The Hill Excerpt

1

Wake Up

 

The music throbbed through Jared’s head, pounding a spike into his skull. What the…I hate falling asleep with.… Eyes closed, he groped for the wires. Tugged so his earbuds popped free. The music stopped. The pounding didn’t. Neither did the pain.

What’s thumping? Turning his head drove the pain deeper. Something warm trickled down his cheek. Eyes screwed shut against battering hurt, he felt along his jaw, touched liquid warmth. Smelled his finger. Blood.

How…? Did I crack my head? Hangover? That couldn’t be right. He’d stayed sober at the party. Hadn’t wanted Mom’s husband to hassle him. Confusion seemed to amplify the pain.

Why is it so hard to think? The pounding must be Mom trying to get him up and moving. He licked dry lips, couldn’t get words out. He was already packed, ready for his mandatory three weeks with his dad in Purgatory, a.k.a. Yellowknife. Maybe he should’ve gotten drunk. Three weeks with no friends except the “buddy” his dad would assign to keep him amused and out of trouble. Real quality bonding time between father and son.

What time was it? The charter wasn’t leaving until—

Wait. That wasn’t right. His thoughts were spinning a story, but none of it felt real. A daydream.

Think, Jared. Make sense.

I’d—No, no way. His pulse hammered. He’d gotten on Dad’s private jet. Had taken off.

Engines screaming. Voice loud and urgent. “Mayday!”

Jared vacuumed air. His eyes sprang open. He clutched the armrests and stared at the leather seat facing him. We crashed? No way.

Whatever had been thumping stopped, leaving only the insistent pulsing in his head. Vomit crept up his throat. He swallowed. Dread seemed to shrink his body, petrify it.

His frantic heartbeat buffeted his ribs. He squeezed his eyes shut and inhaled slowly—one, two three, hold—exhaled slowly. Thudthudthudthud. Again. In, hold, out. Thud, thudthud. Again. His pulse slowed to something resembling normal. He was alive. Whatever had happened, he had survived. He wiggled his toes in his high-tops. Exhaled slowly. And he was in one piece.

Parts of that piece were aching, especially his back and calves. The plane slewing side to side. Bucking. Pilot yelling, “Brace yourself!” Engines screaming. Thuds, cracks. Being pressed into the seat so hard it felt like he was breaking. Then nothing.

Pulse jacked again, Jared repeated his breathing exercise. He knew he should move before he stiffened into a slab of hurting concrete. Keep moving, his swim coach always told them after a hard workout. Stay loose. But he couldn’t convince himself to even turn his head, never mind get up. From the corner of his eye he saw that the front-facing seat across the aisle had collapsed forward. Between the seats, the door to the cramped washroom hung askew.

He managed to unbuckle. Then he clenched and unclenched his muscles, starting from the bottom. His feet were easy, but his calves seized up and started him gasping again. Finally the pain relented and he slumped into the soft leather.

Clank!

It’s going to explode! Adrenaline jolted Jared to his feet. He swung toward the door to see it cracking open from the top, lowering with a hiss of hydraulics. Afternoon sunlight streamed into the cabin in an opaque curtain. Jared squinted, blocked the light with his splayed hand.

A silhouetted head rose into view, pushed by a torso and long legs. A rescuer. The head ducked as someone entered the jet. He braced his hand on the cockpit’s wall. “You’re alive? Me, I pounded on the window and you didn’t move. Thought you were dead.”

“No,” croaked Jared. Was that the pounding he’d heard? Not his music, but this man?

He scanned the four-seater aircraft. “You the only passenger? How’s the pilot?”

Blankness slackened Jared’s features. He could almost make out the man’s face. Jared stuttered, “I-I haven’t-haven’t checked.” Didn’t even think of the pilot. Crap.

The man swung over to the cockpit’s open doorway beside him. Jared followed, hand braced against the closet that butted up against his seat. His head was thrumming. He shifted to lean against the wall by the door and tried to peer around the man. “Is he alive?”

“Yeah. Knocked out.” The man straightened, turned. Jared blinked rapidly. The guy was as big as a man, maybe, but not much older than he was. He was huge, like some kind of real-life Hulk. The smell of wood smoke enveloped them. The strange teen’s voice cut through Jared’s haze. “You okay? You’re looking pale…even for a white guy.”

Jared leaned against the wall by the door. His mouth moved but nothing came out. Hulk stepped sideways and flung open the closet. Jared stammered, “W-what are you doing?”

“Need a first aid kit,” he said, rifling through the contents of the small space. “Gotta stop the pilot’s bleeding.”

Who was this guy? “I’m bleeding.”

He peered at Jared. “That’s a scratch. The pilot, he’s covered in blood.” He returned to his search, pulled out a box with a triumphant look. “Help me get him out of his seat.”

Jared tried to think. Everything seemed disconnected, like his brain wires had pulled loose. “Isn’t it dangerous to move someone who’s hurt? Shouldn’t we be calling 9-1-1 or something?”

“Yeah, because the ambulance is just a few minutes away.”

“It is?” Jared blinked in confusion and glanced at a window, but it was covered with a dirty smear.

Hulk gave him an unreadable look. “No. We’re in the middle of the bush.”

The pounding in Jared’s head had flattened to an insistent buzz. And a white light seemed to be flashing just on the periphery of his vision, but when he turned his head the light moved too. “Where exactly?”

“Northern Alberta. Come help.” He sidled into the cockpit and climbed into the co-pilot’s space, propped a knee on the seat, and leaned over the unmoving pilot.

Jared’s eye twitched as the mini strobe light brightened. It scattered his thoughts. “What are you doing?”

A quiet sigh. “Undoing his seatbelt.” He leaned over the pilot, hoisted him up and toward the center console between the two pilot seats. “Come on. I can’t do this alone.”

He gritted his teeth, twisted, and pulled. The pilot’s head, painted red like a garish mask, lolled and spattered blood on the floor and Hulk’s coat. Nausea hit Jared at the same time as the blood’s distinct coppery scent. He lurched to the open door, leaned on the wobbling handrail and vomited into murky water. His head began pounding again, and he stayed there a moment, gasping in musky air, before wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. He scowled at his hand, wondering what to wipe it on, then noticed his dangling earbuds. He tucked them into the pocket with his iPod. Something poked his neck; he slapped at it. Another pinprick; another swat. He retreated into the jet.

Hulk was still trying to get the unconscious pilot out of his seat. Jared tried to assemble his thoughts. “You’re stronger than me. Why don’t you haul him by the shoulders? I’ll grab him around the waist when you get that far.”

He paused, then nodded at Jared. After several minutes of struggle, they wrangled the pilot out of the cramped cockpit and stretched him out on the floor. While Hulk bandaged his head, Jared slumped in the corner near the pilot’s feet, careful to avoid any blood. Normally he’d resent some stranger taking charge and being so pushy. Right now, though, he could barely think, never mind argue. He rested against the bulkhead, head turned toward the cockpit as a memory surfaced of the pilot’s strained voice. Does anybody read?

“I’m pretty sure the radio wasn’t working when we went down. How will they know where we are?”

Hulk kept wrapping the pilot’s head. “Me, I don’t know. What happens in movies? Doesn’t the blip disappear on some radar screen, then they send search teams?”

“That’s the movies. Does it really happen?” Jared eyed Hulk skeptically.

He shrugged. “Don’t pilots have to report where they’re flying? Where were you going?”

“Yellowknife.”

“Yeah? Lots of bush between here and Yellowknife, but a plane this fancy must have GPS and one of those black box things. It should be easy to find.”

“I sup—” Jared’s attention dropped to the bottom of the pilot’s seat. “My backpack!”

It was wedged halfway under one corner of the chair seat. Jared strained but couldn’t free it. Big hands joined his. Jared shrank away from the bloody fingers that grabbed the backpack’s strap. One yank and Hulk freed it. Jared snatched the pack and unzipped it. He swore as he pulled out the dented laptop.

“It won’t even open properly.”

“At least you’re not bent up like it is.”

“It has state-of-the-art video editing software. I was going to edit a friend’s skateboarding video.” He glanced up to see Hulk’s slightly raised eyebrows and twisted lip. What the hell is that look for? Jared knew scorn when he saw it. His eye twitched again.

Hulk’s exhale was audible. “Do you know his name?”

“My friend?” What a stupid question. Then Jared noticed his gaze had shifted down to the pilot. “Oh. Mackenzie maybe? I don’t know. He said to call him Mac.”

After trying to wake the man up by calling his name, jiggling his shoulder, Hulk sat back on his heels. “I don’t know what to do. Nothing seems broken but he might be hurt inside.” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Got any food? We could watch for searchers outside.”

Relieved at the thought of escaping the blood and its clogging smell, and the coffin-like feel of the small interior, Jared rifled through his backpack. He found his phone, which seemed undamaged, a granola bar and a crushed bag of chips. He got his electric blue windbreaker from the closet between his seat and the cockpit, put it on, and stuffed the phone and food in its pockets.

Hulk found a blanket in the closet and draped it over the unconscious pilot then led the way outside, down the steps and into the marshy water. Jared stood one step above the water as Hulk waded to shore, three or four yard away.

Had he shrunk? Inside the jet Jared felt like he filled the space, like he fit. Outside, the sky stretched into forever, but seemed anchored by spruce trees ringing the marsh. He felt like an ant, small and balancing on a broken twig. Clusters of reeds poked out of the water. Grass crowded the shore to the left but gave way to gravel or sand where the guy now stood, hands on hips. He’d been right this was the middle of the bush. Nowhereville. A shudder rippled across Jared’s shoulders.

“Coming?” Hulk called.

Jared shook himself, considered his CR high-tops, the water, then the wing barely over a yard to his left. It was slightly crumpled, and jammed against a broken tree that leaned over dry ground.

He retreated to the top step, gripped the hydraulic arm that stretched from mid-doorway to the bottom of the steps (the top of the door when it was closed), stepped over, and positioned the edge of his heel on the step. He swung his other leg over and lunged toward the wing, almost slipping off the curved edge into the brackish water. Falling to his knees, he scrambled forward, then paused as the light in his eye flashed again and a ripple of wooziness passed over him. He straightened slowly, tightrope-walked the length of the wing, arms outstretched, though it was wide enough to walk normally. When he reached the tree, he crawled along the wing’s tapering length until dry ground appeared below him.

Jared dropped to the ground and steadied himself when his headache surged. His rescuer sat beside an army-green knapsack, arms braced on upraised knees, watching him with a puzzled look. Hulk’s jeans were wet up to his knees and hiking boots were dark brown from being wet. Blood stained one thigh of his jeans and a patch of his camouflage jacket, but he didn’t seem to notice.

Jared suppressed a shudder and sat on the other side of the pack, on a patch of gravel softened by weeds. Hulk’s curled lip of disdain returned. “Expensive shoes, huh?”

“Yes. They’re Creative Recreation, leather and suede.” The name obviously meant nothing to him.

“With a pretty gold stripe.” Hulk nodded toward the marsh. “That plane, I bet it was expensive too.”

“Three and a half million is what the pilot…” Jared looked at the jet for the first time since sitting. Mostly intact on this side, but crumpled and dented. Windshield webbed with cracks. A piece of the other wing protruded from the marsh about ten yards behind the tail. A line of broken swamp spruce revealed the line of descent. The seriousness of the situation hit Jared with the impact of a belly flop from the high tower. Pain blossomed in his chest and he found it hard to breathe again. The jet blurred.

Snap. Snap. “Hey. Hey. You okay?” Fingers grabbed Jared’s chin and turned his head. “Should’ve already asked, but tell me your name. I’m Kyle. Kyle Badger.” Fingers patted Jared’s cheek. “Kokum, she’d say you’re going into shock, but you’ll be fine. You helped me inside. Only barfed once.” His eyes squinted with a smile. “Come on. What’s your name?”

Jared licked his teeth. Took in the high brown cheekbones, black eyebrows a horizontal line over dark eyes. Straight nose. He focused on the eyes. Not Hulk. “Kyle?”

“Your name’s Kyle, too? That’s weird.”

Jared gave his head a little shake. His headache flared and his thoughts shattered like a glass smashing on concrete. What? Oh, name. “Jared. Fredrickson.” He glanced at the jet from the corner of his eye, unable to look at it straight on. “Wh-why were you close by? Do you … live near here?”

“Yeah. My teepee’s just on the other side of that hill.”

The mini-laser flashed in his eye. Jared cocked his head. “Really?”

Kyle snorted. “I’m at Moose Camp with Kokum and Moshum, and my little brother, Sam. It’s not far. I was with Sam so I sent him back to camp to report the crash. If there’s a way, Kokum, she’ll come here with her big red stallion to rescue us.”

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