about until my hand finds the hair and pushes it aside. The other arm I cannot move or it refuses to move or is asleep, trapped . . . gone.

Gone!?

Panic! The fear and panic roll across me, take charge of my senses and zap at every nerve. My legs jerk followed by my entire body, sending the person who is not Ariana flopping off of me like a child’s giant rag doll. I do a fast, uncontrolled count to ten then roll to my hands and knees. I breathe hard, like I'd sprinted a mile, heaving and choking on oily smoke until I'm able to understand, to rationalize that my other arm is in fact not gone, that it is right there sharing the effort of holding my face off the ground. I push back to sit on my heels and look around at what can only be described as a bloody carnage. Bodies and body parts are strewn about what was obviously pieces of an airplane; a very big airplane; a 730, 740 or 767 I imagine, something wide body with hundreds of passengers. One piece of the plane is on fire along with two trees against which it is lodged.

Will this turn into a forest fire? Although it’s August, normally a bad time of the year for fires in Montana, there's already an accumulation of snow above 7,500 feet. I'm at 6,400 and it's on the cool side so a full-blown fire should not be a huge concern.

I hope.

Was I on this airplane? That is my concern.

I try to remember what I was doing but nothing comes to me. Where would I have been going if I was on an airplane? More importantly, was Ariana on the plane with me?

The panic that I'd fought, resulting in the body of the woman who is not Ariana being tossed aside, begins returning and I start looking, frantically, around for my wife. I jump to my feet but then all panic ceases as I find the scene turning fuzzy and swirling around me and the ground coming up to meet my face with a painful smack.

Chapter 2

I roll onto my back and remain such until the trees and dark clouds stop spinning about. When they do, I sit up. I assess my parts, expecting bleeding, cuts, contusions, something to suggest that I'd been thrown from this airplane as it disintegrated in the trees along the mountain side. I am covered in blood; lots of blood. Most of it is on my pants, like a full bucket of it had been poured upon me. I look over at the woman who is not Ariana and understand why I was able to push her off of me so easily, that is other than that I’m a big guy and I was in a panic. She is only half a woman, her bottom half completely gone.

I roll to my hands and knees, gag, breathe, sit back on my heels and look up at the sky again. The clouds are dark and ominous, foretelling of an approaching storm. A peel of thunder confirms my thoughts, announcing the storm's eminence. Thunder generally means rain, not snow. I don't need snow right now. Rain, though, would squelch the fire or at least keep it from spreading.

Keeping my head turned from the half woman, I think again about my own injuries and find nothing but a bruise on the back of my head, a scrape at one elbow and a bloody nose from my recent contact with the earth. I wipe at the nose and peer down at the blood soaked clothes, the blood that is not my own. How is that possible? How could I have survived such a catastrophic event with nothing more than a bump and a scrape and a bloody nose?

My initial panic bled out, the nose not quite so, I tentatively rise to my feet, wait until I'm sure I'm steady then slowly start walking about, wiping at my nose with parts of my clothing not already soaked with someone else’s blood. I pick my way between airplane pieces and body parts, the last from which I look away quickly, gradually trying to gain a hardness to the bloodbath for no other reason than that I haven't a choice. I need to find Ariana so I can gather her into my arms one last time, so I try to imagine wearing blinders, blocking my view of anything not directly where I’m looking. It works until I walk upon a headless corpse and a corpseless head that do not appear to match, sending my head reeling and my stomach retching once more.

A simultaneous bolt of lightning and crack of thunder cause my blood to surge and my muscles to jerk me well off the ground. Sparks fly off the airplane’s tail and the ground around me seems to buzz. The tail stands like a lightning rod pointing skyward out of a line of bushes some hundred yards distance, beyond where trees used to be.

Beyond where trees used to be?

That thought gives me pause because how is it that I know that there were trees along that stretch, blocking the view of the bushes and the valley to the north where black clouds are doing a slow roll and where lightning is reaching to the ground? And come to think of it, how do I know the elevation at this location? I stop breathing while trying to think hard about that, then dig into a pocket and then another pocket. Where is my GPS? I remember that I had it in my hand. I was standing at this exact spot, checking the device for elevation, seeing 6,400 feet, eyeing the clouds and the mountains beyond, thinking that I needed to get my temporary shelter prepared. It was at that same time, between peels of distant thunder, that I heard something else; a roar as though the mountain was coming down upon me. Trees began scattering and the windscreen of a huge passenger jet appeared, coming very fast. From there it was all crazy until I awoke with half of a blond woman lying upon me, the woman who was not Ariana.

And I now remember that I was alone. I was in the middle of a weeklong hike, had kissed Ariana goodbye at the trailhead three days ago. "It's supposed to rain," she'd said. We were leaning against the car, side-by-side, looking toward the trailhead. "Do you have your poncho?"

"Of course," I'd said. "I'm not like you though, so it's not a big deal anyway."

"What do you mean you’re not like me?"

"I won't melt. You're so sweet you'd just disappear."

I remember her face and her grin. The relief rushes over me, knowing that she is safe at home on this Saturday afternoon. It sends me almost giddy.

That is until I look down again at the unmatched head and body.

I stumble back and turn, fall to my knees and empty my stomach onto a large, black purse.

After I stop retching I settle back on my heels and consider carrying the purse over to the creek to rinse it clean, hoping the woman will not notice. Then I snort at the stupidity of such a thought. The owner of the purse will never have the opportunity to notice anything again.

The creek!

I was preparing to camp near a creek. The memory of dropping my pack and studying the area for a makeshift shelter against the approaching storm comes to me and I look about for the creek. I listen for the sounds of water over rock and roots, blasting against a fallen tree as it rushes down the mountain. I recall the fallen tree as I used it to cross the creek after eyeballing an ideal campsite in the bowl of a collection of giant boulders, but I hear nothing . . . nothing. Not a bird. Not a creek. Only dead silence as though I've been struck deaf.

Of course!

The thunderous roar of the airliner crashing into the mountain has probably left me deaf, a temporary state I pray. But I heard the crack of thunder, remember jumping, and more of the same off in the distance. Of course I might hear the heavens booming, but not a bird chirping on a nearby tree left standing or a bubbling brook. And I jumped at the thunder or was that more at seeing the strike of lightening on the tail then at the sound?

I close my eyes and think, try to imagine where the creek would be. I had looked across the way after leaving my camp in search of small fallen branches, aged and dried wood appropriate for a fire. My camp was off to my left, just past nine o'clock from the direction I'd been looking when the airliner appeared, which would place it two-hundred seventy degrees on the compass. I open my eyes, turn toward the area to the north and the tail section now smoldering from the lightning strike and look to my left.

There are the boulders that I remember, a small car-size collection the other side of which I'm sure is my pack and the creek, but other than the rocks, nothing looks the same. Splinters of trees lie about, one crushed by a nearly complete passenger jet wing. I approach around and between the boulders and find the creek running beneath the wing, only moderately impeded by a twisted wing flap dug into the opposite bank. I look under it and find my pack lodged up against the fallen tree on which I had recently walked.

My pack! It has everything I need. My survival. My life. Without it I will die, I’m certain. It has my kitchen, my bedroom, my closet and my toilet. I feel the obsession growing inside of me, know that it is illogical, irrational, but I don't care. I want my pack now because I have to have it.

I drop to my belly and scoot forward until I can hook my fingers around the strap. I pull but it does not come. I jerk over and over, get both hands on it, turn to get leverage, grit my teeth until sweat breaks out on my brow, my arms. It does not come.

Whatever has it will not give it up. I shift about to gain a better view but with the storm clouds blocking most light, I cannot see in the dark recesses beyond the pack. I need a flashlight. Of course there're several right in front of me. I analyze the pack to determine the pockets containing flashlights. The two side pockets. I pull the zipper on the one closest to me and extract the little cigar-size black device containing two AA batteries, the type one can stick in one's mouth, like a cigar, when both hands need to be free. The other one I have is a headlamp which under the circumstances would be ideal. I know it's in the opposite pocket and would require much more effort to reach if I could do so at all. The cigar it is. I twist it until it comes on and peer beyond the pack.

The strap is lodged between the plane's wing and the tree. Otherwise, the pack is hanging loose, not appearing to be damaged in anyway. The strap will not find its way free, however, without the assist of a crane. The solution makes me a little sick but considering that I faced a crashing airliner with little to show for it except moderate-sized contusions and someone else's blood, I have absolutely no room for complaints. I run my hand around my belt to my multi-tool Leatherman knockoff, analyze it at the end of the flashlight now poking out of my mouth and fold out the largest blade. Seconds later I back away with my pack, less twenty percent of the right-hand strap.

I slip the single remaining strap over a shoulder and consider the awkwardness of the pack hanging sideways with my sleeping bag and tent kit acting as dead weights off the bottom.

Now what?

I should do something, like search for survivors. It's rare but it does happen now and then that a few lucky souls are chosen not to be ripped to shreds inside a giant bullet coming to a fast, unplanned stop from some two-hundred or more miles per hour. It would be wrong to walk away from someone needing nothing more than to staunch some bleeding or remove a heavy object so that they could breathe. I return to where I can see the carnage, look right and then left, study the upside down fuselage, the plane’s skin peeled back to reveal rows of seats, or in some places where seats should be but are not. Some of the seats still in place have people strapped in, hair and arms hanging down, waiting for their cookies and juice or afternoon cocktail.

“Stop it, Rusty!” I say to myself. This is no time to play standup comedian. There are probably already people hearing the news of a downed airliner in the remote Montana mountains, fearing for their loved ones, franticly making phone calls, praying that there are survivors and that theirs is one of them. Tall ponderosas lie every which way like a handful of giant toothpicks. This particular lot of ponderosas are those with green growth at the top and nothing but bark for the first seventy percent, like those toothpicks with fancy plastic stuff on the top. One tree lies in such a way that I can use it like a ramp to walk up into the upside-down passenger area where the wing used to be. I drop the pack and scamper up the tree. I look among a few of the seats that I can easily get to then move forward into first-class. I analyze upside down faces, eyes, watch for a rising chest, any flicker of life. There are only a handful that warrant checking for a pulse. I find no life. I give up and leave the fuselage, pick up my pack and head toward the cockpit, checking bodies along the way, finding none alive, few worth more than a glance.

The cockpit had been separated from the fuselage and is, surprisingly, intact. The windshield is cracked and scored, giving a distorted view of the pilots still strapped in their seats. The co-pilot's head is on his chest. The pilot's seat is broken, it appears, the seatback pressed all the way flat as though he’d popped it back to take a nap. Maybe that’s what he’s doing. Maybe he's alive and his injuries make him unable to navigate his way out of the cockpit or out of his seat.

I work my way around to the door that leads from the galley into the cockpit, the flight attendants nowhere to be seen. Then I think of the uniform of the headless corpse. I wonder what she was thinking this morning when she awoke and began preparing herself, unknowingly, for her last few hours on earth. Was she alone? Who did she talk to last? Who was the last person she said, I love you, to?

I have to stop that line of thinking before I drive myself crazy.

The door is ajar, stuck halfway. I set my pack down then press myself through the opening and step over a paraphernalia of objects to get to the two men. What I find gives me pause.

A very big pause!

The pilots are no doubt dead. But that's not what has my heart suddenly racing, my having to step back and catch my breath. I am a mystery junkie, one might say. Whether books or the big screen or even a little cell phone screen with a Bluetooth jammed in one or both ears, I love good mysteries, especially deep suspense and thriller. As a result I know how people are murdered; gun, knife, strangled, beaten, run over with a car, locked in a freezer, thrown in a pit of deadly snakes, dumped in an oven or a car crusher in a junk yard or into a big hole and covered with a ton of dirt. Man's imagination can come up with many ways to murder. What I’m looking at is poisoning. A key sign of one type of poisoning is frothing of the mouth and blue finger tips. Outside of stories to which I’ve read or listened, this is the first time I've ever seen the real thing.

These two men, these pilots, ingested strychnine.

I back out of the cockpit, trip over my pack and fall on my back. My head hits the ground and the resulting pain feels the same as when I woke up with half of a blond woman on top of me. For a full minute I see stars, wonder if I'm going to black out again. I wait it out, jaw clenched, eyes closed. Finally I start feeling my heart beat, pulsing in my head, blood rushing from somewhere to somewhere, some still out my nose, though that has slowed considerably. I roll over to my side, dragging over my backpack that is suddenly feeling like a huge burden. There comes a rise of panic and for a couple of seconds I have to fight off the urge to push the pack aside and run away into the trees until I am rid of all of this . . . this death. But I wait until my breathing, my heart settles.

Panic is not my friend. Panic is no one's friend.

I get to my feet, pause for a few seconds and then sling the one remaining strap over my shoulder. The pack is suddenly very heavy. The sleeping bag, secured with straps to the bottom, bounces against my legs.

The word cyanosis comes to me, the bluish discoloration of the skin as a result of the poison. In some way it robs the body of oxygen. Generally, death from strychnine takes a few hours; however, when one is tasked with piloting a commercial airliner with all kinds of gidgets and gadgets and blinking lights, the onset of symptoms may cause all kinds of unexpected consequences, one of which would be confusion. The pilot and copilot may have even come to battling each other, either trying to take control or pass control to the other as muscle spasms and convulsions started taking over at a greater rapidity.

Holy crap! Not only were the pilots murdered, but by transference so were all of the rest of the crew and passengers.

This entire mountain is a crime scene.

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