When I wake, I see nothing but white in front of me. Maybe this is heaven.
Then I remember I am in the plane, a lumbering C-47 outfitted with jump seats, now sawed in half. I am in the living half and the dead half is nose-deep in a pressure ridge of ice.
Earlier, when Sam boarded, he took the last seat in the back. “This is the safest place on the plane,” he said. I laughed and picked a seat farther up, midway through the body. With only us as passengers, the plane seemed cavernous. I was just along for the ride, although I planned to get an article published out of it. The Air Force had hired Sam to take photos. We were reenacting a 1952 flight by the USAF, the first to land on the North Pole. Had we been flying south instead of north, we would have been in the cockpit, the dead half. The lighting wasn’t right, Sam had said. The light saved us.
I’m still thinking this might be heaven, except for the cold. I remember this cold. It nearly killed me twice.
I hear Sam crawling up the aisle. He unhooks my belt. “We have to get warm,” I say. The metal floor is hot from friction where the belly of the plane skated across the ice but it won’t stay that way. We crawl to the back and find compartments with an emergency supply chest and wool army blankets.
We wrap the blankets around our shoulders and huddle. “We need more. Probably four layers of clothes,” I say.
“The pilots?” he asks. I nod, yes. We crawl to the serrated edge of the world and see in the pale light that the cockpit is perpendicular to our half, four feet off the ground. The wind and snow howl into the dead half, whistle loudly through torn steel.
“I can’t remember their names,” I say.
“I can’t either.”
“We have to look for gloves and coats, first. You lift me in there and I’ll look on the floor. They probably took their coats off before sitting down.”
“Let’s go.” We wrap our arms, our blankets around each other and shuffle to the cockpit.
Sam lifts me onto the edge. Gloves. Find gloves. I can’t look. I have to look. Oh, god. Pilot’s head. I keep these thoughts private. I mute fear. I find two jackets wedged between the co-pilot’s seat and the side of the plane. I throw them to Sam. “Check the pockets.”
“Yes, gloves in both,” he says.
I find a scarf, a hat. The wind throws me backward and I land upon sheared metal. Blood spatters onto Sam and the ice. I wrench my right calf free and jump. I am screaming now.
“We have to stop the bleeding, Amelia. You’ll freeze.”
“Tourniquet. I don’t care about my fucking leg.”
I’m far away now. Everything is still white. Is this heaven? It feels like morphine. I slide in and out of consciousness, like doors opening and closing.
“You survived this before. We can survive this, right?” I hear Sam talking to me. It is true. I have been to the North Pole twice before – once with success and the loss of two toes, and once with failure, reversing course when the sled had overturned and one of the dogs received a crushing leg wound. This time was supposed to be easy. This time, we weren’t even going to touch the earth. All we had to do was take photographs.
I can’t move; having been here before, I know how the ocean swallows everything. I fear the shifting land that is not land. This frozen life raft.
Sam shakes me. “Say something, Amelia.”
My name is fraught with danger. I say, “Never get in a plane with a woman named Amelia.”
* * * *
I’m awake. “Light the flares,” I say. “But away from the plane. We don’t know if there is gas leaking.”
In May, the sun is still low in the sky as the polar cap tips its balding head. At any moment a blizzard could storm. “Watch out for gray ice,” I say.
While Sam lights flares, I create survival checkboxes in my head: only one person should sleep at a time; stay together to keep warm; eat; drink; turn clothes inside out to remove condensation; cut off your frostbitten digits, if you must; be brave. Be brave.
I think the tourniquet is working. I breathe deep and slow. Sam returns and I see worry in his eyes. Be brave.
“Whenever my dad came home from a trip, he would say, ‘Cheated death again.’”
Sam laughs. “Mine said, ‘Oh, fuck. You’re all still here.’”
We hold onto each other. If life is going to end, let it end like this, in the company of my friend.
Sam, who is braver than I am, says this aloud.
* * * *
These are the last days of the ice shelf. We all know it. The channels of ocean wedge wider each day and become impossible to cross. Landing a plane is even dodgier. Be brave.
The hours pass. The waters rise. I hear helicopter blades and feel Sam let go. From up here, the coastline of Ellesmere Island resembles the cross-section of a human brain with its cauliflower shapes. When the Arctic dies, this will be the site of the autopsy. In this frozen hour, we study the dementia.
This was written for round 3 of NYC Midnight’s flash fiction contest. Sadly, it didn’t get me into the final round. The prompts: a tourniquet, the North Pole, action/adventure genre.