It is all very well to be able to write books, but can you wiggle your ears?
Charlie Lockhart stood next to his pickup and kicked a heel into the ice at the side of the road for the sake of curiosity. He was headed north along the Dalton Highway towards Prudhoe Bay, but hadn’t been able to resist stopping and getting out into the flawless white Alaskan snow. Just to feel it. Just to check that it was real.
He stretched his back and felt the satisfying crunch of vertebrae. Watched the single dark tarmac track scarring through the virgin landscape as far as he could see. There were no signs of life either side of it. No people, no animals. Nothing. The biting cold burnt his tanned face as he scanned the horizon and he smiled.
Lockhart took a deep breath. The air tasted pure and clear as water from a mountain stream, like air that had never been breathed before. He felt alive. Far above him he heard the faintest sound of an engine, until it spluttered and fell silent. He looked up and saw a Cessna breaking the pale blue sky. He guessed it was aiming for the concrete strip at Deadhorse, a couple of miles back.
Deadhorse. The place was as miserable as its name. Lockhart had been there an earlier, making the most of what was there, which wasn’t much. He spent an hour stocking up with supplies and paying cash for the pickup truck from a guy in a tyre shop.
The wind dropped and the air on the Dalton Highway fell calm. The plane coughed back into action but after a couple of seconds the engines stalled and fell silent again. As it came closer Lockhart stood transfixed and alert, aware that his pulse was quickening. It came lower, picking up speed. Lockhart already knew the Cessna wasn’t going to make it to the airstrip at Deadhorse. There was little chance it would make it even as far as the highway. He imagined the pilot frantically wrestling with the controls as he realised the same.
Lockhart calculated what he would do when it struck the ground. There were no cops for miles. No fire trucks. The ice was empty and Lockhart was on his own. There was no point planning until he saw what kind of landing the pilot managed. He got back into the pickup, heading towards the place where the plane would hit.
It came down on a flat frozen lake to the right of the highway, about two hundred metres from Lockhart. The lake was as solid as the concrete landing strip at Deadhorse and the Cessna hit it hard, its wheels crumpling underneath it. It stayed upright, but jagged shards of metal fuselage dragged along the ice, scoring deep grooves into the polished surface like nails along a blackboard. It spun and juddered, hardly slowing down at all. It skidded along the lake until it reached the highway, which offered enough traction to flip it onto its roof. It scrunched and twisted, the aluminium chassis groaning as rivets popped and glass exploded. Then it stopped completely and the calm returned, more noticeable now in contrast to the airplane’s noisy death.
Lockhart was on the scene in seconds, and out of the pickup before the violent white bow wave had settled back onto the ice. His first thought was the pilot and he called out into the silence.
“Hey! Anyone there?”
A weak voice answered back from inside the twist of metal.
It wasn’t much, but Lockhart was amazed there was any answer at all. It had not been the kind of landing that people walk away from. The Cessna was violet coloured, probably to stand out from the snow, and its crumpled wing had folded over the cockpit like a midnight petal. Lockhart tried to force a way in through the twisted fuselage but everything was mashed and welded together.
“Help me” the voice called again, even weaker than before.
Lockhart went back to the front of the wreck, and shouldered his way under the crumpled wing like a potholer forcing himself into a tight crevasse. The wing was more pliable than the rest of the frame, and it gave way slightly. Lockhart muscled further underneath.
As he emerged into the tight space under the wing, his face was forced right up to the cockpit glass. He was so close to the screen that for a moment he didn’t register the person on the other side, pushed against the glass from the impact of the crash. It was the pilot, hanging upside down in the cockpit. His features were distorted by gravity and his eyes were closed.
“Hey” Lockhart yelled at him through the glass. “Are you hurt?”
The pilot’s eyes opened for a second. He was old. He looked pale and confused.
“No” he called weakly, but as he hung upside down in his seat, Lockhart could see blood trickling from beneath his clothes. It was running over his Adam’s apple and his chin, across his face and into his greying hair. A thick red litre of it had pooled in the curved cockpit glass below him. It was hard to see where it was coming from in the confusion.
“Just a scratch” Lockhart said as confidently as he could. He grabbed a hard and heavy lump of metal and pressed against the cockpit windscreen. Frost had already started to form on the fusilage and he knew he needed to act fast.
“Still okay?” he yelled through the glass.
No response. The pool of blood had already grown. He took the metal and swung it against the glass like a cosh. He couldn’t get much leverage in the cramp space, and it thumped on the glass and bounced off again without breaking through. The pilot’s face was still pressed against the screen and the noise stirred him back into life.
“I’m coming through” Lockhart called, but the guy just looked at him blankly. Maybe he couldn’t hear. Maybe he couldn’t move.
Lockhart pulled the lump of metal back near his ear like a shot-put and then drove it forward. He didn’t aim for the glass, but for a point about six inches inside it. He had watched monks breaking through planks of wood with their bare hands the same way. It was all about visualization, apparently. So Lockhart aimed beyond the glass, and felt the shards scraping across his knuckles as the metal smashed through.
The whole windshield gave way and Lockhart got a lungful of aviation fuel, followed by a shower of blood. Behind that, the pilot’s head and shoulders came tumbling out. His limp arms dropped, hitting Lockhart hard. The pilot already looked cold. Lockhart pushed his head and torso into the cockpit, and got a good grip on him. He shouldered into the pilot’s hip and took as much of his weight as he could. Gripping the guy’s belt with one hand, he grabbed a sharp shard of glass with the other.
“Hold on” he called to the pilot, “I’m cutting you out.”
The old guy grunted. The glass sliced through the sturdy harness but the pilot didn’t drop down as Lockhart had expected. He snagged. A razor edged metal pipe had gone straight through his calf like a kebab skewer.
Blood started pumping from the wound and there was no time for finesse. Lockhart twisted him and pulled down as hard as he could.The guy didn’t scream. He just dropped to the floor and blood started to stain the snow around them.
Lockhart did what he could to stem the flow. He gripped hard at the guy’s leg, denting his artery like kinking a hosepipe. He used his free hand to tear a half decent tourniquet from material in the pickup’s first aid box. He twisted and tightened it. The flow stopped.
The pilot opened his eyes and pointed to boxes that had been strapped down in the co-pilot seat.
“You can come back for those” Lockhart told him, but the guy got agitated.
“Just one” he gasped. “Give me just one.”
Lockhart reached up to the boxes. They were white, covered with red handwriting. The pilot ripped off the top and threw the box aside. A silver canister rolled out onto the snow and he clutched at it, smearing blood over the red writing. He looked frightened. He looked like he knew he was dying.
Lockhart grabbed him by the shoulders and dragged him through the snow back to the highway and his pickup. Getting the guy into the back of the pickup wasn’t going to be easy, but before Lockhart worked out how to get a good hold on him, he opened his eyes again. He stared hard at Lockhart like he was seeing him properly for the first time.
“I sure am sorry to have troubled you son” he said slowly. He said it like he meant it too. His voice was all molasses and tobacco, probably a southern boy who’d transferred his skills to wherever the oil was.
“You’ve been no trouble” Lockhart said, straining to pull the guy through the snow.
The pilot clasped Lockhart’s arm. His breathing was slow and shallow. “He struck me down from the sky” the pilot told him.
Lockhart said nothing. Watched the guy’s chest rise and fall. Each peak was slightly lower than the last. The pilot pulled himself up onto his elbows, and he coughed and spat with the effort. Definitely a southern boy. He eyeballed Lockhart.
“I did an evil thing up there and God struck me down,” he said pushing the canister into Lockhart’s hand.
“I guess vengeance will be his” the old boy said with a faint smile, and then he fell back into the snow and stopped breathing.
As Lockhart leaned forward and closed the pilot’s eyes he surprised himself by whispering Om Mani Padme Hum under his breath. He was no Buddhist, but he’d picked up the mantra in Tibet a while back. It was an ancient plea for compassion and from what the pilot had said, maybe he was going to need it.
Then he got to work pulling the body into the back of his pickup. He showed the guy as much respect as he could as he hauled his dead weight through the tight door. Once he was safely in, Lockhart covered him with a blanket and then climbed over into the front.
There was nobody on the ice except Lockhart and the dead guy, which made him Lockhart’s problem. He rested his head against the steering wheel, his mind replaying the past fifteen minutes, like a black and white film. Lockhart didn’t mind looking out for the guy. He’d want someone to do the same for him. He would take him back to town. Back to his family and friends.
The canister the pilot had given him was as cold and hard as ice in his hand. He tucked it into his pocket, and then he turned the pickup slowly around and pointed it back at Deadhorse. There was no need to rush now.
“Let’s get you home” Lockhart said, and he drove slowly back down the Dalton Highway towards the grubby town he thought he’d escaped an hour before.